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Authors: Mira Stables

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Before she could decide what was best, her next partner appeared hovering in the doorway.

“I must make my peace with your aunt,” he told her, resigning her to the new claimant, “and I shall hope to make a better showing in the quadrilles.”

Perhaps because of his height it seemed as though her glance was continually falling upon him whenever she looked about the room. She saw him dancing with Marianne and then with Tina; engaged in conversation with her uncle and another older man; and once, in earnest conversation with her aunt. On that occasion Aunt Maria turned to look at her and smiled across the room. She guessed that his lordship had taken matters into his own hands. Arrogant? Overbearing? Perhaps. She could only feel grateful to him for sparing her an embarrassing task. It had been well done, too, for a little while later Aunt Maria summoned her with a glance and said happily, “What a fortunate chance that it should have been Lord Skirlaugh who came to your assistance on your way to Town! If
only
you had been aware of his identity! I know you will not mind, my dear. I have mentioned the incident to one or two of my friends. Just casually, of course. You must see that it puts quite a different complexion on his presence here.” And Alethea need only smile and nod and turn again to her impatient partner.

When the sets for the quadrilles were formed she found that she had Kit Grayson to partner her. Her cousin was dancing for the second time with Lord Skirlaugh and the set was made up by Marianne, a brother and sister called Borrodaile and a very young gentleman, little more than a schoolboy, whose name escaped her. Kit was apt to be gazing at Tina when he should have been attending to the figure and frequently had to be recalled to his place, but fortunately everyone took it in good part and except for losing him completely in the grande ronde they brushed through tolerably well, and moved in a laughing group towards the supper room.

They were all warm and thirsty after their exertions. Alethea, unaccustomed to wine, accepted the cool bubbling drink that Kit brought her, drank it thirstily, and permitted him to refill the glass. Having thus fulfilled his social obligations he turned the rest of his attention to her cousin, but fortunately for Alethea her other neighbour was young Martin Borrodaile and they were soon getting on famously. Martin was an officer in the Navy and presently it emerged that he had been engaged in the recent battle of the Saintes. The shy youngster—he was a comet of Hussars and everyone called him Gilbert, though Alethea still did not know whether that was his first name or his surname—awoke to sudden eloquence and plied him with eager questions. Marianne and Alethea joined in. Very soon, with the aid of a selection of cutlery and one or two neglected dishes, he was demonstrating just how Rodney’s ‘Formidable’ had broken through the French line so that de Grasse’s ships had been overwhelmed. Alethea sipped her wine and nibbled an apricot tart and felt very happy.

Young Gilbert volunteered the information that he had good cause to be grateful to Lord Rodney since it was thanks to his lordship that supplies had been got through to Gibraltar when the garrison was in desperate case. Everyone looked very much surprised since he seemed far too young to have been concerned with that beleaguered fortress, whereupon he blushed hotly and explained that it was his brother who had actually been one of the defending garrison. “But m’parents would never have let me join if Henry hadn’t come off safe.” Martin Borrodaile promptly exclaimed at coincidence.
His
brother, too, a Marine officer, had been one of Gibraltar’s defenders.

Tina, who soon grew bored with any conversation that did not centre upon herself, broke in upon the enthusiasts at this point to say how much she wished that she had been born a boy so that she, too, might have gone for a soldier and had adventures. The two young gentlemen listened respectfully, Kit protested vehemently and Lord Skirlaugh made no comment at all. Feeling that the gambit had not met with the response that it deserved, Tina appealed prettily to the young ladies to support her view. Marianne and young Jennifer Borrodaile looked dubious, but such was the force of Tina’s personality that they hesitated to differ, and Jennifer, who had conceived a girlish admiration for the dashing Miss Newton, went so far as to announce that if
she
had been born a boy she would have ran away to sea.

“And the first time you saw a rat in the bread locker you’d have screamed the place down,” grunted her brother with tolerant amusement, “let alone being sea sick before your unfortunate vessel had so much as weighed anchor.”

“And what does Miss Forester say?” enquired Lord Skirlaugh, taking pity on Jennifer’s abashed face.

Miss Forester, following her aunt’s advice about never putting herself forward, had so far maintained a discreet silence. But in the face of direct challenge—and fortified by two glasses of Mr. Newton’s best champagne—she put up her chin and eyed his lordship defiantly. “I much prefer being a girl,” she told him coolly. “I like wearing pretty clothes and going to parties and having gentlemen open doors for me and rise when I enter a room. And as for adventures, I should dislike them extremely.” Her mind returned for a moment to the novel she had read that afternoon. “They sound horribly uncomfortable. While as for being shut up in a fortress like Gibraltar”—she turned to the young Hussar—“short of food and ammunition, a powerful enemy bombarding the place and little hope of rescue or relief, I should be absolutely terrified and certainly quite useless.”

Everyone laughed, except Tina, who felt that this prosaic view had made her look slightly ridiculous. But worse was to come.

“Yet when a real adventure came your way,” said Lord Skirlaugh quietly, “you were neither terrified nor useless, were you, Miss Forester? As I remember it, you dealt very competently.”

Naturally everyone—save Tina—was all agog, plying him with questions, demanding to be told the whole story. Alethea, scarlet-cheeked, assured them that it was all a hum—merely a matter of tending an injured colt. Lord Skirlaugh, eyes dancing with a mischief they had not reflected in years, made matters worse by solemnly assuring them that his lips were sealed. She could only be thankful when the young soldier, abandoning what he took to be a private joke, began to talk to her about the siege of Gibraltar and to tell her about the red-hot shot, which, he had been told, the garrison had used with considerable success. She was thankful enough to give him her whole attention, and at the end of a brisk exchange he told her, with schoolboy bluntness, that for one who claimed to like only fal-lals and fripperies and not to care for adventure, she was singularly well-informed on military matters. For a girl, he qualified, with a candour he might have used to a sister.

“Oh—my cousin dotes on fusty old historical things,” intervened Tina with tinkling sweetness. “I believe she had rather be poking about the dungeons in the Tower than attending an Assembly. Even Papa is quite exhausted by her zest for knowledge, and Mama and I tell her that she is quite shockingly ‘blue’. I daresay it comes of having a parson for a father and being brought up so simply in the country, but she will have to make a push to mend her ways or she will stand in danger of becoming a dead bore.”

There was a horrid little silence. The tender-hearted Marianne winced. The younger members of the party looked anywhere but at Alethea, until the boy who had talked of Gibraltar said indignantly, stuttering in his fervour, “B-but I
wasn’t
b-bored! N-never b-been so well pleased at a party before. Talk that a fellow can understand and enjoy. What’s wrong with that?”

Tina had been at once aware that she had blundered. To see another girl the focus of attention—and that girl her mousy country cousin—had been more than she could endure. She had permitted jealousy to outrun discretion—revealed the claws that lay hid beneath the charming surface. And that in front of the one man whom she had most wished to impress with her sweetness and serenity. But something could still be salvaged. This raw stammering cub could be ignored. She took her cue from the sound of violins being tuned and rose, smiling brilliantly at Kit.

“This is our dance, is it not? We must not waste it.” And as her docile swain rose and offered his arm, she paused and tapped Alethea’s cheek with a slender finger. “Don’t look so downcast, cousin. Remember that Mama expressly charged me to see that you comported yourself modestly in society.”

But not at her coming-out party. And not in so public a fashion, thought Damon grimly. Even if the set-down had been justified, which it certainly was not. The bitch! And then, remembering certain faithful companions of his boyhood and one ancient deerhound who still supervised his comings and goings at Byram, hastily withdrew the epithet. It was too good for that spiteful creature.

He looked covertly and with dawning respect at Miss Forester’s composed little face. Only the tight set of the childish lips betrayed her. Not
too
sympathetic, now, or her control might snap, and she would never forgive him.

“It seems that we share another interest, Miss Forester, apart from horse-flesh,” he said pleasantly. “I, too, have an affection for historic buildings. And even, perhaps more, for such places as Byram, which have never reached the pages of the history books but are still steeped in ancient wisdom and mystery. In fact I have sometimes fancied that a building becomes imbued with some essence of the people who have lived and loved and suffered in it. Tell me, have you ever visited Hampton Court Palace?”

 

SEVEN

There had been
no further opportunity for conversation but Damon had no intention of letting matters rest there. Having offered Miss Forester his support, he meant to make good his word. Not that the little thing was unable to stand up for herself, he reflected, with a gleam of humour. She had been taken by surprise—as, indeed, had they all. Now that she was warned he rather suspected that she would give a good account of herself, though she would be sorely handicapped by her position as a guest in her cousin’s home.

In one particular, however, he still mis-read the situation. He assumed, as he had done from the start, that Alethea was a poor relation being sponsored into society by her wealthy aunt. Tina’s remarks had seemed to confirm this belief, even though there had been nothing poverty pinched about the girl’s appearance last night, he reflected, as he trod up the steps of the Newton town house and set the bell pealing.

He had timed his arrival with care. As he had expected, he was told that Mrs. Newton was not at home. Probably still fast asleep, he translated, and who should blame her? An enquiry for Miss Forester produced a distinct stiffening in the butler’s benevolent air. A real gentleman ought to know that the young lady couldn’t receive him, not without her aunt was there.

“As to that, I couldn’t say, m’lord,” he said woodenly. “I will cause enquiry to be made if you wish it.”

“No, don’t do that,” returned his lordship affably. “But I’d be grateful if you’d have a message carried to her, if she’s awake. Ask her if she will drive out with me in the Park in—let us say—an hour’s time. But on no account to disturb her if she’s still sleeping.”

That was more the style, approved Ponting, ushering this very early morning visitor into the small saloon and going off in search of Miss Forester’s maid. He quite regretted the cold reception he had accorded his lordship at their first encounter. Not often he missed his guess, but with the household in such a turmoil and the gentleman with that shocking ugly scar on him, and then no visiting card—well—anyone could make a mistake. And he didn’t seem to bear no malice. Spoke pleasant enough, and him a duke’s son.
And
with some sense in his cockloft, since it was Miss Forester he was asking for and not Miss Newton.

He returned very shortly to inform the visitor that Miss Forester was happy to accept of his invitation. She would be ready punctually at eleven. He, in his turn, was very happy to accept of the coin that slid so easily into his palm. The realisation that it was a half guinea and not the shilling that he had first thought, caused him to hand the caller his hat and gloves with a benignity that bordered on the paternal. His lordship, well pleased with the success of his timing, sprang up into the curricle and told Judd that they would drive about the streets for half an hour or so to take the edge off a pair that was by far too fresh for the comfort of a female passenger. Judd received this information with the impassivity of the well-trained servant, and thought his own thoughts.

Coming on nicely, they ran. So it’s driving a lady in the Park, now, is it? And her to sit on his left where she can’t but see the bad side of his face. Well heaven send it’s the nice little piece from Tunbridge Wells and not that flirtsome red-head. A rare handful
she
was, by all accounts. A beauty, if you liked the fiery sort, though for his part he fancied something more cuddlesome, and no kindness in her, if those that served her were to be believed.

When the bays drew up once more in Berkeley Square he was gratified to discover that his master’s tastes endorsed his own, even though he had some difficulty in identifying the elegant young lady who came swiftly down the steps to the waiting curricle with the girl whom he remembered from that month-old roadside adventure. He thought that she remembered him, though, for she smiled at him pleasantly when his master dismissed him, saying that he might have the rest of the day to himself.

Alethea settled herself comfortably in her lofty seat, declined the offer of a rug, and, for sheer joy of driving out on so fine a morning, smiled up at her escort. “I have never ridden in a sporting carriage before,” she told him. “At home I drive the gig when Papa is not using it, and in Town I have driven out with Aunt Maria in the landaulet. But this is much more exciting, as well as extremely comfortable.”

She did not tell him that she had accepted his invitation with considerable misgiving for fear of what Tina would make of it. Hetty, misunderstanding her hesitation, had assured her that it was perfectly proper to drive out alone with a gentleman—“though only in an open carriage, mind,” and Alethea, who dearly longed to go, had allowed herself to be persuaded. Surely so innocent an excursion could not give cause for complaint. Besides, as Hetty pointed out, it would be downright wasteful to miss such a chance of displaying the new carriage dress which had only been delivered yesterday.

Damon had noticed the dress immediately, partly because it was brown, yet presented so marked a contrast to that despised garment that Hetty had bundled away to be given to some deserving underling. It was made in heavy corded silk, cut in imitation of a man’s coat and waistcoat, with overlapping revers and wide spreading skirts. This severe simplicity was relieved at the throat by a cascade of crisp frills in a shade between pink and orange that masqueraded as a neckcloth, and by the luxuriant trimming of ostrich feathers, dyed to cream and flame and bronze, that weighted the brim of the high-crowned hat that went with it. Aunt Maria was doing the thing in style, decided Damon. She, at any rate, seemed to have her niece’s welfare at heart and was sparing no expense to give the girl a chance.

Conversation was limited to surface courtesies until the Park was reached. The streets were crowded, and even so capable a whip as Lord Skirlaugh had to bestow most of his attention on his horses. Alethea was well content to gaze about her with bright-eyed interest. The infinite variety of the London scene was still new to her. Presently she said shyly, “Should we not have turned to the right at that corner? I do not know London very well yet, but—”

He smiled, but shook his head. “Yes, if we had wished to go to
Hyde
Park. I had thought rather of taking you to the Green Park. It is much quieter—a great favourite with nursemaids and children—and not near so fashionable. I am afraid that delightful rig you are wearing will be sadly wasted. But at least we shall not be compelled to stop every two or three minutes to acknowledge the greetings of half the people who were at your party last night, and since I wished for a little uninterrupted conversation with you the Green Park held more appeal. I think you will like it—and since there is no great distance between the two, we may drive back by way of Hyde Park if you so wish.”

She had blushed a little at the implied compliment in the remark about her dress. She might have told him that it was not wasted, since he, at least, had remarked it approvingly, but chose instead to speak of her surroundings, saying, “It is very pretty here—and more like true country than Hyde Park, though I enjoyed watching all the people there when my aunt took me driving, and the beautiful horses. But I must not be from home too long this morning. Aunt Maria was quite exhausted by last night’s festivities and she may need me. What was it that you wished to say?”

Damon’s lips twitched. It was four years since he had mingled freely in society, but he still remembered with distaste the arch advances, the coy withdrawals that passed for conversation with most of the debutantes. ‘La, sir! What
can
you mean?’ they would say, or ‘Oh fie! You shock me, sir. Indeed you must not speak so bold.’ And that if you but thanked them with common courtesy for the pleasure of a dance. It was a refreshing change to meet a damsel who believed in direct dealing and asked him in the most natural fashion what it was he wanted with her.

He did not, however, feel that he could quite match her frankness. He had not even fully weighed his motives in seeking her society, save that he had been disgusted by her cousin’s ill-bred behaviour in reading her a public lecture and that his sympathies had been enlisted by the gallant manner in which she had met the attack. He could scarcely put all that into words. He said temperately, “Why nothing of any vast importance, Miss Forester. I had not understood, you see, that your time was not your own, and I thought you might be interested to hear the end of our adventure. I could scarcely embark upon the tale last night. Your cousin would have thought me a dead bore! And then I was hopeful of securing your promise to visit Hampton Court with me if we could arrange a time when you have no other engagements.” Which ought to show her where
my
sympathies lie, he thought with satisfaction.

She surprised him again. There was quite a noticeable silence while she considered his remarks. He could not know that behind the sober little face a whole tangle of emotions fought for expression. Family loyalty won. She said seriously, “I think you are under some misapprehension, milord. My time
is
my own. Aunt Maria would be the last person to deny me any rational enjoyment. But she has been so good to me that naturally I would not wish to neglect any attention that might contribute to her comfort.” She hesitated, then went on bravely, “And I think you did not quite like it when my cousin reproved me last night. But my aunt
had
asked her to show me how I should go on. So while I confess that I did not
enjoy
the rebuke, I have to acknowledge its justice.”

“So do not I,” said Damon shortly. “Your cousin, my girl, spoke out of sheer jealousy, because for one moment you occupied the centre of the stage that she has always been accustomed to claim by virtue of her beauty.”

Loyalty and honesty warred within her. “Perhaps,” she temporised. “But she
is
so very lovely that she has grown accustomed to being the centre of attention.”

“Oh yes, indeed! A diamond of the first water,” he returned lightly. “And now may we forget her? I am longing to tell you the tale of my dealings with Master Ralph’s father. You will be delighted to hear that the bay colt is well on the way to recovery and that ‘Squoire’ was hopeful that, though scarred, he has many years of useful life ahead of him.”

“Oh! How perfectly splendid!” she exclaimed in unfeigned delight. He pulled out a pocket book and took a letter from it, handing it to her to read as the horses dropped to a collected walk. There were two pages in a sprawling forceful hand, the first devoted to details of the treatment that was being used to restore the colt to full vigour and to minimise the scarring, with a request for any advice that might be helpful in such a case. There followed thanks for the care that had been bestowed on the animal and quite an animated account of the shifts to which the writer had been put in his efforts to trace his benefactor, an end which had been achieved at last by the happy accident of Judd’s having let fall his master’s name in the post-boy’s hearing.

“I wrote to him at once,” explained Damon as she handed the letter back, “giving him such hints as I could that might prove useful, thought I daresay he is far more experienced than I in such matters, and enquiring for his son. The answer came yesterday.”

The letter was shorter this time, and again most of it dealt with the colt’s continued improvement. There was a hearty offer of hospitality should his lordship chance to be in the vicinity, so that he might see for himself how well the gash had healed, and a brief postscript.

“My son is well enough. Better than he deserves. I gave him a rare trimming for his folly and forbade him to drive my horses until he has mended his ways. So he is still in the sullens.”

Alethea smiled. “One almost feels sorry for Master Ralph. His father seems far more concerned for the horse. And it was not his fault that the man on the stage gave him spirits and made him so horridly drunk. But Papa says it is most important for a young man to learn how much he can safely drink and still behave like a gentleman, so perhaps it is as well that Master Ralph should learn that lesson now. I expect he was very sorry when he saw what had happened to the poor horse.”

“If not then, I daresay he was heartily penitent by the time his father was done with him,” retorted Damon. “I think we may safely leave his education in his father’s hands and consider our own interests for a while. What do you say to my notion of visiting Hampton Court Palace? It is old, it is very beautiful, and it has a history as romantic and enthralling as any I know. And it so happens that a cousin of my mother’s lives there. Most of the rooms were made into private residences, you know, after the King himself declined to live there—so I am pretty well acquainted with the place. It would give me great pleasure to show it to someone who has a fondness for such things.”

Alethea could think of nothing that she would enjoy more, but unfortunately that was not the only consideration. “It sounds perfectly delightful,” she said, in a rather stiff little voice, “but I would have to ask Aunt Maria’s permission before accepting your very kind invitation.”

He supposed that in her inexperience she was doubtful about the propriety of undertaking such a prolonged expedition under male escort. He said casually, “I thought we might wait for a really sunny day and use my mother’s landau. It’s a trifle antiquated, but extremely comfortable for all that. Marianne has been teasing me ever since I came back to take her to visit Aunt Emily—we have always called her ‘aunt’ because she is a good deal older than Mama. You would not object to including my cousin in the party? She has no great interest in history, but she would be happy to bear Aunt Emily company and exchange family news while we indulge our taste for antiquity.”

When his companion only smiled politely and said that that sounded very pleasant, he did not press her further, and once the question of acceptance had been safely left in abeyance, her manner became more natural. She wondered why His Majesty should have taken a dislike to the Palace. Was it true that it was haunted? Could
that
be the reason? And could
anyone
live there?

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