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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

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These solecisms enraged Lady Sybil, but Beckwith merely chortled at her displeasure. Poor Lady Sybil received little help or sympathy from the other members of the household in this matter, for Lord Charles tended to ignore Beckwith (the domestic details of the household having no interest for him); his elderly aunt, Lady Amelia Thorne, had lived in the house for too long to take any notice of Beckwith's eccentricities; and Nell was convinced that Lady Sybil's standards for proper behavior in the domestic staff were excessively formal. Nell had a strong liking for the old butler and was often accused by her godmother of encouraging him in his annoying ways.

Perhaps Lady Sybil was right, for Nell now grinned at Beckwith conspiratorially. “How long do you suppose they can keep this up?”

“Wouldn't surprise me none if they was to be at it all night,” he replied, chuckling.

Nell restrained her answering smile. “I suppose we shouldn't laugh,” she murmured. “The length of the discussion means that Mr. Prickett has not brought good news. I'll peep inside and see what's causing the to-do.” She handed the butler her bonnet and shawl and walked swiftly to the library door. With great care, she turned the handle and tiptoed in.

The library was an impressive room, its walls lined with leather-bound books, its windows reaching to the high ceiling, the carpets and draperies glowing in rich tones of dark red and gold, and the paneling of the walls elegantly carved and lustrously polished. This room had been a favorite of the old Earl, and the housekeeper still kept it as spotless and gleaming as it had been when he was alive.

The family's man of business, Mr. Prickett, was seated at a long oak table, a number of documents and papers spread out before him, his elbow resting on the table, and his hand supporting his forehead as he stared at the three people sitting before him, two of whom were glaring at him with expressions of decided antagonism. As Nell moved quietly to the nearest vacant chair, she saw Mr. Prickett remove his pince-nez and rub the bridge of his nose. She knew that gesture well. It indicated that the lawyer was exercising all his self-control to maintain the cool and dispassionate demeanor he considered proper for a man of his profession. He was not as adept at dealing with hostility from his clients as he was from his adversaries. Therefore, this had been a long, difficult evening for him.

Before Nell could sit down, she heard a grunt from her guardian. It was Lord Charles' way of acknowledging her presence. She nodded to him and slipped into the chair. Lady Sybil merely favored her with a flick of the eye, but the third member of the family, the elderly Lady Amelia, the late Earl's only surviving sister, gave her a welcoming smile. Nell smiled back at Lady Amelia brightly, hoping that an air of cheerfulness would alleviate somewhat the tension in the room.

After a brief bow in Nell's direction, Mr. Prickett spoke. “I can add nothing more, I'm afraid, to what I've already said a dozen times this evening,” he said with strained patience, replacing his pince-nez and looking firmly at Lord Charles and Lady Sybil. “I assure you again that there is nothing anyone can do at this time. The Earl's wishes were quite explicitly detailed in the will.”

“But the Earl could not possibly have known that Captain Thorne would be missing in action!” Lady Sybil objected. “There
must
be some provision for the unexpected.”

Mr. Prickett almost sighed, reached for his pince-nez again, removed it and rubbed the bridge of his nose with twitching fingers. “But, as I've said—”

“We know what you've said,” Lord Charles muttered in disgust.

Lady Amelia leaned forward in her chair. “Would anyone like some more tea?” she asked in her high, fluttery voice. “I believe it is still quite warm.”

“Will you please refrain from offering us tea every five minutes?” Lady Sybil hissed in annoyance. “We've all told you we don't want any.”

“But perhaps Nell …?” Lady Amelia suggested timidly.

“I'm sure Nell doesn't want any tea at this hour either,” Lady Sybil snapped.

“But I
do,
” Nell said with a warm smile for the old lady. “Please let me have a cup, Amelia dear.”

Lady Sybil frowned at Nell in disgust. “You are interrupting the proceedings, you wretch. All that clinking of teacups will give me the headache.”

“Sorry, my dear,” Nell said with a contrite smile. “I promise I shall drink very, very quietly.”

“In any case,” added Mr. Prickett, packing up the papers on the table in front of him, “I believe the ‘proceedings' are over, are they not?”

“They most certainly are
not,
” Lord Charles declared. “You haven't told me how long I must wait to put my hands on the money.”

This time Mr. Prickett actually permitted himself a small sigh. In his many years as legal and business advisor to the fifth Earl of Thornbury, he'd never had to deal with the Earl's willful, spoiled, rather dim-witted second son. All the legal and financial dealings had been strictly controlled by the Earl or by Edgar Thorne, the Earl's eldest son. Edgar Thorne had been the Earl's pride and joy, and the only member of the family whom the Earl had respected. But a hunting accident had taken Edgar's life fifteen years before, leaving the old Earl embittered and lonely. Only Henry Thorne, Edgar's son, had been any comfort to him, and
he
had left long ago for the army.

After Edgar Thorne's fatal accident, his son became the heir to the title and lands, the Earl's grandson's claim having precedence over that of the second son. The old Earl had often confided to Prickett that this arrangement was not only legally, but rationally and morally justifiable. His grandson, Captain Henry Thorne, was the only member of his family whom the Earl believed capable of controlling the family pursestrings. The Earl had been given ample evidence for concluding that Lord Charles and Lady Sybil could, between them, easily fritter away every penny brought in by the Earl's very large estates.

Mr. Prickett was in wholehearted agreement, but of course, he could not expect Lord Charles to be happy about the arrangement. Slow in understanding, Charles had only one interest in life—he was addicted to gambling. He was, therefore, always deeply in debt. Now, with Captain Thorne's disappearance, Charles had, not surprisingly, begun to hope that he might come into control of the inheritance.

“You are not answering,” Charles repeated, shaking Mr. Prickett from his reverie. “Didn't you hear me? How long must I wait?”

“I simply cannot give you an answer. We must allow time for the Captain to be located,” Mr. Prickett said with forced patience.

“He must be dead,” Lady Sybil said funereally. “I feel sure he must be dead. No one has heard of him in months!”

“We've had a letter from Sir Arthur, you know,” Charles added. “It doesn't offer a word of hope. Very kind letter it was, praising Henry to the skies and all that, but he admits that the poor fellow hasn't been seen since Talavera.”

“Nevertheless, we must keep looking. The law is quite clear on that point. Does the letter say anything else?”

“No, nothing of any significance. Would you like to see it? I believe I tossed it into the drawer there to your right.”

Mr. Prickett found the letter and scanned it quickly. “Well, my lord, you seem to be right. It gives us no new information about Captain Thorne's possible whereabouts.” There was a moment of glum silence while Mr. Prickett perused the letter more carefully. “Interesting,” he remarked, half to himself. “His lordship signs himself Arthur Wellesley. I suppose he wrote this before he learned of his being named Lord Wellington.”

“I suppose so,” Charles said uninterestedly, too involved in his own concerns to trouble his mind about the war. “The letter is dated two months past. The mails between us and the Peninsula are nothing short of shocking.”

“Well,” Mr. Prickett said in mild reproof, “there
is
a war going on over there.” He folded the letter and replaced it in the drawer. Then, gathering up his papers, he said more decisively, “But let me assure you that, war or no war, we shall leave no stone unturned to locate the Captain.”

“But what are we to do in the meantime?” Lady Sybil asked urgently.

“Your usual allowances will continue, of course,” Mr. Prickett reminded her.

“Allowances? But they are a mere
pittance
!” Charles complained.

“Indeed they are. I can't even pay my
milliner
with mine!” Lady Sybil agreed. “I'm sure that if Henry were here he'd at least authorize the payment of our bills. He would surely do
that
, Mr. Prickett. Ask Charles, if you don't believe me. Ask Nell!”

Nell held up her hands in a gesture that emphasized her intention not to become involved in this discussion. “Don't ask me anything of the sort,” she pleaded laughingly. “Never having laid eyes on the celebrated Captain, I am completely unqualified to comment on what he would or would not do.”

“Of course you've laid eyes on him. It was when you first came to live with us, remember? He came home from school, I remember—”

“Really, Sybil! I was not eleven years old!” Nell laughed.

“I have no reason to doubt your word, Lady Sybil,” Mr. Prickett intervened. “In fact, I quite agree with you. Captain Thorne is, as I remember, a most considerate and generous young man.”

“Then why can't you authorize the payment of our bills? You admit that Henry would have not the least objection—!” Lady Sybil urged.

“I have no authority to take such action, my lady. My powers of attorney do not extend so far. I'm sorry.” And he snapped his paper-case shut with a sharp click of finality.

“But suppose he
is
dead. And suppose we never find his body? Shall we have to wait
forever
in this impoverished state?” Charles asked irritably.

Lady Amelia shuddered. “Please, Charles, don't talk so,” she pleaded. “It positively chills my bones. The poor, poor boy …” She put a trembling hand to her eyes to shut out the thought of such a tragedy.

Charles tossed his aunt a look of disgust. The sentimental old lady had more concern for the whereabouts of her grandnephew than she had for the disposition of the inheritance. Henry was dead—there was almost no doubt about that.
Now
the real and pressing problem was to be able to get their hands on the money. Charles had been fond of Henry Thorne, too—
very
fond of him. The boy had been a very pleasant fellow and a capital rider. Charles wished him no ill at all. Why, he could come home this very minute and take his place as the sixth Earl, for all Charles cared,
so long as the bills could be paid
. But Amelia's tears could not help anything at all.

Nell leaned forward in her chair and patted the old lady's hand comfortingly. Mr. Prickett coughed and rose from his chair, seizing the opportunity to take his leave. “Don't upset yourself, Lady Amelia,” he said briskly, moving to the door. “There is every reason to hope that Captain Thorne may yet be found alive.” And bidding them all a firm goodnight, he hastily left the room.

For a moment, all four sat just as Mr. Prickett had left them—Lady Amelia dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, Nell patting her shoulder, Lady Sybil and Lord Charles staring furiously at the door. “Hmmmph!” grunted Charles at last. “That was certainly a waste of time. I might as well have spent the evening at Brooks's.”

Lady Sybil glared at him in disdain. “Not at all,” she said cuttingly, “for you'd have probably lost a monkey by this time, and we'd be even deeper in the suds than we are now.”

“Dash it, Sybil,” he husband growled, “take a damper! If we are in the suds, its cause can more readily be laid at your door than at mine.”

“At
my
door! Of all the unfair—!”

“Would anyone
now
like a cup of tea?” Lady Amelia interjected quickly, the frightening possibility of a quarrel between her nephew and his wife causing her to abandon the tears she'd been shedding for poor Captain Henry.

“I'm not a bit unfair,” Charles went on, ignoring his aunt completely. “Your bills for ballgowns and gloves and other female fripperies are what has put us in the suds.”


My
bills? Mine? When I have been scrimping and contriving for months to make do with these old rags?” Lady Sybil cried, holding out the skirt of the purple jaconet gown she wore. The soft, silky fabric had a decidedly fresh, just-purchased sheen, and the deep flounce at the bottom was so resplendent with intricate embroidery that the rich quality of the dress was unmistakable. Nell could not prevent a little laugh from escaping her lips.

“There! Even Nell is laughing,” Charles declared with satisfaction. “Old rags, indeed!”

“Really, Nell, you are becoming quite impossible,” Sybil said, wheeling about and facing Nell accusingly. “Have you so little gratitude? Didn't that gown
you
are wearing cost me a pretty penny?”

Nell bit her lip. “I'm sorry, Sybil dear,” she said meekly.

“Let the girl be,” Charles ordered. “If it weren't for her, we'd have no prospects at all.”

Lady Sybil subsided reluctantly. “What prospects? She has not yet set the wedding date, although I've been urging her for weeks.”

“You're right there, my dear,” Charles concurred. “Nell, you must stop this procrastination. Sir Nigel can be no help to us until you have him firmly rivetted. What are you waiting for?”

Nell looked at her guardians in alarm. “I hope you've not been counting too seriously on
Sir Nigel for
financial assistance,” she said uncomfortably.

“But of
course
we are, you goose,” her godmother replied. “Why else would we have urged you to accept him?”

“You need have no scruples, my dear,” Charles explained kindly. “Sir Nigel quite understands the situation. We had a completely frank conversation on the matter the day before we announced your betrothal. He has agreed to give us a very generous settlement. We shall contrive to manage on it very well until the matter of the estate is settled.”

BOOK: The Phantom Lover
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