Authors: Winston Graham
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas
It was said of William Wyndham, first Baron Grenville, that one of the flaws in his distinguished parliamentary career was his passion for Boconnoc, his eight-thousand-acre estate in Cornwall. Bought by William Pitt's grandfather with part of the proceeds of the great Pitt diamond, it had come to Grenville by way of his marriage to Anne Pitt, Lord Camelford's daughter.
A man of austere and aristocratic tastes, a man not above lecturing many people, not excluding the Royal Family, on their responsibilities and duties, he was wont to ignore his own once he was two hundred and fifty miles from Westminster and settled in his mansion overlooking the great wooded park, with his own property stretching as far as the most long-sighted eye could see.
It was here, not in Westminster, that George Warleggan had first met him. Sir Christopher Hawkins, who had been a good friend to George as well as making money out of him, had represented to Lord Grenville that if his Lordship needed another spare man in addition to himself for the banquet held at Boconnoc to celebrate Trafalgar, the member for St Michael, who had been a knight for five years and was of influence in the Truro district, might make a suitable guest. George had accepted the invitation with surprise and alacrity. It was just about the period when he was beginning to emerge from the long shadow cast by Elizabeth's death and when his personal ambition was stirring again.
No one, not even George himself, would have claimed that in the succeeding five years he had become an intimate
of Lord Grenville - becoming a close friend of Lord Grenville's was considerably more difficult than to become one of the Prince of Wales - but he was accepted as an occasional guest in the great house. And they met at Westminster from from time to time. Grenville acknowledged him as a useful supporter and a neighbouring Cornishman. Bereft of his helpmeet, George had done little personal entertaining, but in the summer of 1809 he had given a big party at Cardew and had invited Lord and Lady Grenville. Grenville had refused, but it was a note written in his own hand.
It was the following year, a month after George's annual pilgrimage to Trenwith and about a month before Ross had yielded to pressure and accepted the invitation to go to Portugal, that the Grenvilles invited George to a reception and dinner at their house, and it was on this occasion that he first met Lady Harriet Carter. They sat next to each other at dinner, and George was attracted, partly physically, partly by a sense of the unfamiliar.
She was dark - as night dark as Elizabeth had been day fair - and not pretty, but her face had the classic bone structure that George always admired. Her raven hair had a gloss like japan leather; she had remarkably fine eyes. She was dressed in that elegant good taste that he recognized as the hall-mark of women like his first wife.
One would have thought it unlikely to meet anyone at Lord Grenville's table who was not socially acceptable, but sometimes, in his seignorial role as one of the largest private landlords in the county, his Lordship thought it meet to include among his guests a few local bigwigs (and their wives) who in George's opinion were not big at all. This was clearly not such a one.
Conversation at the table for a time was concerned with riots in the north of England, the depreciation of the currency and the scandal of the
Duke of Cumberland; but presentl
y his partner wearied of this and turned to him and said:
'Tell me, Sir George, where do you live?' 'Some thirty miles to the west, ma'am. At Cardew. Between Truro and Falmouth.' 'Good hunting country?' 'I've heard it so described.' 'But you don't hunt yourself?' 'I've little time.'
She laughed - very low. 'What else is more important?' George inclined his head towards his host. 'The affairs of the kingdom.'
'And you are concerned with those?' 'Among other things.' 'What other things?'
He hesitated, a little nettled that she knew nothing about him. 'Affairs of the county. You do not live in Cornwall, ma'am?'
'I live at Hatherleigh. Just over the border - in England.'
They talked a few minutes. Her voice was husky and she had an attractive laugh, which was almost all breath - low, indolent and sophisticated. You felt there wasn't much she didn't know about life - and didn't tolerate. He found himself glancing at her low-cut gown and thinking her breasts were like warm ivory. It was an unusual thought for him.
As another course was served a man called Gratton leaned across the table and boomed at him: 'I say, Warleggan, what sort of stand do you take on Catholic Emancipation? I've never heard you speak about it in the House!'
speak little in the House,' George replied coldly. 'I leave oratory to the orators. There are other ways of being valuable.'
'Yes, old man, but you must have an opinion! Everyone has, one way or t'other. How d'you vote?'
It was a ticklish question, for, on this as on so many other domestic subjects, George differed from his host and was at pains to hide it for the sake of his personal good. Gratton was a ninny anyhow and deserved to be taken down. But George was not quick-witted, and he was aware that Lady Harriet was listening.
'To tell the truth, Gratton, it is not a subject on which I have extravagant feelings, so I vote with my friends.'
'And who are your friends?'
'In this company,' said George, 'need you ask?'
Gratton considered the plate of venison that had just been put before him. He helped himself to the sweet sauce and the gravy. 'I must say, old man, that that's a very unsatisfactory answer, since it's a subject on which governments have fallen before now!'
'And will again, no doubt,' said Gratton's partner. 'Or will fail to stand up in the first place!'
'Mr Gratton,' said Lady Harriet, 'what would you say to emancipating the Wesleyans for a change? Now the Prince of Wales has taken up with Lady Hertford I suspicion we shall all be psalm-singing before long.'
There was a laugh, and talk turned to bawdy speculation as to the nature of the Prince's relationship with his new favourite.
Lady Harriet said to George in a low voice: 'I take it, Sir George, that your fondness for the Catholics is not so great as that of my Lord Grenville?'
He had appreciated her turning the subject and suspected it had been deliberate.
'Personally, ma'am, I care little one way or the other, since religious belief does not loom large in my life. But for the preference I'd keep them out of Parliament and public service. They've bred traitors enough in the past.'
As soon as he had spoken he regretted his frankness and was astonished at his own indiscretion. To say such a thing in this company was folly indeed if he wished, as he did, to remain on the Grenville political stage-coach. He cursed himself and cursed this woman for provoking him into speaking the truth.
He added coldly: 'No doubt I offend you, but I trust you will look on this as a personal confidence.'
'Indeed,' she said, 'you do not offend me. And in return I will give you a little confidence of my own. I hate all Catholics, every last one. And William, I fear, knows it.'
William was Lord Grenville.
All things considered, George found he had enjoyed his dinner more than any for a long time. It was as if he had put on the spectacles he now used for reading and looked through them onto a more brightly coloured world. It was disconcerting, but far from disagreeable. He distrusted the sensation.
Ah well, he told himself, it would all soon be forgot. There were many soberer matters to be attended to. But a few days later, rather to his own surprise, and having thought all round it a number of times, he put a few discreet inquiries in train. There certainly could be nothing lost by knowing more on the subject. It could be, he told himself, an interesting inquiry without in any way becoming an interested one.
So came some information and some rumour. She had been born Harriet Osborne and was a sister of the sixth Duke of Leeds. She was about twenty-nine and a widow. Her husband had been Sir Toby Carter, who had estates in Leicestershire and in north Devon. He had been a notorious rake and gambler who had broken his neck in the hunting field and had died hock deep in debt. He had even squandered the money his wife brought him, so the Leicestershire estate had had to be sold and she was now in possession of a part bankrupt property in Devon, her only income coming from an allowance made her by the Duke. There were no children of the marriage.
This far information went. Rumour said that husband and wife had not hit it off, that she was as mad on hunting as he and that he had locked her in her room two days a week to prevent her riding to hounds too often. There were other unsavoury whispers, most, it must be admitted, about Sir Toby.
All this was quite sufficient to put a man like George right off. The
thing he wanted was a turbulent married life; if for one moment he now thought re-marriage an acceptable, or at least contemplatable, estate, there were twenty pretty and docile girls who would fall over themselves for the chance. To take a dark and aristocratic widow with a slightly sinister history
In any case, he told himself, writing the subject out of his own mind, he would never gain the Duke's permission for, or acceptance of, such a marriage. The Warleggan name might make the earth shake in Cornwall, but it counted for little in such company as Lady Harriet frequented. Her father, he discovered, had been Lord Chamberlain of the Queen's Household. It was a dazzling circle to which she belonged. Too dazzling.
But that was half the temptation.
The other half was in the woman herself, and here George found it difficult to understand his own feelings. Once or twice in the night he woke up and blamed his encounter with Clowance Poldark.
By every rightful instinct he should have detested that girl on sight. Indeed he did, formally and overtly. He had been as rude to her as he knew how, and she had taken absolutely no notice. He had glared at this daughter of the two people he disliked most in the world and had vented his spleen on her. But at the same time some more primal and subconscious urge had found her physically, startlingly, sexually, ravishing. This had only made its way through to his conscious mind later, when the image of her plagued him, that image of her standing before him in the gaunt dark hall, barefoot, in her white frock, the sheaf of stolen foxgloves on her arm, the candid grey gaze fixed on him with unoffended, innocent interest. Of course in his wildest moments - if he had any - he had
sort of thought of her for himself, no thought of there
being anything between them except the bitterest family enmity. Yet the impression of her youth, her freshness, her ripe innocence, her sexual attraction, had wakened something in him that made him think differently from that day on. The years of austerity no longer seemed justifiable. There was something more to life than the scrutiny of balance sheets and the exercise of mercantile and political power. There was a woman - there were women - women everywhere -with all that that meant in terms of instability, unreliability, anxiety, jealousy, conquest, success and failure, and the sheer excitement of being alive. The memories of his life with Elizabeth came seeping back, no longer tainted with the anger and dismay of loss. Unknown to himself he had been lonely. His encounter with Harriet Carter came at an appropriate time.
For a while still, and naturally, as befitted so cautious a man, he did absolutely nothing. He was not quite sure how he should proceed even if he ever decided to make a move. A widow was not a spinster. She was more her own mistress. Yet it seemed improbable that she would agree to any union without the full consent of her family. And it was not likely that that would be immediately forthcoming.
And yet. And yet. To be married to the sister of a duke! And money was not sneezed at even in the great houses. If she were truly as poor as his reports told him, the Duke might be glad to get her off his hands. A lot depended on the approach. In any event
did not wish to play his cards too soon. How could one judge of a single meeting? How contrive other meetings without declaring one's interest too obviously? At length he took his problem to his old friend Sir Christopher Hawkins.
Sir Christopher laughed. 'Before heaven, there's nothing easier, my dear fellow. She is at present staying with her aunt at Godolphin. I'll ask 'em over for a night and you can dine and sup with us.'
So they met a second time, and although there was a numerous company there was opportunity for conversation, and Lady Harriet soon received the message. It made a difference to her. Her brilliant dark eyes became a little absent-minded as if her thoughts were already idly turning over all the implications of his presence. She talked to him politely but with a slight irony that made him uncomfortable. Yet she was not unfriendly, as she surely must have been if she had decided at once that his suit was impossible.
Her aunt, a pale tiny woman who looked as if the leeches had been at her, also received the message, and to her the message was clearly distasteful. The Osborne family of course had considerable property in Cornwall, and it could have been that Miss Darcy knew him and his history too well.
So the second meeting ended inconclusively. But it was not one of total discouragement. And a hint of opposition always braced George whether he was trying to gain possession of a woman or a tin mine.