Authors: Kateand the Soldier
KATE AND THE SOLDIER
Thomas, the third Earl of Falworth, lay still and silent in his darkened bedchamber, listening for the sound of footsteps along the corridor outside his room. Regina and Lawrence would be here soon. Lawrence—his son and heir, thought Thomas wearily. God, how had things come to such a pass? He was preparing to face his Maker. One would have thought that the burden he’d carried for so many years would have lightened by now, worn away by time and the passing events of life. Yet it remained heavy as death itself, and, he smiled bitterly, no doubt as permanent.
Too late—too late. The words rustled slyly in his mind like the whispering of mourners at a grave side. But was it? Could he still make reparation? His breath, frail and spasmodic, caught in his throat. No, he had made his choice those many years ago, and he had reaped its dubious reward.
A sound outside the door made him turn his head slightly, and he watched as his valet ushered in his wife and son.
Lawrence entered the earl’s bedchamber in some trepidation. The room had always intimidated him, with its huge, canopied bed and oppressively dark hangings, and he entered it as seldom as possible. Assuring himself that his mother stood at his back, he approached the great bed. God, the old man looked awful. Lawrence could hardly bear to look at the drooping eyelids and the thin line of spittle that ran from a sagging mouth.
To his consternation, the earl waved his mother out of the room.
“But, Thomas ...” she cried in protest.
“Go, Regina!” His slurred voice growled petulantly. “I would be alone with my son.”
Regina’s lips tightened, but she bowed her head and left the room. Lawrence remained near the door, and it was only when his father beckoned with some impatience that he approached the bed. He perched uneasily on a chair covered with faded damask.
For some moments the earl stared at him. His gaze traveled from the glowing Brutus of which the young man was so proud, to the carefully arranged cravat, past the satin waistcoat, and down to gleaming Hessians, their silver tassels atremble. Raising his head, Thomas peered into the somewhat protuberant, rather vacant eyes that blinked anxiously at him.
“Earlier, you and I were discussing the River Farm.” He mouthed the words slowly.
“If I should give it to you, what would you do with it?”
Lawrence’s features relaxed in pleased surprise.
“Why, sell it, of course. Been sitting there for donkey’s years, might as well get some good out of it.”
“I see. And the Farside acreage. Pettigrew says we should marl it and put it into oats next year. What do you think of that?”
“What? Oats? Well, how should I—that is, it seems to me Pettigrew has been getting above himself lately. What do we have there now?”
“Ah, Well, barley is good, isn’t it? I think we should leave it in, er, barley.”
“You think Pettigrew an unsatisfactory bailiff, do you?” Thomas spoke softly, but his breathing was becoming labored. “It does not seem to me that you have ever taken the trouble to acquire enough knowledge of estate matters to enable you to make such a judgment.”
“Good God, Father,” cried Lawrence, genuinely shocked. “Gentleman’s son, and all that. Pretty cake I’d have made of myself slogging about out in the mud. M’ friends would have laughed themselves sick to see me.”
The earl sighed once more.
“Was it I who taught you it’s beneath a gentleman to concern himself with his own land?”
“Well, indeed, Father,
“Does it not bother you that the estate is in dire financial trouble? Did you know that I had considered selling the River Farm to an outside buyer, for the money it would bring?”
“No! That is, I knew things were a little tight, but—surely, Father, we’ll come about, won’t we? We’ve always come about. You’ll see. A few good runs at the tables, and we’ll be all right and tight again. You’ve told me that a hundred times.”
As he spoke, Lawrence’s expression lightened, as though he had vanquished with his words the moment of discomfort that had sent a frisson skittering along his spine.
His father knew an urge to throw back his head and give utterance to his grief and rage in a primal howl. In the same instant, he was swept with the cold realization of the futility of such an act, even were he capable of accomplishing it. He had never known such desolation.
He looked into the eyes of his son, and saw mirrored there his own failings. Before him, slumped in a worn chair, sucking on the end of his quizzing glass, sat the hope of his house. Dear God, what had he done?
He sank back into his pillows, closed his eyes, and waved his hand, which Lawrence correctly interpreted as a sign that the audience was over. With relief, and some puzzlement, the young man tiptoed out of the room.
Thomas lay for some minutes, only the faint, erratic rasp of his breathing and the painful rise and fall of his chest indicating that life still burned, albeit faintly, within his wasted frame.
However, when his man came to inform him some half an hour later that Mr. George Smollett had arrived, he was sitting up in bed, his thin cheeks flushed, and a rare expression of determination on his face.
“Send him in,” he barked, with a semblance of his former vigor. “But first, Pargeter, I want you to do something for me.”
Beckoning the servant to his bedside, he issued a short but precise series of directives, and when he had seen his puzzled valet from the room, he permitted himself a chuckle.
He had done a terrible thing many years ago, but perhaps it was not too late after all to set matters to rights.
“Ah, Smollett,” he cried, and a strange sense of release swept over him. “Come in. I hope you’ve come prepared to stay awhile. I have matters of import to discuss with you.”
Major David Merritt, late of His Majesty’s Peninsular forces, had nearly reached the limit of his endurance. White-lipped, he clung to the side strap of the carriage in which he had been jolting across southern England for the last several hours. When the vehicle lurched in and out of yet another cavernous pothole, he could not suppress the groan that seemed to well directly from the wound that throbbed in his hip like a living entity.
“David? Are you all right?”
The young man seated opposite him in the luxuriously appointed carriage was slight and neat in aspect and action, with brown eyes that affirmed the concern in his voice. He turned to a third passenger, whose servant’s garb contrasted with rough-hewn features and a fierce, canny stare. He too, had turned to David, and was attempting to help him to a more comfortable position.
“Damn it, Curle,” said the neat gentleman, “I told you we should have stopped for the night in Bath.”
“Yer talking’ t’ the wrong man, guvn’r,” grunted the servant. “It’s ‘is bloody, stubborn ‘ighness, ‘ere who insisted we keep on the march.”
Gasping with the effort it took to speak, David shifted his body restlessly.
“I wish you two old hens would cease talking about me as if I weren’t here. Bath is hardly more than two hours from Westerly, and we’ve come almost that far now. See?” He gestured with a thin hand. “We are just passing through Bitton. We’ll leave the main road in a moment and will soon reach our village. In another five miles, we’ll be home—at Westerly.”
He sighed the word, as though he had just uttered an “Amen” at the end of a prayer. His two companions glanced at each other.
David noticed the look that passed between his friends, but remained silent and continued to gaze at the increasingly familiar landscape that flashed by the window.
He was not a large man, being only a little above-average height, but his presence seemed to fill the interior of the coach. He might have been handsome once, but deep lines had been graven in a face already harshened by sun and storm. Hair of crow’s-wing black had long since grown out of its military cut, and now fell just past the back of his collar in shaggy tendrils. His eyes glinted darkly against the pallor of gaunt cheeks and a broad brow, and his clothes, though they had been purchased after he sold out just a few months ago, hung loosely on his thin frame. He turned to face the man opposite him, and his mouth lost some of its rigidity.
“I understand your concern, Lucius, and I’m grateful,” he said, “but you must understand my desire to make this journey.”
“No, I don’t,” replied Mr. Lucius Pelham with some irritation. He paused to remove a speck of lint that marred the pristine contours of his sleeve. “I don’t understand at all why you’d ever want to set foot in Westerly again. I know your father’s message was urgent—and I am sorry to hear that he is so ill, but after the way your precious family has treated you, I’d think you’d make steering clear of them your life’s work. Although,” he continued meditatively, “there is your cousin, Kate, of course. I suppose you’ll be glad to see her. She was, what—fourteen when you left? From what you told me of her, she must be a rare handful by now.”
Oh God, thought David. Kate. The image of his childhood playmate had sustained him in many a black moment, but now—how was he to tell her...?
He shifted uncomfortably, then winced at the pain. Curle once again made as though to aid him, but David waved aside the efforts of his erstwhile batman.
“Lucius, my friend, I cannot sponge off your good nature forever. Besides, you’ve been telling me for weeks that what I need is a good dose of country air. The air hereabouts is as outstanding a product of the countryside as you’re liable to find.”
“David,” Lucius replied severely, “I have repeatedly asked you to stop talking fustian. Good nature, is it by God? Have you forgotten why you carry that nasty little chunk of metal in your bones?”
“You did save my life, you know. That may not seem like a worthy accomplishment to you, but I regard it as a feat of major importance.”
A look of anguish flashed in David’s eyes, and he flung up a hand in a defensive gesture. Lucius continued, unheeding.
“And, in case you hadn’t noticed, my family has all but adopted you. Father thinks you’re as clever as you can hold together, you know. Now that you’ve finished your recuperation, you have only to say the word and he’ll put you to work.”
But David was not listening. He had turned to the window once more, and now he cried out softly.
“There, can you see, Lucius—Curle? See that hill, beyond the village? Just on the other side, in a fold of earth, lies Westerly.”
The remainder of the journey passed quickly, and soon the carriage swept through gates of Bath stone and up a long, curving drive. In another moment, the manor house came into view. It was an imposing building, built of the same material as the gates, and for an instant it seemed as though the rays of the setting sun had been captured to warm its rough-hewn blocks. A gracious Paladian facade spread on either side of a pillared entrance. Though David’s angular features now glinted with a sheen of perspiration, he barely waited for the carriage to come to a halt under a spreading portico before flinging open the door to begin his painful descent. Bolting from the other side of the vehicle, Curle grasped his arms just in time to prevent him from falling to the ground in an awkward heap.
Lucius leapt down as well, supporting his friend as a second carriage drew up, laden with luggage, under the supervision of Fellowes, Lucius’s manservant. Curle ran up the steps to wield the knocker with imperious abandon, and within seconds, the great door swung open to reveal an august personage who could only be a butler.
“Fleming!” croaked David, remaining upright only through a supreme effort of will.
“Mr. David!” The butler hurried forward, blank surprise written on his features. “Welcome home! We did not expect you until the morrow!”
David’s grin was ghastly.
“Don’t you know, Fleming, that bad pennies not only turn up where they’re not wanted, but also when least expected?”
The butler’s shock at the young man’s appearance was obvious, but he hastened to assist him into the house, nodding to the others.
“Nonsense, Mr. David,” he replied. “You’re surely welcome here, for this is where you belong.”
Then, as though ashamed of having given vent to such un-butlerlike sentiments, he beckoned peremptorily to a footman, ordering him to summon the housekeeper.
“Her ladyship,” continued Fleming, “is with his lordship. You did know of his lordship’s illness?” he queried anxiously.
At David’s nod, he continued.
“I shall have her informed of your arrival at once.”
The little party, minus Curle, who had been dispatched belowstairs, had by now reached one of the saloons opening off the entrance hall, and David sank gratefully onto a faded brocade settee. He was relieved that his stepmother was not among those present.
“Please don’t disturb her ladyship, Fleming,” he said. “We will greet her at dinner. In the meantime, this is my friend, Mr. Lucius Pelham. He will be staying with us for a few days. Can you find a place for him to lay his head?”