Read The Byram Succession Online

Authors: Mira Stables

The Byram Succession (13 page)

“I’ve always had an eye for a good bit of horseflesh,” she announced complacently, “though it’s long enough since I used anything but stolid hirelings. I sometimes think you can judge a man pretty well by the cattle he keeps and the way he handles ’em.”

The remark was scarcely calculated to reassure her male guests, but worse was in store for the ladies. Having stumped round the three vehicles with the support of her ebony cane, delivered a highly critical opinion of the assorted steeds, and told Damon that it was time he bought a new curricle, since, in her hey-day, no girl with any pretensions to fashion would have consented to ride with him in that shabby old thing, she turned her attention to her own sex. Open carriages or not, she told them severely, they would not have been permitted to go jauntering about the countryside without so much as a groom in attendance if they had been in
her
charge. Nor did Marianne’s timid reference to the sizeable group of friends whom they were appointed to meet in Hampton Wick serve in any way to placate her. Was a vehicle never known to fall behind its consorts, she wanted to know. Or to take a wrong turning, or a so-called short cut?

Having triumphed over Marianne, she relented enough to say that perhaps in her case it was allowable, since she was driving with her affianced husband, then fixed Tina with a penetrating stare and enquired in whose company
she
had made the journey from Town.

“In Lord Skirlaugh’s, ma’am,” returned that young lady. And then, in the serene belief that she was already established in Lady Emily’s regard, added saucily, “Unlike you, ma’am, I don’t disdain to ride in a shabby vehicle when its owner is so accomplished a driver and so agreeable a companion.”

Damon turned away to hide his amusement, and made pretence of adjusting a buckle as he recalled the commonplace exchanges that had earned him this encomium. But Lady Emily was outraged. The brazen hussy, to dare to speak to her in so familiar a fashion! She said coldly, “Then certainly you must return with someone else. You cannot spend the whole of the day in Skirlaugh’s pocket without causing undesirable comment.”

Tina was nonplussed. To affront Lady Emily by disobeying her was more than she cared to do. It would be to jeopardise all that she felt she had gained. But what of her plans?

While still she hesitated, Damon said smoothly, “You are very right, Aunt Emily. I should have thought of that for myself. Perhaps Miss Forester would be willing to change places.” Secretly he could have hugged the old girl for making his way so easy.

Tina was still a little loth to abandon her carefully conceived plan, though during the past hour she had begun to wonder if it was, after all, quite so clever. What if she were to suffer some hurt? Serious injury was unlikely if they were travelling slowly enough, but even minor abrasions might leave her temporarily scarred. Worse still, she might break or lose a tooth! Besides, in view of Damon’s attentive solicitude during their stroll in the Palace grounds and the way in which he had coaxed her to stay with him long after the prescribed half hour, perhaps it was not, after all, necessary to proceed to such extreme measures. No doubt Lady Emily’s attitude had helped him to make up his mind. She made up hers. Alethea should take her place on the homeward journey—and the risks that went with it. She didn’t wish her cousin any particular harm, though the thought
did
just cross her mind that it would be better if it was Alethea who lost a tooth. Alethea’s were whiter and more even than her own.

The day, which had throughout been a little too hot for enjoyment, was now definitely sultry. The sun had vanished behind a heavy overcast and livid clouds were massing ominously in the south east. The gentlemen consulted earnestly together in the inn yard, interrupted only when one of them offered Tina a letter, which had, he said, been brought by ‘that lad from the livery stable’.

Tina bit her lip. How like Toby to allow himself to be not only seen but recognised. She accepted the letter nonchalantly.

“Stoopid fellow was hanging about the stables,” volunteered the bearer. “Can’t think why he didn’t come up to the inn. Couldn’t have expected to find you in the coach house.”

But it was clear that he saw nothing suspicious in the circumstances and turned away at once to join the argument as to whether the road by Strawberry Hill and Twickenham was preferable to the more direct route over Putney Heath. It was longer, but it offered more possibilities of obtaining shelter should the threatening storm break. Opinions being divided, the party split up. The little party who had visited Lady Emily were the last to leave. Tina heard Damon suggest that they follow the more direct road and promptly begged young Gilbert to take the other one. She did not know whether or not Toby had managed to achieve his purpose, but she meant to be well away from the scene of any possible accident.

“May have to put ’em along a bit if we’re not to get a wetting,” said Damon cheerfully, easing his pair up Kingston Hill, “but I’ll not press them at this stage.”

Alethea agreed to it, thankful for the flow of air that cooled her burning cheeks, and presently gathering courage to ask apprehensively, “Did Lady Emily pursue her—her
—baiting
tactics the whole time?”

He chuckled. “She did. Most successfully. I dared not catch James’s eye. It was the funniest thing I’ve heard in months. Now don’t look like that, child. It’s no bread and butter of yours. Your cousin has a dozen times your experience. Only her overweening conceit blinded her to traps that should not have deceived a child.
You
are not to blush for
her
folly.”

That was true, of course, but Alethea found it very lowering just the same. It was no pleasant thing to be made a laughing stock. She could only hope that Tina would remain in happy ignorance of the figure she had cut. She sighed sharply.

He was swift enough to sense her mood, and as the horses reached the crest of the hill and broke into a gentle trot he spoke of other things. She responded sensibly enough but without her usual animation. He ventured the suggestion that at least the threat of coming storm might protect them from the threat of hold-up on the Heath. That made her smile a little and beg an explanation of his reasoning.

“Because the gentleman of the road would reckon on poor pickings in such weather,” he explained, urging the horses to a canter. “This storm is coming up faster than I anticipated, Miss Forester, and we are driving into it. With your permission, I’m going to spring ’em.”

The curricle might be a trifle shabby, but it was well designed. His lordship’s horses were beautifully matched, and with those capable hands holding the reins there could be no question of anxiety. Surrendering to the intoxication of speed, Alethea’s spirits rose. This was delightful. She found herself wondering, rather reprehensibly, how soon they would overtake the vehicles that had started ahead of them. It must be almost at once, for his lordship was maintaining a splitting pace, but so far there was no other carriage in sight.

There was a sudden spatter of large raindrops. She put up a hand to brush them from her cheek, heard a sharp crack that sounded like a shot, and immediately called to mind the highwaymen of whom they had been talking. She looked up, half expecting to see some sinister masked figure, pistol in hand. Instead, she saw a wheel bowling rapidly down the road. She was still staring at it, wondering where in the world it had come from, when the curricle swerved violently all across the road, lurching heavily as Damon fought to check the headlong pace, and ending on its side in the off-side ditch, decanting its two passengers without ceremony on the rough verge.

 

THIRTEEN

Alethea’s recollection
of subsequent events was never very clear. When first she was fully conscious of her surroundings she was tucked up snugly in her own bed with a dull headache, a streaming cold and Hetty in attendance. She could scarcely believe it when Hetty told her that two days had elapsed since that eventful visit to Hampton Court. Hetty said that she was not to worry, that she would remember all about it eventually. It was just because she had struck her head against something or other when she was thrown out of the carriage. To anxious enquiries about Lord Skirlaugh, the maid gave soothing replies. He had sustained no serious injury, had, indeed, called in Berkeley Square that very morning to enquire after his fellow sufferer, though he was still limping heavily and walking with a stick. She then announced that her patient had done enough talking and must now swallow the potion left for her by the physician, close her eyes and rest.

Alethea was very willing to obey. But as she drifted in and out of periods of semi-consciousness and drugged sleep, fragments of recollection came back to tease her. She could still see that wheel bowling down the road. It seemed to spin on for ever before her aching eyes. There was a memory, too, of being soaking wet and very cold and of someone struggling rather clumsily to wrap her in a coat; of her own voice crying, “Don’t go! Please don’t leave me!” She slept again, and presently roused with the scent of sweet hay in her nostrils. She must have been dreaming. But what a queer thing to dream—that she had been lying, cramped and stiff but warm, clasped in Damon’s arms, with the sweet smelling rustling hay all about them. Her head ached too much to puzzle it out. She slept—more deeply this time—and woke to find her father sitting beside her.

She struggled up on one elbow in her delight at seeing him, to be pressed gently back against the pillows and told to lie quiet while he kissed her cheek and patted her hand and bade her not to be anxious for everything was quite all right.

She could see no cause for anxiety—save that Papa had left home at an inconvenient time to visit a daughter who ailed no more than a throbbing head and a disfiguring cold—but she accepted his soothing words as an expression of affection, and having been assured that Mama had withstood the shock of hearing about her accident with great fortitude, relaxed drowsily on her pillows and listened to his news of home. He could not stay long; must, in fact, return that night. He had thought to come up to Town again in a day or two to escort her home, but since she seemed to be going on quite prosperously he might not put himself to the trouble, since Aunt Maria had said that Hetty should go with her.

“I just wanted to tell you myself that Mama and I perfectly understand how it came about. It was an accident, and no possible blame can be attached to you. Lord Skirlaugh himself explained the circumstances to us in a perfectly straightforward fashion. I liked that young man. You were extremely fortunate to be in such good hands. So just make haste and get well quickly, for you will have a great deal to do in these coming weeks.”

His expression was grave and he spoke with unwonted earnestness. Alethea was puzzled, for how
could
she be held to blame for the accident? But she was still a little hazy from the effect of the medicines that the doctors had prescribed and it never occurred to her to seek another interpretation of Papa’s words. Then Hetty came in with a cup of broth for her patient, and Papa rose to take his leave, thanking Hetty for the care she had given his little girl. Alethea supped her broth and eased her aching limbs and wondered why neither Aunt Maria nor Tina had been to enquire how she did. Tina’s neglect was not, perhaps, unexpected, and Aunt Maria must be very busy with all the preparations for removal to the country in addition to her other engagements, but surely she might have found two or three minutes to visit her afflicted niece. But perhaps she
had
done so, and she herself had been asleep at the time.

When she enquired of Hetty, that discreet personage only primmed up her mouth and “couldn’t rightly say.” It was obvious that she could say a good deal if she so chose, but she contented herself with reminding Alethea that the doctor had said that she was to be kept quiet and had straitly forbidden all visitors. Alethea felt a vague sense of discomfort. Could she, in some way, be in disgrace with her aunt? The accident must have caused a good deal of extra work and possibly some small anxiety, but it was not like Aunt Maria to take a pet for something which was not really her fault. She lay and puzzled over this strange behaviour until sleep claimed her.

Morning found her much restored. Only Hetty’s firm insistence kept her in bed until the doctor had called. Fortunately he was pleased to say that she might get up for a little while during the day, though she must guard against over-exertion and lie down upon her bed if there was any sign of the headache returning. No sooner had he departed than she pushed aback the coverlets and climbed rather gingerly out of bed. On the whole, she supposed, she had escaped pretty lightly. She wrinkled her nose at the mirror, which showed a pale, peaked little face with a spreading yellowish purple bruise above the right temple. She rather thought she would stay indoors for the remainder of her sojourn in Berkeley Square! She had no wish to flaunt
that
doleful visage about the town.

Hetty, returning from escorting the doctor downstairs, exclaimed indignantly and shooed her back to bed. “And there you’ll stay, miss, like a sensible girl, till you’ve eaten your luncheon. Hebe’n me’s got it all made up to dress you between us, and Hebe to do your hair so’s it’ll partly hide the bruise. Your aunty says you’re to receive his lordship in the Green Saloon.”

Alethea stared. “Receive his lordship? Do you mean Lord Skirlaugh?”

Hetty looked guiltily conscious. She tried to carry it off with a high hand. “Why, who else, miss? Hasn’t he called each day to enquire for you? The mistress said you was to see him as soon as the doctor gave permission, and mightily thankful she would be when”—She broke off short, aware that her tongue had run away with her.

“Thankful when
what?”
said Alethea slowly, sure now that something was very wrong, something that she did not understand. And when the maid did not immediately answer, “Thankful when I am gone?” she queried sorrowfully. “So much trouble as I have made?”

That brought Hetty to startled life. “No, miss, she never!” she gasped in convincing indignation. And then, quite unexpectedly, grinned. “It’s my belief your aunty would have been well enough pleased with the way things’ve fallen out,” she confided, “if it hadn’t been for Miss Tina kicking up such a rumpus and neither fit to hold nor bind.”

“But why?” begged Alethea, wholly bewildered. “She
cannot
be jealous, just because I was involved in an accident—or does she think that I contrived the whole thing on purpose to become the talk of the Town?”

There was the briefest possible hesitation. Then Hetty said slowly, “No, miss. She knows very well you didn’t. Because
she
did.”

Alethea put a hand to her head. That blow must have affected her brain. The girl
could
not have said what she had heard. But Hetty went on, “That wheel never came off of its own. Miss Tina had persuaded one of the lads from the livery stable to meddle with it. But his lordship being nobody’s fool and finding this linch-pin or whatever they call it had been near sawn through, nor it didn’t match the one in the other wheel, began to make enquiries, and someone remembered seeing this lad hanging about the carriages. It all came out then. Give Miss Tina her due. She’d thought
she
would be the one riding in the carriage. Seems she’d taken a fancy to being a heroine. Your uncle was in such a taking as I never saw—said he’d never heard such a crack-brained notion in his life and she was only fit for Bedlam. He packed her off to her Grandmama the very next day, for all her weeping and cajolery. Told her she could be thankful Lord Skirlaugh didn’t choose to lay an action against her. Her Mama went with her to see her safe to Hoddesden which is where old Mrs. Newton lives, and very retired, too, which won’t suit Miss Tina. Hebe went with them—your aunty and her got back late last night—and says she is talking very wild. The last thing was that she’d decided to marry Sir John Boothroyd after all, because if there was one thing she couldn’t abide it was the thought of you being married before her. But I shouldn’t think that’ll hold,” she ended reflectively.

“Nor any need for such impetuous haste,” said Alethea absently, her thought more concerned with assimilating the startling information that Hetty had disclosed, “since there is no immediate prospect of my marrying.”

An odd expression crossed the older woman’s face. She opened her mouth as though to say something further, thought better of it, and closed it again.

“So that is why Aunt Maria didn’t come to see how I was. You might just as well have told me, Hetty. I had begun to imagine something quite horrid.”

“But you’d not have been satisfied with half the tale,” said Hetty shrewdly, “and I was on no account to talk about the accident. Now just you lie quiet till it’s time for your medicine. Your aunty will be in to see you in a little while. She took breakfast in bed this morning. Tired after the journey, not to mention Miss Tina’s sulks.”

Despite Hetty’s explanations and assurances it was a rather anxious face that Alethea lifted for her aunt’s kiss when that lady made her tardy appearance. To be sure she was in no way to blame for Tina’s banishment, but she quite expected to find Aunt Maria in the lowest of spirits and to have to exert all her energies to soothe and cheer the poor lady, no easy task when one was feeling a little low oneself.

But it turned out to be no such thing. Aunt Maria was possessed of that happy disposition that can put unfortunate happenings quite out of mind as soon as the visible evidence is neatly tidied away. Tina had been very naughty, but she might safely be left in the capable hands of Grandmama Newton, and Aunt Maria could devote herself wholeheartedly to the much more entertaining business of guiding her dear little niece at this critical juncture of her affairs. Not that she anticipated any difficulty. Girls
could
take foolish notions into their heads, but not Alethea, always so sensible, so tractable. In which happy confidence the good soul trotted briskly into her niece’s room and embraced her warmly.

By the time that Aunt Maria had exclaimed pitifully over the invalid’s wan looks, recommended a soothing lotion for sundry part-healed scratches and expressed her gratitude to the Providence that had preserved both victims of the accident from serious and lasting injury, any lingering doubts were banished from Alethea’s mind. Whoever might hold her in some way blameworthy—as Papa’s consoling remarks had suggested—Aunt Maria’s affection was as warm and unclouded as ever.

She settled down in a chair beside the bed and enquired with deep interest what dress the girl proposed to wear for the all-important interview.

Alethea stared. “I had not particularly thought about it. Is it
so
important? I thought his lordship was but paying a courtesy visit to enquire as to my progress. In fact I couldn’t understand why I must receive him in solemn state in the Green Saloon. As for my dress”—she chuckled—“which do you think would best set off my unusual colouring?” And she pushed the hair away from her temples to exhibit the ugly bruise.

Aunt Maria shook her head reprovingly. One’s appearance, one’s dress, was never a matter for jesting. “I think the cream sendal with the apricot velvet sash will be the most suitable,” she pronounced judicially. “It strikes just the right note of restrained elegance. Strong colour would only make you look paler, and though a little romantic pallor may be allowable under the circumstances, I would not wish his lordship to think that your constitution is sickly. Not but what he would still have to offer for you. However, you are a sensible girl and will understand that he has also to consider the succession.”

She broke off to consider it, with deep and patent satisfaction. Her dear little niece to be a duchess some day. One could not condone Tina’s behaviour, of course, but really things could not have fallen out more fortunately!

Every vestige of colour fled from Alethea’s face. Her eyes looked enormous—dazed. It was a full minute before she could master her whirling thoughts, control her voice to say, with some semblance of calmness, “Do you mean that Lord Skirlaugh intends to make me an offer? Is
that
what he is coming for?”

“But of course, my dear. What else?” returned her aunt complacently. “He drove down to Tunbridge Wells the very next day to seek your Papa’s permission to pay his addresses. Everything of the most correct. For all their quiet ways, the Byrams are very high sticklers. But
you
will not object to that. And from what your uncle says, your Papa took quite a fancy to him. Your Mama was naturally a little overcome by so much excitement, and was not able to receive him. But it was at his suggestion that your Papa travelled back to Town with him so that he could see for himself that you were going on comfortably and reassure your Mama. I daresay that was what raised him in Clement’s estimation, for such thoughtfulness, you know, augurs well for his character as a husband.”

She elaborated happily on the qualities that went to make a good husband, all of them, she was sure, to be found to a marked degree in Lord Skirlaugh’s disposition, quite unaware that her niece did not hear a word, being wholly preoccupied with the task of reducing her own chaotic emotions to order.

Why should she feel nothing but dismay upon learning of his lordship’s intentions? A few days ago such a prospect would have brought only rapturous anticipation. What was wrong? First Papa, then Hetty, as she now realised, had been well aware of the situation. Suddenly she recalled Aunt Maria’s carelessly turned phrase. ‘He would still
have
to offer for you.’ That was it! It was not because he loved her, but for some other reason. Perhaps he blamed himself for negligence and felt responsible for the accident. But that was ridiculous!

Forgetful, for once, of the demands of good manners, she cut across her aunt’s rambling discourse to say crisply, “Yes, ma’am, I daresay his lordship
is
truly amiable. But why did you say that he would still have to offer for me even if I was of a sickly habit?”

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