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Authors: Mira Stables

The Byram Succession (3 page)

“By no means, ma’am,” interposed Damon coolly. “This is
my
patient so it is my privilege to act the good Samaritan.” He was already slipping some coins into the boy’s ready palm and agreeing to Judd’s suggestion that he should go along to lend a hand with bedding the patient down and to make sure the bandage did not slip. “We are already so late that another hour can make small difference,” he ended resignedly, and watched the little procession set out at snail’s pace across the fields, the loose horse accompanying them in an inquisitive way as though wondering what they were doing with his stable companion.

A soft voice at his side said penitently, “Now I am
truly
sorry that you should have been delayed. It is all my fault, allowing myself to be taken in by that horrid drunken wretch.” She scowled darkly at the sleeper and said defensively, “But how was I to guess? I have never seen a gentleman in his cups before. I did not know
that
was how they behaved.”

He could not help smiling a little. “Then you are fortunate in your first experience, ma’am. Gentlemen in their cups usually give a good deal more trouble than this one. And in causing you to seek assistance, at least he did his horse a good turn. If Judd had not noticed its condition the poor creature would certainly have bled to death. Which reminds me—I believe I have you to thank for the provision of the bandage that turned the trick. You must permit me to reimburse you for that.”

“Indeed, no,” she said indignantly. “You have already paid the farmer. Am I to have no share at all in the satisfaction? As for the linen I can easily buy more when I reach London. Very likely of a finer quality, too, which will please Papa, because if he
has
one tiny vanity it is his pleasure in fine linen. He dearly loves horses, too, so I daresay he will consider that his new shirts were sacrificed in a good cause.”

He looked at her curiously, mildly amused by her candid remarks about her father. She was a little older than he had first thought. He had been misled, he decided, by the mouth. Her two front teeth were very slightly crossed and this gave to her upper lip an innocent childish fullness. A very kissable mouth, decided Damon impersonally. The rest of the damsel was no more than ordinarily pleasant looking. But her bearing had a confidence, her figure a rounded suppleness that suggested she was definitely out of the schoolroom. She might be eighteen and despite his first impression she was demonstrably a lady. Perhaps she, too, had been overset by the strain of a near accident, he thought charitably. Her modest travelling dress bore out her claim to social insignificance. At the moment it was sadly soiled and stained, but this she did not seem to have noticed. He wondered
whether
she was bound and if he ought to draw her attention to the fact that she was scarcely in a fit state to go visiting. The portmanteaux seemed to indicate a projected stay of some duration. He could not help picturing the reactions of a conventional hostess faced with such a guest.

The lady had turned her attention to the sleeping curricle driver. “What should we do about him?” she enquired hopefully, plainly expecting Damon to accept this responsibility along with the rest. “Of course he has behaved very badly, but we can scarcely leave him lying by the roadside, can we?”

Damon’s mouth twitched but he hastily controlled it. “No, indeed. It makes the place look so untidy doesn’t it? How shall we dispose of him?”

She eyed him suspiciously. “This is no time for funning, milord,” she told him severely. “If it were to come on to rain I daresay he would take a shocking cold.”

“Very probably,” agreed Damon solemnly. “And a cold can be so dangerous. It might settle on his lungs and carry him off, and
then
how should we feel? But before we do anything rash, may I remind you that we don’t know who he is or where he lives and that by removing him from this admittedly draughty roadside and bearing him off with us we may be subjecting his relatives to considerable anxiety. Not to mention laying ourselves open to a charge of abduction,” he concluded, his sense of the ridiculous getting the better of him at last.

“I wish you will be sensible, milord,” she repeated, her own lips quivering into laughter. “Perhaps he carries a pocket book or some letter which might furnish us with his direction. If you were to go through his pockets”—The brown eyes regarded him with a hint of mischief in their depths.

“And add highway robbery to the charge of abduction?” queried Damon, laughing outright. “You are determined to get me hung or at least transported, aren’t you, ma’am? And let me inform you that there is something very distasteful about the notion of going through a man’s pockets, however charitable one’s motive.”

The girl’s face crumpled into mischievous laughter. She looked quite enchantingly different. “But for
me
to do so would be quite improper, as well as distasteful,” she pointed out demurely.

“Very well, ma’am. But if I am taken up by the law I shall rely upon you to give evidence in my behalf—or at least to visit me in jail,” he told her lightly, and stooped over the happy sleeper. Before, however, he could place himself in any danger of apprehension by the law, the sound of wheels caused him to look up. A farm tumbrel was coming down the road towards them. He rose to his feet, meaning to signal to the waggoner to stop, but this was unnecessary. The tumbrel was already creaking to a halt.

Its driver climbed down and approached him, surveying the scene of disaster with absorbed interest. Presently he announced, “That be young Master Ralph you got there.” He tried to squint round Damon’s tall form which chanced to come between him and the recumbent youth, gave up the attempt, and added sapiently, “Leastways that be one o’ Squoire’s match bays grazing in field yonder. What be come o’ t’other one? And be ’e ’urt bad? Master Ralph?”

“Have you come in search of him?” asked Damon, rather amused by the newcomer’s verbal economy.

“Ye might say so,” drawled the carter equably. “Though’t were a load o’ turnips as I come arter. But Squoire said to keep an eye lifting for ’e. Rackoned ’e’d come to grief.”

“His father?” enquired Damon, interested in so Roman an approach to a son’s welfare.

The carter nodded, and stumped across to gaze with mild admiration at the sleeper. “We-ell-a-well!” he exclaimed. “Squoire said ’e was cupshotten when ’e set out. Got a proper skinful now, ain’t ’e? Reg’lar put about Squoire’ll be.”

Between them, Damon not having witnessed the actual spill, the pair explained the circumstances that had led to the young man’s downfall. The carter nodded affably and said that if the gentleman wouldn’t mind lending a hand to lift the sufferer into the cart he’d see about getting him home and sending a groom over to look to the horses. Squoire, he added, would reckon himself much obliged to them, specially in the matter of the bay colt, and would likely want to pay his respects.

Damon said that they must push on to London now that their help was no longer needed, whereupon the carter, obviously feeling that his master’s courtesy had been adequately upheld, relapsed into bucolic serenity, tugged politely at his forelock, and set the sturdy mare in motion.

“I fancy it is not the first time that Master Ralph has returned to the ancestral halls in less lordly fashion than he set out,” said Damon.

“No,” agreed his fellow Samaritan. “I am sorry for his horses. Do you
really
think the colt will recover? That gash looked shockingly deep to me.”

“No reason why he shouldn’t,” said Damon hearteningly. “He’ll be scarred, of course”—and stopped abruptly at that fatal word.

But his companion was no longer listening. She was holding out one hand upon which several drops of rain had just fallen. “Pray hold me excused, my lord,” she said hurriedly. “I must go back to the chaise at once.” And broke into a run, pulling up the hood of her loose travelling mantle as she did so.

Damon followed at a more leisurely pace, grinning at the inconsistency of the fair sex. The girl had been cool and sensible over handling a frightened wounded animal, yet fled in dismay at the prospect of a wetting.

The rain was now falling steadily. The lady who had been struggling with the portmanteaux was hurriedly replacing them in the chaise. The girl had sought shelter, but she peeped out at him as he handed up the last of the baggage.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “Do, pray, step inside until this rain stops. The thing is, you see, Mama and Susan curled my hair very carefully so that Aunt Maria shouldn’t give way to complete despair at the first sight of me. And if I get it wet it will be quite straight again in no time.”

He had not accepted the invitation to shelter but stood leaning on the door of the chaise studying the face so confidingly turned to his, a humorous quirk to his mouth as he said gently, “Then perhaps I should also draw your attention to the state of your gown. I fear-er-Aunt Maria might take exception to that, too.”

The girl cast a startled glance at her soiled grey gown and gave a little exclamation of dismay. “Oh! Barbie! What
shall
I do?”

Her companion examined the damage with grave concern. “You will have to change it, my love. Such a pity, for you have nothing else so smart. But not for the world would I have you present yourself in Berkeley Square in such a state. Perhaps the brown merino,” she went on doubtfully, “though skirts are worn longer now and trimmings are quite out—unless they are made of straw.” She stopped, recalling the presence of a stranger.

The stranger was listening with unaffected interest. If these two innocents imagined that the grey gown was in any sense fashionable they were sadly mistaken. The mention of Berkeley Square intrigued him, scarcely adding substance to the girl’s claim of insignificance, but perhaps she was a poor relation whom ‘Aunt Maria’ planned to launch into society with a view to establishing her creditably. He began to feel a little sorry for the wench. She might be impertinent, quick-tempered and lacking in proper conduct, but she wasn’t a bad sort of girl and had shown up well in emergency.

“And we are so late already,” she was saying. “If we stop at an inn for me to change my gown it will be quite dark before we reach Town. I daresay it will cost a good deal, too.”

Damon glanced round the post-chaise. To his knowlegeable eye it was plainly a hired vehicle, reasonably clean and comfortable but quite devoid of such refinements as curtains. “If I may make a suggestion,” he said courteously, “my coach, with the curtains drawn, would make an adequate tiring room. The rain has stopped. If you care for the scheme, the coach is at your service and the change of costume could be effected while you wait.”

Both ladies hesitated. It was a sensible suggestion and extremely kind of the gentleman. But the older lady felt that it savoured of impropriety and the younger one was oddly disinclined to accept a favour from one whom she had already designated in her own mind as ‘His Arrogance’. Their glances met—enquiry, doubt, pride, mingled. Never was such a transparent pair.

He said smoothly, “Since the damage was done while Miss”—he tilted his head enquiringly.

“Forester,” said the girl. “And this is my companion, Miss Hetherstone.” She had almost said governess. But that would be to assent to his placing of her in the schoolgirl category, and any way Barbie was Sue’s governess, had been this year past.

“My name is Skirlaugh,” bowed his lordship. “If you had not come to my aid, Miss Forester, you would not have spoiled your dress. Nor would that unfortunate animal be in such good case. It would ease my conscience a good deal if you would accept this trivial service by way of amends.”

The atmosphere definitely mellowed. Miss Hetherstone decided that he was most truly a gentleman. Miss Forester was softened by his tribute to her assistance. The exchange of vehicles was quickly effected while the rain obligingly held off. His lordship, keeping guard quite unnecessarily until the ladies emerged from the al fresco dressing room, decided that the brown merino, if not actually a disaster, put him strongly in mind of some ageing spinster engaged upon a mission of charity. Having expected nothing better he accepted it with fortitude, though his withers were, briefly, wrung for Aunt Maria.

Politely he ascertained Miss Forester’s exact direction in Berkeley Square and asked if he might do himself the honour of calling upon Mrs. Newton to enquire how her niece did after the unexpected rigours of her journey.

It was only when he had returned thankfully to the comfort and privacy of his own carriage that it occurred to him. These two chance-met females must have seen his disfiguring scars. Yet neither had displayed shock or disgust. Much could be set down to good breeding. But if the rest of his world treated him with a matching indifference, existence might be bearable after all. Certainly it was with a slight lifting of his spirits that he told Judd to “put ’em along a bit.”

 

THREE

Aunt Maria had
begun to grow quite anxious by the time the travellers at last presented themselves in Berkeley Square. She greeted them warmly, voluble in her relief that she would not now have to put dinner back, since nothing annoyed Uncle Matthew more, and concealing her dismay at the brown merino and the limp, crushed curls. “I was sorry to have missed you when your uncle and I paid such a very hurried visit to your dear parents last month,” she said kindly. “Your mama said you were visiting friends in Westerham. But it was the only day that your uncle could spare to go with me, so occupied as he has been ever since the peace negotiations began. I am sure we are all heartily glad that the war is over at last, but your poor uncle is kept busier than ever. Something to do with the rights of those dreadful colonists to fish off Newfoundland—though what that has to do with the war
or
the peace I’m sure no one could imagine. But there! There’s no understanding politics anyway, and I don’t know why I am boring on about such dull matters when I expect you are all agog to hear about my plans for introducing you into society.”

“Papa says that the fishing rights are just a sop to satisfy the Northern States,” offered Alethea obligingly. “The really important issues are the Western Territories and the Canadian frontier.”

Aunt Maria looked horrified. “My dear child! What can you possibly know about such things? I
do
hope you aren’t
blue!
It would be quite fatal I assure you. Young ladies are not expected to understand affairs of state, far less to speak of them with such confidence. Should you chance to fall into conversation with a gentleman who is interested in serious matters—which is most unlikely, since the younger gentlemen care only for sport or, perhaps, for the set of a coat or the nice arrangement of a neckcloth—then a pretty diffidence, an air of reverence for the greater understanding of the superior sex, is all that will be required of you. In this respect I would advise you to study your cousin. I daresay I am over partial, being her mama, but it is only simple truth to acknowledge that she has any number of admirers, of the highest ‘ton’. And
she
hasn’t the least notion of politics. So you see!”

At this point Miss Hetherstone hurriedly intervened, explaining that Mr. Forester had been deeply interested in the constitutional struggle so recently terminated, and had, in his own enthusiasm, carried his daughter perhaps a little out of her depth. “But I am sure, ma’am, that she would never put herself forward unbecomingly,” she added firmly.

Aunt Maria smiled indulgently. “I see that I shall have to show you how to go on,” she said. “A debutante in her first season must be
so
careful; her behaviour modest, without gaucherie; her dress exquisite but simple—white for evenings, of course—no vivid colours or extravagance of style.”

“Oh dear!” said her niece in accents of dismay.
“Must
it be white?”

“For your come-out, most certainly. Pale colours are permissible on other occasions. But until you have been given vouchers for Almack’s you cannot be too discreet. And one can never take that privilege for granted. Indeed I was in agonies lest Tina should be refused them last year. That dreadful riding habit that she bought, quite unknown to me! Quite wickedly becoming, of course, but
most
improper. Kit said even the horse was shocked. It tried to bolt with her. Just funning, you know. That is Kit Grayson—they are childhood friends. So fortunate that he was riding in the Park and was able to prevent an accident, though it would have been more useful if he had been able to dissuade her from choosing so unreliable a mount just because it matched her hair. But if she had been
seen!
Oh yes! Most certainly it must be white.”

Alethea, who had been trying to reconcile this somewhat elliptical account of her cousin’s conduct with Aunt Maria’s suggestion that she should model her own upon it, blinked at her in amazement, having quite lost track of the original argument. But Aunt Maria was already off again.

“I mean to give a small ball to introduce you into society. Rather a sober affair, I am afraid. But since you have no acquaintance in Town I judged it best to invite family parties—the members of my own intimate circle with their sons and daughters. As soon as you are suitably dressed I shall begin to take you about with me in a quiet sort of way—morning visits, you know, and walking in the Park. Perhaps one or two concerts and theatres, so that you will get to know people gradually and will not feel yourself surrounded by strangers when the time comes for your formal début. But the first thing is to buy you one or two dresses, for the one you are wearing she could restrain herself no longer—“is quite deplorable.”

Alethea looked guilty. She did not know quite how it had come about, but it so chanced that neither she nor Miss Hetherstone had mentioned the change of costume that had taken place on the way to Town. They had naturally spoken of the accident which was responsible for their tardy arrival, but somehow that final chapter of the story had not emerged. It was very easy, Alethea was already discovering, to keep silence on delicate subjects and permit Aunt Maria to do the talking. She seemed to have an inexhaustible flow of conversation that covered any awkward pauses. In any case, the grey travelling dress that had been so hastily bundled back into the portmanteau was hardly more likely to have earned her approval than the brown one. Both had been made by a village dressmaker with more regard to durability than to the dictates of fashion.

“Mama decided it would be foolish to have dresses made at home,” she said meekly. “Better to wait till I reached Town where I should have the benefit of your advice. She said I was a very lucky girl because you had such exquisite taste,” she added, half hoping that the compliment might soften her aunt’s attitude about white as the only possible colour for a debutante’s ball gown.

Aunt Maria accepted it as no more than her due. “I have always had an eye for line and colour,” she agreed complacently. “But in this case it is not so much a matter of choosing what best becomes you as of dressing in the accepted mode. Not but what your dresses will be pretty as well,” she encouraged. “Nothing, to be sure, could be quite as bad as
that ”
She nodded at the brown merino. “And I must say you are improved in looks since last I saw you. I don’t at all despair of being able to present you quite creditably.”

“But not in white,” said Alethea mournfully. “It makes me look haggard and sickly.”

Miss Hetherstone plucked up courage to add her timid protest to her charge’s. “Do not young girls sometimes wear pale pink or blue?” she ventured. “Alethea looks quite charmingly in pink.”

Mrs. Newton frowned. That was probably true, she thought. Her niece had the creamy skin that so often went with brown eyes and hair, a skin that was clear and smooth but lacked colour. The warmer tints which would lend a glow would undoubtedly be the most becoming to her. It was true, too, that many young girls wore pale colours. Unfortunately Tina, unlike most red-heads, looked quite ravishingly lovely in delicate shades of pink and wore them frequently. So it was manifestly impossible to permit Alethea to do so. Tina would be quite sufficiently displeased by the improvement in the girl’s looks since their last meeting. Alethea, then, had been a thin, solemn-eyed sixteen-year-old. Even now, no one was going to acclaim her as an undoubted beauty, but she had grown into quite a taking little thing, with a pretty smile and a really delicious figure—even in that hideous merino. To dress her in pink would undoubtedly provoke one of Tina’s worst tantrums. The very thought of it caused her parent to shudder violently, a manifestation that her respectful audience not unnaturally attributed to shock at their ignorant presumption.

Alethea sighed and abandoned the dream of a slender brown-haired girl in a shell-pink ball gown. “I didn’t mean to tease you, aunt,” she said penitently. “I will wear white if you think it best.”

Such prompt docility was quite foreign to Aunt Maria’s experience. “Dear child!” she murmured. “Always so sensible and so biddable! Clement and Verona are greatly blessed in their children. I was very happy to see Susan so careful of your dear Mama. And what is more, she bids fair to be quite charmingly pretty in a year or two. Which is a fortunate circumstance, since
she
can scarcely look to inherit a fortune as you did. But there! Your parents most particularly asked me not to speak of your circumstances and here I am running on about them already! Though I daresay it doesn’t signify, since it is all in the family,” she concluded, smiling very kindly at Miss Hetherstone.

“Susan will have quite a respectable portion,” said Alethea composedly. “When Papa explained that it was not within my power to share my inheritance with her, Mama and I put our heads together and agreed that since I was so amply provided for, it was only right that Mama’s money should all be settled on Sue instead of being divided between us as was her first intention.”

If Aunt Maria was startled at the notion of parents openly discussing such arrangements with their children, she was at least confirmed in her good opinion of her niece’s principles. Her eyes actually misted with sentimental tears, and she said impulsively, “You know, my love, I have been thinking that a soft shade of
cream
might be the thing for your ball dress. Not so harsh as dead white, yet quite acceptable, even to the highest sticklers. I have just the very shade in mind—the colour of cream that has set in the pan and shows golden in the folds as it wrinkles under the skimmer.”

This vivid word picture awoke enthusiasm in her listeners. When she went on to speak of a ruched overdress, its flounces caught up with knots of ribbon or tiny posies—perhaps cherry coloured—Alethea’s eyes shone, and the speaker was obviously carried away by her own creative artistry.

“Cherry colour is rather daring, of course,” she pondered happily, “but permissible, I think, if used with discretion.” And then stopped short, her mouth a little open, on her face an expression of arrested dismay. Her audience waited anxiously. Presently she said slowly, “But I don’t know if it will serve. A good deal depends on what Tina wishes to wear. If she chooses the green gauze, then cherry will do very well. But if it is the pink sarsenet”—she broke off, pleating her handkerchief between her fingers in nervous embarrassment; then said on a placatory note, “She is in her second season, you see, and so she may wear colours. And since she will be helping us to receive the guests it will not do for your gowns to clash. We will decide on cream for the dress, but cherry colour”—

The door of the saloon was roughly flung open. Miss Tina Newton whirled gaily into the room. Miss Hetherstone’s lips primmed in unconscious rebuke of the unceremonious arrival. Alethea glanced up eagerly, admiration writ plain in her expression. But Miss Newton did not appear to notice that her mama was not alone.

“Mama, Mama!” she exclaimed impetuously. “The most wonderful thing! You will never guess what I have just heard. Oh! It is beyond anything great. You must send to Madame Denise at once. I simply must have the new lilac silk for next Thursday’s theatre party. And I shall wear your amethyst set with it. Now don’t be saying it is too old for me, for I mean only to wear the necklet and
one
of the bracelets, and they, I am sure, will be just the thing. Especially the necklet, since
you
said the gown was cut too low.”

“My dear child,” said Mrs. Newton in tones of fond reproof. “What can you be thinking of? Do you not see that we have visitors? Here is your cousin arrived this hour past, and you not here to welcome her. And I do not think you have met Miss Hetherstone before.”

The animation faded from Tina’s face but she acknowledged the introduction politely and apologised for her casual behaviour,
turning to
Alethea to add, “And since my cousin is come to join our family I am sure she would not wish me to stand on ceremony. So stuffy and uncomfortable! The thing is, I had just learned that an old friend is back in Town and in my excitement I forgot everything else. Would you not like me to show you to your room so that you may change your travelling dress?” Her eyes ran thoughtfully over the brown merino. “I daresay Hetty will have unpacked for you by now. Mama, you
did
say Hetty was to wait upon my cousin, did you not?”

Mrs. Newton assented, and said that she herself would escort Miss Hetherstone to her room as she knew that the cousins must be longing to exchange girlish secrets.

If this was in fact the case, both young ladies showed commendable restraint, though Tina did, indeed, smother a giggle as they climbed the stairs, and to Alethea’s enquiring glance said lightly, “You served me well there, cousin. I have been trying to escape from Hetty’s watchful eye these six months past. In Town, you know, one mustn’t set foot out of doors without a maid or a chaperone in attendance. And Hetty is too vigilant by half. I can’t so much as say good morning to a gentleman in the Park but she must enquire into his respectability and wish to know where I met him. While as for exchanging a few harmless remarks in the library while I am choosing Mama’s books, she rings such a peal over me that you would think I was planning an elopement at the least. The trouble is that she was my nurse before she was my maid and she behaves as though I was still a child. But I don’t suppose she’ll put herself about over you. In any case you’ve no acquaintance in Town so it wouldn’t matter.”

The light contemptuous tone rankled. Only the recollection that she was a guest in her aunt’s house kept Alethea from unbecoming retort, so she was not particularly surprised to discover that the middle-aged abigail who awaited her bore no resemblance to the dragon of Tina’s description. She was a buxom, fresh-complexioned creature with pleasant grey eyes and a friendly smile who welcomed the stranger kindly and said that miss’s dotted muslin would be ready in a minute. She had begged Hebe, madam’s own maid to press it out for her, so crumpled as it was, and she herself anxious to finish the unpacking. “And who did your packing for you, miss, I can’t imagine,” she added severely. “As well have stirred your portmanteaux with a soup ladle. Never did I see such a mixter-maxter. While as for this”—she held up a stained grey dress—“I doubt if even I can make it wearable. Not but what”—she broke off in some confusion.

“Not but what it would be no great loss?” suggested Alethea, laughing. “You are very right! All my dresses are old fashioned. But Aunt Maria is to buy me an entire new wardrobe. So you may throw that one away with my very good will.”

Hetty looked suitably shocked at such reckless extravagance though she was privately of the opinion that most of the dresses she had unpacked deserved no better treatment. She was curious, too, to discover the tale that lay behind the hasty, inexpert packing and a bloodstained gown. She eyed Miss Forester’s candid, laughing countenance and ventured to probe the mystery a little further.

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