Read 65 A Heart Is Stolen Online
Authors: Barbara Cartland
Ten days after Britain had signed peace with France in 1802, she began to disarm at an almost indecent speed. While Bonaparte continued to maintain vast armaments and to replenish his empty dockyards, Great Britain disbanded the Volunteers and halved her Army. Lord St. Vincent, the First Sea Lord used his immense prestige to secure drastic economies in Naval administration and within a few months forty thousand sailors were discharged and hundreds of experienced Officers relegated to half pay.
While every ship needed repairs after a long war, dockyard heads were dismissed, contracts with private yards withdrawn and surplus stores sold off – in some cases to French agents.
But such optimism was short-lived. On 18
May 1803 Britain was forced, once again, to declare war on France. Fortunately the war Napoleon had wanted and intended had come too soon. By forcing the issue before his Navy was ready, the English regained half the ground they had lost in the peace.
All through the centuries an Admiral took his own servants to sea, usually his valet, his chef and his first footman to wait on him at meals. He paid them himself. It was not until 1914 that the Admiralty ordered that these servants should wear uniform and be put on the Naval payroll.
The Marquis of Veryan woke and had the uncomfortable feeling that he should not have been asleep.
Then he was aware that his head was throbbing and he had a dry bitterness in his mouth and remembered that last night he had imbibed too freely.
It was something that, unlike his contemporaries, he seldom did, but it had been an extremely entertaining evening and his friends had been toasting his very successful season on the turf.
It was a toast he was obliged to reply to and the wine, which he had chosen himself, had been exceptional.
Now he thought with almost a groan that he would have to pay for his enjoyment and was aware as he did so that he recognised the room he was in, but it was not his own.
It was then that he heard a slight snore and turned his head – a movement that hurt him – to see that Rose was lying beside him and that she was still asleep.
He found himself looking at her and something stirred in his memory but at the same time remained irritatingly elusive.
It was something she had said – what was it?
As he looked at her now, he realised that she did not look her best, nor was her beauty at this moment at all ‘Goddess-like’, which was the way he and every other man in the party had extolled it last night at dinner.
Now the mascara from her long eyelashes had run onto her cheeks and the crimson of her lips, which had seemed irresistibly inviting had smudged onto her chin.
She snored again. It was only a very slight snore, but still a snore and the Marquis turned his head from his contemplation of her to look up at the ruched satin of the four-poster over his head.
Now he remembered what he had been trying to recall and it came to him almost with the force of a thunderbolt.
“You will marry me, dearest Justin?” Rose had said to him and he could not remember his reply.
He only knew that elated by the champagne and claret he had been drinking all evening and by the fact that she had surrendered after what had been not a long but definitely an arduous pursuit on his part, he was not responsible for whatever it was he had said.
Lady Rose Caterham had been the toast of St. James’s and voted the ‘Incomparable of Incomparables’ among the bucks and beaux for the last two years.
Her husband had been killed in the war and as a widow she had dazzled the Social world that centred around the Prince Regent. The prestige of her successive lovers had increased until finally she had caught the Marquis.
It had been no mean achievement for, while he was known to be the protector of the most desirable and expensive ‘Fashionable Impures’, after remaining more or less faithful to the intelligent Lady Melbourne for many years, he had declared himself uninterested in the Social beauties.
He thought the majority of them were too pretentious and too artificial for his liking and found the frankness and the easy-going habits of ballet dancers or women of the calibre of Harriet Wilson much more to his taste.
Lady Rose had been determined to get the better of him and had used every allure and fascination in her repertoire, which was considerable, to entice and enslave the Marquis.
But she had been clever enough not to allow his conquest to be too easy.
She had given him ‘a run for his money’ as the Marquis had described it to himself and he had enjoyed the chase even while he knew the inevitable end only too well.
Perhaps he was being singularly obtuse, but it had never actually struck him that Lady Rose wanted him not as a lover but as a husband.
The idea of marrying her had never so much as entered his mind. In fact marriage, as far as he was concerned, was a subject so far removed from reality that he never discussed it except with his relatives.
Then it was only the older members of the family who took him to task for not providing an heir to inherit his vast possessions.
Now with a sense almost of horror he remembered Rose’s lips seductively near to his saying,
“You will marry me, dearest Justin?” and he had no idea what he had answered.
He turned his head once again to look at her and knew as he did so that the attraction she had had for him was over.
He had a sudden revulsion for her, a feeling he had experienced before in his life and which he remembered had extremely unpleasant repercussions, involving tears, tantrums and scenes that he loathed and detested, but which never, however traumatic, forced him to change his mind.
‘I am no longer interested in Lady Rose Caterham.’
It was almost as if someone said the words aloud and they impinged sharply on his brain, telling him he had to do something about it.
Very very gently, moving with the suppleness of a man whose body was trained to obey his will, the Marquis slipped out of bed.
Picking up his robe from where he had flung it on an adjacent chair, he walked with the stealth and quietness of a Red Indian across the thickly carpeted floor towards the door.
Then he glanced back at the bed to see if his departure had disturbed the sleeping woman.
To his relief she had not moved since he left her and again he could hear the slight snore, although now it was barely audible.
He managed to open the door without making any noise and, stepping out into the passage, he closed it again without a sound.
Then he hurried towards his own bedroom.
As he did so, he looked down into the great marble hall and realised that the light of the rising sun was shining at the sides of the curtains as it had done in Rose’s bedroom and he guessed from the strength of it that it must be well after four o’clock.
There was only one tired footman in the carved and padded chair provided for those who had to endure the long hours of the night on duty.
The Marquis knew that at exactly five o’clock the household would be awake and the maidservants and the under-footmen would swarm from the back premises to start cleaning and tidying the mess that he and his friends had made the night before.
There would be a large number of wine-stained crystal glasses, some of them broken, empty decanters, wine coolers in which the ice would have melted and soft cushions that had been creased and thrown about.
Perhaps there would also be a satin slipper to be retrieved, a forgotten diamond earring and maybe even a crumpled cravat or two.
It was difficult for the Marquis to recall what actually had happened. He only knew it had been one of the rowdiest parties he had given for some time and now he regretted the fact that it had encroached on the dignity and beauty of his ancestral home.
He reached his bedroom more acutely conscious of his aching head than he had been before and decided what he needed was a cold bath.
His first action when he entered his bedroom, which was an extremely impressive chamber where his father and his grandfather had slept before him, was to jerk the bell that rang in his valet’s room.
Then he pulled back the curtains to stand at the window looking out on the lake below him and beyond it at the Park with its ancient oak trees around which the early morning mist was swirling, looking almost like dancing nymphs.
The sky was translucent above the first radiance of the sun and there were still one or two wayward stars to be seen in the rapidly receding sable of the night.
It was time, the Marquis thought, when everything was silent and still and had a strange magical beauty that always stirred him with its promise of a new day.
Then he told himself sharply he had something more important to think about and that was Rose.
Now he was concentrating fiercely in an attempt to remember what he had replied to her plea that he should marry her.
Could he have been fool enough to have agreed to do so?
He was aware that she had spoken when desire was burning through him like a flame and a man might say anything and he could not help suspecting that she had chosen her moment well and carefully.
She had known exactly what she was about, while inflamed by her beauty and half-drugged by the wine, he was not completely in control of his brain or himself.
‘I could not have been so foolish – or could I?’ the Marquis asked.
As he asked the question, the door behind him opened and his valet came into the room.
“You rang, my Lord?”
The valet spoke with no indication in his voice that there was anything unusual about being awoken so early, which was actually the truth.
He was a wiry little man who had been with the Marquis ever since he became old enough to have a valet and who tended to him with a mixture of adoration and the protective severity of an anxious nanny.
“Stop fussing over me, Hawkins,” the Marquis would say time after time.
But he knew that Hawkins was essential to his comfort and he too had an affection for the little man that was different from his feelings for any other servant he employed.
“I want a cold bath,” he said now.
“I thought you might, my Lord,” Hawkins said laconically. “In fact I prepared it for you last night.”
He opened a door leading off the bedroom into a small room which, in the Marquis’s father’s time, had been used as a powder closet.
It contained a large bath that took an abnormal amount of hot water, which had to be carried upstairs in brass cans by stalwart young footmen, but which was now three-quarters full of cold.
The valet glanced around the small room to see that a large enveloping Turkish towel was laid over a chair, that the Marquis’s soap and flannel were handy and the bath mat emblazoned with the family crest was in its place. Then he said,
“Everything’s ready for your Lordship.”
The Marquis did not reply, but merely pulled off his robe, handed it to Hawkins as he walked past him and climbed into the bath.
As he always took cold baths in the spring and summer, it did not give him the shock it would have done to a softer-living man.
His athletic body, which he kept slim from hours of riding obstreperous, often half-broken horses, was merely stimulated and invigorated by the water into which he also dipped his face and the whole of his head.
As he pulled himself out, he already felt better, but the question as to what he should do about Lady Rose seemed more insistent.
Suddenly the words of his Commanding Officer when he first went into the Regiment came to him,
“Only a fool is not ready to retreat in the face of an overwhelming or unconquerable enemy. To do so, in certain circumstances, is not cowardice but common sense.”
‘That is what I must do,’ the Marquis told himself, ‘retreat!’
Still rubbing himself dry with the towel he called through the open door,
“What is the hour, Hawkins?”
“Just on five o’clock, my Lord.”
“Go and wake Sir Anthony and tell him I want to speak to him.”
“Very good, my Lord.”
As Hawkins went to obey his instructions, the Marquis thought that, if Anthony was not back in his room by this time, he should be.
He had obviously last night been enamoured of a very pretty woman whose husband had unavoidably been prevented from joining the house party.
The Marquis had wondered a little vaguely, because he was not really interested in anybody’s love affairs but his own, if it was not a possibility that Lord Bicester, who was notorious for cadging off his friends to pay his gambling debts, might be using Anthony, who was ‘warm in the pocket’ to bail him out.
It would not be the first time that his pretty wife had been useful in providing him with funds to continue gaming, although such an unpleasant and ominous word as ‘blackmail’ was never mentioned.
Then the Marquis thought that Anthony could look after himself. At the same time, as it was his house and his party, he supposed that he was, in a way, responsible for what happened at it.
Anyway, he wanted simply to ask Anthony what his feelings were when he told him his own plans.