Authors: The Bath Eccentric’s Son
The Bath Eccentric’s Son
To Tom Sawyer for the frame.
To Lady Peel for the gilded edging.
URDERING HIM IS OUT
of the question, I suppose,” Lady Flavia Bradbourne said wistfully as she straightened the frothy lace cap perched atop her snow-white curls. A thin little woman dressed in a wide-skirted gown fashionable twenty years before, she sat in one of the two armchairs flanking the drawing-room hearth, well out of the way of drafts from the tall, narrow windows, her tiny feet propped on a tapestry stool.
“My dear ma’am!” Petite, auburn-haired Nell Bradbourne, her dark-blue eyes alight with unaccustomed laughter, turned from the window through which she had been contemplating the serenity of Laura Place with its gently-spraying central fountain, and the broad, deserted, rain-dampened length of Great Pulteney Street beyond. Her great-aunt’s tone, as much as the words themselves, having successfully distracted her from the brown study into which she had fallen during a pause in their conversation, she shook her head in fond reproval. “You cannot mean it.”
“I suppose you are right, but your father’s cousin Jarvis seems to be no better than his own sire, and that generation of Bradbournes was sadly lacking, I fear, though the worst anyone ever said of your papa—until last year, at all events—was that he was bringing an abbey to a grange and had no sense. Jarvis now … Well, all I can say of him is that if the world would be better without him …” She paused significantly.
Nell choked back a gurgle of laughter. “No, no, Aunt Flavia. You know that that was not at all what I meant when I said I should prefer the world with him out of it. I shan’t deny that I haven’t wished from time to time that I might make him disappear in a puff of smoke, or that—”
“Oh, I daresay it would not be so easy as that,” Lady Flavia said, twinkling, “and poison will not do, for I cannot imagine how one might prevail upon him to ingest it. Nasty tasting stuff, it must be, for one cannot expect to be so fortunate as to come by one of those mysterious, unnoticeable Oriental poisons one so frequently encounters in Gothic romances, particularly when one does not know a single mysterious Oriental person from whom one might acquire such a thing. But wait.” She held up a hand with the index finger extended for a brief, thoughtful moment before adding, “I believe Sydney Saint-Denis, up on Bathwick Hill, has an Oriental servant. Perhaps he might—”
Nell’s laughter could no longer be contained. “Aunt, will you be serious for a moment,” she implored when she could speak. “We must think of a solution far more practical than murder.”
“But, my dear,” Lady Flavia protested, “though I may have suggested murder only to make you laugh, you cannot call it impractical. Not with everything in such a tangle, what with your father’s losing Highgate in that idiotic wager, and then your brother’s duel, and the tragedy that followed. You even suspect that Jarvis had a hand in Nigel’s trouble, if not in your father’s death, so if he now believes the only way to salvage your reputation from the ashes of theirs is to ally yourself with him, you must know you will never convince him otherwise.”
“I know nothing of the kind, ma’am. Indeed, I do not doubt that he will cease to plague me the moment he discovers that I have sunk myself so low as to seek genteel employment.”
Lady Flavia stiffened in her chair, and her right foot began to tap irritably upon the footstool, beating time to the cadence of her words as she said, “I take leave to remind you, Nell, that that is simply not to be thought of! What would people think?”
“But surely, dear ma’am, they would think even less of a murderess,” Nell responded in a teasing tone.
“They would never know,” her ladyship said tartly, “and goodness knows, ladies of quite the highest quality have been known to do such things before now—even queens, I believe—though they do
seek employment, Nell, genteel or otherwise. Oh, I know I have been talking nonsense, but if you should do such a thing, and in Bath, of all places, people will think perfectly dreadful things.”
“Only that I have not got sixpence in my pocket, which is no more than the truth,” Nell said with a sigh. Then, seeing that her aunt was truly distressed and only too ready to continue the argument they had had over and over since Nell’s arrival in Bath four days before, she stepped impulsively toward the old lady, kneeling beside her chair and taking one of the thin hands firmly between her own. It trembled a little, but when she squeezed it, the squeeze was returned. “Aunt Flavia,” she said gently, “what can it matter what people think? If I do not care—”
“Then I suppose I am not to care either,” Lady Flavia interjected. “Well, and perhaps I would not if I believed you will not. But you will, my dear, you will! Oh, and I would, too, if I were such a zany as to allow you to attempt to earn your living. You were not brought up to it, Nell, any more than I was. Your father was only a baron, of course, and began life as a younger son, for that matter, but your mother was from an excellent family, just as I am, and there is nothing really amiss with the Bradbournes that a little ambition could not cure. Ah, if only Robert and I had been blessed with children!” She lapsed into a brief reverie, but then, giving herself a shake, she added sharply, “To pretend you do not care what people say—What a farradiddle! If you did not care, then why did you come here? Why did you not simply stay at Highgate and let Jarvis frank you as he wished to do? Surely he never asked you to leave.”
“Indeed, and you know he did not.” Nell bit her lower lip. “He was all consideration, as only he can be, but when he enters a room, one feels somehow as though a snake has slithered in. I do not know how it is, for to own the truth, he has treated me only with kindness, but even while he remained at Crosshill, one frequently felt his frustration that my papa and not his had inherited the seat of the Bradbournes. When he informed me of his intention of removing to Highgate, pretending to be doing so out of a sense of duty, I could not bear to remain there.”
“I cannot think,” Lady Flavia said, “how, with his fine notions of propriety, he expected to move in with you without ruining your reputation. One must suppose he intended to force you to accept his hand.”
“Well, of course he did, ma’am, but it would surprise you to hear how easily, when he sets his mind to do a thing, he is able to explain how it is really the only thing to do. In this case, however, he said only that it was his duty to protect me and also to be near at hand to restore Highgate to its former glory. He talks like that, Aunt Flavia. It quite shrivels one’s liver.”
Lady Flavia smiled at hearing such an expression on Nell’s lips, but said, “You know, dear, I have been thinking about all this, and I cannot think why he waited nearly seven months.”
“Well, he told me straight off that he had decided to marry me, as though he meant the news to comfort me, but he explained that he did not want to cause more talk than there was already by arranging our marriage while I was in deep mourning, so we would wait until I came of age. I daresay the truth was that he had realized there would be some difficulty about consent and supposed that with Papa dead and Nigel heaven-knows-where, the matter would arrange itself more neatly if he waited. And, too,” she added on a bitter note, “no doubt he thought to give me time to realize that no one else would step forward to protect me.”
“He might have thought I would,” Lady Flavia said pensively.
“If you will forgive me for saying so, ma’am, since you did not offer to bring me out when I turned eighteen, despite the fact that we had been corresponding for years, Jarvis might be excused for discounting you. Oh, you had never given me cause to expect such a thing of you, but Papa did,” she added when Lady Flavia frowned, “and I daresay Jarvis will guess that I have found sanctuary with you now, for there is no one else.”
“Sanctuary, indeed,” the old lady snapped. “I am very glad you came to me, Nell, but how you can speak of sanctuary when you mean to cut up all my peace by going out to seek work as a housemaid, I cannot imagine!”
“I have no intention of seeking such a lowly position. Indeed, I doubt I should be any good at it. However, I must say, ma’am, that while I will do nothing a-purpose to distress you, I have seen enough here since my arrival to know that a little extra money in this house would not come amiss.”
“But you refuse to consider what people will say,” Lady Flavia repeated more urgently. “It simply is not to be thought of that the grand-niece of Lady Flavia Bradbourne should seek employment. Indeed, since you are known to be my heiress, Nell, we must thank heaven that your father’s passing renders my taking you about to parties quite ineligible, for otherwise people would be like to think I ought to be doing so.” She leaned forward a little in her chair and said earnestly, “We will sign your name in the Master of Ceremonies’ book, of course, for it would be thought extremely odd if we did not, but you must be sure to continue to wear your half-mourning, my dear.”
“You may be sure that I shall, ma’am,” Nell said dryly, looking down at her pretty dove-gray-muslin afternoon frock, “for although Jarvis insisted that, as a Bradbourne, I be fully rigged out in mourning clothes cut according to the latest fashion, I fear my other dresses would not impress anyone in Bath.”
“Oh, my poor dear,” Lady Flavia said, squeezing her hand again. “I am so sorry.”
“Well, you need not be.” Nell’s eyes narrowed. “Look here, Aunt Flavia, though you have rather neatly turned the subject, I cannot allow you to put me off again. Even had I come here intending to hang on your sleeve, which I did not, I must very soon have begun to wonder if you could comfortably support me. To be sure, you live in this wonderful house, and the furnishings in this room and in the hall and dining room are as fine and elegant as any I have ever seen. But most of the other rooms are much more sparsely furnished, and several are as bare as can be. Moreover, although the first meal we shared was excellent, the ones we have had had since then … Well, not to put too fine a point on it, ma’am, they have been distressingly meager.”
“You see, my dear,” Lady Flavia said in the tone of one making a confession, “I did not know at first how long you meant to stay, and it is one’s habit, of course, to feed one’s guests as lavishly as one reasonably can.”
“Then it is as I had begun to suspect, and you are not nearly as wealthy as I had been given to believe. I did not quite like to ask you about it before, but why did you not tell us long ago how things have been with you?”
“Goodness me, why should I? That one occasionally must eat soup instead of roast partridge is nothing, but to suffer the pity of one’s friends would be prodigiously uncomfortable, and to endure the contempt of those who are not one’s friends, utterly unbearable. Life is much more pleasant, I assure you, as the wealthy Lady Flavia Bradbourne than it would be for a common old woman living in genteel poverty. Moreover, if by ‘us,’ you mean I ought to have told your father, why, he had more than enough debts of his own without adding any of mine.”
“Dear Aunt, what sort of debts have you got?”
“Not debts precisely, or not in the way you mean them—only to the greengrocer, the butcher, the chandler, and others of their ilk. Nothing to signify.” An airy wave of Lady Flavia’s hand dismissed these trivialities even as she sighed and said, “’Tis only that the bills appear to increase, even when one sends a bit on account from time to time. It is beyond comprehension.”
“But, surely, ma’am, this cannot go on.”
“I do not know why it should not,” Lady Flavia replied placidly. “It has been going on for years, since prices began increasing so outrageously during the French war. One’s income does not increase, you know. Not, at all events, when one lives on a widow’s jointure. Indeed, it seems to decrease, for it does not buy near so much now as it did fifteen or twenty years ago.”