Read In the Commodore's Hands Online

Authors: Mary Nichols

Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance

In the Commodore's Hands (9 page)

‘He is a true gentleman, even if he is a little dour, but that is not to be wondered at. Mr Roker tells me he lost his wife some three years ago and has been bringing up his children alone.’

‘Yes, so he told me, but I think his parents help him. They are a very close family, I believe.’

‘Not close enough if they can banish a good man like Sir John and never want anything more to do with him.’

‘They are no worse than Mama’s kin, are they?’

‘It was her ladyship’s choice and she did have your father and you children to console her. Sir John had no one.’

‘True, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Sir John is going home and we are the ones to be exiled.’

‘What are we going to do?’

‘I do not know. Once Papa is well, we shall have to find somewhere to live and I think I must earn a living.’

‘Earn a living!’ the old lady gasped. ‘What is the world coming to when ladies have to soil their hands with work?’

Lisette smiled. ‘If I have to, I have to. Now I am going to join the Commodore, Sir John and Lieutenant Sandford for supper. I will wear the blue taffeta with the quilted stomacher and matching shawl.’

She stripped and washed and donned the blue taffeta, then Hortense combed the knots out of her hair and tied it back with blue ribbon.

‘There,’ she said, fastening a string of pearls about her neck. ‘That will do. I feel civilised again. Will you make sure Papa has some supper?’

‘Of course. I will have mine with him and stay until he goes to sleep. You go and enjoy yourself. After what you have been through in the last two days, you deserve it.’

Lisette found her way to the mess, smiling to herself at the thought of enjoying herself. She was not going to some grand ball, but a simple supper with a man whose presence unsettled her.

He was already in the mess when she arrived,
talking to Lieutenant Sandford and his grandfather. Sir John was dressed in a suit of amber-coloured silk and the lieutenant in dark blue, but although Jay had changed his shirt and breeches, he still wore no coat. They all turned to bow to her and Jay hurried forwards to show her to a seat at the refectory table. ‘I regret I cannot yet get into a coat, Miss Giradet,’ he said. ‘I pray you to excuse me.’

‘Of course.’

The mess steward came in, carrying tureens of food which looked and smelled delicious. Lisette suddenly realised how hungry she was and set to with a hearty appetite. But they could not eat in silence; it behoved her to begin a conversation.

‘It is a lovely night,’ she said. ‘The stars are so clear. I had no trouble picking out some of the constellations.’

‘You know something of the stars, ma’am?’ the lieutenant asked.

‘A little. My father used to point them out to me when we went voyaging. I learned to recognise the Great Bear and Orion and the Pleiades. And of course the North Star.’ She paused, watching Jay struggling to cut up his food. ‘Let me help you,’ she said, taking his knife and fork
from him. She cut up the meat and potatoes and handed the implements back to him.

‘Thank you,’ he said.

She laughed. ‘It makes a change for you to say that to me. Until now the gratitude has all been on one side. I hope you will call on me again if you need help.’

‘His greatest need is to get into a coat,’ Sir John said, chuckling. ‘No one seems able to help him with that.’

‘I shall be able to do so tomorrow,’ Jay said stiffly. ‘If Sam had not bound me up so tight, I might have been able to dress properly this evening.’

‘I expect it was necessary,’ Lisette said.

‘Of course it was,’ Sir John agreed. ‘He was bleeding like a stuck pig.’

‘Grandfather,’ Jay admonished him. ‘I do not think that is something the lady wants to hear. Shall we change the subject?’

‘Tell me about Highbeck,’ Lisette said quickly. She did not want to be the cause of dissension between the two men.

‘Highbeck is a small village on the borders of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk,’ Jay said. ‘It is only a few miles from Downham Market and not far from the city of Ely, which has a fine cathedral. In the other direction is the port
of Lynn, which is where we shall dock in two days’ time, given fair weather.’

‘And Blackfen Manor?’

‘That is where my mother grew up and where she and my father have lived ever since their marriage. It is a substantial Tudor house with a moat and a drawbridge. The surrounding countryside is arable farmland and fen, hence its name. It is very lovely. I and my siblings grew up there and since we have had our own homes, visit often. I am sure you will like it.’

‘It sounds idyllic. How far from there do you live?’

‘Only five miles. I have a small estate and a house at Falsham. Until my wife died I was often at sea and it was managed by a steward, but since then I have stayed at home and looked after it myself. I felt the children needed me.’

‘Do you miss the sea?’

‘Sometimes I do. I come from a long line of sailors. My father was a sea captain before he married Mama and took to country living, and my grandfather was a vice-admiral. My younger brother is at present serving in the navy as a first lieutenant.’

‘No doubt this short voyage has brought it all back. Our little escapade has perhaps been unsettling.’

‘I shall soon settle down again.’

She smiled. ‘From sailor to farmer.’

‘Yes.’ He had been perfectly open, but now his expression seemed to close up as if she had hit a nerve.

‘I look forward to learning more of the country,’ she said, then turned to Lieutenant Sandford. ‘What about you, Lieutenant, do you come from a long line of seafarers?’

‘No, Miss Giradet, I am the first.’

She had narrowly managed to avoid annoying Jay again and the conversation became more general. At the end of the meal, she left them to their port and brandy and retired to her cabin. It had been an excessively long and tiring day, but all was well and tonight she thought she might sleep.

The men did not stay drinking for long. Though he was loathe to admit it, Jay was exhausted and his injured arm was giving him hell. He went to his cabin and to bed.

He could have done nothing else but invite the Count and his daughter to Highbeck. The old man was in no state to look after himself and though Lisette was bearing up well he knew she was feeling the strain of all that had happened in the last few weeks; he could not leave
them to struggle on alone. His mother would be appalled at such callousness, even though she understood how the very name of Wentworth was burned in his brain. There was a wound there which would never heal. Thank goodness he could retire to Falsham, his duty done.

Chapter Five

T
wo days later they docked at Lynn, on the north coast of The Wash, and Lisette and her father set foot on English soil, Lisette for the first time, her father for the first time for many years. No one knew when they were arriving, so Jay arranged onward transport for them. Public coaches plied frequently between Lynn and Ely, but it was not a practical way when there were six of them and a fair amount of luggage. They could go post-chaise, but it would need two coaches to take them all. It was Sam who suggested going by river. Boats were as easily hired as coaches; it was the accepted means of transport in the fens. And so it was that Lisette and her father made their slow progress in a barge towed by a big black horse.

While the Comte and Sir John rested below deck, Lisette sat on the roof of the tiny cabin and watched the landscape glide past. It was flat and watery and there were a great many seabirds and waterfowl flying in and feeding on the marshy ground before taking off again in great clouds. As the vessel made its way upstream, the marshes gave way to pasture grazed by cattle.

‘Until the draining of the fens over a hundred years ago, much of what you can see was frequently under water,’ Jay said, coming to sit beside her. His arm was only lightly bandaged now and no longer in a sling. He could wear his coat. ‘But now it is good fertile land.’

‘It is so flat. You can see for miles and there is so much sky. I had not realised there could be so many colours in the clouds: blue, white, pink, mauve, fiery red and orange, and all shades of grey from pale dove to nearly black.’

‘The black line is a rain cloud, but it is several miles away. The orange and red denote wind and that might very well blow the black cloud in this direction and we shall have squalls, but perhaps not before we arrive at the Manor.’ He smiled. ‘It is a landscape you either love or hate.’

‘And you love it.’

‘Yes, to me it is home. When I was away at sea, it was here I always dreamed of returning.’

‘But some of that must have been due to your family being here.’

‘Oh, undoubtedly.’

‘It must be lovely to have a family,’ she said a little wistfully. ‘I have only Papa and Michel.’

‘But you have an English family.’

‘I do not count them. They never counted us.’

‘So, you will not consider applying to them?’

‘No. There is no need. Papa and I can manage. I only agreed to come here with you in order for him to regain his strength. You need not worry that we will be a burden to your parents any longer than we can help.’

‘Nothing was further from my thoughts,’ he said. ‘Pray, do not be so touchy.’

‘I am sorry. It is not your fault.’ There she was, having to apologise to him again for the sharpness of her tongue. Whatever was the matter with her?

‘I know you will be welcome, my mother said so before I left for France and my grandfather looks on you as a granddaughter, he told me so.’ He gave her a wry smile. ‘Does that make us cousins or something?’

‘You are very forgiving.’

‘There is nothing to forgive. You have been
through a terrible time in the last few weeks and especially recently, it is a wonder you are as calm as you are. Some young ladies would have become gibbering idiots. I am full of admiration for your courage and resourcefulness.’

‘Thank you. I could say the same of you.’

He chuckled. ‘You are not going to start thanking me again, are you?’

Oh, dear, he had not forgotten that impulsive kiss. Would he go on reminding her of it as long as they lived? ‘It goes without saying,’ she said.

They fell silent for a few moments and when he spoke again it was to talk about England and the fens and to ask what she would like to do to pass the time while she was at Highbeck. ‘There are riding horses and boats to use for exploring the countryside and fen,’ he said. ‘And you could go sightseeing in Ely. I am sure Sam would drive you in.’

It was then she remembered he had his own home a few miles distant and would not be at Highbeck to keep reminding her of her indiscretion. She should have been glad of that, but somehow the realisation left her feeling flat. ‘Perhaps when Papa is better and can come too.’

The barge took them all the way to the staithe in Highbeck village, which was within easy
walking distance of Blackfen Manor, but Jay sent Sam ahead to fetch the gig to convey the Comte who was still too weak to walk far. In that way those at the Manor were warned of their imminent arrival and Lord and Lady Drymore were waiting at the door as the little cavalcade crossed the drawbridge over the moat and into the enclosed courtyard.

Lisette helped her father from the gig and they stood to one side as Jay was embraced by Lady Drymore. ‘Oh, I am so thankful you are safely back,’ she said. ‘We have been on tenterhooks the whole time and I was wishing I had never asked you to go, except of course, Papa is here now.’ She turned to Sir John. ‘You are welcome home, Papa,’ she said, holding him at arm’s length to look at him.

‘And I am glad to be here. Home at last. And you do not look a year older.’

‘Nonsense, I am over thirty years older.’ She laughed and turned towards the Comte and Lisette. ‘Are you going to introduce us?’

‘To be sure. Amy, my dear, this is my good friend Comte Gervais Giradet and his daughter, Lisette.’

Lady Drymore approached them, smiling. ‘You are very welcome,’ she said as the Comte bowed stiffly and Lisette dipped into a deep
curtsy. ‘I long to hear all your adventures, but not until you have been shown to your rooms and rested after your travels. You must be exhausted.’

There were shrieks of delight as two children ran from the house and hurled themselves into Jay’s arms. ‘Papa! Papa! You are back.’

He hugged them and put them from him. ‘Now, be good, for I have someone I want you to meet.’ He turned to his grandfather. ‘This is your great-grandfather, your grandmama’s father. Give him your best greeting.’ They dutifully obeyed, Edward bowing and saying, ‘How do you do’, while Anne gave him a wobbly curtsy. ‘And this is Comte Giradet and Miss Giradet.’ Shyly they repeated their greeting and were sent back to their governess.

‘Let us all go indoors,’ Lord Drymore said as the first few spots of rain pattered on the cobbles. He ushered them into a huge baronial hall lined with pictures, from which a wide staircase went up to a galleried landing. It was evidently the centre of the house, for doors led off in three directions. James preceded them into one and bade them be seated.

While they waited for refreshments to be brought, Lisette gazed about her. The room was large and furnished in a mixture of blackened
old Tudor furniture and more up-to-date sofas, chairs and tables. There were pictures on the walls, some of the countryside, some portraits, and there were shelves displaying ornaments. It was so very different from what she had been used to at the château, with its carefully arranged rooms and tiled floors. Here the floors were of polished oak planks, as shiny and dark as the heavy oak settles and chests which stood on them. She suspected the thick walls and the presence of the moat which surrounded the house made it cold, even in summer, because a bright fire burned in the huge grate. It hissed a little as the rain came down the wide chimney on to the hot coals.

She became aware that Jay was telling his parents about the rescue, though he was carefully playing down the danger. ‘I knew you would welcome the Comte and Miss Giradet,’ he finished. ‘At the moment they have not formulated any plans for the future.’

‘Nor need they,’ Amy said, then, turning to the Count, added, ‘You have been through a terrible ordeal, sir, and need to regain your strength. I insist you stay here until you are fully recovered.’

‘I thank you, my lady.’ His voice was weak and even those few words, spoken in English
with a strong French accent, seemed an effort to utter.

‘I fear we are tiring you with our chatter,’ Amy went on. ‘If you prefer to go to your room and have supper brought to you there, it can soon be arranged.’

‘Yes, I would, my lady,’ he said. ‘Perhaps tomorrow I will feel more the thing.’

A servant was delegated to help him, then Sir John said that he would like to retire too. ‘I know we have a great deal of catching up to do,’ he told his daughter. ‘But there will be time enough for that tomorrow.’

‘And the next day and the next.’ Amy laughed. ‘And all the days after that. Go to bed, Papa dear. It is good to have you under our roof again.’

‘And in happier circumstances,’ James added.

‘We will not talk of that,’ Amy admonished him. ‘Not ever. It is a closed book.’

Sir John rose. He was not as fragile in health as the Count, but nevertheless was an old man and moved slowly. Another manservant was allocated to act as his valet and he was helped from the room, leaving Lisette alone to dine with Lord and Lady Drymore and Jay.

She rose and was shown to a bedchamber
where Hortense was already unpacking and sorting out her clothes, grumbling that she had so few she might as well be a pauper. Nevertheless a green-sack dress in a heavy taffeta with a laced stomacher and ruffled sleeves was found for her. Lisette washed off the grime of travel and was helped into it. Before returning downstairs she went to make sure her father was comfortable. He was already fast asleep. She crept from the room and joined Jay and his parents who had changed and were waiting for her in the salon.

‘Tell us about France, Miss Giradet,’ Lady Drymore said when they had taken their places at the table in the oak-panelled dining room and were being served with a substantial meal, which was surprising since the newcomers had not been expected. ‘Is it very dreadful?’

‘I do not know what it to become of the country,’ Lisette answered. ‘The population is divided among Revolutionaries and counter-Revolutionaries and there are daily riots and skirmishes. There is a man called Henri Canard in Honfleur who leads the Revolutionaries there. It was he who arrested my father. He was determined to have him tried and sentenced to death. If it had not been for your son, he would
have succeeded. We are both in the Commodore’s debt.’

‘We will have no more of your constant gratitude,’ Jay said. ‘I was there to bring my grandfather out too, remember.’

‘What was your father accused of?’ Lord Drymore asked, handing round a dish of turbot in a white sauce.

‘I don’t know—they do not need much evidence, or indeed any at all, to throw a man in prison.’

‘I did hear that Canard has a grudge against your family,’ Jay said. ‘Something to do with your great-grandfather and his grandfather. Do you know anything about that?’

‘No, nothing. Who told you of it?’

‘Sam heard it from the prison guards.’

‘Rumour,’ she said. ‘Idle gossip. Until these troubles my father was universally liked and respected and he will be again when it is all over.’

‘I pray you are right,’ Lord Drymore said.

‘Amen to that,’ added his wife, then went on. ‘Tell us about your family. You have a brother, I believe.’

‘Yes. He is in the service of King Louis. There is some talk of putting the King on trial, although I do not see how they can do that, do you?’

‘We did it,’ Jay said drily. ‘Over a century
ago. The Parliamentarians beheaded Charles the First.’

‘We won’t go into that,’ his mother said. ‘Do go on, Miss Giradet.’

‘Please, will you call me Lisette? I feel I know you so well already and just lately in France we have abolished titles. We are all calling each other
citoyen
and
citoyeness
now. It is hateful.’

‘Lisette, a pretty name,’ Amy said. ‘What will happen to your brother if the King is put on trial?’

‘I hope he will have the sense and opportunity to leave the country. He could join us in England and we could make a new life together. I mean to write to him and suggest it.’

‘I believe you have relations in England.’

‘Yes, but we do not correspond. They did not approve of my mother marrying my father.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because Papa was so much older than Mama and only a French Comte, while Mama’s father was an English Earl.’

‘An Earl!’ Amy said in surprise. ‘But that means you are well connected. It could open doors for you.’

‘I think not.’

‘Mama,’ Jay put in quietly, ‘Miss Giradet’s grandfather was the late Earl Wentworth.’

‘But that’s…’ she began and stopped.

‘Yes, Mama, but it is of no consequence. Pray, do not go on.’

Lisette looked from one to the other in puzzlement. Jay’s face was stony, his eyes had become hard and she noticed his hand was gripping his fork so tightly, the knuckles were white. The name Wentworth meant something to him, something he did not want to talk about. It left her curious, but not daring to ask.

‘I have a few jewels and a little gold in coin,’ she said. ‘They will last me a little while and then I could earn some money translating and teaching English. There must be French people wanting to learn.’

‘Indeed there are,’ Lord Drymore said. His wife was looking at Jay in consternation and Jay was pretending to concentrate on the fish on his plate. ‘I am sure we can introduce you to some. Even out here in the countryside, there are
émigrés
and their families. The children in particular need to speak English if they are to live here.’ He chuckled softly. ‘And it would not do my grandchildren any harm to learn French. You have already met two of them and there are four more. Would you undertake that?’

‘Gladly. It will help pay for my keep.’

‘That is not why I suggested it.’

‘No, but it is why I accept.’

‘Sir,’ Jay put in. ‘My children have a governess who teaches them.’

‘Miss Corton’s French is atrocious,’ his lordship said. ‘Even I can do better than that. Let Miss…Lisette teach them properly. You never know, Edward might want to enter the diplomatic service when he is older, and as for Anne, knowledge of French is always a good accomplishment for a lady.’

‘Edward will very likely go into the navy.’

‘So he might and a facility in languages will still be an advantage. I cannot think why you are so against it, Jay. What would you have Lisette think of her kind offer?’

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