Authors: Patricia Veryan
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and best of sons-in-law
The breeze came up soon after noon, brisk and cool, to dance with the treetops and hurry the fluffy white clouds in their journey across the deep blue serenity of the sky. The sunlight kissed the waves with palest gold, sparkling against the long spread of sapphire that was Loch Ness set amid the emerald of field and hill and backed by rugged crags and hills that rose to the distant masses of the mountains. Far down the Great Glen, the solemn might of ruined Urquhart Castle jutted into the cold waters, and the mountain of Mealfuarvonie, lofty and impervious, kept watch over all. A sight, surely, to gladden the heart of any Scot; to awaken feelings of
joie de vivre
or inspire poetic thoughts on the beauties of creation.
The horse that followed the road, however, came not at a leisured pace, but at the gallop. The rider, leaning forward in the saddle, her dark blue habit billowing in the wind, the long feather in her broad-brimmed hat drawn out of curl by the speed of her progress, saw none of the rural delights, her concentration bent upon weightier matters. Having quite outdistanced her two attendant grooms, she left the hated road General Wade had built to help put down the Highlands and turned into a narrow lane leading down towards the water where the tower of a large house could be seen above a fine stand of trees. The girl rode on through sun-dappled woods to emerge onto broad, neatly scythed lawns and gain a full view of the thick-walled grey stone manor house and the structure beside it that had caused many guests to halt in astonishment: a good-sized pyramid.
The headlong approach of the horse brought a gardener to his feet. He waved and shouted a greeting. The girl waved back, but did not slow her mount until she reached the house, at the last moment pulling back on the reins so that the pretty mare snorted and danced at the foot of the steps.
A groom came running. “Whisht, Miss Prue! Will it be more trouble, then?”
Prudence MacTavish leaned to be lifted down. “Not for us, praise God,” she said, a smile brightening her heart-shaped face. “Jamie MacDougall's safe away, thanks to Ligun Doone!”
The groom let out a whoop and tossed his bonnet in the air. “Long life and happiness tae the mon! He's a magician!”
Prudence grinned, took up her train with an impatient hand, and started to the steps.
The groom called, “The MacTavish isnae alone, miss.”
She checked momentarily, glancing back at him, then hurried on. It would likely be old Duncan MacKie on his way home from Inverness and stopping to rail against Butcher Cumberland and his murderers. Or Sir Matthew Garry, his grey whiskers bristling with wrath because of the edict against the wearing of Highland dress.
Prudence hurried into the main hall and gave her hat and gloves to the footman who came to take them and remark with a hint of disapproval that the master was in the book room “wi' a guest.” That meant someone less comfortable than family or old friends, but unwilling to go upstairs to tidy her hair or put off her riding habit, Prudence crossed to the golden mirror that hung on one wall and peered at herself.
The gallop had brought roses into her cheeks, and her powdered hair made her slightly tanned skin seem the darker by contrast. âBlowsy!' she thought disparagingly and scanned her features without pleasure. Despite the fact that her hair was a light golden-red, she was the fortunate possessor of dark brows and lashes. With the latter she could find no fault, for they curled upward in a thick fringe about her deep blue eyes, but her brows were inclined to be peaked rather than arching, and, although well-defined, were too thick. Her cheekbones failed to please, for they were not as finely etched and dainty as she would have liked, and her nose had a slight upward tilt at the end rather than being classically straight and thin. Her mouth she had to admit was nicely curved, but rather too wide, and her chin was firm and undimpled. It was a young face, for she had just turned nineteen, and it was comely enough, as many a Scots lad had told her, but she admired the pale fragility that was the current mode, wherefore her red lips tightened, and, âBlowsy!' she thought again.
She coaxed her ringlets into some semblance of order, tidied her habit, and turned towards the rear of the house and the book room.
It was a charming old house and, although fortified in the style of the earlier tower houses, had a quiet elegance that managed also to be welcoming and comfortable. The entrance hall was large and impressive with rich wainscoting from floor to ceiling. The portrait of a handsome young Scot in full Highland regalia hung defiantly above the great hearth on the east wall, and towards the rear of the room a fine staircase rose to the upper floors.
Prudence noted in some surprise that several valises and portmanteaux were piled neatly at the foot of the stairs, and she stared at them, wondering why her father had neglected to inform her that they were to entertain company. A smile crept into her eyes. How foolish to expect the MacTavish to follow a logical pattern. Amiable but absent-minded, he had likely decided this morning that he must tell his daughter of the imminent arrival of some friend or scientist, but long before he started down to the breakfast parlour his thoughts would have gone winging off to some dig in Egypt, or to the lecture he was to deliver at Edinburgh next month.
She would scold him, she decided, but gently. And then she would have to see if their housekeeper, the redoubtable Mrs. Cairn, must be placated.
The east hall was quiet, the sunbeams slanting peacefully through the open door of the main dining room and laying a shadowy outline of the latticed windows upon the pegged oak floors. The book room was also quiet, and Prudence went in, glad to find her father alone after all.
James MacTavish looked what he was: a gentle intellectual trapped in a savage world. He was a lean gentleman of middle height, with greying fair hair and rather myopic blue eyes, and a tendency to postpone anything that did not concern his preoccupation with archaeology. Just now he was standing behind his desk, frowning down at a letter he held, but he looked up as the door opened and smiled at his daughter. “Prudence, m'dear,” he began.
“I've the most splendid news, Papa,” she interrupted exuberantly. “The filthy Sassenachs were not able to drag Jamie MacDougall to his death! He's safely away, thanks to Liâ” She checked, warned by her father's slight frown and the small but cautionary lift of one hand.
“We've a guest, Prue,” he said in his mild voice. “Thaddeus, may I present my daughter?” He walked out from behind the desk as he spoke and, following his gaze, Prudence closed the half-opened door and discovered an elegant gentleman standing beyond it. “Prudence,” went on MacTavish, “this is Lord Thaddeus Briley.”
Frightened, and repenting her besetting sin of impulsiveness, Prudence sank into a curtsey. With a graceful flourish of his lace-trimmed handkerchief, his lordship bowed. As he straightened, her eyes swept him in a rapid appraisal. He looked to be about thirty-two or three. His features were even but unremarkable, his complexion light, his height average. Upon his head he wore the latest style of French wig, and a small patch graced his right cheekbone. His slender form was enclosed in a magnificently cut coat of dull gold velvet, the great cuffs and the pockets heavy with gold braid. A richly embroidered brown waistcoat, immaculate breeches of gold satin, cream-coloured stockings with golden clocks, and high-heeled brown shoes with topaz buckles completed his attire. Prudence thought, âGood heavens! The creature is a dandy!'
Correctly interpreting the scorn in her lovely eyes, his lordship said apologetically, “I'dâer, not meant to hide from you, Mith MacTavith. I wath admiring thith oil. Your father told me you painted it.” He smiled tentatively. It was a singularly charming smile, and Prudence noted belatedly that he had very fine eyes of an unusual tawny shade, but she thought, âHe is not only a dandy, but also an Englishman! And he has chosen his colours to match his eyes! Sickening!' Her smile should have deposited a film of ice upon his elegance. She said, “How do you do, sir? My apologies, Papa. I'd not meant to intrude. I shall leave you.” She turned to go but, struck by a sudden terrible thought, enquired, “Does his lordship stay with us, sir?”
Her face was a betraying mirror of her emotions, and amusement came into Briley's tawny eyes. Mr. MacTavish, however, looked unwontedly stern. “That pleasure,” he said, “is denied us.”
Prudence stared at him, taken aback by his obvious censure over her manner towards this enemy.
His lordship vouchsafed with shy earnestness, “Brought a friend here, ma'am. But he won't be no trouble, do atthure you. Very good kind of fellow.”
Prudence looked uncertainly to her father. “Aâfriend, Papa?”
“Yes, my dear. A friend of your brother's.”
Her eyes lit up. “Ah! He'll be a Scot, then.”
MacTavish glanced apologetically at Lord Briley. “Captain Delacourt is ill, I regret to say. I assure you, my lord, that he will be made comfortable here, despite”âhe fixed his daughter with a grim lookâ“despite appearances to the contrary.”
Prudence flushed, curtseyed, mumbled an incoherent apology, and fled, all too aware that, as usual, she had behaved in a gauche, ill-mannered way. Lord Briley was a dandified Englishman, but he was acquainted with her brother and her father, besides being a guest under their roof, and twice she had embarrassed him. She went disconsolately to the stairs, sighing over her clumsiness.
A wiry-looking individual a few years on the light side of forty was gathering up the last two valises. He put down his burdens when he saw Prudence approaching, and bowed respectfully. His scratch wig slipped a little, and he clapped a bony hand to straighten it.
“Good day,” said Prudence pleasantly, for the servant could not help it if his master was a slimy Sassenach. “I am Miss MacTavish. Are you in the service of our guest?”