Authors: Anne Ashley
âAh, but you see, my lord, you would maintain your own distinctive style,' she argued, clearly not ready to admit defeat quite yet, âeven if you were ever to adhere to the Beau's strict rules governing male attire.'
âNow, there's a thought!' he remarked, no longer prepared to dismiss the suggestion out of hand. âIt might be amusing, at that, to offer the young dandy some serious competition. I shall consider it. And now, if you're ready, we shall repair to the west wing, where you may cast your eyes over my private apartments.' He slanted a half-mocking glance down at her, which contained an element of a challenging gleam. âUnless, of course, you'd rather not?'
âWhy should I not wish to, sir?' She appeared genuinely nonplussed. âYou've never given me reason to mistrust you. In truth, I cannot think of anyone I trust more.'
He was all at once serious. âIn that case, I earnestly hope, my child, that I never give you any reason to alter your high opinion of me.'
hat his lordship had expected to happen sooner rather than later occurred the following day. Brindle informed him, shortly after breakfast, that Georgie had complained of feeling not quite the thing and had remained in bed, having succumbed to a suspected chill. His lordship didn't hesitate to endorse this course of action, suggesting also that it would be best for all concerned if the child was allowed time to recover in the privacy of his own room. Furthermore, Georgie was not to be disturbed, except on those occasions when meals were taken up to him. After all, it wouldn't do for the rest of the staff to contract the malady, he had added artfully.
Feeling he had done all he could to ensure Georgie had as much privacy as possible, his lordship took himself off to the library in order to deal with urgent estate matters. Unfortunately it swiftly became clear that he just wasn't in the mood to concentrate.
Rising from his desk, he went to stand before the window and stared out across the acreage of majestic
parkland that surrounded the house. Usually the sight never failed to stir him; today he was hardly conscious of its natural beauty. His mind was fixed on that being alone in one of the smaller and much less impressive bedchambers in the east wing.
He supposed it ought to have offered him immense satisfaction to have had this further proof that his judgement was sound: Georgie had not run away from home because of a foolish indiscretion and was not carrying another man's child; she was indeed the innocent he had always believed her to be. Strangely, though, it brought scant consolation. If anything her having to endure the monthly curse only went to substantiate his belief that their somewhat unorthodox situation couldn't possibly continue for very much longer.
With a feeling of deep regret, he returned to his desk and, before he could experience second thoughts, penned a missive to his sister-in-law, requesting she call upon him at her earliest convenience. The servant despatched to deliver the letter by hand duly returned with a reply. It was from Lady Eleanor Fincham's housekeeper, who had written to inform his lordship that she expected her mistress to be away from home until the following week. The Viscount didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed. At least, though, he had been granted a little more time to enjoy the companionship of his unique page.
Once Georgie had emerged from her bedchamber, after the customary number of days, he wasted not a precious moment of the limited time left to him to enjoy the singular and poignant relationship he had experienced with this very special young person. Had he considered her a typical member of her sex, it might
have occurred to him to suggest a visit to the local town, where they might explore the more fashionable shops that had sprung up in recent years in the thriving community; since she was a most unconventional member of the weaker sex, he suggested, instead, a visit to the trout stream so that they might enjoy a morning's pleasant relaxation, a suggestion she heartily embraced.
It quickly became apparent that she was no novice with a rod. Half-a-dozen fine specimens were soon safely contained in the fishing basket and two more rapidly followed. Well satisfied with the bumper catch, his lordship set rod aside and lay down on the grass, happy to relax in the pleasant warmth of the early June sunshine.
âIt goes without saying, Georgie,' he remarked, opening one eye to see her deposit yet another meaty specimen in the basket, âthat you have enjoyed this pastime on many occasions before. I trust you were not indulging in any unlawful practices?'
She chuckled at this. âAssuredly not! I had my godfather's full permission. In fact, on numerous occasions he came with me.'
Indeed, he mused. Then it was perhaps safe to assume this godfather of hers had been a man of propertyâinteresting, but not wholly surprising.
Before he could enquire further into the identity of this unknown worthy who had evidently been a real and, he very much suspected, beneficial influence in her life, she touched upon his own skills with a rod. âI expect you spent much time here in your youth with your elder brother.'
âWe did sometimes fish together,' he acknowledged. âMore often than not, though, I used to come down here
with Charles Gingham. He was a frequent visitor to the house back then, in the heady days of our youth.'
Evidently she had detected the hint of melancholy in his voice, for she regarded him keenly. âBut he doesn't visit so often now, and quite naturally you are sad about that. But then, he wouldn't, of course. He's married, and has other responsibilities.' She continued to regard him in a thoughtful way. âI believe I'm correct in saying he married a Frenchwoman, a girl you saved on the occasion you both went over to France to rescue Mr Gingham's cousin?'
He slanted a look of reproach in her direction. âI very much fear, Georgie, my boy, that you are guilty of the sin of listening to servants' gossip. You should be ashamed of yourself!'
Clearly unrepentant, she gurgled with mirth, and then, abandoning further attempts to catch more fish, sat companionably beside him on the bank. âYou forget, my lord, I am a servant. It's only natural, therefore, that I should enjoy the society prevailing below stairs.'
âYou may well do so, child,' he returned abruptly, âat least the novelty of it. But you'll never be one of their number.'
Again she glanced at him sharply, only this time there was an element of wariness in her regard, before she hurriedly returned to the subject of his jaunt across the Channel, requesting a more detailed account.
As always with her he was of a mind to be indulgent, even though he did sigh. âThere's very little to tell, Georgie. Many years ago, long before you were born, one of Charles's aunts married a Frenchman. After the Terror had begun, news reached Charles that the family was in trouble. By the time we arrived in France both his aunt and the Frenchman she had married had been
executed. However, their only son, Henri Durand, was being held, awaiting trialâha, if you can call it that!âin a town some thirty miles west of Paris. The prison there was little more than a moderately fortified house. Adopting various stratagems, and with the help of a few sympathetic local peasants, we managed to break in. There were only two prisoners being held at the time in the cellars: Henri and a young girl, Louise Charvet, who was little more than a child.
âHer parents had not been aristocrats, merely wealthy. But that was sufficient inducement for corrupt local officials to trump up charges against them, and claim all property and possessions for the state. Louise's father, having guessed what was coming, had the foresight to bury the family jewels, together with a considerable amount of gold coinage, in a chest in the garden, where he hoped to retrieve it once he had completed arrangements to get his family safely across to England. Unfortunately they were all taken into custody before he could effect the escape.
âCharvet had had the foresight to tell his wife and children where he had hidden the loot, and Charles, under cover of darkness, spirited Louise back to her home in order to retrieve the family coffers. Meanwhile, I accompanied Henri to a certain French village on the coast and arranged for a fishing vessel to take us back across the Channel. Charles and Louise arrived two days later, and we all returned to England without having to contend with further difficulties, except perhaps a touch of seasickness.' He shuddered at the memory. âIt was a rough crossing, as I recall.'
Anyone listening to the recital might have been forgiven for supposing Lord Fincham had been recounting nothing of more moment than a pleasant Sunday
afternoon jaunt in a park, so deliberately matter of fact had he sounded about it all. Consequently, it came as no very real surprise, when he happened to glance up in a certain someone's direction, to find himself being regarded with no little amusement.
âIt is little wonder you didn't plan a return visit, my lord. It sounds as though you had a devilish dull time of it all!' Finely arching black brows adopted a decidedly mocking slant. âAs I'm fairly certain you'll not satisfy my curiosity by relating a more detailed account of what took place, would you at least satisfy my curiosity over what became of Henriâ¦? Louise, I know, married your friend.'
âBut not immediately,' he willingly revealed. âAs I mentioned, when rescued she'd just turned sixteen, could only just make herself understood in English and had no family connections living in this country, not even distant ones. So Charles took it upon himself to place her in the care of his mother, who still resides with him, as it happens.
âIf my memory serves me correctly,' he continued, after taking a moment to gather his thoughts, âCharles came into a sizeable property around that time, left to him by his uncle on his father's side. As Charles much prefers life in the country, he sold the London home his late father had acquired years before, and removed, with his mother, to the property a few miles south of Deerhampton. So it was quite in order for him to install little Louise in his newly acquired home.'
He smiled reminiscently. âI think it would be true to say that thoughts of romance didn't enter either of their heads, at least not at the beginning. Indeed, at first Louise looked upon him as an indulgent older brother. Sadly, she lost both of hers to Madame Guil
lotine. Young girls grow up quite quickly, however, and not too many years had passed before Louise viewed Charles quite differently.'
Again his lordship smiled. âCertainly I gained the distinct impression as the years went by that the relationship between the pair was changing. But, unlike me, Charles is a very noble fellow. Instead of whisking his beloved down the aisle without further ado, he proposed a Season in town so that she might experience the company of other young men. Being something of an expert where precious gems are concerned, he had persuaded her to retain certain items of jewellery they'd brought over from France, and sell other pieces, so that she might invest the money in order to offer a prospective husband a reasonable dowry. She'd been more than happy to allow him to deal with money matters. But being a sensible young Frenchwoman she had no intention of wasting any of his on the needless expense of a Season, when she had already decided upon the gentleman she wished to wed. Charles's mother, of course, was delighted. She'd come to look upon Louise as the daughter she had never been blessed with. So as you can imagine, my dear Georgie, with the new arrival, it is undoubtedly an extremely happy household indeed!'
Typically female, she appeared very well pleased to learn this, then asked, âAnd what of Cousin Henriâ¦? What became of him?'
âAh! That, my dear, is not such an edifying tale. He, sadly, turned out to be something of a wastrel. He hoped Charles would support him so that he might continue to live as he had in France. He soon realised his mistake. Charles did indeed support Henri financially for very many months in the hope that his cousin might find some useful occupation. Sadly, it was not to be, and so
Charles withdrew his support. Although I have had no contact with him for several years, I believe Henri is still accepted on the very fringes of society. Just how he's managed to support himself down the years, I have no notion, but I'd wager whatever he's been doing could not withstand close scrutiny.'
âWell, at least life improved for one of the exiles,' Georgie remarked, before a sound caught her attention and she turned to see a carriage making its way along the drive. âYou appear to have a visitor, my lord.'
The Viscount half-expected it to be his sister-in-law paying the call in response to his letter, and didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed when he recognised the conveyance as that belonging to his nearest neighbour.
âNow, what the deuce can he want, I wonder?' his lordship muttered testily, experiencing a touch of irritation as he got to his feet. He'd enjoyed an extremely relaxing morning, and was loath to bring it to an end. âUnless I'm much mistaken, child, that's Squire Wyndham. I'd best see what he wants, if only to maintain cordial relations.'
After collecting the rods himself, his lordship automatically grasped one handle of the basket so that they might carry it back to the house together. It never occurred to him for a moment to consider that his actions might be viewed as rather odd in some quarters. Certainly the young footman, despatched hotfoot from the house to inform Lord Fincham there was a visitor awaiting him, betrayed no surprise whatsoever as he relieved his master of his share of the burden. It was only after his lordship had entered the front parlour that he was made aware of his slight solecism.
âDo you know, Fincham, it's rather bad form to
employ servants, then do the bally work yourself! Gives the lazy blighters ideas above their station, don't you know?'
His lordship paused in the act of filling two glasses. Clearly his return to the house had been viewed from the window. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the squire to mind his own business, but then he thought better of it. Sir Frederick could be a bluff, self-opinionated so-and-so on occasions, but there was no real malice in him. Relations between them had always been cordial enough, and Lord Fincham preferred to keep it that way.
âWe enjoyed an exceptionally profitable morning down at the trout stream. Consequently the basket was heavy. I hope I never become too high in the instep to carry my own rod, and lend a helping hand when neededâ¦ And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, Wyndham?' he added, after handing the squire his wine.
âOh, nothing in particular, m'boy. Heard you were back and thought to pop across to see how you're faring. Haven't seen much of you at all this year.' He took a moment to sample his wine. âThought to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. It was my little Mary's birthday last week and I bought her a dapple-grey mare. She wanted to try it out, so I said she might ride over this way. Hope you don't object? Said they might skirt the home wood and meet me here. Her elder sister's with her, and our groom, of course. Didn't want her about on the roads until she'd got the measure of her new mount. She lacks her sister's confidence in the saddle.'