Authors: Anne Ashley
âOf course I don't object,' his lordship didn't hesitate to assure his visitor. He then wandered across to the
window himself in time to catch sight of Georgie, yet again, heading out across the park in the general direction of the home wood, the ever-faithful Ronan at her heels this time.
As there was no possibility, of course, of his accompanying her, he set himself the task of entertaining his visitor and joined him by the hearth. Sir Frederick was always a mine of local gossip. Not much went on in the locale that he didn't get to hear about eventually, and so his lordship was soon being kept abreast of events.
âAnd your sister-in-law's away at the moment, so I've heard, Fincham?'
He confirmed it with a nod of his head. âBeen staying with her mother for a few weeks, so I understand. I'm reliably informed she should be returning any day now.'
âWell, I hope to God she ain't carrying a load of jewels with her,' the squire responded gruffly. âSeen the paper today, Finchamâ¦? Only another robbery taken place on the King's highway. Some famous pearls were taken this time. That's the third this year, that I know of! It's high time something was done about all these robberies. It's getting so it ain't safe to travel any great distance any longer!'
âWhose pearls, I wonder?' his lordship murmured, moderately interested. âI was up and about rather early this morning, so haven't had a chance to glance at the journal. Was anybody hurt, do you know?'
Sir Frederick shook his head. âNot that I know of, no.'
âThen whoever it was fared rather better than poor Grenville earlier in the year. He lost his life, you may recall.'
âYes, a bad business, a very bad business. Didn't
know him personally. Don't spend a lot of time in the capital, as you know. Was he a particular friend of yours, Fincham?'
âI wouldn't go as far as to say that, no. But I certainly knew him well. He was a member of my club, so we bumped into each other from time to time, as you can imagine.' He frowned as a recent memory returned. âI was reminded of him only the other week. When I first heard about his death I suppose I felt it was damned bad luck to be travelling at the time, but now, after this most recent attackâ¦ It certainly makes one wonder. Several people, myself included, knew he would be taking the famous Grenville diamonds back to his country home. He'd brought them to London with him for some reason or other, though I cannot now recall why.'
It was at this point that his lordship detected a raised female voice in the hall, and so wasn't unduly surprised when, a moment later, the squire's elder daughter burst into the room. One glance was sufficient to assure him all was far from well. For once she was not perfectly groomed. Numerous strands of fair hair were hanging wildly down her back, and her face, clearly tear-stained, was streaked with grime. Throwing herself into her father's arms, she began crying anew rather noisily.
âMy dear child, whatever's amiss?'
It was only natural that the squire should be concerned. His lordship, on the other hand, was less convinced by the renewed bout of weeping. Perhaps it was his innate scepticism where the fair sex was concerned that was coming into play, for it seemed to him as though the display was rather theatrical.
âItâit was one of Lord Fincham's servants, Papa,' she at last revealed in a pathetically throbbing voice. âMary permitted me to ride her new mare, you see, and
I was trying to persuade the creature to ford a shallow stream by his lordship's home wood, when this horrid boy appeared from nowhere, and hauled me from the saddle, calling me all sorts of terrible names, and even threatening to use the crop on me. IâI was so frightened.'
With the exception of one stable lad, and two of the head gardener's underlings, only one of his lordship's employees might be described as a boy. Yet, something about the account just didn't ring true. Georgie was quite capable of losing her temper on occasions and wasn't afraid to speak her mind. But going out of her way to interfere in matters that were none of her concernâ¦? No, his lordship decided, she wouldn't do that. Not unless there was a very good reason for her to do so.
âAnd where, may I ask, was the groom engaged to protect you all this time?' the Viscount enquired, while the squire appeared as if he were attempting to suppress an explosion of wrath.
This point, however, did succeed in capturing his interest. âYes, by gad! Where was he, Clarissa? Why didn't he protect you?'
âWell, Papa, he tried his best to do so,' she answered, staring up at him through damp lashes, âonly the boy had a fearsome dog with him that growled so loudly we all thought it might attack.'
âBy heavens, Fincham! The whelp deserves a sound thrashing!'
âAh, but which one?' his lordship returned. âThe boy or the dog? The bond between them has become much stronger than even I had supposed.'
This distinct lack of sympathy for his daughter's recent ordeal, understandably enough, didn't commend
itself to the doting parent, whose face turned a more virulent shade of purple.
âConfound it, sir! Do you consider this a matter for levity, for I tell you plainly I do not! Had I been there at the time, I would have taken the skin of the boy's back!'
âThen it is most fortunate for you that you were not there,' his lordship returned in an ominously quiet tone. âHad you laid so much as a finger on my page, you would have had me to contend with.'
For a few moments it seemed as though the squire was incapable of uttering a coherent word. Then he managed to say in an astonished tone, âAre you trying to tell me, sir, that you approve your servant's behaviour?'
âNot at all,' the Viscount was swift to assure. âBut neither do I mete out punishment without discovering all the facts. You may be sure I shall not let matters rest and shall question my page at some length. And now, Wyndham, I would suggest you take your daughter home, for she is looking decidedly pale now. I'm sure she will recover her spirits more quickly in her mother's care.'
After ringing for his butler and requesting him to show his visitors out, his lordship awaited the servant's return at the window. From where he stood he could see part of the perimeter to the home wood, but, alas, no sign of Georgie.
âHas my page returned to the house, Brindle, do you happen to know?' he asked, after detecting the click of the door.
âNot to my knowledge, my lord. I haven't seen him since he brought the fish into the house. Might I be permitted to say a very fine catch, sir. Cook is delighted.'
The praise, far from giving his lordship pleasure,
gave rise to a pang of sadness, for he knew there would be no further fishing expeditions. The incident in the home woodâand he was sure something must have occurredâhad forced him to acknowledge that even here on the estate Georgie's well-being could not be assured. Her disguise, far from protecting her, left her open to a different form of abuse. Sir Frederick might well have vented his spleen in a display of physical violence had he happened along at the time, as might any other over-protective father. Only by confining her to the house could he ever hope to ensure her complete safety, and he could never see her tamely submitting to that kind of treatment for any length of time. Nevertheless, until he could find the courage to confront her, to reveal what he had known from the first, he would need to resort to just such a tactic.
âWhen he does return, Brindle, you are to order him to his room, where he is to remain until I send for him. Is that clear?'
A moment's silence, then, âVery good, my lord. The steward is here and is awaiting you in the library.'
âInform him that I shall join him presently.'
The afternoon was well advanced before his lordship had finished dealing with matters relating to the estate. No sooner had the steward departed than he was informed that Sir Frederick Wyndham had surprisingly made a return call, and had been patiently awaiting his lordship's pleasure in the front parlour. For a second or two it did cross the Viscount's mind to refuse to see him, but then, in an attempt to maintain the cordial relationship, he thought better of it.
Given that the squire had left that morning in high
dudgeon, his lordship was rather surprised to see him enter the library appearing somewhat chastened.
âIt's no good beating about the bush, Fincham,' he announced, more like his usual bluff self. âI'm here to apologise on my daughter Clarissa's behalf, and sincerely hope you didn't take my advice where that young servant of yours is concerned. Now, I'm not saying he oughtn't to mind his manners when dealing with his bettersâ¦but, well, from what my little Mary tells me, he wasn't as high-handed as my elder daughter would have had us believe. In fact, the young fellow saw Mary safely back home after Clarissa had ridden off, taking the groom with her. So what I say is we should forget about the whole business.'
Leaning back in his chair, his lordship regarded his visitor in amused silence for a moment. âYou have the advantage of me, Wyndham,' he admitted. âI have yet to question my page about the incident. Before I do so, I am curious to know your younger daughter's version of events.'
The squire once again appeared decidedly ill at ease and began to beat a tattoo on the desk top with his fingertips. His lordship, however, refused to ease his visitor's obvious discomfiture by announcing that no more need be said. Seemingly something in his expression betrayed his determination to have his curiosity satisfied, for eventually Sir Frederick ceased his fidgeting and leaned back in his chair.
âOh, very well, Fincham. According to what Mary tells me, Clarissa was fretting to ride the new mare. Being a good-natured gel, Mary agreed, and they exchanged mounts. Apparently Clarissa then attempted to ford the stream on the outskirts of the wood, but
the mare would have none of it and refused to go into the water. It was at this point Clarissa had recourse to her crop.'
He sighed, clearly not approving his elder daughter's behaviour. âThat mare is a good-natured creature. I chose her myself. But I suppose it was only to be expected that she would take exception to the over-use of a crop and succeeded in unseating Clarissa, which was no mean feat, as she is a competent horsewoman. It was at this point your lad arrived on the scene.'
Again he sighed. âApparently it was he who succeeded in calming the mare. Wonderful he was with her, according to Mary. But no sooner had he soothed the creature than Clarissaâconfound her!âdemanded to remount. Mary refused permission, but I'm afraid my elder daughter can be headstrong on occasions. Taking Mary's part, the lad intervened again and pushed Clarissa away. She stumbled over a tree root or some such and then ordered my groom to intercede on her behalf.'
âWithout much success, I seem to recall,' his lordship remarked, smiling faintly. âMy dog Ronan has become inordinately fond of that child, Wyndham. These past weeks they have become inseparable.'
âAh, well, my lord, only naturalâa boy and his dog, eh, what?'
âA boy and his dog,' his lordship repeated. âYes, quite! But getting back to the unfortunate incident.' He raised one dark brow in a quizzical arch. âI assume it was at this juncture that Clarissa, forced to admit defeat, headed here with the groom, leaving Mary with only my ill-mannered servant and a vicious hound to bear her company?'
The inference was clear and the squire had the grace to look a little shamefaced. âWell, as to that, my lordâ¦
Mary assures me the lad behaved with the utmost propriety towards her. He succeeded again in calming the mare and mounting her himself to prove to my daughter that the horse was not in the least ill natured if treated with kindness. He handled the animal beautifully from what Mary tells me. And took to the side-saddle as though born to it!'
His lordship rolled his eyes ceilingwards. âBelieve me, Wyndham, that child has abilities that would astound you!'
âWell, as to that, my lord, I couldn't say. All I do know is the boy was decent enough to help Mary remount, and walked with her all the way back to the house, so that she got her confidence back with the mare. Now, I call that dashed decent of the young fellow! And I shouldn't like the boy to be punished in any way for what took place.'
His lordship, suddenly serious, stared sombrely down at his desk. âBe assured, Wyndham, I've already decided on what action must be taken with regard to my page. Wielding a birch rod, however, does not enter into it.'
As he spoke his lordship wandered over to the bell pull, and waited for the summons to be answered before bidding his visitor a final farewell. âWhen you have shown Sir Frederick out, Brindle,' he said, âbe good enough to instruct Georgie to attend me here in the library.'
Left alone once more, his lordship returned to the desk in order to finish a letter he had begun earlier. He had completed the task and was sealing the missive with a wafer when Brindle finally returned with a letter in his own hand.
âI'm sorry, my lord. Georgie doesn't appear to be
anywhere in the house, but the maid did find this on the pillow in the room.'
Reaching out a hand that was surprisingly steady, considering he suddenly viewed the missive as a portent of doom, his lordship saw that the communication was addressed formally to him in stylishly sloping characters. It was with rapidly increasing foreboding that he broke the seal to read:
It is with the deepest regret that I must write this, but the time has finally come for me to leave you. I sincerely hope that what occurred earlier in the home wood has not vexed you or caused you embarrassment. What you said to me earlier today is all too trueâmy nature being what it is, I should never make a respectful servant. My one regret is that I didn't make my farewells in person. Maybe, however, it is better this way.
I shall never forget you, my lord, nor your many kindnesses to me during these past few short weeks. I take with me only what I brought into your house. And so many precious memories of having known you.
May God keep you safe always,