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Authors: Mira Stables

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And when at last they emerged to stroll in the sunshine, she heaved a big sigh and said, “It’s all very beautiful and romantic, but I think I like the gardens best. And I’m glad I’m just an ordinary girl living in modern times. This place has seen too much of tragedy and suffering. It’s oppressive—almost as if King Henry brought a curse on it when he stole it from his friend, for it seems as though no one since his day has known lasting happiness here.”

“My dear girl! You mustn’t talk about kings stealing things in these royal precincts,” protested Damon, laughing. “It’s practically treason! King Henry would have had off your head in an instant. His Majesty was graciously pleased to accept the place as a
gift
. Come! Stop brooding over past sorrows or I shall regret bringing you. Let us see if you can find your way to the centre of King William’s maze.
That
will give your thoughts a more cheerful direction.”

His prescription had precisely the desired effect. It was a laughing girl who finally emerged from the maze, a little untidy as to hair, to find Marianne awaiting them.

“I saw your making for the Wilderness, so I guessed where you would be,” she explained. “Aunt Emily dropped off to sleep, but I daresay she will have roused again by the time we get back. Did you enjoy it?”

By the time that Alethea had explained just how much, had washed her hands and smoothed her hair, Lady Emily was wide awake once more, obviously much refreshed by her nap, and insisting that they must take tea with her before setting out on die return journey. Her enquiries as to Alethea’s opinion of the Palace were met by a laughing rejoinder from Damon, who assured her that her guest was both a barbarian and a traitor. She had not liked the Verrio paintings above half, and she had actually dared to suggest that King Henry had stolen the Palace from Cardinal Wolsey.

“So he did,” snapped Aunt Emily promptly. “As for the paintings—never liked ’em above half myself. A lot of naked gods and goddesses sitting about on clouds—and most of them no better than they ought to be. Pity they hadn’t got something more useful to do.”

This was much in Aunt Emily’s usual vein. Damon and Marianne exchanged conspiratorial smiles, and settled back to sip their tea comfortably, Marianne thinking how cosy and pleasant Aunt Emily had made her little home.

Her attention was once again devoted to Alethea. “I do not believe in allowing young girls to devote too much time to the study of history,” they heard her pronounce severely. “They would do better to attend to the domestic arts, so sadly neglected in these modern days. But one cannot live
here
”—she gestured widely—“without developing an interest in those who have gone before. Your King Henry, for instance,” she glared at Alethea, who almost broke into urgent protest to deny any responsibility for King Henry, “was a thief, you say. What else did you expect? Was he not born of an usurper? His father stole a kingdom—and cunningly disposed of any who might threaten his position. The son, less devious, did but follow the sire’s example, snatching whatever took his fancy, be it palace or bride.”

“Dear me!” said Damon gently. “What a nest of treason! Such heat, Aunt Emily. You are frightening Miss Forester. Her eyes are like saucers.”

“I’m not a bit frightened,” exclaimed Alethea impatiently, “but oh! so interested. I never knew that other people cared about these long ago kings and queens as I do. Even Papa is more concerned with philosophical debate about the growth of democracy. Lady Emily makes them seem so human.”

Lady Emily chuckled. “Yes, my gel. But I don’t make ’em into saints and heroes. Kings and queens are just as faulty as lesser mortals, only larger than life because they have more power to achieve their ends.”

“Do you not admire—venerate—any of them?” asked Alethea soberly.

The old lady sighed briefly. “Venerate? No. Oh! Some have had admirable qualities, no doubt. Courage, tenacity, prudence, foresight. Maybe they have made the best they could of a difficult job. And I’ve naught to say against our Geordie—as decent a man as you’re like to find in a dissolute age, if a mite pig-headed at times. But I was bred in Yorkshire, where there are long memories and loyal hearts. There’s many a one in the north would say with me that England’s last true-born king was treacherously slain on Bosworth field.”

She fell silent, brooding over wrongs three hundred years old, and the atmosphere she had created in those few brief sentences was not one to be lightly broken. Her young guests drank their tea in respectful silence until she roused herself suddenly, turning on Alethea with a pretence of scolding. “And what are you about, miss, beguiling an old lady to talk treasonably of a tragedy that’s best left buried? You are young. You should be living in the present, enjoying a little delicate flirtation, learning how to handle a possible husband without letting him realise that he is being managed, not yearning over some long dead king. Moreover you’ll think me an ungrateful wretch that bites the hand that shelters me.” She raised her tea cup as though to drink a toast and said solemnly, “King George—God bless him.”

 

NINE

As
Judd drew
the bays to a halt in front of the Berkeley Square house, Tina came strolling across the gardens on her way home. Alethea started guiltily. It so chanced that there had been no opportunity of mentioning the projected visit to her cousin, but she knew perfectly well that if opportunity
had
offered she would have done her utmost to look the other way.

Well—she had had her lovely day. For the sake of her two companions she hoped it would not end in an unpleasant scene. For her own part, it was worth it even if it did.

But Tina behaved beautifully. Forewarned by a careless remark dropped by Mama, she had been granted time to cool her temper and plan her campaign. She greeted them in the friendliest fashion, asking how they had enjoyed their day and then saying, with a pretty pretence of indignation, “Though I don’t know why I’m so forgiving as to speak to you, wretches that you are! You
might
have given me the chance of going with you. I can’t remember
how
many times I’ve expressed my desire to meet Lady Emily, so interesting as she must be with her memories of the past.”

Neither could Marianne remember. Not one single occasion. But she was no practised dissembler. She faltered out some lame excuse about thinking that Tina would find it dull.

“Nothing of the kind,” Tina assured her. “But I suppose I’ll have to forgive you, because I simply
must
show you my new bonnet. Even Mama forgot to preach economy when she saw it. You’ll spare her to me for a few minutes, won’t you, milord?” turning her sweetest smile on Damon. “Or better still, will you not come in, too? I promise not to keep you long, and Mama will want to thank you for giving our little Thea such a delightful treat.”

Althea’s eyes widened. She wondered how long she had been her cousin’s ‘little Thea’.

His lordship submitted to superior strategy but retained sufficient sense of self-preservation to bid Judd come back for him in half an hour.

Half an hour was quite enough for Tina. It took but five minutes to display the glories of the new bonnet. Then she and Marianne joined the others in the drawing room. In five
more
minutes, Damon found himself agreeing to make one of a party to ride in the Park next day. Marianne excused herself on the score of a prior engagement. She was not, in any case, very fond of riding, but was sure that Kit would be happy to take her place. Tina, hands clasped at her breast, face rapturous, vowed that she positively doted on the exercise and believed that ‘Thea’ would like it of all things.

Alethea admitted to having ridden a good deal in the country. But she had never ridden in Town and doubted if her riding dress would be modish enough by London standards. Mrs. Newton, exclaiming in dismay at such a careless oversight, said that a new habit must be ordered at once, but that something respectable could surely be contrived for the time being.

A trifle bored by this feminine chit-chat, Damon politely suggested that since there were a dozen or more horses idling their days away in his father’s stable, he might be permitted to mount the ladies, and ventured tactful enquiries as to their tastes and their experience. Tina gaily announced that she could ride anything and had a preference for a chestnut. Did not his lordship think that they were, in general, more spirited?

Alethea, with every desire to take the shine out of her obnoxious cousin in the one accomplishment at which she knew herself to excel, said rather ruefully that, in so public a place, it might be wiser to choose a well-trained animal accustomed to carrying a lady.

At this point Marianne engaged Tina’s attention with a laughing reference to one of her more dashing equestrian exploits, so that Damon was permitted a brief opportunity of probing this cautious statement. No, he learned. Alethea had no horse of her own. But Mama’s cousin had a sizeable stable, breeding hacks and hunters, and she had learned her horsemanship from him. She was thought, she added with shy pride, to have something of a knack with nervous youngsters. Cousin Crowborough had expressed himself much obliged for her services in this respect. In return he would usually find her a horse when she had time to ride. No. She did not hunt. Did not care for it.

There was no time for more. Tina, finding that her sparkling account of a meet that she had once attended had failed to catch Lord Skirlaugh’s attention, broke off to assure Marianne that she did not mean to be boring on for ever about horses, and that they must certainly arrange some pleasure party which did not involve riding for
her
entertainment. Fortunately, before she could do so, Ponting came in to say that his lordship’s carriage was waiting.

The exchange between Damon and Alethea had been brief, but his lordship was not deceived. He knew the reputation of the Crowborough stables. If Miss Forester had learned horse manage in
that
school, she was no novice. Recollection of the confident way in which she had handled a frightened, high-couraged animal confirmed this opinion. She should certainly have the well-schooled lady’s mount that she had asked for, but the mare he had in mind for her use was rather more than that. A gentle, affectionate creature, responsive to the least touch of sympathetic hands, she yet had abundance of playful ways that made her sheer delight to a true horse lover.

Miss Newton’s requirements posed more of a problem. He did not normally buy a horse because it was a pretty colour and he did not share Miss Newton’s predilection for chestnuts. The only one in his stable at present was quite unsuitable—a half-broke youngster. He began to mull over a list of his friends. Presently his mouth curved in mischievous satisfaction as he realised that he had hit on the very thing. That peacocky gelding of Tom Milligan’s! Tom had actually tried to sell him the brute—had gone the round of his acquaintance blathering about its perfections. And, to be fair, it
was
a handsome creature. Only it was all looks and no performance. A very appropriate mount for Miss Newton, he decided with regrettable cynicism, save that the animal had at least the merit of an amiable disposition. Tom would be only too happy to lend it—would crow delightedly at the thought that it was eating its handsome head off at some other fool’s expense. Scribbling a note to him, Damon found that he was looking forward to his morning engagement, if not with pleasure, at least with a definite malicious interest.

And matters fell out much as he had anticipated. Miss Newton had heartily approved her cousin’s riding dress, a well-worn and workmanlike garment in dark brown that provided an admirable foil for her own elegant array. Her satisfaction grew at the sight of the horses provided for the two of them. The chestnut, she felt sure, was the pride of the Duke’s stable. To an undiscerning eye, the neat brown mare was not impressive. His lordship, listening appreciatively to her ecstasies, had some difficulty in keeping his countenance. He left Kit to put her up and turned to watch with amusement and satisfaction Miss Forester’s very different approach. While lending a polite ear to Miss Newton’s rhapsodies he had been aware of the quiet conference between groom and rider; had seen the girl finger the cheek-strap and decide that it would do, talking quietly to the animal all the while. Now he saw her automatically test the girth and nod to the groom, who handed over the reins and lifted her into the saddle without fuss. She sat there quietly, feeling the mare’s mouth and, if the attentively flickering ears were any indication, maintaining the gentle monologue which would accustom the animal to the sound of her voice. Much pleased with the accuracy of his assessment, Damon swung himself into the saddle and the quartet set out for the Park.

It proved to be the first of many excursions in which he found himself involved by the persistent Miss Newton. At the outset he derived some entertainment from her skilful portrayal of artless innocence. She had a way of claiming his attention, his agreement to any suggested treat, with childish ingenuousness, making excellent play with long curling lashes and occasionally, in an access of fervour, clutching his sleeve with pleading fingers. It was a superlative performance—and when its artistry had palled, Lord Skirlaugh found it a confounded nuisance. It allowed him only the briefest snatched moments in which to improve his acquaintance with Alethea Forester. And his interest in that young lady was steadily growing. He found himself studying her reactions—the amused glint in her eye for Tina’s higher flights, the tolerant acceptance of folly. On the rare occasions when he was permitted to talk to her he found her happily receptive of all that the London scene had to offer, but by no means overwhelmed. She enjoyed the social round, but would not be sorry to return to her quiet country existence. He judged her to have won a modest social success—perhaps more than might have been expected for a girl with neither rank nor fortune to recommend her. If she was not besieged by partners for every dance, neither was she left to sit forlorn with the dowagers.

But these conversations were brief. Inevitably, whenever some promising avenue opened before them, they would be interrupted. If it was not Tina herself who broke impatiently across their discussion, then it was one of her many puppets. For to Damon she seemed to manipulate the household in Berkeley Square as though they had no separate existence. Even his cousin Marianne danced to her piping and would only say plaintively, when he taxed her with it, that it was more comfortable to fall in with Tina’s wishes than to run counter to them.

Nevertheless his knowledge of Miss Forester’s character had advanced to the point at which he was considering, quite coolly and rationally, whether she would make him a suitable wife. He was not, of course, in the least in love with her. He had finished with that sort of nonsense once and for all when Elinor Coutance had jilted him. But he had definite ideas about the qualities that were desirable in a wife and it seemed to him that Miss Forester filled the bill quite admirably. She had dignity and self-control. She could converse sensibly on a number of topics not wholly feminine, and her gratitude to her aunt for giving her a season in Town inclined him to think that her disposition was gentle and affectionate. He knew from experience that she kept her head in emergency and showed practical good sense. He thought his mother would like her—and that was important. His father would certainly object to her lack of fortune. All the world knew that the Duke was not a wealthy man. His personal tastes were simple-many a well-to-do merchant would have thought his private expenditure ridiculously inadequate. But he had one insatiable passion—Byram. And Byram had a voracious appetite. The park and gardens, the farms and cottages, were famous throughout the land, and the old house was maintained and tended with unceasing care and at heavy expense. Its owner was not likely to welcome a penniless daughter-in-law, however admirable her character and disposition, though no doubt he could be brought to acceptance in time.

What would be Miss Forester’s view of the proposition? She struck him as a level headed kind of girl who was unlikely to take a huff because he was not prepared to make pretty love speeches or vow undying passion. And without undue conceit, she could scarcely hope for a better match. She was not a beauty, though for his own part he liked her looks—far preferred them to her much vaunted cousin’s. When she was happy and absorbed—which was most of the time—her face had an animation that gave the illusion of beauty. On the rare occasions when he had seen her cast down—disappointed, perhaps, or a trifle home-sick—he had been conscious of a strong urge to take her in his arms and console her as one might a child. Yes, he decided contentedly, he was really quite fond of the girl. And if, at the thought of the comforting kisses that he would bestow upon that soft young mouth, some feeling much warmer, much fiercer than mere fondness quickened his pulses, it was sternly suppressed. He was endeavouring to estimate the advantages of a marriage of convenience from Miss Forester’s point of view, he reminded himself.

From such details of her home background as she had let fall, he pictured a genteel family of limited means managing, with the assistance of the wealthy aunt to give the elder daughter a season in Town so that she might have the opportunity of forming an eligible connection before it was time to fire off the younger one. He heartily approved of such prudent planning. But there did not seem to be any promising suitors dangling after Miss Forester, so unless she had some romantic notion about falling in love she might be willing to consider his offer. There was the younger sister to be established, he remembered, and the brother in the diplomatic service was probably pretty expensive. A girl with a strong sense of duty would take all that into account.

Would it suffice to outweigh the one factor he had so far left out of his calculations? Would a young girl, gently bred and fastidious, find it possible to contemplate marriage with one so shockingly scarred? To be sure Miss Forester was one of the few people who never made him feel self-conscious about his appearance. He did not think she found him actually repugnant. But marriage was vastly different from occasional social encounters.

He shrugged, and abandoned speculation. There was only one sure way of discovering the answer to his doubts. But to give himself a fair chance, he felt he would like to make some attempt to fix his interest with the girl. Alethea. He tested the name aloud and liked the sound of it. How like the unpleasant Miss Newton to shorten it to the commonplace ‘Thea’! That same Miss Newton was going to be a most damnable nuisance in any attempts he might make to better his acquaintance with her cousin. Let her but suspect what was in his mind and she would make the poor little thing’s life a misery. He could not so expose the girl he hoped to persuade into marriage. A fine start that would be! He decided to enlist Marianne’s support and went off at once to seek her out.

Marianne was delighted to be chosen as his confidante though disappointed at his prosaic approach to the business of marriage. Privately she thought that he was, perhaps, more attached to Miss Forester than he himself realised, since he was prepared to face his father’s displeasure at the news that his choice had fallen on a penniless girl. Well—not precisely penniless, perhaps, but Marianne, who had naturally heard a good deal more about Alethea’s home life than had Damon, doubted if her marriage portion would be above two thousand pounds. She commended his intention of paying some court to the lady of his choice before approaching her parents for permission to make her an offer, suggested one or two expeditions that would offer opportunities of téte-a-téte, and pledged herself to do all in her power to ensure that these were granted him.

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