Authors: Barbara Cartland
THE CRUEL COUNT
It was certainly not the reception Lady Vesta Cressinton-Font had expected.
As soon as she left her ship and set foot on the small Mediterranean island of Katona, the blue-eyed, exquisitely-beautiful Vesta felt frightened and totally alone. Where, she wondered, were Prince Alexander’s representatives? Surely His Royal Highness would not let his future bride arrive on Katona without a formal greeting. Really, it was quite unthinkable: traveling all the way from England to marry a man she had never met and then being rudely abandoned...
“They tell me you have arrived alone.”
The words cut across Vesta’s indignant reverie. Startled, she directed her gaze toward the man who spoke them. His stern, domineering manner, his penetrating glance quite alarmed her. And yet he was so darkly handsome...
“I am Count Miklos Czako,” the stranger continued harshly. “I will take you to His Royal Highness.”
Vesta stepped onto the jetty and felt the earth still heaving beneath her. Then she walked further down the Quay and stood looking round.
She had expected Katona to be beautiful, but not as breathtakingly lovely as it was.
The small harbour with its wooden houses and red-tiled roofs was picturesque enough, but beyond them were the dark-green of the olive groves and again beyond them the mountains luxuriantly wooded, until silhouetted against the blue sky were the dazzlingly snowy peaks of a mountain range.
Everywhere there were flowers.
Flowers in the window-boxes of the little houses, flowers on the lower slopes of the mountains, in the ravines, under the olive trees, patches of brilliant colour which left her breathless at the wonder of them.
“My new country,” she whispered to herself.
Her blue eyes were shining in her small heart-shaped face as she waited for a man in the uniform of a Petty Officer to walk across the Quay towards her.
He saluted smartly as he said:
“I have paid ten men who will carry your baggage to the Inn, M’Lady. Would you allow me to accompany you?”
“No indeed, Mr. Barnes,” Vesta answered. “I know the Captain is having difficulty in holding the ship in this heavy sea. He will wish you to return as swiftly as possible.”
“But M’Lady, there should be someone to meet you.”
“I anticipate that they will be waiting at the Inn,” Vesta replied. “After all they could not be sure of the exact time or indeed the exact day of our arrival.”
“Indeed no, M’Lady, and they can count themselves fortunate we are here at all.”
The Petty Officer smiled as he spoke and Vesta smiled back at him.
“It was rather a frightening voyage at times,” she said, “but I have arrived safely and I am deeply grateful. Will you please convey my thanks to the crew?”
“I will indeed, M’Lady, it has been a privilege and an honour to have you aboard.”
“Thank you, Mr. Barnes.”
Vesta held out her hand. He shook it and said:
“I would like on behalf of myself, M’Lady, and every member of the crew, to wish you great happiness in the future.”
“Thank you, Mr. Barnes,” Vesta said again.
He saluted before walking smartly back along the jetty to where the boat was waiting which had carried the Lady Vesta Cressington-Font and her baggage from the ship.
It was manned by eight British sailors and Vesta repressed an impulse to wave to them, thinking it would seem too over-familiar.
Instead she turned and walked slowly after the men who were carrying her trunks upon their backs. Some of them were so old, she noticed with a feeling of consternation, and they were almost bent double by their burden.
It was strange, Vesta thought, that the elegant, gossamer-fine gowns that constituted her trousseau should weigh so much.
But she was not particularly interested in her trunks at the moment, but rather in the people she saw standing outside their houses and working around the harbour, knowing that with them lay her future.
The men were dark-haired and sturdily built with strongly defined features, the women were plump, full-bosomed and undoubtedly attractive.
They had smiling faces and their skin burnt by the hot sun was a golden brown.
The children with bright inquisitive black eyes wore little red caps on their heads with long tassels, which were a part of their national costume.
“It is a lovely country with nice people!” Vesta told herself.
She remembered when her father had first mentioned Katona she had looked at him in surprise.
“Katona?” she had queried.
“Do you know where it is?” the Duke of Salfont had enquired.
Vesta hesitated a moment.
“In the Mediterranean?” she had queried and had then given a little cry. “But how foolish of me! Of course I know! It lies between Albania and Greece and is independent of the Ottoman Empire ruled over by the Turks.”
“That is right,” the Duke approved. “I am glad you are so well-read.”
“I must confess to have very little knowledge about the country,” Vesta admitted. “But I think I am right in saying that they were not affected by the war.”
“You are right,” the Duke replied. “Napoleon Bonaparte did not conquer Katona, so they have escaped the devastation which affected so much of Europe, nor have they sacrificed their menfolk.”
There was a bitterness in his voice which Vesta did not miss. Any reference to the war would bring back to him all too agonisingly the fact that he had lost his only son at Waterloo.
Vesta realised that ahead of her the baggage-porters were entering the courtyard of a small Inn. She followed them and a man who was obviously the InnKeeper appeared in the doorway bowing low as soon as she had reached him.
This was the moment she knew that she had to show how proficient she was in the language she had been studying so arduously during the long voyage from England.
“You were expecting me?” she asked gently, hoping he would understand.
“Yes! Yes! Gracious lady.”
“There are people here to meet me?”
He shook his head and burst into a long explanation of which she understood barely one word in ten.
What was clear was that there was no-one there!
But it seemed they had expected her, the Inn-Keeper had also believed that a number of personages would have arrived in time to welcome here.
Still talking the Inn-Keeper led Vesta along a narrow passage into what she realised was a small private parlour. It was a pleasant room.
It had paned windows looking out on one side onto the Quay, on the other onto a small garden bright with flowers, in which she saw her first orange tree bearing the golden fruit.
When Vesta had been shown the parlour a large stout woman of middle age, obviously the Inn-Keeper’s wife, curtseying respectfully offered to take her upstairs.
Vesta entered a bed-chamber where she understood she could wash or change her clothes should she desire to do so.
But as she had just come from the ship, she merely put the heavy cape she had worn in the boat down on the bed and went down the narrow wooden stairs again to the parlour.
Going to the window she could see outside in the harbour the schooner which had brought her from England riding uneasily at anchor. A boat was being taken aboard and Vesta felt suddenly afraid, seeing her last link with England leaving her.
In the ship there were fifty men who knew her, who spoke her language, who were her countrymen, and they were now leaving her alone in a strange country which had not even bothered to send a representative to greet her on arrival.
She could not understand it!
The Prime Minister, His Excellency Janos Sutez, had been explicit in telling her exactly what to expect.
“His Royal Highness will not meet you at the Port,” he had said. “He will wait for you at the Palace in Djilas. But you will be received by Baron Milovan, a very distinguished noblemen who has a magnificent Castle half way between Jeno where you will disembark and Djilas where you will be received with every possible ceremony.”
“Who else will be with the Baron?” Vesta had enquired, feeling she must be prepared for everything.
The Prime Minister had understood her anxiety. He had explained in detail matters of lineage, and even the personalities of those who would constitute her first contact with her new country.
There would be two ladies besides the Baron’s wife. There would be a number of Courtiers, Statesmen and Noblemen to be her escort to the capital.
“The first day will be quite informal,” the Prime Minister had said. “They will expect you to be a little tired after your long journey, and you will drive to the Baron’s Castle where you will stay the night.
“The following day it will only take you two hours to reach Djilas, but you will have luncheon at another fine mansion outside the city, belonging in this instance to a distinguished member of the Prince’s Government.”
“There you will be able to change into your very best gown with which to dazzle the people who will undoubtedly be lining the streets to cheer you when you enter the city.”
“And the Prince?” Vesta had asked.
“His Royal Highness will be waiting for you on the steps of the Palace. He will know of course the exact moment of your arrival and as the carriages draw up he will come half way down the steps to meet you.”
“Were I able to be there I would have had the honour of presenting you, but in my absence it will be the Baron who will perform that little ceremony.”
Vesta had drawn in a deep breath. That moment she knew would be the most frightening of her whole journey.
She moved across the small parlour. What could have happened? How was it possible there was no-one here?
The Prime Minister had made it very clear that she was expected to disembark at Jeno. There was a larger port further down the coast, but Jeno was nearer to the capital.
In fact it was only five hours’ drive, but it had been planned that she should break her journey at the Baron’s Castle.
“They must have mistaken the day of my arrival,” Vesta told herself.
But she knew that the Prime Minister had said they would definitely reach Jeno between the 25th of May and the 1st of June.
Today was only the 26th, so she was not late! And supposing she had arrived the day before, would they have expected her to wait alone in this small Inn?
She partially answered the question by remembering that they would certainly not have expected her to be alone!
But even so, she could imagine how infuriated the Prime Minister would have been had he accompanied her and found himself treated in such an offhand manner.
The Inn-Keeper came bustling into the room and Vesta understood that he was asking her if she would like something to eat.
“Thank you,” she replied, “I would like it very much.”
It was only about noon, but she did in fact feel quite hungry.
The ship had managed to take on new supplies at Naples, but she found that after such a long voyage she was heartily tired of the few dishes at which the cook was proficient, and had found herself eating less and less every day.
A table was laid for her in the window looking into the garden, and a moment or two later a young girl with golden skin and two long plaits of jet black hair came into the room carrying a large dish.
It smelt delicious, and having seated herself at the table Vesta discovered she was eating a fresh fish covered with the egg, oil and lemon sauce which the Aide-de-camp to the Prime Minister had described to her in glowing terms.
He had also been her teacher not only with regard to the language which she had studied with the Prime Minister, but about the customs of the country, the food, the entertainments and the amusements of its people.
“As you know,” the Aide-de-camp had said, “our people are a mixture of Greeks, Hungarians and Albanians—the Hungarians being predominant socially. We therefore have acquired the tastes and characteristics of all three countries.”
“Where food is concerned perhaps the Greeks have made more impact than the others! As we have a long coast-line our seafood is good, and even when the women fail in other aspects of cuisine, they still produce excellent fish dishes!”
There was no doubt that the fish which Vesta was eating now was very good.
To follow it there was lamb, young and tender, cooked on a long skewer with tomatoes and a green vegetable she did not recognize but which tasted rather like green peppers.
The lamb was garnished with herbs and she told herself that once she had arrived at the Capital, she must learn more about the vegetation of the country.
She had found in fact that the Aide-de-camp and the Prime Minister were unable to answer half the questions that she posed to them.
The Inn-Keeper brought her a light white wine to drink and, while she had also asked for some water, she sipped the wine and found that it was very pleasant.
She wanted to ask if it was grown locally, but that was beyond her vocabulary.
In fact not only did she find the Inn-Keeper hard to understand, because he had a very different accent from that of the Prime Minister and the Aide-de-camp, but it was clear that except for a few words he also found her almost incomprehensible.
When Vesta had finished luncheon she realised it must be nearly one o’clock and she guessed that the inhabitants of the little Port would soon settle down to a siesta.
Looking through the window she could see a number of old men were sitting on chairs or on their doorsteps with nodding heads and closing their eyes against the brilliant sunshine.
“What am I to do,” she asked herself, “if no-one ever comes for me?”
It was a frightening thought. Supposing they had forgotten all about her? Supposing she just sat here day after day, month after month? Supposing she ran out of money and could not even pay for her food.
She might have to work for her living! What could she do? Work in the Olive Groves, help in the Inn?
She gave herself a little shake. This was the sort of day-dreaming for which her mother had scolded her very often.