Authors: M. C. Beaton
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance, #Regency
“You always were a weakling, George!”
“Oh, God, spare me your insults. Let us see if we can still save the poor man.”
“The servants must not see us!”
“We’ll just go for a little walk. It’s dark now. I will take a lantern.”
Soon they set out together, George holding the lantern high as they finally negotiated the slippery path.
They stood on a grassy knoll at the side of the treacherous path. George swung the lantern in a wide arc.
“Nothing,” he whispered. “He’s probably up in my room, taking dry clothes out of my wardrobe.”
“Wait!” urged Minerva. “Try near the edge.”
George held the lantern out over the bottom of the path and Minerva drew back against him with a little hiss.
The body of Mr. Cater lay almost directly below them, his hands stretched out grasping the mud. He had obviously managed to nearly get out of the water, but cold and exhaustion had robbed him of his final strength.
“It’s going to be a day’s work to drag him up that path and bury him,” muttered George. “I say we put some rocks in his pockets and push him back in the pond.”
“You do it,” shivered Minerva. “I could not bear to touch him.”
George gave her a look of loathing. “I’ll do it during the night. Let’s go back.”
At two o’clock that morning, George, with a bag of
rocks and some heavy chains over his shoulder, made his way back to the pond. He worked quickly, weighing down the pockets of Mr. Cater’s clothes with rocks, and then wrapping the chains around his legs. He then gave the body a huge push and heard a sinister gurgling sound as it sank beneath the waters of the pond.
And then he went wearily back to the house to get well and truly drunk.
Mrs. Kennedy walked about the grounds of Mannerling the following day. There was a steel-cold wind from the east. She and Isabella and Lord Fitzpatrick were to leave for London on the following day. She had been drawn to visit Mannerling one last time, to walk the lawns and say a prayer for the dead footman. She thought she would never forget John’s scream as he fell from the roof.
She went to sit in the folly and look out over the black waters of the lake. The folly was the only place at Mannerling that she really liked, possibly because it had been built on the orders of Charles Blackwood and was not part of the old Mannerling.
She had kept her doubts about the two remaining Beverley sisters, Belinda and Lizzie, to herself, not wanting to worry Isabella. She sensed that neither Belinda nor Lizzie had given up their ambitions to reclaim their old home. What a passion the wretched place aroused in people! Only think of that creature, Cater.
She left the folly and walked down to the lake. The wind abruptly died and the waters were cold and still.
“It’s goodbye to you, Mannerling,” said Mrs.
Kennedy. “If I have my way, neither I nor Isabella will ever come here again.”
Then she suddenly felt colder than the day itself and a mist seemed to surround her. She was standing on the jetty and a white face grinned up at her from the water. She let out a hoarse scream and crossed herself.
As if waking from a nightmare, she looked around and found there was no mist at all. She looked back down at the lake again. There was no face in the water.
She turned and began to hurry back towards where her carriage was parked outside the house. She never told anyone about her experience or that the face in the water that she thought she had seen had looked like the dead face of Mr. Cater.
Rachel and Charles were married on a winter’s day in London in St. George’s, Hanover Square. Lady Beverley wept noisily throughout the service. After all, sensibility was all the rage.
Miss Trumble felt quietly satisfied. Another happy ending. She sat at the back of the church, heavily veiled. In fact, her veil was so heavy that Barry, also at the back of the church, remarked slyly that it was almost as if she did not want any of the fashionables among the guests to recognize her.
Belinda, as bridesmaid, wondered if she herself could ever look forward to such happiness. The church was cold and she shivered in her fur-lined cloak. She and Lizzie had attended a few balls and routs and also the playhouse, but nowhere had they seen the mysterious Lord St. Clair. They heard of him, however, heard he was in London, and that he
was regarded as one of the most eligible men on the marriage market. They also learned that he preferred town life and that his father had bought him Mannerling in the hope that a house and lands of his own would give him more responsibility and encourage him to take a bride.
Abigail had offered them a Season in London, and both Lizzie and Belinda had decided to accept. If their quarry preferred town life, then surely he would emerge at the following Season.
Beside Belinda, Lizzie was feeling uncomfortable, for Mrs. Kennedy had given her a stern talking-to only the day before. Lizzie was very fond of Mrs. Kennedy but had not liked being told that Mannerling was a wicked place. She quite forgot that she had thought that very thing herself not so long ago. That old ambition was burning in her veins. Belinda must somehow manage to marry Lord St. Clair. Lizzie went off into a dream of sunny days at Mannerling, back home again, and only came out of it as she realized her sister, Rachel, was well and truly married and the bells were ringing out in triumph over the sooty buildings of London.
The wedding breakfast was held in the Blackwoods’ town house, which had once been the Beverleys’ town house. It was to be sold as well. The Blackwoods would not be returning to Mannerling again. They had cleared out all their possessions from the place. The town house did not have too many memories for the Beverley sisters, for they had spent most of their time at Mannerling. Only Isabella had made her come-out from the town house, remembering, as she sat next to her husband, what a disaster that had been. She had been
so haughty and proud, she had thought no man good enough for her.
A small orchestra was playing sweet melodies. The room was full of the happy sound of conversation.
Rachel sat at the top table beside her new husband, happy and content. Charles was buying a property outside Deal on the coast. Until they were ready to move in, they would travel here and there on their honeymoon and end up in Ireland to stay with Isabella. The Fitzpatricks were returning there after the wedding.
She floated on a happy dream through the breakfast and the dancing afterwards, until it was time to leave.
Her sisters clustered on the pavement outside the town house to wave goodbye. She felt a lump in her throat as she kissed them one after the other, then her mother and then Miss Trumble.
Rose-petals were thrown, handkerchiefs waved. Rachel leaned out of the carriage window and waved back until the carriage turned the corner and her past life was lost to view. She put up the glass, blew her nose firmly, and said huskily, “I can only pray that Belinda and Lizzie will be as happy as I am.”
“As to that, I hope they will,” said Charles, “although, if you remember, we attended Mrs. Dunster’s party a few weeks ago. I did not tell you then, for I did not want to distress you, but I fear both Lizzie and Belinda were overheard asking curious questions about Lord St. Clair.”
Rachel looked alarmed. “They must know! We must turn back. I must talk to them, warn them.”
“No, my sweeting, the estimable Miss Trumble
has been warned by me and will do all in her power to keep them safe.”
He put an arm around her and held her close. “Kiss me, Mrs. Blackwood. And if you ever mention Mannerling again, I shall beat you.”
“Would you, indeed!”
“Probably not. Kiss me instead.”
Rachel did as she was bid, and after a long while she said dreamily, “I hope Mark and Beth will not miss us too much.”
“They are so excited to be going to Ireland with your sister, they have probably forgotten about us already.”
“When does St. Clair take up residence?”
“I really should beat you. Five kisses for that. I do not know. It is his father who wants him to remove to the country and away from the wickedness of Town. I think it will be a long time before he goes there. Now for those kisses…”
Lord St. Clair at that moment was facing his father. He was a tall, willowy young man dressed in the latest Bond Street fashion, which made him look like an elegant wasp. His waist was pinched in with a corset and his vest was of black and gold stripes. “Don’t think I want that Mannerling place after all,” he drawled.
“What?” demanded the choleric earl. “Most beautiful place in the world, and you turn your nose up at it.”
“My agent went to look at it,” said Lord St. Clair with a weary sigh. “Man, very reliable, my agent. Stout fellow. Says the place is haunted.”
“Pah! Fustian. Been at the brandy, that’s what he’s been doing. Get rid of him.”
“He went down to sort out the servants, you know, which to keep and which to send packing, and a lot of ’em told him the place was haunted by some chap who hanged himself from the chandelier and, worse than that…”
“Oh, do tell, you popinjay! A headless horseman?”
“No, a drowned man.”
The earl took a deep breath. “Now listen to me, m’boy, you are not going to spend your life racketing around London. You can get yourself a suitable gel at the next Season, move to Mannerling, and set up your nursery, or I will disinherit you!”
Lord St. Clair took out a scented handkerchief and waved it in front of his painted face, as if perfume could sweeten his father’s temper.
“You wouldn’t do that,” he protested.
“Oh, yes, I would. It’s Mannerling and a bride, or nothing.”
St. Clair uncoiled himself from his chair and headed for the door. “As you will, Father,” he said in a mournful voice. “As you will.”
He strolled round to Bond Street to comfort himself and fell in with two equally elegant cronies.
“You look like the deuce,” said one. “What’s amiss?”
“Got the threat of the country hanging over me,” mourned St. Clair. “Father says he’ll disinherit me if I don’t get meself a bride at the next Season and move to that place Mannerling he’s bought me.”
“Do as he says,” counselled the other. “Move to Mannerling and take the Town down with you, big parties, good friends, good bottles, and a complacent
wife, and as soon as she’s produced the heir, take yourself back to Town.”
“Jove, the very idea,” said St. Clair, brightening. “The countryside will never have seen anything like us. Mannerling it is!”