Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
This conversation might have been of no small interest to the three gentlemen who strained to hear it. Lord Dorset was the first to accept defeat. “Explain to me, Humbug,” he said in his impatient way, “what difficulties I may soon share.”
Hubert shifted his position on the sofa, to the accompaniment of jingling fobs and chains and seals. “Not share them, precisely. Your difficulties are your own. My failure to make my meaning clear is a further indication of how wholly I am overset. Which isn’t the least remarkable, my journey here having been enlivened by the most appalling tales. Consider my delicate constitution, my dislike of firearms. Imagine my distress at being told that, for months after the Russians stormed Paris, the valley between Belleville and Montmarte stank with the half-buried dead. Contemplate, if you will, spending an entire night asleep on top of a corpse.”
Dulcie glanced at them and raised her voice. “As Napoleon left Fontainebleau for Elba, he promised that when the violets returned next spring he too would come back.”
“I don’t see,” put in Lord Dorset, with a great deal more forbearance than he felt, “what Napoleon has to do with us.”
“Why, everything, cousin!” said Hubert, spitefully. “I mean, Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign. When the poor fellow learned you weren’t in London, he came to me, though I don’t know why he should have. Not that he isn’t a decent sort of person, because he is, but he’s no relative of mine, for which I render thanks.”
The Earl possessed a large number of relatives, toward the majority of whom he cherished a profound indifference. Before he could wring this particular relative’s neck, Lady Bligh’s butler Gibbon, a cadaverous individual with a shock of white hair, appeared in the doorway. “Lieutenant Theodore Sutcliffe to see Lord Dorset,” he announced, as a too-thin young man with brown hair and haunted eyes entered the room.
Dickon rose abruptly from his seat. “Ned!” he exclaimed.
Hubert was less interested in family reunions than relieved to deliver up his charge. Beyond noting that Dickon and his cousin Ned bore a familial resemblance, he paid them little heed. Instead, he studied the Chief Magistrate, who was looking glum. “In the mops, Sir John?”
That gentleman’s glance spoke volumes. “Your aunt has a premonition.”
“Devil take it!” Hubert groaned.
While Lord Dorset’s cousin Ned regaled the Baroness and her houseguests with his opinion of the Bourbon restoration to the throne of France — utter absurdity, he informed them: the Bourbons couldn’t restore the dead from the guillotine, or an outdated way of life — Lord Dorset’s Countess sought enlightenment of her own. Against her better judgment, Livvy was paying a condolence call. Accompanying her was her stepson Austen, an astute lad aged nine years, who had inherited his father’s handsome features and his great-aunt’s fathomless dark eyes.
An elderly butler conducted them into the Halliday drawing room, an elegant chamber with formal mahogany furnishings and a gleaming oak floor.
Glass chandeliers hung from the elaborate plaster ceiling. Two grand mirrors flanked the fireplace. Against one wall, alongside a tea table set with Chinese porcelain, stood a large map. This was a wind chart, explained Austen. It connected with a weathercock positioned on the roof. The device enabled sportsmen to estimate which way the breeze might blow.
The room contained other reminders of the hunt. Livvy averted her gaze from a portrait of dead pheasants and wondered whether her breakfast was going to stay in her belly, or if she would disgrace herself by casting up her accounts into the porcelain tea-pot.
As she was debating, not having decided one way or another, a short, plump black-clad lady hurried into the drawing room. She was some five-and-twenty years of age, with chestnut curls and bright green eyes. “I am so pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Dorset! Has the Baroness sent you to keep me company? I had heard the family was in residence at the Castle — in the country one hears everything, even when one would prefer not to, although I generally
want to hear, because I have a fondness for gossip, which is shockingly vulgar in me, I know. Since I am in mourning, I can hardly go about paying social calls, or so Connor tells me, and I suppose he must know, although I wouldn’t put it past him to deliberately make me miserable, because he doesn’t like me above half. But you will think me a sad chatterbox, rattling on like this! May I offer you refreshment? Pray sit down.”
Livvy settled on a duchesse, a long seat formed by two tub-backed easy chairs with a stool between them, which could be used as a day-bed. Austen excused himself and set out in search of the cook, who had a fondness for young rascals and an unending supply of strawberry scones. “I apologize for intruding on your grief.”
“But you are not intruding! I have longed to talk to someone and you seem neither cross nor disapproving, which is a welcome change. Do call me Amanda, please; when I hear ‘Lady Halliday,’ I think people are addressing someone else. I already know that your name is Lavender, from listening to the local gabble-grinders, and a pretty name it is. You won’t mind if I call you by it?” Energetically, she assaulted the bell.
The elderly butler reappeared, and listened impassively to his mistress’s instructions. The matter of refreshments settled to her satisfaction, Amanda perched on the other end of the duchesse. “Now let me take a closer look at you!” she said. “I am sadly short-sighted, which is quite bothersome, save that it spares me seeing a great deal that I would rather not. There is so much unpleasantness in the world. You will be wondering why Sir Wesley married me.
you will be wondering why I married him, since he was my grandfather’s age.”
“Nothing of the sort!” protested Livvy, blushing, because she had been wondering that very thing.
Amanda chuckled. “You needn’t be embarrassed. Everybody does. How glad I am that Rosamond is ill and Connor away from the house, not that he is far
away, for he is merely in the park, and I doubt I’m fortunate enough that he’ll be caught in one of those horrid traps he sets. What Sir Wesley would say to
, I cannot imagine! Not that he can say anything now, poor man.” She paused for breath. “Where was I? Ah, Connor. I am certain that he would not approve of this conversation. Because I married his papa, Connor is my stepson, and if I could rid myself of him, I assure you I would! Lest you think me cold-hearted, I promise you Connor feels the same way. Have you met him, ma’am?”
“I haven’t had that pleasure.” What did Dulcie think might be learned from this featherhead? Since the Baroness was not inclined toward explanations, Livvy could only guess.
The butler returned, with refreshments, and the conversation turned to the holiday. An annual fair was held in Greenwood, complete with puppet shows and gingerbread stalls, grand panoramas of notable historic events and an exhibition of living curiosities, outstanding among which were to be a pig-faced lady and a pair of dwarfs. “Of course I cannot go,” Amanda concluded bitterly, when they were again alone. “Connor forbids it. When I consider the number of things Connor has forbidden, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Johanna Southcott was correct in predicting the world will soon end.”
Livvy was fast developing a keen curiosity about the unknown Connor. “There was a brother, I believe?”
Amanda peered at Livvy over the rim of a teacup decorated with a hunting scene featuring fox, horses and dogs. “I know nothing about that. Connor Halliday, however, is the rudest, most overbearing, nastiest-tempered person I have ever met. And if you think it is unkind of me to speak so of my stepson, you should hear what he says about me. According to Connor, I married Sir Wesley because I was on the dangle for a fortune. Well! It is a good thing I
, because I didn’t get one, nor did I expect I should.”
“Surely your husband made provision for you?” Gingerly, Livvy nibbled on a scone.
“Oh, yes!” responded Amanda. “I didn’t mean to imply that he had not. Or so Sir Wesley explained to me, though I don’t know the details. Naturally he did not expect to die so soon — and I cannot help but consider myself a little bit to blame, because he was not a
man, and I — but we need say no more of that! In short, Sir Wesley arranged a jointure, and he also arranged for me to reside at the Hall for as long as I wish. And I
wish to remain, because I think of this as my home. But Connor is doing his utmost to make everything unpleasant, and getting rid of me must be the sole point on which he and Rosamond agree. Rosamond was related to Sir Wesley’s first wife and has lived here forever, in case you didn’t know. It’s my opinion that she wished to marry Sir Wesley herself. Rosamond and Connor do not like each other, but they dislike me even more. If all
weren’t trial enough, the servants are always going on about ghosts. Have you ever seen a ghost, ma’am?”
“No,” ventured Livvy. “Have you?”
Amanda shivered. “Maybe. I don’t know. After Sir Wesley’s death I vow I glimpsed— But it was probably Connor dressed up in a sheet.” She deposited her teacup in its saucer with a decided clunk. “I’ve tried my best to be polite to them, but it doesn’t serve. Rosamond curls her lip and looks at me as if I were some sort of insect while Connor is forever
at me, muttering about slips ‘twixt cups and lips, and pretty kettles of fish, and pigs in a poke.”
She paused for breath. “How horrid for you,” Livvy said.
Amanda reached for the teapot and refilled her cup. “Rosamond wouldn’t have taken to her bed, had she anticipated your visit. Nor would Connor have left the house to tend his monstrous man-traps. Sir Wesley had forbidden the gamekeepers to use the horrid things, which just shows how little one’s opinion is valued after one is dead. I’ve not seen the traps myself, but Connor has explained — it is the sort of thing Connor
explain to me, though as to why he doesn’t like me he remains mumchance! At any event, there are spring-guns hidden in the brambles to guard the pheasants at the expense of a man’s life or limb, which will give you a good notion of the sort of man he is.”
Connor Halliday was the sort of man, thought Livvy, who upon his father’s sudden death immediately set about arranging things to suit himself. All too easy to envision what manner of arrangement he might devise for his father’s inconvenient wife.
he wishes to prevent poachers making off with our game,” Amanda continued. “
think he hopes to catch the tinkers trespassing in the park. You may already know that Sir Wesley allowed them to camp by the old mill. Why Connor so dislikes them, I don’t know, since they never bother anyone. Perhaps having tinkers camped on Halliday soil offends his sense of the
of things.” She leaned closer, lowered her voice. “Shall I tell you a secret? I had my fortune read. That was before Sir Wesley’s death, you understand. What with Connor’s nasty traps set all around, I wouldn’t dare set foot in the woods now. Which is probably why he put them there.”
“Gracious,” murmured Livvy. “Have you considered, Lady Halliday, that you may not be safe?”
“You were to call me Amanda, remember,” Lady Halliday replied. “Naturally I have considered it; anybody must! But if some call me a slow-top, I’m not at all craven, and I shan’t be forced out of my own home. In any event, there’s nowhere else I’d care to go. It is all most provoking, because I was truly sensible of the honor Sir Wesley did me, and I tried very hard to make him happy, which no one can deny I
Had I known how things would be—” She withdrew a pretty lace-edged handkerchief from her sleeve and applied it to her nose. “Sir Wesley told me I should have married a younger man, and he may have been correct, but I did
wish to be married, and few young men will take a bride who has no dowry, which my papa could hardly be expected to provide, because we existed in a state of genteel poverty. I tell you, it is
disheartening to be landed gentry when there is no longer any land.”
Before Livvy could question her hostess further, which she meant to do, not only because Dulcie asked it of her but because her own interest had been aroused, a rough voice sounded in the hallway. Amanda shrank back in her chair. “Connor,” she breathed.
A tall, swarthy man strode into the room. He had the physique of a sportsman, the yellow eyes of a predatory hawk, and hair the color of autumn leaves. “Haven’t you stopped sniveling yet? All this blubbering is enough to curdle a man’s stomach,” he snarled.
Amanda gestured, timidly. “Lady Dorset was kind enough to call.”
Connor swung round and scowled at Livvy. “Lady Dorset, is it? I don’t care if you’re the Queen herself. This is a house of mourning, and we aren’t receiving callers. Unless you wish to feel my boot against your arse, you will leave at once.”
Lady Bligh was busy as a hive of bees for the remainder for that day. She listened to Livvy’s account of her visit to the Hall and suggested that certain details be kept private lest Dickon aspire to use Connor’s guts as fiddle-strings; and then summoned Austen, who had passed a profitable interlude listening to servants’ gossip while he munched on scones. Next, before sallying forth to the solar, she issued instructions to her staff that had nothing to do with such traditional seasonal endeavors as goose pies and Yule-logs and ale.
The Baroness found the members of her house party embarked upon a tournament of tiddlywinks which, surprising no one, Jael won. To Hubert, currently lamenting that country life was damnably dull, she remarked that the sacrilegious wall-paintings in the Castle’s little Norman chapel were in grave need of repair, thereby sparking a gleam in his artistic eye, for Mr. Humboldt was a painter of no little talent and renown; to Sir John she proffered a promise that Humbug would not spoil his holiday by posing as a highwayman, nor her butler, who had sticky-fingered tendencies, filch his pocket-watch, at the same time flirting so outrageously his reservations were forgot. Having rendered the Chief Magistrate of Bow Street thoroughly, if temporarily bemused, Dulcie next sent Dickon’s cousin Ned to bed with a tisane prepared by her abigail, Culpepper, and her solemn promise that this night’s sleep would be free of the nightmares that had plagued him since he received a head wound at Toulouse. By this time, Jael had exceeded her tolerance for civilized conversation and slipped away. Lord and Lady Dorset had also, to no one’s surprise, previously withdrawn.