Authors: Robert Neill
Tags: #historical fiction
‘Oh, I see.’
‘That’s rather more than I did. But I did manage to get an ammunition wagon that still had some wheels. My own men got that, and then it was Hildersham. Nobody asked him, but he brought me a pair of horses, and God knows where he got them. Just said he’d respected my father, and you couldn’t have had the beasts for any money just then--or for any money
could have paid.’
‘Good for Hildersham.’
‘It was. Of course he knew St. Hollith too, and that may have helped.’
‘Who’s St. Hollith?’
‘Oh--my brother-in-law. Or was. I told you.’ Wickham had a little frown now. ‘Lord St. Hollith--seventh Baron, I think he was. He married my sister.’
‘Cavalry. Paget’s lot.’ Again Wickham spoke briefly. ‘Give them credit for spunk. They went right through the French Cuirassiers, and then sheer through the infantry--D’Erlon’s corps. Cut ‘em to shreds. Hmm.’
‘You don’t sound as if you entirely approve?’
‘We none of us did. It was the old cavalry trouble-discipline not quite good enough. They went on for another mile after that, having a go at the guns or anything else in sight, and there wasn’t a man or a horse with any breath left in him when the Cuirassiers counter-attacked--as, of course, they did. It was
turn to be cut to pieces, and we had to fight the rest of the day without any cavalry support worth having. It made a long day.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘One doesn’t like to say too much. But these cavalry officers aren’t really professionals as we are--or you are. A few exceptions, of course, but mostly they’re dashing amateurs. A year or two in a good regiment puts polish on a man. Change from hunting too. That kind of thing. And that was St. Hollith, and that’s Hildersham.’
‘I know the breed.
get them occasionally, and we dislike them as much as you do.’
‘I don’t dislike exactly. After all, being fair to St. Hollith, the man finished well. He
trying to rally his squadron when they got him. He was doing his best, but it wasn’t quite good enough. That’s all. And it was all for St. Hollith. Quite a gay fellow, too.’
‘My sympathies to your sister.’
‘Hmm!’ He nodded doubtfully. ‘I’m not sure he was the best of husbands, though. Gaiety seems to have been devoted to someone else. Mind you, I didn’t really know the man. I didn’t meet him much. Still . . .’ Again he paused thoughtfully. ‘The one thing I do know is that he seems to have run through his money. He hasn’t left much for Mary.’
‘Your sister?’ Grant nodded. ‘How does she take it?’
‘I don’t know. There was our father, too, you see, so she lost both ways, and I can’t sort them out.’
‘It might be both.’
‘Very likely. I must say she’s inclined to stay at home, though. Doesn’t want the St. Hollith mansion again. Says she had enough of it. So I’ll have to---’ He stopped suddenly, and for a moment he was looking keenly at Grant. Then he spoke with a change of tone. ‘I suppose you wouldn’t like a country visit?’
‘Why, what do you---’
‘Come with me for a while. Have a look at that village life we were talking of.’
‘Don’t let me plague you.’ Wickham sounded diffident now. ‘But it’s my own house, and a firm invitation.’
‘It’s uncommonly good of you. But why should you?’
‘Why shouldn’t I? But if you want reasons . . .’ The smile was back now, but he seemed to speak in earnest. ‘I could say old times--what we began in
You remember how we talked in your cabin?’
‘And on deck too. Do you know you never looked at me properly? You’d always one eye on the sails.’
‘Force of habit, I suppose. You should watch your topsails--weather leeches.’
‘Whatever that means. And you’d the other eye on the horizon. Another habit, no doubt?’
‘A little more, in those waters. But coming back to this, you were saying?’
‘I said we could talk, and in these days I’d be glad of someone I
talk to. I’ve said it isn’t good at home.
missing my father, too. Does this put you off?’
He said it curtly, and meant it. Then silence came, while his thoughts ranged round it, cutting across it and conflicting with each other. It tempted, but there was a touch of despair. It would take him to what he needed, the other England that would not be London, and it could lead to introductions and to friends. It would take him out of London, away from Anice, and he would not see her again. That would be wise, and the thought chilled. The thought of Wickham warmed. He liked the man. Anice was off to Paris, and he need not stay in the country long. Yet he would be wise to forget her.
He looked up, and saw Wickham watching him with courteous patience. Their eyes met, and something flowed between them that made it easier.
‘Take your time,’ said Wickham. ‘I don’t want to hurry you.’
‘I feel I should be rather making use of you. It fits--more or less--with what I need.’
‘More or less is probably right. It’s how I feel about most things, just now.’
‘I don’t know what sort of guest I should be. I’m not used to mixing with the Peerage.’
‘Are you asked to?’
‘Lord Barford’s your uncle, you say. And your sister, I suppose, is Lady St. Hollith?’
‘There’s nothing of the Peerage about Mary, and she knows it. As for Barford, he’s only lately become a peer, and he’s a gay old dog when you get to know him. He has a weakness for the Navy too. He--er--had a son.’
Once again they looked at each other in silence, and then Wickham nodded.
‘It seems agreed, and it’s more than I’d expected when I turned in here for dinner. Fortunate. Now then . . .’ His tone was suddenly brisker. ‘Order of march?’
‘When do you think of going?’
‘I’d arranged for tomorrow. Does that give time to pack your kit? I’d arranged a late start, though--ten o’clock.’ ‘Then make it so.’
‘You’re sure? It does sound late, but I’ve an appointment tonight, and--er ...’ The laugh came suddenly back to him. ‘Well, she might keep me late.’
‘Then good luck to you.’
‘Thanks. We’ll say ten o’clock, then. That’s at the Angel in the Strand--back of St. Clement’s. I had the chariot sent there because it’s a post house.’
‘We’re driving post?’
‘At Barford’s expense. Suits me perfectly.’
‘So it should. All right--the Angel at ten. And thank you.’
‘Don’t say it.’ Wickham looked happily across the table and then slipped his watch out of his fob. ‘We’ve time to end this bottle. What’s the toast?’
‘The old one--fair wind and happy landfall.’
‘I thought it might have been something about sweethearts--from the Navy?’
‘Not . . .’ Grant tried quickly to chase some thoughts away. ‘Not always.’
‘As you choose.’ Wickham was smiling as he lifted his glass. ‘Here’s to it, then. Fair wind--and no regrets!’
It was nearly eight o’clock, and all but dark, when they came into the cool air of the Haymarket again, to part for the few brief hours before their journey. Wickham went hurrying off, and Grant took it easily. He had nothing to do except pack, and since it was no great way to Berkeley Square he took the long way round, walking slowly along Pall Mall while he tried to clear his thoughts. He was certainly glad of Wickham, and the starting again of a friendship that had not had time to grow. The invitation could give him what he wanted, or thought he wanted, and it would all have been perfect, except for the obvious. He was going away from her.
He turned into St. James’s Street, where the clubs were crowded and the gambling houses gay with lights, and he was still telling himself that this was silly. She was going to Paris, and he would see no more of her if he stayed in London. But the freshness of her was still in his mind, her laughing eyes and her eager childish talk, and he was resentful that she could be bought by Hildersham’s inheritance--and he told himself that this, too, was silly. She was probably older than she looked, and the childish talk was a make-believe, done for his amusement, and he would be better in the country--if he could manage Lord Barford, and the sister who was Lady St. Hollith. She would perhaps be friendly, like her brother, and she would at least know that there had been a war. But she would not have eyes like Anice, or the laugh, and the look of quick delight.
He came to his hotel, and as he was crossing the hall the porter came after him with a letter. It had been brought by hand, the man said, an hour ago, and Grant took it slowly to the candles that flanked the fire. It was a single sheet, folded and faintly scented, addressed in a hand that was big and impetuous, surely feminine, and he had already made his guess as he ripped the seal.
You can come to me tonight if you want to. H. has to dine with Prinny, so I’ll be all alone, and I want to hear about ships. Of course, if you’re going to someone else you needn’t think about me.
He stood utterly still as it reeled through his brain. He could not quite grasp it, what she wanted or why, and a part of him was leaping in delight, a part saying coldly that this was her trade and she was pursuing it brazenly. It was impudent and outrageous, and--as his other part rejoined--entirely like her.
‘Do you send an answer, sir?’
He glanced up and saw the porter waiting, and then he nodded in dismissal.
‘Thank you. Nothing needed.’
He was crisp and easy about it, but
officers would have known that impassive stance and the slow unhurried walk that took him to the stairs. Two thoughts were struggling wildly, and one of them was winning. He was warm from the wine at dinner, and he wanted to see her. There was Hildersham, too, who had been so smooth and possessive, and something like a cutting-out expedition could be attempted here--or the beginnings of one. He could hardly do much in an evening, but he would know the coast better for next time.
He had made up his mind before he reached his bedroom, and already he was considering the details. She had given him a rose, so he must take her something in return, and he thought he had it ready. She had talked of ships, and if that was a pretext he could use it also. He had in his baggage the assortment of trinkets and souvenirs that the homecoming sailor brings, and among them was what Anice would surely like--the sailor’s ship-in-a-bottle. And not merely a ship. It was a model of
done by one of his foretopmen in the endless days at sea, and Grant had liked it enough to buy it. He took it now to the light, and there was
lifeless in a stiff blue sea of paint, but certainly
with her black hull, yellow decks, white sails on slender masts, and the black-and-yellow checker of the gun ports. Even the guns were there, and the wheel and binnacle and hatches, and the specks of shining gold on the taffrail that spelt her name. He held it up, viewing it through the clear glass of the bottle, and he thought it was exactly right. At worst it was a pretext, and at best, if Anice really liked it, it would be
ship for her; and that, at least, was something she could not have from Hildersham.
He straightened, glanced at himself in the mirror, and saw that he was still in his frock-coat and pantaloons. They would certainly not do after dinner, and he had to change hurriedly into his evening clothes, a double-breasted tailed coat of the darkest green, white marcella waistcoat, black silk breeches, white silk stockings, and buckled shoes. He viewed himself again as he buttoned the tightly fitting coat and smoothed the white folds of his cravat, and he was modestly satisfied. Then he took the ship in its bottle, wrapped it quickly in a scarf, and was ready. A moment later he was walking down the stair, and the impassive look had returned when the porter bowed him out.
It was scarcely five minutes’ walk, once he had found the way, and her door in Queen Street was discreetly dark. He pulled at the bell and stood waiting, the ship tucked under his arm while his free hand toyed with his cravat, nervously smoothing it a little further. He was not used to this sort of thing, and he had no notion how she would behave. But he wanted her, and his mouth was feeling dry. Then the door swung open, disclosing a softly lighted hall and a carpeted stair in white-and-gold. The footman, in primrose and lavender, had evidently expected him.
‘Captain Grant, sir? Pray come in, sir. I will inform Miss Anstey.’
He was steady and controlled again as he gave the man his hat. Then he walked to the hearth, where a fire was bright and welcoming, and his thoughts were rushing wildly now, wondering what to say to her, and how to begin. He saw his hat put on an inlaid table that was surely Hepplewhite, and then, while he stood silently by the fire, her voice broke in.
‘Oh, it’s you, is it? I thought you’d forgotten me--gone to someone else.’
‘I don’t forget you.’
He said it quickly as he jerked convulsively away from the fireplace, spinning round to look up the stair. Its white-and-gold was dimly lighted, made softer by the carpet of deep maroon, but on the landing above there was a chandelier of crystal glass, and she was standing artlessly under it, full in its golden light. It gave a deeper glow to her hair, showed him the twinkling blue of her eyes, and lighted her shoulders, left bare by a dress that seemed to hang precariously from the tops of her arms. It was of satin, sleek and shining, of the palest primrose, with just enough colour to take the cold from ivory. It brought a memory to him, and a darting thought that this might have been intended.
He went slowly up the stair, drawn up it by the sheer presence of her, and a quick thought came of a moth and a candle. Then he was wondering what he should say to her. Something proper was needed, something mannered, perhaps about being honoured . . .
‘I’m glad you’ve come. I’ve been all by myself. No one to talk to.’
She had spoken first, with the pout and the child-like tone that he remembered, and suddenly he was irritated. He was at the top of the stair, level with her, looking into her eyes, and he had known her for years, for as long as he could remember. He was sure he had, and he could bear no pretences. He did not believe she was a child.