Authors: Robert Neill
Tags: #historical fiction
‘Just bear in mind,’ he said, ‘he’s straight out of the last century. What they used to call a man of sensibility.’
He stepped out, standing bareheaded in the sunlight as the older man came down the steps. Then he spoke cheerfully.
‘Good-day, sir. Reporting back--and here’s your chariot. I hope you’ll like it.’
‘So do I.’ It was the pleasant easy voice of the man of taste and of the world. ‘I’ll see it better when they’ve washed some dust off it.’
‘Not to be avoided, sir. But meantime . . .’ He turned for a moment. ‘I’ve a friend with me, from the Navy. We once tried beach warfare together. Permit me--Captain Grant.’
‘You’ re very welcome, sir.’ It came at once, with the practised affability of the diplomat. ‘Do you stay with John?’
‘For a few days, my lord.’
‘Then I shall hope to see you here again. But for the moment...’ He glanced quickly at Wickham. ‘You’ll stay to dine with me?’
‘We should like to. But is Mary here?’
‘No. She went home this morning. Said she must have the house ready for you.’
‘She doesn’t know I’ve a guest.’
‘Then I’ll send across to tell her. However . . .’ He pulled his watch from his fob and glanced quickly at it. ‘A bottle of sherry, I think, before we dine. There’s just time for it. And thank you for the chariot.’
He stood for another moment on the steps, slim and straight, contemplating the chariot and carrying easily his sixty years and more. He could have been called good-looking, a man of quality in every sense, dignified and confident, with fine intelligent eyes and a lean spare vigour that told of interests and an abstemious life. There was shrewdness in his clear sharp face, and certainly a worldly sagacity; but then, as he turned for an instant to look straight at Grant, there was a sudden glimpse of something deeper.
‘I’m glad to see you, sir,’ he said again. ‘I--have some ties with the Navy. Pray come in.’ For an instant his eyes seemed tired and sad, but then he turned briskly to the groom, who was still standing with the horses. ‘See these beasts fed. Then dinner for the postboy. Now, if you please.’
He led up the steps, his guests on either side of him, and into a hall that was as classical as the portico, a vaulted ceiling of ornamental plaster carried on fluted Doric columns, a stairway that went sweeping left and right, and tall mahogany doors behind the columns. Sherry was in his library, where pilasters graced the plastered walls, and three tall windows looked out to a velvet lawn fringed with cedars. Then he took them to dinner, set on a table of rich mahogany that could have seated twenty, in a softly carpeted room whose windows looked across the park to an ornamental lake with a miniature of a Grecian temple on its further bank. Dinner was worthy of the room, perfectly cooked, perfectly served by a butler and three young parlour-maids. It was not a heavy meal, for which their host politely apologized, saying that he had seen enough of mottled noses and found it better, in these days, to be sparing of food. There was a turbot with lobster sauce, a pair of boiled fowls, a ham, a saddle of mutton, a pudding, a syllabub, and fruit; with madeira, claret, and champagne; the port and the coffee and brandy to follow.
He was an admirable host, leading the talk so deftly that his guests seemed to talk rather than he. Nor was he solemn about it. He sat back, delicately taking the scent of the madeira, and eyed his nephew quizzically before asking how the pretty horse-breakers fared, these days.
‘Or should I ask,’ he added, ‘how
fared with them?’
‘Not I, sir. It’s Grant you should be asking.
had a rose from the Anstey.’
‘That being a matter for congratulation?’ An eyebrow quivered delicately. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know the lady.’
‘Nor I, alas! She prefers the Navy, it seems. Something about a sailor, and who cares then for a marching regiment?’
‘That’s not new. It was the same in my day, I remember.
And---‘ He stopped, and the amusement had left his eyes as he looked for a moment at Grant. ‘My son was in the Navy.’
‘Indeed?’ A sudden instinct warned him to be careful. The son should surely have been in the regiment, where all of his line had been. ‘I was wondering if I could have met him?’
‘I wondered too. He was in
at Trafalgar. A midshipman.’
Grant stopped short, meeting the older man’s eyes and knowing that he need ask no more.
had been Collingwood’s flagship in the Lee Division. She had broken the enemy’s line, as
had done, and she had paid the price in casualties.
‘I see you’ve guessed.’ The quiet voice came again to check his thoughts. ‘I have not had a son, since then.’
‘No.’ He spoke shortly, with memories rising that would not lie down. ‘I was in
also in the Lee Division. Five ships astern, though, and that was easier.’
‘But I was asking if you had met him?’
‘There wasn’t wind enough.’ He was answering his own thoughts, the memories that would not quite go, and he had to bring himself sharply to what was needed. ‘Midshipman Barford? I think--I think perhaps I did. Not well, but there’s a memory. I was a midshipman myself, you see, and, of course, we did take our boats to the flagship at times--Captain seeing the Admiral, perhaps--and we’d be asked aboard.’
There was silence. Grant stirred slightly in his chair and saw Wickham sitting very still, looking down at his plate and toying with a crumb of bread. The parlour-maids stood waiting. The room was drowsy in the sunlight of the afternoon, and through the open windows came a hum of bees. Beyond was the lawn, soft and green, and then the lake, with the white stone temple set among the trees. It was quiet, and utterly peaceful. It mirrored an England made for the delight of man, where only peace could dwell. Wickham was rolling the breadcrumb into a ball, and he had lost his father and his brother-in-law.
Barford spoke suddenly and with a sharp change of tone, as if he were pulling himself together. His nod set the parlour-maids leaping for the plates. The room roused to activity, and he had an easy smile as he turned to his nephew again.
‘We seem to be losing this tale, John. You were telling me of the--Anstey, did you say? A daughter of Phryne, I suppose? But what’s she like?’
‘Ask Grant, sir. But she’s Phryne, as you say. She burst on the town the other week--in a curricle.’
‘Curricle! A woman?’
‘Driving it herself. So she’s the talk everywhere.’
‘But tell me more of this.’
It took the next twenty minutes, while the boiled fowls came and went, and it was not a monologue. Barford saw to that, with his lively questions, shrewd comments, and smiling reminiscences of some earlier pretty horse-breakers, as he called them. Wickham was amused and interested, very ready with his interjections, and Grant was willing enough to talk of her--except of the last night. That belonged to him alone, and he made no mention of it, though neither of them would have lifted an eyebrow if he had done. That, he noted thoughtfully, seemed certain.
He thought the topic ended when the talk was turned to
and the way he had met John Wickham; but later, when the fruits were on the table, the grapes and peaches and nectarines, their host came suddenly back to Hildersham and his dealings with Anice.
‘Typical of him,’ was his dry comment. ‘What I think he calls prime style.’
‘You know him?’ asked Grant quietly.
‘Slightly. I knew his father better. Well . . .’ He leaned forward for a biscuit, which was a signal to the butler that he was ready for the port. ‘Let’s hope he can afford it.’
‘Anice? Oh, surely---‘
‘It depends on what else he’s been doing. Though I’m told he’s careful at the tables.’ He pushed out his glass as the butler came deferentially with the decanter. ‘Do you play at cards, Grant?’
‘Hardly at all’
‘Excellent. There’s more ruin in cards than in women.’ He waved his hand gently over the glass for the scent of the wine. ‘At all events, if you must play cards for money, don’t do it after dinner, especially when you’ve liked the wine. There may be someone sitting there who hasn’t.’
‘Dined so well. He’ll have a clearer head. That’s what Hildersham seems to have noticed.’
‘A nice point. I hadn’t thought of it.’
‘Because you’ve been at sea, where you don’t have gaming tables. A naval upbringing can keep a youngster out of mischief. Some sorts of mischief, at any rate.’
‘There’s another side to it, though.’ Grant hesitated, and then decided to press it. ‘I feel at a loss these days, out of soundings, and that’s due to being at sea. I don’t know what is thought, or how people look at things.’
‘This Hildersham affair, say, with Anice. How about his wife?’
‘Does it concern her at all?’
‘I’d have thought if a man goes to Paris with---‘
‘My dear Grant . . .’ There was a quick touch of amusement in his tone. ‘It happens, surely?’
‘Often enough. But I thought Hildersham a very decent fellow.’
‘So he is. And you are therefore surprised that he should leave his wife?’ He spoke steadily now, with the amusement gone. ‘Am I to explain?’
‘I’m asking you to.’
‘If I can.’ He sat in silence for a moment, and then spoke thoughtfully. ‘He has a great inheritance--estates, high rank, an ancient name--and such things can be a burden. They put duties on a man, and the first duty is to provide an heir. I speak feelingly of that, since I have not done it.’ For an instant he was silent, and then the level tone continued. ‘So he must find a wife, and early. She must be of proper age and health, and of a family that matches his own. A settlement must be made, which can be hard to reach. And I suppose it’s needful that the lady should be willing. In one way and another, you see, it’s difficult. Not many ladies fit requirements, and in the end his choice is small. He must take what wife he can. You could even feel sorry for him.’
‘Certainly. But do you wonder they do not regard the marriage as a thing for themselves? It’s a duty to posterity and is so performed. He’ll expect that his first-born, and perhaps his second-born, shall be faithfully his own, and during that time he may stay with his wife. I believe Hildersham did. But afterwards . . .’ There was a slight shrug of shoulders. ‘Do you see?’ ‘He feels differently?’
‘And why should he not? Set it to his credit that he will not usually object if his wife should also look around her. He’d think it highly ill bred to do that. I don’t know how far you can agree?’
‘I won’t presume to. I’m merely glad to know. It’s helpful.’
‘It may be. But . . .’ Wickham leaned suddenly forward, his hand on the table, and his keen glance took in both of them. ‘Helpful or not, I think we should keep these thoughts quiet in front of Mary. I doubt if she’d sympathize.’
‘No-o.’ Barford nodded slowly, as if appraising this. ‘From what we’ve heard--Charles was like that?’
‘That’s St. Hollith.’ Wickham spoke quickly to Grant, and then turned back again. ‘Yes. Though I’m not quite sure he qualified as a good fellow, as you’ve called it.’
‘We can’t be sure. And
is still a decent tag.’
‘I’m aware of it, sir. I’m merely saying we should keep this quiet in front of Mary.’
‘By all means.’ Again Barford nodded, and then he looked at Grant. ‘In general--and Mary apart--it’s well to be careful with the ladies.’
‘They’re unpredictable?’ said Wickham.
‘Not entirely. I was about to observe that a lady who is tolerant is sometimes looking for what will excuse herself. I don’t mean Mary.’
‘She said, by the way, that she’s expecting you for supper. She declared roundly that you’re to be with her by eight o’clock.’
‘The devil she did! Can’t we have any port?’ It was half past seven when they took leave at last of their host, who let them out himself through the tall French windows of his library. Then, in the last of the September dusk, they walked together across the park, where the cedars were black above the grass and the lake was without a ripple. They went quietly, their footsteps lost in the turf. An owl hooted, and there was not another sound till they came to the high brick wall and a wicket gate. They passed through, and before them was a church, grey and ghostly now, and beyond it a pool and a village green, wide and level. Lights showed in houses, and Wickham found his voice again.
‘I did say we were the poor relations. We
live at the Manor. This is it.’
It was a house of comfortable size, set back behind a garden, and Grant paused for a moment by the gate, while he tried to estimate it. But it was sunk in darkness now, and all he could see was the simple shape of it, the cornice and dormers, the tall pillared door and the symmetry of the windows. Wisps of smoke rose from the chimneys, lifting lazily against the sky, and something seemed to welcome him.
‘Old?’ he asked quietly.
‘Oh no. A century, perhaps. Queen Anne stuff, I believe.’
Wickham pushed back the gate, and as he strode up the path the door swung suddenly open, and a woman was under its fine old lintel, standing in a pool of light to receive him. She seemed young, perhaps younger than he, dressed for simplicity in a green spotted silk. She was not even in the latest mode. She had none of the extravagance of gores and flounces that were to be seen in Town, though she was certainly not rustic. The look of quality was obvious, and for a moment Grant hung back, standing by the gate in the shielding dark, and seeing the quick warm smile that came to her as she held out her arms to her brother. She kissed him quickly, and then for an instant they were eye to eye, standing together in obvious pleasure. They were different, yet alike; two of a kind; and the perception of it gave Grant the clue. She was of the same breed, a soldier’s daughter, a soldier’s sister, born to a tradition and a way of life that did not go with the Town, or the Earl of Hildersham, or the St. Hollith she had married. She was more like--Captain Grant. It was a tradition the Navy knew.