Somerset County, England
Philip Thane wasn’t handsome, precisely, but people seldom realized it when caught by his raffish charm, as women in particular often were. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man in his late twenties, with long muscled limbs and glossy brown hair and arresting brown-green eyes, and he sat in an elegant armchair in the equally elegant drawing-room with a kind of negligent grace that suggested nothing but confidence in his time-honored powers of persuasion.
Unfortunately for Philip, Mrs. Henrietta Penhallow, who sat opposite him, indomitably upright despite her advancing years, was well-acquainted with his history and exploits and so was not disposed to admire or applaud, and instead looked at him rather fixedly with her still-sharp blue eyes.
“How kind of you to drop by, Philip,” she said dryly. “I daresay you were in the neighborhood.”
Undeterred by this less than subtle jab—as Surmont Hall, the Penhallows’ vast ancestral estate, lay in the Somerset countryside and far from Philip’s usual cosmopolitan haunts—he merely smiled a smile more than once described as devastating, and breezily replied:
“No, I came here expressly to see you, Aunt Henrietta. It’s been far too long since I’ve had the pleasure of your company.”
The old lady’s silvery eyebrows went up at this form of address. She was not Philip Thane’s aunt, and in fact the lines of familial connection between them were tangled and hardly substantial. However, she let it pass.
“I trust,” she said, “that you have recovered from your wound, which I believe you sustained while in Vienna? I was informed it was nearly fatal.”
“Oh, it was nothing, really,” responded Philip, in the tone of one who had stubbed a toe, perhaps, or narrowly avoided a collision with a lamp-post, and anyone unaware of the actual circumstances of his injury would have no idea that he had been shot point-blank in the chest by a jealous husband who had rather vehemently objected to Philip’s dalliance with his wife.
A satirical smile curved old Mrs. Penhallow’s mouth. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Philip nodded, and crossed one long leg over the other, entirely at his ease. He wore a beautifully tailored burgundy jacket, elegant buckskins, and tall gleaming top-boots, all in the latest mode and crafted of the finest materials and obviously very expensive. His many-caped greatcoat, tall hat, gloves, and natty portmanteau he had left in the Great Hall under the gimlet eye of the butler Crenshaw who had received them with an unflappable politeness which somehow also managed to convey quite a bit of disapproval.
I regret to inform you that no bedchamber has yet been assigned or prepared, sir, as I was unaware of your imminent arrival, Crenshaw had frigidly said, to which Philip had carelessly answered:
Nobody was. Is your mistress about? The old one, I mean.
And so he had been ushered into this luxurious drawing-room where Henrietta Penhallow had received him with a surprise tempered by shrewd appraisal, then invited him to take a seat although she had not, so far, called for refreshments.
Chattily Philip said, “I hope all the family here is well, ma’am?”
“Thank you, yes.”
“That’s excellent news.”
“Indeed it is.”
“This is a charming room.”
“How kind of you to say.” The same satirical smile remained on the old lady’s face.
“The proportions are superb.”
“Nice to have a fire, for it’s devilish cold out today,” he remarked.
“Everyone said it would snow, but I knew it wouldn’t.”
“Yes, I have an uncanny knack for predicting the weather, you see.”
“Yes, it just comes to me somehow. Speaking of the uncanny, I was accosted by quite a character in your quaint little village—Riverton, isn’t it?—earlier today. I’d just gotten out of the coach from Bristol and was standing there on the high street wondering how I could get myself ferried over to Surmont Hall, when an old woman, whom I’ve never seen before in my life, marched up to me and said, rather in the manner of an ancient Greek oracle, ‘You’re right on time.’ As if she’d been waiting for me. Your obligatory village madwoman, I daresay.”
“That was Mrs. Roger, no doubt,” said Henrietta Penhallow. “A goodwife in full possession of her wits who’s widely believed hereabouts to be possessed of mystical powers. Last year, for example, she predicted that a cow belonging to one of our local farmers, a Mr. Moore, would be delivered of an albino calf, and she was correct. And apparently she was able to locate her neighbor’s long-lost watch by the deployment of a divining-rod which, she says, has been in her family for generations.”
“Oh, I don’t believe in such things, Auntie, do you? A lot of silly superstitions and primitive claptrap, that’s all.”
Those silvery brows went up again at a yet more cozy form of address, but Henrietta only went on, musingly:
“There was a time, several years ago, when Gabriel swore it was Mrs. Roger who helped him find Livia when she had gone missing.”
At this reference to Henrietta’s grandson and his wife, Philip nodded without much interest. “Well, at any rate, Mrs. Roger hustled me over to where her husband happened to be standing with his gig—quite the convenient stroke of luck for me!—and told him to drive me to Surmont Hall. Odd—I wonder how she knew I was bound here? I must have mentioned it, I suppose. Good God, only picture it—me in a gig sitting side-by-side with one of your worthy yokels. I don’t know how I held onto my countenance. You’re quite in the middle of nowhere, aren’t you, ma’am? Don’t you find yourselves awfully dull with nothing to do?”
“As Gabriel and Livia manage the estate, and together they not only look after the welfare of our tenant-families but also are raising a family of their own, it could hardly be said that there’s nothing to do. As for me, I provide whatever help is needed in estate management, I spend many happy hours in my greenhouse, and additionally am active in supporting various charities, both local and distant.”
Philip laughed and waved a dismissive hand in the air. “I meant jollification, ma’am—assemblies, dinners, balls, that sort of thing. Not work.”
“You say the word as if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” observed Henrietta Penhallow dryly. “But rest assured that the neighborhood is a lively one, and that we all enjoy a great deal of visiting among family and friends, especially upon celebratory occasions. As you may have heard, last year my great-granddaughter Jane married our neighbor the Duke of Radcliffe, which was a most delightful event. And his sister is shortly to marry our vicar Mr. Pressley.”
Philip gave an amused smile, imparting a strong impression of one heroically refraining from rolling one’s eyes, then continued to chat in his easy, self- assured way on subjects of more sophistication and scope, lightly touching on the latest London on-dits, the blackballing of Lady Caroline Lamb from the hallowed halls of Almack’s as well as from the haut ton in general, the further expansion of the Prince Regent’s girth which no longer made riding feasible (not least for any horse selected for the dubious honor of having the Regent’s enormous derriere lowered onto its back), the sad demise of Queen Charlotte back in November, and the publication of several notable works of literature including Miss Austen’s Persuasion and John Keats’ Endymion.
Mrs. Penhallow listened equably for some time, her hands folded in her lap, but when Philip began to comment upon the celebrated actor Edmund Kean’s deliberate sabotage of his role in The Fatal Accusation to Drury Lane, she interrupted him without ceremony.
“What is it that you want, Philip?”
His dark brows went up. “Want, Aunt Henrietta? Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean that it would save us both a considerable amount of time if you would simply divulge the actual reason for your sudden arrival upon my doorstep.”
If Mrs. Penhallow anticipated that that these forthright words, uttered with a slight but distinct tinge of acid, would discompose Philip Thane, she was destined to be disappointed, for he merely smiled his charming smile and remarked affably:
“You always were one of my favorite relations, ma’am.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere. I repeat: why are you here? Do you need money?”
“Now that you mention it, I am just a trifle under the hatches,” he acknowledged unblushingly.
“When are you not? I suppose your step-grandparents, your mother, your half-sister and your half-brother—not to mention all your acquaintance among Polite Society and the other, rackety circles you frequent—have turned you down in your requests for pecuniary assistance.”
“Your discernment, dear ma’am, never fails to astonish.”
“Rather, let us say that old habits die hard, and that I am more familiar than I would like to be regarding your way of life. It takes no amazing leap of intelligence to surmise that your pockets are once again to let.”
“A gentleman,” answered Philip, in a voice of the utmost reasonableness, “must be seen to live as one.”
“And handsome is as handsome does, if we are to sit here bandying aphorisms.”
“Surely, Auntie, you wouldn’t care to see a member of your own family languishing in debtors’ prison. Or worse. Only think of the embarrassment.”
“As you have caused the family a great deal of embarrassment for well over a decade, Philip, a little additional mortification would hardly be noticed.”
This blunt statement generated within Philip Thane a tiny, minute frisson of concern. He leaned forward and said in an earnest voice:
“A small loan, ma’am, would have me right as a trivet.”
Mrs. Penhallow chuckled sardonically. “You must know your reputation as someone who has never once repaid a loan, not even during your schoolboy days at Eton.”
“That’s ancient history. I’ve changed, Auntie, I assure you.”
“You will pardon my skepticism. I have, by now, little confidence in your ability to change.”
Philip leaned forward a bit more. “The thing of it is, ma’am, I’ve come all to pieces. If you send me away with nothing, I’ll be at my wit’s end. And look at it this way—send me away with something, and I’ll spare you the further burden of my presence.”
His voice was earnest, his expression appealing. Somehow he managed to evoke the pitiful sensibility of a forlorn, needy, yet adorable puppy without in the least detracting from his graceful masculine vigor. Henrietta eyed him thoughtfully. A lesser woman might feel a pang of grandmotherly concern; she might feel her heart softening, her resistance to his wiles waning.
Such a woman might reach into her reticule and dispense wads of bank-notes, as might a doting grand-parent give a naughty child a toy, if only to bring a smile back to his face.
She, however, was made of sterner stuff.
After several minutes of silent contemplation, which to Philip Thane began to feel like hours, then years, and possibly even decades, Henrietta brought her elbows to the padded arms of her chair, laced her fingers together, and made a little meditative temple of her two forefingers. Over it she slowly said:
“You might, perhaps, execute a small commission for me.”
A look of relief spread across Philip’s face. “By all means, dear ma’am. What is it?”
“You will recall my mentioning that I am engaged in various philanthropic endeavors. Late last year our bailiff brought to my attention the efforts of an agricultural cooperative in Whittlesey—where his brother lives—to remain viable after an especially bad harvest.”
“Whittlesey?” repeated Philip vaguely.
“A town in Peterborough County, some forty miles north of Cambridge and approximately two hundred miles from Surmont Hall.”
“Being deeply interested in agrarian matters—farmers being, of course, this country’s backbone for time immemorial—I made a sizable donation to the Straw Bear cooperative. Its president wrote back with a nicely worded letter of thanks, and invited me to say a few words to the townsfolk during their annual Plough Day festivities, which denote the community’s hopes for a prosperous growing season.”
Farmers? Growing season? Plough Day? Oh, good God. Philip felt his eyes begin to glaze over with boredom, but, as his position was precarious, and might even be said to be hanging by a thread, he made a determined attempt to keep his expression one of alert interest.
“While appreciative of the president’s invitation,” Henrietta continued, “I felt it better to assign someone else to go in my stead, and suggested to one of our local agriculturalists, Sir Gregory Stoke, that he travel to the festival, so that he could deliver some remarks at the opening ceremony, which is next week. He agreed. However, this morning I learned that Sir Gregory has fallen ill with an acute and incapacitating attack of gout. I was just about to send an express to the cooperative’s president, detailing the unfortunate change in plans, but now, it may be, I don’t have to.”
Gazing at Philip over the little temple of her forefingers with cynical shrewdness, Henrietta went on:
“It is said that when a door shuts, a window flies open. Therefore I shall designate you to serve as the representative of the Penhallow family and to make a short but appropriate speech at the ceremony and otherwise help suitably mark the occasion. You shall leave within the hour, traveling in one of the Penhallow barouches and staying at the various inns where I have reserved rooms on Sir Gregory’s behalf. On the assumption—and let us be clear, my dear Philip, this is merely conjecture on my part—that you behave creditably throughout, I will be glad to provide you with remuneration for your services.” Henrietta suddenly chuckled, and added:
“A novelty, is it not? You’ll be paid for working. Ha! Let no one assert that I am lacking in family feeling.”
Philip leaned back in his seat, his mind racing. He did not want to travel to some godforsaken hole of a town somewhere to the northeast, he did not want to issue pithy remarks upon the occasion of an agrarian festival, and he did not want to waste his precious time mingling with a bunch of dull provincials.
On the other hand—since he and Henrietta Penhallow were bandying aphorisms during this increasingly unpleasant and uncomfortable exchange—beggars couldn’t be choosers, and he was unnervingly close to being an actual beggar.
He had no choice. He’d have to make the best of it.
He would allow himself to be dragged to Whittlesey, but the moment his obligations were discharged he’d flee the place with such dispatch the bumpkins’ heads would spin like tops.
And his life would be his own again. Things would go on as they had before.
The tension in his shoulders melted away. He said, lying through his teeth:
“I look forward to this marvelous opportunity, Auntie.”
“Do you? Splendid. One last thing, my dear Philip. While I would hardly claim to be omniscient, or that I have eyes and ears everywhere, I must admit—without false modesty—that I have a reputation for being well informed when it comes to matters that concern me. So I trust you will behave yourself accordingly.”
Into Philip’s mind rose a hideous vision of Henrietta Penhallow and Mrs. Roger, the Riverton oracle, as Shakespearean witches huddled around a black smoking cauldron and cackling in a sinister way over entirely accurate visions of himself in faraway Whittlesey, mystically projected among the wisps of smoke.
A chill danced up his spine, and he told himself not to be a damned fool. Solvency beckoned. Debtors’ prison receded. All would be well.
“I do hope,” said Henrietta blandly, “the weather will be propitious for your journey.”
“Oh, it won’t snow. I can feel it.” He smiled at her, with the newly restored poise of one who enjoyed complete mastery of the world around him.
“Splendid,” repeated Henrietta Penhallow, dismantling the little temple of her fingers, and if her answering smile was both dubious and sardonic, Philip Thane chose to ignore it.
Four days later . . .
The Hare and Hounds Inn
Standing in the dilapidated courtyard of the equally dilapidated inn, her gloved hands akimbo at her waist, Margaret Allen stared grumpily at the stagecoach which lay all askew on the frozen hard-packed dirt, the iron shaft which connected the two front wheels having snapped a mile or two back, causing the body of the coach to crash onto the ground, the wheels to break, and the horses to rear in alarm.
Luckily neither horses nor passengers had been injured, but everyone had had to trudge in the bright sunshine of a bitterly cold morning to the little village of Brampton where, it seemed, the repair of the shaft would take a day or two, or maybe more, and nobody seemed to have any idea when replacement wheels could be secured. Furthermore, no other public conveyance was expected for several days.
Which meant, Margaret thought with annoyance, they were trapped here.
And she wasn’t looking forward to spending any time in the bedchamber assigned to her as she had seen for herself that the sheets were damp, dirty, and crawling with fleas; and that every surface was covered in a thick layer of dust. There was somewhere else she very much wanted to be, only a half-day’s journey from here.
Tantalizingly close, yet out of reach.
And time was of the essence.
Abruptly, to her ears came the sounds of horses’ hooves and jingling harness, and with eager strides she hurried out to the road.
A large black barouche, pulled by a team of four big horses and its body glinting in the sun like an oversized jewel, was approaching—and heading in the right direction.
Now this was more like it.
Margaret waited until the barouche was within a stone’s throw, then she waved to the coachman who brought the horses to a halt and looked inquiringly down at her from his high perch on the box.
“May I be of assistance, ma’am?” he said, but before Margaret could answer the window was shoved up and a dark-haired man stuck his head out. His brown eyes met hers and then he smiled, a bold, appreciative, devil-may-care smile that transformed his features into something beyond ordinary good looks.
It was—the realization winged through her mind— pure, powerful, unadulterated charm that illuminated his face and made him strikingly attractive.
So attractive, in fact, that she felt a delicious tingle running through her.
It had been so long, so dreadfully long, since she had felt anything like this. Inside herself Margaret swept aside a pang of old grief and renewed loss, and was just about to smile back when his emboldened gaze raked over her from head to foot in a frankly piratical manner, and the warm exciting tingle was quenched in a heartbeat.
She didn’t mind the appreciative smile, but she certainly didn’t enjoy being ogled like that, in a way that made her glad she had on several layers of clothing impenetrable to the human eye.
Margaret crossed her arms over her chest.
Blast it all, wasn’t it just her bad luck that the first vehicle to pass her way contained an irksome libertine. His smile widened, and in a smooth, deep, cultured voice (which nearly sent another tingle shimmering through her before she managed to suppress it) he said:
“Why, hullo there. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”
If it weren’t for the fact that she was rather desperate, Margaret would have enjoyed giving vent to the tart retort hovering on her tongue. Instead she said, with as much civility as possible:
“Good morning, sir. Might I inquire as to where you’re heading?”
Margaret felt her heart bound with sudden hope. “That’s where I’m going as well, but I find myself stranded here due to an unfortunate mishap with the stage. I know this is a great and presumptuous favor to ask, sir, but have you any extra room inside?”
“Not only do I have extra room, dear lady, I’m the sole passenger. And the seats are . . . very capacious.” At the silky innuendo in his too-charming voice, Margaret’s temper rose still higher and she almost abandoned her resolve to be civil. But then she realized how she might give him back his own, in a way that allowed her to maintain her dignity and would soon have her on the road again. Her little plan was devious, admittedly, but after all, turnabout was fair play.
So she smiled and sweetly said, “How kind, sir. Won’t you have your coach come into the courtyard while I gather up my things?”
He returned her smile, looking not unlike a cat expecting to be served a delectable bowl of cream. “By all means.”
Margaret went back into the courtyard and whisked herself inside the dumpy, dusty inn, returning some five minutes later with her portmanteau and bandbox, Aunt Seraphina, and young Mr. Lawrence, a fellow passenger who had joined them in Watford and was also on his way to Whittlesey, and who kindly insisted on carrying Aunt Seraphina’s luggage along with his own.
Together they bade farewell to the disappointed proprietor whose eyes had brightened at the prospect of some paying guests, then emerged into the courtyard where the coach stood waiting with the door wide open and the steps let down. The dark-haired man, who was clad in a dashing many-caped greatcoat, Margaret could now see, and a tall stylish hat along with a pair of beautifully polished boots, was leaning against the gleaming black side-panel of the barouche with his legs crossed at the ankle in a very debonair manner.
She watched as his anticipatory smile faded and onto his face came a look of surprise and dismay.
Ha ha, she thought triumphantly, doing her best to keep her expression as bland as a baby’s, and as she and her companions came close, she said in a sweet, demure tone:
“Thank you so much, sir, for your generosity in allowing us to accompany you to Whittlesey. May I introduce you to my aunt, Miss Allen, and to Mr. Lawrence, a new acquaintance of ours?” She added, even more sweetly:
“And I am Miss Margaret Allen.”
So of course he had no choice but to reply, “I’m Philip Thane, at your service,” although his voice did lack a certain graciousness; after which he handed Aunt Seraphina and herself up into the barouche, while Mr. Lawrence helped the coachman secure their luggage behind and then climbed in, and finally Mr. Thane did also.
Margaret was pleased that Mr. Thane also had no choice but to sit opposite Aunt Seraphina, and she repressed a laugh as she watched the two of them sizing each other up, Aunt Seraphina with her brows beetled and Mr. Thane looking increasingly disgruntled.
The carriage began to roll and Margaret leaned back against the plush velvet squabs.
“My,” she remarked, in a satisfied, cheerful tone, “what comfortable seats. How wonderfully capacious they are.”
Mr. Thane shot her a look of annoyance and folded his arms across his chest.
“Thane,” said Aunt Seraphina, as if the word was foreign to her, and managing to sound both doubtful and haughty at the same time. “I don’t believe I know the name.”
Mr. Thane shot her a look of annoyance. “I’m a relation of the Penhallow family, and my step-grandparents are the Duke and Duchess of Egremont.” He paused, as if waiting for gasps of amazement or a burst of applause, and when none were forthcoming, he added, sounding just as haughty as Aunt Seraphina:
“You have heard of the Penhallows, I assume.”
“Who hasn’t?” interjected Mr. Lawrence. “Pretty much the first family of England, aren’t they? Came along with the Conqueror, chummy with royalty, plump in the pocket, immense seat in Somerset, and so on and so forth.”
“Draping yourself in a cloak of reflected glory, aren’t you?” said Aunt Seraphina to Mr. Thane. “Is this really your barouche?”
The temperature inside the coach seemed to drop about twenty degrees and so Margaret thought it prudent to reenter the conversation, such as it was. She said:
“What takes you to Whittlesey, sir? Is that where you live?”
He actually shuddered. “Good Lord, no. It will be my first and—I assure you—my only time there. I’m going to give a little speech at the Plough Day ceremony.” There was a complete and utter lack of enthusiasm in his voice.
“I say, sir, that’s splendid,” exclaimed Mr. Lawrence. “I’m a journalist for the Watford Bugle, and I’m writing an article about tomorrow’s events. Care to offer up any early tidbits?” He looked as if he were about to dive into his rucksack and produce a pencil and paper on the spot.
“No,” Mr. Thane responded, sarcasm creeping into his tone, “I prefer to leave you in suspense about my scintillating remarks, which will doubtless render my entire audience of rustics, provincials, hobnails, yokels, chawbacons, hicks, bumpkins, and loobies spellbound.”
“Good as a thesaurus, aren’t you?” said Aunt Seraphina, not very pleasantly. “You might want to include ‘hawbucks,’ ‘joskins,’ and ‘lumpkins’ while you’re busy denigrating the good citizens of Whittlesey.”
“If it comes to that, you’re quite the thesaurus yourself, ma’am,” returned Mr. Thane, also not very pleasantly.
“I ought to be, as I’m a lexicographer who’s published three of them, and am at present working on my fourth.”
“Indeed. How charming, marvelous, wonderful, captivating, glorious, delightful, and sublime.”
Aunt Seraphina, unmoved by Mr. Thane’s gibe, pulled some white lace tatting from her enormous reticule and began wielding her mother-of-pearl shuttle with ferocious speed and dexterity.
“If that’s truly your attitude, Mr. Thane,” said Margaret, “I can’t imagine your speech will go over particularly well.”
He shrugged. “For any normal human being, it’s difficult to get excited about an event called Plough Day.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m quite excited to witness it myself.”
“Why, for God’s sake?”
“Because I’m interested in folk-lore and old cultural traditions.”
He stared, then drawled, “Oh, like your esteemed aunt, you’re blue.”
“If by ‘blue,’ you mean we actually have brains, despite the ghastly misfortune of being women, then you’re correct. Plough Day is a custom dating back several centuries, possibly linked to the Nordic invasions of the eighth century, and I for one can hardly wait to see the Straw Bear.”
“I know there’s a Straw Bear cooperative, but please, please, don’t tell me there’s an actual bear draped in straw.”
“No, not an animal, but apparently somebody gets all covered over in sheaves of straw, and—”
“Surely not voluntarily.”
“It’s said to be a great honor,” Margaret went on, repressing a real urge to swing out her foot and kick him in the shin, “and the Straw Bear is meant to personify the winter season. His appearance on Plough Day symbolically represents the banishment of winter, so that crops can grow again and the people will flourish.”
“How childishly sweet.”
“Just because a custom springs from ancient beliefs very different from our own contemporary ones doesn’t mean they’re worthy of your scorn. Besides, even if it’s only a fable, it’s still a lovely one. It makes people feel hopeful and engaged in their community—a very meaningful sentiment in my opinion.”
“Rubbish. Fables are for children, not for adults. The people of Whittlesey need to grow up.”
“Your outlook on life,” said Margaret, “is inspiring.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
At this Margaret pressed her lips together, hard, in order to prevent herself from tumbling deeper down the rabbit-hole of a conversation which was clearly going nowhere, then realized that Mr. Thane was looking at her with a fresh gleam of interest in his brown eyes which, she now saw, had within them hints of deep forest green. He went on:
“How the devil did a beautiful woman like yourself end up delving into such dull stuff? Why aren’t you married?”
“Brazen,” interpolated Aunt Seraphina in a colorless tone, without looking up from her tatting. “Brash, impertinent, impudent, brassy, shameless.”
“First of all,” Margaret said rather snappishly to Mr. Thane, her resolve already weakening, “it’s not dull to me. As for the ‘how,’ it probably has something to do with the fact that I come from a family of academics in Oxford.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said in a voice of spurious sympathy, and Margaret was so irritated that her strength of will reasserted itself and she didn’t even bother telling him that it was none of his business as to why she was unmarried at the supposedly advanced age of twenty-five, and that she didn’t appreciate his comments about her appearance, and also that she was pretty confident his speech tomorrow wasn’t going to be received with much fanfare; and instead she reached into her reticule and pulled out a book, with which she silently and determinedly beguiled the time—some four or five hours—until they reached Whittlesey.
Dusk had begun to fall, blanketing the town in soft shades of dark blue, violet, and murky gray. They passed houses, shops, offices, inns, a little theatre, some restaurants, taverns, a central square with a festive-looking platform liberally strewn with bunting, and sidewalks filled with people going to and fro, huddled close against the cold in their coats, pelisses, shawls, and hats.
“Where can I drop you?” said Mr. Thane. “Unless you’re also staying at the Apple Street Inn.” He looked with transparent and annoying significance at Margaret, who replied without regret:
“We’re staying at the Woodhull Inn.”
“As am I,” chimed in young Mr. Lawrence.
Mr. Thane banged on the roof and the barouche came to a stop. He pushed open the window, stuck his head out, and told the coachman to find the Woodhull Inn, after which he quickly closed the window, shutting out the chilly air. They could hear the coachman asking a passerby for directions, and soon the barouche started rolling again. It was just a few minutes later that it came to a stop once more, in the courtyard of a modest but well-kept hostelry all lit up with lights inside which rendered it very cozy-looking in the deepening twilight.
Margaret was so happy to find herself in Whittlesey, when only a few hours ago it had seemed a real impossibility, that she felt a sudden rush of gratitude toward Mr. Thane and impulsively she said to him:
“Won’t you join my aunt and me for dinner, Mr. Thane? By way of a small but heartfelt thank-you. You as well, Mr. Lawrence.”
Mr. Lawrence gave a boyish grin. “I say, that sounds awfully jolly. Thanks ever so much.”
But Mr. Thane shook his head and fixed his eyes soulfully upon her. “No, my dear Miss Allen, two’s company and four’s a crowd. I prefer to loom large in your imagination instead. Envision me as a desperate man, in lonely contemplation of a beautiful face and an even more beautiful figure, consoling myself as men have done for time immemorial.”
“Lewd,” remarked Aunt Seraphina, putting away her tatting. “Lecherous, lubricous, satiric, dissolute, dissipated.”
“Irritable,” said Mr. Thane in a thoughtful voice. “Cantankerous, crabbed, curmudgeonly, waspish, prickly.”
“Offensive, disrespectful, repulsive, rude, objectionable, displeasing.”
“Belligerent, combative, bellicose, aggressive, martial, hostile.”
The coachman pulled open the door and swung down the steps. “Well,” said Margaret, glad to thus put an end to the escalating hostilities between her aunt and their unlikely benefactor, “thank you again for the ride, Mr. Thane. We’ll see you tomorrow morning, bright and early.”
“Just how bright and early do you mean?”
“Why, the ceremony begins just after sunrise.”
“Of course it does,” he replied in a very bitter way, and Margaret, suppressing a strong desire to snicker, accepted the coachman’s hand and stepped down into the courtyard, deftly avoiding a slushy puddle, and also looking forward to a big dinner, a nice long bath, a book, and so to bed.