Somerset County, England
His Grace the Duke of Radcliffe had reached the last of the wide marble steps that led from his house onto the graveled sweep and was just about to execute a gentle left turn when from above and behind him came a piercing voice which throbbed with annoyance and disapproval.
He turned and looked up.
On the broad covered portico stood his sister Margaret, clad in habitual black from the lacy cap on her head to the trailing draperies of her gown and incredibly flat slippers. Her back was ramrod straight, her brows were drawn together, and her lips compressed into a thin, tight line. She had, in fact, the darkly ominous air of an avenging angel. All she lacked was a fiery sword. He said:
Rather than responding to his civil greeting in kind, her frown only deepened. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To the stables.”
“To get my horse.”
“For what purpose are you getting your horse?”
He squinted up at her. Really, sometimes Margaret asked the most obvious of questions. “To go riding.”
“To see Penhallow over at Surmont Hall. Apparently the enmity between our respective pigmen has been escalating.”
“Indeed,” said Margaret, although in a noticeably flat way.
“Yes, Johns says Cremwell has been threatening to sneak over from the Hall and put calomel in the Duchess’ slops. Can’t have that, you know. Very unsporting.” Anthony watched with mild interest as Margaret’s eyes began snapping with anger.
“Why you had to name that revolting pig ‘Duchess’ is beyond me.”
“I didn’t have to, Meg. And it was you who inspired me—don’t you remember? Saying that I cared more for the new piglet than I did Selina. Which, of course, was not entirely untrue.”
At this frank reference to his wife, dead these five years, and the unvarnished truth of his marriage—a dry, sepulchral, mutually loveless match of convenience—Margaret said, with more tartness than seemed strictly necessary:
“Your remarks, Anthony, are insupportable. Selina, may I remind you, was the daughter of an earl, and comported herself at all times with the dignity appropriate to her station in life. Moreover, if she had known you named a pig after her—”
“You’re off the mark there, old girl. I didn’t name the pig ‘Selina,’ after all.”
“Off the mark? Why, you—you’re—flippant—and feckless—and—and—” Margaret actually sputtered, briefly fell silent, then gathered herself again for her riposte, as might a duelist prepare for the killing blow. “Your juvenile absence of seriousness on the subject is an affront to anyone with a particle of sensibility.”
“I assure you, Meg, I’m very serious about my pigs.”
“And,” she went on, unheeding, “the manner in which you fraternize with your pigman is a complete betrayal of your rank.”
“Is that what you came out onto the portico to tell me? Far be it from me to throw your own words back into your face, but you’ve said that many times before. Also, you’ll get chilled standing there without a shawl.”
“I came out to inform you,” Margaret said, in the tone of one forced to call upon the last vestiges of extraordinary self-control in the face of unbearable provocation, “that instead of gallivanting off to Surmont Hall to chat about pigs with Gabriel Penhallow, you’re shortly expected at tea, in your own drawing-room, where you are to carry on—if at all humanly possible—a polite conversation with the Preston-Carnabys.”
“The Preston-Carnabys, whose daughter, as I have already explained to you twice today, you are to inspect with an eye toward matrimony.”
Anthony groaned. “Oh, for God’s sake, Meg, another one?”
“Yes, another one. It has evidently escaped your notice that you have but the one son, which leaves you in a very precarious position. You must marry again.”
“Five years with Selina was enough.”
“Your feelings in the matter, Anthony, are irrelevant. You have a duty to the family and to your ancient lineage. The Preston-Carnabys are our guests, and—”
“Your guests. I didn’t invite them.”
“They are our guests,” Margaret said with steel in her voice, “who have come all the way from Yorkshire. Incidentally, Nurse tells me that Wakefield has not been seen since breakfast, and I got a note from the vicar saying that Wakefield didn’t come for his lessons, and your tenant farmer Moore stopped by to complain that Wakefield was seen attempting to ride one of his bulls—all of which means, I daresay, that he could be anywhere by now.”
“Oh, Wake’s somewhere about, you know.”
“Your only child and heir is missing.”
“Not missing, Meg. Just not here. When I was his age I could spend half the day up a tree, or fishing by the river.”
“And look how you turned out. When Wakefield returns, I expect you to discipline him with the utmost stringency. He’s a marquis, after all, and ought to act like one.”
“And in line to inherit one of the most illustrious dukedoms in the country.”
“Very well, stale bread and water for a week. Maybe a few turns on the rack, too.”
In the silence that fell between them after this last utterance, Anthony watched with the same mild interest as Margaret’s face turned so vehemently and comprehensively brilliant a red that she gave the appearance of one wearing an odd (and off-putting) theatrical mask. Finally she hissed:
“You—you’re—you’re . . .”
“Yes?” he said, politely.
“You’re a very bad duke!”
“Am I?” he said, still politely.
“Yes! In fact, you’re the worst duke in the world!”
“Well then.” Warm and cozy in his wool greatcoat and tall hat, his hands stuck comfortably into his pockets, Anthony stood looking up at Margaret on the portico. The black hem of her gown fluttered in a sharp wintry wind, her eyes were watering in the cold, and her teeth chattered ever so slightly. He knew from extensive experience that she would go on standing there until she gained her point, no matter how long it took. Little did he want on his conscience the nasty bout of pleurisy that might develop if she stayed like this much longer, so he said:
“I’ll talk to Wakefield, Meg. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll stop by the stables to tell them I don’t want my horse after all. Then I’ll come back for tea.”
She eyed him narrowly, then nodded and turned around. A footman had obviously been awaiting her return to the house, for the door swung open wide to admit her, and then was closed very, very gently by the same invisible hand within. Had it not been beneath her, Anthony knew that Margaret would have loved nothing better than personally slamming the great oak door shut in a way that would have made her sentiments known to everyone within a fifty-foot radius.
He gave a little sigh.
Poor old Margaret.
He wished she would marry again.
At eighteen she had been wed to Selina’s older brother, who had died after only two years of marriage. His heir, Selina’s younger brother, had promptly booted the widowed Margaret out of the house, and so she had come back home to Hastings where she and Selina had—beneath a brittle veneer of civility—lived under the same roof as might two queens jockey for the same throne, an uneasy state of affairs which lasted until Selina’s death, five long years later.
Now here they were.
He a widower at thirty-one, she a widow at thirty-three. She still wore black for the late Viscount Peete, which was a mystery to Anthony, as Skiffy Featherington had not only been exceedingly stupid, he had also been vain, arrogant, and among the most extreme of the so-called Dandy set—notorious throughout half of England for the immense shoulder-padding in his coats, the soaring height of his shirt-points, the half-dozen fobs jangling from his waist, and the jeweled quizzing-glass he carried with him everywhere including (it was rumored) bed, bathtub, and privy.
Well, life was full of mysteries, wasn’t it?
By way of further example, why had blight returned this past autumn to the northeastern apple orchards after a full decade of untroubled health and productivity?
And was it true that the long white blurry swath in the night sky wasn’t a celestial sort of exhalation, as he’d been taught in his youth, but was instead, thanks to the revelations of modern telescopes, an immense grouping of distant stars?
Too, recently he had found himself wondering why the self-styled village oracle, Mrs. Roger, had come up to him the last time he was in Riverton and said, nodding her head in a highly significant manner, You’re next, Yer Grace.
Also, would Margaret ever stop presenting him with marital candidates, or would this dispiriting parade of hopeful females go on forever?
Anthony turned away from the marble steps and began walking toward the stables, and as he passed a large and perfectly rounded shrub, a small form leaped out from behind it and onto the graveled path, shouting in a high-pitched childish treble:
Anthony paused and calmly regarded his son, who in turn looked very disappointed.
“Oh, Father, you never jump.”
“Nerves of iron,” explained Anthony. “Only way a chap could survive in this family. How long have you been hiding behind that shrub?”
“Ages. I heard everything you and Aunt Margaret said. I say, Father, are you going to marry Miss Thingummy?”
“You know, the lady from Yorkshire.”
“Well, that’s good. I saw her in the drawing-room, Father, and she asked who I was, and when I told her, she said I ought to be away at school, and then I told her I didn’t want to go, and she said I was a foolish little boy and that you’re a nonglickful father.”
“Do you mean neglectful?”
“Yes, that’s what I said. And then she said that the first thing she’ll do after she marries you will be to pack me off to Eton.”
“Fat chance of that. You’d run away and join the Navy.”
“Yes, that’s what I told her! And guess what she said then, Father?”
“She complimented you on your patriotic spirit.”
“No, she said I was not only a foolish little boy, but a horrid one too.”
“Hardly an endearing strategy to get me to marry her,” remarked Anthony. “I wonder why she didn’t think you’d repeat what she said to you.”
Wakefield smiled a distinctly gleeful smile. “I told her I would, Father, and then she gave me a half-crown to keep my mouth shut.”
“And yet here you are, telling me.”
“Aren’t you glad I did?”
“Well, yes,” Anthony admitted. “You’ve given me all the insight I need into Miss Thingummy’s character.”
“I think you ought to give me a half-crown for that.”
“Don’t push your luck. You’re already deep into morally ambiguous territory. By the way, what were you doing in the drawing-room?”
“Hiding from Nurse.”
“She keeps trying to give me castor oil, and it’s foul.”
Anthony nodded, and resumed walking again. “She dosed me with that when I was a lad. Said it would fatten me up.”
Briskly taking two or three strides to one of his own, Wakefield kept pace alongside him. “It didn’t work, Father.”
“No, it only made me bilious. Does she think you’re too thin also?”
“Yes. She says I’ll grow up to be a scarecrow like you if I don’t watch out.”
“A scarecrow? How unkind of Nurse to say that.”
“I stuck up for you, Father.”
“Did you, Wake? That was ripping of you.”
“Yes, I told her you don’t look like a scarecrow—you’re more like a crane. Because your legs are awfully long, you know.”
“They may be long, my boy, but at least they reach the ground.”
Wakefield thought this over, and grinned. “I say, Father, you’re the most complete hand.”
“One does try.”
“So will you talk to Nurse, then?”
“Yes. Henceforth no drop of castor oil is to pass betwixt your unwilling lips. This is my ducal decree. Let no man—or nurse—flout it with impunity.”
Wakefield gave a joyful skip. “That’s capital, Father, thanks ever so much.”
“You’re welcome. Speaking of hiding in the drawing-room, why didn’t you go to the vicarage today for your lessons? ”
“I wanted to, of course,” said Wakefield, looking up at him with brown eyes that had somehow gotten all big and glistening, like those of a sweet, vulnerable fawn. “But there were so many more important things I had to do, Father.”
“Well, for one, yesterday I told Johns I’d stand guard over the Duchess for a while, so he could go get his breakfast. He’d told me about Cremwell’s evil plan, you see, and he stayed by the Duchess’ pig-cote all night. And when he got back, I was hungry, so I went to Mrs. Gregg’s cottage. Because she makes the most dilickable muffins, Father.”
“Do you mean delectable?”
“Yes, that’s what I said. You ought to try them. So I had nuncheon with Mrs. Gregg, and then I was going to the vicarage, but I passed Mr. Moore’s field and saw that bull of his, Old Snorter, and thought I’d give it a go. So after I fell off, I had to run away from Old Snorter and Mr. Moore, who was shouting like anything. Then I tripped over a tree-root and scraped away half the skin on my arm—”
“Did you really?”
“Well, no, but I was bleeding a bit, and luckily Miss Trevelyan came by on one of her walks, and she took me back to her house and put a sticking-plaster on it, and then I was hungry again, so Miss Humphrey made some sandwiches for me, and then we all went into the library so Miss Trevelyan could read aloud to us from the book she’s writing, which was jolly good fun, and Miss Humphrey also brought in some biscuits. I saved one for you, Father.”
Wakefield pulled from the pocket of his coat a vaguely circular object. “See? It’s only a tiny bit crumbled.”
He offered it to Anthony, who accepted it, blew off what looked like some dog hairs, and took a bite. “I say, it is good.”
Wakefield looked pleased. “Isn’t it? I ate five of them.”
Anthony took another bite, then said, “Look here, old chap, these are all very worthy activities, but you and I made a bargain. I agreed to let you stay at home and not go off to school, and you agreed to have lessons with Mr. Pressley. So you ought to stick to the bargain, don’t you think?”
Wakefield opened his mouth, closed it, kicked at the gravel, hopped on one foot, lagged behind, ran to catch up, and finally said, “Yes, Father.”
“Splendid. Want the last bite?”
“Yes, please.” Wakefield took what was left of the biscuit and ate it. “I say, Father, I don’t think Aunt Margaret meant it when she said you’re the worst duke in the world.”
“Oh yes, she did,” answered Anthony dispassionately.
“There’s probably worse ones in China, Father, or in the Colonies, or Antarctica.”
“You’re a great comfort to me, my boy.”
“One does try.”
Anthony ruffled his son’s tawny hair, repressed a sigh at the thought of the predictably ghastly tea that lay ahead of him, and then the two of them passed into the stables which smelled so pleasantly of horse, hay, liniment, cheroot, and manure.
Meanwhile, over at Surmont Hall . . .
Shivering, Jane Kent stood on the porch of the intimidatingly vast old house, gazing with considerable uneasiness at the massive door of dark knotted wood and the polished knocker which was just a little above her eye-level. She was uncomfortably aware that the hem of her shabby old gown was rather short, showing far too much of her scrawny ankles in equally shabby stockings and also entirely failing to conceal the fact that her dark half-boots, though sturdy, were (unfortunately) shabby too.
She tightened her grip on the small battered valise she held in both hands, additionally aware that she was ravenously hungry, underdressed for the winter weather, not as clean as she would like after traveling in various dingy coaches for four days, and that in the tatty reticule she carried looped around her bony wrist was all the money she had left in the world.
Three pounds, four shillings, and sixpence.
No, wait, that was wrong.
She had given the shillings to a nice old man named John Roger who had conveyed her from the village— Riverton—in his gig. He hadn’t wanted to take the money, but she had insisted.
It was his wife, curiously enough, who had helped her find her way here.
Jane had just climbed out of the coach from Bristol, and was standing, stiff and cold and bewildered, on the high street, when a stout old lady had come marching up and said in a satisfied way:
You’re right on time.
Of course, the old lady, who then introduced herself as Mrs. Roger, could have been referring to the coach’s traveling schedule, but somehow Jane didn’t think that was quite what she had meant. Still, before she could gather her scattered wits to try and frame a rational inquiry, Mrs. Roger had taken her over to where her husband happened to be standing with his gig and horse, hustled Jane up onto the high front seat, and said:
You’re to ask for old Mrs. Penhallow.
More bewildered than ever, Jane had thought about the fragile, yellowed letter she had in her possession, and only said, haltingly:
At Surmont Hall?
Mrs. Roger had looked up at her and calmly answered,
Well, of course.
And just for a second Jane felt like she had asked a stupid question.
A loud complaining rumble from her empty stomach abruptly reminded her that she’d been standing on the wide gracious porch of Surmont Hall like a wax dummy. Well, it was now or never, she supposed.
So Jane lifted her hand and rapped the knocker in a way that sounded, she hoped, neither too assertive nor too timid—the easy, casual knock of a person who was certainly going to be admitted into this very, very grand house despite looking as if she really ought to be going around the back to the servants’ entrance and begging for a bowl of soup.
Which she might, in fact, shortly be doing.
A blast of cold sharp wind whipped at the hems of Jane’s gown and pelisse and, as if embodied in an unseen malevolent hand, it also ripped from her head her old flat- crowned straw bonnet, which flew high into the air, did three or four jaunty somersaults, and landed gracefully onto the tranquil waters of the large ornamental pond which lay beyond the curving graveled carriage sweep.
Jane was just about to go darting after it (as it was her only hat) when the big dark door opened and instead she was startled into immobility again. A beautifully dressed, well-fed, very clean young footman stood there, looking inquiringly at her.
“May I help you, miss?”
“Yes, please.” Jane realized that her voice had emerged all weak and croaky, like that of a despairing frog, perhaps, and hastily she cleared her throat. “I’ve—I’ve come to see Mrs. Penhallow.”
“Which one, miss?”
Jane gaped at the footman. Was this a trick question? How many Mrs. Penhallows could there possibly be? A dozen—a hundred—a thousand? Into her muddled mind came Mrs. Roger’s instructions and she said rather wildly, “The—ah—older Mrs. Penhallow, if you please.”
A little doubtfully, the footman said, “Is she expecting you, miss?”
“I—I have a letter.” This was true, although Jane was miserably conscious that her answer was more than a little opaque. Her stomach rumbled again, as if to helpfully remind her of just how miserable things were.
“Very well, miss. Won’t you please come inside?” The footman stepped aside, and gratefully Jane went into the light and warmth of an immense high-ceilinged hall, catching quick glimpses of an enormous fireplace flanked by gleaming suits of armor, a coat of arms carved into the massive chimney-piece, a large and unnerving display of old weapons on one wall, a wide curving staircase leading to the upstairs.
Everything was so big—and it made her feel so very small.
Jane shrank a little inside her pelisse, feeling extremely out of place among all this elegance and grandeur, and also hoping she hadn’t tracked mud inside. Her idea back in Nantwich, to upend her life because of a yellowy old letter discovered by chance, had seemed so brilliant and important at the time, but now it struck her as reckless, demented, asinine, ruinous folly.
Still, maybe there would be soup.
She thought of a nice fragrant steaming hot bowl of it, filled with, say, chunks of beef, and with carrots and parsnips and onions. Maybe some celery and diced potatoes, too.
Then she pictured a lovely thick slice of fresh bread, with a spongy tender crumb and a crisp chewy crust.
No, two slices. Why not?
In her mind’s eye she pictured herself lavishly spreading onto the bread as much butter as she liked.
Lots and lots of it, fresh-churned and creamy, with a little sprinkle of salt, perhaps.
Covering every bit of the slice, all the way to the crust.
She would eat these two buttery slices very methodically— it would give her soup a chance to cool a little.
Next she imagined another slice of bread, which she wouldn’t butter, but would instead dip into her soup. It would soak up the rich beefy broth, and get all soft and drippy, and she’d have to carefully bite at it so as not to spill a single drop.
After that, she’d spoon up everything else.
Then, when she had nearly finished the bowl, she would use some more bread to mop up the last of the broth, wiping her bowl clean.
Of course, there would be plenty more soup and bread, and it would be perfectly all right for her to have seconds, so—
Jane realized that she was salivating, and that drool was just about to start spooling out of the side of her mouth. Quickly she swallowed. As she did, she heard, from within a corridor off the hall, a man say, in a deep, cool, aristocratic-sounding voice tinged with faint amusement:
“Cremwell’s been telling me that Johns—the Hastings pigman—has been grossly insulting him in the Riverton pubs, denigrating his professional expertise, mocking his appearance, and casting aspersions on his mother’s fidelity.”
“Dear me,” said another voice, a woman’s, also very cool and aristocratic. “The passions of these pigmen! You ought, perhaps, to speak with Radcliffe, before they come to actual blows.”
Nervously Jane turned toward these new voices and, her fingers clenched tight on the handle of her valise, watched as from the corridor came two people walking side by side.
One was a tall, broad-shouldered, excessively good-looking man in his early thirties, with neatly cropped brown hair and penetrating dark eyes, and dressed very fine in a dark blue jacket, dark breeches, and tall glossy boots.
The other person was a handsome, slender old lady, very straight and graceful, with silvery curls and sharp blue eyes, and clad in a soft dove-gray gown of marvelous elegance and simplicity.
Jane stared at her, her heart thumping hard within her chest, hearing in her mind once again Mrs. Roger’s firm voice:
You’re to ask for old Mrs. Penhallow.
She took a few tentative steps forward. “Please, ma’am— are you—may I speak with you, please?” Her voice felt to her as if it were being swallowed up in this enormous hall, but apparently it was loud enough to attract the attention of the handsome man and the elegant old lady, for they both paused and turned to look at her.
The old lady’s reaction was more intense—far, far more intense—than Jane could ever have anticipated.
At first moving over Jane with mild curiosity, those sharp blue eyes suddenly widened, her mouth went slack, and the old lady gasped out:
Her face gone white as snow, she staggered back and would have fallen if not for the swift action of the man beside her, who wrapped his arm around her to keep her upright.
The old lady didn’t faint, but she certainly looked as if she had seen a ghost.