When Sir Ralph Townsend made his Will, he knew there would be trouble about the way he left his property, but he consoled himself with the fact that if there was he would not be around to witness it. He left his entailed property to his son, because he could not help it. Had he had any choice in the matter, he would not have hesitated to cut the boy off without a shilling, for young Gerard had married a Frenchwoman, disobliging his father's wishes, and Sir Ralph had not forgiven him for that. Still, Gerard was the only son he had, and even if he had not been, he was the eldest, so it was not possible for Sir Ralph to ignore him when it came to finding an heir to his property. Much as he disliked it, he therefore left the bulk of his estate to his son Gerard, adding the acid declaration that he hoped his son would be happy in the knowledge of having driven his father into an early grave with his wayward conduct, and hoping Gerard's own offspring would amply repay him.
His unentailed property Sir Ralph left to his two daughters, Rebecca Marston -- a widow with two children -, and Celia, who was the youngest of his children and unmarried. The estate was not large; it consisted of a moated, half-timbered manor house, more than three hundred years old, surrounded by some farmland and woodland and providing the owner with an annual income of about fifteen hundred pounds. Together with Mrs. Marston's jointure, and the capital the girls had inherited from their mother, this would provide them with a respectable income.
Sir Ralph died within a month of making his will, and as he had foreseen there was a great deal of trouble over it. Captain Townsend, now Sir Gerard, had rushed home from France when his eldest sister had sent him word of his father's illness, but had arrived too late. Even the funeral had already been arranged by his efficient sister, Mrs. Marston, and there was nothing left for Sir Gerard to do but attend his father's obsequies and listen to his Will being read.
He greatly resented his father's reproaches, justifiably so, many people thought, but he also resented that he had to share his inheritance with his sisters. His father had had some six thousand a year, but that had included the income derived from what was now his sisters' property. Sir Gerard did not see why he should give up a quarter of what should by rights have belonged to him, and harsh words were exchanged on both sides, leaving brother and sisters at odds with each other. In consequence of this quarrel, both Mrs. Marston and Miss Townsend decided that it would be best if they left their brother's house as quickly as possible, and so they packed their belongings and took themselves off to Farley Manor, the house their father had left them. The inconvenience of such an ancient dwelling, they agreed, could not be any worse than their brother's attitude towards them, and they would be better off at the Manor house, low ceilings, damp walls, and smoking chimneys notwithstanding.
Their neighbourhood quite naturally took a great deal of interest in these events, and by the time Lady Townsend arrived from France public opinion had come to the conclusion that the rift between Sir Gerard and his sisters had been her fault. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, Lady Townsend took her husband severely to task over the matter, and informed him quite candidly that while he might choose to quarrel with his sisters she did not. She announced she would do her best to bring about a reconciliation, an announcement which left her husband rather indifferent. She might do as she liked, he told his wife, but he for one would be damned if he ever spoke to either of his sisters again -- any more than was necessary, that was. Lady Townsend had been married for long enough to know when argument would be fruitless; she let the matter rest for the time being, hoping that her husband would soften his attitude towards his sisters one day. She determined to give him ample opportunity to do so.
Marianne Lecanuet, as her name had been before her marriage, was known for her amiability as well as her beauty. In spite of her husband's family's worries, she had been neither a fortune hunter nor a vulgar creature. Her father was a well-respected lawyer, and had risen to the position of mayor in her hometown, a small market town in Normandy. Her mother came from a family of scholars and lawyers as well, and had taken good care that her daughter should receive the best education to be had. Marianne had a well-informed mind, pleasant manners, and was far from the horrible picture her in-laws had had in mind when they had received the news of their son's marriage. Marianne did not blame them for their opinion -- they had never met her, and knew nothing of her family. In fact, her own parents had had similar worries when she had introduced their future son-in-law to them, but they had soon reconciled themselves to the match, feeling that Marianne's happiness was what mattered, and if she wanted to marry that Englishman she was free to do so. Therefore she had great hopes that, once she became acquainted with her husband's relatives, they would warm to her, and was furious with her husband for having deprived her of that chance. She was not going to give in very soon, however.
So, within two days of their sister-in-law's arrival in England, Mrs. Marston and Miss Townsend received a visit from her.
They were sitting in the small parlour, mending some of the contents of the linen cupboards, and listening to Sophia and Caroline reading from a storybook. A governess for the girls was beyond their means, and even if they had been able to afford one there would have been no room for her in the house, for the house was a small one. Besides, knowing next to nothing about farming they had been obliged to employ a bailiff, whose wages were high but worth every penny, considering that the proper management of the estate would ensure their own income. But this also meant that they had little to spare for other servants, and so they had to do without a butler, housekeeper or a governess for the girls. They did employ a cook, a scullery-maid, a housemaid, and a footman, as well as a groom and two stable boys, so their household was by no means a small one, but still it was much smaller than what they had been accustomed to.
"Mrs. Ellis called this morning, while you were out with the girls," Celia remarked when Sophia, the younger of her nieces, had finished reading her story and handed the book to her elder sister.
"You might also say that I took care to be out when Mrs. Ellis called," Mrs. Marston said with a smile. "You know I have little taste for her gossip. Did she come to glean some news from you?"
"No doubt, though she did not receive any. I am afraid she is quite out of charity with me."
"If this means she will not favour us with her visits any more I shall be very well pleased," Mrs. Marston remarked.
"She did tell me that Gerard's wife arrived at Stansfield yesterday."
"He will be happy to have her there, I suppose."
"It need not concern us if he is not, certainly." Celia loved her brother very much, so his behaviour towards her and her sister had hurt her much more than she cared to let on. She hid her emotions behind an outward appearance of indifference, but did not fool anyone who knew her well. Encountering Rebecca's gaze, she added, hastily, "There is also a new curate in Farley. Mrs. Ellis said that Dr. Neville is getting on in years and feels no longer able to serve in two parishes, so he gave the curacy of Farley to his nephew, a Mr. Hart."
"I am sure Mrs. Ellis told you everything there is to know about Mr. Hart," Rebecca said with a humorous twinkle in her eyes.
"More than Mr. Hart probably knows about himself," Celia replied with a laugh. "According to Mrs. Ellis he is an agreeable sort of man, very handsome, and unmarried."
"Oh! I should have known," Rebecca laughed. "Why else was Mrs. Ellis in such a hurry to apprise us of his arrival?
"It was very kind of her, wasn't it?" Celia retorted. "Make sure to wear that fetching new bonnet of yours when we go to church next Sunday."
"I think I will stand out much more if I put on a plain one," Rebecca predicted, just as the door opened and Edward, their footman, came in.
"Lady Townsend to see you, ma'am," he announced, and held out a silver salver containing a card.
"Lady Townsend!" both Rebecca and Celia exclaimed, almost in unison. Then Rebecca turned to her daughters, and told them to go outside and play for a while.
"But, Mama, I want to..." little Sophia protested.
"I know exactly what you want, my dear, but I am sure there will be opportunity enough for you to make your aunt's acquaintance later. Now go off and play, there's a good girl," Rebecca said, and the two girls went outside without any further protest.
"Show her in," Rebecca said to Edward, once she heard the girls' voices outside in the garden.
"Why do you think she has come to see us?" Celia asked her sister when Edward was out of earshot.
"We will find out in a moment," Rebecca replied, took off her apron and stuffed it behind a pillow on her chair. Celia followed her example. Then Edward opened the door, and ushered the most elegant creature either of the sisters had ever seen into the parlour.
"Lady Townsend," he announced.
Both sisters rose from their seats, and curtseyed. They were willing to treat their sister-in-law with proper civility -- no one should be able to say that they had not.
Lady Townsend curtseyed as well, and then smiled at them.
"I am sorry to ... to descend on you in ... in such an unconventional manner," she said. "But I am afraid that we would have to wait until Judgement Day if we depended on Gerard for an introduction." Her English was good, Celia thought, though she did have a strong French accent.
"You are very welcome here, Lady Townsend," Rebecca said stiffly.
"Oh, please do not call me by that name," their sister-in-law cried. "We are sisters, n'est-ce pas? I am Marianne."
It was obvious that their sister-in-law wished to be on good terms with them -- there was a sense of sincerity about her that Celia liked. Rebecca thought the same, apparently.
"Do take a seat, Marianne," she said. "My name is Rebecca, and this is my sister Celia."
"Such beautiful names," Marianne sighed. "I have always thought so whenever Gerard told me about his sisters. I have come here because I wanted to meet you -- to tell you that I think Gerard was very wrong in quarrelling with you."
"Thank you," Rebecca replied dryly.
"You see ... I fear you might think it was ... ma faute ... my fault. But it was not. In fact I was very angry with him when I found out. I do understand that he was hurt -- here." She pointed at her heart. "But that does not give him a reason for quarrelling with you."
"You are very frank," Celia marvelled.
"Oh yes, I am. To ... to a fault, I think the saying is? I do not like falsehood, and I think it is wrong for families to quarrel. A family should stand together, so this is why I have come. I ... I hope you will welcome me to your family," she added, on an almost pleading note. "I do know your father thought I only married Gerard for his money, but this is not true. I really love him, and it hurts me to see that he quarrelled with his family because of me. I want to ... make amends. Is that the word?"
"That is the word," Celia assured her, and held out her hand. "I for one would like to get to know you, Marianne."
"So would I," Rebecca agreed. Marianne's candid air and friendly manner could not but appeal to both sisters, and they were well aware of the difficult situation their sister-in-law was in. She had arrived in a foreign country where she was to spend the rest of her life, and had no one but her husband to turn to, neither friends not relations. She needed friends, and Celia was most ready to give her a chance. Marianne took both Celia and Rebecca's hands, and shook them.
"I am so glad," she confessed. "I will do my best to make Gerard see reason, but it will take some time. He is like a mulet, that one."
"A ... a mule?" Celia asked and, when Marianne answered in the affirmative, laughed. "An apt description," she said. "But now, if you are not pressed for time, won't you tell us how you met my brother, and how you came to marry him? I am sure Gerard confessed it all to my father, but he did not want to talk about it to us, so we know nothing."
When Marianne left Farley Manor an hour later, she had drunk tea with her sisters-in-law, and had regaled them with an account of how she had first met Gerard at an assembly in Rouen, how they had fallen in love with each other almost instantly, and how they had got a military chaplain to perform their marriage, with Gerard's closest friend acting as best man. They found out that Gerard had never doubted his father would approve of his bride, once he got to know her, and that his father's attitude had bitterly disappointed him. Still, he had had some hope of reconciliation when he had returned home to attend his father's sickbed. Unfortunately, Sir Ralph had died before his son's arrival.
"And this is why I cannot allow him to become a stranger to his family," she finished her account. "He is very bitter, but he will be very sorry later, and then ..." She broke off, and added, after a moment, "But I am his wife. I will do what is good for him, malgré lui... whether he likes it or not."
On this bracing note, Marianne left them, not without expressing the hope that she might be allowed to drop in sometimes, and that they would come and call on her occasionally.
"I will make Gerard behave," she promised, and then swept out of their parlour to return to her husband's house. Neither Celia nor Rebecca had the least doubt that this formidable little lady was well able to keep her promise.
Two days after Marianne's first visit, Celia and Rebecca received an invitation to dine with her. Gerard would be away from home, Marianne promised, for he had to attend a meeting at the vicarage in Farley -- Dr. Neville wanted to introduce the new curate to the parish council and the magistrate. Gerard, as the principal landlord in the area, had been invited too, even though he was neither magistrate nor council member.
"So you see," Marianne finished her invitation, "we will be able to have a nice evening alone, and you need not fear any unpleasantness. Do bring my little nieces as well; I am looking forward to meeting them."
Celia did not feel comfortable with the thought of visiting her sister-in-law behind her brother's back, but was reassured by another note from Marianne, which told her that Gerard knew that she had invited them and had made no objection to their visit. This did not sound too encouraging, but, Rebecca pointed out, at least no one could say they had slipped into the house behind Gerard's back if he had known they were coming, and so they sent Marianne a message that they would be glad to dine with her.
Their great-aunt's old carriage, which had gathered dust in the Farley Manor coach house for years, was taken out and given a good clean accordingly, and on the appointed day their groom climbed onto the box, and conveyed the ladies and the girls to their former home, where Marianne was awaiting them impatiently.
"I am so glad you could come," she cried, hugging both her sisters-in-law and kissing their cheeks. Upon their startled look, she smiled ruefully "Should I not have done that?" she asked. "But it is how I greet my family back home -- do you mind very much?"
"Not at all," Celia assured her. "I was not quite prepared for so much
cordiality, that's all."
Celia was shy, but Marianne's open and friendly manner made her feel quite at ease with her.
Marianne gave her a grateful smile, and turned to Rebecca's girls. "And you are my little nieces, are you?"
Caroline and Sophia curtseyed, and uttered a shy greeting.
Marianne asked their names, and wanted to know how old they were, and finally offered them some lemonade before dinner.
"I have sherry for you, if you like some," she said to her sisters-in-law, as she rang the bell for refreshment. "But I thought the children might like lemonade better. -- Such beautiful girls they are, Rebecca, and so well-behaved!"
"They are, sometimes," Rebecca said with a smile. "Though very rarely, I admit. I think they are a little intimidated because they do not know you yet. Once they have grown used to their Aunt Marianne there will be no recognising them. Just ask their Aunt Celia."
"Are they really so naughty?" Marianne asked. "They look like little angels!"
"So they do," Celia agreed. "But their behaviour is far from angelic at times."
"Good. Otherwise it would be quite frightening, would it not?" Marianne laughed as Celia admitted that she had a point.
They drank their sherry -- and the girls their lemonade -- while Marianne told them how she was getting on in her husband's house so far.
"The servants do not like me very much yet, I am afraid," Marianne said. "I think they believe you left because of me. But it is getting better. The old Nurse was very happy when I gave her your regards, and when I told the cook you were coming to dinner and she was to make whatever your favourites were she almost smiled at me. I think I have made...progress, non?"
"Absolutely. I have never seen Cook smile at anyone before," Celia laughed. "In fact I did not know she was so fond of us."
"She certainly never gave us a reason to believe she was," Rebecca added.
"Nurse is going to give the girls some milk and cake after dinner," Marianne announced, and turned to the girls again. "So take care to leave some room for that."
Caroline and Sophia brightened up -- they loved their old nurse, and had shed bitter tears because they had had to leave her behind.
"Can we go to the nursery now?" Caroline ventured to ask.
"No, I am afraid you cannot go there until after dinner," Marianne replied. "The cake will not be ready, I think."
Aware of the servants, who appeared to be eager to catch any word that was being said, both sisters took great care to speak of commonplace topics, and Marianne followed their lead. Since Marianne had been so profuse in her admiration of Rebecca's children, Rebecca was well pleased with her sister-in-law and, in turn, complimented her on the food as well as the changes she could perceive in the house. Marianne had not been here above a few days, but there had already been some alterations -- all of them, according to Rebecca, for the better. It was later said in the servants' hall that Mrs. Marston had been very gracious to Lady Townsend, and had not at all been put out by the new table linen or the miniature of her grandmother being replaced with one of Lady Townsend's parents. As for Miss Celia, one of the footmen who had been waiting on the ladies at the table reported, she had not talked much during dinner, but she had seemed to be quite fond of her brother's wife as well. She had certainly talked to her ladyship in a very lively manner whenever she had said something, which was a good sign, knowing as Miss Celia was rather shy and generally somewhat reticent when in company with people she did not know well.
Indeed there was no trace of shyness in Celia now. She did not know why, but somehow her sister-in-law had won her heart almost at the first moment of her entering their house, and the more she saw of her, the better she liked Marianne. She was almost tempted to hope that Marianne would succeed and bring about a reconciliation between them and Gerard -- if only he would relent a little, Celia thought. She would be quite willing to meet him halfway if he did show some sign of yielding.
"That lace on your collar is exquisite, Marianne," she said. "It is French, I suppose?"
"Oh yes, we have a long tradition of lace making in Normandie," Marianne replied. "My grandmother was from Alençon, and she knew how to do make lace. She taught me -- but this is none of mine. I am not quite so ... skilled, I think the word is."
"You know how to make lace? What a wonderful accomplishment!" Celia marvelled. "Why, it must be very difficult!"
"There are some patterns that are not so very difficult, really, though some are. This one is very hard." She pointed to her collar. "I could not do that. Maybe when I am older, and have had more practice. -- If you are really interested, I can show you some of my work later, after dinner."
"Oh, I would love to see it," Celia said.
"There are some people who think lace making is not ... not a genteel pastime for a lady. They say it is a way for peasant women to make money, but I think lace is so beautiful and ... and delicate, and very fitting for a lady. Why should only peasant women make lace? This is what Grand-Mère used to say. Besides, she said, one could save so much money by making one's own -- and always look richer than one was. Which was the kind of thing she would say. Grand-mère was very ... parsimonieuse."
Marianne then led the discussion to their house -- which she confessed she liked very much, because it reminded her of home.
"We have many houses like that," she explained. "Just like yours -- with the wood showing through. And Gerard said the church in the village was Norman. I like that. Even the countryside is not so very different from home. I think I will like it here." She smiled.
"I certainly hope you will," Celia said. "And since you like our house so much, I do hope you will call on us whenever you like."
"You are very kind to me," Marianne said. "I will call on you, never mind. Do you ride, Celia? Or Rebecca?"
"I do, but Rebecca is not fond of horse riding," Celia said.
"It was just that I was hoping you would ride out with me sometimes, when Gerard does not have the time. I do not know this place very well, and I do not want to get lost."
"Just let me know in time if you want me to come along," Celia said. "So I can make sure the horses are not needed on the farm."
"You have no horse for yourself?"
"Not any longer. The stables at the Manor are not very large, and keeping horses merely for ourselves is a luxury we can no longer afford."
"I will send you a horse whenever you want one," Marianne announced. "We have plenty of them here; more than we could ever need."
Celia gave Marianne an evasive answer, aware of the servants who were still hovering around them. Instead, she turned the conversation to music, which appeared to be a safe enough topic to be discussed while being surrounded by curious servants.
Once the last dishes had been removed from the dinner table, Sophia and
Caroline went to the nursery to eat cake with their former nurse, and their
mother and aunts repaired to the drawing-room, where Marianne gave them the
contents of her worktable for inspection.
Both Rebecca and Celia were highly impressed with Marianne's handiwork, and amused themselves and Marianne with conjectures as to how Mrs. Ellis and her fellow village gossips would react on Lady Townsend's wonderful collection of lace. That they would remark on it was a matter of course -- there would be a great deal of envy involved, naturally.
"We must warn you of Mrs. Ellis," Celia told Marianne. "She loves to talk, and she will pump you for whatever news she can get out of you."
"Oh! I know such people," Marianne laughed. "I will take good care. Thank you for warning me. But if I do not talk to people, how am I to find friends?"
"You will soon have many friends here," Rebecca predicted. "People cannot help but love you."
Marianne blushed. "This is very much like what Gerard said when he proposed to me," she confessed. "Though he did not say "people". He said he could not help it."
"Gerard said such a thing?" Celia was surprised to hear about her brother's romantic streak -- she had never detected any such characteristic in him before, but she supposed it had had to be there, or he would not have married this enchanting girl and damned the consequences. She was beginning to understand why he had done so, certainly.
Marianne laughed. "Oh yes, he can speak beautifully enough, that one, if he likes."
"One lives and learns," Rebecca observed.
Since the tea tray was brought in that moment, they had to let the matter rest. Only when the maid who had brought the tray had left the drawing-room, Marianne said, "I have some friends here, at least. I have you -- I hope -- and I have Lord David. You know Lord David Andell, of course?"
"No, not really," Celia admitted. "I only know that my brother mentioned him very often in his letters to us."
"He is the friend who was Gerard's best man at the wedding," Marianne explained. "And Gerard's best friend, too. He was often with us, when we were still in France, and we were so sorry to leave him behind! But he has written to Gerard and he has told him that he is coming back to England now. He is stationed in ... Gloucester, I think -- Gerard gave me his letter to read."
The word Gloucester did give Marianne some trouble, Celia thought, but again she marvelled at her sister-in-law's English. But for some occasional mistakes, she was very fluent.
"This is good news, certainly," Rebecca remarked. "You will like to have a friend around who also knew you when you were in France."
"Oh yes. Gloucester is not so very far, is it?"
"Only some twenty miles or so," Celia estimated.
"This is good! Then he will be able to come and see us as often as he likes!" Marianne beamed. "And when he is here, I will invite you to meet him; he is such a wonderful man! Even though he is the son of a Duke; you would not be able to tell if you did not know."
Rebecca laughed. "Is this a good thing, do you think?"
"It is, it is! He is a gentleman, but not ... not arrogant, like some gentlemen are."
"This is a good thing," Celia agreed. "But what will Gerard say if you invite us and he has no opportunity of escaping us?"
"Oh, I told him he was not to run away next time I invited you," Marianne assured her. "And I told him to be civil, or I will be very angry with him. He does not like it when I am angry. I have a way of making him feel very sorry if he enrages me."
Celia could readily believe that, though she could only with difficulty imagine Marianne being angry with anyone.
Even if she had worn her smartest bonnet to church the following Sunday, Rebecca would hardly have been noticed, since everyone was too busy staring at Marianne -- either overtly, or in secret. Celia had to admit that Marianne looked very fine; she had already become aware of Marianne's excellent taste in clothing, and it seemed the entire neighbourhood was now doing so, too. It was no wonder people kept looking at her, Celia felt, and was happy to greet Marianne -- even happier because she hoped that, in seeing how well Celia got along with his wife, Gerard might relent towards his sisters. He did not look like it, though, but then it was probably not to be expected. Gerard had inherited his father's obstinacy; even if he knew he had been in the wrong he would not admit it. Not for a long time, at any rate. But he did favour them with a formal bow, which was duly noted -- as well as the warm greeting between his wife and sisters.
Mr. Hart, the new curate, was not quite as handsome as Mrs. Ellis's description might have led one to believe -- anyone who did not know Mrs. Ellis's proneness to exaggeration might have expected to behold a veritable Adonis and be severely disappointed when facing the truth - but he was certainly a very pleasant young man, in his late twenties according to Celia's estimate, and, as Rebecca remarked after service, he preached a most instructive sermon. Having been a clergyman's wife, Rebecca was certainly a judge as far as sermons went. Her late husband, the Reverend Henry Marston, had been well known for the excellence of his sermons, as well as his learning. Celia had always been a little afraid of him -- he had seemed such an austere character -- but Rebecca had been happy in her marriage with him.
It turned out that Mr. Hart knew some of Mr. Marston's work, even though he had never met the gentleman in person.
"I am honoured to make your acquaintance, ma'am," he said to Rebecca as Mr. Quentin, the church warden, made the necessary introductions and passed on the information that Mrs. Marston's husband had been a man of the cloth. "Your husband was Mr. Henry Marston, wasn't he? I have read his essays on the Acts of the Apostles and have found them most enlightening. In fact, I admired his work very much, as did some of my fellow students in Oxford."
"I am glad to see my husband's work valued so greatly," Rebecca merely said, and proceeded by inviting the new curate to dine with them the next day. One had better get over and done with the formalities as soon as possible, Celia supposed. Mr. Hart did not say much to her beyond the common civilities, but she did not mind that. In fact she was glad. She was never at her best with new people, but she was able to come up with a polite phrase or two if it was required of her. Nothing more was expected of her today, at least -- there were people queuing up to shake hands with the new curate, and so he was unable to exchange more than one or two pleasantries with everyone. He did so with an air of good-nature, which quickly made him a general favourite. Several young ladies went home in the safe knowledge that Mr. Hart had been suitably struck with their charms, and that they had obtained an advantage over their peers, and many a fond mother had had the same impression about her daughter. Mr. Hart was not rich, but he was respectable, and likely to advance in his career, so the match would not be a bad one.
As for young Lady Townsend, it was generally agreed that she was a puzzling creature. It had been the general opinion that it had been she who had set Sir Gerard against his sisters, but today's events had shown that it was not so. No one could have treated the two ladies with so much kindness after having been the instrument of separating them from their brother. Neither would Mrs. Marston and Miss Townsend have greeted their sister-in-law so affectionately, had they had any evidence of false play. Perhaps, Mrs. Ellis confided to her particular friend, Mrs. Rooke, they had been mistaken about her ladyship. She, for one, would soon call in Stansfield House, Sir Gerald's residence, to find out more about this fascinating lady.
Lord David Andell had not been all that happy to return to England at first. He had made many friends among his brother officers as well as the local people in Normandy, where he had been stationed, and he was loath to leave them behind. He had been well content with his position, and had liked his duties, and this change in his circumstances was not at all to his taste. But he was not one to repine, and there were several good points about his new post in Gloucester.
He had missed his friend Gerard Townsend, who had sold out and returned to England several weeks previously, and was looking forward to living not very far from his best friend's home. Nor was his parents' estate out of reach for him -- the distance to Burwell Castle could be accomplished in a day and a half's journey, or even just one day if the weather and roads permitted it, and from there he'd be able to reach Asterby, his eldest brother's home, in another day. Which meant he would no longer feel left out when anything of moment happened in the family -- he had disliked this excessively, in spite of the many advantages of life in France. He would have loved to stay longer after his brother Asterby's wedding, instead of starting his journey back to France before the wedding breakfast had been at an end, and he would have liked to meet his nephew sooner than he'd had the chance to. His family was very close-knit, and he had detested being separated from them. At least that would be over now. He'd be able to visit them very often.
Right now he was sitting at the dinner table in Borrowdale House, his brother Gregory's home. He had decided to break his journey at Burwell, to spend a week or two with his family before moving on to Gloucester, and Kate, his sister-in-law, had insisted on his coming to dine with them at least once during his stay in Somerset.
"It is good to have you with us again," Gregory, who was sitting at the other end of the table, remarked. This being an informal family party, they did not bother with the usual conventions and were talking to whomever they wanted to address. "Life has become much too quiet without having you around. I have always found your escapades highly entertaining, as you know."
"You should. You were usually involved with them in some way or another," Lord David retorted. "Remember the time when we found that old musket in the attic? Who was the one that decided we ought to try whether it still worked? Not me, as I remember."
"No, you were the one who did try," the Duchess of Burwell, Lord David's mother, laughed. "Gregory was usually the instigator of your pranks, while you were the one who got caught."
She turned to Kate, and said, "The stories I could tell you would make your hair stand on end, my dear. Let us hope that your boy is not quite as enterprising as his father and uncle."
"You may hope, Kate," Lord David said with a laugh. "But you had better not expect it. You should have tried for a girl."
"And what makes you think that girls cannot be up to mischief now and then?" Kate demanded. "You can have no notion of what girls are like. My sisters and I gave my mother a great deal of trouble. She always said my brother was much easier to handle."
"I have no experience with girls, so I cannot pretend to be a judge," the Duchess remarked. "But I daresay girls get into all kinds of mischief as well."
"Any news from Matthew and Barbara?" Kate asked, changing the topic. On his way here, Lord David had also stopped for a couple of days at Asterby Court, to become better acquainted with his sister-in-law of whom he had known next to nothing, except that she was Kate's younger sister and had caused quite a stir by breaking off her engagement to marry his eldest brother Matthew, Lord Asterby.
"They are the picture of matrimonial bliss," Lord David said. "Barbara wants me to tell you that she is in perfect health."
Lady Asterby was expecting her first child, and naturally the entire family took a great deal of interest in the matter.
"She also believes that she is going to break with the family tradition and have a girl," he added. "She is almost certain of it, she says."
"Wouldn't that be nice?" the Duchess exclaimed. It was an open secret that she had wanted a daughter, but had had to content herself with having three sons instead. The last female descendant of the Andell family had been Lady Mary, more than a hundred years previously. "But I refuse to believe it until I see the child. Barbara may be mistaken. I remember when I was expecting you, David, I also thought I was going to have a daughter."
"Wishful thinking, no doubt," Lord David said, grinning. "But weren't you glad when I turned out to be another boy?"
"I was delighted," the Duchess laughed. "I would not have given you up for anything in the world -- not even for a daughter."
"Besides," Lord David's father remarked, "two of our sons have provided us with delightful daughters anyway."
"Only the youngest has not obliged you yet," Lord David said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "Nor am I likely to do so any time soon."
"We do not want you to marry to oblige us," his mother protested. "You know very well that you are free to do what you like. We did not interfere with any of your brothers, and we will not interfere with you."
"Unless we have to," the Duke added. "But you have not often given us any cause to worry."
"Not in that respect certainly," the Duchess agreed.
"That's because I always took good care you did not find out about my affairs," Lord David teased them. "My fellow officers could tell you stories ... the ladies in France are very beautiful, and amiable too."
"It is about time you returned to England, then. It will be a great deal easier to find out about your affairs if you live here," the Duke said calmly, refusing to be teased, and asked Lord David what he was planning to do once he had made himself at home in Gloucester.
"A good friend of mine, Sir Gerard Townsend, lives some twenty miles away from Gloucester," Lord David informed his father. "He and his wife are very eager to receive me as a guest in their house, so I daresay I will pay them a visit before long."
"Isn't Sir Gerard the one of your friends who married a Frenchwoman?" the Duchess asked. During most of his absence, she had been Lord David's main correspondent in his family, and knew a great deal about the friends he had made in the Army.
"A most pleasant and well-bred one," Lord David agreed. "But his family -- his father especially -- objected to the match, and it seems his father all but disinherited him. He left all his unentailed property to his daughters instead. An unpleasant business, I believe, and it has led to a great deal of nastiness in the family. Townsend resents it, naturally, so I believe the situation between him and his sisters is not at all what it should be."
"I am so glad that there are no such quarrels in our family. It would make me exceedingly unhappy if anything of the kind were to happen to us," the Duchess said. "I can understand that Sir Gerard's father did not approve of his son marrying a girl of whom they knew nothing, but he ought to have made an attempt to get to know his daughter-in-law before judging her, or disowning his son."
"No doubt, but they say that Sir Ralph Townsend was a very strong-willed character. So is his son. This makes me conclude that a situation such as this was inevitable."
"It is very sad nevertheless," the Duchess said. "And no doubt a trying time for everyone involved. Perhaps you should put off your visit in your friend's home until the matter has been resolved?"
"I have already promised to come, Mother," Lord David protested. "It will not be so bad, I am sure. Lady Townsend is a very generous and kind-hearted lady, and she will make sure there won't be any unpleasantness while I am staying with them. Strong-willed Townsend may be, but not obstinate enough to withstand his wife. Besides, who knows? I might even be able to do some good."
His father warned Lord David that his friend might not relish any interference with his affairs, and Lord David agreed that his parent was probably right. He would not interfere, but neither could he call off a visit that had already been promised.
"For ten to one," he ended the discussion of the matter, "Lady Townsend will look through any excuses I try to make, and will not accept them. Sir Gerard's sisters have moved out of his house though, and therefore I do not expect to witness any quarrels. With only Sir Gerard and his wife to deal with, I am sure I will be comfortable."
With this, the conversation turned to an eager discussion of the changes Kate was planning to make with her gardens, and his young nephew's progress. It was good to be with his loved ones again, Lord David thought as he retired to bed that evening -- that was certainly worth leaving his French acquaintances behind. Too bad he was obliged to travel on to Gloucester so soon, but at least he was near his family now, and would be able to see them as often as he liked.
It was not until a few weeks later that Lord David Andell was at leisure to pay his friend the promised visit. He had had much to do upon arriving in Gloucester, and until he had got acquainted with his new duties and his brother officers he saw no reason to leave again so soon. It would be a bad start, and Lord David hoped to avoid that. One did not gain popularity by applying for leave of absence without having had the time to do anything to deserve it.
He worked diligently instead, and soon he was a favourite among his new comrades; even though his commanding officer told him that there'd been some misgivings among the ranks when they had found out that the new man was going to be a duke's son -- one never knew where one stood with those noblemen. But once Lord David had proved that he was most willing to work hard just like everyone else, he was received cordially, and had no trouble with fitting in.
So he did not find it too difficult to obtain a week's leave of absence, once the Colonel had been convinced that Lord David Andell was more than capable of catching up with his tasks when he returned, and one pleasant morning in May he sent his valet ahead with his luggage, and mounted his curricle to drive the twenty miles to Stansfield House. He was not the kind of man to spend a fine day like this cooped up in a chaise.
Clegg, his batman and groom, accompanied him. Having been through some pretty hard times together, Clegg had become some sort of confidant of Lord David's, and could speak his mind more freely in his master's presence than was generally thought seemly for a servant. Whenever anyone asked Lord David why he put up with his groom's behaviour, he told them that Clegg's opinion was generally worth hearing, and that it did not make any less sense just because it was not always what he wanted to hear.
The first half of their journey was quite uneventful. The road was good, and so their progress was fast. Therefore Lord David was not disinclined to give in to Clegg's suggestion that they should stop somewhere, to rest the horses and recoup their strength with the aid of a substantial luncheon.
Having done so, they proceeded, and they had almost accomplished their journey when one of Lord Gregory's horses suddenly began to limp. Lord Gregory immediately stopped the curricle and told Clegg to go and see what was wrong.
"Cast a shoe," Clegg said when he had examined the horse's leg.
Lord David swore. "We'd almost made it," he complained. "But of course it had to happen now!"
"Can't be helped, my lord. We'll have to stop at the nearest forge."
Luckily, the hamlet of Farley was not far, the blacksmith most obligingly began to shoe Lord David's horse immediately (no doubt in the hope of receiving a generous tip from a gentleman who, by the look of his gear as well as his horses, was well able to afford it), and Lord David made good use of the time he had to wait by striking up a conversation with one of the blacksmith's sons, a sturdy lad some nine or ten years of age, and asking him how far it was to Sir Gerard Townsend's residence.
"Four miles, maybe five, sir," the boy replied. "Depends on which road you travel on."
"There is more than one road, then?"
"Yes, sir. If you take the shortcut past the old Manor House and through the forest you can cut off almost half an hour, sir."
"Is the lane in good repair then? I've no mind to ruin my curricle."
"Sir Ralph always took good care of that lane, sir," the boy replied. "He used to drive along that lane very often. Preferred it to the road, he did. So does Sir Gerard."
Lord David asked him for a precise description of the shortcut, thanked the boy, and gave him a shilling for his pains. By using the shortcut, he felt, he would be able to win back some of the time he had lost on his horse's account, and would be able to arrive at Stansfield House before his friend sent out a search party.
Once his horse was harnessed to the curricle again, and the blacksmith was paid, Lord David set off. Following the boy's directions, he turned left into a narrow lane at the end of the village, and drove past a coppice towards the old Manor House. There was a stable building, a barn and a dovecot on the left side of the road, while on the right there was a moat which surrounded an ancient, half-timbered building. The Manor House, no doubt, Lord David thought, and stopped his curricle for a moment to take in the charming picture presented by the house and a young lady and two little girls who were sitting on the lawn, playing with a litter of kittens.
They were obviously residents of the house, since none of them was wearing a bonnet or a pelisse; and there was a great deal of laughter. He heard the little girls' praise of the kittens, and their argument as to which one was the sweetest, and was on the point of moving on when the young lady supervising the girls looked up and noticed him. She rose to her feet, and walked to the edge of the moat, inquiring whether there was anything she could do for him.
"Marry me," was on the tip of Lord David's tongue, but luckily he was able to stop himself just in time before making a complete fool of himself. Whenever his friends had told him of somebody falling in love at first sight, he had been the first to scoff at their stories, informing them that there was no such thing as love at first sight. One might find a woman attractive at first sight, certainly, but one did not fall in love within moments of setting one's eyes on a female, without knowing a single thing about her. Yet this was exactly what had happened to him that moment. It probably served him right.
It was not just that she was beautiful, although she was. She was wearing a grey gown with black dots and ribbons, so she was probably in mourning for someone. Yet that sombre attire did nothing to diminish her charms. She was of average height, had fair hair, and though he could not determine the colour of her eyes due to the distance between them he could ascertain that they were brilliant. Her complexion was fresh, and her lips looked immensely kissable.
"Sir?" she asked him, and he realised that he had not yet answered her question. He had been too busy staring at her, and listening to her voice, which was soft and pleasing.
"I...I am sorry to have disturbed you, ma'am," he managed to say. Since when was he feeling tongue-tied when talking to a lady? In fact, he'd been known to be quite the opposite. Still, she took his breath away, and suddenly he was feeling like a halfling again.
"I am on my way to Stansfield House. Can you ... can you tell me whether this is the right road? Somebody in the village told me this lane was a ... a shortcut." Behaving like an idiot too, he thought grimly. A fine first impression to make it was.
"It ... it is," the lady replied, blushing. "Just follow the lane through the forest, and turn right at the crossroads. You cannot miss it."
"Thank you very much, ma'am." He gave her a nod, touched his hat, and had to go on, having no excuse for staying. He had to make it his business to find out who the lady was, he decided, and hoped he would find an opportunity to see her more often during his stay.
Then the significance of her clothes struck him. She was wearing
half-mourning -- could it be that she was one of Townsend's sisters? He hoped it
was not so; Townsend's letters had not led him to believe that he had forgiven
his sisters for taking his inheritance from him. Not that Lord David believed
that the girl he had just seen was capable of doing such a thing, but surely
Townsend was a better judge of what his sisters would or would not do.
Whatever had happened, Townsend was at odds with his sisters, and this would mean that he, as Townsend's guest, would not see much of them.
Damn those family quarrels, Lord David thought. One shouldn't meddle, but if she really is Townsend's sister this is exactly what I will have to do. Townsend is my friend, and I do not want to lose him, but if I have to choose between him and this girl I am afraid I will have to let him go. There must be some way of preventing this, though. I will have to find one.
At the dinner table, Caroline and Sophia could talk of little else but the kittens they had found in the barn. Their mother and aunt listened to them patiently, and it was not until the girls had gone off to bed that Celia had an opportunity to tell her sister about the stranger who had stopped to ask for the way to Stansfield.
"It must have been the gentleman Marianne has told us so much about," she said. "The Duke of Burwell's son."
"I thought Marianne had almost given up her hope of ever welcoming him to her home?" Rebecca asked.
"So she said, but it seems he has come at last. I daresay he did not get leave to visit them any earlier; and it must have been his intention to visit his own family first. I think. I know it would be an object with me."
"Yes, that sounds reasonable," Rebecca agreed. "So, what kind of man is his lordship?"
"How could I possibly tell? I did not see him above two minutes," Celia protested. "He is a handsome man, and elegantly dressed, and judging by his horses and curricle I believe he must be well to do, but then there is nothing to wonder at that, considering who his father is. He did seem rather ... odd, though."
"Odd? In what way? Was he uncivil? Did his behaviour frighten you?"
"Oh no," Celia hastily assured her sister. "It was just ... the way he looked at me. It was not alarming, really, though I began to worry whether there was anything wrong with me - a spot on my nose or something. He looked ... intent, that is all. Which embarrassed me a little, but he was very civil in his speech and manners apart from that."
"Perhaps he liked what he saw," Rebecca teased her. "That gown you wore this afternoon is very fetching."
"Do you think so?" Celia asked. No doubt Rebecca had meant to compliment her, but she was not exactly desirous of attracting the attention of passing strangers.
"Or he stopped to admire the house. You know there are always people who delight in anything which is older than five years," Rebecca said. "Perhaps he was not looking at you after all."
It was true; there often were people who wished to have a look at their house. Maybe she had done the gentleman wrong, Celia decided, and he had not been staring at her at all. But it had certainly seemed as if he had.
Lord David lost no time in discovering who the young lady could have been. When Lady Townsend asked him whether he had had a pleasant journey, he gave her a quick account of what had happened, including his horse casting its shoe.
"However," he finished his story, "I did not lose too much time in the end, because someone told me about the shortcut past the old Manor House. A delightful building, don't you think?"
"Oh, you have seen Farley Manor!" Lady Townsend exclaimed. "I quite dote on the place; it reminds me of home."
"It does look similar to the buildings in Normandy," Lord David agreed. "So you are acquainted with the people who live there?"
"To be sure I am! They are my sisters-in-law," Lady Townsend replied.
"So this is the estate that Sir Ralph left to his daughters. The house looks ancient though; I should think Townsend was well rid of it," Lord David said slyly.
"He does not think so, at any rate. I wish he would see reason," Lady Townsend sighed. "I love Mrs. Marston and Miss Townsend, but Gérard refuses to see them. I visit them often."
This was certainly good news, Lord David thought.
"One of the ladies was outside, playing with two little girls. Mrs. Marston, I suppose?"
"What did she look like?" Lady Townsend asked.
Lord David described the girl to her, careful to use such terms as would not make her suspect his admiration for the lady at once.
"Fair hair? It must have been the younger sister, then. Celia. Mrs. Marston's hair is brown, and besides she always wears a cap." Lady Townsend told him.
Celia. Her name was Celia. Lord David liked the sound of the name -- it somehow matched her gentle nature, he thought. Not that he knew anything about her nature yet, but her conduct at their meeting had suggested that she was gentle, and maybe a little timid. At least Lady Townsend was on good terms with her sisters-in-law, so he would be able to see Celia when Lady Townsend went to call on her sisters. He would certainly make a point of escorting her when she did.
He listened to Lady Townsend's description of what she had done to throw her husband and his sisters into each other's company again with a great deal more interest than he would have done under normal circumstances, and assured her of his support in the matter while he was here.
"I am so glad," Lady Townsend said, and added, with a conspiratorial wink, "He may be more likely to listen to you than to me."
"I hate to contradict you," Lord David laughed. "But a man is unlikely to listen to his friends rather than his wife."
"My husband does not listen to anyone," Lady Townsend pointed out. "But if we work together we might be able to tie him up, take him to the Manor House and lock him in with his sisters."
"A drastic method. Do you think it will be effective?"
"I have a feeling as if his sisters would be happy if the quarrel was at an end," Lady Townsend said. "It is Gerard who is behaving like a mulet. C'est une affaire terrible, ça -- it makes me quite unhappy."
It was quite obvious to Lord David -- whenever she was agitated, Lady Townsend began to fall back on her native language, even though her English was rather good as a rule. Did Sir Gerard know just how much his quarrel with his sisters affected his wife? Lord David was not sure, but his friend's matrimonial affairs were none of his business, and it was unlikely that Sir Gerard would brook any interference on Lord David's part.
At that moment, Sir Gerard, who had not been at home at the time of David's arrival, entered the room, welcomed his friend and hoped he had been well entertained during his host's absence.
"Absolutely," Lord David laughed. "We were quite happily plotting against you."
"That's the spirit!" Sir Gerard grinned. "I am glad you have finally come to see us. How was your journey?"
Lord David repeated his account of his trip, without alluding to his encounter with Celia Townsend, and then the two friends settled down to exchange news of their mutual acquaintances while Lady Townsend went off to attend to her household duties.
After dinner, when Lady Townsend had left them to enjoy their port, Lord David asked his friend how he had been ever since they had last met in France.
Sir Gerard sighed. "I've had a great deal of trouble," he said. "What with my father leaving the Manor estate to my sisters and everyone thinking I'd thrown them out of the house when they actually left of their own accord ... I suspect I am not a favourite in these parts right now."
"Did your sisters spread the story of you throwing them out?"
"Oh no, they did not. I will say this for them, they're a decent pair as a rule, and not given to spreading malicious lies. But getting my father to leave them the Manor was a nasty trick they played me, and I do admit to having reproached them."
"What did they say in their defence?"
"They both assured me that they had never asked for anything from my father. Now if they'd been honest, and told me they had mentioned the matter to him now and then, I would have been able to forgive them, but I will not be fooled."
"You think they lied to you?"
"I'm not sure. That is I am pretty certain Celia had nothing to do with it; it is not in her nature to do anything back-handed."
Of course not, Lord David thought, and that thought was a highly gratifying one. Whoever had been to blame, his Celia was blameless. What was he thinking - his Celia? She was not his, not yet, though if there was one thing Lord David was certain of it was that she would be, one day.
"If anyone, it was Rebecca. She knew she stood to lose a great deal if I came back and brought my wife along with me. I can quite see her complain to my father how she and her two fatherless girls would end up in the gutter -- as if I'd ever do anything as heartless as kicking them out of my house! I hope I do know my duties to my family, and I've never given anyone reason to think otherwise. They'd have been well enough; I'd even have given them the Manor House to live in if they'd wanted it, and I'd have made sure they wanted nothing. But ten to one, Rebecca wanted more than what I could give her, and made sure she got it. That was what I told her. Next thing I knew she was screaming at me like a banshee, and Celia took her side. I've no grudge against her, but it seems she has made her choice."
"Is it a question of making a choice between one's brothers and sisters?" Lord David enquired cautiously. "If my two brothers were at odds with each other, and I agreed with one of them, would that mean letting the other one down? Or would it just mean that, in that particular issue, I did not see eye to eye with him while in others there might still be perfect accord?"
"She may agree with Rebecca as much as she likes, but still she ought to treat me fairly," Sir Gerard insisted stubbornly.
"Perhaps she thinks you treated her -- and her sister -- unfairly?" Lord David recognised the thunderous look on his friend's face, and added, "It is not my place to meddle; I do not know your sisters, and cannot presume to have an opinion of the matter until I do. I will keep my mouth firmly shut while I am here. Just one more thing, and then we can let it rest -- you do realise, don't you, that you are making your wife dashed uncomfortable with this attitude of yours?"
"Marianne's sentimentality overrides her good sense sometimes," Sir Gerard said dismissively.
"I have never yet seen it do so, and you must admit I have been acquainted with her for a while," Lord David pointed out. "But very well -- I will leave you to fight your own battles. Now tell me about the estate -- are you getting used to being a country squire?"
There was no point in discussing the issue any further with his friend while he was in such a stubborn mood, Lord David knew, and therefore he turned the conversation away from the subject of Sir Gerard's sisters and his wife. If he wished for a reconciliation in his friend's family, he would have to apply a different method to bring it about.
The stormy look in Sir Gerard's face soon disappeared, and he was talking animatedly about the things he had accomplished ever since he had taken over his inheritance. Once having dealt with this topic at length, Sir Gerard recalled their days on the Peninsula, and some mutual friends, which made for an agreeable conversation. It was almost an hour later when they joined Lady Townsend in the drawing-room and consequently received a scold for their tardiness.
The next morning, Sir Gerard took his friend on a ride around his estate to acquaint him with the area, and then excused himself to have his daily conference with his bailiff. Lord David decided to keep Lady Townsend company for a while, and she was quite happy to receive him in the parlour where she usually spent her mornings.
"You are back?" she asked him cheerfully, only to add, "Why yes, obviously you are. It was a silly question to ask, n'est-ce pas? Did you enjoy your ride?"
"Very much. This part of the country is beautiful, isn't it?"
"It is, and I have almost got used to it." Lady Townsend smiled. "Is Gerard talking to the bailiff?"
"I believe he is."
"Then he will be busy for an hour or so." Lady Townsend gave him a conspiratorial wink. "Would you care to join me on an outing?"
"It will be a pleasure, Lady Townsend. Where do you wish to go?"
"To Farley Manor. I want you to meet Sir Gerard's sisters."
Lord David hoped that his face did not betray just how agreeable he found the suggestion. He was going to meet Celia again, and would have a chance to talk and make himself agreeable to her. Lady Townsend was going to be a valuable ally in the venture of making Miss Townsend fall in love with him as much as he'd fallen in love with her.
He had lain awake for a very long time the previous night, wondering whether he was really in love with the girl, or whether it was just a passing fancy. Maybe his passion would burn itself out in no time at all, but right now it did not look as if it would. Besides he did not want this to happen. Not for as long as there was a way to win Celia, that was. He only hoped that his staring at her had not put her off.
The Manor House was a very old building; some three to four hundred years old according to Lord David's estimate. Upon their arrival, Lady Townsend and Lord David were ushered into a parlour, where the mistress of the house was sitting with another visitor, Mr. Hart the curate, but to Lord David's disappointment Celia was not there. Upon Lady Townsend's enquiry, however, Mrs. Marston sent the maid to advise her of their arrival.
Mrs. Marston was a fine-looking woman, probably in her mid- to late twenties, Lord David guessed. Her hair was brown, and her eyes very strongly reminded him of her brother's -- they were blue, and there was a humorous spark in them. Her manners were pleasant, and for the life of him Lord David could not imagine her screaming like a banshee, as her brother had described her -- but then he did not know her. Mrs. Marston was dressed in half-mourning, like her sister and sister-in-law, and the style of her clothing was comfortable rather than elegant. She gave Lord David the impression of a very energetic woman, one who was busy for most of the day and wasted no thought on her toilette. While she did not care much for her appearance -- apart from neatness and cleanliness, that was -- it was obvious that she set great store by good manners, and would have served as a perfect example anywhere.
She offered her guests refreshment, introduced Mr. Hart to Lord David, and initiated a conversation by hoping that Lord David had had a pleasant journey. By the time the weather and the state of the roads had been sufficiently dealt with, the door opened and Celia walked in. The room became brighter in an instant. Lord David almost leapt to his feet, and Lady Townsend introduced him to her husband's youngest sister.
Celia gave him a shy smile and curtseyed. "We have met," she said, almost in a whisper. "Lord David stopped here to ask the way yesterday. I take it you had no difficulty in finding Stansfield, my lord?"
Lord David assured her that he had found her brother's house quite easily, and at the same time tried feverishly to find something to talk about with her. Never before had he felt so tongue-tied and awkward with a woman; it was almost as if he were a schoolboy again. It soon became evident that his conversation was not needed. Celia took a seat next to Lady Townsend -- affording Lord David a perfect view of her, luckily -- and Mr. Hart went on to describe, in detail, what influence the late Mr. Marston's theological work had had on him.
David had to struggle hard to keep himself from staring at Celia all the time -- though her beauty struck him even more today than it had done yesterday. Her presence quite took his breath away.
Before he could think of anything to say to engage her in conversation, the door burst open and the two little girls he had seen with Celia the previous day rushed in, out of breath and exclaiming, "Mama! Mama!", at the top of their voices.
"Caroline! Sophia!" Mrs. Marston said sharply. "We have guests."
"Sorry, Mama," the older girl murmured, curtseyed and nudged her sister in order to make her follow her example.
"My daughters, Lord David," Mrs. Marston explained unnecessarily.
"Two fine girls, ma'am," he said politely.
The younger one gave him a bright smile. "I know you," she announced. "My aunt talked to you yesterday."
"Sophia," Mrs. Marston exclaimed. "Stop pestering his lordship."
"She is not pestering me, ma'am. I am delighted to find that she has recognised me," Lord David said before turning to the girl.
"That's right," he said. "And you were playing with some kittens, if I remember correctly."
"Oh yes!" Sophia laughed, but then suddenly a frown darkened her face. "But they are gone today!"
"Are they? That's most unfortunate," Lord David said.
"That's right, Mama," Caroline said. "Mama, Williams hasn't drowned them? He said they ought to be drowned, but I told him if he does that I won't ever speak to him again!"
"He did not drown them," Celia said reassuringly. "I told Williams he was to leave them alone."
Both girls heaved a sigh of relief. Apparently they had been most uneasy on their kittens' account, but since their aunt had taken it upon herself to protect the animals no harm could have befallen them at the dreadful Williams' hands.
"But where can they be?" Caroline asked. "They are not where we left them yesterday!"
"Maybe their mama has hidden them," Lord David remarked. "Cats do that sometimes when they think someone is going to harm their young."
"But we are not going to hurt them," Sophia protested. "We just want to play with them, now and then."
"Well, yes, but perhaps their mama does not know that," Lord David pointed out. "Look, if some dreadful giant children came and tried to take you away from your mama, she would probably hide you too -- even though those giant children might mean no harm either. How was she to know?"
Sophia admitted that there was some justice in what Lord David had said. "But where can they be?" she wondered.
"Where did you find them yesterday?" Lord David asked. "In the barn? Or the stables?"
"In the barn," Caroline said, delighted that this visitor of her mother's showed so much interest.
"They may still be there -- just not in the same place," Lord David said. "I suggest you go to this Williams and ask him to help you look for them."
"No," Sophia cried. "He might still drown them."
"I am sure he will not; not after your aunt has told him not to."
"We will look for them by ourselves," Caroline announced. Sophia, bouncing up and down with excitement, applauded that notion.
"Will you help us, Lord David?" she asked. "Please?"
"Sophia!" Mrs. Marston cried. "Really! I am quite ashamed of you! -- I am terribly sorry, my lord, I have no idea what makes them behave like this."
"I will help you," Celia suddenly said, and got up from her seat. "Let us go, girls."
"So will I," Lord David said, rising. "After all, Miss Sophia did ask me to."
It had only needed that appellation to make him a favourite with that girl, he realised at once. He had called her Miss Sophia, just as if she was a grown lady!
"Come, sir," she said, took his hand and pulled. Lord David followed her outside to the stable block -- even more willingly because a hunt for kittens in the barn would give him an opportunity to become acquainted with Sophia's Aunt Celia. And there was really no more harmless topic to talk about than the possible hiding-place of a litter of kittens, he reflected. Maybe by the end of that search Celia would be more inclined to talk to him. Lord David certainly hoped so.
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