The Fickle Bride
The Markhams were a highly respected family residing in the county of Hertfordshire. They were well-to-do and respectable, and no one would have suspected them of having any ambitions beyond that of remaining well-to-do, and respectable, and, to say the truth, they did not have any. Sir Hugh Markham, the present Baronet, and his lady had four children -- three of them daughters, alas -- and the only expectation Lady Markham had for her children was to marry them off suitably. Sir Hugh, though he agreed with his wife's opinion as far as the girls were concerned, had some more varied hopes regarding his son, such as his doing well in school and learning to be a good landlord, like his father and grandfather had been before him, but on the whole he was content to leave his children's upbringing to their mother, who was a loving as well as capable mother.
Katharine, or Kate, Sir Hugh and Lady Markham's eldest daughter, had exceeded her mother's expectations by far. During her first Season in London, she had captured the heart of one of the most eligible bachelors in England, Lord Gregory Andell. Lord Gregory was the Duke of Burwell's second son, which might have discouraged many a matchmaking mama, had it not been known that His Grace of Burwell had every intention of providing for all his offspring -- and providing for them liberally. As it was, Lord Gregory was known to be rich, and besides one never knew -- his elder brother, the Marquis of Asterby, showed no inclination towards marriage, and Lord Gregory's wife might well end up a Duchess one day. No wonder it was, then, that before his marriage Lord Gregory Andell had been one of the most sought-after bachelors in London. There had been a great deal of indignant and malicious gossip in Town when Lord Gregory had offered for Katharine Markham, a mere baronet's daughter. He, who could have looked as high for a bride as he chose, throwing himself away in such a reckless manner!
When Lord Asterby had failed to make an appearance at his brother's wedding, many had suspected that this was because he disapproved of his brother's choice of wife. Nothing could have been further off the mark, however. The Marquis had not attended his brother's wedding because he had fallen ill, and had therefore been unable to travel to London for the event. When Lord and Lady Gregory, after spending their honeymoon on the Continent, returned to their new home which was in close proximity to His Grace of Burwell's principal seat, Lord Asterby had been one of the first to welcome the young lady into his family, and nothing could have exceeded his cordiality on the occasion, or so Kate had written to her mother. She continued to be on the best of terms with her husband's relatives, and her marriage appeared to be a very happy one. By now, she had been married for almost a year, and was expecting her first child.
Barbara, Sir Hugh Markham's second daughter, did not expect to make a match as brilliant as Kate when she embarked on her first London Season. Barbara knew she was one of the better-looking females, there was no doubt about that, but she was lacking Kate's charm and beauty. She was known for her good sense, and her dependability, but neither of these characteristics was likely to captivate a man, though her mother often told her that gentlemen wanted a dependable wife, and Barbara did not doubt that either. But one would have to look past the outward appearance in order to find her good qualities, and most men she knew did not bother to do so.
Barbara's second London Season was almost at an end, and still she had received no eligible offer of marriage. She did not worry too much about that, but her mother was beginning to feel uneasy on her behalf. A girl not married after her second Season was almost on the shelf, a fate that Lady Markham did not wish to befall any of her daughters.
There was one gentleman who was showing some interest, though. Mr. Thomas Nash had danced with Barbara at almost every ball or assembly she had attended of late, and had sought her company during other functions whenever he had been able to. He was a creditable parti -- a young man embarking on a political career, having just been elected Member of Parliament for a London constituency, and determined to do well. His fortune was large enough to provide him with a genteel income, and so Lady Markham had taken great pains to encourage the young man. He would do very well for Barbara, she thought, and lost no opportunity for telling her so.
With such support, Mr. Nash's proposal did not come as a big surprise to Barbara. She had suspected something of that sort would happen, and in the firm belief that she could do worse but was unlikely to do any better she accepted his offer, thereby gaining her parents' full approval.
Barbara liked her husband-to-be well enough, but she was far from being in love with him. Mr. Nash had many good qualities -- he was a kind-hearted gentleman, with excellent manners and a great deal of intelligence, and though he was not exactly handsome he was not ill-looking either. One thing that Barbara did not like about him, though, was his tendency to disregard her opinions and to dismiss them as foolish notions -- but that fault, her mother had assured her, was not past mending.
"Once you are married, he will come to appreciate your good sense, my dear," Lady Markham had said to her, and Barbara, not knowing any better, had taken her mother's assurance at face value. Mr. Nash did not know her very well, after all, and would in time learn to take her seriously, as other people had done before him.
The announcement of Barbara's betrothal was duly made, and a date for her marriage to Mr. Nash was settled upon. The wedding was to take place at Michaelmas, by which time Kate would have given birth to her child and, God willing, would have recovered enough to be able to travel into Hertfordshire to attend her sister's nuptials. Mr. Nash had hoped to get married sooner, but Barbara had put her foot down -- she did not want to get married without her sister, she said, and it was unthinkable that Lady Gregory Andell would travel across half the country in her condition.
The letter arrived one morning, just as Barbara and her mother had returned to their house from a shopping expedition. It was from Lord Gregory, and the news it contained was of an alarming nature. Kate had suffered some complications, and although she was in no danger herself, the doctor was anxious lest she should give birth two months early, which might put the baby in danger. He had therefore ordered her to stay quietly in bed for the remainder of her pregnancy, hoping to postpone her going into labour that way.
It was plain that Lord Gregory was highly anxious, which was not surprising, Lady Markham said. Men did not like being helpless and in situations they had no power of changing, and anything pertaining to childbirth was just such a situation.
"I know my request comes at a most inopportune moment," the letter finished. "You must be very busy, preparing for Barbara's wedding. But Kate being who she is, she is feeling excessively bored, and much though I try to cheer her up, I am afraid the only effect my efforts are having on her is that she is also heartily sick of having me around at all times. She has already threatened to get up again, in spite of the doctor's orders and my pleas. I cannot help but be uneasy on this account, and was hoping that you, or Barbara, or maybe even both of you could come and visit us, and make her see some sense. We must not allow Kate to put herself into danger."
Lady Markham quite agreed with Lord Gregory's way of thinking, but found it impossible for her to leave London just now.
"There is so much that needs to be done," she sighed. "Poor Kate! Barbara, you must go to her."
"But, Mama..." Barbara protested. "What about those wedding preparations? I do not want to leave you alone with all the work! And we still haven't finished buying my trousseau."
"Oh, the modiste has your measurements," Lady Markham reassured her. "She will be able to finish her task without you, I am sure. Besides, you will come back once Kate's child is born. No doubt it will be an early birth in spite of the doctor's efforts, so you will be back in town in time for the final fittings. As for the rest of the arrangements, I can well manage without you, my dear. Do not forget that this is not the first time for me to arrange a wedding -- and in the unlikely case I should need some help, there is still Elizabeth." Elizabeth was Barbara's youngest sister.
"But will Kate listen to me?" Barbara argued. "I do not know a thing about pregnancy, or giving birth, so she may not consider my advice in these matters."
"She has a doctor to advise her, and a mother-in-law living practically next door," Lady Markham said. "But she may want you to entertain her. And consider this -- it may be the last time you can have your sister all to yourself - well, almost. Once her child is born, and you are married, things will be very different between you, believe me."
There was some truth in that, Barbara had to admit. She had missed her sister, and the prospect of spending some time with her appealed to her, in spite of the circumstances.
"I wonder what Mr. Nash will say," Barbara wondered. "I am afraid he will not like my going off like that."
"But surely he will understand!" Lady Markham cried. "He cannot have any objections to your going to visit your sister."
Mr. Nash did not have any objections. Instead, he applauded Barbara's devotion to her family and her sense of duty, and expressed the hope that witnessing Lady Gregory Andell's domestic bliss would persuade Barbara to move her own wedding forward.
"I doubt it will," Barbara said with a smile.
"But can you blame me for being impatient?" Mr. Nash asked, taking her hand.
"No, I do not blame you," Barbara replied. "But what difference does a month or two make, when we will be married for decades anyway?"
Mr. Nash laughed. "Are you able to see what the future holds in store for us?" he asked.
"No, but in all likelihood we will be married for a while," Barbara retorted. "You had better enjoy being a single man while you still can, sir."
In the end it was decided that Barbara would travel to her sister's home in Somerset alone, and that she would send her mother an express in any case of emergency. So, one morning in June, Barbara took leave of her parents, sister and brother, and got into the carriage that was to take her to Borrowdale House, her brother-in-law's home. Mr. Nash had offered to escort her, and Barbara's father had been quick to accept the offer on his daughter's behalf. There was no more proper person than Barbara's future husband to escort her, Sir Hugh had said, and besides it would give them the opportunity to get to know each other better. How they would manage to do so, with Mr. Nash riding alongside her carriage while she was sitting inside, Barbara did not know but did not say so.
Mr. Nash turned out to be a useful travelling companion though. He saw to her every comfort, which gave Barbara a favourable picture of his qualities as a husband, behaved in a very gentlemanlike manner at all times, and safely delivered her to her brother-in-law's front door the day after they had set out from London.
Borrowdale House was a large Elizabethan building, only four miles from Burwell Castle, the Duke of Burwell's principal seat. Its previous owner had been obliged to sell it, and His Grace had jumped at the chance to purchase it, thereby supplying his second son with a substantial property. Upon Lord Gregory's marriage, the house had been completely renovated and refurnished, so although it had every appearance of an Elizabethan home from the outside, its interior was rather modern, and lacking none of the modern amenities.
As Barbara's carriage drew up in front of the house, the front door opened and two footmen as well as a butler came outside to receive her. By the time Barbara alighted from the carriage, the master of the house and another young gentleman had come outside as well to welcome the visitors.
Barbara did not need an introduction to know who the second gentleman was. She had heard enough about Lord Asterby to recognise him at first sight. From her sister's letters she knew that he was a frequent visitor in his brother's home, that he was neither as tall nor as good-looking as his younger brother, and that in consequence of a riding accident he had had as an eighteen-year-old he walked with a slight limp, using a stick.
Furthermore, London gossip had informed her that his lordship did not often come to Town, that he abhorred balls and assemblies (which, in view of his disability, was probably no wonder), and that he had no taste for the shallowness of fashionable life. He was a sportsman; according to his brother he was a decent shot and, in spite of his accident, a dashing rider. But he did not excel in any line of sport, and so his sporting career was as unremarkable as his private life.
Barbara's brother-in-law came towards her and welcomed her with a smile.
"I am glad you could come," he said. "From the moment Kate knew you would, she has been behaving in an exemplary fashion, or so the doctor told me, and I have the greatest trust in your influence with her. I have the strictest orders to take you to Kate the moment you arrive."
"I will be glad to see her," Barbara said, shaking hands with Lord Gregory.
"You have not met my brother yet, have you?" Lord Gregory asked. "He was just about to leave, but I made him stay to welcome my guests along with me. Lord Asterby, Barbara -- my eldest brother."
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance at last, my lord," Barbara said, curtseying. Lord Asterby bowed, and said that the pleasure was all his. There was something in his tone of voice that made Barbara like him instantly. It was probably the sincerity with which he spoke. Even though he had uttered a polite phrase she had heard dozens of times before, it had sounded as if he really meant it. There was none of the studied boredom one so often encountered among members of the Ton, and no trace of arrogance either.
Barbara proceeded to introduce her escort to her brother-in-law and Lord Asterby, and it turned out that they were already acquainted. Both Mr. Nash and the two brothers frequented White's, and had met there occasionally. Lord Asterby then took his leave, promising to call on Kate again the next day to bring her some novels she wanted to read, and Lord Gregory took Barbara and Mr. Nash into the house.
"I am much obliged to you for letting Barbara come to see us," Lord Gregory said to Mr. Nash as he led them into a large, tastefully furnished drawing-room. "I promise I will take good care of her."
"If I had had any doubt in that matter, I would indeed have objected to her plan," Mr. Nash smiled, confident that his objection would matter to her. "But Barbara is so attached to her sister that I would have felt like a monster, had I prevented her visit. -- This is a beautiful place you have here, my lord. How far is it to Bath?"
"Oh, some fifteen miles or so," Lord Gregory said. "An easy distance, I should say."
"My wife quite likes it there -- she goes shopping in Bath at least once a week. Or used to, before she was obliged to keep to her room. Which reminds me," Lord Gregory turned to Barbara. "You will want to see Kate, won't you?"
Barbara replied in the affirmative, and Lord Gregory rang for the housekeeper to take her to her ladyship's private sitting room. "For she will not stay in bed, you know," he remarked, while waiting for that worthy's appearance. "She says she will not receive visitors in her bedroom, unless she is mortally sick or in her dotage. Since she is neither, she insists on getting up, getting dressed and going to her sitting-room. But at least she keeps to her sofa there, so I will not complain. One has to be grateful for the small mercies."
The housekeeper's arrival put an end to Lord Gregory's confidences. She took Barbara upstairs using the Grand Staircase (the only part of the house that had not been altered beyond recognition, Kate had told Barbara in one of her letters), and led her into a large, airy room on the first floor.
"There you are at last!" Kate cried when Barbara entered the room. "I thought I'd have to get up and drag you up here in person to get you to come and sit with me! I don't know what Gregory was up to, keeping you downstairs for so long! But let me look at you -- you do look well. The almost-married state becomes you."
Barbara blushed, and demurred. Kate laughed. "Come now, Barbara, there's no reason to be shy! Not with me, at any rate. Do sit down and tell me all about your engagement and how it came about -- and don't you dare to leave out the interesting bits." She patted the sofa invitingly.
Barbara sat down next to her sister, and said, "I am sorry to disappoint you, but there is really nothing I could tell you. Mr. Nash asked me to marry him, and I said I would. End of story."
"You are not in love with him, then?" Kate asked, the laugh suddenly disappearing from her face.
"Not really," Barbara confessed. "Though I do like him -- I think we shall deal quite well together."
"Let us hope you are right," Kate said, looking rather worried and not at all convinced.
"I could at least have had the decency to fall in love with my betrothed, couldn't I?" Barbara laughed. "Now I haven't even got a romantic story to amuse you with!"
"Shame on you," Kate said laughingly, having recovered her cheeriness.
Barbara gave her sister a look-over. "You do look radiant, though," she said.
"Of course I do. I am pregnant, not ill, whatever Gregory or Mr. Phibbs -- that is the doctor, you must know -- say. Even if the little rascal in there is in a bit of a hurry to be born, but I do not mind that. I am quite ready to take him into my arms whenever he chooses to let me do so."
"You think the baby is a boy?"
"I would be greatly surprised if he was not," Kate replied. "There has been no girl born into the Andell family for the past hundred and fifty years or so. Lady Mary Andell was the last one, I think -- and after that grim example it is no wonder that the family stuck to having boys only."
"Why, what was wrong with Lady Mary?" Barbara asked, laughing.
"Have a look at her portrait when you come to the Castle -- and you will. The Duchess has every intention of welcoming you there as soon as she can. Matthew told me so."
"Matthew?" Barbara asked, frowning.
"My brother-in-law, Lord Asterby."
"Oh, I see. Does he come here often?"
"Oh yes he does, whenever he is staying in Burwell Castle that is -- he does not live here, you know, but has property of his own in Wiltshire, and visits his parents occasionally, and is there for us whenever we need him. You see, he and Gregory have always been very close, and so they try to see each other as often as they can. The Duke and Duchess come here quite frequently too, and I am sure David would do so as well if it were not for his regiment being stationed in France at the moment. The Andells are a very close-knit family."
Barbara had met Captain Lord David Andell, the Duke of Burwell's youngest son, at her sister's wedding, and had had quite a favourable impression of him.
"It is a bit unusual for one of those great families, don't you think?" Barbara said. "One never hears about some of them without everyone saying how much they detest each other."
Kate agreed, but pointed out that his Grace of Burwell had often been mistaken for a country squire, since his whole attitude was as un-ducal as could be.
"Dukes are said to be terribly high in the instep, but have you ever met anyone less arrogant than Burwell? I haven't. Actually, we think it is small wonder that Asterby turned out to be the way he is -- he simply takes after his father. Or so the Duchess says, and she ought to know."
Barbara agreed. She had not seen much of her sister's in-laws, but they had seemed to her like a very kind and affectionate couple, who doted on each other as well as their offspring. The Andells, it appeared, were indeed a happy family. How unfashionable.
Barbara sat with Kate for almost an hour, exchanging family news and gossip. It was almost like the good old days, Barbara thought, when they had sat together in their mother's parlour, laughing and talking and quite forgetting the time. They were reminded of it when the door opened and Lord Gregory came in.
"I have conducted Mr. Nash to his room," he said, "and thought I'd look in on you before I get dressed for dinner." He gave his wife a brief hug and kiss. "Did you miss me?" he asked, with a roguish glitter in his eyes.
"Not at all," Kate retorted. "I had Barbara with me, and was perfectly comfortable. In fact, it was much nicer not having you with us; that way I could abuse you to my heart's content."
"I am glad you finally got an opportunity to do so," Lord Gregory said, seemingly unperturbed by his wife's teasing, and turned to Barbara. "Since Kate cannot do so, I have asked her maid to show you to your room," he said. "You may want to rest before dinner -- and we dine in an hour."
"In that case, I had better get ready," Barbara said and rose. "I will come back to you after dinner, Kate -- I do not suppose you will join us at the table?"
"No, she will not," Lord Gregory said, pleasantly but firmly, before Kate could answer. Barbara could see that Kate did not like that decision, but agreed with her brother-in-law. The doctor had told Kate to remain in bed, and Kate was taking enough risks as it was. At least her husband had enough sense to take care of her, since she did not seem to care overly much.
Barbara quickly dressed for dinner, and arrived in the drawing-room only a few minutes after the gentlemen. Her fiancé gave her a smile of approval, and Lord Gregory apologised for having put her in such a hurry.
"I should have sent someone up earlier," he said. "No one could expect you or Kate to think about the time, when you had not met for ages! It was my mistake."
Barbara assured him that she had not been in a hurry at all, that she had had plenty of time to get ready for dinner, and said she hoped she had not kept the gentlemen waiting for too long.
"Not at all," Lord Gregory said and, since the butler at that moment announced that dinner was served, led her into the dining room.
It was a peculiar dinner party, considering that their hostess was dining all by herself, and upstairs. Upon inquiry, Lord Gregory told Barbara that he had taken to dining with Kate in her sitting room since the doctor had ordered her to stay in bed, but that Kate had told him to entertain their guests in a proper style, which was why they would not see Kate until after dinner.
"She says it is not seemly to eat one's dinner lying down on the sofa," he said, "and would not subject her guests to such a spectacle."
While Barbara would not have minded joining her sister and brother-in-law in Kate's sitting room, she suspected that Mr. Nash's notion of propriety would in all probability forbid him to take part in such an outrageous venture. She was right. He looked so horrified when Lord Gregory mentioned the possibility that Barbara had to bite her lower lip to keep herself from laughing out loud.
"My wife hopes you will keep her company after dinner, however," Lord Gregory said, and added, with a grin, "Once she has been fed and cleaned up, she is no danger to anyone, I assure you." Mr. Nash's expression of horror had not escaped Lord Gregory's notice, it appeared, and instead of being offended Lord Gregory had chosen to make fun of him.
Barbara laughed, while Mr. Nash seemed shocked that anyone could speak of his wife in such a way -- even if he was only funning.
After dinner, Barbara went back upstairs to her sister's sitting-room, while Lord Gregory and Mr. Nash remained in the dining room to drink a glass of port and discuss politics. They joined them half an hour later, and though Mr. Nash seemed a trifle uncomfortable at first, Kate's open and friendly manner soon put him at ease. She invited him to sit down next to her on the sofa, asked him some questions regarding his family, his career and his interests, and they spent a comfortable half-hour comparing their impressions of Italy, which they had both visited.
When the tea-tray was brought in, Kate asked Barbara to do the honours, since she was not supposed to get up.
"I cannot tell you how tiresome it is, sir," she turned to Mr. Nash. "I am feeling very well, in fact, but I am following the doctor's orders nevertheless, for my husband's sake rather than my own. He is very uneasy on my account, and try as I might I could not convince him that there is nothing wrong with me."
"I had rather be safe than sorry, that is all," Lord Gregory remarked. "And do not blame me for being worried, for I cannot help it."
"I did not say I blamed you, my dear," Kate retorted. "I cooperate, don't I?"
"I am much obliged to you," Lord Gregory said, and gave his wife's hand an affectionate squeeze.
It warmed Barbara's heart to see the happy glow in her sister's eyes as she smiled at her husband. They might banter from time to time, Barbara thought, but there was no denying how much they loved each other. She wondered how she and Mr. Nash would fare, once they were married, though she did not think Mr. Nash would ever show his affection when they had company. He had never done so, at least, although there was the occasional kiss when they were alone. But then Lord Gregory and Mr. Nash were two very different men, and she and Kate were different too. Things would work out well for her somehow, Barbara thought, and no doubt she too would find happiness in her marriage, even if her future husband was not in the habit of caressing her in public. Still, Barbara could not deny that it made her feel all warm inside to see the loving way Lord Gregory had of dealing with his wife -- and, she had to admit, it even made her feel a trifle envious.
Not that Thomas Nash's leave-taking left anything to be desired. When Kate went to bed, Lord Gregory excused himself for a moment, suddenly remembering there was something he needed to say to his wife, and left Barbara and Mr. Nash alone in Kate's sitting room.
"I think I will be off to bed too," Barbara remarked. "It has been a long day, and the journey was rather tiring."
"So it was," Mr. Nash agreed, got up from his chair and sat down next to her. "I will have to start my journey back to London early tomorrow morning," he said. "Probably before you get up, so -- so I think it will be better if I take my leave now."
"Oh -- already? I thought you might stay here for a day or two," Barbara said.
"I never said I would, did I?" he asked.
"No, you did not, but somehow I presumed -- never mind. I daresay you have a great deal of business in London."
"Unfortunately," he said. "There is much work to be done and I am trying to get as much done as possible so I will be free to spend some time with you once we are married." He took her hand and kissed it. "I will miss you," he said.
"I will not be gone for long," Barbara reminded him.
"I shall count the days nevertheless." He took her into his arms and kissed her. "Take care of yourself," he said. "Though I do not doubt you are in good hands. Even if Lord Gregory is a very indifferent chaperon, but I am not one to complain."
Barbara laughed. "I think he just wanted to give us an opportunity to say goodbye to each other in private," she said.
"I like a man who has some sympathy for young lovers." Mr. Nash grinned.
"Well, it was not so long ago that he was courting my sister," Barbara said. "No doubt he remembers how difficult it was for him to steal a minute or two alone with Kate."
Lord Gregory's sympathy for a pair of lovers did not go so far as to leave them to themselves for long, though. He returned to the sitting room only five minutes after he had left them, and Barbara wished both gentlemen a good night and retired to her room. She soon fell into a sound, dreamless sleep.
Not so her sister. She tossed and turned for almost an hour after her husband had joined her in her room, and finally whispered, "Gregory? Are you awake?"
"Yes," was her husband's sleepy reply.
Kate chuckled. "No, I woke you," she said.
"You did, love. But what is the matter?" He sat up, suddenly wide awake. "Do you want me to get the doctor?"
"No, love. Calm down, I am fine," Kate said. "No, it is just ... I am worried about Barbara."
Lord Gregory gave a sigh of relief, and lay back in his pillows. "But why? She looked perfectly healthy and happy to me. I do not claim to be an expert in these matters though; I am sure you know her better than I do."
"I do not think she is very happy," Kate confessed. "That betrothal of hers ... I am afraid she made a mistake there."
"There is nothing wrong with Tom Nash," Gregory said, trying to soothe her. "He may be a trifle stuffy, but he is a good sort, and he seems to be fond of her."
"But I do not think she is fond of him," Kate said. "And I cannot watch my sister dive headlong into misery without trying to do something about it."
"If she was really about to do such a foolish thing, I would agree with you. But what makes you think we should meddle?"
"For one, she told me she was not in love with Mr. Nash," Kate said.
Gregory sighed. "Kate, dearest, perhaps she is just not certain what she wants, and doubts her feelings. Did you consider that?"
"Yes, I did, but it is just not like Barbara," Kate insisted.
"Even supposing that she is not in love with Nash, as you said," Gregory observed. "That does not give us the right to meddle in her affairs."
"I am not going to meddle, I just feel I ought to do something -- warn her -- whatever."
"Your sister is a grown woman, Kate and she does not want for sense. Let her deal with this problem herself. She will make the right decision in the end, I am sure."
"I do not want her to be unhappy in her marriage," Kate said.
"You know," Gregory said, and took his wife into his arms, "my parents' marriage was an arranged one. They barely knew each other when my grandparents made the match for them. Still look at them today -- would you suspect that their marriage had been a marriage of convenience?"
Kate shook her head. "No, I would not."
"What I mean to say," Gregory continued, "sometimes even those marriage turn out to be happy ones. Let Barbara do what she thinks is right, Kate. She is old enough to know her own mind."
"Maybe you are right," Kate said.
"Of course I am," her husband said. "Now try and go to sleep, love."
When Barbara got up the next morning, Mr. Nash was already gone. As Lord Gregory informed her when she met him at the breakfast table, Mr. Nash had risen early and had been on his way back to Town well before seven o'clock.
"Did you see him off, then?" Barbara asked.
"Naturally. I felt it was only decent to do so. It won't do to let one's guests steal away at the break of day."
"I should have got up, too," Barbara said. "Why did no one wake me?"
"Nash did not want it," her brother-in-law told her, and added, grinning, "He was probably afraid of the grand farewell scene."
Barbara laughed. "He knows me better than to think I would make a scene," she said. "I think he merely thought I needed some rest after the long journey we had. Mr. Nash is very considerate."
"No doubt he is." Lord Gregory handed Barbara a plate with some slices of ham. "What would you like to do today?" he asked, effectively putting an end to the discussion of Barbara's future husband.
"I think I will go and sit with Kate for a while," she replied. "This is what I came for -- to keep her company."
"When I asked you to do so I did not presume you would sit with her all day, however," Lord Gregory laughed. "And you know Kate would not ask it of you either. She wants you to enjoy your visit. So, apart from sitting with your sister for a while, what would you like to do? I could take you out in my curricle later on, to show you around. Or you could go and explore the garden, if your interests run in that direction. Kate has done a great deal to improve it since we arrived here; she is prodigiously satisfied with her achievements."
Since Barbara shared her sister's enthusiasm for horticulture, she said that she would really like to do this. "Though it seems a shame that Kate cannot show me around in person," she added. "Especially since she put so much effort into her garden -- she told me all about it, in her letters."
"She will be happy to discuss it with you, though, once you have seen it all."
"Oh, she will, I have no doubt about that." Barbara smiled.
"I will ask the gardener to give you a tour of the garden, then," Lord Gregory said. "I would do so myself, but the sad truth is that I know nothing of gardening so you would find me an extremely useless guide."
Barbara laughed. "The gardener will do very well, I think."
"I will let him know," Lord Gregory said. "Oh, and my mother and brother are going to come over in the afternoon. Or so my brother told me yesterday."
"I am looking forward to meeting the Duchess again," Barbara said. "And your brother, of course," she added as an afterthought.
"Together we will be able to come up with some programme for your entertainment," Lord Gregory said with a grin. "Just you wait. You will not miss the gaieties of London for a minute."
"I do not think I will miss them at all," Barbara said. "I am a country person at heart. How anyone could ever be bored while staying in the country is a mystery to me."
Yates, Lord Gregory's gardener, was delighted to get a chance to show off her ladyship's improvements, and even more delighted to find that her ladyship's sister was just as knowledgeable as her ladyship herself. By the time they had finished their tour of the Borrowdale House gardens, Barbara had made a new friend.
They discussed the respective merits of roses and rhododendrons, agreed that while a knot garden in the Tudor style was old-fashioned it looked charming in these settings, and Barbara was impressed to hear that her ladyship had made plans for setting up an Italian garden the following year.
"I'm glad her ladyship knows so much about these things," Yates concluded by the time they walked back to the house. "It's so often that grand ladies like her have all sorts of plans, but no idea how much work it is going to be to carry them out, and all they care for is making their garden look all the crack. What's the point in having a fake ruin in the park just because everyone else does, I wonder? And maybe they'll have it pulled down in a year or two because it's no longer fashionable." Yates gave an indignant snort to indicate what he thought of such queer starts.
Barbara laughed and agreed that such measures seemed a trifle excessive. She thanked Yates for his time, handed him a generous tip which raised her even further in his esteem, and walked back to the house, using a roundabout path so she could enjoy the beauty of the grounds in peace and quiet.
By the time she arrived in her sister's room, Kate was all agog to hear her opinion of the gardens. They discussed the alterations Kate had undertaken so far, and Kate eagerly explained her further plans, which included the Italian garden Yates had already mentioned, but also some kind of wilderness and a waterfall.
"I thought Yates disapproves of those newfangled ideas," Barbara said.
"Yes, it might take me some time to reconcile him to this one," Kate said meditatively. "But it is by no means impossible, believe me. Yates dotes on me -- I can twist him round my little finger if I want to."
"I do not doubt that for a moment," Barbara laughed. "Poor Yates."
Her Grace of Burwell arrived in her landaulet in the afternoon, escorted by her eldest son who was riding alongside her carriage. Barbara watched their arrival from the window of her sister's sitting room, where she had been sitting and reading to Kate while Kate had set some stitches to her embroidery.
She informed her sister of who had come, and sat down in the window seat again, putting her book aside and awaiting their visitors. Kate, too, put her tambour frame back into her workbasket and leaned back on her sofa.
The butler ushered the visitors into the room, and Barbara got up to greet them.
The Duchess of Burwell was a lady in her early fifties, rather tall and buxom. Though no one had ever called her a beauty, it had been the general opinion among the Ton that she had always been a fine-looking woman, and still was so. Her appearance was certainly striking -- her fair hair was still the same colour as it had been in her youth, and though her attire was appropriate for a lady of her age it was also highly fashionable -- the Duchess of Burwell had been one of the leaders of fashion in her day, and had no intention of giving up her place in that respect. The Duchess was famous for her frank, outspoken manner -- she had caused uproar more than once by saying exactly what she thought without caring who heard her. But she was also known to be a warm-hearted creature, dotingly fond of her husband and sons and always ready to come to the rescue if any of her friends or family was in trouble.
Although Barbara had not met the Duchess very often, she had grown to like her sister's mother-in-law, and the Duchess had made no secret of her partiality to Barbara either.
"My dear girl," the Duchess boomed the moment she perceived Barbara, curtseying. "What nonsense is this? Do not behave like a serving-maid, for God's sake! You are family! No need to curtsey! -- And you stay where you are, Kate. Yes, I know you are trying to think of I don't know how many excuses to get up from this sofa, but it will not do. I do not want to get into trouble with Gregory, you must know."
Kate giggled. "As if you could get into trouble with him," she said. "He would forgive you anything!"
"Anything but hurting his wife, my dear. This is where his tolerance has its limits, and quite right he is about that."
The Duchess took a seat next to her daughter-in-law, and patted Kate's hand. "We do not want you to come to any harm, my dear, so much as you hate it you will do as Mr. Phibbs bids you. He may be an old woman sometimes, but he is also an excellent physician. Just look at my eldest here -- without Phibbs, he might well be dead."
"Nonsense, Mother," Lord Asterby, who had just sat down in a chair next to Barbara, said. "I might be much worse off than I am, I suppose, but certainly not dead." He turned back to Barbara and said, "I hope you have had a pleasant stay so far?"
"I am just in the process of getting acquainted with Borrowdale House," Barbara replied. "It is a beautiful place."
"Indeed it is. It always has been, although once its last owner had fallen sick it was sorely neglected and in danger of coming to ruin. Luckily my father could persuade the heir to sell it to him."
"Yes, it would have been a pity if it had been ruined," Barbara said. "The gardener treated me to a tour of the gardens this morning -- they are fantastic, aren't they?"
"Your sister has a great talent in that direction," Lord Asterby agreed. "And she means to make further improvements, I have been told."
"Once she can twist Yates around her little finger, that is," Barbara said.
"Oh, that should not be much of a problem," Lord Asterby said with a smile. "I heard he was her devoted slave already. All she needs to do is wait for the right moment. -- Do you take an interest in horticulture, Miss Markham?"
"Yes, I do. It is an inclination that we both inherited from my mother, Kate and I. My sister Elizabeth and my brother do not share it, though. Do these matters interest you, my lord?"
"Not really, but I do appreciate beauty when I see it," Lord Asterby replied. "And your sister has created a paradise almost all by herself."
"With only a little help from Yates," Barbara agreed, smiling. She liked Lord Asterby. He was so refreshingly different from all those young aristocrats she had met during her two London Seasons.
He was not as good-looking as his brother, but his features were agreeable enough. His hair was darker than Lord Gregory's, and he was slimmer, probably because he was not as athletic as his younger brother. His clothes, though they were neat and well-made, were not of the latest fashion, which led Barbara to suppose that even when he was in Town Lord Asterby did not mix with the dandy set. He spoke to her easily, but neither with that studied nonchalance nor, even worse, the impudence that was considered de rigueur in some circles. Nor was he in the least haughty. Barbara had liked Lord Gregory almost from the start, but she had not been prepared for liking his brother even better.
"What are you two talking about?" the Duchess demanded from across the room.
"Gardening, Mother. Miss Markham told me she saw Kate's garden today."
"You must tell me how you liked it, Miss Markham -- but another time. It would be asking too much of you to make you tell the same tale three times on the same day," the Duchess said. "Kate, can you spare your sister tomorrow evening? I would like her to dine with us at the Castle."
"If she wants to go, I will be happy to send her over," Kate replied. "What do you say, Barbara?"
"Why ... certainly, your grace," Barbara said, honoured at having received an invitation so quickly. She had not expected to dine at the Duke's table on the second evening of her stay. To say the truth, she had not expected to dine there at all.
"It will not be much of a dinner party, but you must get out of here occasionally," the Duchess announced. "By the way, I do not think I have congratulated you on your betrothal, Miss Markham. Mr. Nash is a very proper young gentleman, or so I have been told. I wish you both very happy."
"Thank you, your grace."
"Are you to be married soon?"
"At Michaelmas, your grace. We - that is, I -- wanted to wait until Kate has had her child so she could attend the wedding."
"Then you had best savour your last weeks of freedom while you are here," the Duchess said and smiled as Barbara felt herself blush. "No need to blush, Miss Markham," she said kindly. "I will not tease you any more. -- I was wondering if you wanted to join me on a shopping expedition to Bath one day next week. Have you ever been to Bath?"
"No, I have not, your grace -- and I would dearly like to see it."
"I will let you know when I go, then. Bath is not London, I know, but the shops in Milsom Street leave nothing to be desired, and there are some really good lending libraries."
"As I know," Kate said. "Matthew goes there regularly to supply me with books. His work of charity, I think."
Lord Asterby smiled. "I am glad to be of service, as you know," he said. "How did you like that latest novel I gave you -- Emma, I think it was?"
"Oh, a great deal! Barbara was reading it to me, just as you arrived. So diverting!"
"I am glad you enjoyed it -- I will see if I can get you a novel by the same author next time I go to Bath, then. -- What do you think of Emma, Miss Markham?" Lord Asterby gave Barbara an expectant look.
"I must confess that I have not come across the novel so far," Barbara said. "I will have to take it with me tonight, to catch up on some reading -- my sister has almost reached the middle of the tale, and I do not know the beginning, which will not do. But I like it a great deal."
"Do give me your opinion of it when you have read some more, then," Lord Asterby said.
Barbara gave him a doubting look. Could he really be serious? Mr. Nash never asked for her opinion of anything, and if she shared it with him nevertheless he thought she was foolish, or simply wrong. Besides, she did not think one would ever catch Mr. Nash reading a novel. It was decidedly beneath a man of his importance.
But Lord Asterby looked sincere enough, and so she smiled at him and said, "I shall. Are you a great reader, sir?"
"Not a great reader, Miss Markham, though I admit a book can be an agreeable companion when I spend an evening by myself. It depends on the book, however -- I tend to give sermons a wide berth, and prefer novels and travel-descriptions."
"They are much more entertaining than all those improving books, are they not?"
He laughed. "They are. It must reflect sadly on my character that I have a higher regard for entertainment than for study, but so it is."
"At least you are honest about it, my lord, which does give me a favourable impression of your character. I know ladies who, in public, denounce every knowledge of entertaining literature, yet I know for a fact that a closer inspection of their workbaskets would unearth several volumes of Mrs. Radcliffe's work."
"You do not say," Lord Asterby said, with an amused sparkle in his eyes that strongly reminded Barbara of his brother.
Kate chuckled. "Oh yes," she agreed. "Do you remember Felicity Martin, Barbara? She used to keep her novels hidden under a loose floorboard in her room! Though I do not suppose she has any need to do so still, with her husband being a writer, too."
"All the more reason, I fear," Lord Asterby said. "Writers may care even more than other men. They usually have strong opinions regarding other writers. Your friend might even be obliged to read only her husband's work."
"Poor Felicity! In that case she may have to wait a while until she can read anything again," Kate laughed. "I hear his muse has deserted him -- if ever he had one."
"That happens to the best of people, or so I have been told." Lord Asterby smiled.
Lord Gregory, having been
notified of his mother and brother's arrival, came into the room at that point,
and soon he and Lord Asterby were discussing the horse Lord Gregory had bought
a week or so before, while Barbara and Kate were talking to the Duchess.
Since Barbara was not familiar with the surroundings yet, she was mainly listening to their discussion -- she knew nothing about the Duchess' charity projects, in which Kate was also involved, or about local customs. But she was willing to learn, and made one or two suggestions which found the Duchess' wholehearted approval.
That way, an hour passed very pleasantly, and once the Duchess and Lord Asterby had left Kate and Barbara returned to their previous activities -- embroidery and Emma.
Unbeknownst to her, Barbara was the main topic of conversation at Burwell Castle that evening. The Duke, having been informed that his wife had paid their daughter-in-law a visit in the afternoon, wanted to know how she was doing.
"She was in an excellent mood," the Duchess replied. "I believe having her sister with her does her a great deal of good. What do you think, Matthew?"
Lord Asterby thought for a moment. "Miss Markham seems to be a very cheerful young lady," he said. "Just the kind of company Kate needs. I had the impression she was not feeling too happy of late."
"Of course not," his mother said. "Being cooped up in that room of hers, and not being able to do anything worth while. She bears it very well -- in her place I would have run mad."
"Let us hope all will go well," the Duke remarked.
"She is young and healthy. I see no reason why it should not," the Duchess said resolutely. "And Miss Markham will do her best to keep her happy. -- By the way, I have invited Miss Markham to dine with us tomorrow. She will need to get out of Borrowdale House now and then."
"She will not find our company very amusing, I am afraid," the Duke remarked. "She needs to meet people her own age."
"This is why I invited the Larkins," the Duchess said calmly.
The Duke's eyes met his son's. "The Larkins," he echoed. Mr. Larkin was the vicar of Burwell village, and, according to his grace's opinion, a prosy old fool -- an opinion shared by Lord Asterby. The vicar did have two daughters and a son, though.
"I am sure Miss Markham will be much obliged to you," Lord Asterby said dryly.
The Duchess laughed. "I know you do not like poor Mr. Larkin," she said, "but no one else would be so obliging as to accept a last-minute invitation from us. And the Miss Larkins are pleasant girls."
Lord Asterby thought they were a
pair of insufferable toadies, but kept his opinion to himself.
He was by no means sure whether Miss Markham would like them. She was not the insincere sort -- in the eight-and-twenty years of his existence, Lord Asterby had often had to deal with insincere people and had learned to read the signs -- nor did she seem to be the sort to be fooled by dishonesty.
"It will not hurt to introduce them to her, I suppose," he said instead.
"No, indeed," the Duchess said. "I may want you to show Miss Markham around when she does arrive," she continued. "In case she is interested in seeing the Castle."
"Certainly, Mother," Lord Asterby said.
"I bet you did not know what trouble you would land in when you came to visit us here," his father laughed. "Being obliged to entertain all sorts of females, as well as assisting me in managing my estate."
"You are right, I did not," Lord Asterby smiled. "But even if I had I would have come. I am not one to let the family down in times of need."
"I know that," the Duke said simply, giving his son a fond smile.
"I do not know if I have already told you, my dear," the Duchess said to her husband, "but Miss Markham is about to contract an advantageous marriage. She is going to marry Mr. Thomas Nash, the MP."
"Nash?" The Duke frowned, trying to recall where he had encountered the name before. "A Tory, isn't he?"
"My dear, you do not think I know anything about the matter?" the Duchess protested. "You know I have never taken an interest in politics!"
"I believe he is," Lord Asterby answered his father's question. "One of the up-and-coming men, I have been told."
He did not know Mr. Nash very well, nor was he well acquainted with Miss Markham, but he had a feeling as if their marriage was not a good idea. From what he knew of both, he was not certain whether they should suit. On the other hand, it was none of his business, and it was refreshing to meet, for once, a female who was already spoken for -- such women were safe company. Having already secured a husband for herself, Miss Markham would be unlikely to put a false meaning to every word he said to her, or to throw out her lures to him. For once he would not have to watch himself when talking to a woman, because she would hardly suspect him of having intentions of any kind towards her.
"Well done of her," the Duke remarked. "Not a connection to be ashamed of then."
"My dear!" the Duchess said reprovingly, and looked pointedly at the footmen who were waiting on them. With a rueful grin, the Duke apologised, and changed the topic, though he continued to speak of Miss Markham.
"She seems a nice-enough girl," he remarked. "I remember meeting her at the wedding -- well-bred and cheerful, like her sister, I thought at the time."
"True. I quite dote on her," the Duchess said, "and I hope you will help me make her stay here an agreeable one."
"We have our work cut out for us, son," the Duke said, with a wink in his son's direction.
"Oh, I do not mind," Lord Asterby replied. "I do not think the task will be beyond my talents."
The next day, the Duchess' chaise arrived in Borrowdale House in the late afternoon to take Barbara to Burwell Castle. She had taken particular care when getting dressed for the occasion -- even though the Duchess had informed her that it was only an informal meal, it was not every day that one got an invitation to dine at a duke's table.
Burwell Castle was about four miles from Borrowdale House, and Barbara was curious to see it. Her brother-in-law had given her some prior information regarding his childhood home, but still Barbara was surprised to see the Castle in all its splendour.
Nothing was left of the medieval fortress but the name by which the ducal seat was known and -- according to Lord Gregory -- the cellars. The original fortress had been almost completely destroyed during the Civil War, and during the Restoration years a magnificent house had been built in its place, a dwelling worthy of a duke.
"I am afraid my noble ancestor had no notion of understatement," Lord Gregory had explained, and had added, "But then, it was not to be expected, in his day and age. The Castle was meant to be a showpiece rather than anything else, and as such, I think, it was quite successful."
It was certainly an impressive sight, Barbara thought as the carriage drove up towards the main entrance. The large windows shone like gold in the evening sun, and the walls had a soft, pinkish hue that made the building look warm and inviting.
The butler who admitted Barbara into the house was haughtier than the Duke himself had ever been, Barbara thought as she followed this awe-inspiring retainer to the Blue Drawing Room, where the Duke and Duchess as well as their eldest son were awaiting their guests.
"My dear Miss Markham," the Duchess exclaimed as Barbara was ushered into the room and greeted her hosts with a polite curtsey. "Did you have a pleasant drive?"
"Thank you, your grace, it was most agreeable," Barbara replied, and her hostess, satisfied with the answer, invited her to sit down next to her. "There are some more guests who have not arrived yet," she told her. "Mr. and Mrs. Larkin and their son and daughters. Mr. Larkin is the vicar in the village, a very worthy gentleman; though I confess I chiefly invited the family because I felt you needed to meet some people nearer to your own age than myself and his grace."
"Thank you, ma'am, this is very kind of you," Barbara said. "But I do hope I did not cause you too much trouble."
"Trouble? Nonsense," the Duchess protested. "It is no trouble at all, rest assured. -- Would you like to see the Castle?"
"I would love to, your grace, but will I not be late for dinner if I do?"
"True. Matthew must show you around tomorrow then."
The Duchess seemed to be quite in earnest, Barbara thought, which amused her. "Must he?" she asked, smiling.
"I would consider myself honoured," Lord Asterby said.
"But you must have plenty to do even without giving me a guided tour of the Castle," Barbara objected. "Really, I could not enjoy myself if I knew I was putting you to so much inconvenience. Cannot the housekeeper perform the task, your grace? I am certain she does so quite often."
"Naturally she could, but Matthew is much better at it -- he knows all kinds of stories, and he is so good at telling them too! That is -- do you dislike him so much?"
"I certainly did not want to give you that impression, your grace," Barbara said, blushing to the roots of her hair. "And this was not what I meant to say."
"I am afraid there is nothing you can do now but accept me as your guide with as much grace as you can muster, Miss Markham," Lord Asterby said with a smile. "Unless you want my mother to make some even more outrageous statements. She is perfectly capable of doing so, you must know."
Barbara did not doubt it, being acquainted with the Duchess' ways, though only by report. Kate had often told her about the shocking things her grace said without so much as batting an eyelid.
"Very well, then, sir," she said, giving in.
"I will come and pick you up after luncheon," Lord Asterby said, "and take you back to my brother's house in time for dinner. Unless you wish to ride? I know my brother has several horses in his stables that are suitable for a lady."
"That would be fun," Barbara admitted.
"In that case, I will still pick you up, but we shall go on horseback," Lord Asterby suggested. "If the weather is fine, that is."
"I am looking forward to it," Barbara said.
"We are agreed then," the Duchess said, and announced that she would have a cold collation prepared for when they had finished their tour of the Castle and the grounds.
The dinner itself was not remarkable. Barbara found Mr. and Mrs. Larkin rather insipid, though kind-hearted people, and their offspring did not make too favourable an impression on her either. Of the young people, young Mr. Larkin was the most pleasant; mainly because he was shy and did not speak much. His sisters had none of his scruples, it appeared, and it was sickening to watch them hanging on every word Lord Asterby said, and trying to ingratiate themselves with the Duchess by agreeing with everything she said. Barbara wondered what the purpose of their behaviour was. They would not expect to trap Lord Asterby in marriage, she thought, for such a match would be highly unlikely -- a future Duke would hardly marry a parson's daughter.
Nor were the Duke and Duchess the kind of people who wished to be worshipped by their dependants; they were far too rational to expect such a thing. But perhaps this was just the Larkins' way of showing becoming gratitude for an invitation not everyone was likely to receive. Barbara could not help suspecting, though, that the Miss Larkins would regale their entire acquaintance with their dinner-party at Burwell Castle for weeks to come, and was grateful not to count herself among that number.
The Larkins left early, but so did Barbara -- she did not want Kate to wait up for her for too long, but knew that her sister would be unable to go to sleep before knowing that Barbara had got back safely.
Her suspicion regarding Kate had been correct. As she arrived in Borrowdale House, Kate's lady's maid waited for her in her room to help her get ready for the night, and to report to her mistress whether her sister had had a pleasant evening.
This was followed by a full account the next morning, when Barbara went to sit with her sister after breakfast.
"The Larkins were there? Poor you!" Kate exclaimed, and giggled at Barbara's description of the evening.
"I wonder how the girls could have turned out the way they have done," she remarked, when Barbara had finished her tale. "I suppose Mrs. Larkin told them they must always show proper deference when in exalted company. Not that they move in exalted circles as a rule, but the Duchess sometimes invites the family when she needs someone to make up a card table, or a guest has cancelled an invitation at short notice."
"No wonder they feel flattered," Barbara said sarcastically.
Kate laughed. "It does not sound very nice that way, I admit," she said. "But you will catch neither the Duke nor the Duchess patronising anyone, like others in their position would do. The Larkins are treated like favoured guests -- everyone is."
Since Barbara had witnessed this, she could only agree. Everyone, the Duke and Duchess as well as Lord Asterby, had been very polite to the Larkins; Lord Asterby had borne with the girls' absurdities with admirable forbearance, and he had even taken pains to draw young Mr. Larkin out of his shell. The Duke had had some scholarly discourse with Mr. Larkin senior, giving the gentleman an opportunity to show off his learning, and the Duchess had done her best to keep Mrs. Larkin amused. No, none of the family members could be described as patronising.
After Barbara had regaled Kate with a detailed account of the previous evening, they settled down for another half-hour or so of Emma. In the meantime, Barbara had almost caught up with her sister, and therefore understood much better what was going on in the story. Another evening, she thought, and she would have caught up.
Since there was no guest staying in Borrowdale House who objected to having what Lord Gregory referred to as an "informal" luncheon, Barbara and her brother-in-law had their midday meal in Kate's sitting-room. Barbara had already informed Lord Gregory that she required a horse, and he had promised he would see to the matter.
He had been true to his word. During lunch he mentioned that he had been down to the stables, and that Thompson, his head groom, would bring Kate's mare up to the house as soon as Lord Asterby would arrive. So Barbara, having finished her repast, went off to her room to change into a smart riding habit, and was ready and waiting when Lord Asterby was ushered into the drawing room.
"I hope I have not kept you waiting, Miss Markham," Lord Asterby greeted her.
"You have not, sir," Barbara replied, smiling.
"A fine day for a ride, don't you think so?" he asked.
"A very fine day," Barbara agreed. It was a pleasant day, sunny but not too warm -- ideal for taking some exercise out in the fresh air, she thought, and she was looking forward to doing so.
"I do not think we will take the direct way to the Castle," Lord Asterby said as they walked towards the stables. "One gets the best prospect of the building from the west, so I thought we could take a more circuitous route -- and start my guided tour before actually getting there. What do you think, Miss Markham?"
"Whatever you say, my lord," Barbara laughed. "It sounds like an excellent idea to me!"
Thompson helped Barbara mount her horse, and was to join them as well -- for propriety's sake, as Lord Gregory had said with a grin. It was more likely, though, that he had asked Thompson to ride with Barbara and his brother to make sure nothing happened to either of them, and to be there in case of an accident. Lord Asterby's disability did not prevent him from riding, but maybe it would make it very difficult for him to assist Barbara if she took a fall.
They had an uneventful ride, though. Thompson followed them at a respectful distance, and Lord Asterby proceeded by pointing out various landmarks to Barbara, and telling her some stories attached to them -- childhood memories, some of them, but also some more relevant information.
When they reached the summit of a hill, Lord Asterby reined in his horse, and Barbara followed suit. Opposite them, on top of another hill, was the Castle -- Lord Asterby had not made an empty promise when he had said that they would get a better view of the castle by taking the long way.
"It's beautiful," Barbara said quietly. "Though also very impressive -- very grand!"
"I think this was the intention behind it," Lord Asterby laughed. "The second Duke, who had the place built, spent several years in France in his youth -- and brought a French wife home with him, too -- and I think what he was aiming for was his own private Versailles. On a slightly smaller scale, of course, because he had neither enough funds nor land for the real thing, but he did as well as he could, under the circumstances. He was prodigiously proud of the outcome, too."
"He had reason, I think," Barbara said. Lord Asterby smiled.
"So he did," he said. "Even though it is me saying so. -- As you can see from here, there are three wings. There is the Dower Wing to our right, and the Nursery Wing to the left. Most of the state rooms are in the central wing."
"There is no Dower House on the estate then?"
"No; the Dower Wing is completely separated from the rest of the house, however, so it may well count as some kind of Dower House. It has not been lived in since my grandmother died four years ago, and there is not really anything worth seeing in there. My grandmother had it renovated to suit her taste when my grandfather died, and since she preferred simple elegance to the flamboyant style of the Castle the Dower Wing is quite unremarkable."
Barbara surmised that he would not take her to the Dower Wing, then.
They rode on, and arrived at the Castle half an hour later. Thompson helped Barbara dismount, and then took the horses to the stables.
"Shall we?" Lord Asterby asked, and Barbara nodded.
"Is there anything you would particularly like to see, Miss Markham?"
"Your brother told me the library was a notable feature of the house, and my sister mentioned a portrait .... Lady Mary Andell."
Lord Asterby laughed. "The infamous Lady Mary! I will take you to see the portrait if you wish -- but do not say you have not been warned. It used to frighten us when we were children, and it did not help that we had to pass it on our way to bed every evening. It is just outside the nursery door."
"Strategically placed, I gather," Barbara laughed. "Did her grace think it would keep her sons from wandering along the corridors at night?"
"Very likely. I must ask her some time," Lord Asterby said, and offered Barbara his arm.
She had already seen the entrance hall and Grand Staircase, the Blue Drawing Room and the Dining Room when she had been to the Castle the previous evening, and so they soon moved on to the other state rooms.
There was the State Dining Room, which the family rarely used, except for such grand occasions as balls or weddings, and a passage led from the Great Staircase to the library and the Nursery Wing, the ground floor of which -- strangely enough - contained the State Drawing Room and the ballroom. Barbara was greatly impressed by the splendour of it all -- the second Duke had spared no expense to impress his visitors, it seemed.
The library was just as stunning as Barbara had expected it to be after hearing her brother-in-law's description of it. Lord Asterby informed her that there were some twenty thousand books to be found on the shelves, not counting the manuscripts, pamphlets or the numerous prints and drawings which were also kept there.
"And still you have to go to Bath occasionally to obtain books for my sister?" Barbara asked.
"Only sometimes," Lord Asterby pointed out. "When she wants a book that I know I will not find in here."
"That sounds hardly believable. Looking at those shelves one gets the impression that there cannot be a single book in this world that is not to be found in here."
"Oh, there are many," Lord Asterby laughed. "This is an ongoing collection -- if there is one thing that my family take particular pride in, it is our library."
"I can understand why," Barbara said, awestruck.
"Shall we go on to the Queen's Bedchamber?" Lord Asterby suggested. Reluctantly, Barbara took her leave of the library, and followed Lord Asterby upstairs.
On their way up, Lord Asterby drew Barbara's attention to the mural paintings in the Grand Staircase and made her look more closely at them -- they were mythological scenes, mainly. The second Duke and Duchess of Burwell were included into the scenes, the Duchess posing as Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, complete with a bow and quiver full of arrows and a couple of greyhounds poised next to her (she had been addicted to the sport, her descendant explained), and the Duke in full armour as Mars, the God of War and Vengeance (he had been a pretty successful soldier, apparently). But though both were impersonating ancient deities, they were wearing the attire that had been fashionable in their day -- apart from His Grace's armour, that was.
"They appear to have been a well-matched couple," Barbara remarked. "Very bloodthirsty -the Goddess of the Hunt and the Lord of War. Almost frightening, coming to think of it."
"Quite fitting, too -- the Duke is said to have had an irascible temper," Lord Asterby said. "Like his sister."
"Lady Mary Andell?"
"The very same. -- By the by, Miss Markham, there is an anecdote connected with these murals. Would you like to hear it?"
"Very well. Have a closer look at that creature over there -- we think it must be a satyr or something of the kind. Does it look familiar?"
"Why yes, it does ... it seems as if the painter used the Duke's features over again. Why was that?"
"Apparently there was some disagreement regarding the artist's payment," Lord Asterby said. "And since the Duke behaved in an ungenerous manner, the painter took his own private revenge by replacing the satyr's original face with the Duke's."
Barbara chuckled. "What a devilish way of seeking revenge," she said. "How did the Duke react on that insult?"
"He thought it was a good joke," Lord Asterby said with a grin. "Which is why the picture was permitted to remain the way it was."
"He did have a sense of humour then," Barbara remarked.
"Oh yes, he certainly did. He also seemed to think -- like myself -- that it would make for a good story to entertain one's visitors with."
They turned left into a passage when they reached the first floor, and Lord Asterby pointed out a portrait of his grandparents, painted by Angelica Kauffmann, and a family portrait of his parents and their offspring by Hoppner, taken some fifteen years or so previously. Barbara was impressed -- the ducal family seemed to have a way of finding talented artists, and of bringing out the best in them. Both pictures, Lord Asterby remarked, were thought to be some of the respective artists' finest works.
Another example was found in the Queen's Bedchamber -- portraits of the first Duke and Duchess by Sir Peter Lely.
"Queen Anne spent a night or two in this room, though that was before she was crowned," Lord Asterby told Barbara. "This is why it is called the Queen's Bedchamber. No one sleeps in here any more though -- we usually keep the room empty, unless the house is really full of guests, in which case we tend to allot it to our least favourite visitors." He grinned.
"Why? It looks like a pleasant enough room to me; it is light and airy, and the view from here is charming," Barbara protested.
"During the day it is pleasant enough in here, I grant you," Lord Asterby said gravely, but with a humorous glint in his eyes.
Barbara laughed. "I can see a ghost story coming on," she said. "What is it? Do your worst, my lord!"
"It is nothing dramatic, Miss Markham. Merely a ... a presence of some sort. People who slept in here heard tapping noises at the windows, and they noticed the smell of perfume. Roses, they said."
"Oh. Lady Mary at work?"
"I cannot believe my esteemed great-great-aunt would settle for anything so tame," Lord Asterby laughed. "It would not suit her character. Actually, we do not think there is anything wrong with this room, but stories have travelled around and so we keep it empty, unless we have no choice."
"This sounds like a pragmatic approach to the matter."
"My mother is nothing if not pragmatic, Miss Markham. But you may have noticed that already."
He continued to draw Barbara's attention to some notable features of the room -- the ornate stuccoed ceiling, the marble fireplace, the silk wallpaper (hand-painted, and imported from France at great expense) and an exquisite Aubusson carpet.
"This is about it," Lord Asterby finished. "We do not take visitors to the rooms we currently inhabit, naturally -- except the drawing-rooms downstairs, that is. The other rooms on this floor are the family bedrooms, and guest bedrooms. The nursery is upstairs, on the second floor. So, if you dare to follow me, I will take you there to make Lady Mary's acquaintance."
"I am all agog to meet her," Barbara laughed, and Lord Asterby took her up some minor stairway, explaining that it was the shortest way to the nursery from where they were.
"Here we are then," he finally announced. "Remember you have been warned."
Barbara was slightly disappointed to see Lady Mary Andell's portrait. She had expected something more ghastly, something more frightening, after all both Lord Gregory and Lord Asterby had admitted that, as children, they had been afraid of the painting. Yet there was nothing unusual about it, as far as Barbara could see.
It depicted a lady in her forties or fifties -- it was hard to tell -- wearing a dark gown in the fashion of her day, which must have been about a hundred years before. In her youth, Lady Mary must have been a fine looking young woman, Barbara thought. It was strange; when Kate had mentioned the portrait she had supposed that Lady Mary must have suffered from some kind of disfigurement, but this was not the case. The only thing likely to terrify one, Barbara surmised, was the expression in Lady Mary's eyes. It was a hard, cruel one, and there was a hint of bitterness about her mouth.
"What frightened you so much about this picture?" she asked Lord Asterby, after she had subjected the portrait to some close scrutiny.
"Walk up and down the corridor, Miss Markham, and keep an eye on the portrait," Lord Asterby replied.
Barbara did as he had suggested, and, after having taken a couple of steps, stopped. "Oh, I see! It is one of those pictures!"
"Quite so. Her eyes have an uncanny way of following one around. You only need to add our nurse's threats that Lady Mary sees everything, and you can imagine what we felt like, having to walk past this picture in the dark every evening. Somehow we always felt some kind of punishment for our misdeeds would come from that direction. But if Lady Mary did indeed see everything we did, at least she did not tell on us -- as my brother David pointed out to Nurse Crewe one day."
This made Barbara laugh, although she had, for a few moments, pitied Lord Asterby and his brothers for having been subjected to that kind of treatment. She did not hold with such nonsense as telling children gruesome stories to make them behave, but then having no children herself she probably knew nothing of the matter. Most likely she would, one day, be glad for any means that would make her offspring behave in a way that did not make her blush for them.
"Apart from her eyes following one around," she remarked, "I cannot find anything alarming about the picture, yet my sister said something about Lady Mary being a grim example -- she was referring to the family habit of having sons rather than daughters. That's why I expected something quite different when we went to see the picture -- some poor, deformed creature or something of the kind..." She broke off and blushed, catching sight of Lord Asterby's walking stick and remembering that he was suffering from a disability, even though it was not instantly noticeable.
He did not seem to be overly upset by her remark, however, and merely said, "No, she was not deformed. In fact, I have been told -- by my grandmother, who knew people who had met her -- that she was a very handsome woman. If Kate referred to her as a grim example, it may be because of the story that is attached to her. Lady Mary brought disgrace upon the family."
"I see," Barbara said. That would explain the expression of bitterness in Lady Mary's features, she supposed.
"Shall we go back downstairs?" Lord Asterby suggested. "By this time, my mother should be anxiously awaiting us in the Blue Drawing Room -- she mentioned tea and cake when I set out to Borrowdale House to pick you up. And on our way down I can tell you the story about Lady Mary's disgrace, if you care to hear it."
Barbara cared very much to hear it, and said so. As they turned their steps to the Grand Staircase again, Lord Asterby recounted his ancestress' tale.
©2007, 2008 Copyright held by the author.