The barn was huge and gloomy, and reminded Lord David of a cathedral, probably because of its sheer size.
"Where do you keep your kittens?" he asked the girls, secretly hoping that their aunt would answer his question. No such luck. Celia -- Miss Townsend, he reminded himself -- was remarkably shy. She even avoided looking at him. Speaking to him was not an option, it seemed. But there was no hostility in her manner. There was some hope, then.
"Over there." Little Sophia took his hand and led him to a corner, where an old blanket in a large basket still bore witness to the existence of the kittens. "But they are all gone!"
"I can see that," Lord David said. "Now, it will be rather difficult to find them, but we might have a chance if we could lure their mama to come to us. Or we might hear them, if we are very quiet. Kittens do make some kind of noise after all."
Sophia immediately turned to her sister, who had been saying something to their aunt, and sharply ordered her to hold her tongue.
"We cannot hear the kittens if you're not quiet," she hissed. Lord David had to suppress a laugh.
For a few moments, there was almost absolute silence in the barn, but when nothing happened the girls soon lost their patience.
"It's no use," Caroline whispered. "We'll never find them that way."
"You may be right," Lord David replied. "We could try and beckon their mama with some treat, watch where she is going when she has finished it, and go and look for the kittens in that direction."
This suggestion found immediate favour with the two girls, and they set off towards the kitchen at once to beg a slice of ham or two from the cook. Lord David found himself alone with Celia. Had they been better acquainted -- or had Celia been a different kind of girl -- he would have made good use of the opportunity, but Celia being as she was that was out of the question. One did not win a lady's trust by seizing her and kissing her at the first opportunity, much though one might wish to do just that. If Lord David knew one thing about Celia already, it was that he would have to tread very carefully.
"I do hope we will not have to search the hayloft," he said conversationally. "That would be a bother -- almost the proverbial needle in a haystack."
Celia smiled. "Do you regret having consented to join us?" she asked.
"Certainly not. How could I refuse, with Miss Sophia giving me that pleading look? It would take much more resolve than I have."
"Are you fond of children, sir?"
"I think I do, although I do not have much experience with children. It's been a while since I was one myself, and my only nephew is a baby still, and does not demand much attention from his uncle yet. In fact, he cried a great deal when he made my acquaintance; you will admit that this is not a very encouraging sign."
"Probably not. But he will grow out of it once he gets older, and you will be in great demand by the time he is old enough to get into all kinds of scrapes."
"You terrify me, Miss Townsend. But the boy has a father who will no doubt be able to deal with the scrapes his son gets into. There will be no need for me to interfere. -- As for your nieces, I believe they are taking advantage of the fact that I have never dealt with little girls before."
"This might very well be. They are quick to perceive an ally. You have no sisters, sir?"
"No; there has been no female born into my family for more than a hundred years."
"Indeed. I do have two brothers, though."
By that time, the girls returned to the barn with a saucer of milk and some ham on a plate, and began to look for the truant cat.
"Doosie! Doosie! Come here, Doosie! We've got ham! Yummy! Come, Doosie! Yummy ham!"
"A rather unusual name for a cat," Lord David remarked.
"Oh, it's short for Medusa," Celia explained. "She has been living in this barn for years; it was my great-aunt who came up with this name for her. Doosie is the queen of our cats, and the terror of the local mouse population."
"An animal to be reckoned with, then."
"Absolutely. She even tackles the occasional dog, and does admirable work in keeping these premises free of mice and rats. Her reputation is legendary -- we will have no trouble in finding places for her little ones in the neighbourhood, once they are weaned."
At least he had got Celia to talk to him, Lord David decided. He had been right -- she would talk to him, as long as they stuck to harmless topics and she felt safe with him. He'd better not make any attempt at flirting with her just yet.
"It seems we will have to search the hayloft," he said, when it became clear that the girls' attempts at catching Medusa would remain fruitless. "It will be better if I climb up there, I believe -- it will not do for any of the girls to do so and get hurt."
"Please do not trouble yourself, sir," Celia said. "I can go up."
"What about both of us going up? Four eyes will do the job much better than two -- and I'll set the girls to get one of the stable boys and search the tack room. That way they will be out of harm's way. What do you say?"
After a moment of hesitation, Celia agreed to this method, and Lord David called out to the girls, suggesting this course of action to them -- omitting the fact that he and their aunt would search the hayloft, because he was quite certain that they would wish to join them if they knew. The girls set out immediately to ask one of the stable boys to help them, and Lord David inspected the ladder that led into the hayloft.
"I am not sure if it will be safe for you to climb this ladder, Miss Townsend," he commented. "It looks rather unstable to me. Perhaps it will be better if you stay down here after all."
"The ladder is safe enough," Celia said. "If you will be so kind as to hold it for me..."
"Certainly, ma'am," he agreed, and held the ladder for her while she climbed it, resisting the temptation to look up and catch a glimpse of her legs. It was obvious that this eventuality had not occurred to her; she was moving up that ladder with no sign of discomfiture. He was not sure whether this was a good sign or a bad one, though.
Once she had safely reached the hayloft, he followed her up that ladder. There was not much hay left; the haymaking had not started yet. The sun streaming in through the window-holes revealed a great deal of cobwebs and dust, however. Celia shuddered.
"Is anything the matter, Miss Townsend?" Lord David asked. "Do you want to go down again?"
"No, thank you. I am fine," Celia replied. "Let us see if we can find the kittens. Will you go and have a look over there? I will search this side of the barn."
For a couple of minutes, they were very busy, each of them searching their side of the building. But suddenly Celia gave a little shriek, and as Lord David looked up he found her standing very still, with an expression of sheer terror in her face.
"Miss Townsend!" he cried. "What has happened?" A few swift strides brought him to her side. "Is there any way I can help?"
"Spider," Celia gasped. "I have walked into a spider's web, and I am sure it must be somewhere ... in my hair, probably, or..." She broke off and shuddered.
"Hold still, Miss Townsend," Lord David said, and carefully brushed off her gown. "There is no spider anywhere on your dress," he announced, and proceeded to check her hair. "And only a couple of cobwebs in your hair," he finally said. "No spider at all."
Celia gave him a faint smile. "You must think me such a silly creature," she said. "But if there is one thing I hate - really hate - it is spiders. I cannot tell you how they terrify me. It is irrational; I know they cannot harm me, but the thought of having one of these creatures sitting on me somewhere, or crawling up my hand ..."
"You are not at all silly, Miss Townsend." Lord David soothed her. "I know several ladies who share this particular dislike with you. One of them is my own mother, whom no one would ever mistake for a silly female, or prone to hysterics. Everyone has their dislikes -- in my case it is rats. I cannot stand them."
"Really? Why is that?"
"I simply find them disgusting," he explained. He did not want to go into the exact reasons why he found these animals so revolting, so he did not say any more. Being a soldier, he had had closer contact with that species than he had cared to have. Their quarters had not always been a French château; during the Peninsular War they had considered themselves comfortably lodged in a peasant's hut, or a barn -- in spite of these repellent rodents, which had been there in abundance.
"Well, they are disgusting," Celia agreed. "Thank God for Doosie. Where can she be?"
Perhaps this was what they had needed, Lord David thought with a smile. A cat of Medusa's calibre acting as some kind of advance troop to rid their quarters of vermin. He'd make the suggestion one day.
"I have found no trace of her or her litter," Lord David said. "Is there anywhere else we can look?"
"The woodshed, maybe," Celia said doubtingly. "But maybe the girls have been more successful than we."
This turned out to be the case. By the time Lord David and Celia had descended from the hayloft, the girls came in, each of them carrying two kittens. "We found them," Caroline announced proudly. "They were on the horse blankets in the tack room. Williams has found them."
"And how long have you known where they were?" Celia asked. She obviously resented having been obliged to search the spider-infested hayloft while the kittens had been in the tack room all the time.
"Only some five minutes, Aunt."
"Very well," Celia said with a sigh. "Then let us go back into the house." As they stepped out of the barn into the sunlight, Sophia started to laugh.
"Oh, Aunt," she cried. "You look as if you'd been rolling in hay!"
There were indeed some pieces of hay on Celia's gown, and Lord David watched with some amusement as she hastily brushed them off. Then she looked at him, and blushed.
"Children," she murmured. "They have a habit of saying whatever comes to their minds."
"Quite so," Lord David agreed, and turned to Sophia. "Your aunt was looking for the kittens in the hayloft," he explained. "You must not tease her about the way she looks now -- it is not very kind, you know, after all the trouble she has been through. Just imagine, she even ran into a spider's web!"
"Oh!" Caroline cried with a shudder. "Poor Aunt Celia!"
"Yes," Sophia agreed. "Poor Aunt! I'm sorry I teased you. This must have been horrible!"
"It was," Celia said ruefully, and told the girls to go and play with their kittens while she would go to her room to wash and put on a clean gown. "For who can tell what outrageous things Marianne will say when she sees me in such a state," she added in a low voice once the girls were out of earshot.
Lord David laughed. "It might well be something similar to what Sophia said."
"I fear so. And with Mr. Hart present, too."
A thought struck Lord David, and it was not a pleasant one. Was that curate after Celia? He had been sitting with Mrs. Marston when he and Lady Townsend had arrived, but one never knew.
"As a clergyman, he might disapprove of young ladies who roll in hay," he remarked.
"Very likely," Celia said curtly. They entered the house, and she curtseyed. "I will take my leave of you now, sir -- I doubt you will still be here once I have finished making myself presentable again."
Lord David bowed. "I am happy to have made your acquaintance, Miss Townsend," he said. "Though I hope this was not the last time we met."
"If I know anything of my sister-in-law we will dine at Stansfield House before long," Celia said, smiling. "So we may well meet again."
I do hope we will, Lord David thought as he watched her walk up the stairs to her room. This visit had done nothing to diminish the love he felt for her. On the contrary. Lord David was now more certain than ever that this was the woman he was going to marry.
During most of their dinner that evening, Rebecca rang a peal over her
"You were behaving like a pair of hoydens," she cried. "As if no one had ever taught you any manners at all! I almost died of shame!"
"Sorry, Mama," the girls murmured. There was a decidedly crestfallen look about them. "We didn't mean any harm," Sophia added.
"It's all very well to say so," Rebecca said sharply. "But you must learn to think before you act. How will I ever be able to face Lord David or Mr Hart again? They'll think I am unable to bring up my children properly -- I am pretty certain they have never seen such pert and naughty girls in their life! -- You will have no dessert, and go to bed immediately after dinner. I don't want to see either of you again tonight; I am too disappointed in you."
"Yes, Mama," Caroline whispered. Celia thought that the rebuke was a trifle too severe, but did not intervene. The girls had to obey their mother; any petition on their behalf would simply make them think that their conduct had not been so bad after all. It was not for her to question her sister's standards of good behaviour.
Only when the girls had gone to bed she remarked, "I do think you are making a mountain out of a molehill, Rebecca. Don't you think you were a bit hard on Caroline and Sophia?"
"I must be strict with the girls," Rebecca defended herself. "It is not that I like being harsh with them, but it is difficult enough to raise a pair of fatherless children as it is."
"I know it is difficult," Celia agreed. "And you are doing an excellent job."
"I do not think that sending them to bed without dessert is a severe punishment," Rebecca declared. "Just enough to make them think about what they have done wrong, and I can see no fault in that."
"Probably," Celia said, though in her opinion Rebecca's sermon at the dinner table had been punishment enough. She was not going to say so, however. She was not sure whether she'd be sent off to bed too if she did.
"Mr Hart was quite shocked," Rebecca told her. "Marianne treated the incident as a good joke, and as for Lord David -- well, I can only say that he must be an exceedingly good-natured gentleman if he puts up with behaviour like that."
"He was very kind to the girls," Celia agreed, "and very civil to me. Most helpful, too."
"He appears to be a perfect gentleman," Rebecca observed. "Apart from a certain tendency towards levity."
"What makes you think so?" Celia asked. "This is not the impression I had of him."
"The mere fact that he took part in that outrageous kitten-hunt in the barn is evidence enough, don't you think?"
"I put it down to good humour," Celia defended Lord David. "Would you have preferred him to be shocked, like Mr Hart? -- Anyway, the girls like him; I think that is a good sign. Children can usually tell."
"Children will like anyone who fusses over them and lets them have everything their way," Rebecca said dismissively.
"That's not true. They do distinguish between those whose heart is in the matter and those who only oblige them for some ulterior motive. As you well know."
Grudgingly, Rebecca had to agree. She also repeated that his lordship was very different from the noblemen she had met so far -- not that she had met many. Those she had met had sometimes treated her very rudely, as if their rank entitled them to insolence towards anyone they did not consider their equal. Lord David was certainly not one of that kind.
"But then I have been told that the Duke and Duchess of Burwell have some very odd notions of their position. Almost egalitarian, I believe. I daresay that accounts for it."
Celia laughed. "You sound as if you disapproved of it," she said. "But the result of their upbringing speaks for itself, don't you think?"
Lord David was pleased to hear that Lady Townsend had invited her sisters-in-law to dine at Stansfield House the day after the next. He was quite content with today's events -- chance had given him an opportunity to become better acquainted with Celia in less than formal circumstances, and that had to be a success of some sort. She obviously trusted him, probably even liked him, but he was not quite certain of that. Time would tell -- too bad he could only stay for a week. He'd have to become a frequent visitor to this place. Or find some property in the neighbourhood. Yes, that was it - the solution to his problem. He could not inflict himself on Sir Gerard and Lady Townsend all the time; they were friends but not even the closest of friendships could stand the strain of all-too-frequent visits, in his opinion. Especially a pair of newlyweds -- or almost newlyweds -- preferred to be alone, and in all likelihood there would soon be children at Stansfield, which would leave Lady Townsend with better things to do than entertaining her husband's friends.
But an estate of
his own in the vicinity would give him an excuse for demanding leave of absence
occasionally, and it would offer him an opportunity to get to know his neighbours
better. He would have to find out whether there was any place of tolerable
dimensions for hire or sale, and so he addressed himself to his friend, once
they were alone in the dining room.
"It's a fine place you have got," he began. "I am quite impressed. Beautiful countryside, too. Anyone of note in the neighbourhood?"
"There are some ten or twelve families we are in contact with," Sir Gerard replied. "And some others we don't see so often. The Gleesons of Ulverthorpe Hall -- you know Sir Malcolm, I suppose?- and Lord Wootton, who owns a hunting lodge some three miles from here."
Both Sir Malcolm Gleeson and Lord Wootton were known to Lord David. Sir Malcolm was about his father's age, and very much a gentleman of the old school. He had a great dislike of everything French, having lost two of his four sons in the Peninsular War, so maybe it was not a big surprise that he did not visit at Stansfield House, with a French lady in residence there.
Neither did Lord David wonder at the fact that Sir Gerard did not wish to acknowledge any acquaintance with Lord Wootton. Wootton did not have the best of reputations; he was an inveterate philanderer and gambler, and always on the edge of bankruptcy -- not the kind of man Sir Gerard might want his wife to associate with. It might be worth the trouble to inquire into his lordship's financial circumstances, Lord David believed. A man desperate for money might be persuaded to let go of his hunting lodge, even though it might be convenient for him to have one in case he needed to go into the country on a repairing lease.
Still, since Lord David was not a gambler, he decided not to depend on anything as fragile as the Earl of Wootton's luck -- or ill-luck - at the card table. There had to be other possibilities -- especially since Lord David knew Wootton was not a friend of his, and probably would not even sell the house to him if he was prepared to pay much more than the asking price.
"There is no one living at Beech Hill," Sir Gerard said. "It used to be a pleasant house, but its owner cannot afford to keep it any longer. It used to belong to the Vernons, but they sold it to a Cit to pay off their eldest son's debts. From what I hear, though, that Mr Steadman has lost a fortune at the stock market lately, and is looking for someone to take Beech Hill off his hands. Are you going to try your luck?" He grinned at Lord David. "You could have asked me outright, you know. It's not as if you could hide your intentions from me."
"What are my intentions?" Lord David asked, trying to sound indifferent.
"Getting yourself a place in the neighbourhood," Sir Gerard declared. "Why else would you ask me about the people who live here?"
"I don't know -- taking an interest in how you're getting on, maybe?"
"Fiddle," Sir Gerard replied, not mincing words. "In that case you'd have asked me quite plainly how I was getting on. No need to be so secretive, old boy."
"So now that you have found me out, do you think it would be a good idea to buy the house?"
"You'll have to find out for yourself; I'm not going to meddle in your affairs. That's the kind of decision a man must make for himself, just like marriage." Sir Gerard grinned. "I won't deny though that I'd like to have you residing in the neighbourhood. So would my wife, I am sure."
"Who acts for this Mr Steadman?" Lord David asked. "And is there any possibility of having a look at the house?"
Sir Gerard promised to take him to Beech Hill the next morning; there was a pair of old retainers there, he said, who would be happy to show him over the house -- in fact they were allowed to stay there for that exact reason -- and if Lord David liked what he saw it would be best to contact Mr Steadman himself. The servants would know the man's address, surely.
Lord David, well pleased with the outcome of his conversation with Sir Gerard, gave his consent to this course of action, and so they went off to keep Lady Townsend company in the drawing room.
It was not difficult to imagine how Beech Hill had got its name. The house was situated on the slope of a hill, and there was a clutter of beech trees hiding it from view as one approached it. The building was of fairly recent date; the most striking feature of the north front was a portico, very much in the Palladian style. Cotswold Stone had been the main building material; the honey-coloured walls reminded Lord David of Burwell Castle, his father's principal seat.
Inside, the house was very stylish; its owner had not made the mistake of adopting all the recent fashions and ruining the place's simple elegance, though some of the furniture was not quite to Lord David's liking. The rooms, though not overly large, were light and airy, and the atmosphere was a pleasant one.
The view from the rooms facing south was breathtaking, and Lord David wondered why Mr Steadman thought of selling the place.
He asked his friend, who shrugged. "It's a pretty place, I am sure, but the problem is there is no income attached to it," he explained. "The Vernons had it built as some kind of summer retreat -- that's why it is not really large; it was never intended as a principal residence -- and there is no land belonging to the property apart from the gardens."
"I can see that this may be a problem for some people," Lord David agreed. "Not for me though. I have a regular income as it is. My father made sure of that."
"Then why did you join the Army?"
"Mainly because my father also thought that a man needs something to do with his life, or he'll get into trouble. To be fair, he had reason. Anyway, soldiering was the only occupation that found favour with me. Though not until I tried it."
Upon their return to Stansfield House, Lord David immediately set about writing two letters -- one to his father's man of business, whom he asked to find out the precise amount of money Mr Steadman wanted for his property in the parish of Upper Easton, and one to his father, to inform him that his youngest son was in the process of settling down.
I have found a delightful place in Gloucestershire, he wrote, which I know you would approve of if only you could see it. The house is fairly new, and in good repair, so that I need not go through a great deal of trouble or expense to make it habitable. I have written to Fielding and asked him to discover what the present owner wants for it, but I cannot imagine it will be all that much, since there is no land attached to it. In fact, that is the greatest drawback to this property, but I suppose I will be able to buy some land in the course of time.
For the moment, Lord David toyed with the idea of telling his father that he had also found a mistress for his future home, but he dismissed it when he gave the issue some serious thought. While he was certain regarding his own wishes in the matter, he knew nothing of Celia's yet. It would not do to tell his parents about his intentions before he had some reason to hope that she returned his feelings, and would accept him if he offered for her.
Once he had established himself as her new neighbour, he would be able to set about wooing her in earnest. Still, it would be a tricky task -- and he was by no means certain that he was the only one aspiring to the hand of Miss Celia Townsend. There was this blasted parson, for one, and no doubt there were others as well. Miss Townsend was too beautiful not to be noticed.
Celia put on
her good evening gown for the dinner at her brother's. It was made of lilac
crape, looked rather more cheerful than her other dresses suitable for the
state of mourning, and made her complexion look a little fresher. She did not
care too much about her appearance; she always took care to look neat but did
not wish to draw people's attention to herself, so she had never been
particularly adventurous when it came to hairstyles, low necklines or dashing
bonnets. Vanity was none of her faults, and though she was aware that there
were some people who admired her style of beauty she herself found nothing
remarkable about herself.
Her only adornments were a simple pearl necklace -- an heirloom from her mother - and a lilac ribbon in her hair, exactly matching her gown. Still, despite the simplicity of her toilette, Celia's nieces were greatly impressed when they saw her, and said so. They were a little sulky, mainly because their mother had told them that there was no way she would take them along to Stansfield House until they had learned to behave properly, but Sophia forgot her sulks for long enough to commend her aunt's looks, and Caroline, not one to be outdone by her sister, agreed, probably hoping to vex her mother.
"Your dress is so much nicer than Mama's," she said, stealing a glance at Rebecca to see her reaction only to be disappointed. Rebecca was unmoved.
"I think your mama's gown is much more elegant than mine," Celia protested. "And she looks absolutely charming tonight."
Celia did not say so to soothe Rebecca -- in fact her sister was not likely to take offence at her daughters' criticism -- but because she felt it needed to be said. In her opinion, Rebecca had always been the prettier sister, and the more elegant one. The dove-grey silk gown Rebecca had chosen for the evening was not of recent fashion but several years old; yet Rebecca had added some touches here and there to make it appear as if she had bought it in London only a week ago. Its crowning glory was a lace fichu, grey, but almost silvery in appearance; a gift from Marianne.
"I am almost certain that you will not convince my two severest critics," Rebecca said good-naturedly. "Shall we go?"
After another stern reminder to her daughters as to the conduct she expected of them in her absence, Rebecca stepped outside where their old carriage was already waiting for them. Marianne had offered to send Sir Gerard's carriage to pick them up, but Rebecca had declined the offer -- there was no need, she said, to try her brother's patience too far. She, for one, would be happy enough if he could be brought to tolerate their presence for one evening.
Things did not look too promising, Celia thought, as their old butler ushered them into the parlour in Stansfield House. Gerard did greet them, but while his greeting was polite it was far from cordial. He inquired after the girls in an absent-minded manner, and then excused himself to attend to Mr Hart, who had also been invited. Suppressing a sigh, Celia sat down on the sofa. This evening was not going to rank among the most pleasant ones in her recollections, she supposed.
"Miss Townsend!" She looked up at Lord David's smiling face. "Have you recovered from the shock you suffered in the barn?"
She was not certain whether he was mocking her, or just trying to be friendly, and was therefore uncertain what to say in reply. Giving him the benefit of doubt, though, she finally said, "I admit I was not quite comfortable until I had changed my dress, but once I had there was nothing to frighten me any more."
"I am glad to hear it," Lord David said and, after a moment's hesitation, sat down on the sofa next to her; keeping a proper distance, however. Celia did notice it, but could not decide whether it made her feel glad or disappointed. He was a very pleasant gentleman after all.
"Did the kittens get lost again?" he inquired.
"No, they did not. Caroline and Sophia made sure of that. They put them back where they'd found them, in spite of Williams' objections, and gave him strict orders that they were not to be disturbed."
Lord David laughed. "Your nieces are a charming pair."
"They are a handful, sometimes," Celia explained. "But they mean no harm."
"I have never met a child who does," Lord David said. "So in spite of my limited experience in the matter I should say that there is no such child."
"Maybe not," Celia agreed.
"On the other hand, considering the mischief I got into without meaning to do any harm when I was a boy ... my father once said the only means of making sure I outlived my boyhood would be locking me up somewhere in the cellars, and even then, he said, he had some serious doubt in the matter."
"I take it you were quite a handful yourself, then?" Celia could almost imagine the boy who'd constantly got into trouble without ever meaning to do any harm. It was an endearing picture.
"I am afraid I did cause my parents some uneasiness sometimes -- but I am happy to say I have outgrown that tendency by now."
"It must be a great comfort to your parents to know that," Celia said.
"What about you, Miss Townsend? Did you ever give your parents cause for anxiety?"
"None that I know of," Celia replied. "I am afraid I was a very dull little girl."
"Now that I find hard to believe!" Lord David smiled. "You may have been a very well-behaved little girl, I do not doubt that, and probably a quiet, timid one -- but certainly not dull."
The tone of certainty in his voice made Celia laugh in spite of herself. "And you believe yourself to be a judge after -- what, Lord David? Half an hour of acquaintance?"
"There are some things one just knows, Miss Townsend," Lord David replied earnestly. "Have you never been certain of something -- after only a few moments?"
Celia was not sure what he was getting at now. For a moment she suspected he was trying to flirt with her; and had it not been for the earnest expression in his face she might have withdrawn from him at the first opportunity that offered itself. But he was still sitting where he was -- on the other side of the sofa, with enough room for another person between them; he had not made any attempt to flatter her -- had made no comment regarding her beauty or her dress, as other men often did, and he had not even tried to touch her hand. This did not look like an attempt at flirtation at all.
"No, my lord," she replied. "Such a thing has never happened to me."
Lord David could tell by the wavering smile on Celia's face that he had been too forward. He had seen this kind of smile before -- a smile calculated to hide her insecurity but advertising it to the world instead. It was the smile of a young girl uncertain of approval, and it tugged at his heart; it made him want to take her into his arms and reassure her, tell her that whatever happened she could come to him for comfort -- that he would do anything rather than hurt her.
Instead, he had to keep his distance. He should have known better than hint at what was on his mind; she was not ready for that, not yet. Celia Townsend was not the kind of woman to be wooed in a hurry. He truly hoped this Mr Steadman would close with his offer for Beech Hill House, so he could remain in the neighbourhood without rousing anyone's suspicion -- least of all Celia's. He had a feeling as if she would run from him the moment she realised she was his object -- as things were now, she certainly would. She needed to get to know him better; and before she did he had better refrain from giving her any reason to suspect his intentions.
Luckily the butler came in to announce dinner, and so he had to lead his hostess to the table and leave Celia to the mercy of Mr Hart, the curate. He did not like Hart; though in all justice he had to admit that he would have liked him better if it had not been for Celia, and the marked attentions he suspected the curate of paying her.
At the dinner table, he was seated between Lady Townsend and Mrs Marston, and so he had no opportunity of talking to Celia. He did keep an eye on her and Mr Hart though; he wanted to find out if Hart was really interested in her or if he'd only been jumping to conclusions. After all, when he had arrived at the Manor two days previously he had found Hart closeted with Mrs Marston, and her sister had not been present ... Hart was welcome to Mrs Marston, if his taste ran to that direction, but if he had intentions concerning Celia Lord David would have to take some action soon.
"How do you like our neighbourhood, Lord David?" Mrs Marston asked politely. "You have been here for how long?"
"Three days only, Mrs Marston, but I have already decided that I have not seen enough of it yet. In fact I am charmed by the scenery as well as the warm welcome I have had everywhere. I wish I could stay longer, but I will have to be back in Gloucester by the end of this week."
"So soon! I admit this will not give you much opportunity to become better acquainted with the neighbourhood."
"I am afraid so. This is why I am planning to come back frequently; whenever I can be spared from my duties in Gloucester that is. Lady Townsend has been so kind as to assure me of her hospitality whenever I wish to come. I am not going to take her up on her offer, however; it will not do to make a nuisance of oneself."
"No," Lady Townsend interjected severely. "Instead you are going to snub me and buy a house in the neighbourhood so you need not stay here if you come. Ingrat!"
"Indeed?" Mrs Marston gave him a look of surprise.
"Nothing is settled yet, ma'am. I am merely considering it. Your brother took me to Beech Hill yesterday, and I admit it quite took my fancy."
"You could do worse, certainly," Mrs Marston said. "I have always thought it to be a charming place; it was a pity that it was only inhabited during the summer."
"You know the house, ma'am?"
"Oh yes, we visited there very often when the Vernons were still in possession of it. We did not go there quite so often once the Steadmans had taken it, however, though my husband was the vicar of Lower Easton, the parish the house belongs to. Mr Steadman is a respectable man, but his wife, I am sorry to say, is a trifle ... vulgar. I should not say so perhaps, but it quite put me off visiting there."
"I do hope there will be nothing to put you off visiting there should I decide to buy it."
"Nothing, I am sure, but the lack of a hostess, my lord," Mrs Marston replied.
"Oh, that can be mended, I am certain," Lord David laughed, and added, "If I know anything of my mother it is that she will be glad to volunteer, should a hostess be needed."
"Her grace seems most obliging," Mrs Marston remarked, and nothing more was said in the matter of Beech Hill House.
The moment they retired to the drawing room, Rebecca and Marianne discussed Lord David's intention of buying Beech Hill.
"It would be so agreeable to have a family there," Rebecca said. "Preferably one that will stay there all year round. The Vernons only came here in summer, you must know, and the Steadmans even more rarely because of Mr Steadman's business."
"Oh yes, and Gerard is so fond of Lord David," Marianne agreed. "They always were such good friends!"
"Do you think Lord David is considering marriage?" Rebecca asked her sister-in-law. "When I talked to him about a hostess for his home, he was quick to say the matter could be mended -- and I, for one, did not think he was talking about his mother."
"If he did, he would not say so to me," Marianne confessed. "Unless everything were settled already, of course, then he would. But if there should be a particular young lady he has in mind, he would be more likely to confide in Gerard than me. Maybe. Though I think he may just have some general notion of settling down. Most of his friends have got married of late, so it would not be surprising if he, too, thought of finding someone, without having developed a tendre for any lady yet."
Celia listened to their conversation in silence. She somehow liked the notion of Lord David buying a house in the neighbourhood; that way she would get to know him better. At the same time, for some strange reason, she did not relish the thought of him moving into Beech Hill House with a wife. She did not choose to question this feeling too much, however. It was foolish beyond permission, and she did not approve of foolish thoughts.
But maybe, she thought when the gentlemen joined them and Lord David consented to play a quiet game of whist with her, her sister and Marianne, it was simply because she appreciated the easy and friendly manner in which he treated her, and she knew this would have to stop once he was a married man -- his wife would not like it if he became too familiar with other women.
The next day Lord David encountered Celia when he was on his way back to Stansfield from the village. She was sitting on a blanket in the meadow not far from a ruined chapel, and had her sketchbook with her. She was drawing, and obviously engrossed in her artwork, for her two nieces were running around, picking flowers and chasing butterflies without a word of remonstrance from her. It was a charming picture.
The girls' exclamations of delight upon seeing him made her look up, though, and when she saw who had received this enthusiastic greeting from the girls she gave him a welcoming smile that almost took his breath away. It was a real smile this time, not that of a half-frightened girl but that of a woman who wanted him to know that she was pleased to see him.
"Good morning, Lord David," she said calmly, put her sketchbook aside and got up to meet him. "You are up early."
"So are you, Miss Townsend," he replied, dismounting and looking for some place to tie up his horse. Having secured his horse's reins, he continued, "I am expecting some letters from my family, and so I rode over to the post office."
"I am afraid not. Tomorrow, perhaps. My father is a busy man, and so are my brothers. I am the only one of the family indulging in laziness at the moment."
"Indeed? You do not look at all like an idle person to me," Celia replied politely.
"I am not. Though I am enjoying my freedom here, I admit. It will be at an end soon, however -- I will have to be back in Gloucester by Sunday."
"Oh! So soon!"
Lord David was quite flattered by the wistfulness in her tone of voice. She regretted his leaving -- that was good news. He decided to ignore the comment, however -- asking her whether she'd miss him would be going too far. He had no wish to make her withdraw into her shell again, just as he'd got her to come out of it for a moment.
The girls did not hesitate to voice their disappointment in unequivocal terms.
"Must you really, Lord David?" Caroline asked, and Sophia added, "Can't you stay?"
"I wish I could," he replied. "But I have some work to do in Gloucester, you know."
"Oh, work," Sophia said dismissively, as if she did not see any necessity for him to have an occupation and a steady income when he could be with them, searching haystacks for kittens or chasing butterflies in the meadows.
"Don't be so rude, Sophia," Celia gently scolded her niece.
"She is not rude, just honest," Lord David laughed. "To say the truth, I had rather stay here, but I cannot. I may come back though."
"My sister told me," Celia said. "She said you were interested in buying Beech Hill."
"Really?" Sophia bounced and clapped her hands. "When will you come back?"
"I do not know yet," Lord David protested laughingly. "We'll see."
"That's what grown-ups say when they mean no." Sophia pouted.
"I have had about enough from you, little miss," Celia intervened. "Unless you can behave with some more decorum, you will go back to the house and help your mama."
Lord David would never have believed that his gentle Celia could sound so determined, but the evidence suggested that, when she did, she was truly in earnest -- the girls appeared to take her seriously. This boded well for the upbringing of their children, Lord David felt, though he took great care not to betray the direction of his thoughts in any way.
"Come, Sophia," Caroline said hurriedly. "Let's go and see if there are any bell flowers over there -- there are lots by the chapel, remember? And they'll make such a beautiful wreath!"
With something approaching a scowl, Sophia gave in and followed her sister. Lord David turned to the girls' aunt again.
"Your sister said Beech Hill was a good house, and when I looked at it I quite liked it. Have you ever been there?"
"Occasionally, but not often. When the Vernons still had it, we were sometimes invited to dine there, but they didn't often include me in their invitations, since I was still in the schoolroom."
"What do you think of the place?" Perhaps, he thought, she did not like the house, in which case he might simply inquire whether Mr Steadman would be willing to let it to him for a year or so. There was no point in purchasing property that did not strike his future wife's fancy.
"I have only ever seen the reception rooms, and the gardens, and they are pleasant enough I think," she said. Guarded as always, Lord David thought. He had said he liked Beech Hill -- which he did -- and now she would not admit to disliking it even if the place completely repulsed her. She was too polite to do so.
"I daresay a great deal will have to be done to it to make it acceptable," he said lightly. "Should I decide to buy the place, I shall set my mother to the task of furnishing it. She will enjoy that, I know."
"A wise decision, my lord."
Realising that any further discussion of Beech Hill would not lead him anywhere, Lord David changed the subject.
"You were drawing," he said. "Would you let me see your work, or is it too great a piece of impertinence to ask? I do realise young ladies are sometimes reluctant to show their artwork to strangers, so I will not take it amiss if you tell me to mind my own business."
"You are not a stranger, Lord David, and if you wish to have a look at my poor attempt at drawing you are welcome to do so," Celia replied. "I was trying to do a sketch of the girls, but they were unable to sit still, and so I have resorted to making sketches of various flowers, and the ruin. Nothing fancy, I am afraid -- I do not consider myself all that talented."
He walked over to the blanket, and picked up Celia's sketchbook. She had been working on a drawing of the chapel, as she had said, and Lord David was greatly impressed by what he saw. He had seen enough of young ladies' artistic attempts to realise that, although Celia did not think so, she did possess some talent -- more than was commonly found among young ladies dabbling in art.
"This is very good," he commented. "You have an excellent eye for detail, Miss Townsend."
"My drawing master used to deplore it. He said I should not get lost in detail," Celia confessed. "Especially not when doing water-colours."
"The man had no idea what he was talking about, I am sure," Lord David said, ready to tear the unfortunate gentleman's character apart in Celia's defence.
Celia laughed. "He was a notable artist," she said. "Not famous, but well known among his own set. He also did a portrait of my mother -- you will find it in the drawing room at Stansfield House."
"I will make a point of having a good look at it," Lord David promised, and then took his leave, much though he hated it, knowing that Lady Townsend must be waiting for her letters.
If only he could think of another opportunity of meeting Celia before he left!
As it was, he found as soon as he returned to Stansfield House that he was going to have such an opportunity. Mrs Marston, not to be outdone in hospitality by her sister-in-law, had invited her brother, his wife and guest to dine with her at Farley Manor. As Lord David entered the parlour where Lady Townsend usually spent her mornings, he witnessed an argument between Lady Townsend and her spouse, who categorically refused to dine at his sisters' home.
"You will not be so uncivil as to refuse," Lady Townsend said angrily. "They are your sisters, and you will not insult them. I will not allow you to do such a thing!"
Lord David attempted to retreat from the room before either of them became aware of his presence, but without success. Lady Townsend perceived him and immediately turned to him for support.
"Lord David, my sister-in-law has invited us to dine at the Manor House, but monsieur will not go. Do tell him he cannot do that!"
"I will do no such thing, Lady Townsend," Lord David protested. "A man ought to know better than to meddle in other men's family affairs. I am sure Sir Gerard's good sense will tell him what he ought to do."
"Men," Lady Townsend exclaimed irritably, and sailed from the room in a huff.
"Thank you," Sir Gerard said, glancing uncomfortably at the door behind which his wife had disappeared.
"There is no need to thank me. I will not meddle in your marital affairs, but that does not mean that I agree with you," Lord David said coldly. "Not going to your sisters' house even though you were invited is a deliberate insult and an act of great unkindness, and I'll have no part in that."
With these words, Lord David left Sir Gerard to himself to think the matter over in silence. If he stayed longer, he felt, he'd probably start an argument of his own with his friend, and it was bad ton to start a quarrel with a man while one was a guest in that man's house.
Rebecca was very busy preparing for the great event, for, she pointed out to her sister, it was not often that one got to entertain a Duke's son under one's roof. It was too bad, she observed, that they did not know any of his favourite dishes, for she would have liked to show Lord David that while their house was a small one, and the furniture in their dining room a trifle old-fashioned, their cook need not be afraid of having her skill compared to that of the Duke of Burwell's French chef.
But since she did not know anything about Lord David Andell's preferences, she decided to give her cook instructions to make some of her brother's favourite dishes -- which, she said, could do no harm. A well-fed man was inclined to be peaceful, and knowing Gerard the way she did she was by no means certain he would come willingly. A dinner containing some of his favourites would make him better disposed towards having to spend another evening in their company, she felt.
While Rebecca was in the kitchen, discussing the bill of fare for the evening, and telling the scullery maid to get the good chinaware ready, it was Celia's duty to oversee the housemaids' work in the dining-room and adjoining drawing-room. Neither of the rooms was in frequent use; their great-uncle had converted the former Great Hall into two large apartments, but they were too large and inconvenient for everyday use, and so for most of the time the furniture was kept under holland covers. Still, Rebecca had insisted to dine in the large dining room when there was company, and Celia had to make sure the room was ready to receive their guests.
Celia had sent her nieces into the garden to pick flowers for the large vases in the drawing-room, and had almost finished dusting the ornaments on the mantelpiece when Rebecca joined them in the drawing room. She ran an approving look over the gleaming dining table in the dining room, and commended the housemaids' work.
"We will have nothing to blush for when our guests arrive," she said, when the housemaids had gone downstairs to fetch water for the vases and they were alone for a few moments. "Let us hope it is warm tonight, or it will be rather cold in here."
"Perhaps we ought to have a fire lit in here and in the dining room early in the afternoon," Celia suggested. "So it will be nice and warm when our guests come to sit in here."
Rebecca admitted that this was a good idea. "I want everyone to be comfortable," she said.
"Not just Lord David?" Celia asked with a smile.
"I admit having someone of Lord David's rank to dine with us is a bit of a challenge," Rebecca said, "but no, this is not just about him. You know, Celia, I believe Mr Hart is ... well, he has come to call quite often, and ... don't you think he is growing rather particular in his attentions to us?"
"I cannot tell," Celia replied. "He has certainly never been particular in his attentions to me, so I daresay if one of us is his object it must be you."
She was surprised to see her worldly-wise elder sister blush slightly.
"I must admit I quite like Mr Hart," Rebecca confessed. "Isn't it strange that I should feel drawn to a clergyman again?"
"You could do worse," Celia replied. "I believe Mr Hart is a very kind gentleman, and he takes his profession seriously, which is a good thing. Do the girls like him too?"
"I will have to find out," Rebecca said. "There is no use in encouraging him if my daughters cannot stand the sight of him. I am responsible for their happiness and will never do anything that will make them unhappy."
As if on cue, the door opened and Caroline and Sophia came into the room, carrying a basket of flowers, and both were immensely proud when their mother not only allowed them to assist her with the flower arrangements but also praised their handiwork when they were finished. Celia worked in silence, wondering what would happen if Mr Hart had indeed developed a tendre for Rebecca, and if she was to marry him. What would become of her in that case? Where would the couple live? Would they make the Manor House their home? Celia had no wish to remain here if they did -- she knew the situation would be awkward for everyone concerned. And while Marianne was the best sister-in-law she could have wished for, Celia did not want to go back to her brother's house either. Not after all those hurtful things Gerard had said to her.
Celia sighed. It was wicked to wish that Rebecca would remain single forever, she knew that, and she ought to be happy on her sister's account if she had another chance of happiness. But the thought of being left behind was not a comfortable one.
Celia's plan worked rather well. Since they had lit a fire in both rooms earlier in the afternoon, the dining room and drawing room were not quite as chilly as usual. It took a great deal of wood to make up a sufficient fire in those two enormous fire places which had once been on both sides of the former Great Hall, and even more to warm these unusually high apartments sufficiently to make them look forward to spending the evening in them without catching a cold.
The dining table looked almost as grand as it had looked during their days at Stansfield -- the chinaware Rebecca had got as a wedding present from her husband's uncle and the flowers from the Manor garden presented a charming picture. Anything more, Celia had thought, would be out of place -- an old, insignificant manor house could not be compared to a ducal seat, and they would only appear ridiculous if they tried to imitate their betters. Upon reflection, Rebecca had been obliged to agree with her sister, and so they had gone for simple elegance rather than opulence, which suited neither their home nor their character.
Mr Hart was the first guest to arrive, followed by the Yelvertons, the owner of a considerable estate some three miles from Farley and his young wife. Since Lord David was considering buying property in the neighbourhood, Rebecca had thought, he might as well make the acquaintance of some of his future neighbours, and the Yelvertons were a very genteel couple, even though there was some arrogance in Mrs Yelverton's bearing at times that did not meet with Mrs Marston's approval. It was not likely, though, that she would be arrogant with Lord David Andell, Celia expected. None of their guests had ever been in what Rebecca jokingly referred to as their State Drawing Room, and it was interesting to watch their reactions.
Mr Hart was all appreciation; he admired the stonemasonry of the huge fireplace, and readily listened to Rebecca's account of the room's history -- how it had been used as a Great Hall in medieval times, and as a dining hall later, until her great-uncle had decided to divide the Hall into two rooms and modernise their interior by replacing the oak wainscoting and tapestries with wallpaper and adding a plaster ceiling, which hid the hammer beams supporting the roof, which had been visible in earlier days. The windows, reaching from the top of the room almost to the floor, had been allowed to remain, because they gave so much light. They, and the huge fireplaces, were the only thing that still reminded people of the former Great Hall.
Mrs Yelverton, though graciously approving the flower arrangements and the size of the room, gave the furniture an appraising look, no doubt comparing it to her own drawing-room furnishings and deriving a great deal of comfort from the fact that her furniture was much more stylish. Mr Yelverton made a few polite remarks to his hostess, but it was plain to both Rebecca as well as Celia that this fashionable couple had only come to make Lord David Andell's acquaintance. It was therefore hardly surprising that they almost pounced on Marianne and his lordship when they were ushered into the drawing-room -- without Gerard, as both sisters noted immediately.
Rebecca stiffened, and the welcoming smile on her face froze for a moment, but she soon regained her composure and was able to commiserate with her poor brother, who was suffering from an upset stomach and was obliged to remain at home. Celia, however, was not quite able to hide her disappointment. She, too, played along for the benefit of their guests, but felt like going to her room and having a good cry instead.
She did not know how he had done it, but somehow Lord David appeared to have guessed her discomfiture, and did his best to relieve it. It betrayed a great deal of good-nature in him, Celia felt, and was truly thankful to him for drawing her into a conversation concerning the water-colours adorning the walls (most of which had been done by her), and later involving her as well as a suddenly eager Mrs Yelverton into a discussion of the gaieties of London.
By the time dinner was served, Celia almost thought the evening might yet turn out to be a tolerable one.
One of Sir Gerard Townsend's ancestors must have been a mule, Lord David thought as he and Lady Townsend set out towards Farley Manor to dine with Sir Gerard's sisters. He could think of no other explanation as to why a man, in spite of some perfectly reasonable arguments from both his wife and his best friend, still insisted on snubbing his sisters who, as Lady Townsend had pointed out, had held out their hands in a gesture of reconciliation.
As the carriage took them towards the Manor House, Lady Townsend chuckled, and informed him that her husband was not going to enjoy his evening alone.
"I told Cook that Sir Gerard is having trouble with his stomach," she said with a smile that could only be described as mischievous. "So all he will get for dinner is a bowl of gruel, and some dry bread. Do make sure to tell him about all the treats being served at his sisters' table tomorrow, Lord David. He deserves to be punished."
Lord David laughed, but once he had seen the look of disappointment and grief in Celia's face when they told her that her brother would not come he did not feel like laughing any more. Instead he could have cheerfully strangled his friend with his bare hands. This was not how one treated one's sisters; there was nothing on earth that could justify this kind of behaviour No doubt it would be all over the neighbourhood by tomorrow morning that Sir Gerard had refused to come to his sisters' house, and they would have to suffer from public humiliation as well as their brother's unkindness.
To prevent at least one of those evils, he immediately took charge of Celia, praised the water-colours which he guessed to be her work, and assured Mrs Yelverton that Sir Gerard was indeed feeling poorly -- it had come on quite suddenly, he said, and Sir Gerard had been greatly disappointed not to be able to come to the Manor House. He then deemed it necessary to divert Mrs Yelverton's attention from Celia, who still looked as if she might burst into tears any moment, and patiently listened to that lady's never-ending recital of what she had done when she had last been in London for the Season. Nothing could have interested him less, but at least he was able to keep the lady out of Celia's hair and allow her some time for recovery.
Mrs Marston had seated him next to herself at the dinner table, so while they were in the dining room he could not continue his mission on Celia's behalf -- Celia was sitting between Mr Yelverton and Mr Hart, and Lord David was not all that pleased at seeing the curate talk a great deal with her. He could not blame the man, and knew that he had no right to be jealous, but still he did not like it. Damn it, she even smiled at some things Hart said to her!
Since Sir Gerard had not come along, there was no one to act as host for the two sisters, but still the ladies withdrew to the drawing room and left the gentlemen to their male pursuits -- drinking port and discussing what could not be referred to in the presence of females.
Mr Yelverton, quite as insufferable as his wife, turned to Lord David as soon as the door had closed on their hostesses' backs, and said, with a wink, "And how ill is Sir Gerard? I mean, really? There's no need to be polite now; I won't tell Mrs Marston or her sister. I daresay he didn't feel like coming."
"I do not think you would feel like attending a dinner party if you had cramps in your stomach, sir," Lord David said in a tone that was calculated to discourage anyone from inquiring further. Mr Yelverton was not easily worsted, though.
"I know what happened between Sir Gerard and his sisters; everyone does," he insisted. "And I know a pretext when I see it."
It seemed as if there was nothing for it but to give the man a set-down, a thing Lord David cordially disliked, because arrogance was not one of his characteristics. Still, Yelverton appeared to ask for it, and Lord David was well able to impersonate the stiff-rumped nobleman if such conduct was required.
"I am not in the habit of discussing my hosts' private matters behind their backs," he said coldly. "Neither their family affairs nor their health issues are any business of mine, Mr Yelverton, and I'd be very much surprised if they were any business of yours."
Yelverton reddened, and said heatedly, "No need to come the ugly with me, certainly. Just thought since we needed to talk about something we might as well discuss the situation in the Townsend family. The affair has been entertaining the neighbourhood for a while now."
"I cannot find such a lamentable situation entertaining, try as I might," the curate chimed in. "In fact, I must say I agree with Lord David; I find the discussion of such topics rather distasteful, and would not mind changing the subject. -- You are in the Army, your lordship -- may I ask you which regiment you serve in?"
Lord David had to admit that Mr Hart had some very proper feeling, and might have credited him for it had he not felt that the curate's interest in the matter was as personal as his own. But he was willing to obey the rules of civil conduct, and readily answered Hart's questions regarding his military career. He had seen some action on the Peninsula, and had been wounded in Waterloo, and even the obnoxious Yelverton appeared to have some interest in what he had to say about his Army career. At least he refrained from asking any more impertinent questions regarding the Townsends' family life, which Lord David noted with some relief.
"But now I would like to hear some more about you, sir," Lord David finished his narrative, and encouraged the clergyman to talk about his own circumstances. Mr Hart readily supplied him with what he called "the boring facts", and finally Lord David asked Yelverton some questions too, to make sure the man did not think himself entirely excluded from their conversation.
As far as Yelverton was concerned, Lord David's suspicions that he was an idle good-for-nothing turned out to be correct. Yelverton had inherited a substantial estate from his father, but from what he let fall it seemed that he and his fashionable wife lived beyond their means, and that they were all pretension. Like his wife, Yelverton was addicted to name-dropping, and kept talking about persons of high standing he had consorted with in London, while Lord David strongly suspected that only few of those exalted personages would be able to remember the Yelvertons, if pressed. Lord David had met that sort of people before -- one was bound to, being born into a ducal family - and knew how to deal with them.
As soon as he could, Lord David suggested that they go to the drawing-room, and while Yelverton might have wished to linger over his port, Mr Hart did not. He was probably just as eager to be with Celia again as Lord David himself, a thought that caused Lord David to dislike him, even though he had to admit that he would have found the man rather agreeable, had circumstances been different.
Strangely enough, though, Mr Hart went to Lady Townsend and Mrs Marston, while Yelverton sat down with his wife, no doubt recounting a tale of his grievances. Celia, who had been sitting at a writing table, copying something from a book, was by herself. Lord David sat down in a chair next to the writing table, watching her.
"Marianne wanted our recipe for the sauce we had with the carp tonight, so I am writing it down for her," she explained. "Though I believe her cook knows the recipe as well -- my brother is very partial to this particular dish. We ... we had planned to serve some of the things we know to be his favourites. It is a pity he ... he fell ill and could not come."
"He will be very sorry, indeed," Lord David said, and decided that he would see to it that it was so. Between them, he and Lady Townsend might be able to make the man see reason yet.
"Is it true that you are going to leave tomorrow, my lord?" Celia looked up at him.
"I am afraid it must be so. But should I really decide to buy Beech Hill, I may come back pretty soon," he soothed her.
She smiled, and said, "My brother will like that."
Lord David wondered whether that also meant that she would like it, but did not ask her that question.
"I will call on you tomorrow before I leave," he merely said lightly. "The young ladies would be quite disappointed if I did not take leave of them in person, don't you think?"
"Undoubtedly," Celia laughed, the laugh brightening her face and giving it a lovely glow.
It was then that the tea tray was brought in, and since Celia was supposed to help her sister handing round the cups and plates, their tête à tête was at an end.
The next morning, Sir Gerard was in a foul mood indeed. Lord David, who was having an early breakfast with his host and hostess before setting out to Gloucester (not without calling once more at Farley Manor in the hope of catching another glimpse of Celia), noticed his friend directing several darkling looks at Lady Townsend, and supposed that the matter of Sir Gerard's diet the previous evening might not have been discussed to Sir Gerard's satisfaction just yet. He was probably only holding back until their guest had left before telling his wife exactly what he thought of such treatment. By the looks Lady Townsend gave her husband in return, however, Lord David did not feel as if she needed any assistance in dealing with him. She was a dear creature, but well able to stand up for herself if need be. If Sir Gerard had been looking for a submissive wife, he ought to have looked elsewhere.
Right now, Lady Townsend was stirring the coals by discussing the previous evening with Lord David, making him agree that Mrs Marston's cook was first-rate, and informing him that she had enjoyed her dinner at the Manor House very much.
"Especially the carp," she remarked slyly. "Celia has been so kind as to write down the recipe for me, so once Sir Gerard is feeling better I may ask Cook to make carp for us too."
"I am feeling perfectly well," Sir Gerard snapped.
"Oh, no doubt you are feeling a little better," Lady Townsend said amiably. "But I am not certain you are perfectly well yet. -- Isn't it just like my husband to pretend there is nothing really wrong with him to make sure I do not worry? It is so sweet and caring of him, but naturellement it will not do. I am his wife, and whether he likes it or not I will look after him. There is no point in trying to make me think he is not malade, I know he is. A good wife can read the signs."
She shot her spouse a challenging glance across the table, a glance that was met with a glare from the sweet and caring husband. Ignoring Sir Gerard's scowl, she said to Lord David, "You have a fine day for your journey, my lord. I am extremely sorry that you must leave us already, but at least I need not worry about you catching cold because you had to travel in the rain."
"I never catch cold, Lady Townsend," Lord David replied. "While I thank you for your solicitude, I do hope you will not trouble yourself too much on my behalf. I have been through worse than a journey of twenty miles across some beautiful countryside on a fine day in spring, and have never suffered any ill consequences."
"I need not tell you that you will be a most welcome visitor whenever you choose to come to see us again, do I?" Sir Gerard said.
"Thank you, Townsend, that I do know," Lord David said with a smile. "And since the two of you have made me so welcome here I am not certain whether I shall not trespass on your hospitality again in the near future."
Sir Gerard laughed. "Do! There will always be room for you under any roof of mine."
"I will take you up on your offer, never mind." Lord David grinned. "Once you are feeling quite the thing again, that is."
"Now this is the outside of enough!" Sir Gerard cried. "While I will have to brook this kind of impertinence from my wife, I suppose -- for the time being, for it will not do for a couple to start bickering in front of their guests -- I will not take it from you!"
Lord David laughed. "This will make our leave-taking ever so much easier, won't it? Come, Townsend, you must admit that you only have yourself to blame."
The ladies at the Manor House had only just finished their breakfast. Celia was about to retire to the book-room, which doubled as schoolroom for the girls, for some early morning lessons with her nieces when Lord David was ushered into their small parlour.
"I had to call on you again before I left," he said, once their greeting was over and he had taken a seat. "If only to thank you for the delightful evening I had in your company yesterday."
The girls protested. "You're not leaving now, are you?" Sophia cried. "What if the kittens get lost again?"
"You were well able to find them without my assistance," Lord David pointed out. "And I am sure your mama and your aunt will be happy to help if they should get lost again, which I doubt strongly."
For some reason, Celia remembered the moments in the hayloft, when she had got caught in a spider's web and Lord David had come to her rescue. The recollection made her blush, which was absurd. After all nothing had happened that might justify any blushes on her part. Or on his. Lord David was the perfect gentleman, and had behaved as such.
"Are you planning to come back, Lord David?" she asked, hoping he might not notice her confusion. "Your stay in my brother's house was but a short one."
"So it was, but both your brother and sister-in-law have been most adamant in their entreaties that I should return, so I may well come back."
It was a relief to hear that their acquaintance was to continue. Even though they had spent but little time in each other's company, Celia had begun to think of him as a friend, which was preposterous, for she did not know him at all. But his demeanour was certainly friendly, and it did not look as if there was any ulterior motive for his amiability. In fact, it appeared as if he was the kind of man one could trust.
She would like to know him better, Celia thought, and felt something akin to regret when, after having sat with them for some ten minutes, he shook hands with them, said goodbye and left. Hopefully he would come back, Celia thought, and sincerely hoped that he would not only come back but buy Beech Hill and settle in their neighbourhood. There were not enough kind and respectable young men of Lord David's sort to be found around here.
Back in Gloucester, Lord David found it rather difficult to concentrate on his duties at first. He thought of Celia most of the time when he was working, and all the time when he was not. Even when he slept he dreamt of her. In short, he had become just the kind of man he had never thought he would become -- never before had a woman been so important to him, though like everyone else he knew he had fancied himself in love occasionally.
He had reason to hope that she was not really indifferent to him. She had asked him whether he would come back, and had smiled when he had said that he would. There had even been something like a glow in her eyes, he believed, upon hearing that promise, so maybe she was not averse to getting to know him better. Once he had taken up residence in Beech Hill ... but he was not certain if this would serve to see her more often. A bachelor living by himself could not invite ladies to his house, which was a great disadvantage, for he would have to depend on invitations from either Lady Townsend or Mrs Marston to see Celia. He would have to employ his mother, maybe, under the pretence of asking her to refurnish the house. With the Duchess of Burwell acting as a hostess, any young lady could come to Beech Hill without having to fear for her reputation. Or maybe Kate could... but probably not. Neither she nor Gregory would exchange their home for Beech Hill, and they would certainly not go anywhere without little Edward.
Three days after his return to Gloucester, Lord David came back to his lodgings to find a visitor awaiting him there -- his brother Gregory.
"Now this is a surprise," Lord David cried, and welcomed him with a friendly pat on his shoulder. For a moment he almost feared that some accident had happened at home, and that Gregory had come to apprise him of it, but the look on his brother's face was not grim, which made that possibility appear unlikely.
"Why have you come to see me," he therefore asked, once he had ordered his servant to bring some wine for them. "Not that you aren't welcome, mind you."
"My father thought it would be wise to inquire into your sudden resolve to settle in the wilds of Gloucestershire," Gregory explained with a grin. "And since he feels that you are rather more likely to confide in me than in him, he has sent me to ask you what this business is all about."
Lord David laughed. "Whatever gave him the idea, I wonder?"
"Experience, no doubt," Gregory said. "He knows that whenever you were in a scrape you came either to Matthew or to me for help."
"I am not in a scrape now, however, so he need not have feared."
"Then what is it?"
"I take it my father dislikes the notion," Lord Gregory said, frowning.
"He said he did not know what to make of it, that's all. He does not really dislike it, from what I could gather, but I believe he'd have wanted you to find a place a bit closer to home."
"This is Gloucestershire, not China. I could reach home in a day and a half's journey from Beech Hill if need be. It's about the same distance to Burwell as Asterby Court."
"Asterby has always been in the family though."
"And rightfully belongs to the heir. I'm not the heir so I will have to find some other place for myself, and Beech Hill suits me very well." Lord David sighed. "I admit there is one reason why I have taken such a fancy to the place."
He waited until the servant had given each of them a glass of wine and left, and then said, "It's a lady, Gregory. Not just any lady, I have to add, but the one I hope to marry one day."
Gregory showed no surprise at this confession. "I thought as much," he merely said. "Whenever a man is planning to settle down there is usually a woman in the case. But who is she?"
Instantly on the defensive, Lord David declared, "She's perfectly eligible, I swear. Not a brilliant match, but a sweet girl, and from a good and respectable family. She's Sir Gerard Townsend's sister, and her name is Celia."
Gregory smiled at his younger brother's defence of his beloved, and said, "I have not come to talk you out of it, David. Who am I to even try? She must indeed be someone very special if she made you decide on marrying her within a couple of days."
"She didn't make me do anything. I have not told her that I mean to marry her, but that doesn't mean I'm not in earnest," Lord David replied. "I am - if she will have me that is. She won't, though, if she does not get to know me better, and I can't stay with her brother all the time."
"Two reasons. One, the brother hasn't been married for very long, and I know better than to inflict my company on a pair of newlyweds for weeks on end. There's no better way of ruining a friendship than that."
Gregory nodded. "I can see your point," he agreed. "And the other reason is?"
"Sir Gerard is at odds with his sisters," Lord David explained. "It has something to do with his inheritance -- he insists his sisters talked their father into giving them the unentailed property, and cutting off a good piece of his inheritance in the process. There has been a great deal of unkind words on both sides, and now he can barely bring himself to be civil to them. A nasty situation, to say the least."
"In other words, you are unlikely to see much of her if you are staying with her brother."
"Exactly. Sir Gerard's wife is trying her best to bring about a reconciliation, but she has not been very successful so far and so naturally Sir Gerard's sisters are not often seen in their brother's house. As far as I can tell, the sisters are not averse to a family reunion, but Sir Gerard can be extremely stubborn, even more so if he knows he's in the wrong. I'll have the devil of the time convincing him that he's supposed to admit to his mistake. As things are now I think he'd be able to make things very unpleasant for us if I were to marry his sister -- he'd think I'd betrayed his friendship in some way, taking his sisters' side rather than his, and more likely than not he'd do or say something that would make Celia very unhappy. She takes her brother's attitude very much to heart, you must know."
"She said so to you, in spite of her hardly knowing you and you being her brother's friend?" Gregory's tone of voice and facial expression told Lord David that this was hardly a point in Celia's favour, and Lord David hastened to reassure him.
"Not a word. But I could tell nevertheless." He sighed. "I wish I could explain to you what she means to me," he said. "Somehow I feel very protective about her -- there is not much I would not do to keep her safe and happy. Do you know what I mean?"
"Believe it or not, but I do," Gregory replied. "I feel very much the same way about Kate -- a fact she finds most annoying at times. Though she does approve of my protective instincts regarding our son. -- How much of this do you want me to tell my father?"
"Whatever you like. Once I have got that house -- either by purchase or hire, I don't care -- I may well need my mother's assistance, and I cannot help but think she will be more than willing to help once she finds out why I want that house."
"She will descend upon Miss Townsend immediately," Gregory laughed. "The poor girl!"
"As long as she does not tell her about my plans she is welcome to do that," Lord David announced. "But tell my mother I will make my own proposal once the time is right for me to do so -- when I have brought about a reunion of the Townsend family. I want Sir Gerard to act as my best man at my wedding -- even if I marry his youngest sister."
"Do you think you will succeed where Lady Townsend has failed?"
"Between us we'll make him see reason," Lord David promised.
His brother did not ask any further questions. He was well acquainted with David's determination -- if he set his mind on something, he usually brought it about. It had always been like this, and Lord Gregory saw no reason to doubt that David would achieve his goal in the end. For his brother's sake, though, Lord Gregory hoped that it would be easier to reconcile Sir Gerard to his sisters than they expected.
Lord Gregory did not stay long in Gloucester. He had not been married for long enough, he said, to be comfortable with the thought of leaving his wife to herself and so, after an early breakfast with his brother, he took his leave and returned to Burwell, to discuss the information he had received with his father. Lord David kept himself tolerably busy in the two weeks to follow, and sometimes managed to put Celia out of his mind for almost ten minutes together when he had work to do. But something or other always made him remember her -- whenever he saw a young lady in the street that remotely resembled her, his heart missed a beat and he hoped it was Celia. Whenever he was invited to dine at one of his brother officers' house and there were ladies present, Lord David unconsciously compared them to Celia -- all of them unfavourably. There was no one who came close to her.
It was not that Celia was perfect; he was far from believing that. She was beautiful, and warm-hearted, but she was also timid and sometimes appeared to take matters too much to heart. This was why she needed him to take care of her. Lord David was most willing to fight her battles for her, and to make sure nothing distressed her, if only she would let him. Considering how easily she was distressed, the task appeared to be enough to keep him busy for a lifetime.
He was well aware that it was not going to be easy to win her; that the merest trifle would be enough to make her lose her trust in him, that he would have to watch his step around her. But she was worth every effort, and therefore he had decided that every effort would be made. Life without Celia -- an outlook like that was bleak indeed.
Life in Farley Manor went its usual course. Celia and Rebecca took turns in teaching the girls, occasionally received visitors like Mrs Ellis, who wanted to hear the latest news about the quarrel between Sir Gerard and his sisters but received none; Marianne, who told them the latest news about the quarrels between her husband and herself (he had still not forgiven his wife for the trick she had played him when he had refused to dine at his sisters'), and Mr Hart, who always found some pretext or other for calling on them.
One could not accuse Mr Hart of being obvious -- when asked, he said that it was his duty to visit his parishioners on a regular basis, and naturally he had to visit those who needed him most more often than others. No one could deny that a widow and her sister, living alone and without the protection of their only male relative, sometimes needed a gentleman to advise them; and in such cases a clergyman was certainly the best person to turn to. Not even Mrs Ellis, who was quick to discover a flirt between any gentleman and lady, found fault with his reasoning, and merely remarked that it was a comfort to find that the curate took his pastoral duties so seriously. His predecessor had not been quite as zealous.
Still, Celia was quite certain that the reasons Mr Hart gave for his visits were excuses only, and that his real purpose was spending time with her sister. He might say that he had come to compliment her on the flower arrangements in the church, to discuss some book he had lent her (or borrowed from her), to take another look at her late husband's notes to see whether they would have agreed in their interpretation of Scripture -- all this was nothing but an excuse for coming to Farley Manor as often as he could, and fixing his interest with Mrs Marston.
The girls liked him too, which boded well for him. He was kind to them, but not like some people who were kind to children merely to win over their parents. Whenever they misbehaved in his presence, he was sure to point out their faults, but he was never harsh with them, and so they did not resent his interference. While his popularity with them was nothing to Lord David's, they accepted his authority as they would have accepted an uncle's, and Celia was quite certain they would, in the end, accept him as a father too.
Celia liked him as well -- better than she'd liked her late brother-in-law, in fact. She had always been secretly afraid of Henry Marston, who had been known for his sharp tongue and occasional unkindness. He had had a brilliant mind, but had lacked the sympathetic character one might have expected of a man of his calling. Rebecca had assured her that he had never given his wife an unkind word; that he had been a most caring husband, though even she had to admit that he had been a trifle difficult to handle at times. But while he had given some people blistering set-downs, he had taken good care that Rebecca had never suffered from his disposition. From that point of view, Celia thought, he had probably been a good husband.
Mr Hart was different. No doubt he was a clever man as well, but his disposition was kindlier than Mr Marston's. He was the sort of man people confided in, in the safe knowledge that he was not going to pass judgement or read them long lectures, but would try to assist them in sorting out their troubles. He was well-read too, and a scholar, but his world did not consist merely of books and learning. He took a lively interest in many things, and was as content listening to Caroline and Sophia telling him about their kittens as he would enjoy a scholarly discourse with a fellow clergyman. He was found in the fields, discussing the weather and the outlook on this year's harvest with the farm labourers -- allowing them to instruct him in matters he knew nothing about - , but also felt completely at home in a lady's drawing-room, marvelling at her needlework and making her feel appreciated. If he had a fault, Celia believed, it was his excessive good-nature; his strong wish to be good friends with everyone. This would not be possible in the long run, and he might well be disappointed and become bitter in his later years. However, with a wife like Rebecca to look after him and take him back to the firm ground of reality, he might do very well. If only she could find someone like him for herself -- but there were not many eligible, single young men around; and those Celia knew were not quite what she was looking for in a husband. It seemed as if she was destined to end up an aunt to Rebecca and Gerard's children, and would never have a husband and children of her own. The prospect was not inviting.
A letter from Mr Steadman arrived, informing Lord David that Mr Steadman was very willing to sell his property in Upper Easton, known as Beech Hill House, for the sum Lord David had suggested. If his lordship was willing to entrust his man of business with the matter, there was no reason why the transaction might not be soon performed.
Slightly puzzled, Lord David wrote to his father's man of business to find out what kind of offer had been made, but he got his reply even before a letter from the lawyer enlightened him. He received a note from his mother, who was at the moment residing at the Black Swan in Gloucester and wished to see him. So, as soon as he was at leisure to do so, Lord David obeyed her summons and presented himself at this distinguished hostelry.
Her Grace of Burwell was sitting in a private parlour with her husband, reading a book.
"There you are," she said, receiving a filial kiss on her cheek by way of a greeting. "My, you do look good in your regimentals. No wonder you have always had to fight the ladies off with a stick."
Lord David grinned. "Thank you, mother. Though I never did fight them off, you know."
"I do." The Duchess gave him an impish smile. "I never expected you to be such a slow-top as that."
Lord David shook hands with his father, and upon his parent's invitation took a seat at the table. "What brings you to Gloucester, sir?"
"Business, in my case," his father replied, and added, with a teasing smile at his wife, "And curiosity in your mother's."
"Why, naturally I am curious," the Duchess protested. "I have a right to be -- my youngest is planning to set up his nursery. You don't think I will let him marry a female I have never set eyes on in my entire life? You should know me better!"
"It's early days yet, ma'am," Lord David pointed out. "She is not aware of my plans -- and I am afraid if we all swoop down on her she will take fright and not marry me at all."
"I shall have to be discreet then," his mother said. "Never mind. I can be discreet."
"I know, Mother. Matthew told me so." Lord David said with a wink. "I confess I feel slightly apprehensive on Miss Townsend's behalf."
The Duchess laughed. "In the case of Matthew I did not even know I was making a match for him," she said. "Not until that ball -- and even then I did not know what I'd done until he came to me the following morning and told me that he'd met Barbara in the Orangery, and -- never mind."
Lord David laughed. "I think I will have to ask Matthew whether the Orangery is a good place for a tête à tête next time I see him. I also need to ask him about never mind."
"The Orangery is a favourite place for secret trysts," his father assured him, giving his wife a wink. "I should know. Or should I say we?" he added, smiling at her. "The orange trees have never failed to do their work."
"Stop looking so incredulous, David," his mother ordered him. "You'll have to get used to the thought that your father and mother were young once, too. And young people will find places where they can be alone. There's nothing to be done about it, and I don't intend to do anything. I remember what it was like to be young only too well."
There was no denying the fact that young people would take every opportunity of enjoying themselves, of course, and Lord David refrained from trying. His mother abhorred hypocrisy as much as he did, and would give him a thundering scold if she ever detected anything of the kind in him. Not that she was likely to.
"So you have come to look at Beech Hill House, Father?" he merely asked.
His grace nodded. "I am planning to have a closer look at it; to see whether there is some work that needs to be done," he said. "Before I lay down my blunt to buy it."
"Very wise," Lord David agreed. "I take it you have made an offer on my behalf?"
"Subject to my finding everything to my liking, yes," his father said.
"So this was why Steadman let me know he'd be willing to accept my offer even though I never made one."
"So it would seem. I felt it would be better to make the offer in your name -- if the Duke of Burwell showed interest Mr Steadman might take it into his head to ask a higher price than he would have asked of you."
His father had a shrewd head on his shoulders, especially when it came to business matters. Lord David knew that, and was quite certain that his father was right. He turned to his mother.
"I don't suppose you have come here to look at the house," he said teasingly.
"But of course I have. Should I happen to catch a glimpse of your inamorata in the process, I'd be very well pleased. Gregory says she is a local girl?"
Lord David stayed at the Black Swan for dinner, and spent a great deal of time describing Celia to his parents. The Duchess could tell immediately that her youngest was deeply in love, and hoped for his sake that the girl would turn out to be worthy of him.
It was settled that Lord David would take his father and mother to Upper Easton, which had a tolerable inn to spend a couple of nights in, and that they would give Beech Hill House a thorough look-over before giving their lawyer permission to settle the business with Mr Steadman in London. Perhaps, the Duchess said, they might find an excuse for calling on Miss Townsend on the way -- or Sir Gerard and Lady Townsend, at least. Even if not, she was planning to stay in Beech Hill House for a while if her son did buy it; to make sure the place was redecorated according to his taste.
"And depend upon it," she added with an impish smile, "I shall need Miss Townsend's advice now and then. You know how it is -- it is so difficult to make decisions sometimes. I will rely on Miss Townsend's taste to decide which hangings or wallpapers one should use."
The news of the Duke and Duchess of Burwell's projected stay at the Bell in Upper Easton spread like wildfire. Even before their graces entered their carriage in Gloucester, the landlady of the Bell Inn, well aware that this piece of news could only do her credit, had let her entire acquaintance know that she was going to entertain Quality in her house before long.
It was only a matter of hours until this particular piece of information reached Mrs Ellis' ears, and she lost no time in spreading it.
Since no one in Upper Easton or Farley had been acquainted with Lord David's intention of buying the Beech Hill estate, Mrs Ellis was unable to account for this visit to their neighbourhood.
"I do wonder why their graces should stay at the Bell in Upper Easton," she mentioned slyly when she called on Celia and Rebecca, no doubt hoping that they, being acquainted with Lord David, might be able to shed some light on the matter.
"There must be a reason, certainly," Rebecca agreed. "There is no accounting for it."
"And why should they stay at an inn, instead of your brother's house, considering that Sir Gerard is a close friend of Lord David's?"
"I suppose Lord David is too well-bred to expect his friends to house both him and his parents," Celia ventured. "Especially since his parents are unknown to my brother."
"But surely Sir Gerard would not object?"
"I do not think he would," Rebecca said blandly.
"What can be their reason for coming here, except to meet their son's friends?" Mrs Ellis wondered.
"I am sure we will find out in time," Celia said consolingly, and changed the topic. After some ten minutes of unsuccessful probing, Mrs Ellis finally took her leave, resolving that Sir Gerard's sisters were indeed a very disagreeable pair. So uncommunicative, too! One never got any news from them, oh no. Calling on them was a complete waste of time -- except, maybe, for Mrs Marston's sandwiches, which were quite good; one had to grant her that.
With Mrs Ellis safely out of earshot, Rebecca said, "Well! So we are to have a new neighbour!"
"You think Lord David is going to buy Beech Hill?" Celia asked. She could not deny that the thought of having Lord David live within an easy distance from their house caused a fluttering feeling in her stomach -- a feeling she did not find altogether disagreeable.
"I can think of no other reason why he should bring his father and mother to Upper Easton," Rebecca argued. "He will probably want them to have a look at the place and give him their approval."
This sounded likely, Celia admitted, but she did not allow herself to set her hopes too high. It might still be, after all, that the deal between Mr Steadman and his lordship came to nothing, and she suspected that her disappointment in that case would be a severe one.
"Celia, I think we ought to take Caroline and Sophia to visit their Aunt Susan again this week," Rebecca said to her sister one evening when the girls had gone to bed.
Celia agreed, though she felt no inclination towards visiting the late Mr Marston's sister. Susan Jamison, nee Marston, had all her brother's faults but none of his qualities, and cordially disliked her sister-in-law. Still Rebecca insisted on taking her daughters to see their aunt once a month -- it would not do, she said, to encourage them to neglect their father's family. Mrs Jamison had a right to see her nieces regularly, whether they -- or she -- liked it or not. There was no getting away from family duty.
Mrs Jamison's husband was a physician, and they lived in a spacious and modern house in Upper Easton. Mr Jamison's income was good, so his wife lacked nothing; yet she was never satisfied with her lot. In her opinion, she had married below her station, and while everything her husband did for her was taken for granted she was convinced that he did not do enough to truly repay her for her condescension in becoming his wife. Mr Jamison was a decent and friendly man, and he was a competent and well-respected physician, but his wife objected to his unpolished manners. Celia often wondered why Mrs Jamison had married her husband in the first place, but Rebecca had explained to her that Mr Jamison had been the only tolerably genteel suitor her sister-in-law had had. Being married to him had been the lesser evil than staying single, Susan Marston had thought, and had accepted his suit. Celia felt heartily sorry for Mr Jamison.
"Has it been a month already?" Celia merely asked. "How time flies!"
Rebecca laughed. "Your enthusiasm almost frightens me," she teased. "Do you want me to make your excuses? You don't have to come with me if you do not want to."
Celia knew that, but she also knew that Rebecca and the girls could well do with moral support during their dutiful visits with Aunt Susan. Besides she knew that Mrs Jamison would consider it an insult if she did not come along -- Mrs Jamison took it very much amiss if people did not give her the attention that she thought was due to her, and Rebecca and the girls would have to suffer in her stead. So she demurred, said that she would like to come along, and suggested that they should go the next day. It looked as if it was going to be a fine day, she said, and would it not be nice to walk back from Upper Easton after the visit? It was only a two-mile walk, and it would do them all good to get some exercise in the fresh air.
Rebecca admitted that there was something to Celia's idea, and so, when the next morning had come, and the weather was just as fine as one could have hoped, she had the horses put-to and took the girls upstairs for a thorough wash and made them change into their best gowns. Mrs Jamison had very strict notions when it came to neatness and propriety; her own son always looked as if he had never come into contact with as much as a speck of dust, and was not allowed to do anything but sit by and listen to their discourse when they came to visit, the poor boy. Once Celia had suggested that the children should go into the garden and play while they exchanged the family news, but Mrs Jamison had been horrified at the very idea.
Naturally, neither Caroline nor Sophia was overjoyed upon hearing that they were to visit their Aunt Susan today. Sophia complained of a headache, no doubt hoping that she could escape the inevitable by doing so, but since she had been playing hide-and-seek with her usual vigour only five minutes previously and had not shown any symptoms of being unwell then, Rebecca turned a deaf ear on her daughter's complaint. Caroline did not stoop to such methods, but she too informed her mother that she did not see why they should visit Aunt Susan when Aunt Susan had no wish to see them.
"She doesn't like us, Mama," she pointed out even as she got into the carriage. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind if we didn't come."
"She is your aunt, and has a right to see us now and then," Rebecca said firmly.
"Then why does she never come to see us?" Caroline asked. Her astuteness was almost frightening sometimes. "Why is it always us who have to go and visit her?"
"Because it is easier for us to do so," Celia intervened. "Besides you wouldn't want your cousin Frank to play with the kittens, would you?" The girls' dislike of their cousin was almost as pronounced as their dislike of their aunt.
"Oh, pooh, he wouldn't do that," Sophia cried. "His mama would never let him!"
Rebecca spent the remainder of their drive to Upper Easton lecturing her daughters on the evils of bluntness, and reminding them of their manners.
The visit went better than either Rebecca or Celia had expected. Mrs Jamison was obviously in a mellow mood -- the impending visit of the Duke and Duchess of Burwell to Upper Easton seemed to make her think herself more important than her relatives, in spite of their graces' son having dined at Farley Manor not long ago -- and so she graciously shared the details of their graces' stay that were known to her with her less fortunate sister-in-law.
"Too bad my poor brother cannot witness this any more," Mrs Jamison ended her account. Rebecca politely agreed, though she secretly thought that Mrs Jamison's poor brother would have been more likely to be disgusted by his sister's fawning over people who had nothing but worldly rank and wealth to recommend them. So did Celia -- she was sure that if her brother-in-law had heard Mrs Jamison's effusions he would have given her either a thundering scold or an icy set-down; depending on his present mood. The two sisters' eyes met and they exchanged a barely perceptible smile.
At last, Mrs Jamison seemed to have done with the Duke and Duchess of Burwell. Instead, she turned their attention to her son, who had not uttered a word apart from a polite greeting, and sat in the corner suffering in silence.
"Frank is going to Harrow in autumn," she announced. "I am sure he will do well -- he is just as intelligent as his uncle used to be."
Celia supposed that Mr Jamison was a clever man too, but that naturally did not count with his wife, nor did listening to her make anyone assume that his intelligence could have any connection with his son's.
"You must be very proud of him, then," Rebecca said politely.
"I have every reason to be. Of course, you do not know what a comfort a son can be to his parents," Mrs Jamison added smugly. She had always felt superior to Rebecca for having presented her husband with a son, which Rebecca had not been able to do.
"I am afraid I do not," Rebecca replied calmly, refusing to be goaded into retort. "But I am willing to take your word for it."
The following half-hour passed very much in that style -- Mrs Jamison trying to provoke Rebecca into quarrelling with her and Rebecca refusing to oblige her, with Celia sitting by and restraining her two nieces whose temper was beginning to rise. Even they realised that their aunt was being nasty to their mama without the least provocation, and did no take kindly to it. The only one who did not seem to care about what was going on was Frank Jamison, who was staring into empty space. He took great care to hide his brilliance of mind, Celia thought nastily, but immediately chided herself for doing so. It was not as if the boy could help being Mrs Jamison's son, after all. There was still hope for him, though -- going to Harrow must be a welcome means of escape. If Mr Jamison knew what was good for his son he would not allow him to come near his mother again until he had earned his degree and spent a couple of seasons in town.
After half an hour, Rebecca rose and, pointing out that they would have to walk back to Farley, took her leave. She dutifully kissed her sister-in-law's cheek, made her daughters follow her example and curtsey to their aunt, and after sweetly promising to come and see Mrs Jamison again as soon as possible -- a visit neither of them was looking forward to -- she left the house, with Celia and the girls bringing up the rear.
"Thank God this is over," she murmured into Celia's ear as they walked down the main street of Upper Easton towards the gate which opened onto the footpath leading to Farley village. "For a month, at least. Better make that six weeks."
The Bell Inn was an ancient, half-timbered building almost at the end of the village, and just as they approached the inn a large carriage with two horsemen riding alongside it came up the road and turned into the courtyard of the inn.
"This is Lord David!" Sophia cried, and had it not been for her aunt's hold on her arm Sophia would have run to meet him.
It was true -- the younger of the horsemen was indeed Lord David, and Celia strongly suspected that the other one was Lord David's father, the Duke of Burwell. She could not suppress a malicious thought towards Mrs Jamison -- how her smugness would suffer if she knew that her sister-in-law's family had happened to be there when the Duke and Duchess arrived at the Bell! Not that Celia had any desire to meet them -- she was sure such exalted personages as the Duke and Duchess would only make her nervous.
So she tried to walk past the open gate of the Bell Inn without drawing the travellers' attention towards herself, but she had made her reckoning without Sophia. She saw Lord David speaking to one of the ostlers with his back turned to them, and immediately called his name.
Lord David turned around, and broke into a grin. Swift strides brought him up to them, and he greeted them in the most jovial terms. Celia, blushing furiously, curtseyed and apologised for her niece's conduct.
"Oh, never mind," Lord David said, favouring Sophia with a mock bow. "One need not stand upon ceremony with one's friends. How do you do, Miss Sophia?"
Laughingly, Sophia assured him that she was doing very well.
"I am glad to hear that," Lord David replied and turned to Rebecca and Celia. "I hope Miss Sophia's mama and aunt are in good health as well?" he asked.
"Thank you, sir, we are," Rebecca replied, and then drew Sophia with her to give her a well-deserved rebuke.
"What brings you to Upper Easton?" Lord David asked Celia. "A shopping trip?"
"Nothing as agreeable, I am afraid," Celia said quietly. "Though we sometimes do visit the shops here. Today, however, we were visiting my brother-in-law's sister. She is married to the local physician, and my sister takes the girls to see their aunt occasionally."
Although Caroline said nothing, the expression on her face was enough to inform Lord David of what she thought of visits at her Aunt Susan's house.
"Family duty, in fact? Poor Miss Townsend!" Lord David cried. "I hope it was not too bad?"
"Mrs Jamison was almost gracious today," Celia said, horrified at her own candour. Who did she think she was, troubling Lord David with her private matters and actually believing he was interested in them?
"That does not sound too bad, does it?" Lord David remarked. "Like an almost agreeable visit, in fact."
Rebecca and Sophia joined them again, and Sophia apologised for her forward behaviour, as instructed by her mother. Lord David told her that he had already forgiven her, and Sophia looked happy again. It was at that moment that a tall, elegantly-dressed lady came up to their group and asked Lord David to introduce her. Lord David did so at once.
"These are Sir Gerard Townsend's sisters, ma'am -- Mrs Marston and Miss Townsend, and Mrs Marston's daughters, Caroline and Sophia. -- My mother, the Duchess of Burwell."
Even Sophia was dumbstruck for a moment. She followed her mother and aunt's example and made a low curtsey to show her grace proper respect. The Duchess smiled.
"My dear ladies," she said. "I am not the Queen, so please refrain from treating me as if I were. My son has told me a great deal about his stay in your brother's house, and he praised the neighbourhood in the highest terms, so naturally I am eager to make everyone's acquaintance."
Celia thanked God for her sister, who had regained enough of her composure to say what was proper. Celia herself felt quite overwhelmed. The Duchess was not at all as she had imagined her -- she was an elegant lady, to be sure, and a fine-looking one too, but her grace was not at all as high in the instep as one expected a Duchess to be.
Upon being told that they were going to go back to Farley Manor on foot after having visited a relative in Upper Easton, the Duchess remarked that it was a fine day for a walk, without doubt, but when she found out that it was a two-mile walk she expressed her fear that it might turn out to be too much for Miss Townsend, who was looking rather tired.
Taken aback, Celia protested, "Oh no, ma'am, you are quite mistaken! I would very much like to walk; in fact I have been looking forward to doing so since we set out to Upper Easton."
"I do believe that," Lord David murmured, and gave her a wink. Celia blushed. She knew his teasing was of the good-natured kind; yet it embarrassed her.
The Duchess offered them the use of her carriage, but both Celia and Rebecca politely declined the offer. It was then that Lord David intervened and offered to escort them.
"Miss Townsend will not be so unkind and refuse the support of my arm, should she stand in need of it," he said.
Celia argued once more; Lord David had spent hours on horseback on his way from Gloucester to Upper Easton, surely he must be tired, and she would not trouble him for the world.
"Miss Townsend," the Duchess replied, "my son would not make the offer if he did not feel up to it. The way I know him, a walk from here to your home and back will be a perfect way of settling down after the long journey."
"It will be a walk of four miles, your grace," Celia objected. "Indeed, it would be asking too much of his lordship."
Only when Lord David ordered his groom to drive the landlord's gig to Farley Manor so that he could drive it back, Celia gave in, and the Duchess took leave of them, not without expressing her hope that they might soon meet again.
"I had no idea you were planning to come back so soon, my lord," Celia ventured as they walked along the footpath, across the meadow towards the forest. While Celia was leaning on Lord David's arm, Rebecca was walking ahead with her daughters, enjoying a rare moment of leisure without household duties to draw her attention from her children. She was almost like a young girl herself -- pointing out flowers to her daughters, encouraging the girls to pick them and laughing at their antics.
"That's because I was not planning to do so," Lord David said, smiling down at Celia. "My parents made that decision in my place -- they wanted to see Beech Hill."
"So you are going to buy it?"
"It is quite probable," Lord David admitted. "Provided Mr Steadman offers me a good deal. --I think you said you visited Beech Hill occasionally when the Vernons were still in possession?"
"Not really -- I was not out of the schoolroom then," Celia said. "But I did see it once or twice when Mr and Mrs Steadman were in residence -- they sometimes invited us, and so we were obliged to go there."
"This does not sound like too much praise, Miss Townsend," Lord David laughed.
"Not because of the house, I assure you," Celia replied. "It was the company I objected to."
"Your sister did tell me that Mrs Steadman was rather vulgar."
"She often was -- as well as curious. I do not know whether you have made the acquaintance of one Mrs Ellis yet?"
"I have," Lord David said with a grin. "So Mrs Steadman was as bad?"
"Worse, actually. This was why we were quite happy to keep our distance -- it is so difficult to find something to talk about with these people, though they are never at a loss for gossip. -- Coming to think of it, though, perhaps I am not a good judge. You may have noticed that I am not comfortable with strangers, and their prying into my private affairs does not exactly endear them to me. I used to be very shy, so I found Mrs Steadman's curiosity very ... very painful."
"You are no longer shy then?" Lord David asked, smiling. Celia was not sure whether he was making fun of her, but decided that he was not, and therefore found it possible to give him an honest answer.
"Oh, I am -- though not as much as I used to be. Some five years ago I would have found a situation like this one extremely awkward -- and you would have found it very difficult to talk to me."
"It is a good thing that I did not make your acquaintance five years ago, then," Lord David remarked. "For I do enjoy talking to you."
Celia turned red in embarrassment, and turned away from him.
"I am glad you like Beech Hill -- apart from Mrs Steadman, who will not be there once I have taken possession of the property." Lord David continued.
"I...I do not see why my opinion of Beech Hill should make any difference to you, sir."
Celia did not know what Lord David was getting at. She did hope he was not trying to flirt with her; it would make matters so awkward between them. There had been young men, occasionally, who had done so, and had amused themselves by causing her discomfiture. It was not that she thought Lord David capable of such an act of unkindness, but the truth was that she was not very well acquainted with him yet.
"No, I daresay you do not," Lord David replied lightly.
Meanwhile, they had reached the forest, and Celia stopped for a moment to listen to the birds twittering in the foliage. She looked up, at the rays of the sun filtering through the leaves, and said, "I love this part of the walk. It is so peaceful in here. One could almost think one was all alone in the world. -- This must sound very silly."
"Not at all. I, too, am fond of peace and quiet at times, and this place is a delightful one. I quite understand why you love it so much. A retiring young lady like yourself must delight in feeling all alone in the world sometimes."
Celia looked at him, trying to determine whether he was poking fun at her, but his expression was perfectly serious. Apart from that, he had been right -- Celia did enjoy being all by herself sometimes. It only happened too rarely.
They walked on, gaining on Rebecca and the girls without speaking. Celia could think of nothing to say, and Lord David appeared to accept her silence and did not try to draw her out. It was one of the things she liked about him -- his ability to remain silent at times, and giving her the opportunity of summoning enough confidence to introduce another topic.
"Well," Lord David demanded of his mother as he entered the private parlour his father had hired for them at the Bell Inn. "What do you think of her?"
The Duchess laughed. "My dear boy, you do not expect me to have reached a conclusion yet? I have barely spoken to Miss Townsend! -- My first impression is that she is a sweet, well-behaved girl, very pretty but reticent. If this first impression turns out to be right, I have no objection to having her in my family. I fear getting her to talk to me will be quite a task, however."
"It will," Lord David agreed. "Try my method -- do not ask too many questions but wait until she is ready and willing to share her thoughts with you. During our walk she confided in me that she used to be more timid than she is now, and that she dislikes people prying into her private affairs."
"A very sensible notion - who does not dislike that? But I can see people trying to force confidences from one could turn out to be very vexing to someone whose nature is retiring. I will watch my step. Maybe I will ask for her advice instead."
"In what matter?"
"I will find something she is good at, just you wait. The best way to gain people's trust is to appreciate their opinions, and accept their help. I will ask her to show me the best shops in Gloucester, maybe, or ask her opinion of some local girls I am planning to hire as housemaids for your house."
"Will she not think you had rather ask her sister, or her sister-in-law?"
"If she does so I will tell her that I do not wish to trouble them. A lady with a husband or children to look after is always busy. A single young lady may be busy too, but not too busy to help a poor old Duchess find the proper hangings for her son's dining room."
"Poor old Duchess indeed," Lord David laughed. "No one is going to believe that! Or that you are incapable of making decisions of your own."
"They will believe, though, that I am not acquainted with the local people, or the shops in Gloucester. How should I? I have never been here in my entire life! Believe me; she will not suspect a single thing. -- Tomorrow you will take me to call on Mrs Marston and Miss Townsend. I will invite them to dine with us at the Bell -- maybe we will invite Sir Gerard and his wife as well; giving them an opportunity to meet on neutral ground sounds like a good idea to me."
Lord David agreed with his mother. Sir Gerard would not be able to refuse to come, and he would be obliged to be civil, at least, to his sisters while they were both guests under someone else's roof. The Duchess, having spent dozens of Seasons in London, was an accomplished hostess and knew exactly what to do, and so Lord David was certain that he could trust her to handle the delicate situation between Sir Gerard and his sisters.
Celia was in the book-room with the girls, trying to teach them the basics of mathematics, when their footman came in and told her that the Duchess of Burwell and her son had come for a visit, and that Mrs Marston wanted her to come into the drawing-room.
Giving the girls some work they should do until she returned to them, Celia went to the drawing room, not without stopping in front of a mirror in the hallway to check on her hair and dress. It would not do to receive her grace looking like a hoyden. Finding nothing likely to disgust her grace in her attire, she proceeded into the drawing-room, which was set aside for grand occasions. A duchess' visit was certainly one of those.
She found the Duchess and Lord David chatting amiably with her sister. The Duchess was delighted with their house, she said, and found their garden especially charming.
"It is a pity the roses are not in full bloom yet," she said. "They must be very beautiful!"
"They are," Rebecca agreed. "I admit I am not an expert, but my great-aunt -- whose house it was before it became my father's -- used to be dedicated to gardening. What you see now is her life's work."
"It is very considerate of you to leave it as it was," the Duchess remarked. Rebecca laughed.
"It was not so much consideration, your grace, than the certainty that I cannot possibly do any better."
"That does not stop some people, I know," the Duchess said.
Celia, feeling that she ought to contribute to their conversation, said, "Are you fond of gardening, your grace?"
"Very much. I am lucky to have huge grounds to work on, too, and also a husband who bears with my passion for improvement."
"That's because my father is very proud of your achievements, ma'am," Lord David said. "He would not have things any other way."
"Do you enjoy gardening, Miss Townsend?" the Duchess inquired. "I had a look at your charming water-colours just before; it seems you have a great deal of taste and a good eye for colours, so I would not be at all surprised to find that you share this particular interest of mine."
"I am sorry to disappoint you, your grace, but I have never taken much interest in it," Celia said. "Though I admit I have never really had an opportunity."
"You are fond of beauty, though."
This made Celia laugh in spite of herself. "Who isn't, your grace?"
"What I meant was that you might well develop a taste for it if given the opportunity," the Duchess clarified.
"I daresay, ma'am," Celia replied politely.
"My son has asked me to assist him with Beech Hill, should he decide to buy it," the Duchess announced, after a short pause. "So I am planning to become acquainted with his future neighbours -- it is always useful to know the people around one, I believe -- and I was planning to invite you and Sir Gerard and his wife to dine with us tomorrow. I do realise that any entertainment to be had at the Bell Inn will not quite live up to the standard my guests are accustomed to, but still I hope you will grant us an evening in your company."
"We will be honoured, your grace," Rebecca said, astonished at the Duchess' condescension.
Celia was astonished as well; she did not understand why the Duchess should take so much interest in their family; even though her son was friends with their brother. It might be natural for her grace to become acquainted with Gerard and Marianne, but why did she include them into her invitation? Did she not know that Gerard had more or less renounced them? She could not; why else would she invite them all to dine with her on the same evening? Or was she trying to bring about a reconciliation? If so, Celia was afraid that her attempt at peacemaking was destined to fail. Marianne, who was Gerard's wife and whose opinion usually weighed a great deal with him, had not been able to bring him around. What could the Duchess of Burwell do that Marianne could not?
Still, she accepted the Duchess' invitation, and was rewarded with a bright smile from both her grace and her grace's son.
Their visitors did not stay long after that; Lord David pointed out that he needed to take his father to see Beech Hill soon, and so he and his mother took their leave only a few minutes later. Celia hurried back into the book-room to see what her nieces were up to, still wondering why the Duchess chose to treat them with such distinction.
©2008 Copyright held by the author.