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Two ladies were seated in the library at Milverley Park, the younger, whose cap and superabundance of crape proclaimed the widow, beside a table upon which reposed a Prayer Book; the elder, a Titian-haired beauty of some twenty-five summers, in one of the deep window-embrasures that overlooked the park. The Funeral Service had been read aloud, in a pretty, reverent voice, by the widow; but the Prayer Book had been closed and laid aside for some time, the silence being broken only by desultory remarks, uttered by one or other of the ladies, and the ticking of the clock upon the mantelpiece.
The library, whose curiously carved bookshelves and gilded and painted ceiling had earned it honourable mention in every Guide Book to Gloucestershire, was a handsome apartment, situated upon the ground floor of the mansion, and furnished with sombre elegance. It had been used, until so short a time previously, almost exclusively by the late Earl of Spenborough: a faint aroma of cigars hung about it, and every now and then the widow's blue eyes rested on the big mahogany desk, as though she expected to see the Earl seated behind it. An air of gentle sorrow clung about her, and there was a bewildered expression on her charming countenance, as though she could scarcely realize her loss.
It had indeed been as sudden as it was unexpected. No one, least of all himself, could have supposed that the Earl, a fine, robust man in his fiftieth year, would owe his death to so paltry a cause as a chill, contracted when salmon fishing on the Wye. Not all the solicitations of his host and hostess had prevailed upon him to cosset this trifling ailment; he had enjoyed another day's fishing; and had returned to Milverley, testily making light of his condition, but so very far from well that his daughter had had no hesitation in overriding his prohibition, and had sent immediately for a physician. A severe inflammation of both lungs was diagnosed, and within a week he was dead, leaving a wife and a daughter to mourn him, and a cousin, some fifteen years his junior, to succeed to his dignities. He had no other child, a circumstance generally held to account for his startling marriage, three years earlier, to the pretty girl who had not then attained the dignity of her twentieth year. Only the most forbearing of his friends could think the match allowable. Neither his splendid physique nor his handsome face could disguise the fact that he was older than his bride's father, for his birth-date could be read in any Peerage, and his daughter had been the mistress of his establishment for four years. When no heir to the Earldom resulted from the unequal match, those who most deprecated the Earl's many eccentricities pronounced it to be a judgment upon him, his sister, Lady Theresa Eaglesham, adding obscurely, but with conviction, that it would teach Serena a lesson. Any girl who dismissed her chaperon at the age of twenty-one, refused two flattering offers of marriage, and cried off from an engagement to the most brilliant prize in the Marriage Mart was well served when her father brought home a young bride to supplant her, said Lady Theresa. And all to no purpose, as she for one had foretold from the outset!
Some such reflection seemed to be in the widow's mind. She said mournfully: ‘If I could have been more dutiful! I have been so very conscious of it, and now the thought quite oppresses me!'
Her stepdaughter, who had been leaning her chin on her hand, and gazing out at the trees in the park, just touched with autumn gold, turned her head at this, and said bracingly: ‘Nonsense!'
‘Your Aunt Theresa -'
‘Let us be thankful that my Aunt Theresa's dislike of me has kept her away from us at this moment!' interrupted Serena.
‘Oh, don't say so! If she had not been indisposed -'
‘She was never so in her life. Wretched work my Uncle Eaglesham made of her excuses. He is a poor creature.'
‘Perhaps she has stayed away, then, because she does not like me,' said the widow unhappily.
‘No such thing! Now, Fanny, don't be absurd! As though anyone could help liking you! For my part, I am excessively obliged to her for remaining in Sussex. We can never meet without rubbing one another, and although I think her the most Gothic woman alive, I own she had something to bear when I spent my first Season under her roof. Poor woman! She brought two eligible suitors up to scratch, and I liked neither. My character was retrieved only when I was stupid enough to become engaged to Ivo Rotherham, and lost beyond recovery when I put an end to that most abominable episode of my life!'
‘How dreadful it must have been for you! Within a month of the wedding!'
‘Not in the least! We quarrelled more royally than ever before, and I positively enjoyed crying-off. You will allow, too, that there is a distinction in having given the odious Marquis a set-down!'
‘I should never have dared to do so. His manners are so - so very unconciliating, and he looks at one as though he held one in contempt, which throws me into confusion, try as I will to overcome such folly.'
‘Oh, Serena, hush! You cannot always have thought so!'
Her stepdaughter threw her a quizzing glance. ‘Are you in one of your romantical flights? Goose! I became engaged to Ivo because I thought it would suit me to be a Marchioness, because Papa made the match, because I have known him for ever, because we have some tastes in common, because - oh, for a number of excellent reasons! Or so they seemed, until I discovered him to be unendurable.'
‘Indeed, I don't wonder at it that you could not love him, but have you never - have you never met anyone for whom you felt a - a decided partiality, Serena?' asked Fanny, with a wondering look.
‘Yes, indeed! Does that set me up in your esteem!' Serena replied, laughing. ‘I fancied myself very much in love when I was just nineteen years old. The most handsome creature, and with such engaging manners! You would have been in raptures! Alas, he had no fortune, and Papa would not countenance the match. I believe I cried for a week, but at this length of time I cannot be sure.'
‘Oh, you are funning!' Fanny said reproachfully.
‘No, upon my honour! I did like him very much, but I have not laid eyes on him in six years, my dear, and the melancholy truth is that Papa was quite right when he assured me that I should recover from the disappointment.'
The widow looked as if she thought this melancholy indeed. ‘Who was he, Serena if you don't dislike telling me?'
‘Not in the least. His name was Hector Kirkby.'
‘And you have never met him again?'
‘Never! But he was a soldier, and his regiment had just been ordered to Portugal, so that that cannot be considered wonderful.'
‘But now that the War is over -'
‘Fanny, you are incorrigible!' exclaimed Serena, a good deal of affectionate amusement in her face. ‘Now that the War is over, I am no longer a green girl, and Hector if he is alive, which I am sure I hope he may be - is in all likelihood married, and the father of a hopeful family, and would be hard put to it to recall my name!'
‘Oh, no! You have not forgotten!'
‘Well, no,' acknowledged Serena, ‘but, to own the truth, until you put me in mind of him I had not thought of him for years! I am afraid I am a coldhearted sort of a female after all!'
Fanny, who had seen her flirt with and rebuff several eligible suitors, was almost inclined to believe that it must be so. But no one could look upon that beautiful face, with its lovely, wilful mouth, its lustrous eyes, brilliant under rather heavy, smiling lids, and think its owner coldhearted. In fact, it was quite the last epithet anyone could have found to bestow upon such a vital, passionate creature as Serena, thought Fanny. She was headstrong, and obstinate, sometimes quite dreadfully mannish, as eccentric as her father, quick-tempered, impulsive, impatient of restraint, and careless of appearances; but with all these faults, and a great many more, she had a wealth of kindness and of generosity, and a chivalry which made her beloved amongst her father's dependants.
‘You are putting me out of countenance! Why do you stare so?'
Recalled by the sound of that low-pitched, musical voice, Fanny gave a little start, coloured up, and said: ‘As though anything could! I beg your pardon: my wits were wandering! Oh, Serena, how very kind you have been to me!'
‘Good gracious!' The brows which Serena did not scruple to darken, shot up; the eyes, gleaming more green than hazel, mocked, but gently. ‘My poor dear! This dismal occasion has put the most sickly thoughts into your head! Or is it rather my cousin Hartley? I am sure I do not blame you, if that is the case!'
Diverted, the widow exclaimed involuntarily: ‘How much you must blame me for having disappointed all your hopes of keeping him out of the succession!'
‘Fudge! I never had any! No, indeed! I am much in your debt, for not having given me a half-brother young enough to have been my son. How ridiculous I must then have appeared! It does not bear thinking of.'
‘Too generous!' Fanny said into the folds of a black-bordered handkerchief. ‘And your Papa - ! Never one word of reproach to me, but I know how much he disliked the thought of Hartley's succeeding him!'
‘Dear Fanny, pray don't cry! We shall have my uncles, and your father, and Mr Perrott upon us at any moment, to say nothing of Hartley himself! To be sure, one would not have wished him to have stepped into Papa's shoes, but it is no such great matter, after all! If you know any harm of him, it is more than I do.'
‘Your Papa said that he would have liked him better if he had known any harm of him,' said Fanny dolefully.
This made Serena laugh, but she said: ‘Very true! He is virtuous and a dead bore! I am sure, the first Carlow to be so. However, my father had known it any time these dozen years, and might, had the matter seriously troubled him, have married again long before you were out of the schoolroom. To suppose that he married you only for the sake of an heir shows you to be a great simpleton. Heavens, will they never bring this carouse to an end? It is a full hour since the carriages returned!'
‘Serena! Not a carouse!' Fanny protested. ‘How can you talk so?'
‘To hold a feast over the remains of the departed is a custom that can only disgust any person of sensibility!'
‘But, indeed it is only a cold collation!' Fanny said anxiously.
The doors at one end of the room opened softly, and the butler came in, with the intelligence that the funeral party was breaking up, carriages being called for, and Mr Perrott, his late lordship's attorney, desiring him to carry his respects to my lady, and to ask if it would be convenient to her to receive him presently. Addressing himself to Serena, he volunteered the information that the funeral had been so well attended that several of the humbler mourners had found it impossible to force their way into the church, a circumstance which appeared to afford him consolation. Receiving from Fanny an assurance that she was ready to see Mr Perrott, he withdrew again.
The minutes lagged past. Fanny said faintly: ‘I don't know why it should affect one so. The Will must be read, I know, but I wish it were over!'
‘For my part, I think it a great piece of work to make!' said Serena. ‘Such a parade, such stupid formality, which there is not the least occasion for! The only persons who might wish to hear it read are those to whom my father has left private bequests, and they are not invited to be present! It can contain no surprises for you, or for me, or, indeed, for my cousin.'
‘Oh, no! It is all my folly - and fearing to vex Papa! From what he said to me, I collect that he and Mama expect me to return home - to Hartland, I mean. He spoke as though it were certain. I said nothing, for there was no time - or perhaps I had not the courage,' she added, with a pitiful little smile.
‘Tell me what you wish to do!'
‘If it were my duty to return, I would do so,' the widow faltered.
‘That does not answer my question! At Hartland, your wishes are of no account; here, surely, it has been otherwise!'
‘Yes, indeed it has!' Fanny said, her eyes filling with tears. ‘It is that which makes me wonder whether it is perhaps naughtiness and self-will which prompts me to think that my first duty now is to you, and not to Papa!'
‘If you can't be comfortable without the assurance that you are doing your duty, let me tell you that my whole dependance is upon you - Mama!' Serena said, her voice prim, but irrepressible humour gleaming in her eyes. ‘If you are not to take me in charge, what is to become of me? I give you fair warning I won't live with my Aunt Theresa, or with my Aunt Susan! And even I should hesitate to set up my own establishment without a respectable female to bear me company. Depend upon it, that would mean Cousin Florence! The Carlows and the Dorringtons would be as one in agreeing that the poor creature must be sacrificed.'
Fanny smiled, but said in a serious tone: ‘I can't take you in charge, but I can be your chaperon, and although I am very silly I do think it would answer better than for you to be obliged to live with Lady Theresa, or even with Lady Dorrington. And if it is what you would like, dearest Serena, I cannot doubt that it is what your Papa would desire me to do, for he was fonder of you than of anyone.'
‘Fanny, no!' Serena said, stretching out her hand impulsively.
‘But it is not at all to be wondered at! You are so very like him. So I have quite made up my mind what I ought to do. Only I do hope that Papa will not order me, for it would be so very shocking to be obliged to disobey him!'
‘He won't do so. He must realize, though you do not, that you are Lady Spenborough, not Miss Claypole! Moreover -' She stopped, but, upon receiving a look of enquiry, continued bluntly: ‘Forgive me, but I am persuaded neither he nor Lady Claypole will press you to return to them! With such a numerous family, and your elder sister still unwed - oh, no, they cannot wish for your return!'
‘No! Oh, how very right you are!' exclaimed Fanny, her brow clearing. ‘Agnes, too, would so particularly dislike it, I daresay!'
There was no time for more. The doors were again opened, and a number of funereally clad gentlemen were ushered into the room.
The procession was led by the eldest, and certainly the most impressive of these. Lord Dorrington, whose girth had upon more than one occasion caused him to be mistaken for the Duke of York, was brother to the first Lady Spenborough and from having a great notion of his own importance, and a strong disposition to meddle in other persons' affairs, had appointed himself to the position of doyen to the party. He came ponderously into the room, his corsets slightly creaking, his massive jowl supported by swathe upon swathe of neckcloth, and, having bowed to the widow, uttering a few words of condolence in a wheezing voice, at once assumed the task of directing the company to various chairs. ‘I shall desire our good Mr Perrott to seat himself at the desk. Serena, my love, I fancy you and Lady Spenborough will be comfortable upon the sofa. Spenborough, will you take this place? Eaglesham, my dear fellow, if you, and ah - Sir - William, will sit here, I shall invite Rotherham to take the wing-chair.'
Since only Mr Eaglesham attended to this speech, only he was irritated by it. Precedency having been cast overboard, he had entered the library in Lord Dorrington's ample wake. He was as spare as his lordship was corpulent, and wore the harassed expression which, the unkind asserted, was natural to Lady Theresa Carlow's consort. Having married the late Earl's sister, he considered that he had a better right than Dorrington to assume the direction of affairs, but he knew no way of asserting it, and was obliged to content himself with moving towards a chair as far distant as possible to that one indicated by Dorrington, and by muttering animadversions against pretentious and encroaching old popinjays, which were as soothing to himself as they were inaudible to everyone else.
The first in consequence was the last to enter the room, the Marquis of Rotherham, saying: ‘Oh, go on, man, go on!' thrusting the attorney before him, and strolling into the library behind him.
His entrance might have been said to have banished constraint. The Lady Serena, never remarkable for propriety, stared incredulously, and exclaimed: ‘What in the world brings you here, I should like to know?'
‘So should I!' retorted his lordship. ‘How well we should have suited, Serena! So many ideas as we have in common!'
Fanny, well accustomed to such exchanges, merely cast an imploring look at Serena; Mr Eaglesham uttered a short laugh; Sir William Claypole was plainly startled; Mr Perrott, who had drawn up the original marriage settlements, seemed to be suddenly afflicted with deafness; and Lord Dorrington, perceiving an opportunity for further meddling, said, in what was meant to be an authoritative tone: ‘Now, now! We must not forget upon what a sad occasion we are gathered together! No doubt there is a little awkwardness attached to Rotherham's unavoidable presence here. Indeed, when I learned from our good Perrott -'
‘Awkwardness?' cried Serena, her colour heightened, and her eyes flashing. ‘I promise you, I feel none, my dear sir! If Rotherham is conscious of it, I can only say that I am astonished he should choose to intrude upon a matter which can only concern the family!'
‘No, I am not conscious of it,' responded the Marquis. ‘Only of intolerable boredom!'
Several pairs of eyes turned apprehensively towards Serena, but she was never a fighter who resented a knock in exchange. This one seemed rather to assuage than to exacerbate her wrath. She smiled reluctantly, and said in a milder tone: ‘Well! But what made you come, then?'
Mr Perrott, who had been engaged in spreading some documents over the desk, gave a little, dry cough, and said: ‘Your ladyship must know that the late Earl appointed my Lord Rotherham to be one of the Executors of his Will.'
That this intelligence was as unexpected as it was unwelcome was made plain by the widening of Serena's eyes, as she turned them, in a look compound of doubt and disgust, from Rotherham to the attorney. ‘I might have guessed that that was how it would be!' she said, turning aside in mortification, and walking back to her seat in the window embrasure.
‘Then it is a great pity you did not guess!' said Rotherham acidly. ‘I might then have been warned in time to have declined the office, for which I daresay there could be no one more unsuited!'
She deigned no reply, but averted her face, fixing her gaze once more upon the prospect outside. Her cousin, wearing his new dignities uneasily, was inspired by his evil genius to assume an air of authority, saying in a tone of reproof: ‘Such conduct as this is quite unbecoming, Serena! Now that the late unhappy event has made me head of the family I do not scruple to say so. I am sure I do not know what Lord Rotherham must be thinking of such manners.'
He brought himself under the fire of two pairs of eyes, the one filled with wrathful astonishment, the other with cruel mockery.
‘Well, you can certainly be sure of that!' said Rotherham.
‘For my part,' said Dorrington, in a peevish voice, ‘I consider it very odd in my poor brother, very odd indeed! One would have supposed - however, so it has always been! Eccentric! I can find no other word for it.'
This provoked Mr Eaglesham, swelling with annoyance, to point out to his lordship the very remote nature of his connection with the late Earl. There were others, he took leave to tell him, whose claims to have been appointed Executor of the Will were very much nearer than his. Lord Dorrington's empurpled cheeks then became so alarmingly suffused that Spenborough said hastily that the appointment of Lord Rotherham was perfectly agreeable to him, whatever it might be to others.
‘Obliging of you!' said Rotherham, over his shoulder, as he crossed the room to where Fanny was still standing nervously beside her chair. ‘Come! Why do you not sit down?' he said in his abrupt, rather rough way. ‘You must be as anxious as any of us, I daresay, to be done with this business!'
‘Oh, yes! Thank you!' she murmured. She glanced fleetingly up at him, as she seated herself, faltering: ‘I am very sorry, if you dislike it. Indeed, I am afraid it may be troublesome to you!'
‘Unlikely: Perrott will no doubt attend to everything.' He hesitated, and then added, in a still brusquer manner: ‘I should be making you speeches of condolence. Excuse me on that head, if you please! I am no great hand at polite insincerities, and give you credit for believing you cannot wish to figure as inconsolable.'
She was left feeling crushed; he walked away to a chair near the window in which Serena sat, and she, taking advantage of Sir William Claypole's claiming his daughter's attention at that moment, said: ‘You might give her credit for some natural sorrow!'
‘She was most sincerely attached to my father.'
‘Very well: I give her credit for it. She will soon recover from such sentiments, and must be less than honest if she does not feel herself to have been released from a most unnatural tie.' He looked at her from under the heavy bar of his black brows, a satirical gleam in his eyes. ‘Yes, you find yourself in agreement with me, and don't mean to admit it. If sympathizing speeches are expected of me, I will address mine to you. I am sorry for you, Serena: this bears hard on you.'
There was no softening either in voice or expression, but she knew him well enough to believe that he meant what he said.
‘Thank you. I expect I shall go along very tolerably when I have become - a little more accustomed.'
‘Yes, if you don't commit some folly. On that chance, however, I would not wager a groat. Don't shoot daggerlooks at me! I'm impervious to 'em.'
‘On this occasion at least you might spare me your taunts!' she said, in a low, indignant voice.
‘Not at all. To spar with me will save you from falling into a green melancholy.'
She disdained to answer this, but turned again to look out of the window; and he, as indifferent to the snub as to her anger, took up a lounging position in his chair, and sardonically surveyed the rest of the company.
Of the six men present he gave the least impression of being a mourner at a funeral. His black coat, which he wore buttoned high across his chest, was at odd variance with a neckcloth tied in a sporting fashion peculiarly his own; and his demeanour lacked the solemnity which characterized the elder members of the party. From his appearance, he might have been almost any age, and was, in fact, in the late thirties. Of medium height only, he was very powerfully built, with big shoulders, a deep chest, and thighs by far too muscular to appear to advantage in the prevailing fashion of skin tight pantaloons. He was seldom seen in such attire, but generally wore top-boots and breeches. His coats were well-cut, but made so that he could shrug himself into them without assistance; and he wore no other jewellery than his heavy gold signet-ring. He had few graces, his manners being blunt to a fault, made as many enemies as friends, and, had he not been endowed with birth, rank, and fortune, would possibly have been ostracized from polite circles. But these magical attributes were his, and they acted like a talisman upon his world. His Belcher neckties and his unconventional manners might be deplored but must be accepted: he was Rotherham.
He was not a handsome man, but his countenance was a striking one, his eyes, which were of a curiously light gray, having a great deal of hard brilliance, and being set under straight brows which almost met. His hair was as black as a crow's wing, his complexion swarthy; and the lines of his face were harsh, the brow a little craggy, the chin deeply cleft, and the masterful nose jutting between lean cheeks. His hands were his only beauty, for they combined strength with shapeliness. Any of the dandy set would have used all manner of arts to show them off: my Lord Rotherham dug them into his pockets.
Since Lord Dorrington and Mr Eaglesham showed no disposition to bring their acrimonious dialogue to an end, and Lord Spenborough's polite attempts to recall them to a sense of their surroundings were not attended to, Rotherham intervened, saying impatiently: ‘Do you mean to continue arguing all day, or are we to hear the Will read?'
Both gentlemen glared at him; and Mr Perrott, taking advantage of the sudden silence, spread open a crackling document, and in severe accents announced it to be the last Will and Testament of George Henry Vernon Carlow, Fifth Earl of Spenborough.
As Serena had foretold, it contained little of interest to its auditors. Neither Rotherham nor Dorrington had expectations; Sir William Claypole knew his daughter's jointure to be secure: and once Mr Eaglesham was satisfied that the various keepsakes promised to his wife had been duly bequeathed to her he too lost interest in the reading, and occupied himself in thinking of some pretty cutting things to say to Lord Dorrington.
Serena herself still sat with her face turned away, and her eyes on the prospect outside. Shock had at first left no room for any other emotion than grief for the loss of her father, but with the arrival of his successor the evils of her present situation were more thoroughly brought to her mind. Milverley, which had been her home for the twenty-five years of her life, was hers no longer. She who had been its mistress would henceforth visit it only as a guest. She was not much given to sentimental reflection, nor, during her father's lifetime, had she been conscious of any deep attachment to the place. She had taken it for granted, serving it as a matter of duty and tradition. Only now, when it was passing from her, did she realize her double loss.
Her spirits sank; it was an effort to keep her countenance, and impossible to chain her attention to the attorney, reciting in a toneless voice and with a wealth of incomprehensible legalities a long list of small personal bequests. All were known to her, many had been discussed with her. She knew the sources of Fanny's jointure, and which of the estates would furnish her own portion: there could be no surprises, nothing to divert her mind from its melancholy reflections.
She was mistaken. Mr Perrott paused, and cleared his throat. After a moment, he resumed his reading, his dry voice more expressionless than before. The words: ‘...all my estates at Hernesley and at Ibshaw' intruded upon Serena's wandering thoughts, and informed her that her share of the bequests had been reached at last. The next words brought her head round with a jerk.
‘...to the use of Ivo Spencer Barrasford, the Most Noble the Marquis of Rotherham -'
‘What?' gasped Serena.
‘...in trust for my daughter, Serena Mary,' continued Mr Perrott, slightly raising his voice, ‘to the intent that he shall allow her during her spinsterhood such sums of money by way of pin-money as she has heretofore enjoyed, and upon her marriage, conditional upon such marriage being with his consent and approval, to her use absolutely.'
An astonished silence succeeded these words. Fanny was looking bewildered, and Serena stunned. Suddenly the silence was shattered. The Most Noble the Marquis of Rotherham had succumbed to uncontrollable laughter.