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The house had long been abed when Selina, wrapped in a coverlet, made her way down the creaking stairs. Weary as she was from a long day of work, she couldn't rest until she'd written the letter.
She stoked the kitchen fire, adding logs to get a good flame going, and warmed her frozen fingertips, before lighting a tallow candle. Moving to the chest that housed her few treasured possessions, she sorted through her papers until she found the valentine.
Its silvered edges had been torn and frayed. Its ink was faded in places and its paper had yellowed. But the words of its message could still clearly be read.
Selina carried it to the table and propped it against a stack of books where she could see it while she wrote. Before sitting, she placed the candle at a distance so its sputtering would not burn her paper. Then, with a sigh, she took a chair and dipped her quill in ink.
Memories of her father, and what he would say if he knew what she was about to do, made her pause. A wave of shame washed through her. But the vicar had convinced her. She had no other choice, and her brother understood.
"This is for him," Selina whispered, hoping her father's spirit would hear her, as she scratched her first words on the page.
~ ~ ~
Richard Trevelyan stared at the letter he had just opened and muttered a curse before perusing it again. It was dated as having been written on the fifth of January l814, and it bore the seal of the College of Arms.
To the Right Honourable the Earl of Linton
I deem it proper to acquaint you that an application has recently been made to the College by Mr.Augustus Payley, Esq., of Uckfield in Sussex, for a Warrant which would enable him to take the ancient Surname of Trevelyan and to bear its arms.
However, no proofs have been exhibited to me relative to the connection of the said Family of Trevelyan and Augustus Payley, nor have I found that his ancestors have ever used the name. Upon examination, I have discovered him to be a Husbandman with no Pedigree to manifest the right of any of his descendants to the Trevelyan Armorial bearings.
In some cases, the proof of long usage coupled with a very great probability of a connection has afforded grounds for the allowance of Arms so used. But, in the case in question, I have found it my duty to withhold my assent.
In making this communication to you, for your own private information, I trust you will consider the Garter of the present day fully desirous to preserve the integrity of the ancient and respectable Families ....
Richard skimmed the last paragraph and noted the signature at the bottom: Isaac Heard, Garter King of Arms.
"Devil take the upstart!" Richard swore again, but the violence of his reaction made him pause. It was not often that a matter as trivial as a spurious claim to his name would anger him so.
Reflecting, however, upon the duty that faced him this morning, he thought there might be a cause for his unreasonable fury.
It was Wilfrid, of course. Why Richard had been cursed with the greatest rakeshame in London for his heir, he did not know. But the fact was, Sir Wilfrid Bart was one of the most reprehensible men Richard had ever had the pleasure to know, and at this particular moment, he had reached the limit of his tolerance for him.
Wilfrid was due to call at any minute to receive another in a long history of well-deserved tongue-lashings. Richard had learned that Wilfrid had been trading upon his expectations again, and to such an extent that his newest debts must surely amount into the thousands of pounds. Since Wilfrid had no hope of ever paying these off unless Richard died, the earl was understandably vexed.
He had no intention of ever obliging his older cousin. Strong and healthy, and, at thirty, in the prime of his manhood, Richard felt no worries on the subject of his continued existence. All he needed to do, he comforted himself, was to marry and produce a legion of sons in order to cut Wilfrid out of the succession.
The fact that he had not yet done so did not mean that he intended to relinquish the right. But he had to admit that finding a suitable wife--one he could imagine sharing his life with for over two weeks running--seemed more difficult with each passing year. At the moment, he was so incensed with Wilfrid as to contemplate picking the next girl he saw, just to see Wilfrid's face when he announced his upcoming nuptials.
But, Richard reflected ruefully, Wilfrid was of such an optimistically avaricious disposition, he would likely refuse to believe that a loss to himself was possible, until Richard had kicked up his toes and the money and title had been bestowed upon someone else.
And even then, Wilfrid would count the heirs between himself and the succession and simply recalculate his odds.
When Richard's butler opened the library door to announce the arrival of Sir Wilfrid Bart, Richard was still clutching the Garter's letter in his hand. He laid it open upon his desk, reflecting that now he had another leech in Wilfrid's mold to contend with.
By the time his cousin entered, Richard had seated himself on the other side of the desk. He did not rise to greet Wilfrid, though the temptation to loom over him was almost irresistible.
"Cousin?" A rouged and powdered dandy of some fifty years of age peered anxiously into the room and forced a smile.
Wilfrid's hesitant entry, as always, afforded Richard some degree of amusement until he reminded himself that this man was his heir.
"I believe you expressed a desire to see me?" Wilfrid said.
He assumed an expression of complete innocence, a pose that was belied by the defensive hunch of one shoulder and the halting steps he used to approach the desk.
Today, Richard found he could not laugh at the sight of this cringing posture. The letter had loosed his temper, when he preferred to make a practice of holding it in check. He endeavored to do so now, before speaking.
His delay only served to make Wilfrid more uneasy. He smiled, then tittered. "I say, cuz, do you mean to offer me a chair?"
"By all means." Richard indicated the seat across from him. "You must make yourself comfortable."
Before Wilfrid could relax too much at this polite treatment, however, Richard added, "I do not expect you will feel so for long."
Wilfrid started. He had seated himself at right angles to the desk as if unable to meet his cousin's gaze, and now the tip of his high shirt point caught him in the eye.
He tittered again. "My word, cuz, how you do give a fellow a fright. I believe you delight in it."
For a brief moment, Richard thought he caught a gleam of hatred in Wilfrid's eyes. But if he did, it was quickly masked by Wilfrid's normal vacant look. Richard shrugged off the possibility. If Wilfrid resented him, it would be quite natural, and Richard was too sure of his position to let a coward's hatred concern him.
"It seems," he began instead, "that I shall soon have reason to offer you my condolences."
Wilfrid paled, and Richard smiled sweetly.
"Condolences?" Wilfrid's tongue swept his lips. "What condolences would those be, cousin?"
"I understand you anticipate some bereavement? An impending death in the family? Or so I hear."
Wilfrid's color returned, and Richard realized that he had been thinking of something else. Perhaps, that his cousin, the earl, might have decided to marry after all.
"I am afraid I do not follow you, cousin."
"Come, come, now, Wilfrid," Richard chided him. "Do I really strike you as so decrepit? Have I not done my share of boxing and riding to hounds? But perhaps, you do not consider those healthful pursuits?"
Wilfrid smiled nervously, but he was undefeated. "I perceive you were making a joke, dear boy. Always one for a laugh, even as an adorable child."
"This is no joking matter, Wilfrid. I have no plans to stick my spoon into the wall just to please you, and so I warn you."
"Warn me? Now, cousin, why should you feel the need to warn me?"
"Because I have been privileged to receive complaints from the tradesmen you have abused in my name. A name which means a great deal to me." Surprised again by his own vehemence, Richard cast a glance at the letter facing Wilfrid, wishing he could permanently be relieved of this sort of annoyance.
Wilfrid's eyes followed his glance. After a moment's look at the paper, he turned his own pale face back to Richard's. "But, cuz, you do not mean you have listened to some worthless scoundrel. It is all lies, I tell you!"
Richard reached into the drawer. "Are these all lies?"
He flung a stack of IOU's over the desktop. They scattered, covering his own papers.
With trembling hands, Wilfrid scooped up the strewn vouchers and, for a few seconds, tried to pretend he had never seen them by studying them intently. This was only to buy time, Richard knew, and for once that day, he did want to laugh. His elderly cousin must certainly take the prize for gall. Richard was truly surprised that Wilfrid should try such a foolish tactic, and especially for so long.
Wilfrid certainly was not relishing the prospect of having to own up to his vowels, for his skin looked clammy and his fingers were still trembling.
Before Richard could grow impatient, however, Wilfrid stopped reading and looked up, a certain tension in his pose. "I cannot see that this letter has anything to do with me," he said.
"Let me see." Richard frowned and reached out one hand. The paper Wilfrid placed in it was the letter from the Garter King of Arms.
"No, you are correct, Wilfrid. This one has nothing to do with you, though I do see a point of resemblance, which would certainly fail to amuse you, so I will not share it. You must have picked it up with the others."
"When did it come?"
"This morning. I was just reading it when you arrived."
Thinking, apparently, that he had diverted Richard's attention from himself, Wilfrid relaxed. "The fool," he scoffed. "Did he think to become one of us, just by asking?"
One of us? Wilfrid's assumption of affinity with him roused Richard's ire as nothing else had that morning. He would be confounded if he would be regarded as forming some sort of pack with Wilfrid Bart!
Something else in Wilfrid's tone, however, caused him to say, "A fool? Why? Do you know him?"
Wilfrid started again. "Me? Of course not. How should I know a mere farmer? I was only commenting upon the absurdity of his claim."
"The name Payley means nothing to you?"
"Nothing at all. One knows Payleys, I suppose, the way one knows Smiths, but I have never been acquainted with an Augustus Payley." Richard could see that Wilfrid was telling the truth.
"I see. Perhaps, however, we should get back to our original topic, which, as I recall, had to do with claims that you, yourself, have made."
Wilfrid assumed a look of bonhomie. "My dear Richard, even you must know that, on occasion, one is forced to stretch the truth to be able to live properly as a gentleman. I could not possibly begin to keep up with the Carlton House set if I did not borrow money. And since you are my only recourse, I am naturally compelled to use your name. Everyone does something of the sort. I daresay Prinny himself has borrowed in excess, if you consider how he builds whole palaces upon credit and waits for the notes to come in."
"Are you saying that the allowance I pay you is insufficient to support a gentleman?"
Wilfrid's eyes shifted. Richard could tell he was weighing the consequences of insulting his sole means of support in favour of the chance that his allowance might be increased. Richard, however, did not feel up to playing with his heir any longer, and his countenance must have reflected this, for Wilfrid gave up at once.
"Of course not, cuz. You are far, far too generous."
"I am not asking for compliments, Wilfrid. I want to know how you explain the borrowing of thousands of pounds against the expectation of my death."
Wilfrid shrugged, and again that hint of hostility showed in his glance. "I wish I could explain it, dear Richard, but there it is. When Prinny beckons, I must go. He finds me vastly amusing, and I must say I do enjoy Palace life."
"Then, I suggest you try enjoying it less. I do not mean to pay these vouchers, and if I do not, there will be no choice for you but to run to the Continent.
"And," Richard continued, smiling amicably, even though his teeth were clenched, "if you continue to besmirch my name or to use it improperly, I just might send you there myself."
"It is all very well for you!" Wilfrid started up in his chair. "You, who were fortunate enough to be born to the title!"
"You were born to a title, too. Have you forgotten you're a baronet?"
Wilfrid's expression turned bitter. "How could I forget my miserable inheritance when chaps are forever making jokes upon my name? 'Always a Bart, and never a peer.' Most amusing, don't you think?"
Richard did smile. Wilfrid's gall, his unbridled ambition and greed--when anyone else would have been satisfied with his rank--never failed to leave him laughing.
"My heart bleeds for you, cousin. But I do have a word of advice. If your aspirations to be a peer are so formidable, you might think of trying to earn a peerage. There ought to be room for a gentleman of your calibre in the army, and blast me, if I wouldn't be happy to purchase you a pair of colours, myself!"
Richard's offer failed to brighten Wilfrid's hopes. "Don't be ridiculous, cousin," he said, wrinkling his nose. "Even if I had a mind for the army--and the very thought of it makes me shudder--the army would never consider a man of my age and noted infirmities."
"Infirmities? If you are so infirm, Wilfrid, I am astonished at the hours you keep."
Wilfrid smiled smoothly. "But I keep telling you, Richard. I cannot refuse Prinny anything. Why, even now, he has need of my company in Brighton."
"Brighton in the winter?" Richard shook his head. "You astonish me, Wilfrid."
"But he does, dear boy. Something about a new wing. Seeking a diversion, I suspect. Still torn up about Brummell, don't you know."
"The Regent's feelings do not concern me at the moment. I would be far more interested to hear what you intend doing about these debts."
"Doing?" Wilfrid blinked. "I do not see that I can afford to do anything about them, if you do not mean to pay them."
"You can hardly afford to do nothing. Have you given any thought to employment?"
"I--?" Wilfrid's expression suggested that Richard had made the cleverest joke imaginable. "Dear boy. There is no employment on earth, at least to my knowledge, that would contrive to pay such a mountain of debts."
Richard leaned back in his chair and let his gaze sweep his cousin from his pomaded locks to the tips of his tasselled boots. "You might reflect upon that fact, dear cuz," he said in biting accents, "when next you sit down to the card table. Or when you next place an order to your wine merchant."
Wilfrid could not fail to hear the searing tone in Richard's voice, and even he appeared somewhat contrite. "Certainly, cousin, if you wish it, I shall reflect upon those points."
"And you will oblige me by not insinuating again that I am at death's door."
"You exaggerate. I am certain I never used those precise words."
"Near enough as makes no difference." Richard stood. "And now, dear cousin, I believe I have enjoyed your company enough for one day."
As Wilfrid stood, his smile of farewell did not reach his eyes, and Richard perceived that his words would have no lasting effect upon his cousin's comportment.
At least, he thought not. But, then, Wilfrid turned at the door with a serious look.
"Before I forget, cuz. What do you mean to do about that upstart Payley? Ignore him, I hope?"
Richard started to agree, but then he paused. The letter still rankled. He had received no satisfaction from Wilfrid, and his temper had not been appeased. It was bad enough to have one scoundrel abusing his name without another one added.
"I suppose," he said, silently proposing a journey to himself, "that I shall have to look into the matter."
Wilfrid laughed, but his laughter had an edge to it. "Oh, surely, cousin, you do not think there is any merit in his claim?"
"Of course I do not. But I think Mr. Augustus Payley should be spoken to for his presumption."
"Then let me speak to him," Wilfrid surprised him by saying. "Uckfield is on the way to Brighton, or so I believe. I should be most happy to perform this commission for you."
His offer had been made so quickly as to sound sincere, but Richard reflected that his cousin might be hoping for some sort of reprieve--a loan perhaps, or even a payment of his debts, if he rendered Richard this service.
"No, thank you, Wilfrid. I think I shall handle this situation myself. I seem to be rather in the mood to demand satisfaction."
"Plan on calling him out?" A gleam lit Wilfrid's eye.
"Call out a farmer? Not ... one of us?" Richard stressed. "You must be joking, Wilfrid. And, here, I had been thinking you had not been blessed with a sense of humour.
"No," Richard continued, thinking aloud, "I simply mean to confront this Augustus Payley and rid him of the idea that he can use my name at will."
Wilfrid seemed reluctant to leave it at that. "Then I hope you mean to teach him a serious lesson. And, if I may be of any help whatsoever, I beg you will write to me in Brighton."
"Certainly, I shall. I could not forget the depth of your family feeling."
A glint hardened Wilfrid's eyes. "Do not underestimate it, Richard. My little foibles are as nothing when compared to this gross encroachment. I beg again that you will let me tend to it."
Taken aback by the strength of Wilfrid's feelings, Richard moderated his tone. "I appreciate your interest, but your methods are not likely to be the same as mine, so I prefer to see to this myself."
His offer having been so firmly refused, Wilfrid shrugged. "As you will. Your servant, cousin."
As he showed himself out, Richard stared after him, and a rare feeling of dismay swept through him. Wilfrid had left, not the least bit abashed. Richard had no doubt that his cousin would take up where he had left off with no change at all in his behaviour.
And it did not matter that he was regarded by most to be a thoroughly undeserving character. Richard was obliged to support him. A gentleman was frowned upon for mistreating his heir, and, in truth, Wilfrid did nothing worse than many of his contemporaries. If the Regent himself found Wilfrid charming--and Richard scoffed at the thought--what could he do to make him feel otherwise?
The source of his dismay, he knew, was the niggling thought that Wilfrid just might succeed him if he failed to provide another heir. Men Richard's age died all the time, and many an elderly man had succeeded a younger one. In spite of his good health, Richard knew he could break his neck on a hunt or a carriage race, whereas Wilfrid took great care never to court any physical danger.
What was needed was a wife. Richard admitted to himself that his search for one had grown more serious of late. The need to supplant Wilfrid was always in his mind, but an even stronger motive, he realized, was his more recent desire for companionship. A man grew weary of nothing but frivolous pursuits once the first energy of his youth had been spent. Trouble was, the longer he looked for his ideal companion, the more unlikely it appeared that he would find her.
The fresh, young faces that were trotted out every social season were looking more and more the same. Richard thought that if he had to attend one more ball, he might take to serious drink.
The letter in his hand caught his attention once again, bringing with it a new wave of irritation. And now, this Payley scoundrel. Richard's family obligations were enough to throw even the most cheerful fellow into the dismals.
The thought of facing Payley down cheered Richard immensely. If nothing else a trip into Sussex would get him out of London. He had a mind to ride his horse all the way to Uckfield, in spite of the winter season, leaving his coach and servants behind.
A rigorous journey on horseback would be the very thing he needed to cure him of his malaise.