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"Brilliant!" sighed Wynn, tossing the Political Register onto the table at his elbow. He leaned back in his chair and reached for his glass of brandy, a superb pre-Revolution vintage. "I'd give my right arm to write like that."
"If you gave your right arm," pointed out the Honourable Gilbert Chubb, "you wouldn't be able to write at all."
Wynn grinned, shaking his head at Chubby's invincible literalism. "My left arm, then. Don't you agree that 'Prometheus' is brilliant? His arguments are well-reasoned yet pithy, both incisive and persuasive. Whereas Cobbett's language is far too incendiary to be taken seriously by anyone but rabble-rousers and the starving masses. Just listen to this bit here."
Chubby groaned as Wynn picked up the Register again, the shilling edition. He no longer had to be satisfied with the twopenny pamphlet edition, reduced in size from the newspaper to avoid the stamp tax which put it beyond the reach of the poor.
"No, please!" Chubby begged. "I don't mind listening to your speeches, old chap, but I'll be damned if I'll sit still for any more Prometheus, however pithy."
"My efforts only make you laugh." Wynn kicked gloomily at the nearest of the sheets of close-written foolscap scattered on the hearthrug.
"I didn't laugh."
"You sniggered. I heard you. I don't blame you, mind. There's no denying that the style I developed to write those wretched Gothic romances is as unsuitable for a maiden speech to the House of Lords as a nightshirt in a ball room. Somehow I just can't seem to keep out the melodrama and bombast."
"Seems to me," said Chubby judiciously, "you were a devilish sight happier writing your romancesthan you have been since your great-uncle popped off and made you Viscount Selworth."
Wynn glanced around the cosy library, walled with calf-bound books; the solid, old-fashioned oak, beech, and cherrywood furniture gleaming in the light of a dozen wax candles; the fire blazing on the hearth. How could he regret inheriting Kymford? His books, exciting, amusing, and distinctly bawdy, though popular had never afforded more than a meagre supplement to his stepfather's meagre benefice.
Yet he and his family had never been without food or clothes or a roof over their heads. They had even scraped up enough to give his eldest sister a Season on the fringes of Society. In spite of gowns turned, made over and retrimmed, Albinia had married well, into an ancient if untitled family.
In fact, they had fared splendidly compared to a large proportion of Britain's people, workless and hungry since the end of the war. Now, having inherited a seat in Parliament along with the Selworth title and fortune, Wynn was eager to do his best for his fellow-countrymen.
"Happy or not," he said, "I shan't have a hope of a serious career in politics if anyone gets wind of my authorship of such lamentably unserious tales."
"I shan't tell," Chubby assured him.
"No one else knows--except my publisher, naturally--but I can't risk writing any more. The last romance by Valentine Dred will appear in a month or so. It was fun while it lasted, but it's speeches for me from now on."
Wearily, he bent down to gather up his latest literary effort. He crumpled the sheets together and tossed them on the fire. The words he had struggled over flared up. Black cinders floated up the chimney.
"Tell you what," said Chubby, looking pleased with himself, "you want to get Prometheus to help you with that speech. I daresay the fellow could turn it out in a trice, just the way you want it."
"Prometheus is dead."
"Dammit, he can't be!" Chubby protested. "The stuff you read me was all about the universal suffrage petitions and Prinny getting shot at in the Mall. That happened only last week, the 28th of January, you said. A fine state of affairs when people make excuses for people firing at the Prince Regent!"
"You were listening?" Wynn said in mock surprise. "You're right, of course, but so am I."
"Now you're talking in riddles," his friend complained. "What the deuce do you mean? Either a chap's dead or he ain't."
"Not Prometheus. He's chained to a rock for eternity with an eagle eating his liver, as punishment for giving fire to mankind."
"A load of rot, those Greek stories. Stands to reason, he'd die."
"But he didn't."
"Cut line, Wynn, do. Maybe that Prometheus is still alive chained to a rock somewhere, but you're not telling me he writes articles for William Cobbett's 'twopenny trash'!"
Wynn laughed. "All right. 'Prometheus' was commonly known to be the pen-name of Benjamin Lisle, the Radical M.P. Lisle died last year, but Prometheus continues to write--as you pointed out--on current events. No one knows who has taken on the pseudonym. Therefore, I can't approach the gentleman in question to beg his assistance with this devilish speech."
The speech lay in abeyance for the following fortnight as Wynn set himself to entertain Chubby, his first guest at Kymford. New to the dignities and responsibilities of a noble landowner, he enjoyed showing off his farms, orchards, woods, and coverts.
He was also glad of the opportunity to consult his friend. Mr Chubb, heir to a baron, had been brought up to understand the management of a large estate. Though by no means the brightest star in the firmament, he had an almost instinctive grasp of such esoteric (to Wynn) subjects as drainage and crop rotation. He knew almost as much about sheep and cattle as about horses.
"M'father's more of a country squire, you know, than a member of the Ton," he said apologetically, as they halted their mounts by a gate, to gaze out over a field striped with green shoots of winter wheat. "He'd rather spend his blunt on a new breed of milch-cow than on Weston's tailoring--for himself or for me."
Wynn glanced from Chubby's neat but modest brown riding coat, buckskin breeches, and serviceable riding boots, to his own shabby version of the same. He laughed ruefully.
"I've been far too busy moving the family from the rectory to Kymford, exploring the place, and working on my speech to spare a thought for new clothes. I daresay I shall have to dress up to address the House of Lords, if I'm ever satisfied enough with the damn thing to present it."
"You'll have to fig yourself out decently anyway, if your sister's to make her curtsy to Society this spring."
"Millicent won't need me to squire her about. Mama will stay here to look after my stepfather and the children, but Albinia's taking on the whole business, bless her. Debenham is all the escort they will need. My part is just to frank her, which I can afford to do in style now."
"Don't you believe it," Chubby warned. "Mrs Debenham and Miss Warren will expect you to do the pretty, too, take my word for it. Thank heaven I haven't any sisters."
"If you had, you might not find yourself so tongue-tied around young females, old fellow. Though, Lord knows, Millicent seldom lets anyone get a word in edgewise. What a chatterbox!"
"That's all right. It means I don't have to try to come up with something to say to her."
"Well, I'll be damned if I'm going to dance attendance on the chit, though I'll keep an eye on her until she finds her feet. I'll be too busy with Parliament. Balls and routs and Venetian breakfasts--what a waste of time! Let's ride on. So the land looks to you to be in good heart? You think my bailiff is competent?"
They returned to topics more interesting than clothes and come-outs. Wynn's great-uncle had been an old-fashioned but conscientious landlord. Something of a recluse, long outliving the rest of his immediate family, he had ploughed the profits from his rents back into the soil. The farms belonging to Kymford were prosperous, the lesser tenants well housed, and there were funds in Consols besides.
The late Viscount Selworth had kept the early Jacobean manor house in good condition, without attempting to turn it into a mansion. Not wasting his money on building fine porticos or changing casements to sash windows, he had instead installed modern conveniences such as water closets and a closed stove in the kitchen. Comfortable if not smart, to a large family from a small rectory the house seemed the height of luxury.
All in all it was an inheritance to be proud of. Wynn was duly proud, and grateful.
Gratitude to Providence for his good fortune made him all the more anxious to help those less fortunate. His tenants' lot might be improved by the cautious and gradual introduction of the up-to-date agricultural methods Chubby suggested, but they were not in dire need.
"But half the population is destitute," he explained to Albinia some two weeks later.
He had brought Millicent up to London to prepare for her first Season. Persuaded, somewhat against her will, that she was tired from the journey, she had been bundled off to bed for a rest before dinner, leaving her elders to a comfortable cose.
George Debenham was out on business, so Wynn was closeted with his favourite sister.
Albinia was, in fact, his only full sister, the rest of his siblings being the offspring of his mother and the Reverend Ernest Warren. Four years Wynn's junior, Mrs Debenham was a pretty, lively young matron of four and twenty summers, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a round, rosy-cheeked face. She had left her two little boys in the country, with their paternal grandparents, to come up to Town and present her half-sister to the Polite World.
Now she looked in dismay at her brother and said, "You are not going to make speeches at me, are you, Wynn dear? I know there is a great deal of poverty, and George and I do what we can to relieve the paupers in our part of the country, I assure you. George says, the need is too great for private charity to suffice."
"Exactly," Wynn exclaimed, jumping up and striding the length of the elegant drawing room. "Nothing will suffice as long as the laws remain unchanged. The Government must be persuaded to act, to lower taxes on necessities and--"
"Wynn, you are speechifying!"
He turned back towards her with a sheepish grin. "Sorry, Bina." Running his hand through hair as fair as hers, he dropped back onto the sofa beside her. "The thing is, I'm a member of the House of Lords now."
"Heavens, so you are! You mean to take your seat?"
"Of course. It's my duty to involve myself in politics since I believe those in power are--"
"Speech!" Albinia protested yet again.
"Speech is the trouble. If I'm to have any influence at all, it's very important that my maiden speech should be well received. And I just can't seem to get the knack of it."
"Of making a speech? Pray do not practise on me."
"Of writing one, to start with. Dash it, if only Benjamin Lisle were still alive!"
"The Member of Parliament? Why?"
Wynn explained about Prometheus. "Lisle's articles used to be a trifle too inflammatory for my taste, but whoever is using his pen-name writes just the sort of thing I want to say, just the way I want to say it. Only no one knows who he is."
"Why not ask his family?" Albinia suggested. "They must surely have given permission for his pen-name to be used."
"I can't very well intrude upon his widow. She don't know me from the Sheik of Araby."
Albinia smiled. "Perhaps not, but I know her and she knows me, and her daughter is a friend of mine."
"Bina, you're gammoning me!"
"I am not. Pippa--Philippa--Lisle came out the same year I did, and in much the same circumstances, the difference being that I was lucky and found George. We were both older than most girls in their first Season, neither of us had entrée to the inner circles of the Beau Monde, and we both had to make do and mend. We even used to exchange gowns with each other to enlarge our wardrobes."
"You must have been very good friends," Wynn remarked thoughtfully.
"We were, and we have kept in touch with regular letters ever since. You would have met her if you had deigned to put in an appearance at my aunt's house during my Season."
"Can you imagine how things would have gone at home if Papa had been left alone with the children? Besides, you may have had to make do and mend, my dear, but it was out of the question for me to squander the ready on togging myself out to make a decent appearance in Town."
"At a guess," said Albinia, looking him up and down with amusement, "clothes have not precisely been a priority with you since you have been able to afford the proper attire for your new station in life. You will have to acquire a new wardrobe before Millie is ready to go about."
"Oh no, I'm not escorting that little bagpipe to balls and such!"
"Oh yes, you are," Albinia calmly contradicted him, "and as a reward, I shall give you a letter to deliver to Pippa, as an excuse for calling."
"Lord Selworth and Mr Chubb, madam." Sukey, the plump, middle-aged maid, beamed with delight. After a few visits of condolence on the demise of Mr Lisle, the nobility had ceased to call at Sweetbriar Cottage.
As conversation stilled in the small parlour, crowded with afternoon callers, Pippa looked round in surprise. Selworth? His lordship must be related to Albinia--which did not explain his presence here in this out of the way Buckinghamshire village. Yes, that fly-away flaxen hair was the image of Bina's. A close relative, then, perhaps the elder brother she used to talk about in such worshipful tones. She had mentioned a title in a distant part of the family. The two must have somehow come together.
Lord Selworth was slim, and not much above middling height, shorter than his companion, who was tall and lanky, with an incongruously round face. Both wore riding dress, with mud-splashed boots. Mr Chubb, after a quick, nervous glance about the room, appeared to find a peculiar fascination in the toes of those boots.
Bashful, poor fellow, Pippa diagnosed. Prematurely thinning hair doubtless added to his diffidence.
While these thoughts sped through her mind, her mother had risen to greet the unexpected visitors with her usual placid friendliness.
"Forgive our intrusion, ma'am," Lord Selworth responded with an attractive smile, "and our dirt. We happened to be passing nearby and I was commissioned by my sister, Mrs Debenham, to carry a letter to your daughter. Miss Lisle is a friend of long standing, I collect."
"Yes, indeed. Pippa, my love."
Passing nearby? Whence and whither, Pippa wondered as she rose to make her curtsy. The village was well off any beaten track, lost in beech woods at the back of beyond. And she had received a letter from Bina only a fortnight since, she recalled.
"And this is our vicar, Mr Postlethwaite, Lord Selworth," Mrs Lisle continued, then turned away to say, "Mr Chubb, do let me make you known to my younger daughter, Kitty."
Lord Selworth bowed to Pippa and exchanged bows with Mr Postlethwaite. The vicar looked decidedly discomposed. A perennial suitor of Pippa's, he was a pleasant, worthy gentleman she occasionally considered accepting. Never for long, though. He would be shocked to the core should she ever dare reveal her unorthodox views on the Established Church.
However, he clearly looked upon Lord Selworth as a rival. Ridiculous, when Pippa had so far exchanged no more than a how-do-you-do with Bina's brother, who would doubtless be on his way after a polite five minutes, never to be seen again.
A pity, she thought wistfully. While not precisely handsome, at close quarters his lordship's smile was simply devastating.
Pippa could not help returning it. "You have a letter for me, Lord Selworth?"
"Oh, yes." He felt in the pocket of his dark brown riding coat--on the verge of fraying at the cuffs, she noted. His title must have descended to him without a fortune. "Dash it, where did I put the thing?" He felt in the opposite pocket, then in the inside breast pocket. "Ah, here it is."
Taking the folded missive, Pippa set it aside for later perusal. Odd that he should have had to fumble for it, when it was his sole reason for calling. "Mrs Debenham is well, I trust, sir?" she said.
"In fine fettle, Miss Lisle. She is looking forward to the coming Season."
"She is to bring out your sister, is she not? She mentioned Miss Millicent Warren's come-out in her last letter. Has she gone up to London already?"
How awkward it was to make polite conversation standing up in the cramped parlour! Pippa's eyes were on a level with his chin--a strong, determined chin--and she was too close to glance up without appearing arch. On the other hand, not raising her gaze must make her look timidly demure, equally at odds with her character. She wished she might invite him to sit down, but the vicar clung tenaciously to her side and there were not seats enough for all.
Ah, the Misses Bradshaw were half-reluctantly taking their leave. The news of Lord Selworth's visit would be all over the village within the half hour.
"Excuse me, my lord, I must see Miss Bradshaw and Miss Dorothy out." Pippa did not want the old dears to feel slighted by her paying more attention to a nobleman, a fleeting acquaintance, than to her neighbours. Daughters of the previous vicar, they lived in greatly reduced circumstances.
Several minutes passed in the presentation of a jar of strawberry jam and effusive thanks therefor. Returning from the front door across the tiny hall, Pippa paused on the parlour's threshold.
His lordship and his friend had taken the Miss Bradshaws' chairs. The speechless Mr Chubb sat next to Kitty. She was being kind to him in between making arrangements with her friend Mary, Squire Ruddock's daughter, to visit the Hall to play duets upon the new pianoforte.
Across from them, gazing fixedly at Kitty, Mary's brother John appeared to be suffering from an acute attack of indigestion. He had recently taken to attempting to ape Lord Byron's romantically brooding manner, without much success to date. Kitty was worth gazing upon, though, thought her partial sister. The amber shade of her high-waisted kerseymere gown complemented her dark curls beautifully, and her rosy cheeks never looked sallow.
Lord Selworth, seated next to Mrs Lisle, conversed courteously with his hostess and Mrs Stockton, the apothecary's stout wife. He smiled again at Pippa, hesitating in the doorway. Her heart did a most peculiar flip-flop.
Drat the man, did he realize how disturbing his smile was? Could he not keep a straight face? Still, he would be leaving any minute. He and Mr Chubb had no doubt awaited her return to the parlour to make their farewells, to avoid adding to the crush in the minuscule entry. If Pippa returned to her seat beside the vicar, which she was most unwilling to do, she would only have to pop up again to say good-bye.
But, though the gentlemen rose politely when she failed to sit down at once, Lord Selworth showed no sign of departing. Rather than keep them on their feet, Pippa subsided perforce.
She was forced to listen to a low-voiced soliloquy from Mr Postlethwaite, on the subject of Town Bucks and their extravagant, self-indulgent habits. Never had she had less patience with that good man.
Mary completed her business with Kitty and dragged her brother away to escort her home. Mrs and Miss Welladay and Miss Jane Welladay, wife and daughters of a yeoman farmer, stopped by on their way home from market, to show off some French merino bought at a bargain. Leaving, they bore off Mrs Stockton with them. Lord Selworth and Mr Chubb stayed and stayed. So, determinedly, did the vicar.
Conversation becoming general, the weather for the past three months was discussed in excruciating detail. Pippa was nearly ready to scream when the maidservant from the vicarage arrived with a message from Mrs Postlethwaite, desiring her son's presence at home.
"I shall be glad to set you in the right way, my lord," said Mr Postlethwaite in a last ditch effort to outflank his enemy. "The lanes hereabouts are lamentably confusing to the uninitiated."
"I thank you, sir," Lord Selworth replied cordially, "but Chubb and I are in no hurry. That is, we don't object to going a little astray, seeing something more of the fine countryside in this part of the world."
The vicar left, disgruntled.
Pippa's suspicions redoubled. To be sure, the country was beautiful--in June. Now, at the end of February, it was a study in sodden, muddy sepias and duns. No flush of green yet tipped the beech trees' boughs; thorny hedgerows dripped, honeysuckle and dog-rose a distant dream; the bottoms were mired ankle-deep.
Walking abroad was a penance, riding no pleasure. What was Lord Selworth up to?
She soon found out. He turned to her mother and said coaxingly, "Mrs Lisle, I must confess to being here under false pretences. I have come to speak to you about Prometheus."
Her head whirling, Pippa gripped her hands tightly in her lap. Had the Government sent him? Surely William Cobbett had not given away Prometheus's true identity. However much trouble he was in, blamed for civil disorders all over the nation, the publisher, editor, and chief contributor to the Political Register would not betray his friends.
Cobbett was a true and generous friend, who paid liberally for Prometheus's articles despite his own financial woes. Without that income, the Lisles would be in sore straits--and the income would cease if the world discovered who had taken over Benjamin Lisle's pen-name.
Cobbett could not afford to go on publishing articles the world did not take seriously. How much influence would they exert if it became known that the author was a mere female?
And a youthful female, at that!