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London—Wednesday, April 10, 1839
Lady Letitia Deverill's first order of business that cloudy spring morning was to visit her father's London solicitor and learn all she could about her interesting, unexpected inheritance. Thus, with a flourish and snap of the coachman's whip, her carriage and four turned from Villiers Street into the Strand, rather than up Pall Mall toward Mayfair, where one might have expected such a splendid rig to go.
Lady Letitia's coachman, the guard sitting stiffly beside him, and the tall, young footman standing up behind with his chin held high in haughty awareness of his worth, all sported elegant green-and-silver livery. However, if pedestrians turned to stare, it was not because of the grandeur but out of simple curiosity. To see such a noble equipage in that part of town was unusual. The nobility rarely ventured into the area, which had long been dominated by businessmen and men of law.
The lozenge on the coach door announced to all who understood such details that Lady Letitia enjoyed a close connection to his lordship, the Marquess of Jervaulx. She was, in fact, his only daughter, and she had come to London from Paris to assume her duties as a maid of honor in waiting to the young Queen Victoria. However, with Letty, first things always came first.
Her three most loyal companions accompanied her. The first of these, Miss Elvira Dibble, a chaperone of stout figure and forbidding aspect, occupied the seat beside her. Facing them on the forward seat was Jenifry Breton, Letty's dresser. The third, Jeremiah, lay curled up beneath Letty's hand inside a large green velvet muff that matched her voluminous swansdown-trimmed carriage mantle. Lulled by the gentle rocking of the coach over the cobblestones, the little monkey slept.
Moments later, the coach drew up before the imposing bow-fronted building that housed Mr. Clifford's law offices, and the footman jumped down from his perch, flung open the nearside door, and flipped down the step. When Letty moved to descend, Jeremiah stirred. With a laugh, she drew him from the muff and handed him to fair-haired Jenifry, saying, "He had better stay here with you. I daresay Mr. Clifford will have enough to manage this morning without monkeyshines."
"Yes, my lady," Jenifry Breton said, smiling as she took the little monkey and tried to cradle him. Jeremiah sat bolt upright in her lap, however, chattering simian disapproval of his mistress's clear intention to exit the coach without him.
"Hush," Letty said, grinning. "You'll draw every eye in the street to me."
With quiet disapproval, Miss Dibble said, "They will look anyway, my dear. I doubt that folks hereabouts have seen such a turnout in a month of Sundays."
"Fiddlesticks," Letty said, giving the footman one gloved hand and using the other to hold her skirts out of her way as she stepped down to the flagway. "If you think this is ceremony, my dear ma'am, you never saw the extensive entourage that my grandfather considered his due."
"Perhaps I did not, but doubtless your grandfather ordered Mr. Clifford to visit him at Jervaulx House, which, as I reminded you earlier, is also what your father always does."
"Perfectly true," Letty said, looking back with a smile. "Had we not got into London so late last night, ma'am, I might have sent someone round to summon him. However, by the time I had sent a footman to the Strand and he had brought Mr. Clifford back to Jervaulx House, quite half the morning would have disappeared. I much prefer to do things at once, myself."
"Yes, I know," Miss Dibble said. It was a measure of the respect with which the marquess's household viewed her that when she emerged from the coach, the footman assisted her with the same deference that he had accorded his mistress.
"Don't keep them standing, Jonathan," Letty said to her coachman.
"No one won't try to move me," he replied, "and I doubt you'll be overlong in that place, Miss Letty."
"Now, Jonathan, don't be difficult. You know that you will become concerned for the horses if I take a minute above a quarter hour with Mr. Clifford, and I have no intention of leaving until I have made matters plain to him. You need not worry that I shall have to stand waiting for you at the curb, however."
The coachman grimaced. "I know that, miss. Clifford wouldn't never be such a gowk as to let you walk out the door without your coach standing ready to receive you. In point of fact, it is my belief that he'll want to put you right back inside it when he sees you in his office. It ain't no place for a lady of your quality, Miss Letty, if I may speak my mind on the subject."
"You will, anyway," Letty said, grinning. "But, Jonathan, even if Mr. Clifford is so forgetful of his manners as to express his disapproval of my presence in his office, do you think he will succeed in ejecting me?"
"No, miss," the coachman said with a sigh. His lips twitched, but years of practice kept him from breaking into a smile. He had known his mistress almost from the day of her birth, and had served her throughout her childhood. It was for this reason, she knew, that her father and mother had insisted that Jonathan accompany her to England.
Her footman waited patiently on the wide stone stoop, one hand poised to ring for admittance. Noting this, Letty said briskly, "Come, Elvira."
"You should listen to Jonathan Coachman," Miss Dibble said in an undertone that would not carry either to the footman's ears or to those of the coachman. "He has only your interest at heart, my dear."
"Elvira, if you are going to preach, we shall soon fall out," Letty said. "My father likes Jonathan to accompany me because he knows I can trust him, not because he expects him to regulate my behavior. Thank you, Lucas; you may wait with the coach, if you please," she said to her footman when the door opened to reveal a visibly astonished porter ready to receive her.
The footman stepped aside to let her enter the office; but just then a tall, dark-haired man in a Prussian-blue redingote, its full skirt made long to the ankles, swept out past the porter. Startled, Letty stepped back, bumping into Miss Dibble and bringing the heel of her half-boot down hard upon the poor lady's instep.
Miss Dibble attempted unsuccessfully to stifle a cry of pain.
"Sorry," the man said curtly. Then, visibly collecting himself, he swept his tall beaver hat from his head and said to Letty, "I thought the porter had opened the door for me, ma'am. I never even saw you, but I trust you will forgive me."
"Certainly, sir," Letty said graciously. Despite his harsh expression, he was extremely handsome. She smiled, expecting him to stand back and let her pass. Instead, he brushed past her and continued on his way up the street.
"Well, good gracious me," Miss Dibble said, staring after him.
"He did apologize," Letty said, chuckling. "I expect he thought that was enough. Come, Elvira. It will do no good to glare at his back. He cannot see you."
The porter, still looking both surprised and bewildered, stepped quickly out of her path, and Letty entered a high-ceilinged chamber filled with expensive-looking furniture. Dark wood predominated, but many pieces bore polished brass fittings and rich red velvet upholstery.
Recovering his poise, the porter said politely, "Good morning, miss. How may I have the honor to serve you?"
"I have come to speak with Mr. Clifford," Letty said.
"I see. I expect you want the younger Mr. Clifford, but I am afraid—"
"I want Mr. Horatio Clifford," Letty said. "I am Letitia Deverill."
"I'll just see if he is available, shall I?" The porter turned toward the nearer of two tall, ornately framed doors at the rear of the chamber. He had taken but two steps, however, before he turned back abruptly. "Deverill, did you say?"
"Would you perhaps bear kinship to—" He cleared his throat, then went on rapidly, "That is to say, would you perhaps be the Lady Letitia Deverill?"
"I am," Letty said calmly. "I ought perhaps to have explained at the outset that Mr. Horatio Clifford is my father's solicitor."
"To be sure, he has that honor, my lady," he said, adding more heartily, "Just you come with me now. Mr. Clifford would want to know where my wits had gone begging if I were to leave you standing whilst I apprise him of your arrival. Indeed, I hope you will not find occasion to complain of neglect. It is just that ladies of your quality seldom honor us with a visit, unexpected or otherwise."
"Just so," Letty said, smiling at him. "I would have sent a message, but I am in something of a hurry." She chuckled. "I nearly always am, I'm afraid."
"Then I shall not keep you waiting any longer," he assured her, hastening to open the door and putting his head in as he did so to say, "Mr. Clifford, such a delightful surprise this morning, sir. Lady Letitia Deverill—his lordship's daughter, you know—has condescended to pay you a call. Step right in, my lady."
Mr. Clifford proved to be a solid-looking gentleman with some fifty years to his credit. He arose with unhasty dignity from his chair behind an impressive cherrywood desk and stepped around to greet Letty. "Good morning, your ladyship," he said with easy formality. "I have been expecting to hear from you, for I had a letter from your papa not a sennight ago."
"Good morning, sir."
"I must say you have exceeded his lordship's expectations in having come all this way to see me," Clifford said. "There was no need, my lady, no need at all. I should have been quite pleased to wait upon you at Jervaulx House. Bring some tea for the ladies, Fox, straightaway, and don't send one of the lads in with it. Won't you sit down, my lady, and you, too, ma'am, of course?"
"Thank you," Letty said, taking the chair he indicated, while Miss Dibble sat stiffly upright on its twin. "I came to see you, sir," Letty added, "because I want to know more about the house I recently inherited. I know only that it lies in Upper Brook Street, in Mayfair, and that it was left to me by Mr. Augustus Benthall for reasons that no one seems to understand."
Mr. Clifford returned to his chair, peering at her over wire-rimmed spectacles as he sat down. To her surprise, his eyes were twinkling. "You are the second person to bring up that lack of understanding this morning," he said. "That would be a startling coincidence, except that I expect you both have arrived in town just now for similar reasons. Raventhorpe is to be a lord-in-waiting to the queen, and you have, I believe, been appointed to serve Her Majesty, as well, have you not?"
"Indeed, yes," Letty said. "I am to serve as a maid of honor in waiting, which sent my brothers into whoops when they learned of it. Not only do they believe me incapable of waiting for anything or upon anyone, but my family, sir, as you are doubtless aware, does not align itself philosophically or politically with the present government. I have every respect for Prime Minister Melbourne, and for Queen Victoria, of course, as does every member of my family, but Her Majesty does have a reputation for surrounding herself with loyal Whigs, does she not?"
"She does, indeed," he agreed. "That point has caused much controversy these two years past, however, because the monarch of our great country does not generally support one side over the other. Still, Her Majesty has a deep fondness for Lord Melbourne, and who can blame her, for she quite depends upon him to tell her how to go on in her august position. A young woman's needing a strong man to guide and support her can surprise no one, certainly."
Letty swallowed the contradicting words that leapt to her tongue, saying instead, "My brother Gideon says my appointment is just a sop. He says someone managed to convince Her Majesty that she must invite at least one Tory representative to court, and I do not doubt that he is right. That ought to cast me into dejection, I expect, but I am not so easily cast down, I promise you, and I daresay I shall find it all very interesting. However, at the moment," she added with a smile, "I must confess that I am more interested in learning about my house."
Mr. Clifford made a tent with his fingertips and stared at them thoughtfully before he met her steady gaze again and said, "I must say, my lady, I had expected to discuss this matter with your father. It is most unusual for an unmarried young woman—or a married one, for that matter—to demand explanations from her father's solicitor regarding matters of property. Now, if you were a widow—"
"Well, I am not, sir. Nor do I believe it would benefit me to become one."
"Legally it would give you powers that a single lady lacks, however."
"I do know that," she said, striving to keep the annoyance she felt out of her tone. "Though you may not realize it, sir, my family does not treat its women like children. We have opinions, and we do not hesitate to express them. Moreover, I have had the benefit of an excellent education, and my mother and father explained a good many other matters generally not taught to young ladies at even the best schools. You and I will get on much better, I believe, if you can manage to speak to me as you would speak to a gentleman."
"My imagination boggles at such a notion, my lady," the lawyer replied, "but I will certainly strive to avoid offending you. Your father did warn me to treat you as I would treat any other heir, and I hope you do not think I meant any disrespect. Still, you are not yet one and twenty, and even gentlemen rarely take control of inherited property before achieving that age."
"I believe that Mr. Benthall attached no such condition to his will, however."
"That is quite true," Mr. Clifford admitted. "I daresay it never occurred to him that one might prove necessary."
"Then there can be no objection to my taking control of the house."
Apologetically he said, "There are tenants, I'm afraid."
"Yes, yes, I know. The letter we received last year from Mr. Benthall's man and my copy of the will both mention a Mrs. Linford and her sister, Miss Frome. I have no intention of turning them out or of interfering with them in any way."
"You could not do so if you wanted to," he said, settling back comfortably in his chair. "Benthall's will specifically ordains that they shall enjoy lifetime tenancy at no more than their present quarterly rent unless someone else begins paying that rent or you provide them with a house of equal elegance at an equivalent rent."
"Would the latter course be impossible?" Letty asked. "I do not ask because I have any desire to put them out, you understand, but only because I am curious."
"The Upper Brook Street house is one of the most elegant in Mayfair," he said, "which is to say, one of the most elegant in all London. Also, unlike most houses in Mayfair, it occupies a freehold property. You may not realize that nearly all the land in Mayfair is still owned by the Duke of Grosvenor, but so it is. Thus the small bits that are freehold have become particularly valuable. According to Benthall's man of affairs, there have already been two offers to buy the house."
"Indeed? Who wants to buy it? That gentleman who was here earlier?"
"No, my lady. Viscount Raventhorpe inherited the bulk of Benthall's considerable estate. Not unnaturally, as one might say, he expected to inherit the house, as well. His mother was Benthall's cousin, you see. Over the past months, Raventhorpe has corresponded at length with Benthall's man of affairs about all this, but it occurred to him only recently that I might know why Benthall had chosen to leave the house away from his family. I'm afraid I was unable to help him."
"I see. Then who does want to buy the house?"
"The first offer came from Sir John Conroy. I don't know if that name means anything to you, but he is quite a well-known figure about London."
"He had the honor to be the queen's primary, unrelated advisor before she took the throne, I believe," Letty said.
"Indeed, he was," Clifford said, giving her a quizzical look that told her he wondered if she knew more than that about Conroy. She did, but she could see no good reason to mention her awareness of Sir John's fall from the queen's grace the instant Victoria took the throne, or that Jervaulx had warned her that Conroy saw the Tory party as just one more obstacle in the way of regaining the queen's favor.
After that brief look, Clifford went on to say, "According to Benthall's man, the only other offer came from a well-known admiral, but he withdrew his when he learned that Benthall had arranged for the two ladies to maintain lifetime tenancy."
"Let me see if I understand you correctly, sir. You are telling me that I can sell the house if I can find a buyer willing to accept my tenants on Mr. Benthall's terms, but that I cannot take full possession of the house myself until they die because it is unlikely that I could find an equivalent home for them."
Excerpted from Dangerous Lady by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1999 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 15, 2014