St. James's Square, London
Fate had just dealt Viscount Dewland a blow that would have felled a weaker or more sympathetic man. He gaped silently at his eldest son for a moment, ignoring his wife's twittering commentary. But a happy thought revived him. That same wife had, after all, provided him with two male offspring.
Without further ado he spun on his heel and barked at his younger son, "If your brother can't do his duty in bed, then you'll do it. You can act like a man for once in your life."
Peter Dewland was caught unawares by his father's sudden attack. He had risen to adjust his neckcloth in the drawing-room mirror, thereby avoiding his brother's eyes. Really, what does a man say to that sort of confession? But like his father, Peter recovered quickly from unpredictable assaults.
He walked around the end of the divan and sat down. "I gather you are suggesting that I marry Jerningham's daughter?"
"Of course I am!" the viscount snapped. "Someone has to marry her, and your brother has just declared himself ineligible."
"I beg to differ," Peter remarked with a look of cool distaste. "I have no plans to marry at your whim."
"What in the bloody hell do you mean? Of course you'll marry the girl if I instruct you to do so!"
"I do not plan to marry, Father. Not at your instigation nor at anyone else's."
"Rubbish! Every man marries."
Peter sighed. "Not true."
"You've squired about every beautiful gal that came on the market in the last six years. If youhad formed a true attachment, I would not stand in your way. But since you haven't made a move to attach yourself, you will marry Jerningham's girl.
"You shall do as I say, boy," the viscount bellowed. "Your brother can't take on the job, and so you have to do it. I've been lenient with you. You might be in the Seventh Foot at this very moment. Have you thought of that?"
"I'd rather take a pair of colors than a wife," Peter retorted.
"Absolutely not," his father said, reversing himself. "Your brother's been at the point of death for years."
Inside the drawing room, the silence swelled ominously. Peter grimaced at his elder brother, whose muscled body proclaimed his general fitness to the world at large.
Erskine Dewland, who had been staring meditatively at the polished surface of his Hessians, raised his heavy-lidded eyes from his boots to his father's face. "If Peter is determined not to marry, I could take her on." His deep voice fell into the silent room.
"And what's the point of that? You can't do the job properly, and I'm not wedding Jerningham's daughter to ... to ... in that case. I've got principles. The girl's got a right to expect a sound husband, for God's sake."
Quill, as Erskine was known to his intimates, opened his mouth again. And then thought better of it. He could certainly consummate the marriage, but it wouldn't be a very pleasant experience. Any woman deserved more from marriage than he could offer. While he had come to terms with his injuries, especially now that they had ceased to bother his movement, the three-day migraines that followed repetitive motion made his likelihood for marital bliss very slight.
"Can't argue with that, can you?" The viscount looked triumphantly at his eldest son. "I'm not some sort of a caper merchant, passing you off as whole goods when you're not. Mind you, we could. The girl wouldn't know a thing, of course, until it was too late. And her father's turned into such a loose screw that he's not even accompanying her out here.
"Point is," Dewland went on, turning back to his youngest son, "the girl's expecting to marry someone. And if it can't be Quill, it's got to be you. I'll send your picture over on the next boat."
Peter replied through his teeth, each word spaced. "I do not wish to marry, Father."
The viscount's cheeks reddened again. "It's time you stopped gadding about. By God, you will do as I say!"
Peter avoided his father's gaze, seemingly absorbed in flicking the smallest piece of lint from the black velvet collar of his morning coat. Satisfied, he returned to the subject at hand. "You seem to have misunderstood me. I refuse to marry Jerningham's daughter." Only the smallest tremor in his voice betrayed his agitation.
The viscountess broke in before her husband could bellow whatever response he had in mind. "Thurlow, I don't like your color. Perhaps we might continue this conversation at a later time? You know what the doctor said about getting overtaxed!"
"Balderdash!" the viscount protested, although he allowed his wife to pull him back onto a couch. "By George, you had better obey me, Mister Peter Dewland, or you will find yourself out the door." The veins of his forehead were alarmingly swollen.
His wife sent a beseeching glance to her youngest son. His jaw was set in a manner that his father would have recognized, had there been a mirror in the near vicinity.
But before Peter could say a word, his father erupted out of his seat once again. "And just what am I supposed to say to this young girl who's coming all the way over from India? Tell her that you 'prefer not to marry her'? You planning on telling my old friend Jerningham that you decline to marry his gal?"
"That is precisely what I suggest," Peter replied.
"And what about the money Jerningham's lent me over the years, eh? Given it to me without a word of advice just sent me over the blunt to do with as I like! If your brother Quill hadn't pulled down a fortune speculating on the East India Company, Jerningham might still be lending me money. As it is, we agreed to consider it a dowry. You will marry the gal, or I'll ... I'll..."
The viscount's face was purple all over now, and he was unconsciously rubbing his chest.
"Quill could pay back the money," Peter suggested.
"Bloody hell! I've already allowed your brother to turn himself into a merchant, playing around on the Exchange I'll be damned if I'll allow him to pay off my debts!"
"I don't see why not," Peter retorted. "He's paid for everything else."
"That's enough! The only reason your brother the only reason I allowed Erskine to take on the smell of the market was because well, because he's a cripple. But at least he acts his age. You're naught but a fribble, a sprig of fashion!"
As the viscount drew a breath, Quill raised his head and met his younger brother's eyes. In the depths of Quill's silent apology, Peter saw the manacles of marriage looming.
His father was glaring at him with all the frustration of a ruddy, boisterous Englishman whose younger son has proved to be nothing like himself. Peter cast a desperate look at his mother, but there was no help to be found.
He quailed. His stomach churned. He opened his mouth to protest, but could think of nothing to say. And finally, the habits of a lifetime's submission took hold.
"Very well." His voice was hollow.
Kitty Dewland rose and came to give him a grateful kiss on the cheek. "Dear Peter," she said. "You were always my comforting one, my good child. And in truth, darling, you have escorted so many women without making an offer. I'm certain that Jerningham's daughter will be a perfect match for you. His wife was French, you know."
In her son's eyes there was a bleak desolation that Kitty hated to see. "Is there someone else? Is there a woman whom you were hoping to marry, darling?"
Peter shook his head.
"Well, then," Kitty said gaily. "We will be right and tight when this girl what's her name, Thurlow? Thurlow!"
When Kitty turned around she had found her husband leaning back and looking rather white. "M'chest doesn't feel so good, Kitty," he mumbled.
And when Kitty flew out of the drawing room, she was far too discomposed to note how odd it was that her beloved butler, Codswallop, was hovering just on the other side of the door.
"Send for Doctor Priscian," she shrieked, and trotted back into the room.
The plump and precise Codswallop couldn't resist taking a curious look at the elder Dewland son before he rang for a footman. It was that hard to believe. Erskine had a physique Codswallop had secretly admired: a body remarkably suited to tight pantaloons and fitted coats, the kind of body housemaids giggled about behind stairs. Must be some sort of injury to his private parts. Codswallop shuddered sympathetically.
Just then Quill turned about and looked Codswallop in the face. His eyes were a curious green-gray, set in a face stamped with lines of pain and deeply tanned. Without moving a muscle, he cast Codswallop a look that scathed him to his bones.
Codswallop scuttled back into the hall and rang for a footman. The viscount was supported off to his bedchamber, followed by his clucking wife. Young Peter bounded out the door looking like murder, followed rather more slowly by Quill, and Codswallop pulled the drawing-room doors closed with a snap.
Some three months later, the whole affair was tied up. Miss Jerningham was due to arrive on the Plassey, a frigate sailing from Calcutta, within the week. There was one last explosion of rage on the part of the viscount when Peter announced, on the day before Miss Jerningham was due to arrive, that he was taking a long sojourn in the country. But by supper on the fifth of September, the sullen bridegroom had taken himself off to his club rather than to Herefordshire, and Viscount Dewland repeated over stewed pigeon that the marriage would be an excellent solution to all their problems. There was an unspoken acknowledgment between Thurlow and his wife that Peter, if left to his own devices, might indeed never marry.
"He'll settle down once the girl arrives," Thurlow declared.
"They will have beautiful children," added Kitty.
Only Quill seemed to have a growing sense of unease about the forthcoming marriage. After his parents left the salon, he walked restlessly to the windows overlooking the gardens. He leaned forward, resting his forehead against the hard curve of his forearm, shifting his weight slightly from his protesting right leg. He was accustomed to the blustery explosion of his father's rage. He had tolerated it for years by listening in silence and then following his own inclination. Peter had ever bent with the wind, and so it was no surprise that ultimately he gave in to the viscount's plans. Surely Peter could not have really thought to escape marriage, once it became clear that he or his son would inherit the title someday.
But an uneasy chill sat on Quill's heart. He remembered the girl's name, even if no one else did: Gabrielle Jerningham. And what would Gabrielle's life be like with Peter as her husband? It would be an urbane life, a sophisticated life. Likely the young couple would share the kind of marriage Quill saw frequently in the ton: cool and friendly.
He straightened, moving into a great arching stretch. His body was outlined by light thrown against the dark glass, every muscle caressed by his clothing. It was a body honed by denial, exercise, and pain: a body whose master knew its every strength and its every weakness. It was not the body of an average gentleman of the London ton in 1806.
Quill shrugged back his hair. Damned if it wasn't getting unfashionably long again. For a moment he froze, struck by a memory of the wind screaming past his face, wrenching his hair back from his scalp as he rode a galloping stallion.
But horses, like sex, had become a delight whose payment was greater than the offered pleasure. The rhythmic motion of horseback riding invariably instigated three days of agony in a darkened room, his body covered in sweat and gripped by nausea, his head clenched in a steel band of pain. And the only advice doctors had offered was that his head injury of six years ago had led to an inability to endure rhythm. Any kind of rhythm.
Quill's jaw hardened and he mentally shrugged off the image of a galloping horse. To his mind there was nothing worse than lamenting what could not be. Women and horses were simply part of his past, and no part of his future.
Then he grinned. The very sports he was mourning a hard riding session and a woman's nightly companionship were delights that held absolutely no interest for Peter. Lord, but he and his brother were as alike as chalk and cheese.
At any rate, he was probably worrying about Gabrielle and Peter for naught. Peter might not like the idea of marriage, but he did love female companionship. A decorous French miss, with whom Peter could gossip, discuss fashion, and attend balls, might well become his closest friend. And Gabrielle was an elegant name, one that brought to mind a woman versed in the ways of the world. Peter had a great admiration nay, a passion for beauty. Surely an exquisite young Frenchwoman would be able to coax him into compliance with an unwanted marriage.
Unfortunately, Quill would have abandoned that hope could he have seen the aforementioned exquisite Frenchwoman.
Peter's fiancee was kneeling on the floor of her cabin, looking into the eager face of a young girl who sat before her on a small tuffet. Gabrielle's hair was tumbling about her ears, and her old-fashioned dress was crumpled. The last thing she resembled was a sophisticated French miss from La Belle Assemblee.
"The tiger crept through the tangled jungle." Gabby's voice was a thrilling whisper. "He put one paw softly before the next, barely disturbing the song of the magpies far above. His long tongue licked his chops at the thought of the delicious meal that trotted before him."
Phoebe Pensington, a five-year-old orphan being sent to live with English relatives, shivered as Gabby, whose soft brown eyes had taken on a tigerish glare, continued.
"But when the tiger reached the edge of the forest, he stopped short. The goat was walking along the shore, his white hooves prancing at the very edge of the tumbling azure waves of the Indian Ocean. And the tiger was afraid of water. His stomach urged him to follow, but his heart pounded with fear. He stopped in the speckled shade of a bongo-bongo tree"
"But Miss Gabby," Phoebe broke in anxiously, "what did the tiger have for supper that night if he didn't eat the goat? Wouldn't he be hungry?"
Gabby's brown eyes lit with amusement. "Perhaps the tiger was so mortified by his own lack of courage that he went to a far-off mountaintop and lived on nothing but fruits and vegetables."
"I don't think so." Phoebe was a very practical little girl. "I think it's more likely that the tiger would have gone after that goat and eaten him up."
"The tiger had a cat's natural abhorrence for water," Gabby said. "He didn't see the beauty of the waves as they danced into shore. To him the curling waves looked like the claws of tiny crabs, reaching out to nibble his bones!"
Phoebe gave a thrilled little shriek just as the door to the cabin swung open, breaking the spell of Gabby's voice.
The black-gowned figure of Eudora Sibbald stared at the scene before her. Miss Gabrielle Jerningham was unaccountably positioned on the floor. As always, her hair was tumbling out of its knot and her dress was rumpled. It wasn't for Mrs. Sibbald to recognize the beauty of Gabby's shining golden-brown hair as it worked loose from pins and combs and assumed its normal position: halfway up and halfway down. No what Phoebe's governess saw was a proper hoyden, a young lady whose hair echoed her general demeanor.
"Phoebe." Her voice rasped like a rusty gate.
Phoebe scrambled to her feet and bobbed a curtsy.
"Miss Jerningham," Mrs. Sibbald continued, rather as if she were addressing a recalcitrant scullery maid.
Gabby was already on her feet and greeting Mrs. Sibbald with a charming smile. "Do forgive us" she began.
But Mrs. Sibbald interrupted. "Miss Jerningham, I might have misunderstood you." Her bearing indicated that she never misunderstood anything. "I trust that I did not hear you mention nibbled bones?"
Really, Gabby thought to herself, Sibbald couldn't have entered at a worse moment.
"Oh, no," Gabby said, her voice soothing. "I was merely telling Phoebe an improving tale from the Bible."
Mrs. Sibbald's jaw lengthened. She'd heard what she'd heard, and it didn't sound like any Bible tale to her.
"The story of Jonah and the whale," Gabby added hastily. "You know, Mrs. Sibbald, since my father is a missionary, I find it quite natural to relate stories from the Bible wherever I go."
Mrs. Sibbald's mouth relaxed slightly. "Well, in that case, Miss Jerningham," she allowed. "However, I must beg you not to overexcite the child. Excitement is injurious to the digestion. And where is Master Kasi Rao Holkar?"
"I believe Kasi is taking a nap at the present, Mrs. Sibbald. He mentioned a wish to retire."
"If you'll forgive me for saying so, Miss Jerningham, you coddle that boy. Prince or not, a deserving tale from the Bible would do him some good. After all, he's a native. Lord only knows what sort of influences he had as a child."
"Kasi grew up in my house," Gabby said. "I assure you that he is as Christian as little Phoebe."
"An unfeasible comparison," Mrs. Sibbald announced. "No Indian could be as Christian as an English child.
"It is teatime," she announced. "Miss Jerningham, your hair has fallen again. I advise that your coiffure receive immediate attention." And on that lowering note, Mrs. Sibbald left the cabin.
Gabby sighed and sank into a chair, realizing that there did seem to be a large number of wispy curls hanging about her face. Then she felt a tug on her gown.
"Miss Gabby, she forgot me. Do you think I ought to remind her?" Round blue eyes stared worshipfully at Gabby.
Gabby pulled Phoebe's leggy little body up onto her lap. "I swear you have grown half a head in this trip," she said.
"I know," Phoebe replied, looking with disapproval at the hem of her gown. She stuck out a booted leg. "My dress has become so short that my pantaloons are beginning to show!" Her eyes were round with horror at that idea.
"When you reach England, I'm sure that you will have a new dress."
"Do you think she'll like me?" Phoebe whispered into Gabby's shoulder.
"Will who like you?"
"My new mother."
"How could she not like you? You are the sweetest five-year-old girl aboard this whole ship," Gabby said, rubbing her cheek against Phoebe's soft hair. "In fact, you may well be the sweetest five-year-old who ever sailed from India."
Phoebe pressed closer. "Because when I had to say good-bye to my ayah" a farewell that seemed to have traumatized her far more than the untimely deaths of two parents she scarcely recognized "my ayah said that I must be very, very good or my new mama will not like me, since I don't have any money to bring her."
Gabby silently cursed Phoebe's ayah and not for the first time. "Phoebe," she said as firmly as she could, "money has nothing to do with whether a mother loves her babies or not. Your new mother would love you even if you arrived in your nightdress!"
And she devoutly hoped it was true. From what the captain had told her, there had been no answer to the letter sent to Phoebe's only living relative, her maternal aunt.
"Miss Gabby," Phoebe said, her tone hesitant. "Why did you tell Mrs. Sibbald that your story was of Jonah and the whale? My ayah told me never to tell an untruth and especially never to a hired person. And Mrs. Sibbald is a hired person, isn't she? She was hired to accompany me to England."
Gabby gave Phoebe another little hug. "Your ayah was right in the main. But sometimes a fib is permissible if you can make someone feel happy. Mrs. Sibbald would very much like to think that you are learning stories from the Bible. And when I told her you were, she felt happy."
"I don't think Mrs. Sibbald ever feels happy," Phoebe observed, after thinking about it for a time.
"You could be right," Gabby replied. "But in that case, Phoebe, it is even more important not to overset her."
"Do you think that if I told my new mama that I had some money it would make her happy? Would it make her like me?"
Gabby swallowed. "Oh, sweet pea, I am only talking about little fibs. You couldn't say such a thing to your new mother! That's a big untruth, as opposed to a small one. And it is very important not to tell even small untruths to important people like your new mother."
There was an unconvinced silence.
Gabby thought desperately. Really, for all her eagerness to have children, she was beginning to see that it was far more difficult than she had imagined.
"Are you bringing any money to your new husband?" Phoebe's voice was muffled because she had her face pressed to Gabby's shoulder.
"Yes," Gabby said reluctantly. "But that money will not make Peter love me."
Phoebe's face popped up like an inquisitive robin from its nest. "Why not?"
"Peter will love me for myself," Gabby said with quiet conviction. "Just as your mother will love you for yourself."
The little girl hopped onto her feet. "Well, then, why did you tell Mrs. Sibbald that Kasi was in his chamber having a nap? That wasn't true, and it didn't make her happy."
"A different kind of rule," Gabby explained. "My sweet Kasi is frightened to death of Mrs. Sibbald."
"What kind of rule?" Phoebe inquired.
"You have to protect the weak from the strong," Gabby said, and then amended herself. "That's not exactly right, Phoebe. You know what Kasi is like. Handing him to Mrs. Sibbald would be like feeding the goat to the tiger."
There was a slight noise behind the screen protecting the tub from plain sight. The little girl peered around the screen. "Kasi Rao, it's time to get out of there." She put her small hands on her hips. "What would Mrs. Sibbald say if she could see you in the tub with all your clothes on?"
"Let him stay there if he prefers," Gabby called across the room.
But Phoebe shook her head firmly and stated, with a force that Mrs. Sibbald would have admired, "It is time to have tea, Kasi. You needn't worry. I won't let Gabby talk about the tiger again."
A very slender boy with innocent eyes that took up half his face peeked around the corner of the screen and then checked, unwilling to emerge from the safety of the corner.
Phoebe took his hand and tugged. "There is no one here but us, Kasi."
Soft brown eyes darted back and forth between Gabby's smiling face and the hand she held out to him. Kasi wanted to come out, obviously, but it was so far across the room, and the room was so very open.
Phoebe pulled at him impatiently. "Mrs. Sibbald thinks you're napping, so you're quite safe."
"We'll have tea together," Gabby said reassuringly, as Kasi gathered his courage and hurtled himself to her chair, sheltering under her arm like a chick that had strayed from its nest. "Are you hungry, little brother?"
"Kasi isn't your little brother," Phoebe said. "He's a prince!"
"Well, that's true. But his mother was related to my father's first wife. And he grew up with me, so I feel as if he is my brother." Kasi had stopped trembling and was playing with the locket Gabby wore around her neck, humming a tuneless, happy song as he tried to open the catch.
Phoebe came around to the other side of the chair and leaned against Gabby's leg. "May I see the picture of your husband again?"
"Of course you may." Just before they set sail for England, a miniature of her future bridegroom had arrived. Gabby gently took the locket from Kasi's fumbling hands and opened it.
"Is he waiting for you in London, Miss Gabby?"
"Yes," Gabby said firmly. "We shall all be met at the dock, Phoebe love. Your new mother will meet you, and Mrs. Malabright will meet Kasi, won't she, sweetheart?" She looked down into Kasi's pointed little face.
To her satisfaction, he nodded. She had been reminding Kasi every day that Mrs. Malabright was coming to see him when the vessel landed.
"And then what will happen, Kasi?" she prompted.
"Live with Mrs. Malabright," he replied with approval. "I like Mrs. Malabright." A shadow crossed his eyes and he added, "I don't like Mrs. Sibbald."
"Mrs. Malabright will take you to her house, and you needn't ever see Mrs. Sibbald again," Phoebe said, rather bossily. "I will come visit you though. I will visit you secretly, and I won't tell anyone where you are."
"Yes," Kasi said with a contented lilt in his voice. And he returned to playing with Gabby's locket.
"Do you like your new husband, Miss Gabby?" Phoebe asked.
Even looking at the miniature portrait of Peter, of his soft brown eyes and wavy hair, made Gabby's heart beat faster.
"Yes, I do," she said softly.
Phoebe, who was a true romantic, even at age five, sighed. "I'm sure he already loves you, Miss Gabby. Did you send him a picture of yourself?"
"There wasn't time," Gabby replied. And if there had been, she would not have sent one. The only portrait her father had ever commissioned made her look horribly round in the face.
She tucked the locket away again.
But even as she, Phoebe, and Kasi munched on dry toast, which was the only treat offered now that they had been at sea for weeks and weeks, Gabby couldn't help daydreaming about her betrothed and his gentle eyes. Somehow, by the grace of God, she had been given a fiance who was everything she had dreamed of: a man who looked perfectly capable of carrying on a quiet conversation. He seemed as unlike her cold, ranting father as possible.
Gabby's heart glowed. Peter would obviously be a devoted and loving father. Already she could picture four or five small babes, all with her husband's eyes.
Every day the ship drew farther and farther from India and thus farther and farther from her father's frenzied reproaches: Gabrielle, why can't you put a bridle on your tongue! Once again, Gabrielle, you have embarrassed me with your graceless behavior! And the worst of all: Oh, God above, why have you cursed me with this disgraceful chit, this prattling excuse for a daughter!
Her happiness grew with each ocean league that passed.
Her sense of confidence grew as well. Peter would love her, as her father never did. She felt as if Peter's sweet eyes were already looking into her soul and seeing the Gabby inside: the Gabby who was worth loving, the Gabby who was not merely impetuous and clumsy. The real Gabby.
Yes, a glimpse of Gabrielle Jerningham, along with insight into her dreams, would have shaken Quill to the backbone.
But since Quill was not overly given to the imagination, nor had he ever demonstrated the gift of precognition, he convinced himself that Miss Gabrielle Jerningham would make his younger brother a very good wife indeed. And when he encountered Peter at his club later that evening, he told him so.
Peter was in a tetchy mood, and well on the way to being drunk as a lord. "I don't follow your reasoning."
"Money," his brother replied shortly.
"Money? What money?"
"Her money." Quill had a flash of guilt, talking about Gabrielle as if she were a commodity, although in a sense she was. "With Jerningham's money, you can afford those clothes you love so much."
"I wear the very best clothes now," Peter said loftily, with the smug understanding that he stood at the very pinnacle of London fashion.
"You wear clothes that I pay for," Quill replied.
Peter chewed on his lip. It went against the grain and against his fundamentally kindly nature to point out that his elder brother's money would all be his someday, unless a miracle cured Quill's migraines.
Yet it would be pleasant to have his own money, no doubt about that.
Quill saw the telltale interest in Peter's eyes and laughed, his heart lighter. He slapped his brother on the back and left the club.
Copyright 2001 by Eloisa James