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It simply never occurred to Jenny Garvin that her brother could be less than perfect. She had always—from the time the boy was born, when she was only six—accepted and concurred with her mother's evaluation of him. Robbie was the most brilliant, handsome and charming of boys—that was Lady Garvin's assessment of her son, and Jenny knew of nothing in Robbie's character, appearance or demeanor to give her the slightest doubt of the truth of that evaluation. It was that sublime confidence that both the Garvin ladies placed in the lad that caused them to accept without question the reports in his letters from his ship. And that unshakable belief in the accuracy of his words led directly to the misunderstanding which was so direly to threaten Jenny's own happiness.
For the fourteen years of his life, Robert Garvin had been the apple of his mother's eye and his sister's pride. The boy was affectionate, clever, fun-loving, generous and universally popular. There had never been a bad word said of him—not by a single member of the household at Willowrise, not by any of his many companions and not by the inhabitants of the village of Wyndham in Gloucester where they lived. And though the masters at Harrow (where Robbie had been spending the better part of the last two years) had sometimes written letters of complaint, Lady Garvin and her daughter did not pay them much heed. Schoolmasters were notoriously prissy, Lady Garvin was convinced, and they were not in the least capable of understanding the "special quality" of a boy of Robbie's high spirits and superior nature; she simply threw their letters of complaint into the wastebasket. The boy was a paragon; she would brook no argument on that score. And no one, least of all Jenny, saw fit to contradict her.
Except the old earl. Alistair Garvin, Earl of Wetherbrooke, though a bachelor, was the head of the family and the guardian of his late brother's two children. But only on matters of business did he intervene in their upbringing. Irascible and reclusive, the old earl left his Yorkshire castle as infrequently as possible and never entertained the family in his domicile. He met with his sister-in- law only when absolutely necessary to discuss financial problems or when they were forced to attend family funerals, but on those rare occasions, he never failed to comment disparagingly on Robbie's character. "Peacocky and spoilt," he would declare to Lady Garvin's face. "Your boy's peacocky and spoilt, and you'll never cure him 'til you recognize that fact."
"How dare you!" Lady Garvin would remonstrate violently. "You barely know the boy, not having seen him over half-a-dozen times in all these years. So how dare you take it upon yourself to criticize—?"
"Don't need to take more'n one bite of an apple to tell it's rotten," the earl would cut in. "I know the boy well enough. Anyone can see that you push him too much in the sun and your girl too much in the shade. I don't see why you view your daughter as second-best. You'll be the ruination of both of 'em, mark my words."
But Lady Garvin didn't mark his words at all. He only said those things to irritate her, because he was, by nature, a quarrelsome old nuisance. He'd never liked her, even when her husband had first brought her to meet him, twenty-three years ago. It had been just after she and William had been wed, and the earl had peered at her over the dinner table with such intensity that she'd felt as nervous as a mouse. She'd stammered, dropped her fork and giggled at everything the gentlemen had said. "Ninnyhammer," the earl had muttered in condemnation, and, as far as she knew, he'd never changed his mind about her since. If that was how he made his judgments of people—so abruptly and on so little evidence—how could anyone take such judgments seriously?
Lady Garvin always put the earl's words out of her mind as soon as she was out of his sight. His lordship might have control of the purse strings, but she ran her household as she saw fit. Since the earl was generous in matters of money and sought no control over her family, his insults merely slid from her mind as easily as droplets from the feathers of a duck. Her children were superior beings, both of them. Well, perhaps Jenny was a bit too retiring, but no one could tell her that Robbie wasn't a nonpareil.
Jenny herself had never been present during her mother's altercations with the old earl and so was unaware of any criticism of her brother from that quarter. As far as she knew, her Uncle Alistair gave little thought to her brother's existence and even less to her own.
Thus it came as a complete shock to both Jenny and her mother when the elderly earl appeared on their threshold one rainy forenoon in March, shouting from the doorway in a hoarse, irritable voice that they had better come down from wherever they were hiding and attend him in the library at once. They flew down the stairs in alarm to find him thrusting his hat and greatcoat into the arms of the openmouthed butler. "Alistair!" Lady Garvin gasped. "What is it?"
The earl glared at her, turned on his heel and strode down the hall to the library, not even casting a glance over his shoulder at the two flustered females who hurried after him. As soon as they'd all entered the room, he wheeled about abruptly. "Shut the door!" he ordered.
Jenny did his bidding while her mother gaped at her visitor in speechless apprehension.
"Do you know where I've been?" he demanded of his sister-in-law accusingly.
"Where you've been? How can I know—?"
"I've been to Harrow! Yes, Harrow! Three days in a draughty coach, three nights in uncomfortable, overpriced inns, and all because of your rapscallion son!"
"Robbie? You've been to see Robbie?" Lady Garvin paled, her hand flew to her breast, and she wavered on her feet. "Good God, the boy's ill!"
"No, Mama, that's not it," Jenny said quietly, slipping a supporting arm about her mother's waist while at the same time keeping her gaze fixed on her uncle's face. "Robbie's not ill. That's not what Uncle Alistair's come to tell us."
"Of course it ain't," the earl muttered, casting a quick, approving glance at his niece's face. "The girl seems to be the only one in this family with a dab o' sense. If the boy'd been ill, they wouldn't have notified me, would they? Not likely. It's his mother they'd have sent for. That's what you inferred, eh, lass?"
Jenny nodded. "That, and your calling Robbie a rapscallion." She led her agitated mother to the sofa. "Has he been involved in some mischief, Uncle? Is that what you've come to tell us?"
Lady Garvin sagged upon the cushions in relief. "Oh, is that all? Really, Alistair, it was most unkind of you to frighten me so badly over such a trifle."
His lordship stamped his foot in annoyance. "Trifle? Do you think I'd travel from Yorkshire to Harrow, and then to London and back to Harrow, and finally to Gloucester because of a trifle? You, woman, are a scatter-brained ninnyhammer. You were a ninnyhammer when my brother married you, and a ninnyhammer you remain!"
"And you, sir," Lady Garvin retorted with spirit, "were a curmudgeon from the first and will be to the last!"
"I think Uncle Alistair is merely showing signs of being travel-worn," Jenny put in soothingly. "Shall I order some hot tea for you, Uncle? Or a brandy, perhaps?"
"Thank you, girl," Alistair said in gruff appreciation, dropping into a wing chair, "a bit o' brandy would not be amiss."
As Jenny left to find the butler, Alistair looked after her with a softened expression. "Your girl, I must admit, has a touch o' rare sweetness," he murmured grudgingly. "Why ain't you married her off?"
"It's not my fault," Lady Garvin said, always on the defensive with her brother-in-law. "I offered her a come-out. I would have sent her to my friend, Millicent Hopgood, in London, who would have been quite happy to supervise the affair. But Jenny refused. Absolutely refused. She said she wouldn't have been comfortable going about in society under the protection of strangers."
"Then you should've taken her. You're her mother, ain't you?"
"You know my digestion is too delicate to endure the excitement of managing a London come- out. Besides, Jenny says she's quite happy in the country with me."
"Too shy, eh?"
"She's not shy, exactly. A little retiring, perhaps—"
"Too shy I say. I've always told you that you keep her too much in the shade. She'll wind up on the shelf if you don't push her forward a bit."
Lady Garvin drew herself up to her full height (which was two inches higher than the earl's) and, with her ample bosom heaving in annoyance, glared at him. "I don't see why you think I'm to blame for everything that goes wrong. After all, Jenny's nature is more like her father's than like mine. William was a quiet one, you know. Never liked to put himself forward. And Jenny has many of his qualities."
"Yes, modesty, good sense, and a pair o' speakin' eyes. Don't see that any of those qualities should keep her from findin' a husband."
"See here, Alistair, there's no need to behave as if she were an ape-leader. After all, the girl's just past twenty. There's plenty of time—"
But Jenny came back at that moment and caused the disputants to drop the subject. She was followed by the butler, Cullum, who placed a decanter of brandy and a glass on a small table at the earl's elbow and immediately withdrew. Jenny took a seat beside her mother on the sofa and looked at her uncle expectantly. "Have you already told Mama why you've come?"
"No, girl. Waited for you." He poured himself a generous drink and took a swig before commencing. "I was informed, ma'am, that you've been ignorin' the communications from Harrow concernin' your son. Ain't you in the least concerned about his scholastic achievements?"
"Concerned?" Lady Garvin's brows rose pridefully. "Of course not. Robbie is a brilliant student. His tutors always described him so, did they not, Jenny?"
"Yes, Uncle Alistair, they did. Always."
"They did, eh?" the earl responded coldly. "Well, I'm sorry to report that his masters at Harrow ain't nearly so effusive. In fact, the boy stands on the verge of expulsion."
"Expulsion? I don't believe it!" his mother said flatly.
"Whether you choose to believe it or not, ma'am, makes very little difference to the facts. Not only have I had the dismal experience of listenin' to his masters disparage his laziness, but I spoke to the boy himself. He has no patience with studies. Despises them. Those were his very words."
"You can't have understood him," Lady Garvin insisted. "My Robbie would never say such a thing."
"He not only would, ma'am, he did! If you're goin' to sit there and contradict every one of my statements, I shan't be able to get to the point of my visit here 'til nightfall. And I warn you, ma'am, I've no intention of remainin' on these premises until nightfall. Won't remain over half-an-hour. I expect to be halfway to Yorkshire by nightfall."
"Then tell us, Uncle, what the point is," Jenny urged mildly.
"The point is, girl, that your brother ain't cut out for the scholarly life," Alistair declared bluntly.
"Not cut out—? But that's ... that's ridiculous!" Lady Garvin sputtered.
"Damnation, ma'am, are you goin' to keep interruptin' me, or will you hear me out? I had a long talk with the boy, durin' which he admitted to me quite forthrightly that his talents don't lie in a bookish direction. Of course, I couldn't get an answer to my question about where his talents do lie, except for some blather about a yearnin' for 'adventure.'"
"Well, he's only fourteen, after all," Lady Garvin muttered in sullen defense of her beloved boy. "All young boys love adventure."
"Do you think I don't know that? I ain't a nincompoop. I ain't even blamin' him for makin' a mull of his schoolin'. At least he admits to his limitations, which is more than you do."
"Are you saying, Uncle," Jenny asked, leaning forward and studying the earl worriedly, "that you don't think Robbie should continue at Harrow?"
"I'm sayin' that he won't continue. He's comin' home at the end of this week."
"Coming home? In the middle of term?" Lady Garvin gasped.
"No point in wastin' any more time there," the earl responded. "I've arranged somethin' else for him. I've got the lad a berth on a naval vessel."
The two women stared at him, horror-struck. "A naval vessel?" Lady Garvin pulled herself to her feet, trembling in every limb. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"
"Don't enact me a Cheltenham tragedy, woman. What're you tremblin' for? A naval vessel ain't a prison, y'know. And with Boney beaten, we ain't even at war."
Lady Garvin began to pace about the room in agitation. "I won't permit you to do this! You may be the boy's guardian, but a mother must have some rights. Surely the authorities will not allow you to tear a fourteen-year-old child from the arms of his mother!"
"Will you listen to yourself, Margaret Garvin? You're speakin' the most confounded foolishness. A fourteen-year-old youth is not a child. Do you know that a young man who wants a career in the navy must set off to sea at the age of twelve? Instead of carryin' on like a demented shrew, you should be thankin' your stars that I was able to accomplish the feat of procurin' him a berth at his advanced age."
"Thank my stars? For having my son torn from me and forced to go to sea, to face the hazards of the elements and who knows what else? It's you who are demented, if you ask me. I don't see why he needs the Navy. After all, he'll inherit the title one day."
"Yes, and that's about all. I ain't rich, ma'am. There's precious little he'll inherit except the title. The Yorkshire property is becomin' more of a drain than an asset, y' know. He'll be hard pressed to keep even Willowrise up to its present standard. Besides, even if I could leave the lad rich, I wouldn't want him to spend his days as a useless wastrel, would you? You want the boy to amount to somethin', don't you?"
"Yes, of course, but—"
"But me no buts, ma'am. If you'll still your tongue for a minute, I'll explain what my influence with the Admiralty has accomplished for your son. I've got him an appointment as a midshipman! On His Majesty's Ship Providential." His thin lips stretched into a smile of triumph. "Yes, you may well stare. It's true. A midshipman, on my word."
"You really must be demented. Am I supposed to be impressed by that?" his sister-in-law said scornfully.
"But Mama," Jenny interjected gently, "it really is impressive, you know. It is my understanding that a boy must serve as a sort of errand boy for the ship's captain a long while before he's appointed midshipman."
"That's right," the earl said, getting to his feet. "It takes years of service. That's why the boys all start at eleven or twelve. Fortunately for your Robbie, my friends at the Admiralty found a vacancy for midshipman on Captain Allenby's ship and were able to prevail upon him to accept a lad of Robbie's age and lack of experience."
"But I don't wish my son to—"
"What have your wishes to do with anything?" the earl rasped. "Your son wishes it! He was beside himself with delight when I stopped back at Harrow to tell him the news."
Lady Garvin gaped again. "He knows? And he's glad?"
"Of course! It's a corkin' good opportunity for him. I tell you, ma'am, this will be the makin' of the lad. The discipline of shipboard life will be good for his character, and the trainin' will make an excellent foundation for his future career."
"His future career?" Lady Garvin echoed, blinking in confusion.
"Yes, his career. What else have I been speakin' of? It's plain that any scholarly career is out of the question. You didn't want the boy to become one of those wastrels who spends his life in gamin' and carousin', did you?" He shook a finger in her face. "That's where he'd have ended if I'd left his future up to you. Now there's no tellin' what sort of success he can make of himself."
"Success?" she murmured thoughtfully.
Excerpted from Her Heart's Captain by Elizabeth Mansfield. Copyright © 1983 Paula Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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