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In 1818 and for many years thereafter, northbound travelers along the Great North Road met with an irritating check at the bottom of the wide marketplace in Baldock High Street, where they were forced to turn right into White Horse Street and then, after a few hundred yards, left again in order to resume their northward course. So popular was the Great North Road that nearly every traveling coach to pass through the marketplace executed that right-left jog. Thus it was that when two dusty, heavily laden coaches entered the town one chilly evening in late March and failed to take the left-hand turn, more than one person with late business in White Horse Street turned to give them a second, more searching look. When the lead coachman likewise failed to check his team where the Roman road from Bishop's Stortford crosses White Horse Street, one old gentleman squinted his eyes and peered first at the liveried footman perched up behind and then at the small crest, barely discernible through the dust on the door panel, and gave it as his opinion that 'twas her ladyship and young Miss Caldecourt returning at last from Foreign Parts.
Lady Celeste Fortescue, being merely the daughter of the third earl, had little right to display the Abberley crest, but she had never in the fifty odd years since her girlhood allowed that fact to deter her from displaying it. Therefore, since the present earl rarely bothered with the trappings of his position and since White Horse Street is no more than a diversion of the ancient Icknield Way, the most efficient route to both Abberley Hall and Caldecourt Manor, the only two great houses in the immediate vicinity of Baldock or Royston, the old gentleman made his observation in tones of certainty and he was—as, indeed, he was accustomed to be—quite correct in his surmise.
Inside the coach, twenty-two-year-old Margaret Caldecourt gently prodded the elderly, well-dressed lady snoring erratically beside her. "Aunt Celeste, we are passing through Baldock. Shall I tell Milsom to draw up at the Crown for some refreshment?"
Lady Celeste straightened first her spine and then the frothy confection perched precariously atop her complex arrangement of silver curls, after which she peered suspiciously out the coach window as if doubting that they could actually have traveled so far as Baldock. Then she turned back to her grandniece.
"No need to stop," she said briskly. "Only ten more miles to Royston, after all, and with the end in sight after a long journey, delay is nothing more than time wasted. If you tell Milsom anything, dear child, tell him to stir his stumps."
Margaret chuckled, and her smile lit up her oval face. She was a slim, elegant young woman with dark hair twisted into an intricate knot at the nape of her neck under a dashing slate-blue silk bonnet trimmed with ruchings of rather dismal charcoal ribbon. Her eyes were large and gray with black rims to their pupils and black lashes so thick they seemed to weight her eyelids. Set wide apart on either side of her straight little nose, under dark arched brows, those eyes had drawn more than their share of compliments over the years, but once Margaret's smile faded, the sparkle dimmed, leaving dark-gray pools of sadness.
The coach rattled off cobbles and onto the rutted roadbed between tall, straggly hedges, and as she stared out at the familiar bare downs sweeping away to the Midland plain, she saw a wood pigeon slope out of the twilight sky, dropping lower, with fewer and fewer wing strokes and longer and longer glidings upon half-closed wings as it drew near its home tree. It disappeared. Another, no doubt its mate, flew into sight and slanted downward with the same folding-in motion. Then there was only the rattle of their coach, echoed by the slightly lower-pitched rattle her keen ears detected from the baggage coach behind, and the empty road ahead. Involuntarily, Margaret's slender black-gloved hands gripped each other in her lap.
"Margaret?" Lady Celeste spoke gently, without her usual briskness.
"Ma'am?" Margaret turned to face her, noting in the distance beyond her ladyship's sharp profile a sprinkling of lights from the village of Ashwell. Dusk was rapidly turning to darkness.
"'Tis no use trying to hide what cannot be hidden, my dear, but you must endeavor to appear cheerful once we reach the manor—for the boy's sake, you know."
"I know, Aunt Celeste, but I cannot help thinking we ought both to be wearing blacks when we arrive. Whatever will they think?"
"Fustian," replied her ladyship. "The servants have no right to be thinking anything whatever about our mode of dress, for mourning is in the heart, not in the garment. Our grief over your brother's death is clear enough without draping ourselves in black bombazine." She sniffed. "Hideous stuff. I thank God we had no time to arrange for more than black ribbons and gloves before we left Vienna."
"Well, if you had not long ago chucked everything I had with me from London, I'd have had plenty of proper mourning dresses."
Lady Celeste winced. "Three years out of date? Surely not, dear heart. What a figure you should have cut. No, no," she added when Margaret drew breath to protest, "'twould be far worse to look a dowdy. And when I think what a chore it was to get you out of your blacks after young Culross was killed ... well, I can only be thankful you haven't had time to acquire a new set."
"Nonetheless, I shall do so at once, now we are home again," Margaret said quietly. "We must set an example for little Timothy, after all, and I'll not have anyone saying I didn't show proper respect for Michael's memory."
"To my mind, 'tis better for young Timothy to get on with life and not be surrounded by constant reminders of his father's death," said Lady Celeste more tartly. "The boy's only seven and already he's lost both mother and father. Moreover, by the time you reach my age, m'dear, you'll come to realize that life is too short to waste huge bits of it in repining."
"I've already had more than my share of those bits," Margaret said, her tone laced with bitterness.
"That you have, but we must all learn to be content with our lot. None of those deaths was of your contriving, after all."
Margaret turned away again, her eyes looking sadder than ever. Maybe she had not contrived, but surely it was no good thing for another person to be cursed by her love. More and more as years passed by it seemed that she had only to care deeply for another person to see that person cut down by Fate's cruel hand. Had she not thus far in her short life lost three out of four grandparents, both her own parents, her only uncle, her favorite aunt, and Frederick Culross, the only man to whom she had ever considered giving her heart? And now Michael, dear, dear Michael, cut down just before his thirtieth birthday in the very prime of his life by a fierce pain in his side that had grown worse and worse and then had ceased altogether, giving those around him cause to rejoice for his recovery. But their rejoicing had proved premature, for the end had come swiftly, two days later.
It had taken nearly two months for word to reach Margaret in the form of a typically formal note from Mr. Maitland, the vicar of their church, informing her that her brother, Sir Michael Caldecourt, had passed from this life to the next a week before Christmas. The details had come from the rector's daughter, Pamela, in a more emotional and much-crossed second sheet enclosed within her father's missive. Immediately upon receipt of the news Margaret and her ladyship had made preparations for the long journey back to England. Thus it was that Death, having sent Margaret to Vienna, now called her home again.
Her thoughts were interrupted just then as Milsom drew in to the side of the road long enough to allow Quinlan, the liveried footman riding up behind, to light the carriage lamps, before giving his team the office to continue their journey. Details of the landscape thus faded into darkness, and Margaret could see little now beyond the lantern's glow. She knew England's oldest road—for the Icknield Way dated from the Bronze Age or before—well enough to imagine what the passing countryside looked like, and she soon found herself playing a mental game she had played since childhood when she had first learned bits of the ancient road's history.
In her mind's eye she saw Neolithic warriors carrying spears as they trod a vaguely defined track above the thick, wild-animal-haunted forests that once covered Hertfordshire's undrained lowlands, having followed the crest of the Chilterns from Buckinghamshire, through Dunstable in Bedfordshire, before passing through what was now Baldock and traveling on to Royston. Many of the settlements in the area dated from the Iron Age, and Margaret's father had once taken her and Michael to Ashwell to view an Iron Age fort that was said to be two thousand years old. Closer to home, on Royston Heath, a long barrow and several round barrows—evidence of the county's ancient inhabitants—had been unearthed several years earlier.
The thick, impenetrable forests were mostly gone now, though some portions of the countryside were still heavily wooded with beech, lime, sycamore, and hornbeam trees, and Margaret knew she could look forward to some pleasant rides as winter turned to spring. Already there seemed to be little snow left on the ground, although their coachmen had slowed the teams as soon as the sun had disappeared behind the low ridge to the west, knowing they could expect to encounter icy patches along the road.
Nearly two hours passed before the coaches rolled into the village of Royston, and by then Margaret was only too glad to wrap herself in the fur rugs that were part of the coach's furnishings. She peered from the coach windows as they passed through the town, becoming more excited by the moment, despite her sadness, the nearer they came to home.
Whether Royston or its twelfth-century Augustinian priory had come first was a moot point, but there were documents showing the grant of a market and fair in 1189. Two more fairs came into existence during the next fifty years, and all of these were originally held in a cigar-shaped open space at the road crossing now largely taken up by High Street, King Street, and Lower King Street. As the two coaches passed from King Street into Lower King Street, Margaret could scarcely make out in the dim glow cast by erratically spaced streetlamps the block of millstone grit popularly known as Rohesia's Cross, which was said to be the socket of an old market cross. Only a tiny open space north of the cross still survived to remind people of the old marketplace, however, for the present marketplace, east of Ermine Street, had come into use during the previous century.
Margaret had once found a book, dated 1745, in the library at Abberley Hall, which commented enthusiastically upon the multitude of corn merchants, maltsters, and other dealers in grain who constantly resorted to the Royston Market, and what a vast number of horses laden with grain did fill all the roads on market day. Indeed, her own memory provided her with knowledge of the bustling, noisy crowds that filled the town on such days.
The coach turned south now onto Ermine Street, once the main route from London north into Hertfordshire and beyond until it was made nearly unusable by the constant traffic of heavily laden barley wagons and packhorses carrying their freight from all over the eastern counties to the great malting town of Ware. The two coaches lumbered along the badly rutted road for some fifteen minutes before turning west onto a gravel drive. They soon passed between two fat stone pillars, then wound their way through a wooded area to a tall, torchlit house. They were home, and they were clearly expected, for the tall, narrow windows of the first two floors glowed a welcome.
Margaret was grateful to Lady Celeste for having had the forethought to send a courier ahead from London to warn Mrs. Moffatt, her brother's motherly housekeeper, of their intended arrival. Quinlan had leapt to the ground as the coaches drew to a halt and approached the door, rubbing his gloved hands to restore circulation after having held on so long in the chilled air. A moment later he pulled open the door and let down the steps. Lady Celeste accepted his hand, allowing him to help her from the coach, but once her feet were solidly upon the ground, she stepped away from him, tacitly rejecting further assistance. In her mid-sixties, her ladyship was as spry and agile as a woman half her age, and she disdained to accept help she did not need, saying that she would need it soon enough and that there was no sense in anticipating one's decrepitude.
When the footman had helped Margaret to alight, her ladyship, who had been speaking to the two tirewomen who had descended from the baggage coach, turned back to him again, a slight frown of disapproval creasing her brow. "Quinlan," she said, "do you run up to the door and give that knocker a good clanging. I cannot think what is keeping Moffatt. We've made enough din out here to wake the dead. Mayhap he grows deaf in his old age."
Since Moffatt was, as clearly as Margaret could recall, easily ten or fifteen years younger than her ladyship, it was obvious that Lady Celeste was annoyed. That she had expected the door to be flung wide immediately upon her arrival and to find herself enveloped in a warm welcome by all and sundry was clear to the meanest intellect.
Margaret hid a smile. "Perhaps the servants are all in the kitchen having their supper, ma'am. 'Tis nearly nine o'clock, after all, and Timothy must be tucked up in the nursery by now."
"Poor child," said Lady Celeste, ascending the stone steps at her side. "Two months an orphan with only servants to look after him. How lonely he must be."
"For all we know, ma'am," Margaret replied, "Timothy is not even here but has been carried off to Abberley Hall instead. You know that his lordship had a great fondness for Michael. I should not be at all surprised to learn that he has taken Michael's only child under his wing."
"Well," replied her ladyship tartly, straightening her hat, "for my part, I should be astonished to learn anything of the kind. Abberley taking notice of a six-year-old? I wish I may see it. From all I have heard from my friends who deign to include news of him in their letters, he has become little more than an irresponsible rake these past years, and is much more likely to be off gracing some duchess's house party or shooting in Leicestershire. Timothy would be much better off in the Moffatt's care than ... Ah, Moffatt," she said without skipping a beat when the door opened at last to reveal a tall, plump man in a black suit and snow-white linen, "we had begun to fear the place had been deserted."
"No, my lady," he replied in a quiet, well-modulated voice, affecting a slight bow. "Welcome home, my lady. And, miss, I'm sure 'tis good to have you back with us again. Young master ... that is, Sir Timothy will be very pleased to see you both, I'm sure." Moffatt stepped aside as he spoke, ushering them into a spacious, well-lit hall, the highly polished floor of which was dotted with colorful Oriental carpets, acquired by an early-eighteenth-century Caldecourt who had extended his grand tour to the Far East.
A small but cheerful fire crackled in the large marble fireplace opposite the front door and candles glowed from an overhead chandelier and numerous wall sconces. Margaret, remembering her brother's habits of thrift, hoped the show was merely in honor of their arrival and not a habitual display. Lady Celeste, accepting the brilliance as her due, saw nothing amiss and paid no heed at all to the brightly lit room. She had matters of greater importance on her mind.
"Our people can dispose of our baggage, Moffatt," she said, "but we are famished, so I trust Mrs. Moffatt can manage to prepare something nourishing for us. We are accustomed, you know, to large midnight suppers."
"Yes, my lady," replied the butler, his expression nearly concealing his opinion of habits in Foreign Parts. "In point of fact," he added with a slight twist of his lips, "I was on the point of serving tea in the drawing room when you arrived, and as it has been thought unnecessary to engage more than one footman at present, and him not being one of us and off to the village besides, supposedly to attend to important business, though how he can have business of any sort in a village far from his own—"
Excerpted from Lord Abberley's Nemesis by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1986 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 23, 2014
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