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The head groom, recognizing her ladyships scarcely concealed temper, proceeded to saddle the chestnut mare with the utmost expediency. "Fine day for a ride, my lady. Warm but with a touch of a breeze. And Firely eager to be off, as always. I could have one of the lads exercise her if you havent the time to spare."
"I wont be above an hour, Hawkins," Lady Clayborne informed him as she allowed him to hand her up onto the mare. "Give my regards to your wife, if you will."
Gratified that she should remember his wife, and exasperated with his young mistress for going riding when her sister was expected at any moment, he told her retreating back that his wife would be pleased to be remembered, and (since she was already out of earshot), commented that some hostesses were at home to greet their guests.
He slowly retraced his steps into the stables, exhorting the lads, "Look sharp now. We be expecting a traveling chaise in no short time, and I wont have it said that we was unprepared. You get lazy with the master away, and if theres one thing I wont have its slipshod ways. That bridle belongs in the tackle room, and youll have to do a sight better in polishing that brass, my lad. Step lively, now. If that chaise comes before youre finished, itll be no beer for you this day."
"But, Mr. Hawkins, sir, Lady Clayborne said as how her sister werent never on time above once in her life," the youngest boy protested.
"Never you mind. And you can be sure her ladyship werent speaking to the likes of you when she said such a thing, if indeed she did. Show some respect for your betters, boy!"
Unaware of the commotion left behind her, LadyClayborne galloped across the meadow, reluctant to keep to any path, and sorely in need of a ride to sooth her ruffled sensibilities. She was not one, mind you, to regard the proprieties in a very strict sense, but it was the outside of enough that her husband should not have returned to welcome her sister.
"I tell you, Firely," she addressed the unconcerned mare, "that he has been aware for no little time of Megs coming. Where the devil has he gotten himself to now?"
Firely, not at all shocked by her mistresss tongue, realized that her rider was not overly concerned with checking her, and stretched her stride in anticipation of a very enjoyable gallop. Relishing the wind on those locks which had escaped her hat, Lady Clayborne gave silent thanks that his lordships faith in her riding ability, at least, had led him to choose such a mount for her. The stables at her childhood home, Farthington Hall, consisting as they had largely of hunting mounts which the four sisters had, since earliest memory, been forbidden to ride on pain of instant death, had also housed such cattle as were needed for the various carriages, but little else of interest.
Sir Rupert Farthington, who had as little interest in his family home as in his hopeful family, was wont to spend the greater part of the hunting season with his cronies in Leicestershire, and was not often seen at Farthington Hall. Although Lady Farthington deprecated his absence, her daughters were at a loss to understand why, as she had little to do with him when he was there except keep him under her thumb. She exasperated him with her continual entertainments for the local gentry (while volubly deploring their lack of polish), and he was bored beyond bearing by the piddling stakes at whist.
As Lady Clayborne approached the home wood, she checked Firely to a more sedate pace and entered the wood on her favorite path, now sun-dappled and smelling of pine in the early morning heat. Her black locks were windswept from her gallop, but she looked enchanting in a red riding habit, decorated with gold braid à la Hussar. A slight young lady with a charming smile, she looked even younger than her twenty years, and if she were not precisely beautiful, she was certainly attractive. Perhaps her mouth was a trifle too wide, and her nose a bit too turned up, but she was not particularly concerned with these defects, never having been in the way of comparing herself with her sisters, or anyone else for that matter.
Lady Clayborne was aware that her sister Meg, who had shining red-brown hair and rosy cheeks, graceful height and a perfect figure, was considered quite the beauty. But even Meg did not compare with Mary, whose classical features and enormous green eyes would undoubtedly captivate the London beaux when she had her season next year. Lady Clayborne shuddered, however, to think what mischief her youngest sister might get up to in London, being not only the most beautiful but the most hoydenish of the Farthington girls.
Where Trudy, the eldest, and married these two years past, had been the most compliant, and Meg very feminine and quiet, Mary was the most romantic. She was not romantic in the usual sense of dreaming of love and having beaux. (Indeed, she considered herself hardly used for not having been born a boy.) She envisioned instead the joy of having an adventure. Any real adventure would do; that is, consorting with smugglers or highwaymen, for Mary was totally undisciplined, even to the point of being uninterested in all feminine accomplishments. She detested reading books, even the latest novels, unless they were full of the most improbable adventures, and she felt grossly put upon if she were exhorted to attend to any needlework. As for those other accomplishments which Miss Turnpeck, their governess, had tried to instill in her, Lady Clayborne had seldom heard such outrageous performances on the pianoforte, and Marys watercolors might have been produced by a six-year old. Marys saving grace was her natural elegance, for much as she wished to be a male, she was developing into a female of uncommon beauty who did not need to pay the least heed to the hours of instruction on curtsying and arranging a shawl; they came quite naturally to her.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, Lady Clayborne was startled when a voice said, "Rebecca, are we not expecting your sister Meg this morning?"
"Oh, it is you, Jason. I had given up hope of you," she replied somewhat tartly.
"But I assured you when last we spoke that I would be here when Meg arrived," Lord Clayborne answered gravely, his face a polite mask.
"Yes, but that was a month past and I feared you might have forgotten. Have you had a good trip?" she asked, more out of courtesy than in expectation of receiving any information from him. She had not been aware where his travels took him, except that they had to do with estate business. His estates in Yorkshire, inherited from an uncle some years past, of necessity involved long and wearying journeys, but his estates in Somerset and Dorset, inherited from his father, were closer and she did not think they could be very large, or require an extensive amount of his time or interest. He had, however, spoken little of them since their marriage some ten months ago, and she might be mistaken.
"It was satisfactory," he replied briefly, removing his hat to brush back the brown strands pushing forward onto his wide brow. He turned from regarding the path ahead to appraise her riding clothes. "Thats an attractive outfit."
Making a hasty attempt to poke some of the curls up under her hat, she flushed slightly and said, "Thank you, my lord."
"Tell me how things go on at Gray Oaks. Have you kept busy?" Lord Clayborne asked, a hint of mockery in his voice.
Although she longed to say, "Little you care," she replied sourly, "It is a veritable whirl of activity here. Not long ago I drove to Chichester to purchase matching thread for my needlework."
Her husband laughed and remarked, "No doubt your sisters visit will serve to enliven your days."
Lady Clayborne studied the path before them, which led back to the stables, twiddled with her riding crop, and continued with some heat, "Congenial company is scarce here. Not that the servants are not considerate. Mrs. Lambert is an angel, but far too proper to engage in any real discussion with me."
Mrs. Lambert, in spite of her running battle with the French cook and her relationship to almost everyone else on the household staff, ran the establishment with remarkable ease. She forever shouldered the burdens of the kitchen maid, who was her niece; listened patiently to the complaints of the upper housemaid, who was a second cousin; and bullied the head gardener, who was her brother. Lady Clayborne had witnessed her scolding affection for Lord Clayborne as well, and felt that Mrs. Lambert, though kindhearted and motherly, was not the person to whom she could unburden her heart. This was perhaps a wise decision since, as she had said to her husband, Mrs. Lambert withheld herself from her new mistress in a very proper manner.
"Mrs. Lambert has been at Gray Oaks since I was in leading strings," Lord Clayborne replied. "I hope you will not put up her back in any way. I fear she was alarmed when you redecorated the Green Saloon in blue and gold."
"She has assured me recently that she has come," Lady Clayborne mimicked the housekeepers slow speech, "quite to like the room, though perhaps it would have been more in keeping, as your dear Mama did when she had the room redecorated twenty years ago, to have kept the color scheme in greens so there would be no confusion amongst any newer household employees as to which room was the Green Saloon."
Lady Clayborne grinned and added, "Of course you understand, Jason, that she has instructed Griggs to refer to it as the Green Saloon, but he, never one to admit to her authority in the household, has come to call it the Blue Saloon. I had thought," she added anxiously, "that you were pleased with the change."
"And so I am. As you say, Mrs. Lambert has a strong sense of propriety but she has also a highly developed sense of what is fitting for Gray Oaks. You need not always be in agreement with her, for I would trust your good taste, but I beg that you will not offend her sense of what is proper to the mistress of Gray Oaks."
It was unnecessary, fortunately, for Lady Clayborne to respond to this instruction, as they were dismounting, to the obvious delight of Hawkins, who was another of Lord Claybornes admirers. They were solemnly informed that the carriage from Farthington Hall had not as yet arrived, though it was momentarily expected. Lady Clayborne did not miss the impudent grins of the stable lads at this pronouncement, and though she was at a loss to account for them, she did not give it a second thought as she hastened into the house to change from her riding clothes, followed closely by her husband, who only delayed long enough to tell Hawkins that his valet would arrive presently with his carriage.
Lord Clayborne had just descended to the hall, and his wife was already seated in the Blue (or perhaps Green) Saloon, when they heard the sounds of arrival. Margaret Farthington alighted first from the carriage, with a sunny smile for her sister and brother-in-law. "Oh, Becka, I havent seen you for ages!" She hugged Rebecca close, afterwards shyly offering her hand to Clayborne, who took it firmly. To Rebecca she whispered, "I have so much to tell you and I shall probably talk for the rest of the day, for Turnip has not ceased talking since we got in the carriage, and I am sure it must be my turn next."
The Farthington governess, Miss Turnpeck, was at that moment allowing Lord Clayborne to assist her from the carriage, murmuring, "Too kind, too good," all the while.
"I trust your journey has not been too tiring, Miss Turnpeck," his lordship remarked politely.
"Not at all! Most rewarding, I assure you. We made a stop at the Abbey Church in Romseya remarkable building. The moldings, and the original Norman triforium and clerestory of the choir, you would not credit! And Meg was so kind as to dally with me while I just took the merest peek at King Johns Hunting Box. Imagine! The sense of history is overwhelming. And the ancient walls of Southampton! Do you know that the north and east sides were defended by a double moat? And you can ascend to the Rampart Walk. To think of the men who walked there ages ago! It gives one a thrill. Quite a pleasant thrill, you understand." Miss Turnpeck vigorously shook out her skirts. "There is a monument to our brave Lord Nelson on Portsdown. In the glory of Wellingtons victory at Waterloo we must not lose sight of dear Lord Nelson!"
"No, certainly not," Lord Clayborne murmured.
"But you are familiar with all these sights, I have no doubt," Miss Turnpeck continued. "You had asked of our journey. And I do not hesitate to tell you that the Farthington carriage, although most certainly a superior vehicle, has seen better days. Well, of course, if that were not so, Lady Farthington would have use for it when in London. We are very lucky to have it at our disposal at the Hall and though it is not so well sprung as the more recent coaches, and the squabs are the tiniest bit the worse for wear, there were no problems. No broken traces or axles, no wheels came off, and not a horse cast a shoe. You understand that we used our own horses, and therefore made a rather slow journey. Possibly you are in the habit of hiring post horses yourself?"
Rebecca and Meg watched in amusement as Clayborne bemusedly agreed that he did.
"Yes, I would have expected that," the governess stated triumphantly with a sage nod of her head. "And you are doubtless familiar with posting houses all over the country, but I must confess that I have seldom traveled myself. We stayed last night at an unexceptionable inn where I assure you that the sheets were properly aired, as I am very particular, but not so fussy, I hope, as to take along my own sheets as I have heard of others doing. Our meal was not perhaps as tasty as we get at the Hall, but then we are fortunate at home. I should not complain, even if the fricasée was the least bit salty and the veal a bit overdone. Meg will tell you that the ragout disagreed with her, but I myself was not in the least discomforted by it."
Meg had no intention of telling anyone that the ragout had disagreed with her, of course, but by this time Rebecca was having difficulty maintaining a straight face and she urged her guests into the house. Although Lord Clayborne had received all Miss Turnpecks information with every appearance of great interest, his sincerity was placed in doubt by the brow he lifted to the two sisters. "I am sure," he ventured during a slight pause, "that Meg has found your companionship on the journey most welcome. You must wish, though, to go to your room to freshen up from your travels."
Miss Turnpeck, in a swirl of wraps despite the June heat, fluttered into the Tudor half-timbered residence which had been the home of the Barons Clayborne for several centuries. "What remarkable paneling! Such enormous beams! No, no, I could not think of resting until I have seen Meg situated. There is always a delightfully homey feeling about a Tudor building, do you not agree, Lord Clayborne?" she chirped, and barely waiting for an answer, rushed on, "Meg, dear, you must let me see you settled in your room. My, what a fine hall this is, and that huge fireplace. You could roast an ox. And, Meg, I have just been wondering, did you remember to bring your music for the pianoforte?"
Never stopping for a breath, but frequently pausing to gaze in rapt wonder at the finely carved screens or the magnificent oak staircase, she passed like a whirlwind, shepherding Meg before her. With a despairing glance at her sister, Meg allowed herself to be driven inexorably onward. It was with some difficulty and fully a half hour later that the two young ladies shut the door behind Miss Turnpecks retreating form, hearing her protest, "No, no, the maid shall show me my way. No need for you to bother."
"I had forgotten," Rebecca said mournfully, "how very talkative is your Miss Turnpeck."
"Had you? Well, I have not and I mean to have my turn now, if you please," she beseeched.
"Of course, goose. You have much to tell me of your London season, no doubt."
"Becka, it was above anything great! You didnt tell me there were so many balls, and suppers, and card parties and breakfasts, and operas, and the theatre. Mama and I were invited everywhere, and must have met hundreds of fashionable people. And my clothes, everything the first stare! Mama insisted I wait until we got to London before she would consent to purchase so much as a fan for me, for she knew of the most expert modiste that I must go to. Well, you shall see from some of the things I have brought with me, but I did not think that you were so formal here in the country. It must be much as at Farthington Hall, so I have not brought the lot."
"Thank heaven," Rebecca murmured soulfully and grinned at her sister.
"Oh, you are quizzing me," Meg laughed. "But we did not go about town at all until the new clothes had arrived, and then I felt quite the thing. Do you know I had six new reticules and at least a dozen fans?"
"I cannot imagine how you managed with such a paltry few."
"I confess I found it difficult to use all of them. I had to take particular care to hide each one away after I used it so that the next would have a showing, for I was sure Mama would notice if I forgot any of them. And some I did not like above half. But enough of that. I have so many messages to give you. Mama sent her best, and Papa, of course, before they left. They will be in Paris for a month or more and may stop to visit you when they return. Mary left a sennight ago to visit Aunt Adeline in Bath because she is of an age with our cousin Sally, you know. Aunt Adeline did not invite me at all, but I had much rather come to you anyway."
"I hope Mary will enjoy herself. Was Mama pleased with your success in London?" Rebecca asked.
"Well, she would, of course, have been more pleased to find me married by now. After all, there is still Mary to bring out next year, and Mama feels a bit put about with me that she might have the both of us next season," Meg said, eyes twinkling.
"But she may not? What is this, Meg? Are you planning to enter a nunnery?" her sister quizzed.
"Now, Becka, it is no such thing, you may be sure! There is nothing settled as yet, you understand, but dear Will Travers has been most particular in his attentions. He arrived in London soon after we did, you know, and oh, Becka, he seemed so different in town. His manners were so gentleman-like, and his dress so distinguished. Why, even poor Brummell would not have had the least objection to him."
"I find it difficult to picture him in other than buckskins. No, no, dont scold me. I am only funning. I shall have to meet this budding paragon. My own recollections are otherwise. Will joining us on our picnics and rides in the country. But then we have not seen him for some time now. Has he been up to Cambridge?"
"Yes, but he is down now and intends to devote his time to his estate. I thought at first Mama would not care for his attentions to me, but she has been most accommodating. I think she is in the way of finding him an eligible suitor."
"Does his mother approved of the connection?"
"Mrs. Travers came to town in early May for a spell and she was very gracious to me. I am thinking things are in a way to being settled. Certainly Will seems to think so," she added with a rosy blush.
"I am so happy for you." Rebecca kissed her sisters cheek and hugged her. "It sounds a splendid match to me."
"Will has not approached Papa yet, as he wished to sort out the estate affairs first. When his papa died last year he was still at Cambridge and he has yet to involve himself in the business matters attached," Meg said, knowing it was not necessary for her to explain to her sister that Mr. Travers, more interested in his books than in his estate, had no doubt left the estate business in rather a shambles, which it would take the inexperienced young man some time to right. "Of course, Mary will have it that I could not bring him up to scratch, but it is no such thing," Meg declared indignantly.
"Pay no attention to Mary. She was only teasing you, Im sure."
Meg was inclined to be cross with Mary for not taking her romance seriously, but as she knew her youngest sisters propensity for outlandish behavior and an unruly tongue, she decided to dismiss the matter, knowing full well it would do her no good to dwell on it.
"That reminds me," she exclaimed suddenly. "I met your friend Constance Exton in town and she asked especially to be remembered to you. She has gone with her family to Brighton for the summer and says she will write you in hopes that you will invite her to Gray Oaks for a few days so that she may have some peace."
Rebecca laughed. "Her mama is so insistent on pushing Constance at every marriageable man that Constance is quite in despair. I shall look forward to having her visit."
"I met your darling Captain Gray at Almacks and he never stopped talking of you. And I saw him in the park one day. He looks so handsome in his uniformthe 10th Hussars is it?with his funny moustache and sideburns." Meg paused before she burst out, "And I saw Thomas a few days before I left home. He asked of you and sent his regards. His wife has just given him a son and both are well." Meg, played with the fringe of her shawl and kept her eyes on her lap. "He seems to have settled down these last months."
"I imagine married life suits him, and Im pleased they have a healthy boy. Now I must leave you to rest for a while. Join me in the Blue Saloon when youre ready." Rebecca got up abruptly, then hesitated at her sisters anxious look. Taking Megs hand she said kindly, "You know, it is perfectly all right to talk of him. I no longer retain a tendre for Thomas and am happy to hear that all is well with him. Now, have a rest and we will talk more later."