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"You must go, whether you wish it or not, my dear." Mrs. Herbert looked up from the sewing draped across her lap to fix a stern gaze on her next-to-eldest daughter. "My aunt Letitia is not only a very dear lady, she is one of immense wealth. You cannot afford to ignore her summons!" She concluded her pronouncement with a firm nod of her head, dislodging a gray curl from beneath her white day cap, a confection of cambric trimmed in pretty lace.
"Yes, Mama." Nympha Herbert grimaced while smoothing out the petticoat she had been sewing. It truly needed a bit of lace trim, and that was a rather dear item for a rector's daughter to come by. Even if her papa had a separate income to supplement his church living, with six children and a wife, he was always short of funds. "Although I believe Dru would best serve to help Great-Aunt over her injury. Dru is always so good with the sick. I do not feel much like going anywhere."
Priscilla gave her older sister a sympathetic smile. "It is time and more that you cease thinking about the handsome lord who married Lady Harriet. You might have known that Lord Stanhope would marry a titled lady. Perhaps you may meet a good-looking gentleman when you are visiting our great-aunt? Surely Nottinghamshire must have its share of refined men? Would you not agree. Mama?"
"Perhaps," their mother admitted, studying the dress in her lap. "I can only hope that the gentlemen in that area are not too demanding as to styles. I have tried, but this gown is not quite what I would have you wear, my love."
"I would be the veriest peagoose to complain, Mama. If a gentleman does not like what I wear--well, he must be a sad rattle!" Nympha smoothed ablond curl back away from her face, her eyes taking note of how tired her mother appeared. It would be good for her mother to be rid of another daughter for a time. Five daughters to rear, plus one son to educate, had taxed the rector's resources greatly. Even with Claudia wed, there were still five children remaining. If, by visiting her great-aunt for a time, she might reduce expenses, it behooved her to travel, even if Nottinghamshire, and the town of Mansfield in particular, seemed like the other end of the earth.
"Watch your language, Nympha. Aunt Letitia does not approve of using slang." Mrs. Herbert gave her daughter a frowning glance. "This could be an important visit for you--in more ways than one. Your father mentioned that the chap who is spending some time in our area intends to head north to visit a friend. Lord Byron, if I make no mistake. Newstead Abbey is not so far from where Aunt Letitia lives." Mrs. Herbert shook out the gown she had been sewing, gave a sigh of resignation, then set it aside.
Knowing full well that her mother had not read the poet's work and would disapprove of any of her daughters mooning over him, Nympha merely nodded. "He seems a most elegant gentleman."
"That remains to be seen." Whether she meant Lord Byron or the man who had visited Lord Nicholas she didn't say. As a matter of fact, her mother had not had a word to say about the stranger in their midst. Yet Mr. Jared Milburn seemed agreeable, according to comments made by Papa. But then, one never knew. Appearances might be deceiving.
"Yes, Mama." Deciding it was best to turn her mother's attention from a stranger in the village to something more practical, Nympha queried, "How many days will it take me to reach her home? I vow that her little town seems a great distance away. You believe the roads will be in good repair in early March? Mansfield seems so remote."
"I truly have no idea. You will travel in style in a fine carriage. No matter how long it takes, you shouldn't mind, for she sends money to pay for your stay at the necessary inns. However, your father intends to give a sum for you to spend while there. Great-Aunt Letitia's home is close to Nottingham, I believe, so there will be shopping there, if not in Mansfield."
Tabitha, the youngest of the rector's progeny, piped up. "It is close to Sherwood Forest, as well. Perhaps you will meet a romantic gentleman who will sweep you off your feet--like Robin Hood."
"Highly unlikely," Mrs. Herbert said, giving her youngest a dry look. "It has been my experience that those thieving men are low creatures, and nothing at all to look at."
"But you might have some exciting adventure on your way," Tabitha persisted, seeming reluctant to give up the notion of a dramatic event for her sister, one with momentous significance.
"Great-Aunt wrote she will be sending a traveling coach for me. I suspect it will be a proper one, as staid and as dignified as she likely is. It isn't the sort to encourage a romantic villain." Nympha smiled at her youngest sister. Tabitha was the romantic one of the family.
"I still say it is a good thing for you to go away for a time." Priscilla gave Nympha a meaningful look, but she said nothing more on the matter of Nympha's hopeless fancy for the man who was the son of her father's patron.
Once Lord Stanhope married Lady Harriet all Nympha's dreams had crashed. And now with the soon-to-be birth of his expected heir, Nympha admitted it would be distressing to be at home. No woman liked to be reminded of a failure! He had never had eyes for anyone but Lady Harriet once he saw her, try as Nympha had to interest him.
"I shall welcome a change," Nympha said, giving Priscilla a rueful look. She turned her attention to the garment in her lap. "They make lace in Nottingham, do they not? Perhaps I can buy a length to sew on this dreary petticoat. What a blessing no smart gentleman is likely to see it!" She chuckled at the mere thought, joined by Priscilla and Tabitha.
"What gentleman is likely not to see your dreary petticoat?" Drusilla inquired as she entered the drawing room where the women of the family customarily gathered, the rectory not having a morning room large enough to accommodate them all.
"Dearest Dru, no gentleman at all! I shall have a most unexceptional trip to Mansfield. Uneventful. Dull, I am persuaded," Nympha concluded, with a gentle smile for the sister closest to her in age.
"Well, I brought something to cheer you. Mrs. Wyndham loaned me her latest copy of La Belle Assemblée to peruse. I think we might make you the pink crepe dress in it with a bit of alteration. You would not want something quite so elaborate, I am persuaded." She handed the small magazine to Nympha, who promptly opened it to the illustration in question.
"Heaven forbid! I could never hope to copy such an elegant creation as this." She studied the picture of the pink crepe gown and gave a huge sigh. "I am not sufficiently skilled with my needle!" Turning a page, she studied the other illustration for the month. "Now this white crepe gown is simple. I might manage the short full sleeves, and perhaps some trim around the hem. I would not wish to embarrass our great-aunt by looking shabby or too provincial. But I do like pink. 'Drake's neck' is said to be a favored color. What do you suppose that is?"
"A sort of iridescent green, perhaps?"
Her mother peered over Nympha's shoulder. "The neckline is a trifle low, to my thinking."
Nympha and Drusilla exchanged wordless looks.
"Did you have a good walk this morning?" Dru asked. "I saw you heading for the Folly and the new house. What has Lord Nicholas done now?" Drusilla plumped herself on a chair close to Nympha, looking quite prepared for a long recital. They called the greens the Folly as it seemed a silly thing for a man to create.
"The men appear to be finished with the outside of the house he is building. It overlooks his golf links, as he calls that odd stretch of land that has sand traps and water holes and gorse where you would least expect it. I watched for a time. From a safe distance, you may be sure," she added as Dru gave her a skeptical look. "Although I must say I wonder what the interior will look like."
That she had studiously avoided an encounter with Lord Nicholas was not mentioned. Her sisters were well aware that Nympha harbored no interest in that gentleman. Indeed, Nympha might have assisted him from time to time, but it had been more in aid of seeing something of his brother, Lord Stanhope, rather than spending time with the most aggravating man on earth--Lord Nicholas. And he, in turn, appeared to view Nympha as a plague placed on earth simply to annoy him. No, she might have some curiosity about the house, but not that far-too-rugged specimen of manhood. When he entered a room it was as though he brought all the out-of-doors with him. He would scarcely fit into a fancy drawing room! Imagine him bowing and paying pretty compliments! Or dancing! She shuddered at the mere thought of it.
"Does Mr. Milburn play golf?" Tabitha wanted to know.
"I saw him near there this morning. I cannot say I paid much attention to him. He was with another gentleman, slightly older, and they were arguing about the game. At least I suppose they were. It seems that men argue quite often over scores or something." Nympha grimaced at that.
"Well, I think it very nice that the marquess gave Lord Nicholas land for his own home and his golf." Mrs. Herbert rose, gathering the gown she had worked on in her arms. "Come Nympha--I wish you to try this. I do hope it will fit. What a pity you lost weight this past year."
Nympha escaped in her mother's wake, happy to be leaving her sisters and their teasing tongues. As to the gown, if it fit, she hoped her mother would assist her in making a pattern of the simple white dress featured in the magazine. Her mother could do anything.
Nick stood at his front door surveying the scene before him. The late-February sun warmed his face, and he leaned against the door frame to study his land. A mild breeze ruffled his hair, bringing the promise of an early spring with it. The smell of sun-warmed earth, robins singing, the new green leaves on the trees, made him itch to get out with his clubs. Sheep grazed on his green at present, a clever means of keeping the lawns short, and providing a bit of mutton at the same time. Perhaps he could take time to play a round? With a good wool jacket against a chill wind, he couldn't see why it wouldn't be possible.
The view of his nine-hole golf links satisfied him. On his one visit to the famous St. Andrews links he had sketched out the lay of the land as best he could, with a helpful bit of advice from a local man. While it was nigh impossible to duplicate that course, he had made the attempt. Perhaps his nine holes would never be more than his own folly, to be played by his personal friends. Still, he was pleased with it.
As a single man, he had no wife to nag him about his hobbyhorse. His smile widened. With his older brother about to produce an heir, the burden of being the heir presumptive was off Nick's shoulders. Of course there was the possibility of a female, but with Philip's conviction that this would be Baby Mark, Nick was sure it would be so.
"It goes well, Lord Nicholas," Mr. Heron declared, the roll of house plans in his hand as he paused by the entry door where Nick stood. "Supplies have been delivered with better speed than I dared hope. We shall finish on time, I vow. Perhaps you might stop by the library in a little while to decide on what wood you want for the paneling. I suggest oak, but you choose anything you like, of course."
Nick promised to come shortly.
The workmen had agreed to get the house done over the summer. Pericles Heron, the architect hired to design and oversee the construction, managed to see supplies were available when needed and that the artisans required presented themselves on time. The house had been started the previous year, and the interior finishing was well underway.
At the rate the men worked, it was quite possible Heron's pledge would be realized. Nick was quite tired of living at the main family residence, Lanstone Hall. Although his parents were still in Italy, Nick was impatient to have a house of his own, designed to his own taste and furnished to please him.
A movement to the far side of his course caught his attention. One of his men--it appeared to be Otway, the head gardener--was coming up from the greens in a great hurry. From the way he was rushing along there was something amiss.
Nick ran down the front steps to meet him. "Is there a problem?" He stopped on the sweep of the eventual drive to await the man, who was quite out of breath. Nick waited patiently while his trusted employee gained a measure of calm. The chap took great gulps of air to regain his composure. With a deep breath, he began to explain.
"Well, I figure as how there is, milord. Saw these fellows out on one of the greens some time ago. Didna pay much attention to them. Considered they might be your friends, you know, playing a round of golf."
Nick fell into step beside Otway as they turned to head back onto the greens. They walked at a decent pace. Until he knew precisely what the problem was, there was little point in rushing pell-mell down the grass. "And so?" he prompted.
"Looked around later, and there was no one in sight, so I forgot all about it. You know how it is--a chap gets busy, and not apt to think on something so ordinary."
"And what is the problem now, if I may know?" The chap might be as trustworthy as they come; he also took his time in getting to the point.
"Well, now, I chanced to see one of the sheep nosing about the far side of the seventh hole. Thought to see why. Normally they have nothin' to do with the sand bunkers." The wiry man half-turned to look at Nick, expectant to see his reaction, most likely.
"What did you discover?" Nick asked quietly as they increased their speed. Call it a premonition, he knew he was in for trouble. That it had something to do with his golf links made him even more uneasy.
"A body." With this dramatic statement, Otway clearly expected some manner of amazed reaction.
"Good grief, man. Injured? Should we get help for him? Or ... is he dead?" Nick assumed that whoever it was the sheep discovered, it had to be a man.
"I believe he's dead. No sign of life that I could see. Don't recognize the feller. Maybe you will?"
There was a question in his last remark. Nick wondered who those two arguing men might have been. And who was the mysterious body in the sand bunker? And why in the sand?
It took a little time to reach the spot where the body sprawled, facedown, in the depression of sand. Nick quickly ascertained that the man was indeed dead. No help for him now. "Murdered." Nick rose to his feet after discovering the injury to the head, feeling a little ill at the sight before him. Blood had seeped into the sand, forming a stain of dark claret red.
"Know him?" Otway inquired.
"Face seems faintly familiar, but I couldn't put a name to him." Nick studied the area where they found the man. Other than the head injury there appeared to be no mark on the man. At least, his clothing was not awry, nor was there a sign of a struggle. A single blow to the head had accomplished the deed. It had required a heavy object, and someone who possessed a modicum of strength.
"Milord, isn't this your club?" Otway held up one of Nick's golfing clubs, one with a solid wood head to it.
"Looks as though it might be mine," Nick allowed. He recognized it well, having ordered it while in Scotland. How it got into the hands of a man intent upon committing murder he didn't know. As evidence it was circumstantial. While it might be his own club, there were any number of people who could have taken it when he wasn't around. However, were he a member of a jury, he would think it more than possible that the owner of the club had done the deed.
"Also looks as though that's how this chap be done in," Otway murmured.
"From the impression on his head, I agree. I expect we send for a doctor or an apothecary. I think we need some sort of certificate. Not having been in this situation before, I'm not sure." Nick rose from where he had knelt by the body. "Perhaps the magistrate?"
Hoping to discover the identity of the stranger, Nick searched the dead man's pockets. In one of them he found a slip of paper such as given by a shopkeeper. The name of the shop was Binch's, a haberdasher in Mansfield, a town north of Nottingham.
"Mansfield? What on earth is a person from that part of the country doing here?" he said. "I had better get counsel."
"Well, if you want, I kin ride to Sir William's. If he bain't the one to do the duty, he will know," Otway offered.
"No, I had best go myself. But thank you, just the same. Please find something with which to cover the body." He added a few requests, then returned to the house, where he entered the completed stables around back to find his horse. Within a brief time, he was trotting down the graveled drive in the direction of the local magistrate, Sir William Tabard.
Sir William listened to his tale and made a few notes. Then he joined Nick in his return to the "Folly," discussing the murder as they rode.
It was a relief to have the body taken away. There would be an inquest, of course. But after that Nick decided he would head north to the town of Mansfield to see what he might learn about the mystery man.
His trip to the village had yielded nothing. No one appeared to claim the body, and no one had seen him hereabouts. The innkeeper knew nothing. So ... where had he been staying? With whom? And why didn't he or they question the disappearance of a guest?
The days slipped past; the inquest was held. It was determined that the stranger had died of a head injury given him by persons unknown. That he had no friend come forth to claim him, that nothing was known about him, did not help Nick's quest.
Nick discussed the matter with Sir William. "As soon as I am able to get away, I intend to go north to discover what I might. I made a sketch of the man--as best I was able, given my poor talent in that line." Nick grimaced at Sir William, who nodded in understanding. "I will be curious to see what can be learned about the chap--if anything."
"You know that no one around here suspects you of the deed. We have known you all your life. This man was a stranger. I think it is most kind of you to investigate his identity. Not many would bother." He gave Nick a quizzical look.
"I thought that perhaps if I learn who he was, I might also learn who killed him."
Sir William gave a sage nod. "You might also find yourself in a bit of trouble, my lord. Someone who has murdered once might not think twice about murdering a second time, if you see what I mean."
Nick agreed. "Yet this is something I must do. The roads are like to be bad yet. As soon as it clears enough so I don't have to go through axle-deep mud to get there, I'll head north." And, he decided, as long as he was that far north, he might as well go to Scotland. It would be agreeable to enjoy the St. Andrews links again. He might well pick up a few more pointers.
"Well, I think it a great shame that we have a mystery right here in the village, and no one seems the slightest concerned about the poor man who was killed." Tabitha flounced on the sofa, drawing all eyes to her frustrated little self.
"Dear, I am certain the authorities will do all that is necessary." Mrs. Herbert frowned at her youngest. "It is not something a young lady should consider. Murder!"
Nympha shivered from the Gothic image summoned at the very word. It might not be romantic in the true sense of the word, but it brought forth images of dark forms in the night, skulking shadows, daggers, all the things Tabitha found in the Gothic novels from the lending library.
"Soon it will be March. Will Great-Aunt Letitia's traveling coach come before long?" Nympha smoothed the hem of the white crepe dress that had turned out far better than she had dared to hope. Priscilla had created a puffed trim for the lower part of the skirt that was immensely clever. Nympha might not be deemed a dreadful dowd after all. Even if Great-Aunt Letitia was recovering from a fall, surely she would want to see her friends, perhaps attend a local assembly when she felt better. There were a fair number of peers located in that area, not that she expected to encounter the Dukes of Portland or Newcastle, much less the elderly Earl Manvers. She had checked the peerage found in her father's crowded library shelves to see who might reside there. Of course. Lord Byron was younger, but he was also much sought after. Why, even that man visiting the area, Mr. Jared Milburn, declared he intended to spend some time at Newstead Abbey.
It sounded romantic. An abbey. Visions evoked from Tabitha's favorite books, read aloud in the evening, popped into Nympha's mind. Haunted, ivy-covered ruins.
But there must be other, younger, more available gentlemen around. Surely there must be someone who would be presentable and perhaps on the lookout for a wife? That she needed to be wed was undeniable. That no eligible male existed around here was equally true.
"Nympha! Do you hear that? A carriage has drawn up before the rectory. Do you suppose?..." Priscilla dashed to the window. "Oh, it is, and it is a splendid coach! You will travel in great style!"
And so she did. Nervous, uncertain as to what was ahead of her, but anxious to depart, Nympha set forth the next day. Instructions to write immediately when she arrived, fond wishes for a fine trip, and hopes that something "good" would come of her journey rang in her ears as the coach moved forth from the rectory drive. A wide-eyed maid--Annie, who had been shared with Priscilla--went along.
The same morning, up at the Folly, Nick entered his traveling coach, his valet seated across from him as usual. On a trip of this duration, proper garb and a superior valet guaranteed him the attention he enjoyed--good meals, decent accommodation, and passable horses. It was the only way to travel, in his estimation.
Another small yellow chaise, fondly called a yellow bounder by many, also set forth from the village, headed due north. The horses were not of the highest quality, nor was the postilion inclined to do his best, given the acrimonious nature of his employer. That moody, yet exultant gentleman reclined against the squabs of this vehicle, counting his success before he had achieved it.
Nympha perched on the edge of her seat, smoothing the luxurious velvet while admiring the many fine appointments in Great-Aunt Letitia's traveling coach. Mama said her aunt had a lot of money. That was most likely true, if this coach was anything to go by.
Annie sat opposite her, round-eyed and given to breathless comments. She gestured to the little vase mounted on the interior side. "Real flowers, those be, miss. This be a real treat, traveling in style!"
"Delightful, are they not? My, this is the first style of elegance. I wonder what her house is like?"
This thought sent both of them into deep contemplation, although it didn't last long, there being so many things to catch their attention along the road. Farms, flowers, trees, animals, plus a village here and there that they thundered through.
They paused briefly for a bite of nuncheon, the elegant coach commanding the innkeeper's attentiveness and civility. Nympha nibbled her way through a variety of offerings, deciding that if one must travel, this was the way to do so.
It was late in the afternoon when it happened: they hit a portion of deeply rutted road. Although the coachman did the best he could, the coach lurched, seemed to right itself, then lurched again. And slowly, slowly turned on its side.
"Lawks, miss!" Annie cried before a bandbox tumbled on her. She said no more.
"Annie, are you hurt? Oh, dear me," Nympha cried while attempting to open the door that would be closest to the ground. She could make out sky through the other one, and thought that way unsafe to venture.
When the door gave way, she tumbled forth, hitting her head on a rock, her petticoat in a froth about her face. Annie landed right on top of her.
Her head ached. Annie was heavy. Nympha yielded to the overwhelming desire to shut her eyes. Oh, she hurt.
Dimly she heard voices above her. Too full of aches and pains, she ignored them. Then comforting arms picked her up, holding her close to a warm, firm body that smelled somewhat of costmary. She vaguely perceived being placed inside a coach, and knew no more.
It was dark when she awoke. Someone had tucked her in a bed. She didn't ache quite so much anymore. "Annie? Are you here?" She hoped her maid was recovered and feeling quite the thing. Nympha's head might be a bit fuzzy, but she thought she might get out of bed with help.
"I fear your maid suffered an injury. Her arm was sprained. The apothecary gave her a sedative after binding up her arm. She is sleeping at present. Perhaps I may be of assistance?"
Nympha turned her head at the sound of a beautifully rich male voice coming from the other side of the room. Once she saw the identity of the speaker she closed her eyes again. It couldn't be. Fate couldn't be that cruel.
"The very same," he replied in a dry manner. "And the innkeeper's wife sits close to you at the moment. Never fear, I observe all proprieties."
"Oh, lud!" she whispered. This was not a good beginning to her journey. Not good at all.