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There was a letter for the earl from South America. The butler took it from the English naval captain who had brought it to the door of the Earl of Winslow's town house in Berkeley Square. "It is from his lordship's granddaughter," Captain Williams told the butler. "I promised her I would deliver it personally."
"His lordship is not at home at present, Captain, but I will see to it he gets the letter the moment he returns."
Captain Williams nodded. "I shall be at Obbetson's for a week or so if his lordship would care to see me."
The butler inclined his head. "Very good, sir. I shall inform his lordship."
"Thank you." Another nod and Captain Williams was gone, leaving the surprising letter in the custody of Reid.
Reid had been butler to Lord Winslow for fifteen years now, and the events that made this letter so interesting had occurred long before he had arrived to serve the Beauchamp family, but, in the way of all servants, he was well acquainted with the past history of his employer. Thirty years ago Lord Winslow's only child, his daughter Mary, had defied her parents and married Don Antonio Vicente Carreño, a Venezuelan. She had gone off to Venezuela with him, and his lordship had since then refused to recognize her existence. The heir to the earldom was his brother's son, Nicholas Beauchamp, who was at present twenty-three years of age.
When the earl came in two hours later, he was in a good mood. He had just managed to beat the Regent out of a painting they had both been interested in, and he was feeling very pleased with himself. The letter from Venezuela came as a distinct shock.
"Who did you say brought it?" he asked his butler.
"ACaptain Williams, my lord. He said he would be at Obbetson's should you require to speak to him."
The earl grunted, nodded dismissal, and very slowly began to open the letter. He knew he had a granddaughter and four grandsons. He had had his own way of finding out about the Carreño household in Caracas, although he had never once in thirty years had a direct communication from Mary. They both, it seemed, shared the family characteristic of unforgivingness. But this wasn't from Mary; it was from her daughter. He opened the letter and read:
San Pedro, April 1812
I take the liberty of writing to you at this time because I have news I think you should be put in possession of. My mother was killed in the earthquake of March 26. She was in the cathedral in Caracas when the roof collapsed. My brother Antonio, who was in the army barracks at the same time, was also killed.
I am asking Captain Williams, who is a friend of my father's, to carry this letter for me. I am sorry that it contains such unhappy news. Your granddaughter, Margarita Josefina Theresa Carreño y Beauchamp
When the old man had finished the letter, he leaned his elbow on his desk and shaded his eyes. Mary dead. It did not seem possible. Fifteen minutes later he rang the bell and instructed Reid to have a message taken to Captain Williams.
The Earl of Winslow had an imposing presence, and Captain Williams found himself a little awed by the tall, upright, dignified old man. "I asked you to come visit me, Captain," the earl said crisply, "because I wish to discover more about the situation in Venezuela. My granddaughter has written to tell me that my daughter was killed in an earthquake."
There was not a flicker of emotion on the aristocratic old face. Captain Williams said after a moment, "That is correct, my lord."
"I did not know there had been an earthquake. It was a bad one?"
"One of the worst," replied Captain Williams soberly. "Ten thousand were killed in Caracas alone."
"I understand my daughter was in the cathedral. She had become a Catholic then?"
"Yes, my lord. It was Holy Thursday afternoon. The cathedrals were filled all over Venezuela. There was a heavy loss of life in Valencia, Barquisimeto, Trujillo, and Merida. My ship was anchored in the port of La Guaira, and in that whole city only three houses remained standing."
"It sounds very bad indeed." The earl's voice was even and strong, not the voice of an old man. "How did my granddaughter come to escape?"
"Margarita had a fever and Dona Maria insisted that she stay at home. Otherwise she too would have been in the cathedral."
"And my grandson was in the army barracks?"
"Yes, my lord. As you must know, two years ago Venezuela declared her independence from Spain. Antonio was a colonel in the Republican forces. The whole Carreño family is deeply Republican, and Don Antonio and the other boys were attending a meeting at the Bolivar house that afternoon. That is why they were not in the cathedral, and that is what saved their lives."
"I am aware of Venezuela's declaration, Captain. What I wish to discover is for how long the country is likely to remain independent."
Captain Williams sighed. "The tide is running out, I fear. The problem is that independence is the dream of the Creole aristocrats. The rest of the country--the pardos, the Indians--have no interest in national liberty. And the priests have started preaching that the earthquake was the vengeance of God on the country for turning its back on Spain. Miranda is in charge of the Republic, but his troops are raw and inexperienced. I doubt if he can hold out against Monteverde for much longer."
"This Monteverde is the general in charge of the Royalist forces?"
"Yes, my lord."
"What will happen to the Republicans if Spain wins?"
"God knows, my lord. This Monteverde is nothing but a noncommissioned naval officer who has been lucky enough to win a series of victories--thanks in part to the indecisiveness of General Miranda. He is not a man I should care to surrender to."
The earl stared for a moment at his still-shapely hands, lying quietly on his knees. Without looking up he said, "Tell me about my granddaughter."
"About Margarita?" The captain sounded surprised.
"Yes. You said you knew the whole family."
A strange, gentle smile came over the captain's face. "She is the loveliest child I have ever seen," he said softly.
The earl looked up. "How old is she?"
"Fifteen, my lord."
After a moment the earl spoke, slowly and deliberately. "Are you returning to Venezuela, Captain?"
"Yes, my lord. I have been given command of the gunboat Revenge."
"Will you carry a letter to Don Antonio for me?"
"Yes, my lord."
"If you would not mind waiting one moment, I will write it now."
"I don't mind waiting, my lord."
The old man inclined his head, moved to an elegant writing table and sat down. Captain Williams looked at the walls around him with awe. They were filled with paintings, and even his amateur eye recognized the work of masters like Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt. The earl was rising from the table, letter in hand, when there was a sound of an angry voice in the hall, and the door was flung open.
"I want to talk to you," the intruder said grimly to the Earl of Winslow.
"Yes, I rather thought you would," the earl returned suavely. "First, however, let me introduce you to Captain Williams, who has brought me news from Venezuela. My nephew, Captain, Mr. Nicholas Beauchamp."
Nicholas hesitated a moment, then he came across the room to the captain, his hand held out. "How do you do, Captain. I'm sorry, I didn't realize there was anyone with my uncle."
Captain Williams found himself looking at one of the most sensationally handsome young men he had ever seen. But, although Nicholas Beauchamp's voice had been cordial, there still remained a line between his brows that spoke eloquently of temper. "That is quite all right, Mr. Beauchamp," he replied quietly. "I was on the point of leaving."
"Captain Williams has brought me a letter from your Cousin Margarita, Nicholas." The earl's voice was level and emotionless. "My daughter Mary is dead."
There was a startled pause. "Oh," said Nicholas Beauchamp. Then, belatedly, "I'm sorry, sir."
The earl inclined his head. "I thank you. Captain, for your good offices," he said to Captain Williams's stoic face. He crossed the room and handed Williams the letter.
"I am happy to be of service, my lord," the captain returned woodenly and, with considerable relief, turned and left the room.
He dined that evening with some friends who moved in the lower echelons of London society, and he asked them curiously if they knew anything about the Beauchamp family.
"I have never met them, Ned," returned his friend Mr. Embleton, "but there are few people in London who don't know about the earl."
"Well I met him. This afternoon. A cold fish if ever I saw one." Captain Williams looked disgusted.
"He's tremendously aristocratic, I understand. Even the prince stands a bit in awe of him."
Captain Williams helped himself to a draught of wine. "Well, that young nephew of his don't seem to be in awe of him. He was spoiling for a fight and wasn't at all pleased to be interrupted by my inconvenient presence."
"Oh, Nicholas. Him at least I've seen. He broke Murray's driving record from London to Newmarket last year. Bested it by half an hour. There's been talk about him ever since he got sent down from Oxford. He's a wild one all right."
Captain Williams raised his eyebrows. "He seems rather young for such celebrity."
"I sat next to him once at a mill," put in Mr. Fergus, the youngest member of their company. "He's a good sort, I thought. The gossip is that he and Lord Winslow are at drawn daggers over money. The earl is a great collector, and the story goes that he's bankrupting Winslow in order to buy paintings. Nicholas don't like that--after all, Winslow's his inheritance. He's been fighting with his uncle for years to put money into the estate, but the old man refuses. Nicholas ain't his son, after all, or even his grandson."
"He's his great-nephew?"
"His nephew," said Mr. Embleton positively. "Nicholas's father was the earl's son by a second marriage. Christopher was almost twenty years younger than the present earl."
"Christopher Beauchamp. Do you mean Captain Lord Christopher Beauchamp, the one who was killed in the Battle of the Nile?"
"The same. A navy man like yourself."
Captain Williams smiled ruefully. "Hardly like myself. He was on his way to a brilliant career."
"Well the Frenchies put a stop to that. That left Nicholas as the only heir. The earl never had children."
Captain Williams finished his wine. "On the contrary, he had a daughter. She married a Venezuelan gentleman years ago. She was a very lovely lady, the pick of a bad lot, I'd say."
"Was?" inquired Mr. Fergus.
"Yes. She was killed in the earthquake two months ago."
"Oh. I say, is that why you went to see the earl?"
"Yes. I brought him the news. He didn't bat an eyelash."
Later, in his bed at Obbetson's, Captain Williams lay thinking of all he had learned that day. Then he thought of the warm and loving Carreño family in Caracas. Mary had had to turn her back on her country, her family, and her religion when she had married Don Antonio, but there was no doubt at all in Captain Williams's mind that she had made the right decision.