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By Elizabeth Mansfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Paula Schwartz
All rights reserved.
Twelve Years Later October 1814
The letter from England, addressed to Captain Christopher Meredith of the 4th Dragoons, Somewhere on the Peninsula, had taken five months to find its way to the proper hands. How it managed to track him to a lonely hacienda on the side of a sparsely populated Spanish hill he was never to discover. But it arrived at a most opportune moment. Kit Meredith, erstwhile captain of the 4th Dragoons, was now an unemployed, bored, almost destitute civilian, and very tired of licking his wounds. He was more than ready for a change.
On this particular day, the day that was to bring him the change he so desired, he was desultorily digging out stones from the dry earth on the south side of the Spanish house, vainly hoping he could turn the small arid area into something resembling an English kitchen garden. While he worked, his mind dwelt upon his grim prospects. He wondered, as he always did these days, how he could possibly manage to improve the state of his finances, at least enough to get back to England.
He'd been badly mauled at Salamanca, where he'd taken bullets in his chest and upper right arm and had his left leg crushed by his horse when it had been shot from under him. For two years he'd been recuperating in this tiny hacienda in the hills east of Bejar. Thanks to the hospitality of the elderly Spanish couple who'd taken him in (in return, of course, for a generous monthly stipend), and the devoted ministrations of his batman, Morris Mickley, he'd almost completely recovered.
But two years on a desolate hillside of a foreign land—years spent, at first, contending with excruciating pain and later with the struggle to regain the use of his limbs—had taken their toll. He was often subject to feelings of irritability, or depression, or hopelessness. These moods were exacerbated by the constant uproar created by his host and hostess, whose dreadful harangues in loud, rapid, incomprehensible Spanish assailed his ears daily. The noise of their bickering, cutting through the somnolent, hot Spanish air, made him long for the quiet, cool green of England.
Only two things had kept him sane. The first was his batman, an utterly loyal, sensible, ingenious fellow whose companionship was food for a lonely soul and whose rich cockney humor was, to Kit, a cheery reminder of England. The second was his satisfaction at having managed to acquire, during these difficult months, four beautiful Spanish horses. The trouble was that he had no funds left with which to transport them—or his batman or even himself—back to England.
Now that his leg (the slowest of his wounded parts to heal) was finally strong enough to allow him to move about with a barely noticeable limp, he yearned to return home. But the recovery had cost him dearly. Every penny he'd managed to save of his captain's pay and the small legacy his father had left him were almost gone. As were two years of what should have been his prime. At twenty-nine, he believed, he should have more to show for his life than four horses, a limp, and empty pockets.
Pausing in his labors to wipe his brow, he saw his batman, Mickley, come strolling round the corner of the house, the letter in his hand. "What have you there?" he asked.
"Dunno 'ow this ever found ye, Cap'n," the batman answered, holding it out to him. "It's been everywhere from Vimiero to Ciudad Rodrigo."
Kit took the letter and studied it with mild curiosity, noting that the seal had somehow remained miraculously intact. "Can't be anything important," he muttered, seating himself on the stone wall that surrounded the hacienda. "Now that I've sold out, there's no reason for anyone to contact me."
Mickley watched as Kit broke the seal. His captain was finally beginning to look well. The Spanish sun had darkened his invalidish pallor, and in the past couple of months he'd at last added some weight to his tall, lanky frame. The batman was about to say something about it when a glance at the captain's expression stilled his tongue. The man looked stunned.
Kit had taken only one quick look at the letter, but that look caused his back to stiffen, his brows to lift in surprise, and the fingers of both hands to tighten on the single sheet. "What ...?" the batman began to ask.
But Kit held up a hand for silence. His eyes gleamed with excitement as he read the letter for the second time—much more carefully now. "Good God!" he exclaimed at last.
The batman eyed him curiously. "Whut's it say?"
"My uncle's dead," Kit said gleefully.
Mickley snorted. "That don't sound like somethin' to cheer the soul."
"Well, it cheers mine. I'm his heir."
The batman looked mildly surprised. "Is 'at a fact? Well, it seems to me that ye should give the poor dead bloke a passin' sigh afore ye start countin' yer gains."
"I hardly knew him," Kit explained, his eyes fixed on the letter. "He and my father never got on. I haven't seen him since I was a child."
"Then why'd the fellow make ye 'is heir?"
"He had no offspring. Neither did his two sisters. My father was the only one of the four Merediths of that generation to have a son. So you see, I'm the next male in the line." He looked up at his batman and grinned. "Can you believe it? I've become the Viscount Crittenden! From now on you'll have to call me Your Lordship."
"Huh! That'll be the day," the batman sneered. "I 'ope ye came into somethin' more substantial than a title."
Kit glanced down at the paper still clutched in his hands. "I think I have. This letter suggests that there's a sizable estate."
"Estate, eh? Well, that's somethin' like!" Mickley tried not to show how impressed he was, but he couldn't help adding, "Sorta like winnin' a lottery, ain't it?"
"Yes," Kit said, somewhat numbed by the surprise of it all, "I suppose it is."
"What sorta estate?"
"The letter doesn't give details. But I know there's a manor house. My father used to talk about it. It's called the Grange. Crittenden Grange. It's in Shropshire." Kit's eyes took on a faraway look as he tried to picture the green hills of Shropshire and the ancestral lands that were now his.
Suddenly, the full import of the news burst upon him. He jumped to his feet, grasped his batman by the shoulders, and whirled him about in a wild burst of exuberance, stirring up a cloud of dust from the sun-dried earth. "Mick, you clodcrusher, smile!" he shouted ecstatically. "We're going home!"CHAPTER 2
Gilbert Whitlow was only twelve and knew nothing about love and courtship. His brother Arthur was fifteen and knew everything. "You may as well face it, Gil," Arthur said to the younger boy, who was hanging precariously over the second-floor banister in the hope of getting a glimpse of his sister's suitor. "She'll have him. So there's no need to crane your neck. I tell you she'll have him."
The words were said with an air of such smug certainty that they irked Gilbert to the soul. "So you say," he retorted, wrinkling his freckled nose in disgust.
"Yes, so I say." Arthur, darker in coloring and more serious in aspect than his mischievous brother, pulled the younger boy from the banister by the scruff of his neck to the safety of the landing. "She'll wed him whether we like him or not. Would you like to wager against it?"
Gilbert shook off his brother's hold. "Caro will never marry Mr. Lutton. He never laughs."
"She'll do it anyway," the older boy said glumly.
"How do you know she will? She wouldn't have him the last time he asked."
"That was more than a year ago. Uncle Clement was still alive. Caro didn't have to marry anyone then."
"I don't see why she has to marry anyone now," Gilbert grumbled, dropping down on the top step and twisting a lock of his disheveled blond hair in despair. "Why can't we go on as we've always done?"
Arthur sighed. "You know why as well as I do. The letter."
"Oh, right!" Gilbert, remembering, looked more despairing than ever. "The letter."
* * *
They'd learned about the letter only a week before. It had been six months since Uncle Clement's funeral, and the two boys were feeling particularly cheerful to see that their sister had at last given up wearing mourning. The two brothers and their sister Caroline were sitting at the breakfast table in the morning room of Crittenden Grange. Wide beams of sunlight spilled from the tall windows, sparkling on the tea service, the breakfast china, and their three faces. Caro seemed to have finally shaken off her doldrums. Arthur, studying his sister's face, was relieved to see it had lost some of the pallor that months of bedside nursing, followed by months of worry about their future, had brought to it. She was looking particularly fetching this morning, he thought, in her pretty blue dress and with her short auburn curls highlighted by the sunshine.
She was merrily teasing Gilbert for eating an entire muffin in two bites. "You look like a squirrel"—she giggled—"with all that bread stuffed in your cheeks."
Gilbert swallowed it all with a gulp. "You're laughing," he remarked, pleased.
Caro looked surprised. "Is that so unusual?" she asked.
"You haven't laughed much lately," Arthur said.
"I suppose I haven't. The past few months have been ... difficult."
"Why?" Gilbert asked. "Because Uncle Clement died?"
A cloud seemed to cover Caro's face. "Yes, that," she said. "And ... other things."
"What other things?" Gilbert persisted.
"You know what other things," Arthur muttered under his breath to his brother, trying to keep the younger boy from spoiling the cheerful atmosphere.
"No, I don't," Gilbert insisted.
"It's all right, Arthur," Caro said gently. "Gilbert has a right to know. You see, dearest, I've been worried because I don't know what Captain Meredith will do about us when he comes to be the new viscount."
"But why does it worry you, Caro?" Arthur asked. "The fellow is a captain of the dragoons, after all. The dragoons are top-of-the-trees. You don't believe, do you, that someone like that would arrive without warning and throw us out in the snow?"
"I'm sure Captain Meredith is a fine gentleman," Caro said, stirring her tea thoughtfully, "but he is under no familial obligation to us. We are only related by marriage to his aunt Martha, a tenuous connection at best. Just because Uncle Clement—who, you know, was not really an uncle to us at all—took us in when Mama died doesn't mean that his heir is obliged to do the same."
"But it's been six months and no word," Arthur said. "Maybe he won't ever come."
"That's what I'm hoping," Caro said, throwing them a smile. "No one has heard from him since he went off to the Peninsula years ago. It's wicked to wish him ill, and I don't, of course, but it would be lovely if he's never found."
"Do you think he might have been killed in the war?" Gilbert asked, wide-eyed.
"No, for we would have been notified. What I hope is that he met a lovely Spanish señorita and is happily ensconced somewhere in Spain with his wife and a dozen children and will never wish to come home."
But at just that moment, Uncle Clement's solicitor made his appearance. Mr. Halford had driven up from the city for the express purpose of acquainting Caro with the contents of the letter—the letter that was to change everything.
The gray-haired, potbellied solicitor with the pince-nez perched on his nose was shown in by Sowell, the butler. He'd started out very early that morning (for the trip from London to Crittenden Grange required three hours of rapid transport), and having been nauseated by the rocking of his aged coach, he arrived tense, nervous, and dyspeptic. "Good day, ma'am," he said sourly from the doorway.
Caro felt her heart sink. There could be only one reason for the fellow's presence—that he was bearing the news she'd been dreading. "Do sit down, Mr. Halford," she said, forcing herself to be calm, "and let Sowell bring you some breakfast."
"No, thank you, ma'am, nothing to eat."
He dropped down upon a chair at the foot of the table and placed a large leather writing case before him. Refusing her offer of tea, he attempted to still the tremors in his stomach by taking deep breaths. When at last he felt able to speak, he dug into the leather case and pulled out a much-handled, much-folded sheet of paper. "I've had a letter from Spain," he said, peering across the table at each of them in turn, the eyes behind his pince-nez blinking with serious intent. "From ... him."
"Him?" Caro'd asked, trying vainly to hide her alarm. "You don't mean ...?"
"Yes, the new Viscount Crittenden himself, Captain Christopher Meredith that was."
"He's in Spain?" Caro asked, a look of relief brightening her eyes at the thought that the new viscount might be living the very life she'd envisioned for him.
"He was at the time he wrote this. I believe he is now on his way home."
"Oh." The relief faded from her eyes as quickly as it had come. "He's coming here, then?"
"Within a fortnight, I believe."
"As soon as that?" Everyone at the table could see her spirits sink.
"Yes, I'm afraid so." The solicitor adjusted his spectacles nervously. "Having received the notification of his inheritance, and having no encumbrances to prevent it, His Lordship made immediate plans to take over his ... er ... duties."
"No encumbrances, you say? Does that mean he has no family?"
"None. He'd been wounded at Salamanca, but he's quite well now. According to the date on this letter, he set out from a place called Bejar more than a week ago and expects to be in England by the tenth. The letter contains the instructions he wishes to be carried out in time for his arrival."
Caro stiffened at once. "Instructions?"
Arthur understood his sister's reaction to that word. Caro was a very independent sort. She didn't respond well when given orders. Their father had died shortly after Gilbert was born, and their mother a mere eight months after that. It was Caro who'd been responsible for the two boys' upbringing—and her own—ever since. Even though Uncle Clement had taken them in, he'd been too preoccupied with his ill health to pay much attention to two underage boys. Caro had made all the decisions regarding their care; she'd supervised meals, hired tutors, mended trousers, chosen books, arbitrated quarrels, and, in general, guided their lives. As for Uncle Clement, he soon found himself relying on her to run the household, take care of his correspondence, and watch over his health. But even Uncle Clement, viscount though he was, did not give Caro orders. He'd learned very early that one didn't order Caroline Whitlow about. Caro didn't take "instructions."
But of course the solicitor couldn't know all that. Unaware of Caro's stiffening, he opened the letter and began to read aloud the orders that the new viscount had sent. These were quite explicit, ranging from his wishes for the location of his bedroom (facing south) to the number of household staff he required (four). Among the other items on his list of requirements were a bedroom adjoining his for his batman; an English—not a French!— chef in the kitchen; and room enough in the stables for the four horses he was bringing with him from Spain. If necessary, he wrote, sell four of the estate's horses to make room for mine.
"Dash it, Caro," Arthur cried out, "he won't sell my Windracer, will he? Or your Brandywine?"
"Hush, Arthur," Caro said, white-lipped. "How can I say? Let Mr. Halford finish."
"There's not much more," the solicitor said. "He concludes only with the request that no ceremonies or social events be held to mark his arrival. 'After my years in Spain,' he writes, 'I require nothing more than a time of absolute quiet and peace.'"
"Absolute quiet?" Caro muttered angrily under her breath. "And what about us? We, I suppose, will be expected to hide in the attic and thus be out of his way!"
The two boys exchanged looks. Their sister was in a fury, and they knew it. They watched uneasily while she paced twice about the room, trying to regain control. "Tell me, Mr. Halford," she asked finally, her mouth tight, "is the man mad?"
The solicitor felt it incumbent upon him to defend his client, although he could not meet Caro's eyes while he did it. "It is not madness, is it, ma'am, for a man to wish for peace and quiet after serving in a war?"
Excerpted from Poor Caroline by Elizabeth Mansfield. Copyright © 1995 Paula Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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