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Newark was left behind and the post-chaise-and-four entered on a stretch of flat country which offered little to attract the eye, or occasion remark. Miss Taverner withdrew her gaze from the landscape and addressed her companion, a fair youth who was lounging in his corner of the chaise somewhat sleepily surveying the back of the nearest post-boy. ‘How tedious it is to be sitting still for so many hours at a stretch!' she remarked. ‘When do we reach Grantham, Perry?'
Her brother yawned. ‘Lord, I don't know! It was you who would go to London.'
Miss Taverner made no reply to this, but picked up a Traveller's Guide from the seat beside her, and began to flutter the leaves over. Young Sir Peregrine yawned again, and observed that the new pair of wheelers, put in at Newark, were good-sized strengthy beasts, very different from the last pair, which had both of them been touched in the wind.
Miss Taverner was deep in the Traveller's Guide, and agreed to this without raising her eyes from the closely printed page.
She was a fine young woman, rather above the average height, and had been used for the past four years to hearing herself proclaimed a remarkably handsome girl. She could not, however, admire her own beauty, which was of a type she was inclined to despise. She had rather have had black hair; she thought the fairness of her gold curls insipid. Happily, her brows and lashes were dark, and her eyes which were startlingly blue (in the manner of a wax doll, she once scornfully told her brother) had a directness and a fire which gave a great deal of character to her face. At first glance one might write her down a mere Dresden china miss, but a second glance would inevitably discover the intelligence in her eyes, and the decided air of resolution in the curve of her mouth.
She was dressed neatly, but not in the first style of fashion, in a plain round gown of French cambric, frilled round the neck with scolloped lace; and a close mantle of twilled sarcenet. A poke-bonnet of basket-willow with a striped velvet ribbon rather charmingly framed her face, and a pair of York tan gloves were drawn over her hands, and buttoned tightly round her wrists.
Her brother, who had resumed his slumbrous scrutiny of the post-boy's back, resembled her closely. His hair was more inclined to brown, and his eyes less deep in colour than hers, but he must always be known for her brother. He was a year younger than Miss Taverner, and, either from habit or carelessness, was very much in the habit of permitting her to order things as she chose.
‘It is fourteen miles from Newark to Grantham,' announced Miss Taverner, raising her eyes from the Traveller's Guide. ‘I had not thought it had been so far.' She bent over the book again. ‘It says here it is Kearsley's Entertaining Guide, you know, which you procured for me in Scarborough that it is a neat and populous town on the River Witham. It is supposed to have been a Roman station, by the remains of a castle which have been dug up. I must say, I should like to explore there if we have the time, Perry.'
‘Oh, lord, you know ruins always look the same!' objected Sir Peregrine, digging his hands into the pockets of his buckskin breeches. ‘I tell you what it is, Judith: if you're set on poking about all the castles on the way we shall be a full week on the road. I'm all for pushing forward to London.'
‘Very well,' submitted Miss Taverner, closing the Traveller's Guide, and laying it on the seat. ‘We will bespeak an early breakfast at the George, then, and you must tell them at what hour you will have the horses put-to.'
‘I thought we were to lie at the Angel,' remarked Sir Peregrine.
‘No,' replied his sister decidedly. ‘You have forgot the wretched account the Mincemans gave us of the comfort to be had there. It is the George and I wrote to engage our rooms, on account of Mrs Minceman warning me of the fuss and to-do she had once when they would have had her go up two pair of stairs to a miserable apartment at the back of the house.'
Sir Peregrine turned his head to grin amicably at her. ‘Well, I don't fancy they'll succeed in fobbing you off with a back room, Ju.'
‘Certainly not,' replied Miss Taverner, with a severity somewhat belied by the twinkle in her eye.
‘No, that's certain,' pursued Peregrine. ‘But what I'm waiting to see, my love, is the way you'll handle the old man.'
Miss Taverner looked a little anxious. ‘I could handle Papa, Perry, couldn't I? If only Lord Worth is not a subject to gout! I think that was the only time when Papa became quite unmanageable.'
‘All old men have gout,' said Peregrine.
Miss Taverner sighed, acknowledging the truth of this pronouncement.
‘It's my belief,' added Peregrine, ‘that he don't want us to come to town. Come to think of it, didn't he say so?'
Miss Taverner loosened the strings of her reticule, and groped in it for a slender packet of letters. She spread one of these open. ‘"Lord Worth presents his compliments to Sir Peregrine and Miss Taverner and thinks it inadvisable for them to attempt the fatigues of a journey to London at this season. His lordship will do himself the honour of calling upon them in Yorkshire when next he is in the North." And that,' concluded Miss Taverner, ‘was written three months ago you may see the date for yourself, Perry: 29th June, 1811 and not even in his own hand. I am sure it is a secretary wrote it, or those horrid lawyers. Depend upon it, Lord Worth has forgotten our very existence, because you know all the arrangements about the money we should have were made by the lawyers, and whenever there is any question to be settled it is they who write about it. So if he does not like us to come to London it is quite his fault for not having made the least attempt to come to us, or to tell us what we must do. I think him a very poor guardian. I wish my father had named one of our friends in Yorkshire, someone we are acquainted with. It is very disagreeable to be under the governance of a stranger.'
‘Well, if Lord Worth don't want to be at the trouble of ordering our lives, so much the better,' said Peregrine. ‘You want to cut a dash in town, and I daresay I can find plenty of amusement if we haven't a crusty old guardian to spoil the fun.'
‘Yes,' agreed Miss Taverner, a trifle doubtfully. ‘But in common civility we must ask his permission to set up house in London. I do hope we shall not find him set against us, regarding it as an imposition, I mean; perhaps thinking that my uncle might rather have been appointed than himself. It must appear very singular to him. It is an awkward business, Perry.'
A grunt being the only response to this, she said no more, but leaned back in her corner and perused the unsatisfactory communications she had received from Lord Worth.
It was an awkward business. His lordship, who must, she reflected, be going on for fifty-five or fifty-six years of age, showed a marked disinclination to trouble himself with the affairs of his wards, and although this might in some circumstances be reckoned a good, in others it must be found to be a pronounced evil. Neither she nor Peregrine had ever been farther from home than to Scarborough. They knew nothing of London, and had no acquaintance there to guide them. The only persons known to them in the whole town were their uncle, and a female cousin living respectably, but in a small way, in Kensington. This lady Miss Taverner must rely upon to present her into society, for her uncle, a retired Admiral of the Blue, had lived upon terms of such mutual dislike and mistrust with her father as must preclude her from seeking either his support or his acquaintance.
Sir John Taverner had never been heard to speak with the smallest degree of kindness of his brother, and when his gout was at its worst, he had been used to refer to him as a damned scoundrelly fellow whom he would not trust the length of his own yard-arm. There were very few people whom Sir John had ever spoken of with much complaisance, but he had from time to time given his children such instances of their uncle's conduct as convinced them that he must indeed be a shabby creature, and no mere victim of Sir John's prejudice.
Lord Worth might think it singular that he who had not set eyes on his old friend once in the last ten years should have been appointed guardian to his children, but they, knowing Sir John, found it easily understandable. Sir John, always irascible, could never be brought during the last years of his life to live on terms of cordiality with his neighbours. There must always be quarrels. But from having lived secluded on his estates ever since the death of his wife and not having met Lord Worth above three times in a dozen years, he had had no quarrel with him, and had come by insensible degrees to consider him the very person to have the care of his children in the event of his own decease. Worth was a capital fellow; Sir John could trust him to administer the very considerable fortune he would leave his children; there was no fear of Worth warming his own pockets. The thing was done, the Will drawn up without the smallest reference to it being made either to Worth or to the children themselves a circumstance, Miss Taverner could not but reflect, entirely in keeping with all Sir John's high-handed dealings.
She was aroused from these musings by the rattle and bump of the chaise-wheels striking cobblestones, and looked up to find that they had reached Grantham.
As they drew into the town the post-boys were obliged to slacken the pace considerably, so much traffic was there in the streets, and such a press of people thronging the pathways, and even the road itself.
All was bustle and animation, and when the chaise came at last within sight of the George, a huge red-brick structure on the main street, Miss Taverner was surprised to see any number of coaches, curricles, gigs, and phaetons drawn up before it.
‘Well,' she said, ‘I am glad I followed Mrs Minceman's advice and wrote to bespeak our rooms. I had no notion we should find Grantham so crowded.'
Sir Peregrine had roused himself, and was leaning forward to look out of the window. ‘The place seems to be in the devil of a pucker,' he remarked. ‘There must be something out of the way going forward.'
In another moment the chaise had turned in under the archway to the courtyard, and come to a standstill. There an even greater bustle reigned, every ostler being so fully occupied that for some minutes no one approached the chaise or gave the least sign of having observed its arrival. A post-boy already booted and spurred, with a white smock over his uniform, who was leaning against the wall with a straw between his teeth, did indeed survey the chaise in a disinterested manner, but since it was no part of his business to change the horses, or inquire after the travellers' wants, he made no movement to come forward.
With an exclamation of impatience Sir Peregrine thrust open the door in the front of the chaise, and sprang down, briefly admonishing his sister to sit still and wait. He strode off towards the lounging post-boy, who straightened himself respectfully at his approach, and removed the straw from his mouth. After a short colloquy with the boy, Sir Peregrine came hurrying back to the chaise, his boredom quite vanished, and his eyes fairly sparkling with anticipation.
‘Judith! The best of good fortune! A mill! Only think of it! Out of all the days in the year to have come to Grantham, and by the veriest chance!'
‘A mill?' echoed Miss Taverner, drawing her brows together.
‘Yes, am I not telling you? The Champion Tom Cribb, you know is to fight Molyneux to-morrow at some place or another I did not perfectly catch the name close by here. Thank God for it you had the good sense to bespeak our rooms, for they say there is not a bed to be had for twenty miles round! Come, don't be dawdling any longer, Ju!'
The intelligence that she had come to Grantham on the eve of a prize-fight could scarcely afford Miss Taverner gratification, but from having spent the greater part of her life in the company of her father and brother, and from having been used to hear a great deal of talk about manly sports and to think them perfectly proper for gentlemen to take part in, she readily acquiesced in Peregrine's desire to be present at this fight. For herself she had rather have been otherwhere. Prize-fighting could only disgust her, and although there would naturally be no question of her being a witness of the spectacle, she must expect to hear of it all at second-hand, and to find herself, in all probability, the only female in an inn full to overflowing with sporting gentlemen. She did attempt a slight remonstrance, without, however, much hope of being attended to. ‘But, Perry, consider! If the fight is for to-morrow, that is Saturday, and we must stay here until Monday, for you would not care to travel on Sunday. You know we were counting on being in London to-morrow.'
‘Oh, pooh, what in the world does that signify?' he replied. ‘I would not miss this mill for a hundred pounds! I tell you what: you may explore your Roman ruins as much as you choose. You know that is what you wanted. And only to think of it! Cribb and Molyneux! You must have heard me speak of the fight last year, and wish I might have been there. Thirty-three rounds, and the Black resigned! But they say he is in better figure to-day. It will be a great mill: you would not wish me to miss it! Why, when they met before it lasted fifty-five minutes! They must be devilish even-matched. Do come down, Ju!'
No, Miss Taverner would not wish Peregrine to miss anything that could give him pleasure. She picked up the Traveller's Guide, and her reticule, and taking his hand stepped down from the chaise into the courtyard.
The landlord met them upon their entrance into the inn but seemed to have very little time to bestow on them. The coffee-room was already crowded and there were a dozen gentlemen of consequence demanding his attention. Rooms? There was not a corner of his house unbespoken. He would advise them to have a fresh team put to and drive on to Greetham, or Stamford. He did not know he believed there was not an inn with accommodation to offer this side of Norman's Cross. He was sorry, but they would understand that the occasion was extraordinary, and all his bedchambers had been engaged for days back.
This, however, would not do for Judith Taverner, accustomed her whole life to command. ‘There is some mistake,' she said, in her cool decided voice. ‘I am Miss Taverner. You will have had my letter a full week ago. I require two bedchambers, accommodation for my maid, and for my brother's valet, who will be here presently, and a private parlour.'
The landlord threw up his hands in a gesture of despair, but he was impressed a little by her air of authority. He had been at first inclined to underrate a couple so modestly dressed, but the mention of a maid and a valet convinced him that he had to do with persons of quality, whom he would not wish to offend. He embarked on a flood of explanation and apology. He was sure Miss Taverner would not care to stay under the circumstances.
Judith raised her brows. ‘Indeed! I fancy I am the best judge of that. I will forgo the private parlour, but be good enough to make some arrangement for our bedchambers at once.'
‘It is impossible, ma'am!' declared the landlord. ‘The house is as full as it can hold. Every room is engaged! I should have to turn some gentleman out to oblige you.'
‘Then do so,' said Judith.
The landlord looked imploringly towards Peregrine. ‘You must see, sir, I can't help myself. I'm very sorry for the fault, but there's no help for it, and indeed the company is not what the lady would like.'
‘Judith, it does seem that we shall have to go elsewhere,' said Peregrine reasonably. ‘Perhaps Stamford I could see the fight from there, or even farther.'
‘Certainly not,' said Judith. ‘You heard what this man said, that he believed there is not a room to be had this side of Norman's Cross. I do not mean to go on such a wild-goose chase. Our rooms were bespoken here, and if a mistake has been made it must be set right.'
Her voice, which was very clear, seemed to have reached the ears of a group of persons standing over against the window. One or two curious glances were directed towards her, and after a moment's hesitation a man who had been watching Miss Taverner from the start came across the room, and made her a bow.
‘I beg pardon I do not wish to intrude, but there seems to be some muddle. I should be glad to place my rooms at your disposal, ma'am, if you would do me the honour of accepting them.'
The man at her elbow looked to be between twenty-seven and thirty years of age. His manner proclaimed the gentleman; he had a decided air of fashion; and his countenance, without being handsome, was sufficiently pleasing. Judith sketched a curtsy. ‘You are very good, sir, but you are not to be giving up your rooms to two strangers.'
He smiled. ‘No such thing, ma'am. We cannot tell but what my rooms should properly be yours. My friend and I ' he made a slight gesture as though to indicate someone in the group behind him ‘have acquaintances in the neighbourhood, and may readily command a lodging at Hungerton Lodge. I rather I should say we are happy to be of service.'
There was nothing to do but thank him, and accept his offer. He bowed again, and withdrew to rejoin his friends. The landlord, relieved to be extricated from a difficult situation, led the way out of the coffee-room, and delivered his new guests into the care of a chamber-maid. In a very little time they found themselves in possession of two respectable apartments on the first floor, and had nothing further to do than to await the arrival of their trunks.
It was one of Miss Taverner's first concerns to discover the name of her unknown benefactor, but by the time she had seen her baggage bestowed, and arranged for a truckle-bed to be set up in the room for her maid, he had left the inn. The landlord did not know him; he had arrived only a few minutes before themselves; he was not an habitual traveller upon that road.
Judith was disappointed, but had to be satisfied. There was no finding out in the crowd flocking to Grantham who one individual might be. She owned herself pleased with him. He had a well-bred air; the delicacy with which he had managed the whole business; his withdrawing just when he ought, all impressed her in his favour. She would not be sorry to make his better acquaintance.
Peregrine agreed to his being a civil fellow, owned himself much beholden to him, would be glad to meet him again, thought it odds they must run across each other in the town, but was more immediately concerned with the means of getting to the scene of the fight next day. It was to be at Thistleton Gap, some eight or more miles to the south-west of Grantham. A conveyance must be found; he would not go in his chaise: that was unthinkable. A curricle must be hired, or a gig, and before he could sit down to his dinner he must be off to see whether he could come by one.
It was four o'clock, and Miss Taverner had not been used to fashionable hours. She would dine at once, and in her room. Sir Peregrine patted her shoulder, and said she would be more comfortable in her own room.
Judith curled her lip at him. ‘Well, you like to think so, my dear.'
‘You couldn't dine in the coffee-room,' he assured her. ‘It may do very well for me, but for you it won't answer.'
‘Go and find your curricle,' said Judith, between amusement and exasperation.
He needed no further encouragement; he was gone in a trice, nor did he return until after five o'clock. He came in then, highly elated, full of his good fortune. There was no coming by a curricle no gentleman's carriage to be had at all, but he had heard of a gig owned by some farmer, a shabby affair, scarce an inch of paint on it, but it would serve and been off immediately to drive the bargain. The long and short of it was he had driven the gig back, and was ready now to do all that a brother should for his sister's entertainment in taking her out to see ruins, or whatever else she chose. Dinner? Oh, he had eaten a tight little beefsteak in the coffee-room, and was entirely at her disposal.
Miss Taverner could not but feel that with the town seething with sporting company, it was hardly the moment for an expedition, but she was heartily sick of her own room, and agreed to the scheme.
The gig was found upon inspection to be not quite so bad as Peregrine described, but still, a shabby affair. Miss Taverner grimaced at it. ‘My dear Perry, I had rather walk!'
‘Walk? Oh, lord, I have had enough of that, I can tell you! I must have tramped a good mile already. Don't be so nice, Ju! It ain't what I'd choose, but no one knows us here.'
‘You had better let me drive,' she remarked.
But that, of course, would not do. If she thought she could drive better than he, she much mistook the matter. The brute was hard-mouthed, not a sweet-goer by any means, no case for a lady.
They went down the main street at a sober pace, but once clear of the town Sir Peregrine let his hands drop, and they jolted away at a great rate, if not in the best style, bumping over every inequality in the road, and lurching round the corners.
‘Perry, this is insupportable,' Judith said at last. ‘Every tooth rattles in my head! You will run into something. Do, I beg of you, remember that you are to take me to see the Roman castle! I am persuaded you are on the wrong road.'
‘Oh, I had forgot that curst castle!' he said ruefully. ‘I was meaning to see which road I must take to-morrow to Thistleton Gap, you know. Very well, very well, I'll turn, and go back!' He reined in the horse as he spoke, and began at once to turn, quite heedless of the narrowness of the road at this point, and the close proximity of a particularly sharp bend in it.
‘Good God, what will you do next?' exclaimed Judith. ‘If anything were to come round the corner! I wish you would give me the reins!'
She spoke too late. He had the gig all across the road, and seemed in danger of running into the ditch if his attention were distracted. She heard the sound of horses travelling fast and made a snatch at the reins.
Round the corner swept a curricle-and-four at breakneck speed. It was upon them; it must crash into them; there could be no stopping it. Peregrine tried to wrench the horse round, cursing under his breath; Judith felt herself powerless to move. She had a nightmarish vision of four magnificent chestnuts thundering down on her, and of a straight figure in a caped overcoat driving them. It was over in a flash. The chestnuts were swung miraculously to the off; the curricle's mudguard caught only the wheels of the gig, and the chestnuts came to a plunging standstill.
The shock of the impact, though it was hardly more than a glancing scrape, startled the farmer's horse into an attempt to bolt, and in another moment one wheel of the gig was in the shallow ditch, and Miss Taverner was nearly thrown from her seat.
She righted herself, aware that her bonnet was crooked, and her temper in shreds, and found that the gentleman in the curricle was sitting perfectly unmoved, easily holding his horses. As she turned to look at him he spoke, not to her, but over his shoulder to a diminutive tiger perched behind him. ‘Take it away, Henry, take it away,' he said.
Wrath, reproach, even oaths Miss Taverner could have pardoned. The provocation was great; she herself longed to box Peregrine's ears. But this calm indifference was beyond everything. Her anger veered irrationally towards the stranger. His manner, his whole bearing, filled her with repugnance. From the first moment of setting eyes on him she knew that she disliked him. Now she had leisure to observe him more closely, and found that she disliked him no less.
He was the epitome of a man of fashion. His beaver hat was set over black locks carefully brushed into a semblance of disorder; his cravat of starched muslin supported his chin in a series of beautiful folds; his driving-coat of drab cloth bore no less than fifteen capes, and a double row of silver buttons. Miss Taverner had to own him a very handsome creature, but found no difficulty in detesting the whole cast of his countenance. He had a look of self-consequence; his eyes, ironically surveying her from under weary lids, were the hardest she had ever seen, and betrayed no emotion but boredom. His nose was too straight for her taste. His mouth was very well-formed, firm but thin-lipped. She thought it sneered.
Worse than all was his languor. He was uninterested, both in having dexterously averted an accident, and in the gig's plight. His driving had been magnificent; there must be unsuspected strength in those elegantly gloved hands holding the reins in such seeming carelessness, but in the name of God why must he put on an air of dandified affectation?
As the tiger jumped nimbly down on to the road Miss Taverner's annoyance found expression in abrupt speech: ‘We don't need your assistance! Be pleased to drive on, sir!'
The cold eyes swept over her. Their expression made her aware of the shabbiness of the gig, of her own country-made dress, of the appearance she and Peregrine must present. ‘I should be very pleased to drive on, my good girl,' said the gentleman in the curricle, ‘but that apparently unmanageable steed of yours is you may have noticed making my progress impossible.'
Miss Taverner was not used to such a form of address, and it did not improve her temper. The farmer's horse, in its frightened attempts to drag the gig out of the ditch, was certainly plunging rather wildly across the narrow road, but if only Peregrine would go to its head instead of jobbing at it, all would be well. The tiger, a sharp-faced scrap of uncertain age, dressed in a smart blue and yellow livery, was preparing to take the guidance of matters into his own hands. Miss Taverner, unable to bear the indignity of it, said fiercely: ‘Sir, I have already informed you that we don't need your help! Get down, Perry! Give the reins to me!'
‘I have not the slightest intention of offering you my help,' said the exquisite gentleman, rather haughtily raising his brows. ‘You will find that Henry is quite able to clear the road for me.'
And, indeed, by this time the tiger had grasped the horse's rein above the bit, and was engaged in soothing the poor creature. This was very soon done, and in another minute the gig was clear of the ditch, and drawn up at the very edge of the road.
‘You see, it was quite easy,' said that maddening voice.
Peregrine, who had till now been too much occupied in trying to control his horse to take part in the discussion, said angrily: ‘I'm aware the fault was mine, sir! Well aware of it!'
‘We are all well aware of it,' replied the stranger amicably. ‘Only a fool would have attempted to turn his carriage at this precise point. Do you mean to keep me waiting very much longer, Henry?'
‘I've said I admit the fault,' said Peregrine, colouring hotly, ‘and I'm sorry for it! But I shall take leave to tell you, sir, that you were driving at a shocking pace!'
He was interrupted somewhat unexpectedly by the tiger, who lifted a face grown suddenly fierce, and said in shrill Cockney accents: ‘You shut your bone-box, imperence! He's the very best whip in the country, ah, and I ain't forgetting Sir John Lade neither! There ain't none to beat him, and them's blood-chestnuts we've got in hand, and if them wheelers ain't sprained a tendon apiece it ain't nowise your fault!'
The gentleman in the curricle laughed. ‘Very true, Henry, but you will have observed that I am still waiting.'
‘Well, lord love yer, guv'nor, ain't I coming?' protested the tiger, scrambling back on to his perch.
Peregrine, recovering from his astonishment at the tiger's outburst, said through his teeth: ‘We shall meet again, sir, I promise you!'
‘Do you think so?' said the gentleman in the curricle. ‘I hope you may be found to be wrong.'
The team seemed to leap forward; in another minute the curricle was gone.
‘Insufferable!' Judith said passionately. ‘Insufferable!'