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Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.
The most prosaic schoolgirl in England, Philippa Somerville arrived home from Stamboul in the summer, having travelled stoically through Volos, Malta and Venice where she received, with mild distaste, the unexpected bequest of a fortune. From Venice, she crossed Europe to Calais, and at Calais she took ship for Tynemouth, whence she set off for her home in Flaw Valleys.
With her rode her henchman, guide and protector, a Scotsman called Abernethy. And on Archie Abernethy's stout arm, complaining, was a two-year-old boy named Kuz?m.
Sir Thomas Wharton and his company came across them all just outside Newcastle, and since there seemed to be a great many sumpter mules and a large number of hired soldiers guarding them, he gave himself the trouble of investigating. The sight of the Somerville child, returning after two years' absence on unexplained orgies abroad, was the reward of exemplary vigilance. His companion, a fledgling nobleman from Northumberland, was inclined to be more sentimental, but Sir Thomas quite rightly ignored him. Sir Thomas halted Philippa dead in her tracks, and made her vivaciously welcome.
It was a chaste encounter, conducted with grim efficiency by Archie Abernethy, with Philippa brazenly helping him. Yes, she remembered the Whartons, beside whom her late father had often fought. And yes, she remembered Austin Grey, Marquis of Allendale, although from a viewpoint four feet high, to a target not very much higher.
The Allendale estates were not far from Flaw Valleys. At twelve, this boy had been packed off to Padua and was now returned, dark, engaging and fragile in a doublet clearly fashioned in London. Peering from under her hood, Philippa favoured Austin Grey with a generous smile and returned to the business of supporting the lies Archie Abernethy was telling.
Yes, they had just come back from Malta. Yes, Mistress Somerville had been travelling abroad with a party, including her mother's friend, Crawford of Lymond. And that-indicating the now sleeping Kuz?m-was Mr Crawford's motherless son, being taken home to his grandmother in Scotland.
They looked at Mr Crawford's motherless son. 'Who's his mother?' Sir Thomas said with blossoming interest. 'Don't tell me Lymond married before he left Scotland. Too busy with other men's sisters.'
Archie said, 'No. He didna marry Kuz?m's mother. She's deid.'
Which was true. With a charming artlessness, Philippa squashed Tom Wharton's further inquiries and, prattling, prepared to detach herself. Austin Grey said, 'You aren't going home to Flaw Valleys?'
For a moment, staring at him, she thought of disaster. Her home was burnt down and Kate dead? The Scots had come over the Border and levelled it? Kate had married again without telling her? Philippa said, 'Yes. Why not?'
And Austin Grey said quickly, 'It's all right. Your mother is quite all right. She isn't there, that's all. She's gone to stay at Midculter Castle in Scotland.'
Which was how, wheeling about, the small but resolute migration from Turkey abjured the delights of home and Flaw Valleys and turned up six days later in Scotland.
Austin Grey, as it happened, reached Scotland before them. Voluntary and kind-hearted harbinger, he took his horse over the Border and traversing the hills of the Lowlands reached that part of Lanarkshire west where the castle of Midculter stood. There he called on Sybilla, the Dowager Lady Culter, and delivered to her certain papers at Philippa Somerville's behest.
Sybilla welcomed him in. White-haired, blue-eyed and urbane, she was quite capable of dealing with diffident young English noblemen and putting them instantly and disarmingly at their ease. Only after he had settled in front of her beautiful fireplace with a cup of her equally desirable wine in his hand did she glance at the packet he had given her and say, 'But it is for Mistress Somerville of Flaw Valleys?'
Austin Grey said, 'Yes. I thought she was here?'
For an elderly lady, the blue eyes confronting him were disconcertingly shrewd. 'Yes, she is,' Sybilla said. 'May I know who this is from?'
'I felt,' said Austin Grey, 'that you should break the news, Lady Culter. Mistress Somerville's daughter is home. She is travelling north. She should be with you in two or three days. The letters are from Philippa to her mother.'
Sybilla's eyes had become very bright. Then, 'You've seen her, Lord Allendale?' she said gently.
Austin said, 'She is in good heart, and travelling well. Only slowly, because of the baby.'
Lady Culter said nothing. She sat and looked at the young English messenger, with her lips parted and her eyes rather wide, so that the white skin of her brow was finely pleated. He hesitated and said, 'Your son's child. Mr Crawford's small boy called Kuz?m.'
'They found him,' Sybilla said.
He said, carefully, 'I don't know the story. But they have him quite safe, Lady Culter. If I may say so, he has just your colouring.'
'And my son?' Sybilla said finally.
'I gather . . . Perhaps the letters will tell you,' said Austin Grey. 'I gather he is still overseas.'
He left soon after that. But not before a light, brown-haired woman entered, whom he had seen all his youth about Hexham with her late husband Gideon Somerville, and her one small unkempt daughter Philippa. Kate Somerville came forward to greet him and was forestalled by her hostess the Dowager. 'Kate, he has letters from Philippa. She's safe, and on her way here with the child.'
But since women's tears, suppressed, made him uncomfortable, Austin Grey left as soon as possible after that.
By the time Philippa arrived at Midculter her mother and Kuz?m's grandmother between them knew the contents of the letters and diaries by heart and still could not reconcile them with the undersized fifteen-year-old who had left her uncle's home in London two winters ago, to plant herself willy nilly in the unsuitable company of Lady Culter's younger son Francis . . . Francis Crawford of Lymond, the hard-living leader of mercenaries whose by-blow Kuz?m had been snatched and used in a game by his enemies. Until he had caught up with and killed their leader, Graham Reid Malett.
It was typical that, in the wild hunt through far lands which followed, the main concern of Crawford of Lymond had been to kill Malett, not necessarily to rescue the child. And typical that, suspecting it, Philippa Somerville had stuck grimly to him, and biding her time, had found the child and brought it back, too.
It was at the first reading that Kate stopped and letting her hand fall, with the letter in it, said in tones of failing belief, 'But she was in the harem!'
Sybilla said calmly, 'It doesn't matter. If she says she was untouched, she was untouched. And no one else need know anything of it.'
'In Flaw Valleys?' Kate said. 'They'll ask her about the pattern on Suleiman's nightshirt. And I cannot believe that Francis was not fully capable of extracting his own son without Philippa's help. She was probably an unqualified nuisance.'
Sybilla turned over one or two pages. 'Certainly, she has remarkably little to say in his favour.'
Kate said glumly, 'I don't suppose they were speaking to one another. All she did was saddle him with two children to look after instead of one. She says he sent her straight home from Volos, and I can't say I'm surprised.'
'Well, at least she went,' said Sybilla comfortably. 'It says here he sent her straight home from Algiers as well, and she made Archie Abernethy turn back so that she could continue her hunt for the little one. I think we owe a great deal to your Philippa.'
'Grey hairs,' Philippa's mother suggested.
But it was Kate, daily tramping the battlements, who first saw the long line of dust which announced her young daughter's arrival. By the time Philippa's cort?ge arrived, they were all on the steps of Midculter: Kate, Sybilla and Richard, Sybilla's other older, responsible son, with his wife and young children beside him.
There seemed to be a great many mules. Straining her eyes as they turned in at the gates, Kate studied them vainly for Philippa. In the lead was a small bearded man bearing a bundle, and beside him a stylish person in a cloak and hood trimmed with lynx, at whom Kate cast a wistful glance, since she could not imagine her having much time for her bedraggled Philippa. Then, looking again at the smooth, polished face and the coils of intricately pleated shining brown hair, she saw that it was her bedraggled Philippa. She walked forward, slowly.
Philippa reined in and looked down at her mother. Sitting like the Queen of Sheba, with her face green with fright she said, 'Did you set my letters from Austin?'
Kate nodded. Clearing her throat, she said, 'Kevin and Lucy were expecting a nose-veil and curly-toed slippers.'
Her daughter's youthful brown eyes, losing their starkness, became visibly pink round the edges. 'They're in my luggage,' Philippa said. 'With my prayer mat. I thought you would show me the door. Perhaps. That is, one shouldn't think of other people's babies before one's own mother. I knew you would stop me.'
'I can't think how,' Kate Somerville said. 'Gunpowder? It was more than Mr Crawford evidently could do.'
'There were a few unpleasantnesses,' Philippa said guardedly. She stared at Kate, trying not to think of Mr Crawford's unpleasantnesses. Her nose, also, was growing faintly pink.
'There are times,' Kate said conversationally, 'when one wonders where that gentleman's habits came from. Are you going to come indoors on the horse, or can I help you . . . ?'
At which, giggling, Philippa Somerville slid, with her eyes overflowing, into her mother's damp and convulsive embrace.
Presently, there was the other meeting, with Lord Culter and his wife on the steps. Presently, too, came her first encounter with Lord Culter's mother Sybilla. But before that the Dowager, the soul of discretion, had wandered into the courtyard to speak to her old friend Archie Abernethy. 'We are so glad to see you. David will look after your men. Won't you give him your horse, and come inside with us? And----'
For the first time, with courtesy, her gaze dropped to the rugwrapped pack in his arms. '. . . And this is Khaireddin?'
Archie looked down, swore, and then apologized. 'We had him all nice,' he said. 'But he wanted to play Turks hiding in ambush. Kuz?m! It's your grannie!'
The bundle heaved, and Archie snapped, 'And you've made a right mess of your hair.'
A feathering of silky fair hair shot up from the core of the rug, followed by a round vermilion face with a belligerent blue stare. 'I want a short of Fippy's horse,' the object said.
Archie said peremptorily, 'You're not having a shot on anything; we've stopped. You're there. You're at your grannie's home in Midculter. Here she is, waiting.' And his attention drawn for the first time from the child Archie looked, a little anxiously, at Lymond's mother, who had said nothing at all.
And as though she felt his gaze, Sybilla raised her eyes from the silvery hair and blue eyes and charming, overheated two-year-old face, and smiled at him, and then said to her grandson, 'Hullo. Is your name Kuz?m?'
Kuz?m, abandoning the Turks, stared at her critically. Then he said, 'My rug's all crumply. Lift down me to walk?'
So Archie lowered him, and she received the solid weight and placed him on his two feet and then, kneeling, steadied him. 'Not Khaireddin?' she said to Archie.
'Kuz?m's his pet name. It means Lambkin.' Dismounting, he held the child by the shoulders. 'Mr Crawford's all right, my lady. Ye'll not expect him home yet: he's not a man for mentioning plans. But the bairn will make you good company.'
The bairn, tugging himself free, set off at a trot towards Philippa. Following slowly, 'Where is Mr Crawford?' Sybilla said.
'God---That is, we're no' all that certain,' said Archie. 'We left him in Volos, Greece, a wee bit overcome by the weather. Then we heard he had gone. . . . You'll see a change in the young lady?'
'Yes,' the Dowager said. They had reached the rest of her family. Holding out her hands to the new, self-contained Philippa she said, embracing her, 'Although I don't know how we are going to explain it.'
'We met Sir Thomas Wharton,' Philippa said deprecatingly.
'So it will be all over Hexham,' said Kate. 'Since that man went to court he's been worse than a midwife. You won't be dull, Philippa mine. We shall have plenty of callers.'
'Mostly male,' Richard said, grinning.
'Isn't it queer?' Philippa said. Standing at the top of the steps, she caught Archie's eye and then removed her gaze from him, unfocused. 'It didn't occur to me that people might gossip. It was Mr Crawford who warned me.'
'I'm glad he took the trouble,' Sybilla said tartly. 'To allow you to travel home on your own, after treating you, so far as I can see, like one of his own underpaid mercenaries, must be the abominable highlight of a strictly egotistical career.'
Kate, better acquainted with her daughter, said, 'How did he warn you?'
Philippa gazed again round the courtyard. The chests were being shouldered indoors. Archie, lifting Kuz?m, had carried him across to young Kevin and Lucy. The horses were being led away. Richard was looking at her: the 3rd Baron Crawford of Culter, more heavily built than he had been, but still level-headed and pleasant: running his home of Midculter, raising his children, sustaining, year after year, the blows which fell without warning, the traps which opened, the doors which shut in his face because of his brother Crawford of Lymond. Richard smiled.
Philippa said, 'He suggested I should get married.'
Kate, whose hair was coming down in the wind, gave a groan. 'A profound offering of typical masculine subtlety,' said Philippa's mother. 'I might have known it. Come inside. I want to look at your earrings.'
'So I did,' Philippa said.
There was a mind-cracking silence. 'What?' said Richard.
'I did marry. On paper. To give me some standing at first, especially because of Kuz?m. Of course, it will all be annulled in a moment. It was,' said Philippa again, austerely emphatic, 'strictly on paper.'
It was Sybilla who walked slowly forward and, taking the girl's manicured hands, held them both, firmly and coolly in her own. 'Philippa. You are not to worry. We are all here and ready to help you. But tell us first, whom did you marry?'
'Mr Crawford,' said Philippa bleakly.
Kate said 'Philippa!' and it fell on the air like explosive.
But Lymond's mother, still holding Philippa's hands in her own, carried them after a second to her cheeks, where the colour had come flooding back, and said, 'Of course he would do that. Strictly on paper?'
From the Trade Paperback edition.