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"I believe I shall have a birthday party for Dudley, since he is well enough to be out of bed," the duchess declared, narrowing her rheumy little eyes into slits.
"That will be nice," her niece was naive enough to say.
"Nice has nothing to do with it, widgeon! Sir Nevil Ryder has been oiling the old fool up for a week while we cooled our heels at Brighton. My servants tell me Dudley had his lawyer out to the Grange. Why would he do that except to change his will? I am Dudley's closest living relative--his own sister--though whether you can call what I do "living" is another matter. The man can't last much longer. He'll be eighty-five this week. Yes, I shall have a birthday party for him, Deirdre, and show him how much he means to me.
Just how much Lord Dudley Patmore meant to the Duchess of Charney was unclear. He had certainly retired to the Grange with a fortune twenty years ago and was a famous investor. He spent very little on such amenities as food and clothing, carriages and servants, and nothing whatsoever on entertaining. The duchess figures that he might mean as much as a hundred thousand pounds to her if she could get on his sweet side.
Why a very well-to-do dowager duchess who was not much younger than her brother should want more money was not a matter of common sense. She couldn't possibly spend her own income, and wouldn't if she could. The joy of money was not in spending it but in knowing it was there, invested and earning that wonderful thing--interest. It would all go to her great-niece, Deirdre Gower, one of these days. Not that the chit needed it either. She was betrothed to a wealthy baron, Lord Belami.
Even as this thought flitted throughthe duchess's busy brain, Lord Belami sauntered into the drafty saloon of her country home, Fernvale. He hadn't lingered over his port when he had no company. The duchess looked at him and saw a walking bank balance of six figures, along with a wonderful estate in Bedfordshire, a lesser one in Kent, a London residence, and an elegant home on Marine Parade in Brighton, whence they had all just come.
His fiancée looked and saw none of this. She saw instead the most dashing man she had ever met. His jet-black hair sat like a smooth cap on his head. An evening suit of impeccable tailoring clung to his broad shoulders and tapered to a trim waist. Dick followed the dictum of Beau Brummell in sartorial matters. He made his toilette with care, but once he left his mirror, he forgot it. Deirdre never could quite believe this charming man, half-scoundrel, half-hero, had asked for her hand. In her secret thoughts, she considered him a sort of lesser Grecian deity, some kin to Apollo, and unfortunately Dionysus as well. She could picture him being drawn in a chariot by tigers, with his train of adoring votaries.
The lesser deity rubbed his frigid fingers together, opened his lips, and said, "It's demmed cold in here, Duchess. Do you mind if I stir up that fire?"
He strolled to the grate and attacked the dying embers with the poker. A few coals flew beyond the fender and landed on the carpet. Belami was careful to return them to the grate, even though the carpet was not worth worrying about. The duchess wasn't noted for elegance of either toilette or home.
"Aunt Charney was just saying she's going to have a birthday party for Uncle Dudley, Dick," Deirdre mentioned.
"Does he like parties?" Dick asked, and leaned the poker against the stone wall of the fireplace. "At his age, he might not like the crowds and racket of a ball," he added.
"A small party," the duchess corrected. "Just ourselves."
"Oh, you mean you're asking him to dinner," Dick translated bluntly.
If the dinner he had just endured was an example of her grace's hospitality, Dick doubted the invitation would succeed in bringing Dudley around her thumb. A mulligatawny stew made with a calf's head was no meal to serve a rich brother, or a weary traveler either. Even the cavalier "potluck" description didn't excuse it, in Belami's opinion.
The duchess was so full of spleen at the machinations of Sir Nevil Ryder that some of it had to come out in conversation. Belami was as good as family, so she decided it was time to introduce him to the intricacies of family doings. She tugged her faded gray shawl around her shoulders and cleared her throat in preparation of speaking.
"The fact of the matter is," she began, "my nephew, Sir Nevil, took advantage of my absence from Fernvale to ingratiate himself with Dudley. He had battened himself there for a week, buttering the old fool up and trying his hand at stealing the inheritance out from under Deirdre's nose. I'm amazed he took it into his head to leave with the birthday just a few days away."
"Where did Nevil go? Did you hear?" Deirdre asked with only minimal interest.
"There are no races this time of the year. He must have gone to London," the duchess replied. "My servants tell me Dudley's housekeeper was called home this afternoon on some urgent matter, and very likely that is why Nevil left. I wonder who is taking care of Dudley with Mrs. Haskell gone," the duchess added, a frown pleating her brow.
"His other servants, I expect," Belami mentioned, stifling a yawn.
"There's only Polly and Anna, and old Bagot, the groom," Deirdre explained.
"What, only two servant girls in the whole house?" Belami asked, shocked out of his lethargy by this oddity. The decrepit stone mansion they had passed on their way from Brighton was enormous.
"Dudley has become a little strange in his dotage," the duchess explained, though she was not much less strange herself in the matter of spending money. "He turned off his footmen and butler years ago, then last year his valet died, and he never bothered to replace him, as he seldom goes out or has company to call."
"It will be a treat for him to enjoy a night out then, I expect," Belami said.
"We'll make it a treat," the duchess declared vehemently. "Champagne, lobster patties, a roast of pork. Dudley dotes on a roast of pork, and Mrs. Haskell, poor soul, is not much of a cook. I daresay neither Polly nor Anna can boil water. If we had arrived earlier, I would have asked him over tonight."
Belami pulled out his watch and looked at it. Was it possible that it was only seven-thirty? They had arrived at Fernvale at five. He felt as if he had been incarcerated there a decade already. "Shall we have a hand of cards, Deirdre?" he suggested.
As soon as the words were out, he knew that it was a mistake. Charney loved cards and would attach herself to them for the remainder of the evening. To his delight and surprise, the old dame hadn't heard him. The rustling of her bombazine gown as she struggled out of her chair had made his words inaudible. Belami hastened forward to aid her up and smiled as she strode from the room without even a look behind her.
"Alone at last!" he exclaimed, and went to sit beside Deirdre on the blue sofa.
Deirdre was what made all this dreadful visit worthwhile. Charney had allowed the betrothal but had insisted they come to Fernvale for the wedding. He looked at Deirdre now and noticed a shadow in her gray eyes. When she turned to gaze into the fire, he admired the clean line of her profile: the nose small and straight, the upper lip just a trifle short, but all the more lovable for this idiosyncrasy. Her black hair was brushed back from her forehead in a simple country do that suited her. His heart swelled with joy to know that she would soon be his.
"Tired, sweetheart?" he asked, taking her fingers. "It was a tedious trip, and in such weather, too?"
"A little, but I don't mind. If I seem quiet tonight, it's Shep I'm worried about. My shepherd is sick, poor old thing. He's ten years old--halt and blind and I don't know what else--but still he crawled up and licked my hand when I went to the stable to see him. I wish Auntie would let me bring him into the house in this cold weather."
Belami tightened his grip on her fingers. "And of course she won't--" he asked.
"Of course. She doesn't like the smell and the dog hairs all over the blanket. It was my room I meant to take him to. It would be horrid to die all alone in a stable, wouldn't it, Dick?" she asked, still gazing into the grate.
"Yes, but not so bad a way to go if you were a seventy-year-old dog," he pointed out, attempting to alleviate her sorrow. "At least they say one year of a dog's life is equal to seven of a man's. Mind you, Shep's only seventy--that seems a very adolescent in this family."
The mood of sorrow passed as Deirdre considered her own blessed state. "We're not all old!" she replied. "I'm not, and Nevil's only about your age--thirtyish."
"Then let's cease speaking of old age and death. It puts a bit of a damper on your homecoming. Let's talk about the birthday party instead. Do you think such a simple ruse will turn the trick?" he asked, to change the subject.
"Who knows? Nevil has always been the strongest competition," Deirdre told him. "He's the only nephew who bothers coming to call and pay his respects. He sends Uncle Dudley presents for every occasion. I'm amazed he left at this time. It would be more like him to tie on an apron and replace Mrs. Haskell in the kitchen than to shab off just when Uncle needs him."
Belami had a natural bent for puzzles, and he considered this one a moment. It was odd that Ryder should leave his uncle virtually alone just two days before his birthday, especially if the visit had been made for the purpose of ingratiating himself with the old boy. As he knew no details, however, he said only, "Something must have come up.
"Perhaps he went to bring Adelaide home," Deirdre said, and emitted a guilty laugh.
"That would be Dudley's truant wife?" Belami asked, his interest rising.
"No one has ever admitted it to me, but I think he married her," she answered doubtfully. "And if he didn't, it's even worse, for she certainly lived with him for three years at the Grange when I was young?"
"Does she ever visit him?"
"She used to come once in a while when she needed money. She hasn't been here for an age, though."
"She must have found a new gent," Belami said. "What was she like?"
"I thought she was monstrously pretty--when I was a child, I mean. She had shiny black curls all over her head and used to wear bright gowns cut down to here," she said, running a finger across her chest. "I expect she painted her face, and I know she painted her eyebrows. No one has eyebrows like half circles. She was loud and vulgar and a great deal of fun. Auntie used to spank me for talking to her. I think Adelaide must have been nearly as lonesome as I was, or why would she have made rendezvous with a child in the spinney?"
"I hope Dudley did marry her. She sounds a lively sort of an aunt."
"She's not your style, Dick," Deirdre answered swiftly.
"I have catholic tastes where ladies are concerned."
"You don't have to remind me! And I hope he didn't marry her or she'll get his money."
"Some of it, not necessarily all. Shall we have a few hands of cards?"
"Later. I'm going to the stable to see Shep. Will you come with me?"
They went to the kitchen, but from the bottom of the stairs the voice of the duchess was heard talking to the servants, so they turned as one and went back to the saloon. It was unusual for the duchess to leave her niece alone with Belami. She had extremely strict notions of propriety. Knowing that she might return at any moment, however, they behaved themselves and began the game of cards.
Belami could see that Deirdre was distracted and decided that his role as fiancé was to act the gallant. "I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll sneak out to the stable by the front door and smuggle Shep up to your room while Charney is busy in the kitchen. Will that please you?"
"No, she always comes to my room before she goes to bed. She'd see him. And even if she didn't see him, she'd smell him or hear him. Maybe we could hide him somewhere else," she suggested, warming to the idea.
"She won't come to my room," Belami said. "She's put me in the farthest wing from you and herself. She wouldn't hear a thing if Shep moaned a little, and I'd be there to quiet him. Shall I go and get him?"
The glow in Deirdre's eyes was reward enough for flouting the duchess's orders. "Go by the side door in the library, Dick, and come back the same way. I'll stay here and make your excuses if she comes back."
"Good. You can tell her I've stepped out to blow a cloud."
Belami rose and planted a fleeting kiss on Deirdre's nose before he went to the stable. He was unhappy to see the state of dilapidation that existed there. Planks in the horse stalls were hanging loose and could gouge the sides of his bloods.
He needn't have worried. His excellent groom, Pierre Réal, had taken matters in hand. Pierre was a French-Canadian, a short man of swarthy complexion and infinite ingenuity. A hammer hung from his right hand as Belami approached him.
"Are you building a stable for our bloods?" Belami asked, smiling at his servant's thoroughness.
Réal threw up his hands in disgust. "Building the stable out of twigs with rusty nails and a bent hammer. But never fear. I, Pierre Réal, have subdued all the rusty nails and slivers. My bloods are covered with the blankets from my own bed."
"Surely that's not necessary!" Belami objected. "You'll freeze to death out here--" He gave a spontaneous shiver himself as he spoke.
"Freeze?" Réal wiped an imaginary film of sweat from his brow and tossed the hammer aside. "Roast is more like it. I don't call this cold, me. She can't be much below zero. I don't freeze, but I might die of the hunger. No one but the dog could eat that ragout served for dinner."
"We had the same," Belami told him. "By the way, Réal where is Miss Gower's old shepherd dog? I'm going to take it into the house."
"Shep?" Réal asked, looking surprised. "Il est mort. He is dropping dead half an hour ago. They buried him out behind the barn. A big job! The earth hard like a rock."
"Damn!" Belami knew this would be hard on Deirdre and disliked having to take such a message to her.
"La Mégère didn't tell you?" Réal asked. Not knowing the English word for shrew, he called the duchess by its French equivalent.
"No, she didn't."
"Peut-être she will when she comes back."
Belami looked startled. "Back? Where the devil has she gone?"
"Not far, I think. She go in the dog cart, carrying a bowl of something."
"She didn't say where she was going?"
"She don't see me. I stop the hammering. Maybe she don't like me to use the broken table to fix the loose box."
"She probably took some dinner over to Lord Dudley. She mentioned his being alone. Well, keep up the good work, Réal. I have to go now?"
Darkness had already fallen in the short days of January. The hard earth crunched under Belami's feet as he hurried to the library door, planning how he would break the news to Deirdre. He heard a rattling sound off to the left and looked to see what caused it. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, he smiled to see the duchess holding the reins of a dog cart, trundling across the meadow that separated the Grange from Fernvale. Dudley had been presented with that mess of potage her grace called mulligatawny. But then he probably wasn't accustomed to better fare and might appreciate it.
He went inside and began looking around for Deirdre. She wasn't in the saloon, and when he sent a servant upstairs, he learned she wasn't there either. A sense of alarm began to grow, but before it became serious, the duchess came into the saloon. Her gray complexion had turned livid from the cold.
"You'll have to excuse Deirdre tonight, Belami," she said. "We've just heard from the groom that her dog died, and she's gone upstairs in tears."
"I'm very sorry to hear it," he replied. His first sensation was relief that he wouldn't have to be the one to tell her, but almost immediately another thought occurred to him. "We've just heard," her grace said, yet Charney had actually known it for a little while now.
"Old age, was it?" he asked.
"Indeed it was, and a blessing, too, if you want my opinion. The animal was lame and ulcerated, and, besides, he ate like a horse. She had the absurd notion of bringing the hound into the house! Why, he'd have made a wicked mess of things," she said, apparently failing to observe that things were already in a fine mess.
"I'll try to cheer her up," Belami said.
"You're just the one who can do it, rascal!" She poked him in the ribs with the end of her fan and smiled, revealing a set of aged and yellowing teeth.
She glanced at the table and saw the cards laid out. For a minute, Belami feared he would have to spend the remainder of the evening playing with the duchess. It wasn't her habit of cheating that bothered him so much as her choice of game. Neither all fours nor Pope Joan appealed to him in the least. He was relieved when she expressed herself fatigued with the day's journey and said she would retire.
"I suggest you do the same thing, Belami."
She began extinguishing lamps as she spoke, which left him little alternative but to go to his room. She didn't quite achieve her aim of saving candles, however. Belami wrote letters till ten-thirty, at which time he sneaked down to the kitchen and begged a ham sandwich from the servants. He had a winning way with servants. Under his blandishments, the ham was not slivered in the customary Fernvale manner but sliced thick. When he mentioned a dislike of blue milk, the servant even added a portion of cream and stirred it up for him.
This easing of his hunger pangs permitted him to sleep, but Deirdre lay awake for a long time. She wished she had seen Shep just once more before he died. She knew he was old and no longer healthy, but she had not suspected for a single moment that the time left to him was so short. He had been the closest thing to a friend she had had when she was growing up. Shep had been her companion in her rambles over the estate.
But eventually her mind turned to other matters. They had come to Fernvale to put a damper on Nevil's schemes to make up to Dudley. Now that Nevil had left, there was no need to remain. She and Belami could get married quite soon and begin their planned trip to Italy. Italy with Belami--how exciting it would be! Venice and Rome and Florence. But first she'd have to get some gowns made up. On these happy thoughts, she finally drifted off to sleep.