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As the two carriages reached the brow of the hill, the driver of the first, having heard a sharp rap from within, brought his team swiftly to a halt and cocked his ear to await further instructions from his passengers.
"Well, here it is, David,'said Matt Beresford, as he lowered the window and, with a broad sweep of his hand, indicated to his companion the extent of his late father's property. "Thornfield—I suppose you might call it my "ancestral home"—for what it is worth!"
David Seymour gave a wry smile. His friend's sarcastic tone had not failed to register.
"Still not really made up your mind, have you?'he observed. Beresford shrugged. "As I recollect, I hardly seem to have been given a great deal of choice in the matter."
Leaning forward, he opened the door, leapt lightly out of the carriage and motioned to the driver. "Wait here for about ten minutes, then carry on—my guess is that you will find the house gates about half a mile further up the road."
Turning to Seymour once more, he said, "I noticed a door in the wall further back—I have a mind to try and get into the park and see what sort of state it's in. You go on and I will meet you at the front of the house."
With a resigned sigh, his companion watched him striding back down the lane. He had been acquainted with Beresford for some nine years now, ever since they had both set sail for India under the aegis of Seymour's father who had, at that time, been a Resident District Commissioner with the British East India Trading Company. With Colonel Seymour's help and support both young men had carved out very successful careers for themselves within the company and might possibly have remained in Hyderabad for the foreseeable future had it not been for the urgent and totally unexpected summons that Beresford had received from his estranged father's solicitor some six months earlier.
Over the years, Seymour had managed, partly from the occasional conversation with his friend, but mostly from local gossip, to glean a good deal of Beresford's early history. He was aware that Matt's father, Sir Matthew Beresford, who at that time had held the office of Governor of Madras, had been so racked with grief at the death in childbirth of his beloved young wife, that he had instantly rejected his newborn son, having chosen to lay the full blame for the unfortunate lady's demise upon the infant's innocent head.
Accompanied only by a returning Company junior and a hastily acquired wetnurse, the child had been bundled on to the first available East Indiaman to sail for the home country, where he had been abandoned into the care of his maternal grandparents. Although Sir Matthew had, through legal channels, arranged adequate financial provision for his son's upkeep and education, these ageing relatives had been obliged, forthwith, to entrust their grandson's welfare to the hands of a succession of nursery maids and colourless governesses. Consequently, the young Beresford might have led a cheerless and somewhat prosaic upbringing had not an acquaintance of his grandfather chanced to recommend the services of an excellent, if rather avant-garde, tutor, one Thomas Hopkirk.
In addition to making sure that his young pupil was furnished with a wide and varied education, this highly enlightened academic had taken it upon himself to see that the boy was equipped with all the necessary sporting skills that a gentleman of his station might be likely to require. The very fact that Beresford had straightway knuckled down and made such a success of his mandatory career in India was, without doubt, due mainly to Hopkirk's years of devoted teaching.
"But, did you never attempt to contact your father?" Seymour had asked in amazement, when hearing his friend's history for the first time.
"My grandparents tried on several occasions to win him over," Beresford told him. "However, as he seemed bent on continuing to ignore all of our communications, Grandfather finally gave up trying."
"But, when you yourself were older?" 'You may be sure I did," said Beresford, with an emphatic nod. "As soon as I had completed my time at Oxford and had gained my majority, I made it my business to seek him out but, since his solicitor refused to divulge his current address, this was not at all easy. However, I eventually managed to track him down to his club in St James's and screwed up the courage to confront him."
His bright blue eyes clouded over in remembrance of that fateful meeting. "At the time, I was desperate to join my college friends in the Peninsula and I petitioned him to use his influence to recommend me for a commission." He laughed, almost awkwardly. "I seem to recall I fancied myself as a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade!"
"Well, you always were a damned fine shot!" laughed his friend, then his face at once grew serious. "But your father still refused to acknowledge you? After twenty-one years he must surely have recovered from his earlier resentment?"
Beresford shook his head. "Apparently not. Certainly, my turning up had the most curious effect upon him. He took one look at me, his face went as white as a sheet and he then became quite abusive—accusing me of downright effrontery and so on. I was somewhat taken aback by his manner but, seeing that as soon as I finished my time at Oxford, he had chosen to withdraw his financial support, I felt that I had no alternative but to persevere with my request. He then insisted that he had no contacts with the military—I later discovered that to be quite untrue, of course."
"But he did find you a position with the Company?'persisted Seymour, finding his friend's father's attitude hard to fathom, always having had the benefit of a close and harmonious relationship with his own parent.
"Yes, he did," admitted Beresford. "Although, that came about in a rather odd way, too. He had all but dismissed me—I had, in fact, turned to go—when he suddenly called me back and offered to fund my passage on the East Indiaman that was about to set sail for the sub-continent. He then called for some writing materials and straight away scribbled out the letter of introduction to your father—and the rest, of course, you know."
Seymour nodded. "Sir Matthew was my father's mentor when he joined the Company back in '82—I heard he made a mint in his heyday. A regular "nabob"—or so I have been told."
"Pretty much consistent with the type of man he seems to have been," Beresford replied, his tone unemotional.
Seymour was chagrined. "Sorry, old man. I meant no insult—it was just a phrase they used at the time when one of the Company chaps got back home with a huge fortune—no disrespect to your sire."
Beresford grinned at his friend, giving him a playful punch in the shoulder. "Forget it, David. We both know that most of our predecessors made their piles by underhand and far from scrupulous deals in the opium trade. I hold no brief for my father—I never even knew the man. Although, to be fair, it is thanks to him that I met you, and a truer and better friend a man would be hard pressed to come by."
Since his father had made it clear that he intended to offer his son no further financial support, Beresford had reluctantly found himself more or less obliged to take up Sir Matthew's offer, and had forthwith presented himself at the Company's Head Office in Leadenhall Street, from where he was directed to David Seymour's lodgings, just prior to that young man's own embarkation to join his father.
Almost nine years had passed since that fateful day, during which time neither Seymour nor Beresford had had occasion to return to England. Seymour had never hankered after his homeland, as both of his parents were permanently domiciled in Mysore, and Beresford had had no reason to do so. His grandparents were no longer living and, as far as he was aware, he had no other relatives apart from his father, who had, in any event, ignored all of his early letters from India. It seemed that all communication between the two of them had ended with that abrupt meeting in St James's and it was, therefore, with considerable surprise that, in the January of this present year, Matt Beresford had opened the letter from his father's solicitor to be informed, somewhat bluntly, of Sir Matthew's death. To his even greater astonishment the writer had then informed him that, due to an anomaly in the wording of his father's will, there was the distinct possibility that, since he appeared to be Sir Matthew's heir, he must return to England as soon as possible, in order to untangle the complications of his father's bequests.
Beresford had been inclined to ignore the summons, but his friend Seymour had eventually persuaded him that they were long overdue a trip to their native land and, now that the war in Europe had ended, to be present at the prospective celebrations in London might prove to be quite exciting.
"And just think of the scores of lovely young ladies we shall meet!" Seymour had declared, his hazel eyes gleaming in anticipation. "The only females we come across here are either taken or well past it!"
"Oh? I rather thought that you seemed to be doing pretty well with Mrs Ledger the last time I looked!" observed his friend, laughing. "You were both certainly taking your time looking for her gloves in the shrubbery last week."
"Oh, Susan Ledger!" shrugged Seymour carelessly. "I have moved on since then—matter of fact, I chanced upon a rather pretty little ayah in Strickland's nursery on Saturday after the polo match—what about you?"
Beresford shook his head. "Had a bit of a fling with Lillian Ashton before she went off to marry old Bunter in Madras last month," he said briefly, "but you are quite right, women are pretty thin on the ground this year."
"And only the blessed monsoons to look forward to," Seymour reminded him. "Good time to get away, if you ask me—just for a few months, anyway. What do you say? You can sort out your pa's legal tangles, whatever they are, and then we can have some fun in dear old London Town!"
Unfortunately, Sir Matthew's legal tangles had turned out to be something of a nightmare since it appeared that, unbeknown to his son, he had remarried some nineteen years previously and had produced a second family, comprising a wife and two children. However, although it had clearly been his intention to leave them well provided for, not one of his bequests could be fulfilled until it was resolved which of his sons was the rightful heir.
When he had instructed his solicitor to draw up his will, he had bequeathed the bulk of his estate to his 'son," obviously intending that his property should go to the now sixteen-year-old Nicholas, having either conveniently dismissed the existence of his firstborn or, as Matt was inclined to suspect, had presumed that, being as fair-skinned as his late mother, the boy must surely have succumbed to the rigours of the unforgiving Asian climate.
When Beresford learned of his father's duplicity, he had coldly instructed the solicitor to carry out what he felt must have been Sir Matthew's true intentions. Through his own hard work and diligent application to duty, he himself had accumulated more than enough wealth to last him a lifetime and he wanted no further part in his father's affairs.
"Unfortunately, sir," Mr Robbins had sternly informed him, "due to the continuous lack of funding since your father's death last year, the estate is now in a somewhat parlous condition and Lady Beresford who, if I might be so bold as to point out, is your stepmother, is, as such, entitled to expect your support!"
Further protestations had proved futile, with Mr Robbins constantly reminding Beresford of his duty to his family.
"I will do my best to sort out the title at this end," he assured the exasperated Beresford, "but you really must go up to Lincolnshire and see Thornfield for yourself. The family has been without proper funds for almost a year now—it has taken me almost as long to establish your whereabouts. Your family is clearly in dire need of the help and guidance of someone who has had as much experience in land management as you have had, sir."
"But surely you could have released the female portions?" retorted Beresford angrily. "And, if I relinquish any claim to this—Nicholas's—inheritance, then surely they have some sort of estate manager who can deal with the other matters?"
"Best go and see for yourself, sir," the solicitor advised him. "Then you may return home with a clear conscience."