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Silence had reigned over the dining-room since his lordship, midway through the first course, had harshly commanded his widowed daughter-in-law to spare him any more steward's room gossip. As Mrs Darracott had merely been recounting to her daughter the tale of her activities that day the snub might have been thought unjust, but she accepted it, if not with equanimity, with a resignation born of custom, merely exchanging a droll look with her daughter, and directing one of warning at her handsome young son. The butler glanced menacingly at the younger of the two footmen, but the precaution was unnecessary: Charles had not been employed at Darracott Place above six months, but he was not such a whopstraw as to make the least noise in the performance of his duties when his lordship was out of humour. That was the way Chollacombe described as knaggy an old gager as ever Charles had had the ill-fortune to serve. Stiff-rumped, that's what he was, always nabbing the rust, or riding grub, like he had been for months past.
Charles had thought himself lucky to have been taken on at Darracott Place, but he wasn't going to stay above his twelvemonth, not if he knew it! It might suit James, being Kentish born, to work in a great, rambling house stuck down miles from anywhere, in a marsh flat and bare enough to give anyone a fit of the blue devils, and with never a soul, outside the Family, coming next or nigh it, but when Charles went after another place he was going to London. Let alone he was always one for a bit of life, you could earn extra gelt in London, for there were always errands to be run, or notes to be delivered, and you got a shilling every time you were sent off to execute such commissions. If messages had to be carried in the country it stood to reason they were taken by one of the grooms; while as for the throng of open-fisted guests his Dad had told him it would be his duty to wait upon well, a houseful of guests might have been what his Dad was used to in his day but it wasn't what they was used to at Darracott Place!
Such visions as Charles had indulged when he had first blessed his good fortune at being hired to fill the post of second footman in a nobleman's establishment! A proper take-in that had been, and so he would tell his Dad! Dad, honourably retired from employment as butler to a Gentleman of Fashion, had assured him that to be hired to serve in a lord's country seat did not mean that he would be immured in rural fastness throughout the year. My lord (said Dad) would certainly retire to Kent during the winter months; but at the beginning of the Season he would remove to his London house; and at the end of the Season (said Dad) the chances were that he would hire a house in Brighton for the summer months. And from time to time, of course, he would be absent, visiting friends in other parts of the country, during which periods his servants would enjoy a great deal of leisure, and might even be granted leave to go on holiday.
But nothing like that had happened at Darracott Place since Charles had first entered its portals. My lord, whose grim mouth and arctic stare could set stronger knees than Charles's knocking together, remained in residence all the year round, neither entertaining nor being entertained. And no use for anyone to tell Charles that this was because the Family was in mourning for Mr Granville Darracott and his son, Mr Oliver, both drowned off the coast of Cornwall in an ill-fated boating expedition: Charles might only have been second footman at Darracott Place for a couple of months when that disaster occurred, but no one could gammon him into thinking that my lord cared a spangle for his heir. If you were to ask him, Charles would say that my lord cared for no one but Mr Richmond: he certainly couldn't abide Mr Matthew Darracott, who was the last of his sons left alive; while as for Mr Claud, who was the younger of Mr Matthew's two sons, it was as much as anyone could do not to burst out laughing to see my lord look at him as if he was a cockroach, or a bed-bug. Nor, though he didn't look at him like that, could you think he cared a groat for Mr Vincent neither; while as for poor Mrs Darracott, as kind a lady as you'd find anywhere, even if she was a bit of a prattle-box, it seemed like she had only to open her mouth for my lord to give her one of his nasty set-downs. He didn't, it was true, do that to Miss Anthea, but that was probably because Miss Anthea wasn't scared of him, like her Ma, and would maybe give as good as she got; it wasn't because he was fond of her, as you'd think her granddad would be. It wouldn't be Miss Anthea as would coax him out of his sullens; it would be Mr Richmond.
But Richmond, his grandfather's darling, after one thoughtful glance cast under his lashes at that uncompromising countenance appeared to lose himself in his own reflections. Some pickled crab, which he had not touched, had been removed with a damson pie; and his sister saw, peeping round the massive silver epergne that almost obscured him from her view, that he had eaten no more than a spoonful of this either. Since he had partaken quite liberally of two of the dishes that had made up the first course she was undismayed by anything other than her grandfather's failure to notice his present abstention. In general Lord Darracott would have bullied Richmond into eating the pie, imperfectly concealing his anxious affection for the youth, whose earlier years had been attended by every sort of ailment, under a hectoring manner, to which Richmond, docile yet unafraid, would submit.
As little as Charles the footman did Anthea, or Mrs Darracott, or even Richmond understand the cause of his lordship's brooding ill-humour; rather less than Charles did any one of these three believe that it sprang from grief at the death of his eldest son. His lordship had both disliked and despised Granville; yet when the news of that fatal accident had reached Darracott Place he had been for many minutes like a man struck to stone; and when he had recovered from the first shock he had horrified his son Matthew, and Lissett, his man of business, by saying several times over, and in a voice of icy rage: ‘Damn him! Damn him! Damn him!' They had almost feared for his reason, and had stood staring at him with dropped jaws until he had violently ordered them out of his sight. Matthew had never dared to enquire what extraordinary circumstances had provoked this outburst, and his lordship neither offered an explanation nor again referred to the matter. Only a black cloud seemed to descend on him, rendering him more unapproachable than ever, and so brittle-tempered that Mrs Darracott quite dreaded having to address him, and even Richmond several times had his head bitten off.
Dinner was always a protracted meal; tonight it seemed interminable; but at last it came to an end. As the servants began to remove the covers, Mrs Darracott picked up her reticule, and rose.
His lordship's hard, frowning eyes lifted; he said curtly: ‘Wait!'
‘Wait, sir?' faltered Mrs Darracott.
‘Yes, wait!' he repeated impatiently. ‘Sit down! I have something to say to you!'
She sank back on to her chair, looking at once bewildered and apprehensive. Anthea, who had risen with her, remained standing, her head turned towards her grandfather, her brows a little raised. He paid no heed to her; his eyes were on the two footmen, and it was not until they had left the room that he spoke again. So forbidding was his expression that Mrs Darracott, in growing trepidation, began to search wildly in her mind for some forgotten error of omission or commission. Chollacombe softly shut the door on the heels of his subordinates, and picked up the port decanter from the sideboard; he perceived that his master's hands were clenching and unclenching on the arms of his chair, and his heart sank: there had been a storm brewing all day, and it was going to burst now over their heads.
But when my lord again spoke it was as though it cost him an effort. He said: ‘You will be good enough, Elvira, to inform Flitwick that I expect my son and his family here tomorrow. Make what arrangements you choose!'
She was so much surprised that she was betrayed into uttering an unwise exclamation. ‘Good gracious! Is that all? But what in the world I mean, I hadn't the least notion '
‘What brings them here, sir?' asked Anthea, intervening to draw her grandfather's fire.
He looked for a moment as though he were about to utter one of his rough snubs, but after a slight pause he answered her. ‘They are coming because I've sent for them, miss!' He paused again, and then said: ‘You may as well know now as later! I've sent for my heir as well.'
At these bitterly uttered words Chollacombe nearly dropped the decanter.
‘Sent for your heir as well?' repeated Richmond. ‘But my uncle Matthew is your heir, Grandfather isn't he?'
‘Then who is, sir?' demanded Anthea.
‘A weaver's brat!' he replied, his voice vibrant with loathing.
‘Oh, dear!' said Mrs Darracott, breaking the stunned silence that succeeded his lordship's announcement.
The hopeless inadequacy of this exclamation dragged a choke of laughter out of Anthea, but it caused his lordship's smouldering fury to flare up. ‘Is that all you have to say? Is that all, woman? You are a wet-goose a widgeon a take yourself off, and your daughter with you! Go and chatter, and marvel, and bless yourselves, but keep out of my sight and hearing! By God, I don't know how I bear with you!'
‘No, indeed!' said Anthea instantly. ‘It is a great deal too bad, sir! Mama, how could you speak so to one so full of compliance and good nature as my grandfather? So truly the gentleman! Come away at once!'
‘That's what you think of me, is it, girl?' said his lordship, a glint in his eyes.
‘Oh, no!' she responded, dropping him a curtsy. ‘It's what I say, sir! You must known that my featherheaded Mama has taught me to behave with all the propriety in the world! To tell you what I think of you would be to sink myself quite below reproach! Come, Mama!'
He gave a bark of laughter. ‘Tongue-valiant, eh?'
She had reached the door, which Chollacombe was holding open, but she looked back at that. ‘Try me!'
‘I will!' he promised.
‘Oh, Anthea, pray !' whispered Mrs Darracott, almost dragging her from the room. She added, as Chollacombe closed the door behind them: ‘My love, you should not! You know you should not! What, I ask you, would become of us if he were to cast us off?'
‘Oh, he won't do that!' replied Anthea confidently. ‘Even he must feel that once in a lifetime is enough for the performance of that idiocy! I collect that the weaver's son is the offspring of the uncle we are never permitted to mention? Who is he, and what is he, and oh, come and tell me all about it, Mama! You know we have leave to marvel and chatter as much as we choose!'
‘Yes, but I don't know anything,' objected Mrs Darracott, allowing herself to be drawn into one of the saloons that opened on to the central hall of the house. ‘Indeed, I never knew of his existence until your grandfather threw him at my head in that scrambling way! And I consider,' she added indignantly, ‘that I behaved with perfect propriety, for I took it with composure, and I'm sure it was enough to have cast me into strong hysterics! He would have been well-served if I had fallen senseless at his feet. I was never more shocked!'
A smile danced in her daughter's eyes, but she said with becoming gravity: ‘Exactly so! But a well-bred ease of manner, you know, is quite wasted on my grandfather. Mama, when you ruffle up your feathers you look like a very pretty partridge!'
‘But I am not wearing feathers!' objected the widow. ‘Feathers for a mere family evening, and in the country, too! It would be quite ineligible, my love! Besides, you should not say such things!'
‘No, very true! It was the stupidest comparison, for whoever saw a partridge in purple plumage? You look like a turtle-dove, Mama!'
Mrs Darracott allowed this to pass. Her mind, never tenacious, was diverted to the delicate sheen of her gown. She had fashioned it herself, from a roll of silk unearthed from the bottom of a trunk stored in one of the attics, and she was pardonably pleased with the result of her skill. The design had been copied from a plate in the previous month's issue of The Mirror of Fashion, but she had improved upon it, substituting some very fine Brussels lace (relic of her trousseau) for the chenille trimming of the illustration. Her father-in-law might apostrophize her as a wet-goose, but even he could scarcely have denied (had he had the least understanding of such matters) that she was a notable needlewoman. She was also a very pretty woman, with a plump, trim figure, large blue eyes, and a quantity of fair hair which was partially concealed under a succession of becoming caps. From the moment when she had detected a suspicion of sagging under her jaw she had made her caps to tie beneath her chin, or (more daringly) her ear; and the result was admirable. She was neither learned nor intelligent, but she contrived to dress both herself and her daughter out of a meagre jointure, supplying with her clever fingers what her purse could not buy; and she had never, during the twelve years of her widowhood, allowed either her father-in-law's snubs or the frequent discomforts of her situation to impair the amiability of her disposition. Her temper being cheerful, and the trend of her mind optimistic, she seldom fretted over the major trials which were beyond her power to mend. Her daughter, of whom she was extremely fond, was twenty-two years of age and still unwed; her spirited young son, whom she adored, was kept kicking his heels in idleness to serve his grandfather's caprice; but although she recognized that such a state of affairs was deplorable she could not help feeling that something would happen to make all right, and was able, without much difficulty, to put such dismal thoughts aside, and to expend her anxiety on lesser and more remediable prolems.
Anthea's quizzing remark brought one of these to her mind. Smoothing a crease from the purple-bloom satin, she said very seriously: ‘You know, dearest, it will be excessively awkward!'
‘What will be awkward? The weaver's son?'
‘Oh, him ! No, poor boy though of course it will be! I was thinking of your Aunt Aurelia. I am persuaded she will expect to see us in mourning. You know what a high stickler she is for every observance! She will think it very odd of us to be wearing colours even improper!'
‘Not at all!' replied Anthea coolly. ‘By the time my grandfather has demanded to be told what cause she has to wear mourning for my uncle and my cousin, and has made her the recipient of his views on females rigging themselves out to look like so many crows, she will readily understand why you and I have abstained from that particular observance.'
Mrs Darracott considered this rather dubiously. ‘Well, yes, but there is no depending on your grandfather. I think we should at least wear black ribbons.'
‘Very well, Mama, we will wear whatever you choose at least, I will do so if you will stop teasing yourself about such fripperies and tell me about the weaver's son, and the uncle who must not be mentioned.'
‘But I don't know anything!' protested Mrs Darracott. ‘Only that he was the next brother to poor Granville, and quite your grandfather's favourite son. Your papa was used to say that that was what enraged Grandpapa so particularly, though for my part I can't believe that he held him in the slightest affection! Never, never could I bring myself to disown my son! Not though he married a dozen weaver's daughters!'
‘Oh, I think we should be obliged to disown him if he married a dozen of them, Mama!' Anthea said, laughing. ‘It would be quite excessive, and so embarrassing! Oh, no, don't frown at me! It don't become you, and I won't fun any more, I promise you! Is that what my uncle did? Married a weaver's daughter?'
‘Well, that's what I was told,' replied Mrs Darracott cautiously. ‘It all happened before I was married to your papa, so I am not perfectly sure. Papa wouldn't have spoken of it only that there was a notice of Hugh's death published in the Gazette, and he was afraid I might see it, and make some remark.'
‘When did he die, Mama?'
‘Now that I can tell you, for it was the very year I was married, and had just come back from my honeymoon to live here. It was in 1793. He was killed, poor man. I can't remember the name of the place, but I do know it was in Holland. I daresay we were engaged in a war there, for he was a military man. And I shouldn't be at all astonished, Anthea, if that is what makes your grandfather so determined Richmond shan't enter the army. I don't mean Hugh's being killed, but if he had not been a military man he would never have been stationed in Yorkshire, and, of course, if he had not been stationed there he would never have met that female, let alone have become so disastrously entangled. I believe she was a very low, vulgar creature, and lived in Huddersfield. I must own that it is not at all what one would wish for one's son.'
‘No, indeed!' Anthea agreed. ‘What in the world can have possessed him to do such a thing? And he a Darracott!'
‘Exactly so, my love! The most imprudent thing, for he cannot have supposed that your grandfather would forgive such a shocking misalliance! When one thinks how he holds up his nose at quite respectable persons, and never visits the Metropolis because he says it has grown to be full of mushrooms, and once-a-week beaux ! I must say, I never knew anyone who set himself on such a high form. And then to have his son marrying a weaver's daughter! Well!'
‘And to be obliged in the end to receive her son as his heir!' said Anthea. ‘No wonder he has been like a bear at a stake all these months! Did he know, when my uncle and Oliver were drowned, how it was? Was that what made him so out of reason cross? Why has he waited so long before breaking it to us? Why Oh, how provoking it is to think he won't tell us, and we dare not ask him!'
‘Perhaps he will tell Richmond,' suggested Mrs Darracott hopefully.
‘No,' Anthea said, with a decided shake of her head. ‘Richmond won't ask him. Richmond never asks him questions he doesn't wish to answer, any more than he argues with him, or runs counter to him.'
‘Dear Richmond!' sighed Mrs Darracott fondly. ‘I am sure he must be the best-natured boy in the world!'
‘Certainly the best-natured grandson,' said Anthea, a trifle dryly.
‘Indeed he is!' agreed her mother. ‘Sometimes I quite marvel at him, you know, for young men are not in general so tractable and good-humoured. And it is not that he lacks spirit!'
‘No,' said Anthea. ‘He doesn't lack spirit.'
‘The thing is,' pursued Mrs Darracott, ‘that he has the sweetest disposition imaginable! Only think how good he is to your grandfather, sitting with him every evening, and playing chess, which must be the dullest thing in the world! I wonder, too, how many boys who had set their hearts on a pair of colours would have behaved as beautifully as he did, when your grandfather forbade him to think of such a thing? I don't scruple to own to you, my love, that I was in a quake for days, dreading, you know, that he might do something foolish and hot-headed. After all, he is a Darracott, and even your uncle Matthew was excessively wild when he was a young man.' She sighed. ‘Poor boy! It was a sad blow to him, wasn't it? It quite wrung my heart to see him so restless, and out of spirits, but thank heaven that is all over now, for I couldn't have borne it if your grandfather had agreed to let him join! I daresay it was just a boyish fancy but Richmond has such good sense!'
Anthea looked up, as though she would have spoken; but she apparently thought better of the impulse, and closed her lips again.
‘Depend upon it,' said Mrs Darracott comfortably, ‘he will never think of it again, once he has gone to Oxford. Oh dear, how we shall miss him! I don't know what I shall do!'
The crease which had appeared between Anthea's brows deepened. She said, after a moment's hesitation: ‘Richmond has no turn for scholarship, Mama. He has failed once, and for my part I think he will fail again, because he doesn't wish to succeed. And here we are in September, so that he will be more than nineteen by the time he does go to Oxford if he goes and he will have spent another year here, with nothing to do but to '
‘Nothing of the sort!' interrupted Mrs Darracott, bristling in defence of her idol. ‘He will be studying!'
‘Oh!' said Anthea, in a colourless voice. She glanced uncertainly at her mother, again hesitated, and then said: ‘Shall I ring for some working-candles, Mama?'
Mrs Darracott, who was engaged in darning, with exquisite stitches, the torn needlepoint lace flounce to a petticoat, agreed to this; and in a very short space of time both ladies were deedily employed: the elder with her needle, the younger with some cardboard, out of which she was making a reticule, in the shape of an Etruscan vase. This was in accordance with the latest mode; and, if The Mirror of Fashion were to be believed, any ingenious lady could achieve the desired result without the smallest difficulty. ‘Which confirms me in the melancholy suspicion that I am quite lacking in ingenuity, besides having ten thumbs,' remarked Anthea, laying it aside as Chollacombe brought the tea-tray into the room.
‘I think it will look very elegant when you have painted it, my love,' said Mrs Darracott consolingly. She looked up, and saw that Richmond had followed the butler into the room, and her face instantly became wreathed in smiles. ‘Oh, Richmond! You have come to take tea with us! How charming this is!' A thought occurred to her; her expression underwent a ludicrous change; she said apprehensively: ‘Does your grandfather mean to join us, dearest?'
He shook his head, but there was a gleam of mischief in his eyes, which did not escape his sister. His mother, less observant, said in a relieved tone: ‘To be sure, he rarely does so, does he? Thank you, Chollacombe: nothing more! Now, sit down, Richmond, and tell us!'
‘What, about the weaver's son? Oh, I can't! Grandpapa snapped my nose off, so we played backgammon, and I won, and then he said I might take myself off, because he wants to talk to you, Mama!'
‘You are a detestable boy!' remarked Anthea. ‘Mama, take care! you will spill that! Depend upon it, he only means to throw a great many orders at your head about the manner in which we are to entertain the heir.'
‘Yes,' agreed Mrs Darracott, recovering her complexion. ‘Of course! I wonder if I should go to him immediately, or whether '
‘No, you will first drink your tea, Mama,' said Anthea firmly. ‘Did he tell you nothing about our unknown cousin, Richmond?'
‘Well, only that he's a military man, and was in France, with the Army of Occupation, when my uncle Granville was drowned, and that he has written that he will visit us the day after tomorrow.'
‘That must have been the letter James brought from the receiving-office, then!' exclaimed Mrs Darracott. ‘Well, at least he can write! Poor young man! I can't but pity him, though I perfectly appreciate how provoking it is for us all that he should have been born. Still, even your grandfather can't blame him for that!'
‘For shame, Mama! You are under-rating my grandfather in the most disrespectful way! Of course he can!'
Mrs Darracott could not help laughing at this, but she shook her head at her too-lively daughter as well, saying that she ought not to speak so saucily of her grandfather. After that she finished drinking her tea, begged Richmond not to go to bed before she returned from the ordeal before her, and went away to the library.
Anthea got up to fill her cup again. She glanced down at Richmond, sunk into a deep chair and smothering a yawn. ‘You look to be three parts asleep. Are you?'
‘No yes I don't know! I had one of my bad nights, that's all. Don't cosset me and, for God's sake, don't say anything to Mama!'
‘What a fortunate thing that you've warned me!' said Anthea, sitting down in her mother's vacated chair. ‘I was just about to run after Mama, before procuring a composer for you.'
He grinned at her. ‘Pitching it too rum!' he murmured. ‘I wonder what Grandpapa does want to say to Mama?'
‘I don't know, but I hope he may say it with civility! How could you stand there, and let him speak to her as he did at dinner, Richmond?'
‘Well, I can't stop him! What's more, I've more sense than to rip up at him as you did! It only puts Mama into a quake, when she thinks he may fly into a passion with you or me: you should know that!'
‘He doesn't like one the less for squaring up to him,' she said. ‘I will allow him that virtue: I don't know that he has any other.'
‘He may not like you less, but you're a female: the cases are different.'
‘I don't think so. He liked Papa far more than he liked Uncle Granville or Uncle Matthew, but I can't tell you how often they were at outs. I daresay you might not remember, but '
‘Oh, don't I just!' he interrupted. ‘Grandpapa abusing Papa like a pickpocket, Papa as mad as Bedlam, the pair of them brangling and brawling to be heard all over the house ! Not remember? I don't remember anything half as well! Too well to court the same Turkish treatment that Papa got: you may be sure of that!'
She looked curiously at him. ‘But you're not afraid of him, are you?'
‘No, I'm not afraid of him, but I detest the sort of riot and rumpus he kicks up when he's in a rage. Besides, it doesn't answer: you'll get nothing out of Grandpapa if you come to cuffs with him. I'll swear he gives me more than ever he gave Papa!'
She reflected that this was true. Lord Darracott, who grudged every groat he was obliged to spend on anything but his own pleasure, pandered to his favourite grandson's every extravagant whim. If coaxing did not move him, it was seldom that Richmond failed to bring him round his thumb by falling into a fit of despondency. That was how Richmond had come by the beautiful, headstrong colt he had himself broken and trained. He had coaxed in vain. ‘Do you think I'll help you to break your neck, boy?' had demanded his lordship. Richmond had not persisted, and even so clearsighted a critic as his elder sister had been unable to accuse him of sulkiness. He was as docile as ever, as attentive to his grandfather, and quite uncomplaining. But he made it very evident that his spirits were wholly cast down; and within a week his dejection, besides throwing Mrs Darracott into high fidgets, had won the colt for him. Anything, said Lord Darracott, was better than to have the boy so languid and listless.
It had been to cajole him out of silent despair at being told that under no circumstances would my lord buy him a pair of colours that his yacht had been bestowed on him. Suddenly Anthea wondered if the possession of a sailing vessel had been what he had all the time desired. She turned her eyes towards him, and said abruptly: ‘Do you still wish for a military career, Richmond?'
He had picked up one of the weekly journals from the table at his elbow, and was glancing through it, but he looked up quickly at that, his expressive eyes kindling. ‘I don't care for anything else!'
‘You needn't go on! Why don't I persist? Why don't I do this or that or the other? Because I know when my grandfather can't be persuaded by anything I could do or say! That's why! I'm under age and if you are thinking that I might run off and take the King's shilling, it's the sort of hubble-bubble notion a female would get into her head! That's not how I wish to join! I oh, stop talking about it! I won't talk about it! It's over and done with! I daresay I shouldn't have liked it, after all!'
He turned back to his journal, hunching an impatient shoulder, and Anthea said no more, knowing that it would be useless. She was deeply troubled, however, and not for the first time. He was spoilt, and wilful, but she loved him, and was wise enough to realize that his faults sprang from his upbringing, and were to be laid at Lord Darracott's door.
He had been a sickly, undersized baby, succumbing to every childish ailment: not at all the sort of grandson that might have been expected to occupy Lord Darracott's heart. His lordship, indeed, had paid scant heed to him until it was forcibly borne in upon him that the frail scrap whom he despised was possessed of a demon of intrepidity. But from the day when a terrified groom had carried into the house a baby who screamed: ‘Put me down, put me down! I can ride him! I can!' and had learned from this trembling individual that his tiny grandson had (by means unknown and unsuspected) got upon the back of one of his own hunters and put this great, rawboned creature at the gate that led out of the stableyard, he had adored Richmond. There had been no bones broken, but the child had been stunned by the inevitable fall, and shockingly bruised. ‘Let me go!' he had commanded imperiously. ‘I will ride him. I will, I will, I will!'
Nothing could have made a greater hit with my lord. Himself a man of iron nerve, he was at once surprised and exultant to discover in the weakling of the family a fearlessness that matched his own. There was no more talk of puling brats or miserable squeeze-crabs: thenceforward little Richmond figured in his grandfather's conversation as a right one, game as a pebble; and my lord, who had suffered scarcely a day's illness in his life, very soon became more morbidly anxious about the state of his darling's health than was Richmond's fond mama. Poor Mrs Darracott, labouring for six years under the stigma of being a doting idiot who cosseted her whelp to death, suddenly, and to her considerable bewilderment, underwent a transformation, changing, almost overnight, into an unnatural parent to whose callous neglect every one of her son's ailments could be attributed. She bore the slur with fortitude, too thankful for my lord's change of heart to resent the injustice to herself. She had dreaded the day when she would be forced to send her delicate son to Eton, but when that day dawned it had been my lord, not she, who had decreed that Richmond must be educated at home. At the time, Anthea, four years older than her brother, had been as glad as she that Richmond was not to be subjected to the rigours of boarding-school; it was not until several years had passed that she realized, looking back, that by the time he was eleven Richmond had largely outgrown his delicacy of constitution. Today, a little more than eighteen years old, he was certainly a thin youth, but he seemed to have no other weakness than a tendency towards insomnia. As a child, the slightest stir in his room had jerked him wide-awake, and this idiosyncrasy had remained with him, causing him to choose for his own a bedchamber as far removed from the main body of the house as was possible; to bolt his door; and to forbid his solicitous family to come near him once he had retired for the night. None of them ever did so, but it was only Anthea who suspected that the prohibition sprang from a strong dislike of being teased by offers of hot bricks, drops of laudanum, supporting broths, or saline draughts, rather than from an inability to drop off to sleep again once he had been roused. No one, she thought (but privately), who suffered from disturbed nights could be quite as energetic as Richmond.
He was certainly looking heavy-eyed this evening, yawning from time to time, as he flicked over the pages of the journal; but as he had begun to bring his hunters into condition, and had spent the morning at trotting exercise, following this up by soundly beating his sister in several games of battledore-and-shuttlecock, before going off to shoot rabbits in a turnip-field, it would have been surprising had he not looked weary at the end of the day.
He glanced up presently from the journal, as a thought occurred to him, and said, with a gleam of decidedly impish amusement: ‘I wouldn't be in that fellow's shoes for a fortune, would you?'
‘Our unknown cousin? No, indeed I wouldn't! If he's not up to the rig, Grandpapa will behave abominably, and we shall all be put to the blush. What do you think he will be like, Richmond? It seems to me that if he's a military man he can't be very vulgar. Unless Good God, he isn't just a common soldier, is he?'
‘Rifleman. No, of course he Lord, I never thought of that!' said Richmond, in an awed tone. He grinned appreciatively. ‘Well, if that is the way of it it will mean the devil to pay, won't it? I wonder if my uncle knows what Grandpapa has in store, or whether Vincent, too! I'll tell you what, Anthea, I don't give a fig for Uncle Matthew, but I think it's a curst shame that Vincent should be cut out by this mushroom!'
She did not answer, for at that moment Mrs Darracott came back into the room.