A Very Proper Widow
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Cutsdean Hall stood on a slight eminence but it was unobservable from the public road because of the heavy forestation to the south where a visitor turned onto the winding gravel drive. James Montague Damery, Fourth Earl of Alvescot, had visited Cutsdean frequently in his youth, and less frequently in his manhood. He did not relish the visit that lay ahead of him as he skillfully guided the two chestnuts past the Batsford Lodge and through the entrance gates, which were open, he presumed, against his arrival.
The chestnuts were showing some signs of tiring and he admonished himself for not making a longer stop at the inn an hour previously. He had taken the journey slowly so he could have his own pair, with a carriage following to bring his valet, his groom, and his luggage. The possibility that Mrs. Damery would have let the stables degenerate since her husband's death worried him, but he shrugged off his concern. The coachman and the groom would see to his own horses and report to him on any adverse conditions.
Around the sweep of one curve he caught a glimpse of the east front of Cutsdean with its quiet elegance, a large Venetian window and balustrade above of glistening stone. The west front, he knew, was more interesting, where it was apparent that the house had gone through several stages in its development. There the conical top of the Tudor staircase tower could be seen over the central block, which itself was of Stuart date. The two had been joined less than a century before to form the current building, cleverly united with pediments and pavilions to match the tall south front, which now came into view.
Lord Alvescot was not partial to stuccobuildings, preferring the solidity of stone. But there was something compelling about the south front, and indeed the whole house. Its relatively plain exterior disguised a highly decorated interior, several rooms done by Robert Adam himself. Lord Alvescot had not been to Cutsdean since his cousin Frederick had married Vanessa Fulbrook, and he had met her only once, at the wedding. It seemed entirely possible to him that the young lady would have made unacceptable changes in the house itself. She had appeared to him, at the time of their meeting, as a flighty sort of female, but again, it might simply have been her youth and her obvious infatuation with Frederick.
The earl had been in England on leave at the time, as Frederick had, from fighting in the Peninsula, and all of the women (as well as most of the men) whom he met at that time seemed coquettes and empty-skulls, dilettantes and wastrels. He had no patience with their indifference to the fate of Europe, to Wellington's brave bands representing their country without its real support.
As he approached the house he noted with relief that at least externally it appeared as it always had and everything was well tended. The stable block, he knew, was to the southeast, but he was not so much at ease here as in former days, and he headed his pair directly for the front entrance, ignoring the drive which swung around toward the rear. This proved to be a mistake, for if he had paid any attention to the stable drive, he might have caught a glimpse of a young man driving a curricle straight at him, at an unseemly speed for one rounding a corner of the East Wing.
His chestnuts were tired; Lord Alvescot himself was lost in reminiscence of his youthful visits to Cutsdean. The clatter of his own pair on the gravel disguised any other sounds he might have noted at a more observant time. But it is most unusual to find oneself vying for the right of way in front of an elegant country home on a peaceful, not to say languorous, summer day. When one has not encountered another vehicle for the last two miles of one's journey, one hardly expects suddenly to be confronted with a madman twenty feet from one's destination.
Still, that is precisely what happened. There was not ten feet between the two equipages when Lord Alvescot discovered to his horror that he was about to be run down quite unceremoniously by a hooligan driving ... yes, undoubtedly it was Frederick's own curricle. He would have recognized the scarlet and black vehicle anywhere, with its fanciful D on the body, surrounded by a garland of outrageous thistles. Frederick's joke, which had caused a number of imitators at the time, Lord Alvescot remembered. Though these useless thoughts threaded their way through his mind, they did not hamper him from exerting all his physical control over his horses. He was able to swing them out to the left onto the grass with considerable dexterity.
His adversary, however, was neither so quick-witted nor so skillful in his handling of a pair of wild-eyed bays, and though the two sets of horses barely managed to escape meshing in a tangle of frenzied bodies, the curricles themselves were not so fortunate. The young man's curricle slammed against the earl's with an impact no less than that of a raging bull. There was the horrendous sound of cracking wood, the frantic whinnying of horses ... and the earl was tossed five feet into the air, still holding onto the reins and possessed of a most astonished expression.
As ordinarily happens in an accident of this nature, the young man who had caused it suffered no such indignity. His vanity always led him, when driving the curricle, to protect his boots from the dust of the road by covering them with a cloth which was draped over a bar he had himself insisted on having installed in the curricle. At the moment of impact he found his toes locked into place by the bar, which collapsed upon them. He might have been embarrassed in having to climb out of the vehicle without his boots, but in settling, the bar once again lifted to free him. The young man was irate at the visitor's carelessness in smashing ?his? curricle and he jumped down with flushed face and raised fist.
"How dare you, sir!" he demanded of the poor earl, who was attempting to assess the damage to his body.
Lord Alvescot threw him one withering glance before snapping, "See to your horses, you young fool, else one of them will be impaled on the center pole."
His own horses stood nervously still, the neck collars and saddle pads twisted far to the left because the curricle itself had overturned onto the grass. The earl judged himself to have no more than a sprained wrist and proceeded to climb to his feet where he found, to his chagrin, that the tight-fitting breeches he wore were split from waist to ankle in his impact with the ground. This would not have caused him much concern if suddenly there hadn't been a whole gaggle of people standing fascinated on the entrance porch of the house. One of them disappeared instantly back into the building to return shortly with a driving cloak which she proceeded to carry to him, even as an old man roared at her that she had no right to go offering his cloak to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who had the bad taste to overturn his carriage in front of the house.
Vanessa Damery lifted her eyes heavenward, ignored him, and handed the cloak to the grim-faced earl. Before speaking to him, she turned to the young man who stood glaring beside his horses? heads. "For God's sake, Edward, release the beasts before more damage is done!?
He scowled at her but did as she ordered, muttering a string of ill-natured epithets which apparently applied to the earl rather than Vanessa, since they included ?bosky dog? and ?rattlepated numbskull."
The earl had shrugged into the cloak while her back was turned, effectively covering the underdrawers and bare leg which had greeted the view of his audience. The cloak came down to his knees, so only a bit of his hairy, muscular shin above his boot was still observable, and Vanessa chose not to glance at it.
"Are you injured?" Her dark eyes scanned his face for any trace of pain, and were met only with a chilling stare.
"So far as I can determine, only a sprained wrist." His lordship barely glanced at the tall woman with her coal-black hair and smoky-brown eyes. If he had, he might have recalled the high forehead and the straight, long nose, but he would not have remembered the lines of care which grief and responsibility had permanently etched into her face. The whimsical girl of twenty had long vanished to be replaced by a mature woman of twenty-five, no less attractive, but lacking that carefree charm she had once possessed. Here was elegance rather than playfulness, but Alvescot was in no mood to analyze his hostess. "Are you Mrs. Damery??
Surprised, Vanessa nodded.
"Would you mind telling me what that young devil was doing driving hell-bent for leather on the stable drive?" His voice, laden with anger, was nonetheless maintained at a level which did not reach Edward's ears.
"He always drives like that, Lord Alvescot. We saw the entire incident from the Drawing Room and I can assure you no one blames you in the least for what happened. I'm dreadfully sorry. Your horses will have to be checked over, of course, but they appear to have sustained no damage. Your curricle, however ..."
The object in question was even now being raised from its reclining position by two stable lads, while a third stood with the horses to calm them. Both wheels were splintered, and the body was so crushed it was barely recognizable. As the horses were released and led away, Lord Alvescot, without another word to his hostess, stomped over to follow the awkward procession to the stables. Vanessa sighed and turned toward the group waiting on the entry porch. Not one of them had moved to be of some assistance.
There was a suspicion of moisture in Vanessa's eyes as her gaze fell on the wreck of her late husband Frederick's curricle, still resting in the gravel drive. The damage to it was irreparable, and made her draw a long breath to steady her ragged nerves. Abruptly, she turned away from the distressing sight and walked slowly toward the frozen group of spectators.
"Everyone can go in now," she announced, feeling extraordinarily cross with all of them for gawking instead of being of any help. "The two gentlemen seem to have received no grave injuries, and the horses will be seen to."
When no one moved, she snapped, "Pray, go inside. There's nothing more to be done."
Edward's mother, Mrs. Curtiss, detached herself from the still unmoving group. "Well, I must say you are a most unfeeling woman, Vanessa! Edward could have been severely hurt by that man's carelessness and you did nothing but bark at him to see to his horses."
"The fault was Edward?s, as anyone who observed the accident could plainly see, Mabel. And they are not Edward's horses, nor was it his curricle. I daresay you may not have guessed the identity of the ?man," but he is Lord Alvescot, whom you are aware we are expecting today."
"Lord Alvescot! Well, no more wonder you defend him against my poor Edward. Now I clearly see how the land lies. My dear child will be blamed so that his lordship's dignity may be kept intact. Yes, that is the way it will be."
Though she showed signs of wishing to continue her diatribe, Vanessa wound her way past the others to gain entry into the house. The butler, Tompkins, gave her a commiserating glance and asked if he might be of any use.
"Yes, I think you might, Tompkins. His lordship will need a pair of breeches if he's to join us for luncheon. See to it, will you? There may be something in the storeroom, in one of the trunks of Mr. Damery's clothes that weren't given away. If not, perhaps one of the footmen is his size. Doubtless his own luggage will arrive shortly. In his present condition he's not likely to come through the Entrance Hall, so have someone stationed at the east door to show him to his room, please."
"Certainly, ma?am. I'll take care of it."
* * * *
Lord Alvescot, despite the rage he felt at the accident and the destruction of his curricle, to say nothing of the near destruction of himself, found himself carefully studying the stables?their condition, their management, the quality of the horses contained there. His surprise at finding them in exceedingly good order helped to mollify his anger somewhat, though his vexation at having been witnessed by that motley crew at the Hall when he was flipped out of the carriage and then stood up to reveal his drawers and legs through the slit in his breeches remained with him.
His horses were cared for with such punctilious attention that they might almost have belonged to a member of the family. Frederick, he felt sure, would have insisted on the best of stable help, but it would have been no surprise to find them grown slack. Since that was not the case, he determined that Mrs. Damery must be an avid horsewoman herself, and set himself to asking questions which would elicit the information he wished. The lads showed a proper respect for their mistress but were not given to gossiping about her to a stranger, and he learned little beyond the fact that she rode daily.
"And the boy?" he asked. "Has he started learning to ride??
"Oh, Master John has a pony of his own. Has had since he turned three," a boy with straw-colored hair replied. "Even Miss Catherine is already up in her mother's arms on a horse in the stable yard. Cute as a button, she is."
Assuming correctly that the boy was referring to the child and not her mother, Alvescot nodded and said, "My carriage will be along shortly. Let my groom and coachman see to the wreckage when they come; you'll have enough to do with the horses. And ... thank you."
From his former visits, Alvescot knew exactly how to enter the house without going through the main door, and he proceeded to do so, finding to his surprise that the east door was opened even before he reached it. A footman greeted him deferentially and offered to show Lord Alvescot to his room, which turned out to be one of the lesser rooms, of no architectural merit whatsoever. The woodwork was fine enough, the doors, doorframes, skirting, dado rails, window architraves, shutters, and chimneypiece all splendidly carved, but there was little else to commend the room. It was not at all what Lord Alvescot was used to. The mahogany four-poster and the serpentine-fronted mahogany chest and bedside commode-table were undoubtedly from Chippendale's workshop, but lacked the setting into which they should have been placed. In short, the room was hopelessly small.
As a boy, of course, Alvescot had had such a room when he visited, might in fact have stayed in this very one, or one similar to it. But he had not, since reaching his majority, been offered an apartment so small, so cramped, so thoroughly undesirable. When he inquired, he found that there was a water closet at the end of the corridor! The footman apparently did not regard his blink of disbelief, but proceeded to hold up a pair of breeches which had been found in storage. A stale odor clung to them, but it occurred to Alvescot that they were probably Frederick's and he silently accepted them.
"If I could be of assistance until your valet arrives," suggested the footman.
"Thank you, no. I can manage for myself."
"There is generally a cold collation in the dining room at one, milord."
Alvescot drew a timepiece from his pocket and noted he had only fifteen minutes to present himself. "I would prefer a tray in my room if you would see to it," he said.
Dismissing the footman, Alvescot walked to the window and gazed out over the garden and park. In the distance he could see an octagonal garden house from which a long walk bordered by a stone wall led to a ha-ha, which prevented the cattle from drawing too close to the house. From his vantage point it looked like a sizable herd, but he wasn't close enough to really judge their condition, he reminded himself. As a boy he had admired the garden house with its Adam fireplace and ogival windows, but he turned now to his tiny room with a frown of displeasure.
It had occurred to him that his aunt, who must have been one of the party at the entry porch, had not even bothered to step forward and inquire after his well-being. Not that this seemed out of character. He had never liked his Aunt Damery, whose cold eyes and disinterest in her sole child Frederick had puzzled him from the first time he'd met her. Frederick had never complained of her detachment, but his affection had been given to his nanny, and his father.
Very understandable, Alvescot decided as he kicked off his boots and shed the ruined breeches, wincing at the pain in his wrist. He and Frederick had been much the same build, and he found that the breeches he donned fit admirably. Had Mrs. Damery noted his build, or had she simply given instructions that something be found for him? He shrugged off his curiosity about the matter. Of far greater interest was who all those people on the entry porch had been. At the time it appeared to him that there must have been at least a dozen of them, but on cooler reflection he decided the number might have been smaller, though not by a great deal. She wouldn't have had time to invite all of them here just to meet him, since he'd only written a few days previous of his coming. Which would indicate that they were residents, perhaps even that idiot who had crashed into his curricle. And now he came to think of it, there was something vaguely familiar about the young man, though Alvescot was unable to place him precisely.
By the time his meal came, a tray with a tankard of ale and thick slices of meat and cheese, he had recovered something of his usual aplomb. The accident could not be allowed to put him at a disadvantage with his cousin's widow. He was, after all, a trustee of his cousin's estate, despite the fact that he hadn't seen fit previously to exercise any power in the matter. Vanessa Damery, as the other trustee, had been given rather too free a hand, being actually on the spot, but Alvescot meant now to rectify that oversight. In the two years since Frederick's death at Waterloo a great deal could have deteriorated about the estate and Alvescot meant to see that Frederick's son inherited the land and buildings in good shape. Though Alvescot stood as godfather to both the Damery children, he had seen neither of them. The boy must be four by now, he decided, and the girl just two. Not exactly ages with which he was familiar.
But he felt a certain righteousness in having finally come to take matters in hand. When he had finished his meal and pushed the tray away from him on the small table, he tilted back in the delicate chair to meditate on how efficiently he intended to sort out the chaos he was sure existed at Cutsdean. It was just as he had decided he would request an immediate interview with his hostess that the fragile back legs of the chair, unused to such a weight on their tiny tips, crumpled beneath him to send him sprawling on the floor, where he gazed in wonderment at the intricate design of the ceiling. His annoyance at this second accident was so great that he grasped one leg of the chair savagely, with the intent of flinging it across the room, but his position was awkward there on the floor and he succeeded only in further injuring his sprained wrist and scraping the broken chair leg across his high forehead.
Hearing the commotion within, his valet, who had just arrived and was on the point of knocking, hastily entered the room to find his lordship groaning with exasperation and pain. Bibury took in the situation at a glance and carefully schooled his face to show not the least trace of amusement at the ridiculous scene.
"Don't just stand there gawking," Alvescot snapped. "Help me out of this stupid chair." When the valet had assisted him to his feet, Alvescot disgustedly regarded the ruins of the painted chair, using all his willpower to restrain himself from kicking at it, which doubtless would only result in a broken toe for his effort.
"I don't know why people insist on having such flimsy furniture," he grumbled. "As though it weren't bad enough to be put in the smallest possible bedchamber, she has to try to kill me with chairs that disintegrate under a normal-sized man."
Bibury was rapidly gathering up the remains of the chair, which he calmly pushed out into the hall during Alvescot's monologue. "Shall I have a look at that scratch, milord?" he asked when he returned.
"What scratch?" There was a mirror behind him, and Alvescot swung around to see the reddening scrape across half of his forehead. The earl was not particularly vain about his looks, since he didn't think them anything out of the ordinary, but he considered the garish red abrasion disturbingly uncouth. He could not recall any instance to mind, save during the war in the Peninsula, when any gentleman of his acquaintance had appeared in public with such a mark upon his physiognomy. A long, soulful sigh escaped his lips and he met Bibury's eyes in the mirror. "It doesn't need any attention," he admitted, "but my wrist is aching damnably. Have you something to wrap it??
The little valet nodded and disappeared from the room. Alvescot cautiously seated himself on the delicate bench before the mirror, drawing his uninjured hand through his straight brown hair. He was considering how long it would take the minor wound to heal, and he paid no attention to his own image. His hazel eyes mournfully assessed the brushburn, knowing it would take several days for its traces to entirely disappear. Which wouldn't be so awful, except that he was sure someone was bound to ask him how he had sustained it, since it hadn't been there after the curricle accident.
Well, he would simply ignore their questions, he decided, since he had no intention of detailing his downfall, so to speak. Alvescot felt sure he could turn away any impertinent questions with the simple expedient of a raised brow. Hadn't Frederick teased him often enough about his haughty demeanor? Not that the earl believed for a moment that it was anything more than a joke. He was accustomed to thinking of himself as being unfailingly polite and rather mild-natured in his dealings with his fellow man ... and woman.
When Bibury returned with the tape to wrap his wrist, he patiently submitted to the valet's ministrations, thanking him when the procedure was finished and asking for a pair of his own breeches. With Bibury's assistance, he was soon returned to some semblance of sartorial acceptability and he went in search of his hostess.
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