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The library at Fontley Priory, like most of the principal apartments in the sprawling building, looked to the south-east, commanding a prospect of informal gardens and a plantation of poplars, which acted as a wind-break and screened from view the monotony of the fen beyond. On an afternoon in March the sunlight did not penetrate the Gothic windows, and the room seemed dim, the carpet, the hangings, and the tooled leather backs of the books in the carved shelves as faded as the uniform of the man who sat motionless at the desk, his hands lying clasped on a sheaf of papers, his gaze fixed on a clump of daffodils, nodding in the wind that soughed round the angles of the house, and passed like a shadow over the unscythed lawn.
The uniform showed the buff facings and silver lace of the 52nd Regiment; it was as threadbare as the carpet, but for all its shabbiness it seemed incongruous: as out of place in this quiet room as the man who wore it felt himself to be.
He should not have done so: the Priory was his birthplace, and he owned it; but his adult years had been spent in very different scenes from the placid fens and wolds of Lincolnshire, and his transition from the grandeur of the Pyrenees had been too sudden, and attended by circumstances of too much horror to make it seem to him anything other than a bad dream from which he would presently be awakened by a call to arms, or by a stampeding mule brought down by the guy-ropes of his tent, or by the mere bustle of a camp at first light.
The letters from England had reached him on the last day of January. He had first read his mother's, written in the agitation of her bereavement, and conveying to him in a barely legible series of crossed and recrossed lines the news that his father was dead. He had been more shocked than grieved, never having enjoyed more than a casual acquaintance with the late Viscount. Lord Lynton, while bluff and good-natured when confronted with any of his offspring, had not been blessed with domestic virtues. A close friend of the Prince Regent, he had so much preferred the Prince's society to that of his family that very little of his time had been spent in his home, and none at all in considering what might be the hopes or characteristics of one surviving son and two daughters.
He had been killed in the hunting-field, in the first burst, taking a double at the fly: not a surprising end for an intrepid and frequently reckless horseman. What did surprise his son was to discover that contrary to advice and entreaty he had been riding a green and headstrong young horse, never before tried in the field. Lord Lynton was a bruising rider, but not a fool; his heir, knowing the wild hurly-burly of a first burst with the Quorn or the Belvoir, concluded that he had ridden his young 'un for a wager, and passed on to a maternal command to sell out instantly, and return to England, where his presence was most urgently needed.
The new Lord Lynton (but it was to be many weeks before he answered readily to any other title than Captain Deveril) could not find in his mother's letter any reason why he should pursue a course so repugnant to himself. The letter from Lord Lynton's man of business was less impassioned but more explicit.
He read it twice before his brain was able to grasp its horrifying intelligence, and many times before he laid it before his Colonel.
No one could have been kinder; to no one else, indeed, could Adam Deveril have borne to have disclosed that letter. Colonel Colborne had read it, his countenance unmoved, and he had offered no unwanted sympathy. "You must go," he had said, "I'll grant you furlough immediately, to expedite the business, but you'll sell out, of course." Then, guessing the thoughts hidden behind Adam's rigid countenance, he had added: "A year ago there might have been doubts which way your duty should have led you, but there are none now. We shall soon have Soult on the run in good earnest. I shan't say you won't be missed: you will bedamnably!but your absence won't affect the issue here. There's no question about it, you know: you must go home to England."
He had known it, of course, and had argued neither with his Colonel nor his own conscience. He had sailed on the first available transport, and, after a brief halt in London, had posted on to Lincolnshire, leaving his man of business to discover the extent of his liabilities, and his tailor to deliver with all possible expedition raiment suited to a civilian gentleman in deep mourning.
This had not yet arrived, but the news that his Regiment had distinguished itself at the Battle of Orthes had reached Fontley, making him at once exultant and wretched; and Mr Wimmering had presented himself at Fontley on the previous day. He had spent the night at the Priory; but the younger Miss Deveril was of the opinion that he could not have enjoyed more than two or three hours of sleep, since he had remained closeted with her brother until dawn. He was very civil to the ladies, so it was unkind of her to liken him to a bird of ill-omen. He was very civil to the new Viscount, too, and very patient, answering all his questions without betraying that he found him lamentably ignorant.
Adam said, with a smile in his tired gray eyes: "You must think me a fool to ask you so many stupid questions. I'm a Johnny Raw, you see. I've never dealt with such matters as these. I don't understand them, and I must."
No, Mr Wimmering did not think his lordship a fool, but deeply did he regret that the late Viscount had not seen fit to admit him to his confidence. But the late Viscount had not seen fit to admit even his man of business wholly into his confidence: there had been transactions on the Stock Exchange in which agents unknown to Wimmering had been employed. He said mournfully: "I could not have advised his lordship to invest his money as he sometimes did. But his nature was sanguineand I must acknowledge that on several occasions he was fortunate in ventures which I, as a man of affairs, could not have recommended to him." He refreshed himself with a pinch of snuff taken from the battered silver box which he had been tapping with the tip of one desiccated finger, and added: "I was well-acquainted with your honoured parent, my lord, and have for long been persuaded that it was his hope to have restored to its former prosperity the inheritance to which he succeeded, and which, he knew, must in the course of nature presently fall into your hands. The speculative, and, alas, unlucky, enterprise upon which he entered shortly before his untimely demise" He broke off, transferring his gaze from Adam's face to the line of swaying tree-tops beyond the gardens. To them he apparently addressed the rest of his speech, saying: "It should never be forgotten that his late lordship's nature was, as I have remarked, sanguine. Dear me, yes! If I had a hundred pounds for every occasion on which his lordship suffered reverses on 'Change without the least diminution of his optimism I should be a wealthy man, I assure you, sir!"
No answer was vouchsafed to this. Adam, instead of seeking further reassurance, said in an even tone: "In plain words, Wimmering, how do my affairs stand?"
Plain words, in situations of the utmost delicacy, were obnoxious to Wimmering, but, impelled by some quality in that quiet voice, he replied with unaccustomed bluntness: "Badly, my lord."
Adam nodded. "How badly?"
Mr Wimmering set his fingertips exactly together, and replied evasively: "It is in the highest degree unfortunate that your lordship's grandfather should have deceased before the coming of age of his late lordship. It was his intention to have resettled the estates. At that time, as I need not remind your lordship, my own revered parent stood in the same relation to the Fourth Viscount as I have stood in to the Fifth, andif I may be permitted to express the wishas I hope to stand in to your lordship. When you, my lord, attained your majority, it was my earnest desire to have induced his late lordship to repair an omission rendered inevitable by the inscrutable workings of Providence. His lordship, however, did not consider the moment opportune for the prosecution of a design which, I assure you, he had very much at heart. Your presence, my lord, must have been essential: I can have no need to recall to your mind the circumstances which would have made it hard indeed for you to have applied for furlough just then. The Combat of the Coa! It seems but yesterday that we were eagerly perusing the account of that engagement, with the words of commendation bestowed by Lord Wellington on the officers and the men of your lordship's Regiment!"
"The estates, I collect, were even then encumbered?" interpolated his lordship.
Mr Wimmering bowed his head in sorrowful assent, but raised it again to offer a palliative. "But her ladyship's jointure was secured to her."
"And my sisters' portions?"
Wimmering sighed. After a pause, Adam said: "The case seems to be desperate. What must I do?"
"Serious, my lord, but not desperate, we must trust." He raised his hand, as Adam made a gesture towards the mass of papers on his desk. "Let me beg of you not to refine too much upon demands which were, under the circumstances, inevitable! None are immediately pressing. A certain degree of alarm in the creditors was to be expected, and to allay that must beindeed, has beenmy first concern. I do not by any means despair of composing all these matters."
"I have no great head for figures," Adam replied, "but I think the debts total a larger amount than my disposable assets." He picked up a paper, and studied it. "You have set no value on the racing-stables, I observe. Those, I think, should be sold at once, and also the town house."
"Upon no account!" interrupted Wimmering earnestly. "Such an action, my lord, would prove fatal, believe me! Let me repeat that my care has been to allay anxiety: until we see our way more clearly that is most necessary."
Adam laid the paper down. "It is already clear to me. I am facing ruin, am I not?"
"Your lordship takes too despondent a view. The shock has overset you! But we need not despair."
"No, if I had time enough, and the means, perhaps I could restore our fortunes. Surely Fontley was prosperous in my grandfather's day? Since I came home I have been going all about with our bailiff, trying to learn from him in a week the things I ought to have learnt when I was a boy. Instead" he smiled rather painfully "I was army-mad. One doesn't realise, or foresee But repining won't help me out of my difficulties. The land here is as rich as any in Lincolnshire, but so much needs to be done! And if I had the means to do it I should wish above all things to redeem the mortgages, and that I certainly have not the means to do."
"My lord, not all your lands are mortgaged! Do not, I beg of you"
"Mercifully, not all. The house, and the demesne-lands are unencumbered. Can you tell me what price we should set on them? Both have been neglected, but the Priory is generally thought to be beautiful, and has, besides, historic interest."
"Sell Fontley?" exclaimed Wimmering, aghast. "Your lordship cannot be serious! You are speaking in jest, of course!"
"No, I am not speaking in jest," Adam replied quietly. "I don't think I ever felt less like jesting in my life. If you could show me how to pay off this load of debt, how to provide for my sisters without selling Fontleybut you can't, can you?"
"My lord," said Wimmering, recovering his countenance, "I trust I may be able to do so. It might not be an easy task, but it has occurred to meif I may speak frankly on a subject of an intimate nature?"
Adam looked surprised, but nodded.
"Such unhappy situations as this are not of such rare occurrence as one could wish, my lord," said Mr Wimmering, intently scrutinising his fingers. "I could tell you of cases within my own experience where the sadly fallen fortunes of a noble house have been resuscitated by a judicious alliance."
"Good God, are you suggesting that I should marry an heiress?" Adam demanded.
"It has frequently been done, my lord."
"I daresay it has, but you mustn't expect me to do it, I'm afraid," returned Adam. "I don't think I'm acquainted with any heiresses, and I'm sure I shouldn't be regarded as an eligible suitor."
"On the contrary, my lord! Your lineage is distinguished; you are the holder of a title; the owner of very considerable estates, and of a seatas you have said yourself-of historic interest."
"I never suspected that you had a turn for nonsense!" Adam interrupted. "These possessions of mine are very fine-sounding until you tap them, when they have a hollow ring. In any event, I don't contemplate putting myself up for sale."
There was a note of finality in his voice, and Wimmering bowed to it, content for the present to have instilled the idea into his brain. He might recoil from it, but Wimmering had formed a favourable opinion of his good sense, and he hoped that when he had recovered from the shock of finding himself on the brink of ruin he would perceive the advantages of what was, in his adviser's view, a very simple way out of his difficulties. It was fortunate that he was unattachedif he was unattached. Wimmering knew that a year previously he had fancied himself in love with Lord Oversley's daughter; but no notice of an engagement had ever appeared, and the connection had not met with the Fifth Viscount's approbation. The Fifth Viscount had been quite as anxious as Wimmering that his son should marry money; and from what he knew of Lord Oversley's circumstances Wimmering could not suppose that he either regarded with enthusiasm such an alliance. Miss Julia was an accredited Beauty; and if any man could have made an accurate guess at the extent of Lord Lynton's embarrassments it must have been his old friend Oversley No, Wimmering was inclined to think that his late lordship had been right when he had dismissed the affair as mere calf-love.