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"She's going to drive me to Bedlam," Sir Edward insisted, his blue eyes scowling beneath bushy brown eyebrows. "You have no idea, Hampden. From the time I get up in the mowing until the time I go to bed at night I can feel her watching me, and you may be sure it's not with approval. Why the devil doesn't she get married? She's had opportunities enough! There was Knedlington back when she was only seventeen, but I didn't think anything of it when she turned him off. Seventeen is still a flighty age, though she's never been what you'd call frivolous."
His companion surreptitiously pushed an encroaching dog away with one booted foot. "She's not a bad-looking woman. Handsome in a prim sort of way. Not a beauty, of course, but there's nothing in her countenance to give a fellow a disgust of her. How old is she now?"
Sir Edward allowed his eyes to flick exasperatedly toward the ceiling of the one room at Lyndhurst from which his daughter was most decidedly excluded, his study. Not a very appropriate name for it, he thought. "Five and twenty, for God's sake. Can you believe she's still here at five and twenty? Knedlington wasn't the only one, you know. Somerville came around when she was eighteen, and Prestbury when she was nineteen or twenty, I forget which. And it's not as if they were old men like you and me," he said, not really believing himself old, but willing to concede the point that his daughter was a great deal younger. "When Chastleton showed some interest, I warned him off. He must be my age if he's a day. Probably older."
"Yes, Chastleton has to be almost sixty." Hampden Winterbourne stretched his legs toward the warm fire in the grate, thinking rather dolefullythat it was nice to know a few people who were older than oneself and still alive. "Why doesn't she marry?" he asked, curious.
"How the hell should I know? To spite me, more than likely. She says she has to keep an eye on my bastards, since I won't do it."
Hampden choked on the sip of brandy he'd just taken. After a fit of coughing he ran a finger under his neckcloth before speaking.
"Does she call them bastards?"
"No," Sir Edward admitted. "Elspeth is far too puritanical to use such offensive language. She calls them 'love children,' with the most obnoxious emphasis on 'love.' I've tried to induce her to simply refer to them as illegitimate, but she won't have anything to do with the term, as it in no way links them so thoroughly to me
"Imagine, Hampden, having a daughter who is forever harping on one's responsibility to a string of snotty brats. They probably aren't even all mine! The whole neighborhood knows what she is. Any woman without a husband comes running to her, insisting I'm the father, and Elspeth provides her with money. My money! She makes a weekly round of them, you know, seeing that they all have food and medical attention. And whenever she returns from one of her Good Samaritan jaunts, she's out of patience with me and expects me to take some interest in their welfare. Now I ask you!"
Hampden studied his companion for a moment. Who would have thought a fifty-five-year-old man would have such astonishing luck with the women? Sir Edward's full head of hair was beginning to gray and his waistline had thickened somewhat since Hampden had first encountered him in London more than thirty years previously. But the charm was still there, apparently, as it had been when he'd courted Elspeth's mother. Mary was the granddaughter of an earl and could probably have looked considerably higher than Sir Edward, but, no, one look into his lively blue eyes, one evening spent in his intoxicating company, and she never had eyes for anyone else.
A pity she'd died, really. More than ten years ago now, it must have been. She'd always kept a firm rein on Edward, and he hadn't seemed to mind, but look at the way he'd behaved since then. Odd how grief took some people. Edward had sworn he'd never remarry, though there were women who'd eagerly have had him then, at forty-five, possibly even now.
Instead of settling for the comfort of one woman who'd take care of him, he gallivanted about like a man less than half his age, unconcerned with the proprieties and totally lacking in a sense of responsibility to the women he impregnated. Hampden knew a moment's sympathy for Elspeth Parkstone.
He ran a hand through his grizzled hair, shrugging. "You can't expect her to appreciate your providing her with a lot of unrecognized half brothers and sisters, Edward. They must be a great embarrassment to her."
"Not a bit of it! She dotes on them. You've never seen such a mother hen. When one of them is sick, she frets herself to flinders. She knows more about caring for sick children than anyone else in the vicinity, including the doctor. He comes to her for advice. It's disgusting. And when is it going to end, if she won't even consider marriage? Hinchwick hung round for two months last summer. I know it's hard to believe, she's already a spinster, but he'd have had her if she'd given him the least encouragement. I threatened to turn her out of the house if she wouldn't accept, and she merely laughed at me. Her own father! Something must be done about her."
There weren't many opportunities for Sir Edward to complain about his daughter. His neighbors to a man (and woman) considered her nothing short of a saint (with himself cast as sinner). It was only on those rare occasions when a visitor came from outside the area that he grasped the chance to let off a little spleen. Hampden had been visiting a nephew in Warwickshire for some time and was only making a short stop on his way through to London.
Edward didn't expect his old friend to be of any real assistance; he didn't, in fact, feel there was an possibility of his situation changing. Elspeth was going to remain at Lyndhurst for the rest of her life, his nemesis right up to the day he drew his last breath. Perhaps he wouldn't have minded so much if under her austere gray gowns and severely drawn-back hair she hadn't reminded him so thoroughly of his dead wife. It was like having Mary there to witness his dissipation, except that Mary wasn't there, and he wouldn't be at such loose ends if she were.
His glass was empty, and he rose to pour himself another from the bottle of his best brandy which stood close by. He could hear movement in the hall but relaxed in the knowledge no one would interrupt him. If Elspeth was still up, she wouldn't even bother to put her head in the door to say goodnight. She had learned, some time ago, and rather drastically, not to take such a chance. Edward smiled at the memory. Though it was not without its embarrassment, it had served a most useful purpose. Lifting a brow toward Hampden, who nodded, he refilled his friend's glass.
"She walked in on me once," he explained, though Hampden's preoccupation was not so much with the mysterious smile as with his own thoughts. "I'd warned her that the study was my private sanctuary, but when she's full of zeal she tends to forget ordinary politeness. It was late, about eleven I suppose, and I thought she'd gone off to her room. I'd slipped Fanny in through the side door. You have to do that on account of the servants, of course, though why a man can't do whatever he wants in his own home is beyond me. Anyhow, we were on the sofa over there, naked as the day we were born, when Elspeth walked in without a by-your-leave. I didn't notice, being a bit excited at the time, but Fanny kept poking me in the chest and opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water.
"Elspeth was standing there with her eyes bulging out of her face, as pale as a ghost. It was rather dark in the room, fortunately. Fanny moaned and covered her face, but I'm sure Elspeth had already seen who she was. I couldn't very well get up without exposing more of myself than was absolutely necessary, and Elspeth kept standing there as if frozen to the spot. Finally I roared at her to get out, and she bolted, dropping some list she'd brought to show me and not stopping to pick it up. She didn't talk to me for a week."
"Well, it was her own fault. Hell, it would be a lot more convenient to take them to my own room, where I have a perfectly comfortable bed. It's all for her sake that I use the study sometimes, in a pinch. I've been very indulgent with her, when you come to think of it. Maybe if I just paraded them around the house she'd be more eager to marry and leave home," he mused, a thoughtful light appearing in his vivid blue eyes. "I'd never considered that before. Desperate times demand desperate measures."
"No, no," Hampden protested, agitatedly waving a pudgy hand. "You're a gentleman, Edward. One doesn't do that sort of thing."
"What do I care what other people do?" Edward grumbled. "I have a right to some peace in my own house, and I'm not going to get it until I get rid of my daughter. She has no intention of leaving. I've told her it's her duty to marry and raise a family; she tells me she's not interested in a life of the flesh. The impudence! It's these demmed religious fellows casting aspersions on anyone who isn't as holy as they are. They just can't abide seeing someone having a good time. And Elspeth's around them all day long, organizing clothing drives and knitting scarves for orphans, running the autumn fete and the spring fete and the summer fete. I thought for a while she must be interested in the rector, though he's a sorry dog with a cadaverous body and greasy black hair. No such luck! Even a bishop wouldn't be good enough for her."
The late October night was becoming more chill, and Edward got up to put another log on the fire. Hampden drew his chair a little closer and allowed the dog to lie on his feet after all. One of the candles guttered, but neither of the men paid the least attention. They sat staring moodily into the flames for a while before Hampden spoke. It had occurred to him it was time he changed the subject.
"I've been with my nephew for some time, you knew. Very sad situation. Poor fellow's wife died in childbirth. Fond of her, he was." Hampden sighed and reached down to stroke the dog in an excess of sympathy. "The child lived, but it's sickly, which is a great pity, since it's a son and heir. David's at his wits' end, mourning his wife, worrying that the child will die, plagued by Castlereagh to join him at Vienna for the Congress. You've met David, haven't you? Lord Greywell?"
"Some years ago," Edward answered absently. "Nice-looking fellow, tall, an avid angler?"
"That's him. He's also a superb diplomat." This was said with some pride, though rather offhandedly. "Castlereagh swears he can't pull the Congress off without David, and I'm convinced he'd do better to go, if only to get his mind off his personal troubles. But he won't leave the child there with his household staff when it's so fragile. Though what good he thinks he can do, heaven only knows."
"No man should ever set foot in a nursery," Edward declared with great firmness. "I never did."
"No, but you had Mary to oversee things there for you. David has no one, unfortunately. If he had a sister or some female relative..."
Edward had been rolling the brandy glass between his hands, not paying as much attention as he ought. He was still obsessed with getting rid of Elspeth. His eyes narrowed now, looking almost black in the dimly lit room. "You say he hasn't anyone at all he can call on?"
"Not a soul. He's the last of the Foxcotts, except for the new son, who might not live. This wasn't the first time his wife had conceived, I gather, but the first time she'd produced a living child. Might have been better if she hadn't tried again, knowing the end result. But there it is. Nothing to be done about it now."
"What he needs is another wife," Edward remarked with an abruptness that startled his companion.
"Another wife? How can you even think it? His poor lady hasn't been in her grave three months yet. Maybe I didn't make that clear."
"Oh, it's clear enough. Greywell should go off to the Congress and leave his new wife with the infant. Of course, he'd need to choose someone with a tender heart, who would look after the child as though it were her own. Someone who knew a bit about the care of sick babes, don't you know. And even then he wouldn't want to settle for just anyone. He's a viscount, after all, and could expect to marry--say, a baronet's daughter who was the great-granddaughter of an earl. Perfectly suitable, I should think."
Hampden was regarding him with a horrified expression. "You can't mean it! He's in mourning, for God's sake! And if your Elspeth wouldn't take Knedlington or Somerville or any of those others you mentioned, why would she consider Greywell?"
"Because," Edward reminded him, "she has a very soft heart for children. The story of the dying child will wrench her to the very soul. Wouldn't it be her Christian duty to save the poor child? Won't she be distraught to hear of a poor young woman dying at such a time? None of my bastards' mothers ever die," he said morosely. "And the children are always obscenely healthy when they're born, though according to Elspeth they have their share of childhood diseases. I tell you, she's just the wife for him."
"He doesn't want a wife," Hampden insisted.
"He doesn't know he wants a wife yet. It's the perfect solution to both of our problems." His eyes glazed over with satisfaction as he leaned back in his chair and took a sip of the brandy. "I think the thing for you to do is return to Warwickshire immediately and bring him here. Will he leave the child for a few days?"
"Edward, I think your wits have gone begging. Why would Greywell listen to such a crackbrained scheme? He's still grieving over his wife. He's not likely to dishonor her by marrying again so soon.
"Hmm. Here's what you can tell him. His wife gave her life to present him with a son, his heir, and it's his duty to see that the babe lives to perpetuate her memory. Yes, yes. That's exactly how it should be. No one is going to criticize him when he marries for the sake of his child. They'll understand the necessity and admire him for his courage in seeming to flaunt convention. Did his wife have family?"
"Only a maiden aunt in Yorkshire, who was too ill to journey to Ashfield. She raised the girl and had a friend bring her out in London, where David met her. Look, Edward, it's not the family who're going to oppose your scheme; it's David himself."
Hampden swirled the remaining brandy in his glass with more vigor than necessary. "From his point of view, a new wife wouldn't have a vested interest in keeping the child alive, would she? A new wife would want to present him with an heir of her own, to solidify the match."
Edward's brows drew together in a prodigious frown. "I doubt if even Greywell could conceive of a woman's allowing a child to die because she wanted to present him with his heir. It's too monstrous to contemplate," he added self-righteously. "You know Elspeth better than that, and I'm sure you can convince your nephew of her rectitude. No one who's ever met Elspeth doubts her rectitude."
Hampden finished off his brandy in a gulp and set his glass on the table nearest him with a decided thump. "I'm due in London. You'll have to excuse me from going back to Warwickshire, Edward."
Seeing the futility of urging that particular plan, Edward wisely backed off from it. "Of course, of course. You're a busy man, and you've already allotted a generous amount of time to your nephew. It was unconscionable of me to suggest such a scheme. A letter would be much the better idea, in any case. That would give Greywell a chance to mull over the proposal. He's likely, as you have, to reject it out of hand at first sight, but its merits may appeal to him after a little consideration. Well, of course they will, because it's an eminently suitable arrangement for everyone involved. Write him that he must come to stay with me and meet her before he makes up his mind."
"And what of Elspeth?"
"I can handle Elspeth," Edward assured him, with ungrounded optimism. "You have only to do your part and the thing is as good as done."
Hampden and Elspeth sat across the breakfast table from each other in the morning after Sir Edward had been called away to settle an urgent estate matter. No mention had been made of Lord Greywell and his sickly son. Elspeth was calmly buttering a muffin while she spoke of her parish activities. Her gray wool dress did not completely disguise her attractive figure, but went a good way toward doing so, and the style in which she wore her hair, pulled starkly back from her face, did little to soften the strong features with which she'd been endowed.
Her eyes were more hazel than green and were given to observing one in a disconcerting way, as though she had no patience with circumspection. Her high cheekbones and straight nose were emphasized by the scalped coiffeur she affected, and would have been greatly softened by some ringlets about her face. There was no way to conceal the soft, full lips other than keeping them in a prim line, which she attempted for the most part to do. When she smiled they curved slightly, but Hampden wasn't honored by a laugh.
Not the way she'd been as a child, he thought unhappily, when her lips were forever curling with delight, and her luscious laughter had bubbled forth without a moment's thought. Her golden-brown hair had more often than not been slightly disarrayed then, from her youthful exertions; still, that was a great deal more attractive than the matronly knot she wore now at the back of her head.
Hampden remembered Elspeth as a spirited child, running almost wild over the estate, to the consternation of her mother and the delight of her father. The change in her had come about shortly after her mother's death, he thought, and the mischievousness that had so endeared her to the childless Winterbournes had never returned.
Hampden's wife had been Elspeth's godmother, and had looked forward after Mary died to bringing Elspeth out in London, but even that hope had faded as her own health deteriorated. Elspeth had insisted it made no difference; her letter had been full of concern for Mrs. Winterbourne, and had just mentioned that the frivolity of London was not, after all, just the sort of setting to which she was accustomed. Hampden had always thought it might have made all the difference, induced her out of her narrow life. But that chance was gone.
"You seem to keep quite busy," he remarked as he added cream to his coffee.
"Oh, there's always more to be done than there's time for," she said, giving him one of her half-hearted smiles. "The rector is a great one for putting idle hands to work. Things run so smoothly at Lyndhurst I rarely have to spend more than an hour or two a day on my household duties. I'm afraid we didn't give you much of a treat last night," she apologized, remembering the rumpsteak-and-kidney pudding, and the curried fowl. "If you'll stay over another night I'll plan something special--fricasseed sweetbreads or savory rissoles, with a second course of sirloin of beef and roast partridges. Papa didn't expect you until today."
"Can't stay, I'm afraid, my dear. I have business in London, and then I must go off to Kent as soon as may be. I long for my own bed, and my own things around me. You must understand how it is."
"Well, no," she admitted. "Actually, I've seldom been away from Lyndhurst since I was a child. The only times I've spent a night other than in my own bed were when I was nursing a sick child elsewhere, or was forced by inclement weather to spend the night at a neighbor's."
"Would you like to travel a bit?"
Elspeth looked surprised. "Travel? How should I do that? No, no, there is no chance of it, and I'm content to do my wanderings in the books I read. I'm needed in the parish, you know. These are difficult times for the poor folk. They make so little for their piecework, with the manufactories producing so much at such low cost. Not that I approve of how they treat their workers! You mustn't think that. The conditions and the hours are quite appalling. I hear of the hardships. Whole families have moved to Manchester and Birmingham in hopes of making a better living, and they find themselves little if any better off than they were in the village. Often worse." She sighed and set down the remaining bite of her muffin. "We have so much compared to them."
"Yes, well, that's only to be expected, isn't it?" Hampden asked rhetorically. Such discussions made him uncomfortable.
"But we live in complete idleness and comfort while these people work and starve," Elspeth protested. About to let herself get carried away, she noticed that his expression was pained, and she abruptly reined in her enthusiasm. Too often that glazed look had come into her father's eyes, indicating the hopelessness of further expostulation. She picked up the last bite of muffin and asked, "Will there be decent hunting in Kent this winter?"
Relieved, Hampden set down his coffee cup to eye her with approval. Smart woman, to know when she'd gone past the bounds of pleasing. While he extolled the merits of his pack of foxhounds and his various hunters, he was turning over in his mind the possibility that Edward's plan might not be so farfetched after all.
Elspeth was a good listener, asking the right questions, and making the right comments. Her sympathy with the downtrodden was evidence of her kind heart, and if there was one thing David needed just at the moment, it was someone with a concern for the weak. Maybe he would just write that letter before he set off for London after all. What harm could it do?
"Too bad Hampden couldn't stay longer," Sir Edward muttered as he watched the traveling carriage disappear at the end of the drive. "We don't see much of him these days."
"No," Elspeth said absently. "A pity. Maybe you could visit him in Kent sometime. I gather he was only up this way to see his nephew."
Edward studied her face as she rearranged the candlesticks on a hall table. "Poor fellow, Greywell. I suppose Hampden told you about his misfortunes."
"About his wife's dying in childbirth? Yes. How dreadfully sad."
"And he mentioned the baby, and how sickly it is?"
"Yes. I told him he should write his nephew and suggest a different wet nurse. Sometimes one's milk won't agree with the child."
Edward didn't want to think about things like that. The thought of childbirth and nursing babies was almost (but not quite) enough to put him off lovemaking for good. "I'm sure it's more than that. The child obviously needs constant care, and no village girl is going to know how to give the proper attention. Certainly Lord Greywell doesn't know a thing about it. He needs someone capable to come in and take charge for him."
His insistence on the topic caused Elspeth to glance at him sharply. "If he wants the child to live, I'm sure he'll think of that."
"How could he not want the child to live?" demanded her father. "It's his heir, for God's sake. He's the fourth viscount, and he's not going to want to see the title lost after his time."
"I dare say," Elspeth rejoined indifferently. "If you'll excuse me, Papa, I should check the kitchen garden. There's going to be a frost tonight."
"Don't you care if the child dies? You who spend your entire life fussing over those ... children in the village? Doesn't Greywell's plight affect you in the least?"
Elspeth paused at the doorway, frowning slightly. "But there's nothing I can do about it, Papa. It's very sad, of course, and I shall remember the poor child in my prayers. Don't forget you promised you'd go around to Mr. Knowle's this afternoon to see the gray mare." With a slight nod, she disappeared through the door.
The kitchen garden was protected by a stone wall covered with deep-red ivy at this time of year, as were all the buildings at Lyndhurst. Elspeth grew various herbs there, for cooking and medicinal purposes, and she planned to gather any lingering growth before the first real frost rendered the plants useless. It was only an excuse, though, to leave her father. She could have picked them at any time during the day, and even if she'd forgotten, there wouldn't have been much lost.
Why had Sir Edward suddenly taken an interest in Hampden Winterbourne's nephew and his sickly child? Her father, charming but callous, had never shown the least concern for his own love children, sick or well, and she was highly suspicious of this sudden charity in him. Elspeth speculated that he might want her to go off to Coventry and take care of the child, leaving him in peace, but he must know as well as she did that such a scheme was totally ineligible. With no relationship between them, she couldn't very well live in the same house with Greywell, even if he had a dozen housekeepers to chaperon them. Besides, she didn't know the viscount, had never met him in her life.
As she mused over this mystery, the garden gate swung open to admit the Reverend Mr. Blockley, smiling in that fatuous way he had. "Beeton told me I'd find you here," he intoned in his deep, dramatic voice. That was perhaps Blockley's only really appealing quality, his voice. And issuing from his cadaverous body it had more a melancholy tint than one of holy reverence. Still, he was dramatic enough in appearance to hold the villagers' attention during services on Sundays, though his learning was slight and his breath often bad.
Mr. Blockley had recently latched onto the idea that Elspeth had conceived a passion for him, and had coyly courted her for several months before she put a stop to his absurd declaration. Though things had been awkward between them for a few weeks, Elspeth hoped she had weathered his scowls and attempts to find fault with her parish endeavors. She was by now accustomed to the moods of men, and had developed a sort of pious blanket which their barbs could not penetrate without greater malevolence than most of them were willing to expend on her.
"You look charming," he said, quite untruthfully, since he didn't approve of her low-necked gray wool gown, though it was worn with a lace tucker.
The dress was actually one of Elspeth's best daytime gowns. She had worn it expressly because Hampden Winterbourne was visiting and seemed to merit some special effort on her part. Unaware that he thought it dowdy, she was even less interested in Blockley's opinion, which she rightly guessed to be quite opposite from his remark. "We've had a visitor," she said, wandering over to the herbs and beginning to pluck and put them in her basket. "An old friend of my parents'. He's just left. He only stopped over on his way back to London."
"You didn't mention expecting anyone. I'd have been happy to call."
"He only spent the night. I wasn't expecting him until today, actually. There was no need for you to call."
Mr. Blockley was offended. Only on account of Elspeth's visitor's taking such a very short stay was he able to forgive her for not notifying him of the occasion. The fact that her visitor had come a day early was totally irrelevant.
The few sprigs left in the garden found their way to her basket, and Elspeth realized she had no option but to invite Mr. Blockley to tea with her. He invariably acted as though there were some unspoken significance in the gesture. "Won't you join me for tea?" she asked now, already heading toward the house. "Papa may still be here, though he's supposed to go to the Knowles' this afternoon."
"I'd be honored," the rector replied, a smirk twisting his lips. "If Sir Edward is still at home, of course I'd wish to pay my respects to him."
But Sir Edward had left, or at any event had hidden himself so well Beeton was unable to locate him, and Elspeth led Mr. Blockley to the Gold Saloon resigned to entertaining him by herself. She was careful to choose one of the Queen Anne chairs, because if she sat on the sofa he would certainly place his emaciated body as close to hers as he dared.
Until the tea tray was brought in, his eyes wandered about the room, lighting on those objects he most admired--the sleigh-shaped settee in the corner, the pair of rosewood card tables inlaid with brass marquetry, the ormolu clock depicting a boat navigated by Time and Youth, the pair of French candelabra in the form of Cupid drawing a bow, the half-dozen famille rose Chinese vases. Elspeth herself found little to admire in the room besides the Queen Anne chairs. Her taste was much less ornate than that of either her late mother or her father, and she would have been content to consign most of the elaborate pieces to the attics, or donated them to one of the church fetes as prizes.
"Mrs. Beeton has done herself proud," Mr. Blockley announced, eagerly eyeing the plates piled with cakes and biscuits. "I wonder if she knew who it was who was joining you."
"I'm sure she must have," Elspeth said, "since Beeton himself carried word to her when he carried my basket to the kitchen."
"Lord Knedlington swears he wouldn't have a woman cook in his house. I'm sure I've heard him say it half a dozen times."
"Yes, Lord Knedlington does have a habit of repeating himself," Elspeth agreed. "The meals I've partaken at Mundham haven't been anything out of the ordinary, however. Mrs. Beeton does very well for our purposes."
"Quite, quite." He downed one of the small cakes in two bites and wiped his fingers fastidiously on a napkin. "Sir Edward is not fond of entertaining, I believe."
"Only when I urge the necessity on him," Elspeth said, wondering how many times they'd covered this ground. Mr. Blockley was not an outstanding conversationalist. His interests were narrow and his opinions were legion.
"I came by today especially to speak with you," he said now, drawing his chair a little nearer to hers. "It has come to my attention that you've spoken with Jane Berwick, promising to give her support for her child. Really, Miss Parkstone, it won't do!"
Elspeth stared at him in surprise. "Why ever not? You know I've made similar arrangements with several ... others in the neighborhood. Since my father doesn't see fit to do so, I have no choice but to attend to the matter myself."
"But Jane Berwick isn't a member of the church, my dear! One can't be doling out charity to a heathen. It's quite obvious she isn't properly penitent."
"I see. She and her babe are to starve because they don't fall within your purview. I've never heard such nonsense, Mr. Blockley," she declared, setting down her teacup and frowning at him. "Perhaps you think my father is penitent? If there is error here, it is as much on his side as hers, and I certainly can't recall when last he attended church. Really, I'm surprised at you."
His sunken cheeks swelled with indignation. "My dear Miss Parkstone, you are no judge of the matters involved here. Do you presume to tell me how to conduct the spiritual business of this parish? Sir Edward's behavior is not for you to criticize. I thought I had made that perfectly clear to you years ago. He is your father, and you owe him a proper respect. I am the rector of your church, and you owe me no less. These are concerns in which I am highly educated, ordained to carry out for the Church of England. No one has ever questioned my authority in the parish, least of all a woman of your age. I think you owe me an apology."
Elspeth considered his mottled face for a few moments before rising from her chair to pace about the room. "I don't question your authority in spiritual matters, Mr. Blockley," she murmured with her back to him. "But I question anyone's right to allow a woman and child to starve for any reason, least of all a Christian one. My father got Jane Berwick with child, and--"
"Ah, but he didn't," the rector interrupted triumphantly. "Or if he did, it was the merest chance. Everyone knows the Berwick woman had been keeping company with that n'er-do-well Odiham, who was forever throwing himself on the parish to support. Well, he's in the workhouse now, having refused to marry her, and she's simply looking for someone to support her.
"What an easy mark you proved! How foolish you will look supporting her and her child, when everyone knows the babe is not Sir Edward's. She's a loose woman, Miss Parkstone, with an eye for any advantage to herself. How your neighbors will laugh at you! And when I come to warn you of the disaster, you rip up at me like the veriest shrew!"
He straightened his neckcloth with a smugness that grated on Elspeth's nerves, and when he lifted one eyebrow to state, "It is most fortunate you and I never formed a closer connection," she almost walked from the room.
"Most fortunate," she said in a flat voice. Her interview with Jane Berwick had been almost as trying as this one, and she had only agreed to provide for the woman and her child out of a sense of duty, and because the woman's full-blown figure was just the sort that seemed most to attract Sir Edward.
If what Blockley said were true ... well, it wouldn't really have mattered, since the parish was in no position to take care of the woman, and she really couldn't be allowed to starve, could she? It was true Jane had spent a great deal of time with the man Odiham, and it had made Elspeth wonder, but there had seemed nothing else she could do. She had been firm in not allowing the woman to bargain for more money than Elspeth ordinarily awarded to Sir Edward's love children.
"You will, of course, excuse me," Mr. Blockley said now, rising and smoothing down his sleeves. "I think this must be a good lesson to you, Miss Parkstone, on the errors of self-conceit. It does not become a young woman to think so highly of herself that she sets herself in opposition to her father and her pastor. Good day."
There were a great many things Elspeth would have liked to say to him, but she didn't. She was not a docile woman by nature, and his goading infuriated her so she could scarce sit down when he had withdrawn from the room. Instead she grabbed up a queen cake remaining on the plate (there was only one left, since he had eaten four of them) and ran with it to the window overlooking the drive he must ride down as he took his departure.
Years had passed since she had aimed a projectile at anything, least of all a man's hat, but she silently opened the window and waited for his tall, lean figure to pass beneath her on horseback. Taking careful aim, she sailed the cake downward at the beaver he wore, and felt a great deal of satisfaction as it smacked the hat from his greasy black locks. She quickly hid behind the draperies to one side of the window and listened to the very ungenteel language he spouted.
"Where are you, scoundrel?" he yelled. "How dare you knock the hat from a man of the cloth? Have you no respect? Demme, you have not heard the last of this." There were sounds of scuffling on the drive, and Elspeth peeked out to see him attempting to regain his horse, which was loath to stand still while Mr. Blockley tried to put his foot in the stirrup. His hat, already muddy from its first fall, tumbled from his head again and was trampled under the horse's hooves and permanently ruined. With another muffled oath the rector grabbed hold of the reins with a violent tug, and the bay balked, releasing himself, and cantered off down the drive.
Mr. Blockley stared after his horse and then threw one last, scathing glance about him to discover the perpetrator of this foul deed. It did not occur to him for even a moment that it was Elspeth Parkstone. The queen cake had disintegrated on impact. Any urchin might have done it, he decided. Possibly one of the stable lads whom he'd reproved for their laziness when he'd left his horse before joining Miss Parkstone in the kitchen garden.
As he stomped down the drive, meditating on the two-mile walk he had ahead of him, Elspeth stood at the window and made a face at his retreating back. It was the first time she'd behaved in such a fashion since her mother's death, and she felt surprisingly good about it, all things considered.