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Excerpt from Chapter One
Sir Tristram Shield, arriving at Lavenham Court in the wintry dusk, was informed at the door that his greatuncle was very weak, not expected to live many more days out. He received these tidings without comment, but as the butler helped him to take off his heavy-caped driving-coat, he inquired in an unemotional voice: 'Is Mr Lavenham here?'
'At the Dower House, sir,' replied the butler, handing the coat and the high-crowned beaver hat to a footman. He nodded austere dismissal to this underling, and added with a slight cough: 'His lordship has been a little difficult, sir. So far his lordship has not received Mr Lavenham.'
He paused, waiting for Sir Tristram to inquire after Mademoiselle de Vauban. Sir Tristram, however, merely asked to be conducted to his bedchamber, that he might change his dress before being admitted to his great-uncle's presence.
The butler, as well aware as everyone else at the Court of the reason of Sir Tristram's sudden arrival, was disappointed at this lack of interest, but reflected that Sir Tristram, after all, had never been one to show what he was thinking. He led the way in person across the hall to the oak stairway and went with Sir Tristram up to the Long Gallery. Here, on one side, portraits of dead Lavenhams hung, and, on the other, tall, square-headed mullioned windows looked south over a well-timbered park to the Downs. The silence of the house was disturbed by the rustle of a skirt and the hasty closing of a door at one end of the Gallery. The butler had a shrewd suspicion that Mademoiselle de Vauban, more curious than Sir Tristram, had been waiting in the Gallery to obtain a glimpse of him. As he opened the door into one of the bed-chambers he cast a glance at Shield, and said: 'His lordship has seen no one but the doctor, sir - once, and Mamzelle Eustacie, of course.'
That dark, harsh face told him nothing. 'Yes?' said Shield. It occurred to the butler that perhaps Sir Tristram might not know why he had been summoned into Sussex. If that were so there was no saying how he might take it. He was not an easy man to drive, as his great-uncle had found more than once in the past. Ten to one there might be trouble.
Sir Tristram's voice interrupted these reflections. 'Send my man up to me, Porson, and inform his lordship of my arrival,' he said.
The butler bowed and withdrew. Sir Tristram walked over to the window, and stood looking out over the formal gardens to the woods beyond, still dimly visible through the gathering twilight. There was a sombre frown in his eyes, and his mouth was compressed in a way that made it appear more grim than usual. He did not turn when the door opened to admit his valet, accompanied by one footman carrying his cloak-bag, and another bearing two gilded candelabra, which he set down on the dressing-table. The sudden candlelight darkened the prospect outside. After a moment Shield came away from the
window to the fireplace and stood leaning his arm along the high mantelshelf, and looking down at the smouldering logs. The footman drew the curtains across the windows and went softly away. Jupp, the valet, began to unpack the contents of the cloak-bag, and to lay out upon the bed an evening coat and breeches of mulberry velvet, and a Florentine waistcoat. Sir Tristram stirred the logs in the grate with one top-booted foot. Jupp glanced at him sideways wondering what was in the wind to make him look so forbidding. 'You'll wear powder, sir?' he suggested, setting the pounce-box and the pomatum down on the dressing-table.
Jupp sighed. He had already learned of Mr Lavenham's presence at the Dower House. It seemed probable that the Beau might come up to the Court to visit his cousin, and Jupp, knowing how skilled was Mr Lavenham's gentleman in the arrangement of his master's locks, would have liked for his pride's sake to have sent his own master down to dinner properly curled and powdered. He said nothing, however, but knelt down to pull off Sir Tristram's boots.
Half an hour later Shield, summoned by Lord Lavenham's valet, walked down the Gallery to the Great Chamber, and went in unannounced.
The room, wainscoted with oak and hung with crimson curtains, was warmed by a leaping fire and lit by as many as fifty candles in branching candelabra. At the far end a vast four-poster bed was set upon a slight dais. In it, banked up with pillows, covered with a quilt of flaming brocade, wearing an exotic bedgown and the powdered wig without which no one but his valet could ever remember to have seen him, was old Sylvester, ninth Baron Lavenham.
Sir Tristram paused on the threshold, dazzled momentarily by the blaze of unexpected light. The grimness of his face was lessened by a slight sardonic smile as his eyes took in the magnificence and the colour about him. 'Your death-bed, sir?' he inquired.
A thin chuckle came from the four-poster. 'My death-bed,' corroborated Sylvester with a twinkle.