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The Sixth Earl of Saltash glanced round the immense dining-table, and was conscious of a glow of satisfaction. It was an emotion not shared by his butler, or by his steward, each of whom had served the Fifth Earl, and remembered, with a wealth of nostalgic detail, the various occasions upon which the State Dining-room had been used to entertain Royalty, foreign Ambassadors, and ton parties of great size and brilliance. The Fifth Earl had been a Public Man. It was otherwise with his son, who had neither the desire nor the ability to fill a great office. Indeed, so little expectation had he of entertaining even the most undistinguished scion of a royal house that the State Apartments at Easterby might have fallen into total disuse had he not, at the age of thirty, become betrothed to the Lady Charlotte Calne.
This, since he was the sole surviving son of the Fifth Earl, he could not but consider to be a matter of considerable family importance; and to mark it he had summoned to Easterby, to meet his prospective bride, every available member of the house of Staple. A rapid review of his maternal relations had been enough to convince him that their presence at this triumphant gathering would be as unnecessary as it was undesirable. To the Staples he was a person of consequence, the head of his family, and not even his masterful sister, Albinia, would withhold from him (in public) the respect to which his position entitled him. It was otherwise with the Timbercombes, owing him no allegiance; and it did not take him more than a few reflective minutes to decide that his marriage did not concern them.
So twenty persons only sat down to dinner under the painted ceiling in the State Dining-room; and the Earl, seated at the head of a table loaded with plate, and bearing as a centrepiece an enormous epergne, presented by some foreign potentate to the Fifth Earl, looked around him with satisfaction.
It mattered nothing to him that the room was overlarge for the company, and that the gentlemen outnumbered the ladies by two: the Staples had responded in the most gratifying way to his invitation, and were behavingeven his formidable Aunt Carolinejust as they ought. He could see that Lady Melksham, his future mother-in-law, was impressed. With most of the Staples she was already acquainted, but she had not until today met his Uncle Trevor, the Archdeacon, who was seated beside her, or his huge cousin John. His unmarried aunt, Maria, who kept house for him, had suffered a little qualm about John's lowlier position at the dining-table, but she had yielded to the Earl's wish. She knew, of course, that an Archdeacon must take precedence over a retired Captain of Dragoon Guards, but the Archdeacon was her younger brother, and it was difficult for her to realize that he had any particular standing in the world. John, on the other hand, was the only son of her second brother, and heir-presumptive to the Earldom, which made him, in her eyes, a person of consequence. She ventured to say as much to the Earl, and he was not displeased: he felt it to be a very just observation.
"However, I daresay dear John won't care where he sits!" had added Lady Maria comfortably.
The Earl felt that this was regrettably true. He was very fond of John, but he thought him far too careless of his dignity. Probably his years of campaigning in the Peninsula had made him forgetful of what was due to himself and the name he bore. His manners were easy to a fault, and he very often behaved in a freakish way which seriously shocked his noble relative. His exploits in the Peninsula had made him a by-word amongst his fellow-officers; and one at least of his actions since he had sold out, in 1814, had seemed to the Earl unbecomingly whimsical. No sooner did he learn that Napoleon was again at large than he returned to the Army as a volunteer; and when the Earl had shown him that duty did not demand such a sacrifice of his dignity, he had burst out laughing, and had exclaimed: "Oh, Bevis, Bevis! You don't suppose I'd miss this campaign, do you? I wouldn't, for a fortune! Duty be hanged!"
So off had gone John to the wars again. But he had not remained for long in the humble position of a volunteer. Colonel Clifton, commanding the 1st Regiment of Dragoons, no sooner heard that Crazy Jack was back than he enrolled him as an extra aide-de-camp. He emerged from the Waterloo Campaign much refreshed, and with no more serious injuries than a sabre-cut, and a graze from a spent ball. The Earl was very glad to see him safe home again, and began to think that it was time he settled down, and married an eligible female. He had inherited a small estate from his father; he was twenty-nine years of age; and he had no brothers.
His lordship, glancing round his table, remembered this, as his eyes alighted on his aunt-in-law, the Honourable Mrs. Staple. He wondered that she should not have provided her son with a suitable wife, and thought that perhaps he would broach the matter to her later in the evening. He was not quite two years older than John, but as the head of the family he believed himself to be responsible for his cousins. This helped him to overcome the feeling of inferiority which too often possessed him when he was confronted by these overpoweringly large persons. A big race, the Staples: he was himself a tall man, but narrow-shouldered, and inclined to stoop. John, of course, was a giant; and his sister, Lady Lichfield, who was talking with determined amiability to the Earl's very dull brother-in-law, Mr. Tackenham, stood five foot nine inches in her bare feet. Lucius Staple, only child of the Fourth Earl's third son, was a big man, too; and so was Arthur, the Archdeacon's eldest-born, just now striving to entertain his cousin Lettice, who was making sheep's eyes at John, across the table. Even young Geoffrey Yatton, Lettice's brother, though still slightly gangling, bade fair to tower above the Earl; and their mother, Lady Caroline, could only be described as massive.
Lady Charlotte Calne, the Earl's betrothed, had been so much struck by the splendid proportions of the Staples that she had been moved to utter a spontaneous remark. "How very big your cousins are!" she said. "They are all very good-looking: exceptionally so, I fancy."
He was gratified, and said eagerly: "Do you think so indeed? But Lucius has red hair, you know, and although Geoffrey is well enough, I don't consider Arthur above the ordinary. But John is a fine fellow, isn't he? I hope you will like him: everyone likes John! I have a great regard for him myself."
"If that is so he must have a claim on my regard. I assure you I shall like him excessively," replied the lady, as one who knew where her duty lay.
Not for the first time he congratulated himself on his choice of bride. Himself a man of no more than mild sensibility he found nothing amiss with his Charlotte's colourless manner; and he would have experienced considerable surprise had he known that she did not meet with universal approbation in his family. But although Lady Maria thought she would make Bevis an excellent wife, the Archdeacon that she was a pretty-behaved girl, and Lady Caroline that her only fault was a lack of dowry, it was noticeable that Mrs. Staple refrained from expressing an opinion, and Mr. Yatton (though not within his wife's hearing) went so far as to say that she favoured her mother too much for his taste.
The younger generation was more forthright, only the Earl's sister, who had been instrumental in promoting the match, according Lady Charlotte a full measure of approval. Miss Yatton, with all the assurance of a young lady with one successful London Season at her back, pronounced her to be a dowdy; her brother Geoffrey confided to his cousin Arthur that he would as lief, himself, take a cold poultice to wife; and Captain Staple, unaware of Lady Charlotte's amiable determination to like him, answered the quizzical lift of Lucius's sandy brows with an expressive grimace.
They were standing together at one end of the Crimson State Saloon after dinner. Lucius chuckled, and said: "Oh, she'll suit Bevis well enough!"
"I hope she may. She wouldn't suit me!" said the Captain. He glanced round the ornate room. "This is a horrid party!" he decided. "What the devil made Saltash dish up all his relations? Enough to make the girl cry off! Lord, here's my uncle bearing down on us! I wish I hadn't been fool enough to come!"
"Well, my dear boy!" said the Archdeacon, in mellifluous accents, and laying an affectionate hand on one of the Captain's great shoulders. "And how is it with you? I need not ask, however: you are in a capital way! A happy event this, is it not?"
"Yes, if Bevis thinks so," replied the Captain.
The Archdeacon thought it best to ignore the implication of this. He said: "A young female of the first consequence! But come, now! When, you great creature, are we to be celebrating your approaching nuptials?"
"Not yet, sir: I'm not in the petticoat-line. And if ever I do become engaged," he added, his blue gaze wandering thoughtfully round the room, "I wouldn't celebrate the event in this fashion, by Jupiter!"
"Well!" remarked Lucius, as their uncle, with a sweet, mechanical smile, moved away, "you do know how to repulse the enemy, don't you, Jack?"
"I didn't mean to. Do you think he was offended?" Captain Staple broke off, his eyes widening in suspicion and dismay. "Good God, Lucius, just look at that!" he ejaculated.
Lucius, following the direction of his horrified gaze, saw that a footman had entered the Saloon, tenderly bearing a gilded harp. Lady Charlotte was being solicited to display her chief accomplishment, while her mama informed Mrs. Staple, with complacency, that her voice had been trained by the first masters. While Lord Saltash, eagerly, and the elder ladies of the party, politely, begged Charlotte to overcome her diffidence, Lord Melksham, the lady's brother edged his way across the Saloon, and suggested to Lucius that they should (as he phrased it) nabble Ralph Tackenham, and withdraw, with Captain Staple, from the Saloon for a quiet rubber of whist.
"Ay, willingly!" responded Lucius. "But you'll find his wife won't permit him to go with us, if I know my cousin Albinia!"
"Nabble him when she ain't looking," said Lord Melksham hopefully. "Very partial to a quiet rubber, Ralph!"
"No, it can't be done." Captain Staple spoke with decision. "We mustshall!stay, and listen to your sister's performance."
"But she'll sing for ever!" objected his lordship. "Dismal stuff, too: assure you!"
But Captain Staple, with a shake of his head, moved away towards the group gathered about the fair harpist, and, obedient to an inviting smile, sat down on a small sofa beside his cousin Lettice.
"This will be dreadful!" Miss Yatton whispered.
"Yes, very likely," he agreed. He turned his head to look down at her, a smile in his eyes. "You've grown very fine since I saw you last, Letty. I suppose you've come out, have you?"
"Good gracious, yes! At the beginning of the Season! If you had been in London, you would know that I enjoyed a considerable success!" said Miss Yatton, never one to hide her light under a bushel. "Only fancy! Papa received three offers for my hand! Quite ineligible, of course, but just think of it! Three, and in my first Season!"
He was amused, but he checked her, Lady Charlotte having by this time disposed herself at the harp. He covered one of his lively young cousin's hands with his own large one, and gave it an admonishing squeeze. Miss Yatton, who was bidding fair to become an accomplished flirt, obeyed the unspoken command, but cast up at him so roguish a look that his sister, observing it, and the smile with which it was received, took instant fright, and determined at the earliest opportunity to draw her mother's attention to a danger she had perhaps not perceived.
But Mrs. Staple, visited by her daughter some two hours later, listened to her warning with unshaken placidity, merely saying: "Dear me, did you get me to send my maid away only to tell me this, Fanny?"
"Mama, she ogled him throughout dinner! And the way in which he took her hand, and smiled at her! I assure you"
"I observed the whole, my love, and was most forcibly put in mind of the way he has with his puppies."
"Puppies?" exclaimed Lady Lichfield. "Letty is not a puppy, Mama! Indeed, I think her an arrant flirt, and I cannot but be uneasy. You will own that she would not do for my brother!"
"Do not put yourself in a taking, my love!" replied Mrs. Staple, tying the strings of her nightcap under her chin. "I only hope she may amuse him enough to keep him here over the weekend, though I don't scruple to say that I very much doubt it. My dear Fanny, was there ever such an insipid affair?"
"Oh, there was never anything like it!"readily agreed her daughter. "But, Mama, how shocking a thing it would be if John were to fall in love with Letty Yatton!"
"I have no apprehension of it," replied Mrs. Staple calmly.
"He seemed to be quite taken with her," said Fanny. "I cannot but wonder, ma'am, if Letty's vivacity may not make dear Elizabeth's gentler manners seem to himwell, tame!"
"You are making a piece of work about nothing," said Mrs. Staple. "If he should feel a partiality for Elizabeth I shall be excessively happy. But I hope I am not such a goose as to set my heart upon the match. Depend upon it, your brother is very well capable of choosing a wife for himself."
"Mama! How can you be so provoking?" exclaimed Fanny. "When we have both of us been at such pains to bring John and Elizabeth together, and you have actually invited Elizabeth to Mildenhurst next week!"
"Very true," returned Mrs. Staple imperturbably. "I should not think it wonderful if John were to find Eliza's quiet good sense welcome after three days spentif the chit can contrive it!in Letty's company."
Fanny looked a little dubious, but she was prevented from making any rejoinder by a knock on the door. Mrs. Staple called to this late visitor to come in, adding, in an under-voice: "Take care! This is John: I know his knock."
So, indeed, it proved. Captain Staple entered, saying: "May I come in, Mama? Hallo, Fan! Talking secrets?"
"Good gracious, no! Unless you think it a secret that this is the most insipid party that ever was given!"
"Well, that's just it," said John confidentially. "If you don't object, Mama, I think I shall be off in the morning."