Authors: Sisters Traherne (Lady Meriel's Duty; Lord Lyford's Secret)
The Sisters Traherne
For Carolyn, whose generosity has provided months of clean air and freedom to confer with the Muse
ILL WE GO ALL
the way to the top, Meri?”
The boy’s high-pitched voice drifted back to Lady Meriel Traherne as she paused for a moment on the precipitous rock-strewn path halfway up the northern slope of that mighty Welsh mountain known as Cader Idris, or Arthur’s Chair. Looking up at him with a grin, Meriel pushed wisps of light brown hair away from her face and called back laughingly, “Ask me that question when we reach Llyn-y-cau, Davy. Once you see how steep the Fox’s Path is at that point, you may decide you have no wish to climb higher.”
Davy’s chuckle floated back on the light westerly breeze wafting across the slope from Cardigan Bay. From where Meriel stood, the village of Dolgellau below looked like a collection of dolls’ houses along a blue-and-white ribbon that was the Wnion River, and she could see the boats in Barmouth harbor ten miles to the west. Ravens soared overhead in the clear blue sky, and the sound of water tumbling over rocks came from a rill a short distance away.
Three-quarters of an hour later, when they reached the shore of the dark lake known as Llyn-y-cau, the view was even more impressive, for they could now see over the ridges in the middle distance to the north as far as the majestic snow-covered peak of Mount Snowdon, thirty-five miles away. The boy dropped to his stomach beside the small tarn, leaning down to splash water on his thin freckled face. “Climbing is hard work,” he said over his shoulder.
“Aye,” she responded, sitting down beside him and wishing, not for the first time, that a lady could wear nankeen breeches and a simple open-necked cotton shirt when she took her exercise in such a strenuous form as this. Her moss-green frock was lightweight, but its full gathered skirts encumbered her legs, and her shawl tended to slip off her shoulders at inconvenient moments. Still, her footwear was good enough, a pair of stout boots long since outgrown by her elder brother, Jocelyn, yet still too large for Davy.
The boy made a cup with his hands, slurping noisily from the lake. When he straightened at last, water streamed down his pointed chin, making water spots on his shirt front. He turned to gaze at the twin-peaked summit rising nine hundred feet above them, its perpendicular golden rock face making a shadowy, pointed backdrop for the dark lake. Meriel had often thought it looked much like a piece of broken crockery with sharp, jagged edges rounding inward to contain the lake.
“Do you know what the other side looks like, Davy?”
“Well, I’ve not come up here with you before, have I?”
“I ought to have brought you long ago,” she said, bending to splash water over her hot cheeks, and thinking how different he was from what she had been at his age. She had not waited for someone else to bring her onto the mountain, but had been drawn to it irresistibly from her earliest years, despite all attempts on the part of those in authority over her to discourage such expeditions. Smiling apologetically, she explained, “’Tis merely that when I come here myself, I am searching for peace and solitude—two things one does not find in the company of one’s sisters and small brother.”
“Is that what you sought today?” the boy asked, his tone one of simple curiosity.
She grinned at him. “Much you would care. I could scarcely send you home again when you ran after and pleaded so eloquently to accompany me. However, I did wish to come for a last bit of real peace before we all leave Plas Tallyn.”
“Will I like London, Meri?”
“I daresay you will,” she replied. “There are any number of things to do and places to see, you know. And then, too, you will be going to school soon. You will like that.”
“Will we be taking Mr. Glendower?”
“Only as Auntie Wynne’s chaplain and as a sort of courier to arrange things for you along the way. In London you will need a tutor who is younger and more willing to enter into those activities that you enjoy, Davy.” She paused, crinkling her eyes as she gazed at him more searchingly. “I thought we had been over this point before.”
The boy looked up at her from under eyebrows so blond as to appear white, making his thick dark lashes startling by contrast. His light blue eyes twinkled. “I wanted to be certain,” he said. “I’ve had my fill of Mr. Glower Glendower.”
Meriel didn’t reply. There was nothing she could say that would be appropriate. Davy was, after all, only twelve. One simply could not agree with his sentiments outright, however much one might wish to do so.
The silence lengthened. Anyone seeing the two of them at that moment would have had no trouble recognizing their relationship. Although Meriel was more than twice Davy’s age and a head taller, they each had the same determined chin and the same finely chiseled features. Both had fair hair, though hers was several shades darker than his, with deep golden highlights, and like his, her eyebrows were lighter than her hair, and her lashes darker. Instead of light blue eyes, however, hers were the gray-green of soft, velvety heather leaves.
One other trait that Meriel would as soon not have shared with her brother was a pair of shoulders broader than her hips. With wide skirts, no one noticed her slim, boyish figure, but according to her aunt, newer fashions boasted more revealing, pencil-slim skirts instead. Fatal, she thought. Not that such things mattered to her any longer. At twenty-six she was long past the age of being on the lookout for a husband. Her primary interest now was her family. Still, she thought, it might be amusing to cut a dash when she reached Paris. Her sister Nest, by all accounts, had not found slim hips a disadvantage in that great city.
“What is on the other side?” Davy asked suddenly, breaking into her thoughts.
Meriel stared at him blankly for several seconds, then chuckled. “Grassy slopes and no cliffs,” she said. “The land descends abruptly, to be sure, but it looks as if one could slide all the way into the Dysynni Valley on one’s backside without hitting a single rock.”
Davy’s eyes widened as he looked back the way they had come, and she knew what he was thinking as though he had expressed himself aloud. In many places the walls of rock along the northern face of Cader Idris were perpendicular.
“I want to see,” the boy said, getting to his feet.
“Oh, Davy, it will take us nearly two hours to get back as it is,” she protested.
“How long to get to the top?”
“Forty minutes, maybe.”
“And down to the lake again?”
“Less than half that time.”
“An hour, then. Please, Meri?”
She shook her head, but it was a token gesture, and he knew it. Lady Meriel had been mother and father to her younger sisters and brother for nearly two years now, and while she could be strict with them when necessary, she always found it difficult to deny them pleasure. Particularly Davy. He had been her special child practically from the cradle, for her mother had been ill after his birth and had never truly recovered her strength. Then, when the typhus had struck northern Wales two years previously, her mother had succumbed within a week, and her father, stout though he had been, had followed her to the grave within the month, leaving the four of his six children who remained at Plas Tallyn to fend for themselves.
War in France had made it impossible for them to seek refuge with their sister Nest, who had accompanied her husband, the Comte de Prévenu, to Paris several months before her mama’s death, when the
and his family had been granted amnesty by Napoleon Bonaparte. And Jocelyn, their elder brother, now the twelfth Earl of Tallyn, was somewhere in the wilds of America, unreachable seemingly, for Meriel had written to tell him of their predicament—and incidentally, to inform him of his own inheritance—immediately after her father’s demise.
She got to her feet now, smiling at her small brother. “Be careful now, Davy, for the upper path is difficult. Auntie Wynne is distracted enough, what with all the travel arrangements and worrying about what mischief you and Gwen will get into, as well as Eliza’s come-out. I don’t want to have to tell her you fell off a mountain.”
“Pooh,” said the boy scornfully. “As if I should do anything so daft as to fall. And come-outs are paltry things, by what I hear. Eliza don’t want to leave Bugg Dewsall, so I don’t see why she should have to go to London to catch a husband anyhow. You didn’t find one there.”
“Mr. Dewsall’s name is Gwilym,” Meriel corrected automatically, “and we have all been over and over why Eliza mustn’t marry him. She is too young.”
“Too young for Bugg but not for some London beau,” Davy said in the same scornful tone. “I know.”
“You know a deal too much, young man,” Meriel said sternly. “If you mean to reach the summit, you’d best get moving before I change my mind.”
He threw her a saucy grin and scrambled away, moving upward over the narrow, rocky, scarcely discernible path as though he were part goat. Meriel followed at a more leisurely pace, cursing her skirts again each time they caught on a bit of scrub or got in the way of her feet as she clambered over the rocks, but savoring the sweet, clear air and the familiar sense of freedom the mountain always gave her.
At the summit they paused to scan the magnificent view. To the south lay the green-and-golden Dysynni Valley, and to the west, the olive-green Mawddach estuary, stretching to Barmouth and the broad inward sweep of Cardigan Bay. Beyond the rippling ridges to the north they could see the glorious snow-covered summit of Mount Snowdon. And to the east the sharp depths of the Dovey river valley wound north and south with ridges on either side thick with hazel, beech, and elm trees. Nearer, practically at the northeast foot of the mountain, lay the great sprawling stone house at Plas Tallyn, home of the Traherne family for centuries, looking now like a child’s toy. Meriel drank in the view and knew from the deep sigh of appreciation that her small brother was as awestruck as she was.
The sensation was a familiar one, but in a way it seemed brand new each time. She had been climbing this mountain ever since she was a tiny lass, sometimes tagging after her brother Jocelyn and his friends, but more often alone. Over the years the mountain had continued to call to her, to offer strength when she needed strength, comfort when there was none to be had elsewhere. In many ways, the mountain was home in a way that even Plas Tallyn was not.
“We’ve got to go, Davy,” she said abruptly. “The others will wonder where we are, you know, and it does not do to worry Auntie Wynne.”
“I don’t believe she really worries all that much,” said the boy, regarding her placidly. “Not, in any event, when she has her books to read and her yarns for stitching. Still, ’tis a pity you do not mean to travel with us to London. We will miss you, Meri.”
“I know, love,” she said, giving him a quick hug, “but I’ll be back before you know it. I must go to France to look into that school Auntie Wynne is so set on for Gwenyth now that we’ve got peace, but I’ll be back in the twinkling of a bedpost.”
“After you go to Paris to see Nest,” he pointed out with a grimace.
“Yes, well, we must be certain that all is well with her, you know.”
“She says all is well, and she ought to know. She is there and you are not.”
“Don’t be impertinent, Davy.”
The boy fell silent, and they soon turned their footsteps toward home.