Authors: Sisters Traherne (Lady Meriel's Duty; Lord Lyford's Secret)
“But no lady can do such a thing alone,” Pamela protested. “And surely, whatever you say, you must wish to marry a handsome, titled gentleman and have his children and look after his household. That is every lady’s sweetest dream, is it not?”
“Not Gwen’s,” said Meriel with an amused look at her sister, who was grimacing as though she were in pain. “But,” she added more briskly, “you had better be thinking about departing soon. You will want to allow plenty of time to deal with accidents or other delays on the road.”
They agreed, but when they had collected Annie and were in the front hall ready to leave, Gwenyth looked carefully at Meriel. “Are you sure you would not rather we stay a few days?”
“Don’t fret about me,” Meriel said, patting her arm. “I enjoy what little solitude I can steal.”
Having not considered the matter in that light, Gwenyth nodded slowly. “If you are quite certain …”
“Off with you,” Meriel commanded, laughing, “and give my love to Auntie Wynne and the countess.”
The chaise was soon off, back to the main road, then on through Maidenhead Thicket and Hare Hatch to Twyford. Five miles more found them in Reading, the county town of Berkshire, known in better times for its considerable trade in corn and flour, for it was here the River Kennet met the Thames. Both were alive with traffic, including not only a vast number of mill barges carrying barrels of wheat or sacks of flour, but also barges laden with lumber, hogsheads of ale, and less easily identifiable crates, barrels, sacks, boxes, and bales. Swimming alongside many of them, oblivious to the bustle, were a number of graceful white swans and other, less elegant waterfowl.
“Goodness,” Gwenyth said, “I recently heard Antony tell Joss that we have begun receiving shipments of grain from India to alleviate the English shortage, but I didn’t think the rivers would be so busy again already. How nice if everyone can soon have bread again without having to pay a small fortune for it.”
“Does bread cost a fortune?” Pamela asked. “I shouldn’t think most people would be able to pay so much.”
“No, of course they cannot,” Gwenyth said. “Did you learn nothing at school, Pamela? The war has sadly depleted our grain supply, you know, and many people must go without.”
“Well, I did not find history and such subjects amusing,” Pamela said, lifting her chin. “They were never so diverting as drawing and music, so of course one paid less heed to them.”
With a sigh, Gwenyth drew her companions’ attention to the Chiltern Hills rising in the eastern distance. The chaise left the main road to travel parallel to the south bank of the Thames, though not by any means alongside it. The property between road and river being occupied by magnificent mansions and estates of men in power in London, it was not, in fact, until two hours later, when they reached the town of Pangbourne near the Goring Gap, that they were able to gain a direct view of the Thames and watch a barge being towed upriver through a pound lock. From the road, the operation looked like a veritable tangle of horses, men, and cables, but so experienced were those in attendance that the barge moved nearly as swiftly up the river as the chaise did through the congested streets of the town.
Once their vehicle was free of town traffic, Gwenyth said on a note of anticipation, “Not far now. I hope they are not vexed with us for failing to send word. I never thought to do so.”
Pamela said, “’Tis too late to worry about that now. Surely your aunt will not turn us from the door.”
“No, but if you will recall, it is not precisely her door, and in your cousin’s absence, the ancient dowager may decide to take a pet if she is as crotchety as Auntie Wynne says she is.”
Grimacing, Annie Gray said, “You’d best stop calling the countess ‘the ancient dowager’ in that heedless fashion if you wish to retain a place in her good graces. She won’t thank you if even the word ‘dowager’ slips from your lips. Nor will Lady Cadogan, I’m thinking.”
“But if Marcus’s grandmama is a widow,” Pamela said reasonably, “surely she is likewise a dowager.”
“But she needn’t be called so if she doesn’t wish to be,” Gwenyth replied. “Custom permits her to retain her previous title so long as her husband’s heir remains unmarried. And, as you pointed out earlier, your cousin has not yet taken a wife.”
Pamela bit her lower lip but said nothing, and Gwenyth returned her attention to the road ahead.
“Auntie Wynne has described the abbey to me any number of times,” she said. “The property occupies two full miles and more of the riverbank, I believe, and she said it lies no more than three miles from Pangbourne.” Several moments of silence passed before she said in a voice of satisfaction, “That high wall just ahead with the thick trees showing beyond it all the way to the river—I’ll wager my best gown that that is Molesford Abbey.”
Pamela had been looking increasingly nervous for some time, and after the carriage had rattled along for several minutes more, she said in a small voice, “Perhaps we are making a dreadful mistake, Gwen. Perhaps we ought to go back to Maidenhead to look after your sister instead. Marcus would never find me there, and truly, I do not wish to see him.”
“Nonsense,” Gwenyth said, glancing at Annie to see that she had turned her attention to the road and was carefully pretending not to listen. “It is no use fidgeting yourself, Pamela. You know that Miss Fletcher must have communicated with him—”
“But that is just the point! Don’t you see, he will already be out of temper. Would it not be better to stay away for a time at least, long enough for him to … to …”
“To what? Call out the Bow Street Runners?”
“Oh, he wouldn’t!” Pamela squeaked. “Oh, my goodness, I never thought about such a possibility as that!”
“Well, he won’t have done so yet,” Gwenyth said practically, “but it will do you no good to put off meeting with him, so you might as well make up your mind at once to do so.”
“But I can’t,” Pamela wailed. “Call to the postboys, Gwen, please. I want to go back to London right now.”
“Too late,” Gwenyth said grimly as the chaise drew to a halt before a pair of tall iron gates. The lead postboy spoke to the lodgekeeper, and a moment later the gates were opened and they swept on, up a long, winding, floral-bordered gravel drive to the house, a great Carolean mansion built of mellow brick, its front entrance designed in the Palladian style with a tall pediment carried on slender Ionic columns above broad white marble steps.
“It doesn’t look like an abbey,” Pamela said, peering out the window anxiously. “Are you sure this is Molesford, Gwen?”
“I’m sure. It was used to be a Cistercian abbey, my aunt told me, but I believe the original building was demolished by a Puritan earl who built this house, or the better part anyway. Auntie Wynne was used to speak of it often, when she thought she would one day be mistress here. Only then my Uncle Cadogan died before his papa did, so she is destined to remain a viscountess, which is a constant sorrow to her.”
“What if Marcus is here, after all?” Pamela said desperately, looking truly frightened at last.
“We cannot turn back,” Gwenyth said firmly. “It is four o’clock now and would be midnight before we got back to London.”
There was no time for more debate, for the front doors of the house had been flung wide and two liveried footmen were hurrying down the steps to meet the chaise. The nearside door was opened and the steps let down. Within moments the three occupants stood upon the gravel drive.
“I am Lady Gwenyth Traherne,” Gwenyth said to the footman who had assisted her. “Lady Cadogan is my aunt.”
The footman bowed. “Your gear and your woman will be taken up immediate, m’lady, and Mr. Frythorpe will announce you to Lady Cadogan. Lady Lyford is not receiving, but no doubt she will order supper put back to give you time to refresh yourselves after your journey.” Inside the vast high-ceilinged stair hall, he turned them over to the butler, who informed them that Lady Cadogan would receive them in the Chinese drawing room.
Following him up the wide spiral staircase, Gwenyth found herself fascinated and a little apprehensive, for although the white stairs were obviously fastened to the walls of the hall and soared up four stories to the top of the house, she could discern no visible means of proper support. It was as though each step had simply been stuck end-on to the wall. The ornate openwork wrought-iron banister added to the illusion of swooping flight.
At the second-floor landing, they turned down a long arched corridor between a wall solid with portraits and another boasting tall red-velvet-draped windows that overlooked a large central courtyard. At the end of the corridor, a pair of white-painted doors opened into one of the most amazing rooms Gwenyth had ever seen. It was with difficulty, when the butler announced their names, that she dragged her gaze from the elaborate hand-painted wallpaper, seemingly alive with trees, birds, dragons, and butterflies, across the equally busy, brightly colored carpeting to the lady occupying one of a pair of Chinese Chippendale chairs flanking a round lacquered table in the center of the room.
Lady Cadogan, approaching her sixties, no longer made any attempt to cover the bits of white and gray that peppered her auburn locks. She was thin now, rather than slender, and her fingers showed knobby traces of the rheumatism that plagued her from time to time, but Gwenyth knew they still moved as quickly as ever when she knitted or plied her needle to a tambour frame such as the one that, at the moment, was held motionless above her lap while she stared in surprise at the newcomers.
“Merciful heavens, Gwenyth,” she said in her strident but carefully cultivated tones the moment the butler fell silent, “what new start is this?”
Chuckling, Gwenyth hurried forward to hug her, then stepped back to introduce Pamela, adding, “I do hope you and the countess can find it in your hearts to forgive this impulsive intrusion. I confess I even failed to remember until the footman mentioned putting supper back that you would be keeping country hours.”
“Pish tush,” retorted Lady Cadogan. “You are most welcome, my dear, and your friend as well. Frythorpe will inform Almeria’s cook, a most accommodating man despite his being French, and all will be well.” With an imperious gesture she dismissed the butler.
Taking a seat and motioning Pamela to another, Gwenyth said, “The countess’s footman told us that she is not receiving. I hope she is not indisposed.”
“No, only primping,” Lady Cadogan replied. “Invited a man to dine, so she’s gilding the lily as best she might. You won’t be as entertained as you might otherwise be, however, for she don’t consider Sir Spenser Newton suitable husband material.”
Pamela exclaimed, “But, ma’am, I am not on the lookout for a husband yet, and nor is Gwen!”
“You?” Lady Cadogan regarded her with a cool, appraising look, then relaxed and said with a chuckle, “Good gracious, child, I wasn’t thinking of you. Almeria considers her own need far greater than that of any younger woman, I promise you.”
Gwenyth smiled. “Surely you jest, ma’am. She is still in mourning, is she not, or half-mourning, at least?”
Lady Cadogan clicked her tongue. “She hasn’t let a little thing like that stop her. What she’s looking for is some ailing, wealthy gentleman stuck in a Bath chair, and a handy cliff to tip him over the moment she is safely riveted to him and can claim a second widow’s portion or more. But never mind that,” she went on, clearly enjoying the astonished looks on their faces. “You will wish to tidy yourselves before we dine. Pull the bell.”
A moment later, as they stood to follow the butler from the room, Pamela whispered urgently, “Gwen, what about—”
“Oh, yes,” Gwenyth said calmly, turning back to her aunt. “Miss Beckley has come in search of Lyford, ma’am, on a matter of private business. He is her guardian, you see. Have we perhaps been so fortunate as to find him at home?”
“Oh, dear, no,” Lady Cadogan said, eyeing Pamela with undisguised curiosity. “He has gone to London to confer with someone at Bow Street, I believe, but—”
“Bow Street!” both young women exclaimed at once.
“Well, yes,” Lady Cadogan said with a distasteful grimace and a pointed look at the hovering butler, “but you needn’t say anything to Almeria if you please, for she thinks he has merely gone to town to look into some new, tiresome matter of probate.”
“But why Bow Street?” Gwenyth did not dare look at Pamela.
Lady Cadogan was reluctant to elucidate, but after a small silence she said, “There is nothing in it, I daresay, and we will find it was an accident after all, but there has been some unpleasantness over it, so Lyford thought it best—”
“Aunt, please,” Gwenyth begged, “what happened?”
“Lyford’s steward died rather mysteriously, I’m afraid, and people hereabouts are spouting nonsense about a treasure they say he discovered shortly before his death. They think the poor man was murdered. Foolishness, of course, but Lyford decided it was best to confront the thing directly. In any event, it don’t do to refine too much upon it, I daresay.”
When Pamela breathed an audible sigh of relief, Lady Cadogan’s eyes narrowed suddenly and speculatively. Although she said nothing further, she shot Gwenyth a shrewd look that promised a private discussion in the not distant future.
It could not come at once, however, for they had to prepare themselves for dinner. They did so in record time, and in the dining room, thirty minutes later, they met the countess at last, discovering to their surprise that she didn’t look ancient at all. In fact, despite the cane she carried, she managed to hide her seventy-eight years very well, for her skin was still soft, and her slight plumpness was becoming, giving her a rounded, youthful appearance. She was much more interested in Sir Spenser Newton, however, than in the two young women; consequently, Gwenyth found it unnecessary to explain more than that they had traveled into Berkshire in order to make a change from the city.
Throughout the meal, Sir Spenser, an elderly gentleman of dandified habits, gazed approvingly upon Pamela, but upon Gwenyth with some disfavor, particularly when she accepted a second generous helping of tarragon chicken from the footman. Raising his quizzing glass then, the old gentleman peered nearsightedly through it as he said, “Forgive me, Lady Gwenyth, but one so naturally associates female softness and delicacy with a correspondent delicacy of constitution that it rather startles one when a young woman shows such extraordinary appetite.”