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Authors: Sisters Traherne (Lady Meriel's Duty; Lord Lyford's Secret)

Amanda Scott (4 page)

BOOK: Amanda Scott
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After that everything else seemed a trifle flat to the younger ladies, for Gwenyth was nearly as excited about Eliza’s first dinner party as Eliza was, and neither of them could think that Lady Cadogan or Meriel would enjoy the soiree to which they had been invited that evening nearly as much as they would the countess’s dinner party. Indeed, the hours seemed to drag until at last it was time for Eliza to be handed into the carriage behind her aunt and elder sister. Less than twenty minutes later, the three ladies found themselves upon the threshold of a charmingly appointed rose-and-cream drawing room, hearing their names announced by a stately butler to the Earl and Countess of Uxbridge and their guests.

Meriel noted that there were some twenty persons present in the room, and as she made her curtsy to the gallant earl and his pretty, bright-eyed countess, she spared thought for little other than whether her slim sea-green skirt would trip her up or not, but as she raised her head to smile at her hosts, her glance encountered that of a tall gentleman to the earl’s right. Something, perhaps the fact that he was staring directly, even appraisingly, at her, or, more likely, the casual boredom in his eyes, arrested her gaze. She could not seem to look away.

The gentleman was an inch or two over six feet tall, with thick, curling golden-brown hair and dark hazel eyes. His broad shoulders threatened to split the seams of his dark, form-hugging coat, and his thighs, beneath cream-colored satin breeches, bulged with solid, well-developed muscles.

It was not until she heard her host’s low chuckle that she realized where her gaze had wandered, and Meriel’s cheeks were flushed when she jerked her attention back to the earl.

“May I present Sir Antony Davies to your notice, Lady Meriel?” that gentleman inquired suavely.

“’Tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady,” said Sir Antony in soft, clipped tones.

Meriel murmured that the pleasure was hers, whereupon Lord Uxbridge said cheerfully, “Sir Antony is in Merioneth on business, ma’am, though he generally, I regret to say, resides in London. Lady Meriel, too, is a transient visitor, Tony. She departs on Saturday’s morning tide for the French coast.” He smiled at Meriel. “I have your passport, money, and several letters of introduction, including one to Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador in Paris, and will see that you receive them before you leave tonight. As per Lady Cadogan’s instructions, your passport lists one Gladys Peat as your servant. I don’t mind telling you,” he added, “that I wish I might have added a footman or two, as well, for I cannot approve of your traveling without male escort, but I daresay your aunt has already told you what I wrote to her on that head, so I shall say no more.”

Meriel, still flustered, listened while Uxbridge presented Lady Cadogan and Eliza, and then was presented in turn to another gentleman, who had also been standing, albeit unnoticed by herself, with Sir Antony and Uxbridge.

Mr. George Murray had little to recommend him in such company, for he was quite unlike any of the other gentlemen in the room. Indeed, Meriel thought, after exchanging but the merest of pleasantries with him, that he must be one of the officers lately serving under Uxbridge, for despite an intelligence of eye, he had more the manner of a common foot soldier than of a gentleman. He was of no more than medium height and was dressed neatly but with little elegance. His speech was undistinguished, and although she noted that the earl and several other gentlemen with whom she was slightly acquainted treated Mr. Murray with marked respect, she was grateful to find that not he but Sir Antony Davies had been partnered with her for dinner. Mr. Murray was, in fact, seated across the table from Lady Cadogan, who was at Sir Antony’s right hand, so politeness would preclude their even having to converse with him. Not, she decided after some moments of silence, that Sir Antony’s conversation was particularly stimulating.

“I believe his lordship said you reside in London, sir,” she said at last as an opening gambit.

“A splendid place, London. Very civilized.”

“Indeed, I have been there only once, but I found it a pleasant city.”

“Do try some of this tripe, my lady. ’Tis remarkably well cooked.”

“Is it indeed?”

“I shall have to inquire as to its making. My chef does not prepare it nearly so well as this.”

“You provide your chef with recipes, sir?”

He glanced at her in surprise. “But of course. How should he otherwise know my preferences?”

Meriel hid a smile. “I daresay you are the sort of man who orders his boots polished with champagne, are you not?”

Hazel eyes glinted into hers, and Sir Antony’s fork was suspended in space for a full three seconds before he lowered it to his plate. “You had that nonsense from Brummell, I daresay.”

“The infamous Beau Brummell, sir? I know that he has made a name for himself by determining what shall and shall not be acceptable dress for gentlemen of taste. He has been described to me by friends who are so kind as to correspond occasionally with me from London, but I have never actually met him. At the risk of offending your sensibilities,” she added confidingly, “I must confess that although their habits seem to have changed considerably since my sojourn in London, I am not generally drawn to dandies. Such preoccupation with appearance puts me off.”

“One’s appearance must necessarily be of some importance,” he said, regarding her more closely than he had before, “but I do not, so far as I know, have my boots polished with champagne. I have recently acquired a new manservant, so I cannot presume to know all his secrets, but ’tis my firm belief that not even Brummell’s man uses champagne.”

“No, sir? But I was told—”

“My dear girl, you cannot have considered the matter,” he said calmly. “Can you imagine what alcohol—for that is what champagne is, after all—would do to good leather? A week of such polishing, and the leather would be utterly ruined.”

Her eyes widened. “Why, that is true. Alcohol would dry it out, would it not?”

He nodded and returned his attention to his dinner.

Meriel turned back to her own plate, but although she scarcely heeded the gentleman seated upon her left, she found that she was uncommonly aware of Sir Antony’s presence at her right hand. When a slight movement of his set her nerves atingle, she mentally scolded herself. He appeared, after all, to be nothing more than a lazy bon vivant, more interested in his dinner and the habits of his new manservant than in anything of importance. Still, when he turned his attention to Lady Cadogan, she found herself straining to overhear what they said to one another. It was no use, for his soft voice did not carry, and although she overheard her aunt’s trilling laughter more than once, she could make out nothing of sense. A moment later, the gentleman on her left spoke to her and she had, perforce, to turn her attention to him. A half-hour passed before she was able to converse with Sir Antony again.

“Your aunt tells me,” he said then, “that you travel alone into France. Is that not a somewhat unwise venture for a gently nurtured female?”

“Indeed not, sir. For one thing, I do not go alone. My maid, Gladys Peat—a most stalwart woman—accompanies me. For another, I am not so delicately nurtured as all that. I have grown up in what has been called the most rugged of all the Welsh districts, and I am accustomed to looking after myself and the rest of my family as well. Indeed, it is on my sister’s behalf that I go to France. My youngest sister is to go to school in Rouen at Michaelmas if all goes according to plan. But I must first see the place for myself and interview the headmistress. ’Tis l’École de Bonté, which my aunt attended when she was a young girl—before the Revolution, you know.”

“I see.” He smiled at her then, and she found to her surprise that she was smiling back. Then, instead of arguing, as she had quite expected him to do, that it was not seemly for a young woman to travel abroad with only her maid, however stalwart, for company, he said, “Is it truly safe, do you think, to send your sister to France to school?”

Lady Cadogan’s ears were clearly sharper than Meriel’s, for she spoke up from his other hand. “Perfectly safe, Sir Antony, for we are at peace now, are we not? Moreover, where in England might a young lady acquire such a fine education for a mere eighteen pounds, fifteen shillings per annum?”

Davies settled back in his chair, and Meriel noted that his eyes were twinkling. “Where, indeed, ma’am? Is that figure inclusive? I must tell you I am something of an expert on school expenses, for I have a sister who must be much the same age as your niece, and the cost of her education has fallen to me.”

Lady Cadogan frowned. “I believe the charge is a comprehensive one, sir, but I do not recall precisely.”

“Neither French nor arithmetic is included,” Meriel said. “I believe one pays a guinea extra for each. Oh, and another guinea if Gwenyth wishes to take wine instead of beer with her meals.”

“That last,” said Sir Antony, “would be a guinea well spent, would it not? Beer? Good Lord.” But the hazel eyes were dancing now. “Is the drawing master thrown in for the comprehensive fee?”

“No, nor the music master either,” she retorted. “They are three guineas more.”

“But, Meriel dear, the comprehensive fee does include board, lodging, washing, and dancing,” Lady Cadogan protested. “That is quite a lot, and nothing, you know, can compare with a good French education.”

“I cannot agree, ma’am,” said Sir Antony. “I believe a sound English education is better than what one can get anywhere else. I daresay that when you look more closely into this French school, you will discover that there are further charges for tea and sugar, pens and recreations, and no doubt for anything else the good mistresses can think up.”

“Well, that is why I am going to see for myself,” Meriel said matter-of-factly. “We don’t know a soul in Rouen. Our nearest relative is my sister in Paris, so before I can even consider sending Gwenyth, I must know that the school is in fact an excellent one and its mistresses completely trustworthy.”

“If you desire to meet a trustworthy person in Rouen,” said George Murray suddenly from across the table, “I believe I can help you, Lady Meriel.”

She stared at him in amazement, realizing he had been attending quite openly to their conversation, but he was dearly unaware of having committed a social solecism. His very attitude confirmed her earlier belief that his background must be lacking in the social graces, but she couldn’t bring herself to snub him. That, in fact, would be as much a breach of manners as his speaking across the table. Consequently she smiled. “Can you, indeed, sir?”

“There is a priest,” he said, somewhat diffidently now that he had her attention. “I will understand if you do not wish to make his acquaintance, for I know that much prejudice still exists, particularly in Wales, against those of the Catholic faith, but I met him some years ago through mutual friends, and we have corresponded whenever possible. Naturally, while the war was on, we were unable to write, but he remembers me well enough, and he must know nearly everyone in Rouen. If you like, I will give you a letter of introduction to him. He has mentioned the school, so I am certain he will be able to tell you a great deal about it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Meriel said. “I shall be most grateful for such a letter.” She was amused a moment later to note that Sir Antony’s attention was once again firmly riveted upon his dinner and that conversation around the table had become general, with a number of persons speaking across the board. Evidently Lady Uxbridge herself had encouraged others to follow Mr. Murray’s example. Meriel watched that gentleman closely for some moments, but she could still discover nothing about him that warranted such a thought for his feelings from one so high in the instep as the countess was known to be.

After supper, when the ladies had retired to the elegant rose-and-cream drawing room, leaving the gentleman to their port, conversation turned rather quickly, Meriel thought, from the usual topics of family and children to the year-old peace treaty with France. Since she had heard little during the heavy Welsh winter about what was going forward, she listened carefully and soon discovered that feelings were mixed. Several persons in the Uxbridge drawing room had actually been in Paris the previous August to help celebrate Napoleon Bonaparte’s assumption of the title of Life Consul.

“Such a charming man,” said one plump baroness with a sigh.

Another, much thinner lady gasped at her. “Adelaide, have your wits gone begging? That dreadful man is responsible for the deaths of thousands of young Englishmen.”

“Well, no doubt he is,” the baroness admitted, frowning, “but I daresay he means well, you know.”

“He cannot be trusted,” said the thin lady.

“We had a letter from my mama only last month,” put in Lady Uxbridge quickly as the baroness bristled, “informing us that yet another Frenchman has been found guilty of spying in London. Since that dreadful Joseph Fouché is no longer the French minister of police, and is indeed quite out of favor, why do you suppose there are still such persons abounding in this country? While he was at the helm, of course, one might expect anything of the French. But Bonaparte dismissed him. Moreover, we are at peace, are we not? It all seems prodigious odd to me.”

“That’s the French, when all is said and done,” said the thin lady, as Meriel glanced quickly toward her sister, being grateful that it was Eliza and not Gwenyth who had accompanied them that night. Gwenyth, like their brother Jocelyn, would have taken immediate exception to the countess’s casual notion that England and Wales were but one country.

“I daresay you know the French well,” Lady Cadogan said, smiling gently at the thin woman. “I went to school in France myself, and I found any number of quite well-bred Frenchmen, who would no doubt be as appalled as any Englishman at the thought of spying on one’s fellow-man.”

“Do we not send spies into France, then?” asked Eliza, who had been sitting quietly in a corner until now. “I should have thought we would if they send spies to our country.”

“Goodness me!” exclaimed Lady Uxbridge, shaking her head. “Wherever can you have come by such a notion, I wonder.”

BOOK: Amanda Scott
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