Authors: Sisters Traherne (Lady Meriel's Duty; Lord Lyford's Secret)
Though she said nothing, her tact went unnoticed, for Eliza’s gaze had followed hers, and the younger girl said tartly, “I know you cannot approve of the books I read, Meri, but there is truly no harm in them, and I do not imagine myself to be one of the heroines, regardless of what you and Auntie Wynne believe.”
Meriel sighed. “I trust you have better sense than most of your heroines have, Eliza. Now you had best begin preparing for dinner, however. I believe they mean to serve it shortly after noon in the dining cabin.”
The dining cabin was situated between the ladies’ saloon and the great cabin on the upper deck and was scarcely large enough to contain more than half the full allotment of passengers the ship might carry. Upon this particular occasion, however, Meriel, Lady Cadogan, and Eliza found no more than three other persons waiting to share the meal with them.
“I do not see the two ladies we met earlier in the saloon,” Meriel said to Lady Cadogan once they were seated at the long table occupying the center of the room.
“No doubt they have succumbed to seasickness,” that lady said. “It generally overcomes half the passengers or more on any voyage, you know. And the worst time is just after the ship sets sail.”
“I trust you do not mean to be sick, ma’am.”
“Oh, no, I rarely feel any discomfort of that nature.” She looked up just then and smiled brightly. “Good afternoon, Sir Antony. Will you not join us?”
“Indeed, my lady, if you will allow me,” said the tall gentleman, bowing. Meriel smiled at him thinking how gracefully he moved for one so large and so broad. He returned her smile, then nodded to Eliza, sitting silently beside her aunt. “You are looking particularly charming, Lady Eliza. That shade of pink makes your cheeks look like fresh roses.”
The color in her cheeks darkening noticeably, Eliza thanked him prettily for the compliment, then would have relapsed into embarrassed silence had he not exerted himself to put her at her ease. Within moments she was chatting with him as naturally as she might have conversed with a favorite uncle.
Meriel, watching them, suddenly encountered Sir Antony’s twinkling gaze. Smiling at him, she decided he was really quite a pleasant gentleman, not nearly so dull as his earlier languid manner might have led one to believe.
IDDING FAREWELL TO THE
at Swansea proved to be more difficult than Meriel had anticipated it would be, particularly since her youngest sister was still feeling sadly pulled. So accustomed had she become to looking after the younger members of her family that it was hard to let them go on to Bristol and London without her. Although Lady Cadogan remained cheerfully optimistic and Mr. Glendower was confident that Meriel need not concern herself with their well-being, Meriel could not help feeling pulled in one direction by her duty to Eliza, Gwenyth, and Davy, and in another by her need to have a look at l’École de Bonté and her duty to her sister Nest.
Thus it was, as she boarded the Channel packet
, that she looked wistfully over her shoulder to watch the
make its way slowly up the Bristol Channel. A few moments later, however, her mood lightened as she turned her thoughts toward France, and when she found herself alone with Gladys Peat in her new cabin, she asked that lady a question it hadn’t occurred to her to ask before.
“Gladys, do you by chance speak any French?”
“French, my lady? Now, why on earth would a God-fearin’ woman like m’self want to go speakin’ a heathenish tongue like them Frenchies speak? And Britain at war with them as she has been. I should think shame t’ myself an I did, ma’am.”
“Well, I don’t speak it either,” Meriel said, smiling over her shoulder as she allowed Gladys to help her off with her dark wool hooded cloak, “but I expect we shall find plenty of people who speak English. All the French people I met in London certainly did so, and André—the Comte de Prévenu, that is—must have spoken it, or Nest would never have understood that he wished to marry her. No doubt she has learned to speak French now after being so long in Paris, but Papa never held with ladies learning languages. He’d have been as pleased to have us speak naught but English when all was said and done, but that would not do for Mama, of course.”
“That it wouldn’t, m’lady. Your mam was a true Welshwoman, she was, and bound t’ see all ’er chicks speaking the Welsh.”
There was a tap at the door just then, and Gladys turned away to see who was there. Opening the door, she discovered Sir Antony, who smiled lazily when the sturdy tirewoman stiffened in disapproval.
“Good day to you, Mrs. Peat. I have come to assure myself that you and your charge are well-situated. Has her ladyship everything she requires?”
Meriel stepped forward. “She has, indeed, sir,” she said. “How kind of you to inquire.”
“I thought perhaps you might care to stroll about on deck, ma’am. The captain informs me that the nearer we sail to Land’s End, the rougher the passage will be. Within an hour or so I daresay it will not be safe to stand by the railing, you know, and I did not think you would care to venture outside the ladies’ saloon without an escort.”
“I daresay that wouldn’t have stopped me,” she told him, smiling, “but I should enjoy a stroll, to be sure. Wait just one moment until I put my cloak back on and collect my muff for I am persuaded the air has not grown warmer in the past half-hour.”
A few moments later they were at the railing, and Meriel, both hands lightly clasped in her large fur muff, leaned over to watch the waves that rolled toward them from the open sea beyond the distant Cornish shoreline. As each new swell caught them, the
rocked, then along her waterline as her prow broke through the deep blue water, and there was a rushing sound that seemed to echo the sighing of the wind in the sails. For a moment the only other sounds were the creaking of the rigging and the screech of herring gulls overhead. Meriel drew a long, satisfied breath, enjoying the salty tang in the air.
“You like the sea?” He was looking down at her, though not, for once, through his quizzing glass. Nonetheless, he had returned to that languidness of manner which she deplored, and she had an impish wish to startle him.
“I should like to be a pirate,” she said airily. “Women make very good pirates, I daresay. I have read that there use to be any number of them, like Ann Bonny and Mary Read.”
He turned to look out over the water again, so she could not see his expression, but to her annoyance his voice was as mild as ever. “I believe they were none of them particularly apt at their trade, you know,” he said. “Even the two you mention were captured by a British warship and tried for their crimes.”
“And then hanged, I daresay. How very romantic.” Shoving her hands deeper into the warmth of her muff, she managed a sigh much like one she thought Eliza might produce at such a moment.
He shot her an oblique glance, and she returned the look innocently, wondering if he would now react with more spirit. When she noted the twinkle in his hazel eyes, she did not know whether to be irritated or merely frustrated by it. His tone was still even when he said, “They were not executed, you know, although I believe they were indeed sentenced to death. No doubt their sex protected them in the end, but I doubt that their lives were at all romantic. Piracy has always sounded to me to be little more than boredom alternating with hard work and physical danger.”
“Indeed, sir, you would prefer the comforts of a London drawing room, I daresay.”
He appeared to give the matter some consideration, then said, “Do you know, it occurs to me that during the Season at least, a London drawing room often produces that same mixture of boredom, hard work, and physical danger.”
She chuckled. “I should be most surprised to hear that you ever so much as wrinkled your neckcloth through hard work or danger in any drawing room, Sir Antony.”
“Well, you would be out then, for when I was a halfling, I daresay I worked as hard as any at storming the beauteous citadels of the day, and I was more than once involved in a bout of fisticuffs over one dashing lady or another.”
“Why have you never married, sir?”
He did look at her then, directly, and she was pleased to note a glint of surprise in the hazel eyes. “Has no one ever told you, my lady, that one should not ask such questions?”
“Of course. Personal questions are impertinent, ill-bred, and unbecoming,” she said in a singsong voice as though she were repeating a lesson. “My papa was used constantly to lecture me about the necessity of learning to bend to society’s rules. But I have never understood why one ought not to ask about the things one wishes most to know. And it is the oddest thing, sir, but when someone tells me I must not do something because there is a rule against doing it, I instantly develop a compulsion to do that very thing.”
“Dear me, but you have never murdered anyone, have you?”
She grinned appreciatively. “No, of course not. I do not mean laws or even truly important rules, only the arbitrary social sort that accomplish little other than to interfere with my comfort or my pleasure.”
“But you have had the charge of your sisters and brother for some time now, I believe,” he said gently. “Surely you insist upon their obeying certain rules.”
“I try not to make my rules entirely arbitrary, however. My father was quite a dictator within our family, you see, and I believe that is one reason my sister Nest married her Frenchman and my brother Jocelyn went to America.”
“I see. They both fled the parental hand?”
“In a manner of speaking. Joss was caught up in a kind of ‘Wales for the Welsh and freedom for all’ sort of thing, you see, and my father thought his actions a betrayal of all the Trahernes had stood for over the centuries. Marrying a Welshwoman, as Papa did, was one thing. Fighting for the Welsh cause—or indeed any cause that was not in support of the crown—was another. My sister Nest, of course, distressed him nearly as much by marrying a Frenchman, the Comte de Prévenu. Marrying an émigré was acceptable, particularly since André’s family, the Depuissants, happened to be among those fortunate few who got out with their wealth intact, but agreeing to return with André when Napoleon Bonaparte granted amnesty to his family was another matter altogether.”
“I suppose your father thought your sister ought to have convinced her husband to remain in England,” Sir Antony said.
“Certainly, or better than that, to have come home to Wales to live with the family. But of course André would never agree to such a thing. He had strong feelings for his own country, and Bonaparte was agreeable to returning the Depuissant estates. Nest says he wanted strong noble supporters, and while the Depuissants are not particularly friendly toward him, they have made themselves useful from time to time. And, she says, he rather likes rubbing shoulders with the
“Yes, I have heard that said too. Your sister’s husband was fortunate. To have returned to France with his title and fortune intact argues more than a little family power, and most noble families of that type ceased to exist under the Terror, you know.”
She smiled up at him. “That is perfectly true, of course, but André’s parents—indeed, a good many of his family members—came to this country at the very beginning of the troubles to escape any difficulty. Then—and Nest says it is because they did manage to keep the greater part of their wealth—they were quickly restored to power when Bonaparte became leader of France, and they have held that position easily since then.” She paused, frowning slightly. “Until now, that is. André’s good fortune seems to have ended, however, for he has been clapped into prison by Napoleon Bonaparte.”
“What happened?” Sir Antony asked gently.
“I don’t know. My sister is an admirably regular correspondent now that we are at peace, but precision of language is not one of her talents, I fear.”
His tone was so bland that Meriel nearly replied in the affirmative before she realized how impertinent the question was. She looked at him, her eyes alight with merriment. “To agree with you would scarcely become me, sir. Let me say rather that Nest is more interested in her social activities than she is in the political scene.”
“But surely she is concerned with her husband’s fate?”
“I have no doubt of that, which is why I am persuaded he can be in little real danger. Still, I intend to see for myself how matters stand with them.”
“You know,” Sir Antony said then in a more serious tone than she had yet heard from him, “those who know about such things are not altogether certain that this period of peace will last. If de Prévenu is no longer in favor with the First Consul, it might behoove your sister to think about leaving France while she still may.”
Meriel frowned thoughtfully. “Until we reached Barmouth,” she said, “I knew little about the current political situation. Clearly, persons like Lord Uxbridge and others of his ilk believe this peace of ours is an uneasy one. Still, there were others present who insisted that it is to Bonaparte’s benefit as well as to England’s to let the peace continue, and Nest insists that the mood in Paris is one of gaiety and pleasure. Surely that would not be the case if a recurrence of war is in the offing.”
“No doubt,” replied Sir Antony, pulling a gold watch from his waistcoat pocket. “I believe they will be serving dinner shortly, ma’am. Do you dine in the dining cabin?”
“No,” she said, “for Gladys Peat will have it that it would not be at all the thing, even if she were to accompany me there, which she has no wish to do. My supper will be served on a tray in my cabin.”
“In that event, perhaps I should escort you below.”
She didn’t see him again until later that afternoon, but having spent two full hours in her cabin, she once again felt the need for fresh air, and despite the fact that the little ship had begun to pitch rather alarmingly in the meanwhile, she wrapped herself well in her long dark gray woolen cloak, arranged its fur-trimmed hood carefully over her curls, and with fur muff in hand, made her way topside once more. It had been her intention merely to seek out the ladies’ saloon, where she might find a book or a magazine to read. However, once she put her head above the deck, she discovered that the sky had darkened ominously and a fierce wind screamed through the rigging, cracking the sails like whips against their stout masts.