Authors: Sisters Traherne (Lady Meriel's Duty; Lord Lyford's Secret)
The sight of churning black water below and rolling black clouds overhead was an awesome one, and the wind as well as the unpredictable motion of the ship made movement difficult. Meriel found it necessary to slip her muff onto her left arm in order that she might cling to the bulwark wherever she could find a handhold. Her skirts whipped about her legs, her hood flew back, and her hair was blown loose as she flung herself from bulwark to railing, gripping the brass as tightly as she was able and pressing her hips forward. Instead of fear, however, Meriel felt only exhilaration as she pitted her strength against that of the wind. Carefully, hand over hand, she made her way forward, feeling one moment the same euphoria she experienced whenever she approached the summit of Cader Idris, and the next of a sudden spine-chilling fear that she would be flung headfirst straight down into the roiling sea. By the time she had made her way far enough along the railing so that she could see the open ocean ahead, she was worn out and would have liked very much to be able to sit down upon the bench attached to the bulwark, but she knew that to do so would be extremely foolish. There were no handholds, and she would most likely slide straight off onto the forward decking.
Behind her and overhead, the wind’s roar was punctuated by the bustling and shouting of sailors as they leapt to obey orders bellowed at them by the boatswain, but no one paid her the slightest heed, and she was able to enjoy her view undisturbed. The swells beneath the little ship had grown to look like mountains and no longer broke neatly beneath the prow. Instead, the ship crashed sickeningly from one wave to the next, sending a wall of spray soaring to either side. Before long, she realized she was getting soaked, but despite the wind and the water, her cloak kept her warm enough and she had no desire to go below. Turning her face up, she exposed her cheeks enthusiastically to the needlelike sting of spray.
“Good God, what are you about?” The question roared in her left ear, startling her, before she had any notion that she was no longer alone. As she turned toward the voice, a powerful arm enveloped her shoulders and a firm masculine hand clamped the railing near her own. “Have you any notion how dangerous it is to be standing here like this?” Sir Antony demanded, his voice still loud enough in her ear to make her wince.
“Sir,” she said, looking up into the face so near her own, “there is no need to shout. I can hear you perfectly well.”
“I feel like shouting,” he retorted, although he lowered his voice to a rumble. “You are sure to be blown overboard if you stand here. I cannot think what all those sailors are about not to have warned you.”
“They are about their business, sir,” she said tartly, “as you should be.”
“Don’t be childish,” he said. “You must come inside at once.”
“I shall not. I am quite safe here, and I am enjoying the wind and the excitement of the gathering storm. Only look, sir, there is a bolt of lightning. I daresay we are in for quite a tempest.”
“No doubt, ma’am.” He regarded the top of her head through narrowed eyes. “I should have expected such weather to have frightened you.”
“Nonsense, sir, I am Welsh. Did such weather distress me, I should have spent the whole of my life in a distressed condition. One bolt of lightning will not send me running for cover. I have stood near the summit of Cader Idris—a mountain nearly three thousand feet high, I’ll have you know—and watched much worse storms gather than this promises to be.”
“So you climb mountains, do you? Somehow I am not surprised.” There was amusement in his voice now, and she looked back at him.
“Of course, I do. I have not been raised to be such a fragile honey as your London girls, you know.”
“I begin to believe you, ma’am.”
The ship pitched more sharply than ever just then, and his powerful arm instantly clamped her body to the railing. She was sure her ribs would be bruised, but she did not protest. Indeed, the thought that he wished to protect her was a warming one. A moment later, when the ship crashed down into the next trough and began to climb an even steeper wall of water, she made no further protest to his repeated insistence that they make their way to a safer position. She quickly discovered that the decision to leave the railing and the actual accomplishment of that feat were two entirely different matters, and when they had finally reached the comparative safety of the ladies’ saloon, she sank down upon a banquette with a sigh of relief, tossing her muff onto the floor.
“That is quite ruined, I daresay. You were indeed in the right of it, sir. I remained outside longer than I ought to have done. You need not stay with me, however. I am quite content to remain here for a time.”
He was braced against the bulkhead, watching her settle herself as gracefully as though she had little regard for the pitching deck beneath their feet. His eyes, glinting at first with what might have been anger in a more emotional man, softened as she spoke. Now it could be seen that he was amused.
“Where would you have me go, ma’am?”
“Why, to the great cabin, of course, or to your own. You ought not to remain here, sir.”
He glanced around the empty cabin. “There is no one else here to be offended, and I’ve no wish to venture outside again at the moment. Already my neckcloth is limp and my boots have lost their polish. Moreover, not only is the sea attempting to swamp this craft, but I believe it is coming on to rain.”
Glancing out the widow behind the banquette, she saw that he was right. Still, the thought of being alone with him in the saloon was an unnerving one. “Where do you suppose everyone else is?” she asked.
“Where is the estimable Mrs. Peat?” he countered.
“Laid down upon her cot. She managed to eat her dinner, but she felt queasy afterward.”
“Then I surmise that most of our fellow passengers are in a similar condition. I do not feel the ills of the sea, and I see that you do not either.”
“No, of course not. ’Tis too exciting to waste one’s time being ill.”
“Then I suggest that we while away our time with a deck of cards, if one might be found in this saloon. Do you play piquet, ma’am?”
“Yes, of course, but I daresay there will be no cards,” she replied.
“I hope you are not a gamester,” he said a moment later, having lifted the bench top of one of the banquettes to reveal several packs of cards in a chest, along with a chessboard and a backgammon board.
They spent the stormy afternoon at the deal table, playing for vast mythical fortunes, and Meriel enjoyed herself very much. Sir Antony, despite an occasional remark that told her he was still in a fret over his neckcloth and boots, proved to be an amiable companion. She soon lost her nervousness, and having remembered that he had never told her why he had not married, she asked him again.
He shrugged but there was a gleam of laughter in his eyes. “Until now, I never gave the matter much thought, I suppose. What I cannot understand, however, is how it is that you have been left upon the shelf, my dear.”
She grinned at him. “Turn about, sir? I promise you, I don’t mind at all. I simply have never had either the time or the inclination to look about me for a husband. Oh, to be sure, I had a Season in London. Papa took me there, and my Aunt Cadogan did everything one might expect to launch me. I enjoyed myself tremendously, I assure you.”
“In that case, I find it a good deal harder to understand how you come to find yourself still enjoying the single state,” he said, picking up the hand he had just dealt himself and sorting through his cards.
Meriel discarded three, drew her replacement cards, then continued, “’Tis not so difficult as you might think, sir. I simply met no gentleman that Season whom I could imagine climbing my mountain with me. And, of course, I expected to have a second Season in London the following year. Only as luck would have it, that was when Joss took it into his head to go to America. Papa was like a bear with a sore head as a result, and Mama was ill and so distressed that it was clearly my duty to remain at home with her. Nest had turned seventeen, so I persuaded Papa to take her to London while I stayed to look after Mama and the estate, as well. We have an excellent steward, of course, but there are still decisions to be made from time to time.”
“And your father left you to make them?” Sir Antony asked, discarding two cards.
She smiled. “Only because he thought there would be none to be made in the few short months he would be away, I promise you. But I was interested, and our steward was willing to teach me, which was fortunate, as matters turned out. Nest married, and I never did go back to London. Then Papa and Mama died in the typhus epidemic and I was left with the children.”
“My poor dear.” Sir Antony leaned toward her as though he would comfort her, placing one of his large hands upon her forearm where it rested upon the table.
“I declare a
, sir,” she said, smiling. “You must not be thinking me a martyr to circumstance, you know. I promise you I love my home and my family. ’Tis my duty to look after them, and so I must, but ’tis not an unpleasant duty at all.”
His hand gripped her arm more tightly, but he did not return her smile. Instead his lips pressed firmly against one another as though he restrained himself from speaking forcefully. A moment later the look was gone, as he said, “Your
’s no good.”
“Then I declare four queens.” He nodded, and she led. As they played, she found herself telling him more about Plas Tallyn, and it was not until she retired to her cabin to prepare for supper that she realized that although she had told him much about herself, he had told her very little beyond the fact that he had been born in Shropshire and still had family there.
She discovered that Gladys Peat had yielded to seasickness. The older woman was not violently ill as Gwenyth had been, but she insisted that if she were to rise from her bed she would be.
“’Tis not like me t’ be givin’ in like this, Miss Meriel. I beg you’ll forgive me.”
“Of course, Gladys. You must stay right where you are. I shall manage nicely, I assure you.”
“Well, you’ll be right here the night, so at least I may keep my eye upon you, but just where have you been all the afternoon, if I might be so bold as to inquire?”
“In the ladies’ saloon,” Meriel returned glibly. “I daresay I shall return there after I have eaten my supper, so that you may rest.”
“That you’ll not, m’lady. ’Tisn’t fittin’. Like as not, there won’t be a soul up there, and for all you think you can take care of yourself, you won’t be safe there alone, and so I tell you.”
Feeling her temper stir at these sharp words, Meriel forced herself to hold her tongue. It would not do to be at outs with Gladys Peat, and this was no time to remind her of her position. Having known her mistress from birth, Gladys was not one who might be counted upon to submit tamely to her displeasure. Indeed, Meriel knew full well that the only reason Lady Cadogan had not put up more of a fuss when she had declared her intention of traveling into France was that Gladys might be depended upon not only to protect her mistress but also to make a push to curb her more outrageous starts. Consequently Meriel bit her tongue and set herself to making her companion more comfortable.
By the time Meriel’s supper was served by a cheerful young sailor who informed them that quite three-quarters of the passengers had refused their meals, Gladys had recovered sufficiently to sit up in her cot, but she declined interest in food. Meriel did persuade her to take a cup of tea and poured one out for herself. She said nothing further about going topside again, and Gladys clearly believed that she had reconciled herself to remaining safely below.
She had done nothing of the kind, however, and when she noted at last that her protectress had finally drifted into a deep sleep, Meriel closed the magazine she had been attempting to read by the light of the lantern swinging from a hook above her chair, and moved to peer out the tiny porthole above her bed. There were stars overhead and a bright three-quarter moon. The clouds had gone, and although the wind still blew strongly enough to send the little ship skimming through the water, the alarming pitching and tossing had declined to a mere rolling, sliding motion. Surely there could be no harm in going above for a breath of air.
On the thought, she collected her cloak and a pair of gloves. A few moments later she emerged from the companionway onto the upper deck to discover that it was indeed much calmer than it had been earlier, and she decided the ship must by now have made its way past that tip of Cornwall known as Land’s End, into the generally calmer waters of the Channel. The roughest part of their journey no doubt lay behind them.
Drawing a deep breath of the crisp night air, she fixed her gaze upon the silvery path made across the sea by the moon’s reflection. How beautiful it was. Except for the noise of the boat’s passage through the water and the soughing of the wind in the rigging overhead, there was only silence, as though she was quite certain that there must be sailors somewhere on the deck or in the rigging, she could see no one when she looked about her. Then, just as she turned back to the sea, she caught a glimpse of movement near the forward bulwark. A moment later, there was nothing to see. Whoever it was had simply melted into the shadows. She stood very still, watching.
The wind died just then. A door opened from the great cabin, and a large shadowy figure emerged. In the instant before the wind picked up again and the sound was swallowed by the rattle and clink of the rigging and the slap of sails against masts, Meriel heard a tuneful whistling that she had heard before. That very afternoon, over his cards, whenever he had been about to play a winning card, Sir Antony had begun to whistle that selfsame air.
She had time to feel only the smallest twinge of alarm before the figure she had noticed earlier loomed out of the shadows behind him. She saw an arm raised, and then, before she could cry out, there was a sickening thud, and Sir Antony crumpled to the deck.
Without a thought for her own safety, Meriel cried out, but her cry was whipped away by the gathering wind, and the assailant paid her no heed. Furious and frightened now, and wishing she had not left her pistol behind in her reticule, she gathered her skirts in her left hand and with only the lightest touch of the right upon the rail to steady her steps, she ran toward the others, her heart in her throat at the thought that she might well be witnessing a murder.