Authors: Suzanne Downes
(“Verba Volant, Scripta Manent” – Spoken words fly away, written words remain)
“Good morning, sweetheart.”
These words were not directed, as might be expected after barely three years of marriage, towards Mr. Underwood’s wife, who was not present at the breakfast table, but to a fair haired charmer with large brown eyes, impossibly long lashes and a piece of soggy toast gripped between podgy fingers. She grinned amiably at her father and Underwood could only wonder anew at the resilience of a creature that could stay awake for the best part of the night, yet still appear refreshed and unruffled when the morning finally came. He was quite sure he had not maintained the same insouciant demeanour.
“Mama?” enquired Horatia conversationally, through a full mouth.
Underwood had come to fatherhood rather late in life and as a result, he had never quite grasped the notion that babies are not born automatically understanding their mother tongue; he therefore spoke to, and generally treated, his little daughter as though she were a small, but perfectly cognisant adult. This habit had given his wife
Verity some extremely diverting moments, for just at the crucial point in any given exchange, Horatia was inclined to cease listening seriously to her papa and revert suddenly to type by doing something entirely infantile like hitting him on the head with her silver and ivory rattle or vomiting – on reflection, he was inclined to prefer the former.
Consequently he answered this question as though speaking to an equal, “Your mama, my dear, has resolutely refused to leave her couch until she feels sufficiently recovered from her disturbed night – and for this lack, Horatia, you have none but yourself to blame.”
The child was singularly unmoved by this attempt at chastisement merely giving a contented gurgle of laughter and kindly offering a piece of her toast to her papa. He smiled fondly down at her as he took his place, reflecting ruefully that it was nothing short of miraculous that the feelings of frustration, murderous fury and positive hatred when emanated from one towards a screaming child in the early hours of a sleepless night, could be at once transformed back to overwhelming adoration by the bestowal of a single smile and the offer of masticated food.
Toby forestalled further introspection by his arrival at the table bearing
Underwood’s breakfast, “Good morning, Mr. Underwood; you slept well, I trust?”
“My dear Toby, your trust is sadly misplaced. I scarcely slept at all, thanks to Miss Underwood. And I must say, I feel strongly inclined to move my bed to the attics, if you can honestly state that you remained undisturbed by her virtuoso performance.”
Toby grinned, showing his perfect white teeth, which Underwood could never see without wondering how on earth he managed to keep them through years of bare knuckle pugilism, “Oh dear! Another sleepless night? She’s teething again, I suppose?”
“The child must surely have more teeth than I do, by now.”
“Are we to expect Mrs. Underwood to break her fast with you?” Toby asked, ignoring the previous, rather bitter, expostulation.
“She does not. If you would be so kind, you might ask Mrs. Threadgold to delay her meal by another hour or two. She told me – in rather aggressive terms, I felt – that she fully intends to catch up on her lost repose and charged me with the care of our daughter.”
“And do you have any particular plan for the entertainment of Miss Underwood?” asked Toby, whilst handing the subject of the conversation a fresh sliver of toast.
“I haven’t the faintest notion,” admitted Underwood, with commendable candour, “But the weather is glorious, so whatever we choose to do, it will certainly be out of doors – mainly in the vain hope that the fresh air might have a soporific effect.”
A loud rapping at the front door precluded any further discussion and Toby went to answer the summons. When he returned he bore the post, which he immediately handed to his employer.
Underwood sifted through the bundle in the desultory manner of those who never receive anything even vaguely interesting through the medium of the mail coach, however one flamboyantly written missive caught his attention. He swiftly broke the wafer and withdrew a resplendently ornamented card from within, “Oh, look at that. That’s very pretty,” he commented wryly, with a touch of unbecoming sarcasm, “Crest and all! My dear Horatia, it is not every day that the Underwood family receives an invitation from no less a personage than an Earl.”
“The Reverend’s wedding?” asked Toby, who had been busying himself with the task of picking up Horatia’s discarded breakfast.
“The Reverend’s wedding,” asserted Underwood, “And not a moment too soon. There have been occasions over the past year when I feared he did not mean to go through with it.”
The crested and embossed card seemed to provide Underwood with some inspiration, for suddenly he laid it down, along with the rest of the unread post and set about finishing his rapidly cooling meal with relish, “Eat up, child, for the day’s amusement has been decided upon. Toby, would it be too much trouble to ask you to prepare the gig for a jaunt into town? Methinks Uncle Gil should be congratulated upon his forthcoming nuptials and young Master Alistair needs to be dragged away from his books.”
Toby grinned, knowing very well that Underwood fully intended to make a sport of ragging his brother unmercifully, “Certainly, sir. Is Mrs. Underwood to accompany you?”
“I think not. She has a kindly side to her nature which would not sit well with my own mood today. I have no intention of curbing my tongue, but she would force manners and compassion upon me. Let her sleep.”
So it was that less than an hour later Toby drove the gig into Hanbury, with a still exuberant Underwood beside him, the squealing, wriggling Horatia clamped firmly on her father’s knee.
They found the vicar at home and were only too pleased when he immediately ordered tea to be taken into the garden. All Underwood’s good intentions of taking
Horatia for a long and bracing walk were instantly set aside. The thought of tea under the shade of an apple tree, with his baby toddling about him, and the added prospect of discomfiting an occasionally pompous younger brother were too good to be resisted. When the fourteen year old Alistair emerged from the study and greeted his little cousin with obvious delight and affection, offering to take her off and teach her how to play with wooden skittles on the lawn, Underwood’s cup of delight overflowed.
Toby was invited to join them by the ever thoughtful Gil, but the lure of porter in the kitchen with his old friend Mrs. Trent proved to be stronger than the notion of tea with the brothers and off he went.
With June sunshine pouring warmly through the twisted boughs and a cup of
Gil’s carefully brewed tea in his hands, Underwood could not have been more content. He slouched in his usual, long-legged fashion in a comfortable chair, brought out of the house for him by the ever-willing Toby, and he watched with quiet amusement as his daughter ordered her large cousin about with her lisped, single words, dramatic gestures and much stamping of little feet.
“That child is going to grow into a termagant if Verity is not very careful,” he commented as Gil allowed himself to relax into the chair beside him.
“What do you mean, ‘
if Verity is not careful’
? She’s your daughter too. You ought to do something to control her.”
“Me?” Underwood gave a snort of amusement; “There’s very little point in expecting me to do anything with her. Horatia knows exactly how to handle me. The little minx has me exactly where she wants me. She knows very well I can refuse her nothing.”
Gil shook his head, but made no rejoinder.
Underwood allowed a few seconds of perfect peace and harmony to elapse before throwing his pebble into the pond and watching the effects, “We had the invitation this morning, Gil. I must say I was rather surprised. I was beginning to think that you and Cara were never going to name the day.”
To his chagrin, Gil showed less interest in the bait than a wily old trout, who had just eaten his fill, “To be quite honest, Chuffy, I was beginning to think the same.
Only the knowledge that I had proceeded too far to withdraw with honour prompted my final acceptance of the inevitable.”
What sort of words are these to be spoken by an eager bridegroom? Do not try to tell me you are not in love with the girl, for I know you are.”
Gil looked pensive as he sipped his tea, “Over these past months I have begun to question myself – and not much caring for the answers I have been forced to give.
After all, what do I know of love? I must be a fickle fellow indeed to have fallen in love again so quickly. Poor Catherine has not lain eighteen months in the grave and here am I contemplating marriage to another. When Elinor died, it was a full ten years or more before you could even think of wooing another woman.”
Underwood was startled out of his somnolent pose. He sat swiftly up, “Good
God, Gilbert! Never tell me you are holding that up as your ideal for the behaviour of a bereaved man.”
“Of course I am. What else could I do but that?”
“Then pray put it out of your mind forthwith. My actions then were pure selfishness.”
It was Gil’s turn to look shocked, “What can you mean? It was painfully evident to us all that you were heart-broken by Elinor’s death.”
“Heart-broken? What a strange expression that is. Yes, I suppose I was – but overriding all other emotions was my determination never to put myself through the agony of loss again! That was the real reason I hid from the world in Cambridge, so that the temptation to love and consequently risk losing love would never come again. I was a selfish, arrogant fool – and I put those who loved me through hell, having them worrying about me, when all the time I thought of nothing and no-one but myself.”
“Is that really true?”
“Have I ever lied to you? If you want a true picture of my character, you need only recall how swiftly I changed alliance from Charlotte Wynter to my Verity. It certainly did not take me ten years to get over that little romance, did it?”
Gil was forced to acknowledge the truth of this statement, for Underwood had married Verity less than six months after being jilted by Charlotte.
“But it seems so little time for me to have found another after Catherine. If I had not had the portrait of her which Verity painted, I don’t think I would even remember her face. I recall, only too painfully, how sweet she was, how tender – but that is all. Can it be that I did not love her as much as I thought I did?”
In the space of a single moment Underwood had changed from a man intent upon tormenting his younger brother, to an over-protective father figure. Gil, he reflected wryly, was much too nice to be set free in a cruel world.
“My dear fellow. You may have forgotten how you were prepared to give up the ministry for her, but I have not. Until that moment you first set eyes upon her, the cloth had been your whole life. There could be no greater devotion than that.
Catherine knew you loved her, or why else would she have left her precious only child in your care? And she would not now stand in the way of your future happiness.”
“I suppose she would not.”
“There is no ‘suppose’ about it. Catherine had the sweetest nature of any woman I ever met. She would be horrified to think of you spending your life alone because of her – and she would have wanted her boy to have a mother.”
“Cara is immensely fond of Alistair,” agreed Gil thoughtfully.
“Of course she is – because he is the boy his own mother made him.”
Gil reached out and briefly gripped his brother’s arm, “Thank you, Chuffy, you set my mind at ease.”
“Well, you’ve ruined my day,” complained Underwood gruffly, hiding his deep emotion at this loving gesture very well, “I came here with the express purpose of making your life a misery and now you have spoiled my sport.”
Gil grinned at his tone, but he looked slightly puzzled, “But why on earth should my marriage be a source of amusement for you, Chuffy?”
“My dear brother, you are about to wed the daughter of an earl! Father would have burst his waistcoat buttons with pride at the very idea. The son of a merchant marrying into the aristocracy.”
“I must own I had not quite viewed it in that light. I merely think of Cara as a lovely young woman – the blue blood running in her veins had escaped my attention entirely.”
“You can be sure it won’t have escaped Mother. There will be no living with her after this. Thank God I was not present when she opened her crested invitation. The shriek of delight must have deafened poor old Milner.”
The thought of their stepfather, General Milner, being rendered even deafer than he already was did strike Chuffy as vaguely amusing, even in his present introspective mood. Absentmindedly he poured more tea, asking as he did so, “You have no objection, then, to travelling to London for the ceremony?”
“I have every objection! I hate the metropolis, as you well know. But I cannot act as best man if I remain in the Pennines – and your future father-in-law’s generous offer of the use of his house in Brighton for a holiday afterwards has rather taken the sting out of the thought of a sojourn in London.”