Authors: The Return of the Earl
To Damaris Rowland,
for keeping the faith
The man paused at the brink of the door to…
The visitor was late, but he would have been unwelcome…
“Of course I’m excited,” Julianne said. She shivered as she…
“You see, I’m going to marry Hammond, and I wish…
The two parties of strollers came to a halt face-to-face…
The company made feeble conversation as they waited for dinner…
Julianne and Christian walked slowly through the squire’s rose garden…
The lone horseman clattered into the courtyard of the White…
“I’m not sure I approve this,” Hammond said, eyeing Julianne’s…
Julianne sat silently, her hands clasped in her lap. She’d…
It was three in the morning and the countryside slept,…
She’d been so anxious, so afraid. Julianne’s boldness had dwindled…
“Such excellent food,” Christian told his guests when the innkeeper…
“Don’t pretend you’re asleep,” Julianne whispered to the doorknob as…
“They’re gone!” Julianne exclaimed.
“Clear the way!” Mr. Murchison bellowed, swinging a stick to enforce…
“Hammond is still doing well?” Julianne asked, as Sophie dressed…
Hammond healed quickly; the household was packed up in no…
He isn’t here. He must have decided not to come…
Julianne couldn’t ask more about Christian immediately. She didn’t want…
Julianne was glad she couldn’t see very well, it was…
They were left alone, for the night, locked in a…
The lovers lay entwined, exhausted, still astonished. The bed was…
Christian stood in the doorway. He was immaculately dressed; he…
The music was faint and far away, but they heard…
Early one morning,just as the sun was rising,
I heard a young maid in the valley below.
“Oh don’t deceive me, Oh never leave me,
How could you use a poor maiden so?”
Thus sang the young maiden, her sorrows bewailing. Thus sung the poor maid in the valley below.
“Oh don’t deceive me, Oh never leave me,
How could you use a poor maiden so?”
—Old English folk song
he man paused at the brink of the door to the hold. He glanced up, narrowing his eyes against the sun. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the brackish air, as though he were about to leap into the sea around him and not just step down into the bowels of the ship.
“Take a deep breath,” he told the boys at his side. “Hold it. Look at the sky. Remember all of it.”
The three boys stood still and did as he said. Although they held up the line, the guards didn’t react. No one in the long line of prisoners behind them complained either. Many of them were breathing deeply, too. It was, after all, the last breath of fresh air they’d get until the next day. In some cases, it might be the last they’d ever get, and they all knew that too well. The
was bound for the other side of the world with its cargo of miserable souls, in condi
tions so appalling that many would leave this world before the ship reached its destination.
The guards allowed the man and boys their silent good-byes. An extra minute in the weak spring sunlight was a small enough charity, and the last many of these wretches would get, or deserved to have. They were, after all, a collection of murderers, rapists, thieves, frauds, cheats, and liars. That was why they were about to be expelled from their native land like the indigestible mass of filth that they were. Or so the magistrates had ruled.
The man who paused at the brink of the stair that would lead him down into darkness didn’t look savage. He looked filthy and ill used. His clothing was in rags. The once-fine ruffles at his wrists and throat had long since been torn away. His breeches were ragged, his jacket in tatters, his shirt might have once been white, because gentlemen wore no other color. He had been dressed like a gentleman, once. Although gaunt, he still seemed fit, and moved with grace even though he wore no shoes. His hands were fisted; he looked ready to fight if he had to.
Tears cleared long trails down his smudged face as he blinked, squinting up at the sun. Those tears could have been from emotion or because it had been so long since he’d seen the light.
Two of the thin and ragged boys at his side looked to be about ten or twelve years of age, the third perhaps a year or two older. They were so dirty it was hard to tell if they were fair-haired or light-skinned. But it was easy to see how worried they were. The man’s face registered only anguish. Theirs showed fear.
Or so it seemed to those few onlookers who stood on the dock watching the prison ship prepare to set sail for the antipodes.
When prisoners were to be hanged there were always huge crowds to see them off, along with friends and relatives. Food and drink were sold, songs were sung, it was all holiday on topping day at Tyburn Hill. When convicts were sent to the ends of the earth they were seen off in silence, if they were seen at all. There was, after all, nothing interesting to watch. And no one, least of all the unfortunates themselves, knew when or where they were to go until they were already on their way.
England had too many prisoners to keep and far too many to hang, so many were banished instead. There were hundreds of offenses and only so many ways to punish offenders. Transport was as good a way as any and often just as permanent as hanging. It wasn’t that prisoners weren’t allowed to return from Botany Bay. It was only that few lived long enough to get there, and fewer ever returned.
“Time to move on,” a guard said to the prisoner who stood at the brink of the stair.
He nodded. But then he straightened, eyes narrowed against more than the sun. He stared at a pair of men on the wharf. He couldn’t help but notice them. They could be seen from a distance, especially on such a gray day. One of the men was fat, fair, and overdressed for such a sullen morning; he wore a long crimson cape and carried a silver-headed walking stick that glinted in the light. The other man was older, dressed drably, but well. Both looked back at the prisoner with interest.
One of the boys at the prisoner’s side noticed who he was staring at.
He gasped. “Isn’t that Sir Gordon?”
His father nodded.
“Who’s ’e?” one of the other boys muttered, looking at the pair of spectators.
“The one who sent us here,” the first boy said. “The one who said we stole from him. The one who lied!”
“Softly, softly,” his father murmured as he kept staring.
“Who’s the other?” his son asked.
“I don’t know, though I should,” his father said, his voice distant and troubled. “It seems important…I will remember.”
“Here! I said time to move on,” the guard said, brandishing the club he held.
“Remember his face!” the prisoner told his son. “Never forget it!”
“I will! I won’t forget, I promise,” the boy vowed.
The two other boys nodded, too.
Head high, the man stepped down the stair into the hold. He stopped, because his son held back. His voice gentled. “We will be back,” he said softly. “That, I promise.”
Then he continued down the steps, and his son followed. He didn’t let go of his father’s hand, nor did he lose his grip on the other boy’s hand, and that lad held on to the last boy. Linked by circumstance and need, the four stepped down into the darkness together.
The day wore on, though the prisoners couldn’t count the hours in the unrelenting darkness of the hold in the great prison hulk. But finally, even they
knew it was night. Even so, many couldn’t sleep.
“Don’t worry,” the man’s voice said to the huddle of boys at his side. They sat on the rocking floor of the ship with the other prisoners, waiting for the morning, when their voyage into the unknown would begin.
Such was the power of his voice and the firmness of their trust in him that the boys obeyed, in spite of their fears. They curled close to him, closed their eyes, and finally slept. Only he sat awake through the night, as he always did, on guard. He was also busy planning. He didn’t know where he was going or if he could get there. But if he did nothing else in life, he would see that the boys got there, and then one day, home again.
he visitor was late, but he would have been unwelcome at any hour. Nevertheless, a stableboy came running to greet his carriage as it rumbled up to the manor house as the first star appeared in a purpling evening sky. Many more eyes watched from behind curtains on the dozens of windows of the great house. The oaken front door swung open, the butler and his footmen stood in readiness.
After a moment, a lean gentleman was seen in the doorway of the carriage. He bent his head, stepped out, and paused on the top of the little stair that had been let down. Straightening, he stood arrested, staring at the huge house, seeing the dark mass of it outlined by the last dim glow of sunset, punctuated by lights that twinkled in the dozens of windows facing the drive. It was too dusky for anyone to make out the expression on his face.
He stepped down and headed for the house, taking
the fan of stairs to the front door rapidly and with easy grace, as though he hadn’t been confined in a rocking carriage for hours.
“I believe I’m expected?” he asked the butler in a rich tenor voice, as he swept off his high beaver hat and caped coat and handed them to a footman. “I am Egremont.”
The butler bowed, expressionless. “This way, sir,” he said.
The gentleman hesitated. A thin eyebrow rose.
he echoed with cool amusement, slapping his gloves against his palm. “Maybe you didn’t hear me. I am the new earl of Egremont. I’d believed I was expected.”
The butler’s expression didn’t change, but his face grew ruddy. “Yes, sir,” he said. “You were indeed expected. As to the other matter, I was led to believe it was not yet settled, sir.”
The gentleman laughed. “So it hasn’t been. I suppose I can’t fault you for being precise. Announce me as Sauvage then, if you must. Lead on. Oh, and I’d like something to eat. Will you see to it? It’s been a devilish long journey.”
The butler bowed and led the gentleman into the front hall. The new arrival scarcely seemed to look at the house as he strode over the shining inlaid mosaic marble floors. He didn’t pause to study the life-sized Grecian statues that lined the walls, or raise his eyes to the gilded domed ceiling of the great hall to see the rose-and-gold frescoes there. He had hardly a glance for the pair of separate twin staircases that wound their ways to the second level, where they met and
embraced in a riot of carved acanthus leaves. He only followed the butler through the hall and down a corridor, seeming as cool and untouched by his surroundings as the servant who guided him.
“You’re awaited in the red room, sir,” the butler murmured. He threw open a door to an enormous room with crimson stretched-silk-covered walls, Turkey red carpets, red and brown settees and chairs. A massive fireplace with a leaping fire sparked reflections from the gilt edges on the furniture and many picture frames. But the fire only cast murky, ruddy shadows over the quartet of people there.
“Mr. Sauvage,” the butler said, announcing him.
The four people in the room stared. The visitor looked back at them serenely, only his eyes showing animation, glittering in the firelight as he surveyed them each in turn.
He saw a stout middle-aged balding gentleman, the very model of a country squire, a young blond lady, delicate and perfectly dressed as a china figurine, an older woman, who was obviously her mama, and a square-faced, straw-haired, broad-shouldered young man. They goggled at him from out of the crimson shade.
Their first impression was of a dark, elegantly dressed, extravagantly handsome young gentleman. The high planes on his smooth face were exaggerated by dancing firelight, making him look as though he’d just stepped, smiling, from out of the devil’s own dressing room. He was impeccably clad in a closefitting black jacket, with a white neckcloth, dark skintight breeches, and shining knee-high boots. The
gentleman’s face was impassive. He had flawless skin, even features, and watchful eyes. The firelight made it impossible to make out the color of those wide, well-spaced eyes, but they were light, and shone with crystalline clarity. The most arresting thing about him was the cool expression on his smooth face. He looked as though no human emotion could touch him or ever had done.
The middle-aged man leapt to his feet. “What is the meaning of this?” he said. “You are not Geoffrey Sauvage!”
“No, I’m not,” the gentleman said calmly. “Geoffrey Sauvage was my father. I am Christian Gabriel Peter Colinworth Sauvage, now the earl of Egremont, and master of this house. And you, sir? You have me at a disadvantage.”
The older man opened and closed his mouth.
The others echoed his expression. It was the fair young man who rose to his feet and spoke.
“I am Hammond Sauvage,” he said stiffly. “This is my fiancée, Sophie Wiley, and her father, Squire Henry Wiley and his wife, Martha. You must understand that this is difficult for us to take in all at once.”
Christian nodded. “Of course, I didn’t expect you to believe me right away either, Cousin. You
my cousin, aren’t you?”
Hammond nodded curtly.
“But in time, you will believe me,” Christian said placidly. He moved toward the hearth. “I’ve traveled a long way, and it’s cold out there. If you don’t mind, I’d like a seat by the fire.”
The squire flushed, nodded, and sat again, obvi
ously still struggling for something to say.
The new arrival seated himself and rubbed his slender hands together. “I only arrived in this country a few days ago, and came here straight from London—after I consulted with my men at law, of course.” No one in the room spoke. After a moment, he went on, “I’ve asked for something to eat, and would be pleased to take it here, by the fire. I didn’t stop for luncheon and am famished.” The only sound was of the fire crackling in the hearth. “Does that offend?” he asked blandly. “Or is it only my arrival that does? I didn’t expect to be met with joy. Yet although you’d probably prefer that I starve, and I don’t blame you for that, I suppose, I really do need some food. Starvation’s an inefficient way to dispose of someone, after all, isn’t it?”
One of the women gasped.
“Yes. Inefficient,” the squire finally said, harshly. “Unlike the way the sixth earl met his end. Falling off a cliff top is more efficient, I agree,” he added, staring at the visitor.
“Squire,” Christian said mildly, “you may believe almost anything of me and my father, but be reasonable. However wicked you think we were, I was only twelve years old at the time of the sixth earl’s death, and my father and I were convicted felons on a prison ship on the way to the antipodes then. Evil has tentacles everywhere, no one knows that better than I do. But we had no power of any kind, criminal or otherwise, so we couldn’t have hurt anyone here in England. Apart from the fact that I’d no reason to wish the man any harm until he refused to help us, and by
then, there was nothing I could do but try to console my father about it. It’s true,” he added, to the squire’s disbelieving stare.
Christian’s smile was as cool as his words. “The earl believed the evidence against us without question. But then, he didn’t know my father. You see, Geoffrey Sauvage wasn’t in exile all his life, though so far as the family was concerned, he might as well have been. Right, Cousin?” he asked Hammond.
Hammond shrugged. “We never met, that’s true. I don’t know why.”
Christian nodded. “Oh, but I do. The family wanted nothing to do with us, even before our conviction and sentence. My father was an educated man, but he worked for a living, doing accounts for wealthier men. That shocked and shamed the family. They didn’t have to soil their hands with ink or trade. My father did. He was the younger son of a youngest son in a large family. Much smaller now, of course,” he murmured, with the shadow of a smile. “There were several healthy heirs to the title. Even if there hadn’t been, we were far from the direct line of succession. I suppose I had relatives who lived in expectation of even the remote possibility of inheriting this place one day. Did you, Cousin? Trust me, Father and I never did.”
“But he did inherit, didn’t he?” The squire said bitterly. “What happened? We hadn’t heard of his death.”
Now some flicker of emotion showed on the visitor’s face, gone too soon to read. “You hadn’t heard of his life either,” he said gently. “Your sympathies
are noted. Please, no apologies,” he said, though no one offered any. “No one heard about my father because news takes a while to get from the other side of the world to England—even if someone was waiting for it. As we know no one was, we didn’t send it. In fact, I didn’t get the news of the inheritance immediately, though I came soon as I did. I’m sorry if that raised other expectations. It was you, Hammond, who expected to inherit, was it? Sorry. Ah, my dinner,” he said, before Hammond could answer.
The butler entered the room with footmen carrying a small folding table and trays of meats, breads, and cheeses.
“Would you care to join me?” Christian asked, as the table was set up in front of him.
The squire waved off his offer. But as Christian picked up a plate, the older man spoke again, harshly. “So you’re here to claim the title and the estate?”
“As I said. Yes. And the bank account and the stock holdings, the town house in Marble Arch, and the hunting box in the West County,” Christian agreed, selecting a roll, a wedge of cheese, and a slice of beef. “The house in the Lake District, too. The mill in Sussex, the distillery in Scotland. The lot, and as soon as it may be done.”
He looked up at the stricken company. “Mind,” he said, pointing with his knife, “I realize it isn’t the healthiest decision a man could make. Let me see,” he said, ignoring the plate he’d just filled as he stared into the middle distance. “Have I got it all right? There’s such a lot to get, isn’t there? As I understand,” he said slowly, “since we left England,
Charles, the sixth earl of Egremont, fell from a horse and down that cliff, striking his head on a stone not a year after succeeding his father, an invalid. The next earl, Godfrey, enjoyed good health for four years, until he, too, fell. But it was love he fell into—then a river, I heard. He drowned in a boating accident before his wedding day, didn’t he? So the estate went to Frederick Sauvage, who held it for three years, until he suffered a heart spasm when his coach was stopped by a highwayman. Unfortunately, his pills, usually at hand, weren’t. The highwayman was never caught.
“His only son, an infant, died suddenly soon after,” Christian said as he buttered his roll, paying close attention to it as he did. “Now, let’s see, his widow went to Ireland and stayed there, and who can blame her? The last earl was a bachelor. Well, but his ladylove was herself already married. As I calculate, that’s five earls in a row, not even counting the infant, and in fairly close order.
“No,” Christian said thoughtfully, answering himself, “being earl and master of Egremont isn’t a very healthy occupation.”
“There was no foul play,” the squire said harshly. “Only a series of unhappy coincidences. Each tragedy was investigated, and each had sufficient cause. Charles had vertigo and refused to give in to it; Godfrey never learned to swim properly, Frederick was forgetful and didn’t like to dose himself, as he called it, and so on. If the family suffered from anything, it was from stubborn pride.”
“I’d heard otherwise,” Christian said blandly, then
added, before anyone could speak, “I’d even heard talk of a curse.”
“You have no hesitation about taking on the role though, do you?” Hammond asked bitterly.
Christian smiled. “No, because I don’t believe in curses. And, too, I just discovered I have family feeling. I just never realized I did. Until I inherited, that is.”
“The point is,” the squire said, “we still don’t know if you have inherited.”
“Your point,” Christian agreed. “You don’t know. I assure you, I do.”
“And we know nothing about you.”
“More than I do about you,” Christian said cheerfully.
“You don’t speak with an accent,” the squire’s wife said sharply, speaking up for the first time.
“No, unless it’s an English one,” Christian agreed. “I was sent abroad on my grand tour of prisons when I was twelve. My accent was set by then. I speak as my father taught me, and he was insistent about my education—until it was stopped, by order of His Majesty.”
“How did you get free?” she persisted.
“My father was a learned man in a land that knew the value of a fellow with an education,” Christian answered calmly. “And he made friends quickly. In no time he was as appreciated by his fellow prisoners as he was by those who guarded him, and the man who hired him. When they realized that a man who works for his own improvement as well as his master’s does a much better job, he was offered his freedom. Or rather, when he made them realize it. A wise man, my
father. Except, of course, not wise enough to see whatever trap it was got him arrested in the first place.”
Christian put down his fork. “He wasn’t guilty of the crimes he was convicted of. Every felon says that, but in this case it was true. He didn’t steal Sir Gordon’s snuffbox or have me lift a silver candlestick. The thought is ridiculous. I went with him that day only because Sir Gordon summoned him to work on an error in his books on a Sunday afternoon. We weren’t rich, but were doing well enough to have our own house, and food on the table. We had no need to steal. We certainly didn’t need the money the pawnbroker swore we’d got an hour before we were arrested. By the way, the money we were supposed to have received was never found on either of us. Only in our house. And in a place we had never used for anything but storing ashes. You don’t believe me?” He shrugged. “They didn’t then, either.”
“But that was a long time ago,” Christian continued, pushing away his plate and rising. “And my weariness is very much today’s. Would you excuse me? I’m deucedly tired and would appreciate a quiet room and a soft bed. We can continue this tomorrow if you’d like. If you’d just show me to my room, I won’t keep you any longer tonight.”
The other four exchanged glances.
“We’ve arrranged for a room for you at the inn down the road,” the squire said gruffly. “It has excellent accommodations.”