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Authors: Patricia Veryan

Love Alters Not

BOOK: Love Alters Not
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For David

 

 

 

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

—W
ILLIAM
S
HAKESPEARE
Sonnet 116

I

In the year of grace 1529, Muse Manor was an old house in the North Downs, some miles northwest of Basingstoke, its considerable charms embellished by two square miles of lush farmland, together with a Home Farm and a quaint village. Sir Isaac Cranford, having done remarkably well as a privateer, had married the lady previously denied him by reason of his lack of fortune, and had purchased the property for his country seat. His lady rewarded him with seven healthy children and, when the time came for him to go to his next, and it is to be hoped, heavenly abode, he did so secure in the knowledge that he left behind a firm foundation upon which his heirs could build a great dynasty.

Times, alas, were hard, and the dynasty did not materialize. Despite careful management, the fortune began to dwindle. The hunting box went in 1643, and in 1677, the great house in Town had to be sold. The Cranfords counted themselves fortunate to make the country house their permanent abode. And still prospects did not improve. Through the march of years, the fortune shrank and shrank and with it, acre by acre, the estate.

In 1733, John Cranford, the current head of the family, was driven to seek gainful employment. A loving husband and devoted father, it was his desire that his twin sons attend University, and his little daughter have a respectable dowry, that led him, with deep inner reluctance, to accept a promising post with the East India Company. Mr. Cranford was blessed with a fond and unselfish wife, Joanna, who refused to be parted from him. However, the terrible mortality rate among English children dwelling in India was well known to the Cranfords, so they placed their off-spring in the care of Joanna's unmarried sister, until the three should reach an age when it would be possible to send for them.

The parting of the little family was wrenching, but it was destined to be a much longer separation than any of them knew. Four months later word came that, having survived such dangers as a great storm in the Bay of Biscay and the desert journey across Egypt to Suez, the Cranfords had boarded another vessel bound for Calcutta. They never reached that fabled city. In the Hooghly River their ship fell victim to the terrible James and Mary Sandbank and was lost, leaving no survivors.

The Cranford children were devastated by their great loss, but that grief was succeeded by another threatened peril. Piers and Peregrine were twelve at the time, and their sister, Dimity, eight. The twins and the little girl were devoted to each other and dreaded that they might be separated. Their father, however, had done all in his power to provide for such a tragic contingency, with the result that by practicing strict economies they were able to continue to live together in the home they loved. The looming expenses for which poor John Cranford had been striving to provide were met in part by their great uncle, General Lord Nugent Cranford who, moved by their bereavement, offered to pay for the boys' education. Their aunt, Miss Jane Guild, faithfully kept her trust through the years, managing in a bewildered but not unhappy state to cope with her two madcap nephews and the niece who, having grown up with her brothers and their friends, was an incorrigible tomboy.

Time works changes, however, and on a stormy August afternoon in 1746, the girl who stood in the entry hall of the old house would not by any stretch of the imagination have been judged a tomboy. At one and twenty, Dimity was a tall and shapely creature, with warm brown hair and long, slightly slanting hazel eyes. Despite her sad lack of a dowry, and although she was held by some to lack the gentle timidity a lady would welcome in her daughter-in-law, Dimity would have been wed long since, save for two stumbling blocks, the first being that she had yet to meet the man to whom she could give her heart, and the second that—with one exception—the twins had yet to meet a man they judged worthy of her.

Scanning her now, a slight frown in his blue eyes, Piers was uneasy at the thought of leaving the Manor. Charles Stuart's short-lived attempt to wrest the throne from German George of Hanover had ended in bitter tragedy. Those Jacobites who had escaped the slaughter on Culloden Field were running for their lives, hunted to their deaths like animals. They were desperate men, poor devils, and rumour had it there was a fugitive in the vicinity. Dimity did not realize how desirable she was—especially in that simple cream gown with the wide skirts all ruched, or whatever the women called it, and the pale green ribands that threaded the lace at her generous bosom. Still, the servants were loyal, and it was foolish to worry. Even in his weakened condition, Perry would die sooner than—

“Piers,” said Dimity, looking up into his handsome countenance anxiously, “'Tis a dreadful day. Only listen to that wind.
Must
you go?”

He patted her hand. “An 'twas not important, you may believe I'd stay. But I promised old Baites I would discuss the sale of the river parcel with him tomorrow.”

“I suppose,” she said with a smothered sigh, “we have to sell?”

“Regrettably, yes. Unless I become a highly paid Ambassador to Versailles,” he slanted an oblique glance at her, “or you choose to become Lady Glendenning.” The immediate lowering of her lashes and the flood of colour to her smooth cheeks told their own story, and he went on lightly, “Never heed my teasing, m'dear. I know poor Tio is quite out of the running. Until you change your mind, at least.” At this deliberate provocation her head came up indignantly, but before she could retaliate he glanced to the stairs and his expression became grave. “Mitten, you must see to it that Perry rests. No matter what he promises, he means to keep struggling with that stupid new foot, and—”

“He cannot struggle with it now, dear, because I've tucked it in the drawer, and since he's managed to strain the other ankle he will be quite laid by the heels for—” And she bit her lip, irritated by those inappropriate words.

A little over a year ago the twins had gone off together, full of patriotic zeal, to defend the realm against the Jacobites. During the Battle of Prestonpans, in a desperate attempt to keep deserters from driving a gun carriage from the field, Peregrine had sprung in front of it, sabre drawn. The gun crew, convinced that to fight on was sure death, had not halted. At the very last instant, Peregrine had leapt for his life, but he'd stumbled over some obstacle and the heavy wheel had rolled over his right foot. The English force had suffered an ignominious defeat and fled for their lives. Disregarding his own peril, Piers had refused to join that frantic retreat and had searched through the carnage for his twin. He had found Peregrine close to death from shock and loss of blood, and carried him from the field. Only Piers' dogged determination had enabled them, two harrowing days later, to win to safety with their own people, and acquire the help of a surgeon. The foot was hopelessly crushed and, under cruelly adverse conditions, had been amputated. Piers had never told Dimity of his agonized conviction that Perry would not survive that crude surgery, much less live another week, but somehow the indomitable Peregrine
had
survived and although the thread of life had all too often been frail indeed, was still surviving.

Piers was not one to brood over past horrors, and thus was able to direct a twinkle at his sister and ask whimsically, “Slip of the tongue, love?”

“Sometimes,” she shook her head ruefully, “it seems that everything I say is a reminder to him. How I can be so clumsy…”

“Nonsense. He's done splendidly these eleven months. You've done splendidly too, but an you start maudling over him, Perry will really comb you out.”

“Yes, bless him. He's all pluck. But—when I think of how he has suffered! And that wretched Farrar—home, scot-free!”

Piers stiffened. “Not for long,” he growled. “The man's an outcast, and God help him when he's hauled up before court-martial!”

“He should have been brought to book months ago! They've likely forgot all about it by this time.”

“I doubt that. He's home on medical leave, merely. But even should he escape retribution, what kind of life has he? According to that Parker fellow who came to see us, not a club will admit him. No decent gentleman would so much as look his way, and he's cut everywhere he dares show his face. Egad! I'd sooner be old Perry doing the hop than Tony Farrar hale and hearty any day!” He took her by the shoulders. “Enough of the yellow dog. With luck I shall be back from Town inside a week. All you've to do, Mitten, is keep Aunt Jane from driving my twin into the boughs. And be sure you do not accept half a dozen offers whilst I am gone!”

He gave her a brotherly buss on the forehead, and Dimity watched him clap the tricorne on his thick brown hair, now neatly powdered and tied back with a black riband. He turned at the foot of the steps, to wave to her, tall and well built, his white grin flashing, the wind blowing his cloak. Then he swung into the saddle of his rawboned bay horse, and went riding off through the blustery afternoon.

Closing the front door, Dimity walked across the hall to the stairs, wondering why she had such an oppressive sense of impending disaster. There was, however, no visible trace of her worries when she went into Peregrine's bedchamber.

Aunt Jane, wearing a particularly hideous shawl that she had knitted from a collection of odd scraps of wool, sat beside the bed reading aloud. She held the book very close to her nose, for Jane Guild was rather shortsighted, and her voice droned on in a singsong way that was devoid of expression. She was a plump, plain, good-natured woman, placid of disposition and having a complete lack of imagination that had stood her in good stead through some of the boys' more hair-raising adventures.

Peregrine, a finer-drawn replica of his brother, lay propped by several pillows, his curly brown hair rumpled and the blue eyes rebellious in the worn young face.

BOOK: Love Alters Not
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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