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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

Regency Sting

BOOK: Regency Sting
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Regency Sting

Elizabeth Mansfield

One

The letter was delivered at eleven in the morning to the Mainwaring town house on Curzon Street and was carried by the first footman to the butler, Mr. Coyne, who was belowstairs in his shirtsleeves polishing the silver. “Why did you bring it
here
?” the butler asked in some annoyance. “Take it directly to Lady Harriet, you whopstraw!”

The footman took a step backward and shook his head nervously. “Not me!” he said stubbornly. “I've a suspicion o' what's in that letter, an' if you was to ask me, I'd say that it should be
you
what takes that kind o' news to her.”

The butler frowned at his subordinate and took the letter from him. One look at the sender's name—Lucious R. Brindle, Solicitor—was enough to inform Coyne of the letter's contents: Lady Harriet's brother, the Viscount Mainwaring, had passed on. “I don't see why you're in a quake over this,” the butler said, unmoved. “Lord Mainwaring's demise should come as no surprise to her ladyship.” It should come as a surprise to
nobody
in London, the butler thought, for William Osborn Hughes, Viscount Mainwaring, was known to have suffered several severe attacks of apoplexy during the past few months. It was generally believed that the Viscount would not outlast the summer of 1810, but here it was almost November, well past the expected time.

“You mean her ladyship's
expectin
' this news?” the footman asked.

“So I would imagine,” the butler said shortly. “Therefore, if you please, put the letter on the salver and take it to her.”

“But … she's still sitting wi' Lady Mathilda Claybridge.”

“I know that, you nodcock. But they've been closeted for more than an hour. Lady Mathilda was wearing a sour face when she came in, and I've no doubt the visit is no joy for her ladyship. Lady Harriet will be glad of an interruption.”

“But what if Lady Harriet don't take the news in good part? What if she turns on the waterworks or somethin'?”

“Waterworks? Lady Harriet? You
are
noddy. Lady Harriet ain't the sort who excites herself or has the vapors—you know that. The way you carry on, one would think Lady Harriet was
fond
of that stiff-rumped old—” Coyne caught himself up and fixed his eye on the footman severely. “Just do as I say. Bring her the letter, and don't make such a pother.”

The footman, with obvious reluctance, put the letter on a newly polished silver tray and started from the room. At the doorway he turned and looked back at the butler with a pleading, frightened-puppy look. “I ain't never had to break such news before. Please, Mr. Coyne, won't you—?”

Coyne exploded. “Look here, you blockhead, do you see what I'm wearing? An
apron
. I'm in my
shirtsleeves
. This teapot has not yet been finished, and I've
all
the Storr plate yet to do.”

“But Mr. Coyne …
please
…”

In utter digust, Coyne snatched the tray with the letter from the hand of the craven footman. “Oh, give it over. I'll do it myself. Here, help me off with this apron and get my coat. And while I'm gone, you can finish the teapot. But if I find so much as a smudge on it when I return, you'll be out on the street before the day is out!”

In the drawing room above, Lady Harriet Hartley was clenching her fingers in her lap and telling herself over and over to remember to remain calm. She had long ago trained herself to keep her emotions in control. Her father had frequently indulged in choleric fits of anger and had died in his thirties of a heart seizure. Her elder brother was also abnormally short-tempered and as a result suffered from severe bouts of apoplexy. Harriet therefore had realized early that if she were to avoid a similar fate, she must not permit herself to indulge in tantrums, tears or tempers. And when she found herself, as at this moment, in situations which promised to irritate her nerves, she pressed her hands together in her lap, pressed her feet flat on the floor, attempted to regulate her breathing and talked to herself soothingly.

Lady Mathilda Claybridge was just the type of woman to irritate Harriet's nerves. She was small, thin and given to jerky little movements of her hands when she spoke. Her voice was high and her speech quick, and one half-hour in her presence made Harriet yearn for the company of a plump, even-tempered, placid matron like herself.

It had taken Mathilda more than half-an-hour to get to the point of her visit. After much roundaboutation, she had confessed that she was unhappy about her son Arthur's interest in Lady Harriet's stepdaughter, Anne. It had taken a great deal of patient questioning on Harriet's part to discover the reason. Mathilda Claybridge, recently widowed, had learned that her husband had gambled away a great deal of his fortune and had left the estate hopelessly encumbered. “So you see, Harriet,” she had admitted at last, “it is absolutely fatal for Arthur to ally himself to a penniless girl like Anne. You know, my dear, that I'm very fond of Anne. Truly I am. There is no young lady in London I admire more. Why, how often have I said to you that I wish my Marianne had some of Anne's style and elegance?”

“Very often, Mathilda, my dear, very often,” Harriet murmured politely.

“Of course. And I am most sincere when I say there is no one I'd rather have as a daughter-in-law—”

“Daughter-in-law?” Harriet sat upright in surprise. “I had no idea that matters between Anne and Arthur had progressed so far! Has Arthur made her an offer?”

“No, I don't think it has yet come to
that
, but it's plain as pikestaff that it's May Moon with them both. That's why I've come today. We must do
something
before things go too far. That is … unless …” Lady Mathilda paused and reddened in embarrassment.

“Unless …?” Harriet urged.

“This is very difficult for me to say, Harriet, but I believe we must be aboveboard in this matter, don't you?”

“Yes, let us be aboveboard, by all means.”

“Good. Then I shall ask you frankly—does your brother intend to deal with Anne … er … shall we say ‘handsomely'?”

It was at this point that Lady Harriet began to clench her fingers, check her breathing and warn herself to keep calm. “If by that you mean to ask if he will leave her a legacy, I can only tell you that I have no idea
what
my brother's intentions are,” she said flatly.

“I see. I suppose there is no hope that Anne's father, your late husband, left any—”

Harriet shook her head. “No, Mathilda. I think you know quite well that the Hartleys never had a feather to fly with.”

“Well, then, you must see—”

“I'm afraid I
don't
see. What is it you want of
me
, Mathilda?”

“I want you to help me keep them apart.”

Harriet sighed. “But how?”

“We must forbid them to see each other.”

“Nonsense. That's just the sort of thing that drives lovers into each other's arms.”

“Not if we are firm. Believe me, Harriet dear, I've given this matter a great deal of thought. I can think of no other way. I'm convinced that, if I have your support, and if we both remain firm, we shall brush through.”

Harriet was dubious. “I would like nothing better than to encourage Anne to turn her thoughts elsewhere, but I cannot like—”

It was at that moment that Coyne scratched at the door. Lady Harriet called an eager “Come in,” and he entered with his silver tray. His step was measured, his face composed, his manner unconcerned. He had been the Hartleys' butler ever since Lady Harriet was first married, almost twenty years ago. He knew that she was not given to emotional outbursts. He was convinced that she would read the letter and take the news of her brother's demise with her customary complacency.

As he expected, Lady Harriet smiled at him with unmistakable gratitude in her eyes. Plainly she was not enjoying Lady Claybridge's visit. He offered her the letter with his leisurely bow, and she opened it in her usual, unhurried, placid manner. As she glanced over the contents, she blinked, paled, and made a choking sound. She read the words a second time. “I must remain calm.” she muttered under her breath, the letter beginning to tremble in her hand. “I must remain
ca-a-a-a-lm
!” The last word was more like a shuddering sigh, and the placid, complacent Lady Harriet toppled to the floor in a swoon.

Lady Mathilda uttered a little, shocked cry, and the butler stared at her ladyship's prostrate form goggle-eyed. He could not believe what he saw. In all these years, he had rarely seen his mistress in a taking. She had hardly ever raised her voice. She had never hurried, nor shed tears, nor given way to the vapors. And she had certainly never
swooned
.

As soon as he could recover from the shock, he knelt beside her and began awkwardly to chafe her hands. His movements nudged Lady Claybridge to her senses. Mathilda Claybridge had frequently indulged in fainting spells, and she tremblingly reached into her reticule for the hartshorn she always carried. A great deal of chafing and sniffing of hartshorn was necessary before Lady Harriet could be brought round, but at last she opened her eyes and permitted herself to be helped to the sofa. She fell back against the cushions, pressing her hand against her heaving chest. “Oh, my
heart
,” she murmured. “I must remain
calm
.”

“May I get you a glass of brandy, your ladyship?” Coyne asked, bending over her in concern. “A sip of brandy is most efficacious in these circumstances.”

“No, thank you, Coyne,” she said weakly.

“Yes, Coyne, it's the very thing,” Lady Claybridge said. Coyne ran out of the room and down the hall to the dining room where a decanter of brandy was kept on the sideboard. As he passed the library, the sound of his footsteps was heard by Lady Harriet's seventeen-year-old son, Peter, who had been sitting there reading his Cicero. Disturbed, he placed a finger in his book to mark his place and wandered down the hall. As he passed the drawing-room doorway, he caught a glimpse of his mother stretched out on the sofa, with Lady Claybridge standing over her in an attitude of tender solicitude. Never having seen his mother indisposed, he adjusted his spectacles to make sure his eyes were not deceiving him. “Good heavens, Mama, what's amiss?” he asked, half in alarm and half in annoyance at having been distracted from his studies.

“Oh, Peter,” she said tearfully, attempting to sit up, “please come in. There's something I …” Then, with a glance at Lady Claybridge, she bit her lip and relapsed into silence.

Lady Claybridge smiled reassuringly at Peter. “Your mother has merely had a little fainting spell—”

“Fainting spell?
Mama
?” Peter asked incredulously.

“It was nothing,” Harriet said quickly. “Mathilda, you've been very kind, but I … I'm quite myself now. There's no reason for me to detain you …”

Lady Claybridge looked quickly from mother to son. “Yes, of course,” she said, rising. “You needn't look so dumbfounded, Peter dear. After all, a little fainting spell can scarcely be considered at all serious. Ah, here's Coyne. He can see me out.”

“Of course, my lady,” Coyne said, coming into the room with the brandy, “as soon as Lady Harriet has had her restorative.”

“No, thank you, Coyne, I won't need that dreadful stuff. Do take it away and show Lady Claybridge to her carriage.”

Lady Claybridge went to the door. There she hesitated. “You won't forget what we talked about, will you, Harriet? I am counting on your support in the matter.”

“No, no, I won't forget,” Harriet said abstractedly.

As soon as they were alone, Peter sat down beside his mother and studied her curiously. “I've never known you to do such a thing. What's wrong, Mama?”

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