The Sergeant Major's Daughter

BOOK: The Sergeant Major's Daughter
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THE SERGEANT MAJOR’S DAUGHTER

Sheila Walsh

 

E
VERYONE WAS EAGER TO PUT FELICITY IN HER PLACE

Her cousin Amaryllis made it clear that Felicity did not belong in the fashionable drawing rooms of the great country house of Cheynings.

Jamie, the six-year-old heir to Cheynings, marked Felicity as his latest victim in a long series of routed governesses.

Lord Stayne, the infuriatingly handsome master of Cheynings, coldly informed her that her ideas and opinions were of no earthly interest to a supremely self-confident male like himself.

And the vile Captain Hardman, whose devious designs Felicity threatened, did not bother to mask his intentions of removing her from his path by either brutal force or contemptible cunning.

Felicity, however, had her own notions about what a woman’s place should be

as
she set out on a campaign of conquest with only her wit and wiles as weapons, and love as a very treacherous ally...

 

1

 

The northbound stage rumbled from the yard of the Swan Inn and plunged into the teeming congestion of Stapleforth’s main thoroughfare. The driver whipped up the horses and to the accompaniment of much cursing and shouting cleared himself a path. In a remarkably short space of time the coach was free of the town and swaying perilously along between high Wiltshire hedges.

Some five miles were covered in this manner before the road widened suddenly. The coach lumbered to a halt. The driver swung his bulk nimbly to the ground, his stentorian boom advising the inside passengers that this was where the young lady was wishful to be set down.

Felicity Vale restored the sleeping baby with infinite care to the arms of its mother and set about collecting up her gloves and her reticule. Then there were friendly farewells to be exchanged all around, for the remaining passengers had quite taken to the vital, long-legged girl whose lively conversation had done so much to relieve the tedium of their journey.

Much later, when they were hard put to it to describe her, they would recall a mouth which quirked often into rueful laughter as she talked, and a skin so brown as to make her eyes shine out like twin jewels. And her stories!

Such stories she had told them of her travels—of splendid cities and barren plains, of great disasters and greater victories—and of that last and greatest victory of them all when “Boney” had finally been beaten and how the great Duke himself had actually spoken to her! There had been a sadness behind the eyes as she talked—some personal tragedy they guessed from her dress, though to be sure she was not alone in that; hardly a family in the land had emerged unscathed from the long years of war.

Good wishes were echoing in her ears as Felicity picked up the small guitar from the
corner
, slung it across her shoulder by its strap, and leaped lightly down from the coach.

The driver had extricated from the bulging boot a small, shabby portmanteau which contained the few of her possessions not packed into the single corded trunk and left back at the Swan Inn.

He eyed her doubtfully as she took it and jerked his head toward the massive crested gates set back at an angle from the road.

“That’s your direction, missy,” he wheezed. “But you’ve a tidy step afore you and no mistake. I still say as you’d have done better to’ve hired yourself a gig or somesuch in Stapleforth.”

“Goodness—I am not afraid of a little exercise.” Felicity laughed and held out her hand to him. “Indeed, I shall enjoy it after sitting for so long. But you have been very kind and I thank you for it.”

She forbore to add that her purse would not run to the hiring of gigs and that she had no wish to arrive at her cousin’s door already in debt. Indeed, the tip for the driver was less than his kindness merited, but she hoped that the warmth of her thanks would compensate.

She waved the coach from sight before turning with determined cheerfulness toward those imposing gates, thrown open to invite exploration of the long, shady avenue of elms beyond. A small gatehouse appeared empty, so with no one to direct her she began to walk.

More than a half hour later she was still walking, lingering from time to time where a break in the line of trees or hedgerow disclosed some particular view of breathtaking beauty.

In all her jou
rn
eyings there had been nothing to equal England in summer. She was still not quite used to so much green—or so much variety of landscape crammed into every mile. The carriageway meandered gracefully until, with a disconcerting final twist, all was changed. Felicity stood—and stared.

Ahead of her stretched a wide, straight walk, sentineled by poplars of exact height and shape, fanning out in the distance to expose to view a building which, even from where she stood, exuded a grotesque air of grandeur.

“Glory!” she exclaimed aloud. “I must have missed the way! Amaryllis can’t be living in that great barracks of a place!”

A scythe moving rhythmically in the meadow behind her hovered in its downward sweep and an uncertain voice said, “Beg pardon, ma’am?”

Felicity swung around as a wrinkled face loomed over the hedge.

“Oh, thank goodness!” She smiled at the old man. “Would you be so good as to tell me if the house beyond is Cheynings?”

“Ah, it be.”

She was disconcerted. “Then perhaps there is another house of that name?”

The gardener sniffed. “Only one Cheynings, ma’am. That’s been the home of the Earls of Stayne right back to King Henry V
I
II, that has. ’Course it’s changed a mite since. They’ve all ’ad a go at it over the years, and a right skimble-skamble job they made of it!”

Hastily curtailing this architectural homily, Felicity asked, “Do you know if a Mrs. Delamere lives there?”

“Ah. Poor little widow woman. That was Master Antony’s bride, that was
...
and a bonnier creature I never
did see. She and the boy have been here more’n a twelvemonth, now
...
since Master Antony was took
...” He
shook his head and muttered to himself.

Felicity thanked him and bade him good day, hiding her dismay. Of course, Amaryllis
had
married a younger son, but she had not supposed her to be living in such splendor.

First instincts favored instant flight, but the disciplines of an army upbringing would not permit such conduct ... and, anyway, where would she go?

Closer inspection of the building bore out the gardener’s censure. The centerpiece was unmistakably Tudor and quite delightful, but the rest was a sprawling hodgepodge of styles reaching the height of absurdity in a pseudo-Easte
rn
temple!

The young footman who answered the pealing bell goggled at the swarthy young Amazon—five feet ten inches in her stocking feet—and, observing the guitar and shabby bag, was about to send her packing as an itinerant gypsy when the smooth-faced butler appeared at his shoulder.

A man of much greater discernment, Cavanah looked beyond the superficial to the undoubted quality in the steady gray-green eyes, where lurked a humorous appreciation of the situation.

Miss Vale was ushered into a medieval hall of awe-inspiring proportions. She exclaimed aloud and the butler permitted himself a smile.

“Ah, yes, madam—we are famous for our hall. A very fine example of hammer beams—one of the finest in the country, we are reliably informed.”

Felicity hid a smile and duly admired the hammer beams. Famous the hall might be; confoundedly drafty it certainly was! She noticed that they kept two fires burning though the day was warm. Her eye was drawn to the grand sweep of the staircase; a young man, undoubtedly a Corinthian of the first stare, had paused in the moment of ascending to put up his glass.

The odious familiarity of his scrutiny brought a dangerous sparkle to her eyes as he inclined his head and sauntered on his way.

“Who is that?” Felicity asked abruptly.

“The gentleman is Mr. Tristram Dytton—one of Madam’s guests,” Cavanah replied smoothly. No mere milk-and-water miss, this cousin of Mrs. Antony’s—a young lady to be reckoned with, or he missed his guess.

When she was presently shown into the drawing-room, Felicity was dismayed to find her cousin not alone. Reluctantly she stepped forward, her feet sinking into deep blue carpet; against a blackcloth of rose damask many pairs of eyes followed her progress, brows arched in amused interest.

Among the gentlemen present was the Corinthian she had encountered earlier. He was shorter than he had seemed on the staircase, which made the yellow pantaloons and tightly waisted coat seem the more absurd. Above the complex folds of his cravat he inclined his head in a gesture of recognition; his remark, addressed to the lady at his side, reached Felicity distinctly.

“Did I not say? B
r
own as a nut, egad! But such a figure! A Juno, m’dear—a vewitable Juno!”

A faint titter came from somewhere in the room. Felicity was made desperately aware of her inches—and of the travel-crumpled black dress and the stain upon her spencer where the fat lady’s baby had dribbled down it.

Her eyes sparked momentarily and then moved to seek out the beautiful, indolent creature who reclined upon a nearby sofa. Eyes like gentian violets opening to the sun widened in response to the huskily voiced greeting.

“Lud!” the vision exclaimed, her incredulous glance flicking over Felicity. “Are you in truth my cousin?
How you have grown! I declare I should never have known you.”

This droll observation brought a further titter and Felicity, coloring slightly, was forced to take a firm hold on her temper. For her, there was no problem of recognition.

Amaryllis had been a pretty child; as a woman she was breathtakingly lovely.
A
flawless skin rivaling the delicate bloom of magnolias was enhanced by black, silken curls; if the eyes were a little hard and the rosebud mouth pursed with discontent, these were but small imperfections.

Her manners, however, were less impressive, though Felicity was obliged to acknowledge that tiredness was probably making her oversensitive. It was perfectly understandable that Amaryllis should appear a trifle coo
l.
To be suddenly confronted by a relative whose existence was but indifferently known to one was bound to be something of a facer.

She resolved to set matters straight.

“I am obviously not expected,” she said with some crispness. “I have no wish to impose myself upon you, cousin. Clearly my letter has gone astray.”

Amaryllis asked with conspicuous reluctance, “Are my ... are your parents also back in England?”

“They are both dead.” The bleakness of the reply was echoed in Felicity’s eyes. A tiny, involuntary ripple of shock ran around the room, but she was unaware of it as she knew again the despair of total bereavement. It was in part this despair which had led her to seek out her sole remaining family, for did not blood call to blood at such a time?

To be sure, they had met no more than a few times—and that as children—but had not Amaryllis herself lost husband and mother over recent months? It should have forged a bond between them. Watching Amaryllis now, pettishly plucking at the fine, floating gown of deepest violet, which so exactly mirrored her eyes—and seeing in those eyes an ill-concealed relief that she would not be called upon to receive an aunt and uncle whom she despised—Felicity was forced to acknowledge that her judgment had been sadly out.

“Well, I am very sorry to be sure,” Amaryllis was saying. “I suppose since you are here, you had best remain—for the present, at any rate.”

Dear God! Does she imagine I am come to sponge on her? Felicity’s spirit moved in revolt.

“No. I will
n
ot stay,” she said quickly. “I came only
.
..

Here she stopped. Only to enlist your aid in securing me a position, was what she had intended to say, but before so many people—and with that odious man’s glass upon her—the words stuck, and with craven cowardice she allowed them to remain unspoken.

BOOK: The Sergeant Major's Daughter
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