Authors: Gayle Buck
Withers rolled his eyes in appeal as one of the gentlemen asserted that what the woman had said was so. Judith was entirely taken aback and for a long second she was speechless. Though she was unaware of it, her very immobility and the exquisite austerity of her dress lent her an air of command. The woman dropped back a pace and the others quieted, waiting.
Judith realized that she was the object of all eyes. She focused on the woman in front of her. “Who might you be, ma’am?” she asked quietly, trying to make sense of the happening.
The woman flushed, thinking that she was being gently reprimanded for her own curt greeting. “I am Mrs. Nickleby, and that gentleman is Mr. Nickleby. We were on our way to our son’s house when the mail coach was overturned by his young lordship, who, as I made certain to tell him, should have known better when anyone could tell he was tipsy as a wheelbarrow.”
“Aye, his lordship was singing at the top of lungs for some time before. All of us inside of the coach heard him as plain as a pikestaff. Very pretty it was, too,” said the gentleman who had been pointed out as Mr. Nickley. He belatedly made a bow in Judith’s direction.
Judith’s gaze traveled on to study the face of his young lordship, who had flushed when he came under discussion but whose dignity was such that he would not offer a word in his own defense. “Lord Baltor. Your servant, ma’am,” he said, making a creditable bow despite the obvious headache that he sported.
The slight gentleman who stood next to Lord Baltor, and who up to that point had not addressed anyone but the butler, also bowed to Judith and mumbled something incoherent that she took as a pleasantry of some sort.
“Miss Grantham, these persons say that according to the innkeeper’s wife, you graciously opened Elmswood Hall to unfortunate travelers,” said Withers in a wooden voice.
Judith was puzzled for only a moment before she recalled her jesting remark to Cecily about wishing for a handful of marooned guests. Looking at the motley foursome in the hall, Judith thought wryly that her offhand wish had just been granted. Certainly she could not turn them away since the inn was full. But surely there had been one or two other passengers on the ditched mail coach, she thought, when she did not see the gentleman of the bleeding brow. “Is this all of you?” she asked.
Her question seemed to relieve the tension of those who looked at her. “Aye, Miss Grantham. The others were able to double up in the rooms or bed down in the coffee room in front of the fire,” said Mr. Nickleby.
“But that was not for me, as I told Mr. Nickleby,” said Mrs. Nickleby. “I said that since a lady had been so gracious as to open her home, it would fairly rude not to give her ladyship the satisfaction of helping those less fortunate than herself.”
“I appreciate your kind thought, Mrs. Nicleby,” said Judith, a decided gleam in her fine eyes. Before her unlooked-for guests could realize that she viewed their advent on her doorstep with amusement, she gestured toward the drawing room. “A cold collation and tea is served in the drawing room. I assume that you must all be famished after such an arduous day and I invite you to make free. I shall have rooms prepared for you in the meantime.”
“There now, Henry. Did I not tell you that we would not make fools of ourselves?” asked Mrs. Nickleby complacently, leading the way into the drawing room. Her husband’s reply was lost as he followed his spouse. The slight gentleman, rubbing his hands together in obvious anticipation, lost little time in ducking after the Nicklebys. Lord Baltor alone hesitated, his lip unconsciously caught between his teeth as he looked uncertainly at his hostess.
Judith smiled serenely at his lordship. “I shall not keep you from supper, Lord Baltor.” He flushed again and went with a hasty step into the drawing room.
The butler could scarcely contain himself. “You are never sitting down with that lot, Miss Grantham!”
“Oh, I don’t know. It might be rather diverting. I have never dined with tradespeople before,” said Judith. She had divined at one glance that the Nicklebys were of the rising middle class.
“Cits, and likely thieves to boot,” said Withers sweepingly.
Judith laughed. “You have forgotten poor Lord Baltor. Really, Withers, it would be frightfully rude to abandon my unexpected guests because they chance not to run in the same circles as I do. Has Miss Brown come down yet?”
The butler shook his head. “The maid who was sent in to Miss Brown found her asleep on top of the bed, still in her travel dress. She thought she should not wake the young miss.”
“Quite right. I could see that the poor girl was dead on her feet. I shall look in on her later to see that she is comfortable,” said Judith, nodding. With every expectation of being entertained, she went into the drawing room;
It always pleased Judith to see her home done up for the holiday season and in particular the drawing room. Garlands of bay, fir, rosemary, and pine twigs offset by red silk bows looped across the mantel and several branches of candles burned with cheery light. From the ceiling hung the traditional kissing bough of fragrant greenery adorned with candles, red apples, rosettes of colored paper, and various ornaments. A bunch of gray-green mistletoe laden with white berries was at its center. All in all, the scene was a decidedly cozy one, what with the addition of her unexpected houseguests to complete the atmosphere of seasonal cheer, Judith thought.
Her guests had taken her at her word and had helped themselves to the cold meats and cheeses and bread that had been meant for her own supper. Mr. and Mrs. Nickleby had established themselves well in front of the fireplace where they could be certain of feeling the heat. The slight gentleman, who had not yet introduced himself, Judith remembered, had taken up a place a little separate from the others, apparently preferring to stand in the shadows of the curtained windows and holding his heaping plate in his hands. Lord Baltor sat on the settee, obviously ill at ease and with only a meager cup of tea.
Mrs. Nickleby was recommending in almost a maternal fashion that he should eat at least a crust of bread. “For I know for a fact that one does not sleep half as well on an empty belly, your lordship,” she said authoritatively, carrying a generous portion of lavishly buttered bread to her mouth.
“Quite right, pet,” said Mr. Nickleby, nodding.
Upon catching sight of Judith, Lord Baltor leaped up from his seat with an expression almost of relief. “Miss Grantham!” he uttered.
Judith went forward, an easy smile on her face. “I trust all is to satisfaction,” she said with an encompassing glance about her guests.
“Indeed it is, miss,” said Mr. Nickleby. He was making inroads on a heavily loaded plate and he barely glanced up. Mrs. Nickleby, her mouth full, satisfied herself with a vigorous nod and a wave of what remained of her thick slab of bread. The slight gentleman nodded deferentially, but he did not vouchsafe a syllable.
Judith turned her smile on Lord Baltor. Without seeming to stare, she took notice of his reddened eyes and haggard face. “Pray join me in getting a plate, my lord. I am persuaded you must be at least as famished as I am.”
Lord Baltor turned a shade green at the thought of putting food into his queasy stomach. “No, I think not at the moment. I-I prefer the tea, thank you.”
“Then you must have a refill. Allow me to pour it for you,” said Judith, turning to the sideboard and the tea pot. Lord Baltor followed her, voicing disjointed phrases of thanks. Judith responded soothingly as she poured tea for his lordship and of herself. She sipped at her cup and then asked in a lowered voice, “My lord, you appear a trifle pale. May I offer you a headache powder before you retire tonight?”
Lord Baltor flushed. “You are most kind, Miss Grantham.” He summoned up a wavering smile and met her curious gaze frankly. “It was only a bit of a lark, you know. I never intended – that is to say, the coach swung too wide in the turn and before I knew it, we were all flung into the drift.”
Judith did not comment on the young gentleman’s obvious state of inebriation at the time, but instead asked, “Where are you bound, my lord?”
He seemed relieved that she did not pursue the cause of the accident. “I was supposed to visit with friends the entire break between terms, but I am going home for the remainder of the holiday. It is to be a surprise to my aunt, who is all the family I have in the world. She is a wonderful old lady.”
“I am certain that she shall be most happy to see you,” said Judith. She was on the point of saying something further, but her attention was claimed by Mrs. Nickleby, who proposed that a card gave be got up as the evening was still young. Judith thought there was a point at which even she drew the line. “Thank you, but you must not count on me, ma’am. It has been a rather fatiguing day, as I am persuaded you must understand, having traveled also. I shall say good night to you all now, and my butler will show you up to your rooms whenever you are ready.”
“Well, that is as strong a hint as I ever heard,” said Mrs. Nickleby, somewhat affronted.
“I am persuaded Miss Grantham meant nothing by it, so kind as she has been, dear wife,” said Mr. Nickleby, setting aside an emptied plate with a replete sigh. He cracked a huge yawn. “Truth to tell, pet, I am that ready for a soft bed myself.”
Mrs. Nickleby’s expression softened. “Of course, Mr. Nickleby. Anyone can see that you are dead on your feet.” The couple made their good nights to the company and went out of the drawing room, Mrs. Nickleby exclaiming all the while that she hoped the bed was not too soft or her back would suffer. “And one cannot tell what one may find in a strange place. I shall myself inspect the freshness of the sheets. You know what is said of these great houses, Mr. Nickleby. The rooms are done up and then left for months on end without airing.”
Judith and Lord Baltor exchanged speaking glances. A soft cough claimed their attention and they both glanced with surprise at the slight gentleman, who had been so unassuming as to have been forgotten. “Begging your pardon, miss, but I was wishful of thanking you for a fine supper,” he said.
“You are most welcome, Mr. – I am sorry, but I do not know your name,” said Judith.
There was almost an imperceptible hesitation before the slight gentleman bowed. “I am John Smith, at your service, miss.”
Judith’s gray eyes lit with amusement. It was obvious that the slight gentleman had chosen to offer to her a pseudonym and she wondered for what reason. He appeared a most harmless sort. “Of course, Mr. Smith. We shall undoubtedly visit again on the morrow, if this weather has anything to say of the matter. Normally one cannot hear the wind so plainly in this room.”
“Indeed, miss,” said Mr. Smith. He bowed again and left the drawing room.
Lord Baltor offered his arm. “I would count it an honor to be allowed to escort you, Miss Grantham,” he said formally.
Judith inclined her head, again amused. Despite his lordship’s wearying day and the persistent headache, he was no less mannered than his birth would allow him to be. She accepted his escort and they left the drawing room together, to separate at the head of the stairs where Judith left him to the guidance of a footman and went on to her own bedroom. It had been an interesting end to what had begun as a rather depressing day.
Judith, who was reminded by the rumble in her stomach that she had not eaten anything while downstairs, requested that a cup of broth and sandwich be brought to her room. Not even the enticement of a supper would have persuaded her to remain in the drawing room and in peril of being roped into a card game with Mrs. Nickleby, who was surely one of the most vulgar individuals she had ever met.
Judith was never at her best in the morning, yet she detested remaining late abed. It was therefore her custom to take breakfast alone in the breakfast room, in blessed quiet with a large pot of coffee at her elbow and the view through the French windows of Elmswood’s snow-covered lawn to soothe her jaundiced eyes. The servants had long since become aware of her distaste for speech in the morning and they always served her with silent efficiency before leaving her to her sluggish thoughts. Judith appreciated and even looked forward to this golden hour when she could literally waken slowly to the rest of the world.
With guests in the house, her usual routine would be next to impossible to maintain. Judith did not think that she could bring herself to face the voluble Mrs. Nickleby over the breakfast table. But she could not remain in her bedroom either, for to do so would make her feel unnecessarily claustrophobic. She hoped that by going down to breakfast at a particularly early hour she would be less likely to run into any of her assorted guests and would still be able to enjoy her usual solitary beginning to the day.
She did not bargain on someone being before her in the breakfast room, and especially not the gentleman she found. At sight of him, she stopped dead in her tracks. The hawkish features and the broad-shouldered, lithe body were all too familiar to her. An almost incoherent sound escaped her.
Sir Pergrine Ashford was in a foul temper. The day before he had spent hours out in the freezing weather chasing down a foolish chit of a girl. He had thought when he reached the posting house that his pursuit had finally come to an end, but the intelligence that the young lady had been taken up by Miss Grantham had sent him once more out into the heavy swirling snow.
When he had at last caught up with his prey, he had been obliged to bang on the door of a private residence at the ungodly hour of midnight and demand admittance, which had been granted to him with astonished dismay. He had risen early after an indifferent sleep, determined to quit Elmswood Hall as swiftly as possible and get on with his business. But he had been informed somewhat unhappily by the butler that the house was snowbound. Sir Peregrine had not accepted the news with equanimity.