Authors: Georgette Heyer
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Newark was left behind and the post-chaise-and-four entered on a stretch of flat country which offered little to attract the eye, or occasion remark. Miss Taverner withdrew her gaze from the landscape and addressed her companion, a fair youth who was lounging in his corner of the chaise somewhat sleepily surveying the back of the nearest post-boy. “How tedious it is to be sitting still for so many hours at a stretch!” she remarked. “When do we reach Grantham, Perry?”
Her brother yawned. “Lord, I don’t know! It was you who would go to London.”
Miss Taverner made no reply to this, but picked up a
from the seat beside her, and began to flutter the leaves over. Young Sir Peregrine yawned again, and observed that the new pair of wheelers, put in at Newark, were good-sized strengthy beasts, very different from the last pair, which had both of them been touched in the wind.
Miss Taverner was deep in the
and agreed to this without raising her eyes from the closely printed page.
She was a fine young woman, rather above the average height, and had been used for the past four years to hearing herself proclaimed a remarkably handsome girl. She could not, however, admire her own beauty, which was of a type she was inclined to despise. She had rather have had black hair; she thought the fairness of her gold curls insipid. Happily, her brows and lashes were dark, and her eyes, which were startlingly blue (in the manner of a wax doll, she once scornfully told her brother), had a directness and a fire which gave a great deal of character to her face. At first glance one might write her down a mere Dresden china miss, but a second glance would inevitably discover the intelligence in her eyes, and the decided air of resolution in the curve of her mouth. She was dressed neatly, but not in the first style of fashion, in a plain round gown of French cambric, frilled round the neck with scolloped lace, and a close mantle of twilled sarcenet. A poke-bonnet of basket-willow with a striped velvet ribbon rather charmingly framed her face, and a pair of York tan gloves were drawn over her hands, and buttoned tightly round her wrists.
Her brother, who had resumed his slumberous scrutiny of the post-boy’s back, resembled her closely. His hair was more inclined to brown, and his eyes less deep in colour than hers, but he must always be known for her brother. He was a year younger than Miss Taverner, and, either from habit or carelessness, was very much in the habit of permitting her to order things as she chose.
“It is fourteen miles from Newark to Grantham,” announced Miss Taverner, raising her eyes from the
“I had not thought it had been so far.” She bent over the book again. “It says here—it is Kearsley’s
you know, which you procured for me in Scarborough—that it is
a neat and populous town on the River Witham. It is supposed to have been a Roman station, by the remains of a castle—which have been dug up.
I must say, I should like to explore there if we have the time, Perry.”
“Oh, lord, you know ruins always look the same!” objected Sir Peregrine, digging his hands into the pockets of his buckskin breeches. “I tell you what it is, Judith: if you’re set on poking about all the castles on the way we shall be a full week on the road. I’m all for pushing forward to London.”
“Very well,” submitted Miss Taverner, closing the
and laying it on the seat. “We will bespeak an early breakfast at the George, then, and you must tell them at what hour you will have the horses put to.”
“I thought we were to lie at the Angel,” remarked Sir Peregrine.
“No,” replied his sister decidedly. “You have forgot the wretched account the Mincemans gave us of the comfort to be had there. It is the George, and I wrote to engage our rooms, on account of Mrs. Minceman warning me of the fuss and to-do she had once when they would have had her go up two pair of stairs to a miserable apartment at the back of the house.”
Sir Peregrine turned his head to grin amicably at her. “Well, I don’t fancy they’ll succeed in fobbing you off with a back room, Ju.”
“Certainly not,” replied Miss Taverner, with a severity somewhat belied by the twinkle in her eye.
“No, that’s certain,” pursued Peregrine. “But what I’m waiting to see, my love, is the way you’ll handle the old man.”
Miss Taverner looked a little anxious. “I could handle Papa, Perry, couldn’t I? If only Lord Worth is not a subject to gout! I think that was the only time when Papa became quite unmanageable.”
“All old men have gout,” said Peregrine.
Miss Taverner sighed, acknowledging the truth of this pronouncement.
“It’s my belief,” added Peregrine, “that he don’t want us to come to town. Come to think of it, didn’t he say so?”
Miss Taverner loosened the strings of her reticule, and groped in it for a slender packet of letters. She spread one of these open. “‘Lord Worth presents his compliments to Sir Peregrine and Miss Taverner and thinks it inadvisable for them to attempt the fatigues of a journey to London at this season. His lordship will do himself the honour of calling upon them in Yorkshire when next he is in the North.’ And that,” concluded Miss Taverner, “was written three months ago—you may see the date for yourself, Perry: 29th June, 1811—and not even in his own hand. I am sure it is a secretary wrote it, or those horrid lawyers. Depend upon it, Lord Worth has forgotten our very existence, because you know all the arrangements about the money we should have were made by the lawyers, and whenever there is any question to be settled it is they who write about it. So if he does not like us to come to London it is quite his fault for not having made the least attempt to come to us, or to tell us what we must do. I think him a very poor guardian. I wish my father had named one of our friends in Yorkshire, someone we are acquainted with. It is very disagreeable to be under the governance of a stranger.”
“Well, if Lord Worth don’t want to be at the trouble of ordering our lives, so much the better,” said Peregrine. “You want to cut a dash in town, and I daresay I can find plenty of amusement if we haven’t a crusty old guardian to spoil the fun.”
“Yes,” agreed Miss Taverner, a trifle doubtfully. “But in common civility we must ask his permission to set up house in London. I do hope we shall not find him set against us, regarding it as an imposition. I mean: perhaps thinking that my uncle might rather have been appointed than himself. It must appear very singular to him. It is an awkward business, Perry.”
A grunt being the only response to this, she said no more, but leaned back in her corner and perused the unsatisfactory communications she had received from Lord Worth.
It was an awkward business. His lordship, who must, she reflected, be going on for fifty-five or -six years of age, showed a marked disinclination to trouble himself with the affairs of his wards, and although this might in some circumstances be reckoned a good, in others it must be found to be a pronounced evil. Neither she nor Peregrine had ever been farther from home than to Scarborough. They knew nothing of London and had no acquaintance there to guide them. The only persons known to them in the whole town were their uncle, and a female cousin living respectably, but in a small way, in Kensington. This lady Miss Taverner must rely upon to present her into society, for her uncle, a retired Admiral of the Blue, had lived upon terms of such mutual dislike and mistrust with her father as must preclude her from seeking either his support or his acquaintance.
Sir John Taverner had never been heard to speak with the smallest degree of kindness of his brother, and when his gout was at its worst, he had been used to refer to him as a damned scoundrelly fellow whom he would not trust the length of his own yard-arm. There were very few people whom Sir John had ever spoken of with much complaisance, but he had from time to time given his children such instances of their uncle’s conduct as convinced them that he must indeed be a shabby creature, and no mere victim of Sir John’s prejudice.
Lord Worth might think it singular that he who had not set eyes on his old friend once in the last ten years should have been appointed guardian to his children, but they, knowing Sir John, found it easily understandable. Sir John, always irascible, could never be brought during the last years of his life to live on terms of cordiality with his neighbours. There must always be quarrels. But from having lived secluded on his estates ever since the death of his wife and not having met Lord Worth above three times in a dozen years, he had had no quarrel with him, and had come by insensible degrees to consider him the very person to have the care of his children in the event of his own decease. Worth was a capital fellow; Sir John could trust him to administer the very considerable fortune he would leave his children; there was no fear of Worth warming his own pockets. The thing was done, the Will drawn up without the smallest reference to it being made either to Worth or to the children themselves—a circumstance, Miss Taverner could not but reflect, entirely in keeping with all Sir John’s high-handed dealings.
She was aroused from these musings by the rattle and bump of the chaise-wheels striking cobblestones, and looked up to find that they had reached Grantham. As they drew into the town the post-boys were obliged to slacken the pace considerably, so much traffic was there in the streets, and such a press of people thronging the pathways, and even the road itself.
All was bustle and animation, and when the chaise came at last within sight of the George, a huge red-brick structure on the main street, Miss Taverner was surprised to see any number of coaches, curricles, gigs, and phaetons drawn up before it.
“Well,” she said, “I am glad I followed Mrs. Minceman’s advice and wrote to bespeak our rooms. I had no notion we should find Grantham so crowded.”
Sir Peregrine had roused himself, and was leaning forward to look out of the windows. “The place seems to be in the devil of a pucker,” he remarked. “There must be something out of the way going forward.”
In another moment the chaise had turned in under the archway to the courtyard, and come to a standstill. There an even greater bustle reigned, every ostler being so fully occupied that for some minutes no one approached the chaise or gave the least sign of having observed its arrival. A post-boy already booted and spurred, with a white smock over his uniform, who was leaning against the wall with a straw between his teeth, did indeed survey the chaise in a disinterested manner, but since it was no part of his business to change the horses, or inquire after the travellers’ wants, he made no movement to come forward.
With an exclamation of impatience Sir Peregrine thrust open the door in the front of the chaise, and sprang down, briefly admonishing his sister to sit still and wait. He strode off towards the lounging post-boy, who straightened himself respectfully at his approach, and removed the straw from his mouth. After a short colloquy with the boy, Sir Peregrine came hurrying back to the chaise, his boredom quite vanished, and his eyes fairly sparkling with anticipation.
“Judith! The best of good fortune! A mill! Only think of it! Out of all the days in the year to have come to Grantham, and by the veriest chance!”
“A mill?” echoed Miss Taverner, drawing her brows together.
“Yes, am I not telling you? The Champion—Tom Cribb, you know—is to fight Molyneux to-morrow at some place or another—I did not perfectly catch the name—close by here. Thank God for it you had the good sense to bespeak our rooms, for they say there is not a bed to be had for twenty miles round! Come, don’t be dawdling any longer, Ju!”
The intelligence that she had come to Grantham on the eve of a prize-fight could scarcely afford Miss Taverner gratification, but from having spent the greater part of her life in the company of her father and brother, and from having been used to hear a great deal of talk about manly sports and to think them perfectly proper for gentlemen to take part in, she readily acquiesced in Peregrine’s desire to be present at this fight. For herself she had rather have been otherwhere. Prize-fighting could only disgust her, and although there would naturally be no question of her being a witness of the spectacle, she must expect to hear of it all at second-hand, and to find herself, in all probability, the only female in an inn full to overflowing with sporting gentlemen. She did attempt a slight remonstrance, without, however, much hope of being attended to.
“But, Perry, consider! If the fight is for to-morrow, that is Saturday, and we must stay here until Monday, for you would not care to travel on Sunday. You know we were counting on being in London to-morrow.”
“Oh, pooh, what in the world does that signify?” he replied. “I would not miss this mill for a hundred pounds! I tell you what: you may explore your Roman ruins as much as you choose. You know that is what you wanted. And only to think of it! Cribb and Molyneux! You must have heard me speak of the fight last year, and wish I might have been there. Thirty-three rounds, and the Black resigned! But they say he is in better figure to-day. It will be a great mill: you would not wish me to miss it! Why, when they met before it lasted fifty-five minutes! They must be devilish even-matched. Do come down, Ju!”