Authors: Georgette Heyer
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
When the young gentleman strolling through the park with his gun on his shoulder and an elderly spaniel at his heels came within sight of the house it occurred to him that the hour must be farther advanced than he had supposed, for the sun had sunk below the great stone pile, and an autumnal mist was already creeping over the ground. Amongst the trees the mist had been scarcely perceptible, but when the gentleman emerged from their shelter on to an avenue which ran through undulating lawns to the south front of the mansion, he perceived that the vista was clouded, and became for the first time aware of a chill striking through his light nankeen jacket. He quickened his steps a little, but instead of pursuing his way to the main front, with its handsome colonnade of the Corinthian order, and cupola surmounting the central compartment, he turned off the avenue, and, traversing an elegant flower-garden, embellished with various classical statues, approached a side-entrance in the east wing.
The house, which occupied the site of an earlier building, destroyed by fire half a century before, was a comparatively modern edifice, designed in the classic style, and executed in stone and stuccoed brick. A four hundred and fifty foot frontage made it impressive, and its proportions being extremely nice, and its situation agreeable, it was held by every Travellers' Guide Book to be worth a visit of inspection on such days as its noble owner allowed it to be thrown open to the public. The enquiring traveller was informed that while the park and the pleasure-grounds were sumptuously adorned with works of art, these embellishments were not obtrusive, scarcely any object occurring to violate the principles of modern taste in garden-arrangement. The park, very richly timbered, was also adorned by water; it measured above ten miles in circumference, and was traversed by an avenue three miles in length. The gardens, which were varied and extensive, bespoke the attentions of an extremely skilled gardener, with underlings who permitted no weed to show its head, and no hedge or border to grow ragged. Formal beds were arranged with propriety of taste, and even the wilderness, beyond the Italian Garden and the shrubbery, was kept under decorous restraint.
read the Guide Book,
"the principal seat of his Grace the Duke of Sale, is a spacious and handsome structure, with colonnades connecting the wings with the central elevation, and a grand portico supporting a richly ornamented pediment."
The visitor was then adjured to pause awhile to admire the ornamental water, the luxuriant growth of noble trees, and the view to be obtained from the south, or main front, before turning his gaze upon the stately mansion itself and absorbing all the glories of Corinthian columns, pediments, cupolas, which rendered it worthy of study.
The Guide Book bestowed some very warm praise upon the Grecian Temple, erected at enormous expense by the fifth Duke, but the young gentleman in the fustian pantaloons, and nankeen shooting-jacket passed it without a glance. Indeed, he seemed to be quite indifferent to the beauty and the grandeur of his surroundings, treading rather carelessly over neat grass borders, and permitting his spaniel to stray on to the flower-beds at will.
In his person as much as in his dress, which besides being of great simplicity included a shot-belt (an article of attire not at all in favour with gentlemen aspiring to elegance) he scarcely accorded with his stately setting. He was slightly built, and of rather less than medium height. He had light brown hair, which waved naturally above a countenance which was pleasing without being in any way remarkable. The features were delicate, the colouring rather pale, and the eyes, although expressive, and of a fine gray, not sufficiently arresting to catch the attention. He carried himself well, but without any air of consequence, so that in a crowd it would have been easier to have passed him over than to have distinguished him. His address was well-bred, and a certain dignity attached to his bearing, but either from the circumstance of his being only twenty-four years of age, or from a natural diffidence, his manner, without being precisely shy, was quiet to the point of self-effacement. In fact, tourists to whom he had occasionally been pointed out generally found it impossible to believe that such an unassuming figure could really be the owner of so much wealth and magnificence. But he had owned it for twenty-four years, together with Sale House, his town residence in Curzon Street, and eight other country seats, ranging from Somerset to a draughty castle in the Highlands. He was the Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, Duke of Sale and Marquis of Ormesby; Earl of Sale; Baron Ware of Thame; Baron Ware of Stoven; and Baron Ware of Rufford, and all these high-sounding titles had been his from the moment of his birth, for he was a posthumous child, the only surviving offspring of the sixth Duke, and of the gentle, unfortunate lady who, after presenting her lord with two stillborn children, and three who did not survive infancy, expired in giving birth to a seven-months male child of such tiny size and sickly appearance that it was freely prophesied of him that he would join his little brothers and sisters in the family vault before the year was out. But the wise choice of a wet-nurse, the devotion of the Chief Nurse, the unremitting attentions of his doctors, the strict rule of his uncle and guardian, Lord Lionel Ware, and the fond solicitude of his aunt, had all combined to drag the seventh Duke through every phase of infantile disorder; and although his boyhood was rendered irksome by a delicacy of constitution that made him liable to take cold easily, and to succumb with alarming readiness to every infectious disease, he had not only survived, but had grown into a perfectly healthy young man, who, if not as stout as could have been wished, or of such fine physique as his uncles and cousins, was yet robust enough to cause his physician very little anxiety. The chief of these had more than once asserted his belief that the little Duke had a stronger constitution than was supposed, since his hold on life had throughout been so tenacious; but this was an opinion not shared by the anxious relatives, tutors, and attendants who had the Duke in their charge. It was some years since he had suffered any but the most trifling ailment, but his entourage still laboured under the conviction that he was a being to be cosseted and protected against every wind that blew.
It was therefore not with surprise that the young Duke, as he reached the east wing of his house, found that his approach had evidently been watched for. The door was flung open before he had set his foot upon the first of the stone steps that led up to it, and various persons were seen to have assembled in the passage to receive him. Foremost amongst these was his butler, an impressive individual whose demeanour gave the initiated to understand that if his Grace chose to demean himself by entering his house by a side door giving on to a narrow passage it was not for him to criticize such eccentric behaviour. He bowed the Duke in, and perceiving that he carried, besides his gun, a heavy game-bag, silently gestured to a footman to relieve his master of these unbecoming burdens. The Duke gave them up with a faint, rueful smile, but murmured that he had the intention of cleaning his barrels in the gun-room.
His head-keeper, took the gun, a fine Manton, from the footman, and said reproachfully: "I shall attend to it myself, your Grace. If I had known that your Grace was desirous of shooting today I would have sent up a loader, and—"
"But I didn't want a loader," said the Duke.
Mr. Padbury shook his head forbearingly.
"I think," added the Duke, "that I might now and then—just now and then, you know, Padbury!—clean my guns for myself."
Even the footman looked shocked at this, but, being only an underling, could only exchange glances with the fellow footman who had accompanied him to the side entrance. The butler, the steward, and the keeper all directed looks of deep reproach at the Duke, and the middle-aged man in the neat garb that proclaimed the valet exclaimed: "Clean your guns for yourself, your Grace! I should think not indeed! And your Grace wet through, I daresay, with only that thin jacket!"
"Oh, no!" said the Duke. He looked down at the muddied spaniel, and added: "But Nell must be rubbed down well."
He was assured that this should instantly be done; the keeper began to say that he should lose no time in treating the damp gun-stock with a particular preparation of his own; and the steward, prefixing his intervention with a discreet cough, informed his master that my lord had been asking if he was not yet come in.