Authors: Georgette Heyer
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical
“A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,” remarked Miss Lanyon. “A great-grandmother, tool You’d think he would be ashamed!” Receiving no answer, she continued, in an altered voice: “Indeed, you would! It is a great deal too bad. What is to be done?”
His attention caught, her companion raised his eyes from the book which lay open beside him on the table and directed them upon her in a look of aloof enquiry. “What’s that? Did you say something to me, Venetia?”
“Yes, love,” responded his sister cheerfully, “but it wasn’t of the least consequence, and in any event I answered for you. You would be astonished, I daresay, if you knew what interesting conversations I enjoy with myself.”
“I was reading.”
“So you were—and have let your coffee grow cold, besides abandoning that slice of bread-and-butter. Do eat it up! I’m persuaded I ought not to permit you to read at table.”
he said disparagingly. “Try if you can stop me!”
“I can’t, of course. What is it?” she returned, glancing at the volume. “Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don’t doubt.”
he said repressively. “Porson’s edition, which Mr. Appersett lent to me.”
“I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother, and cast the pieces in her papa’s way, wasn’t she? I daresay perfectly amiable when one came to know her.”
He hunched an impatient shoulder, and replied contemptuously: “You don’t understand, and it’s a waste of time to try to make you.”
Her eyes twinkled at him. “But I promise you I do! Yes, and sympathize with her, besides wishing I had her resolution! Though I think I should rather have buried
remains tidily in the garden, my dear!”
This sally drew a grin from him, but he merely said, before turning back to his book, that to order her to do so would certainly have been all the heed their parent would have paid.
Inured to his habits, his sister made no further attempt to engage his attention. The slice of bread-and-butter, which was all the food he would accept that morning, lay half-eaten on his plate, but to expostulate would be a waste of time, and to venture on an enquiry about the state of his health would serve only to set up his hackles.
He was a thin boy, rather undersized, by no means ill-looking, but with a countenance sharpened and lined beyond his years. A stranger would have found these hard to compute, his body’s immaturity being oddly belied by his face and his manners. In point of fact he had not long entered on his seventeenth year, but physical suffering had dug the lines in his face, and association with none but his seniors, coupled with an intellect at once scholarly and powerful, had made him precocious. A disease of the hip-joint had kept him away from Eton, where his brother Conway, his senior by six years, had been educated, and this (or, as his sister sometimes thought, the various treatments to which he had been subjected) had resulted in a shortening of one leg. When he walked it was with a pronounced and ugly limp; and although the disease was said to have been arrested the joint still pained him in inclement weather, or when he had over-exerted himself. Such sports as his brother delighted in were denied him, but he was a gallant rider, and a fair shot, and only he knew, and Venetia guessed, how bitterly he loathed his infirmity.
A boyhood of enforced physical inertia had strengthened a natural turn for scholarship. By the time he was fourteen if he had not outstripped his tutor in learning he had done so in understanding; and it was recognized by that worthy man that more advanced coaching than he felt himself able to supply was needed. Fortunately, the means of obtaining it were at hand. The incumbent of the parish was a notable scholar, and had for long observed with a sort of wistful delight Aubrey Lanyon’s progress. He offered to prepare the boy for Cambridge; Sir Francis Lanyon, relieved to be spared the necessity of admitting a new tutor into his household, acquiesced in the arrangement; and Aubrey, by that time able to bestride a horse, thereafter spent the better part of his days at the Parsonage, poring over texts in the Reverend Julius Appersett’s dim bookroom, eagerly absorbing his gentle preceptor’s wide lore, and filling him with an ever-increasing belief in his ability to excel. He was entered already at Trinity College, where he would be admitted at Michaelmas in the following year; and Mr. Appersett had little doubt that young though he would still be he would very soon be elected a scholar.
Neither his sister nor his elder brother cherished doubts on this head. Venetia knew his intellect to be superior; and Conway, himself a splendidly robust young sportsman to whom the writing of a letter was an intolerable labour, regarded him with as much awe as compassion. To win a Fellowship seemed to Conway a strange ambition, but he sincerely hoped Aubrey would achieve it, for what else (he once said to Venetia) could the poor little lad do but stick to his books?
For her part, Venetia thought he stuck too closely to them, and was showing at an alarmingly early age every sign of becoming just such an obstinate recluse as their father had been. He was supposed, at the moment, to be enjoying a holiday, for Mr. Appersett was in Bath, recuperating from a severe illness, a cousin, with whom he had fortunately been able to exchange, performing his duties for him. Any other boy would have thrust his books on to a shelf and equipped himself instead with his rod. Aubrey brought books even to the breakfast-table, and let his coffee grow cold while he sat propping his broad, delicate brow on his hand, his eyes bent on the printed page, his brain so much concentrated on what he read that one might speak his name a dozen times and still win no response. It did not occur to him that such absorption made him a poor companion. It occurred forcibly to Venetia, but since she had long since recognized that he was quite as selfish as his father or his brother she was able to accept his odd ways with perfect equanimity, and to go on holding him in affection without suffering any of the pangs of disillusionment.
She was nine years his senior, the eldest of the three surviving children of a Yorkshire landowner of long lineage, comfortable fortune, and eccentric habits. The loss of his wife before Aubrey was out of short coats had caused Sir Francis to immure himself in the fastness of his manor, some fifteen miles from York, and to remain there, sublimely indifferent to the welfare of his offspring, abjuring the society of his fellows. Venetia could only suppose that the trend of his nature must always have been towards solitude, for she was quite unable to believe that such extravagant conduct had arisen from a broken heart. Sir Francis had been a man of rigid pride, but never one of sensibility, and that his marriage had been one of unmixed bliss was an amiable fiction his clear-sighted daughter was quite unable to believe. Her memories of her mother were vague, but they included the echoes of bitter quarrels, slammed doors, and painful fits of hysteria. She could remember being admitted to her mother’s scented bed-chamber to see her dressed for a ball at Castle Howard; she could remember a beautiful discontented face; a welter of expensive dresses; a French maid; but not one recollection could she summon up of maternal concern or affection. It was certain that Lady Lanyon had not shared her husband’s love of country life. Every spring had seen the ill-assorted pair in London; early summer took them to Brighton; when they returned to Undershaw it was not long before her ladyship became moped; and when winter closed down on Yorkshire she was unable to support the rigours of the climate, and was off with her reluctant spouse to visit friends. No one could think that such a butterfly’s existence suited Sir Francis, yet when a sudden illness had carried her off he had come home a stricken man, unable to bear the sight of her portrait on the wall, or to hear her name mentioned.
His children grew up in the desert of his creating, only Conway, sent to Eton and passing thence into the—th Foot, escaping into a larger world. Neither Venetia nor Aubrey had been farther from Undershaw than Scarborough, and their acquaintance was limited to the few families living within reach of the Manor. Neither repined, Aubrey because he shrank from going amongst strangers, Venetia because it was not in her nature to do so. She had only once been disconsolate: that was when she was seventeen, and Sir Francis had refused to let her go to his sister, in London, to be presented, and brought out into Society. It had seemed hard, and some tears had been shed. However, a very little reflection had sufficed to convince her that the scheme was really quite impractical. She could not leave Aubrey, a sickly eight-year-old, to Nurse’s sole care: that excellent creature’s devotion would have driven him into a madhouse. So she had dried her eyes, and made the best of things. Papa, after all, was not unreasonable: though he would not consent to a London Season he raised no objection to her attending the Assemblies in York, or even in Harrogate, whenever Lady Denny, or Mrs. Yardley, invited her to go with them, which they quite frequently did, the one from kindness, the other under compulsion from her determined son. Nor was Papa at all mean: he never questioned her household expenditure, bestowed a handsome allowance on her, and, somewhat to her surprise, left her, at his death, a very respectable competence.
This event had occurred three years previously, within a month of the glorious victory at Waterloo, and quite unexpectedly, of a fatal stroke. It had been a shock to his children, but not a grief. “In fact,” said Venetia, scandalizing kind Lady Denny, “we go on very much better without him.”
“My dear!” gasped her ladyship, who had come to the Manor prepared to clasp the orphans to her sentimental bosom. “You are overwrought!”
“Indeed I’m not!” Venetia replied, laughing. “Why, ma’am, how many times have you declared him to have been the most unnatural parent?”
“Yes, but I don’t suppose he has any more fondness for us now than he had when he was alive, ma’am. He never made the least push to engage our affections, you know, so he really
expect us to grieve for him.”
Finding this unanswerable Lady Denny merely begged her not to say such things, and made haste to ask what she now meant to do. Venetia had said that it all depended on Conway. Until he came home to take up his inheritance there was nothing she could do but continue in the old way. “Except, of course, that I shall now be able to entertain our friends at the Manor, which will be very much more comfortable than it was when Papa would allow none but Edward Yardley and Dr. Bentworth to cross the threshold.”
Three years later Venetia was still awaiting Conway’s return, and Lady Denny had almost ceased to inveigh against his selfishness in leaving the burden of his affairs on her shoulders. No one had been surprised that he had at first found it impossible to return to England, for no doubt everything must have been at sixes and sevens in Belgium and France, and all our regiments sadly depleted after so sanguinary a battle as Waterloo. But as the months slid by, and all the news that was to be had of Conway came in a brief scrawl to his sister assuring her that he had every confidence in her ability to do just as she ought at Undershaw, and would write to her again when he had more time to devote to the task, it began to be generally felt that his continued absence arose less from a sense of duty than from reluctance to abandon a life that seemed (from accounts gleaned from visitors to the Army of Occupation) to consist largely of cricket-matches and balls. When last heard of, Conway had had the good fortune to be appointed to Lord Hill’s staff, and was stationed at Cambray. He had been unable to write at much length to Venetia because the Great Man was expected, and there was to be a Review, followed by a dinner-party, which meant that the staff was kept busy. He knew she would understand exactly how it was, and he remained her affectionate brother Conway. P.S. I
don’t know which field you mean—you had best do what Powick thinks right.
“And for anything he cares she may live all her days at Undershaw, and die an old maid!” tearfully declared Lady Denny.
“She is more likely to marry Edward Yardley,” responded her lord prosaically.
“I have nothing to say against Edward Yardley—indeed, I believe him to be a truly estimable person!—but I have always said, and I always
say, that it would be throwing herself away! If only our own dear Oswald were ten years older, Sir John!”
But here the conversation took an abrupt turn, Sir John’s evil genius prompting him to exclaim that he hoped such a fine-looking girl had more sense than to look twice at the silliest puppy in the county. As he added a rider to the effect that it was high time his wife stopped encouraging Oswald to make a cake of himself with his play-acting ways, Venetia was forgotten in a pretty spirited interchange of conflicting opinions.
None would have denied that Venetia was a fine-looking girl; most would not have hesitated to call her beautiful. Amongst the pick of the debutants at Almack’s she must have attracted attention; in the more restricted society in which she dwelt she was a nonpareil. It was not only the size and brilliance of her eyes which excited admiration, or the glory of her shining guinea-gold hair, or even the enchanting arch of her pretty mouth: there was something very taking in her face which owed nothing to the excellence of her features: an expression of sweetness, a sparkle of irrepressible fun, an unusually open look, quite devoid of self consciousness.