When Major William Devane arrived at his mother’s house shortly after leaving the city, he discovered that he had not only missed her, as she had deserted the city for Bath some days earlier with no indication of when she might return, but had missed his sister Elizabeth too, as she had left for Brooklands.
Once he had turned his horses over to his mother’s stable lad, he entered the house and was warmly greeted by an old retainer whom he recalled from five years earlier. His mother’s butler informed him that he had been expected some days ago but that his sister had become impatient of waiting for him.
“I would have been here last week, Horace, but I needed to see my horses safely transported, so I landed only this morning.”
“Yes, sir. Your mother did expect you last week I think, and then when this week came and you were still not here, her disappointment got the better of her, and her nerves demanded that she go to Bath for a few days.”
“So she still has nerves then? I thought I had destroyed them all years ago. She has you well trained, Horace, to recite that old Codswallop about her nerves, and on cue, as you still do.”
“Yes, sir. Also, your sister has gone to Kellands lodge, to your cousin for a day or so, before she goes on to Brooklands.”
As his late father’s estate, Brooklands, was some distance beyond Kellands, it made sense for him also to ride to his cousin’s estate first, even as the greater part of his baggage went off ahead of him to Brooklands. He would be sure to catch up to his sister in one of those places.
Horace continued. “She thought she might remain there for a day or so, but if not, she will leave directions for you there too, in case you arrived unexpectedly as you now have, sir. There is a letter she left for you here too and another addressed to you from Lord Seymour and the present Lady Seymour, his daughter. That one came a day or so ago. Her ladyship’s man said that her ladyship regarded it as urgent, I believe.”
“I have been away five years, Horace. What can there possibly be that is urgent on the very day I arrive some weeks late and from someone I barely know and have seen but once, to my knowledge, in my entire life? I shall read that one later. I believe my mother is distantly related to the old Lady Seymour, and that is as far as it goes. I would not put it past her ladyship to have written this herself for some reason. She seems to be devious that way.”
“I believe Lord Seymour is not in good health, sir. If you will pardon me for pointing it out, but you are related to both Lord Seymour and his late wife through some distant connection. It is his daughter, the present Lady Adelaide Seymour, your godmother, who sees to her father’s affairs now, and that is why she saw it delivered to you.”
“So what might she be up to now?” He was well aware of his godmother’s limited affection for him. “No matter. He had his stroke even before I left, so I would say he is hanging on quite well. Probably still as grouchy as he always was from what little I hear. Why my godmother might want me anywhere near him beats me, for she couldn’t stand me fifteen years ago. And from what Elizabeth said to me in her last letter, her animosity for me seems not to have diminished.”
Horace felt he should put a positive light upon the circumstance. “Situations change in five years, sir, as do people.”
“I suppose you are right about that, Horace. But I don’t think that I have. I’m still me. Lady Seymour also still dislikes me intensely—so my sister hinted in her letters. No change there from what I hear.”
“She dislikes everyone, sir, except your mother and sister and a few others.”
“A very few,” William grudgingly allowed. “They still meet in that little coven of theirs each month, do they, and burn little effigies of me?”
The older gentleman cleared his throat as a sign of disapproval that he might speak of his mother that way. “I don’t think I would put either your mother or your sister into that same class of people, sir.”
“Yes. Unkind to call it a coven, for my sister is not a witch any more than my mother is, though my mother engages in some strange dealings with equally strange people.” He quickly glanced at himself in the mirror beside him before he continued. “Elizabeth wrote me and told me of some of their scheming and plotting for my future. But I cannot speak for Lady Seymour. She always did seem threatening to me, even the one time I consciously met her. She seemed to hate all children. That is the way she seemed to me as a small boy, which is when I last saw her. At that time she would quite happily have had me spitted and roasted.”
The butler ignored that comment. “I believe the matter may be important, sir. At least her ladyship’s man, Maltby, who brought it, thought it was.”
“It always is when they want you to do something for them. Why is Lord Seymour now taking an interest in me? He never did before, and I am sure that I have no expectations there.”
“Others might recommend that you should go and ask him, sir. However, Maltby was...,” his voice dropped, “In confidence, sir, I must add, he was quite of the opinion that it was all her ladyship’s doing and that she was in a strangely aggressive and awkward mood where you were concerned. He was of the opinion that it was she who wanted to see you and suggested to drop a word of wisdom in your ear, that it might be wise to ignore her letter for the moment and give her the bye.”
“He did, did he? I wonder if she knows of his treachery.”
“Yes, sir. No, sir. I think I tend to agree with him, for your sister said the same thing by way of warning to me before she left, and she also left you a note to that effect on the hall table with the instructions that I was to ensure you got it and read it before you left here.”
“This sounds exciting, Horace. Did he say why she wanted to see me or might be aggressive toward me? Though why it should concern me, I am at a loss to understand. Besides, when was she not ever aggressive to me?”
He stammered in his reluctance to explain further. “Well, sir, I...I am not sure I should say anything. It is not my place to give credence to what her ladyship might believe.”
“Oh, come now, Horace. I know she already believes the worst of me as she has for many years and is the one who continues to spread vicious rumors of my behavior even after all this time. Surely it cannot be something new that we have not had to deal with in the past for I have been away for five years?”
The old gentleman blushed. “No, sir. It was something to do with a young lady some years ago.”
Not that old story again? William smiled cynically and raised an eyebrow at the older man. “The situation sounds dreadfully familiar, Horace. When was it not about a young lady? But which specific lady? Did she say? I seem to recall that there was more than one lurking in my past.” Horace was all too aware of that and had difficulty speaking of it.
“Her ladyship’s niece, sir. The same young lady as was in this house some years ago. With you. In a somewhat distraught condition from what I saw, and from what your sister said just before you were sent off because of that other....” He waved his hand slightly as though to conjure away the distasteful memory, reminded once more of the young master's questionable morals. He was clearly not comfortable relating such questionable goings-on involving the other sex.
“Ah yes. Relax, Horace. I do remember some of it. I did not realize that the young lady was her ladyship’s niece at the time.” He thought for a few moments. “Well, I wonder what bee she might have in her bonnet over that. Surely it all settled down and was forgotten after I left, once it was fully explained to her?”
“Well no, sir, it wasn’t. What I mean to say is that none of it was explained to her at all." Or to anyone else either. "It seems that what actually befell the young lady at the time was never accurately related to Lady Seymour, and she still lays the whole at your door.” Probably well-deserved blame, from what he knew. He was hesitant to continue, but did manage to. ’Sir. There was a…a….”
William watched with some amusement as the old retainer struggled with both his embarrassment to relate such a tender topic and to find the words. “Yes, Horace. No time to be havy-cavy about anything. Spit it out.”
He had a pained look on his face, and hesitated for some moments. “There was an offspring of that time, sir.” He blushed with embarrassment. “So Maltby told me.” He breathed out heavily, having got it off his chest.
“There was?” William seemed more amused than surprised or alarmed.
“Yes, sir. The young lady gave birth out of wedlock while you were away. Some eight months after you left. A girl. I am sure it would have been a surprise to everyone, had they known of it. But it was never widely mentioned, thank the Lord.” It clearly embarrassed him to raise such a tender topic.
“Maltby and your sister seem to have known of it, however, as well as your mother… and her ladyship of course. I believe that that is what has been festering at her ladyship for the last few years and why she holds you in such animosity. She blames you for it sir.” Dare he deny it?
“Does she now?” Clearly, he had not known of that baby. “Yes, seeing her nearest and dearest violated in that way and then deserted, leaving her with child—four or five years old by now—and supposedly by one such as I, would have that effect on her. Although she did not see any of that particular defilement, I can vouch for that, and she only learned of it later I vow. Looks like me, does it? The baby? The child?” He looked at the older man.
“I cannot say, sir. I have not seen it.”
“Strange that that should be one of the first things to greet me with when I come home after such a prolonged absence.” He was thoughtful for a few moments. “I wonder why Elizabeth never mentioned that birth to me or what our Godmother assumed. Yes. You are right, Horace. I should certainly give her the go-by in that case. She would sic her dogs onto me anyway or lay a trap for me. Thank you for the warning.”
He regarded himself critically in the hall mirror, disapproving of what he saw, and changed the subject somewhat too easily for Horace’s peace of mind. “More importantly, Horace, did my sister leave some clothes for me here? I told her that I would need some changes to my threadbare wardrobe,” he inspected his sleeve and did not like what he saw, “so I hope she was able to do something, for she mentioned that some of my own that I left behind and even some of my father’s clothes would be here for me. Would it also be too much to ask if there is hot water enough for a bath?”
“There is a choice of your older clothing upstairs, sir. She selected some of your father’s too, which I suspect will fit you now.” He cast a critical eye over the son’s less-than-complimentary attire—carelessly dressed—but then he had just stepped ashore. “Your father always dressed so well, sir. One of the best-dressed men in London all of his life, in or out of uniform.” He sounded disappointed.
William frowned good-naturedly at the older man. “Don’t rub it in, Horace. I am painfully aware that I do not present a spectacle of sartorial resplendency. Nor smell too good either, I imagine.” His nose wrinkled for a moment.
“No, sir. There is also ample hot water for a bath. She said that you had made the comment at how you so missed a hot bath and were looking forward to one when you set foot ashore. If you were to try some of your father’s clothing on first, sir, I suspect that Mrs. Priddy will be able to make enough changes while you are bathing, to tide you over until you can see your own tailor. She is a formidable needlewoman and is aware that you have arrived.”
He looked critically at William’s boots. “I will see what I can do for your boots in the meantime if one of your father’s many pairs does not fit. That looks somewhat like a hole in the side of that one, sir, and there is a cut or two marking the leather, and they have not been looked after as they should have been.” He sounded mildly offended.
“No they haven’t. The vicissitudes of war. As for looking like a hole, that is because it is one. The cuts are saber cuts. Fortunately, I was not wearing them at the time that the ball did its damage. Someone else was. A Frenchman. Dead now I expect. The ball did not go right through as you can see, and whoever was wearing them at the time was undoubtedly unhappy.”
“They seem to be a serviceable pair of boots that have seen better days. I can do nothing about that hole, sir, but the scratches and other slight damage I can do something about while you bathe.”
Sometime later, after a hot bath and seeing himself better attired in one of his father’s slightly altered coats, he was about to ride away from his mother’s house in a better frame of mind, cleaner and far better dressed than when he arrived, when his surviving uncle on his mother’s side drove up.
His uncle reined in his horses and looked his nephew up and down. “Hoping I’d catch you here, dear fellah. Good to see you survived the planned reception at the dock. First of many such hurdles I expect. If you’d come back a day or two earlier I doubt things would have been so pleasant for you.” He glowered at his nephew. “Yes, I am well. Thank you for asking. I’m your uncle. You do remember me, don’t you? You haven’t been away that long. Or did the war addle your brain and you are speechless?”
William had asked nothing of his health, and he did recognize him, but his uncle would not let him open his mouth to say anything at first. “I am sorry, Uncle David. Army manners—listen, shoot first, and enquire second. I did recognize you. I take it you are well?”
“So you do remember my name. No, I ain’t well, so damn you for asking!”
His nephew smiled. Yes, this was the irascible uncle he remembered.
“Just came from Bath. Your mother expects to be there for some time. She sends you a message in the expectation that you had landed, and hoped I’d catch you before you took off. Wants to be sure to warn you to steer clear of your godmother for a while.” He winked at his nephew.
“Another one warning me off? My God, Uncle David. What does she have planned for me? But yes, I intended to do that myself.”
“Wise. Very wise. She is a fiend from hell where men are concerned, her own family included, but especially where it concerns you. I heard that baby looks too much like you for any easy denial on your part.”
His nephew was taken aback by that comment. “Not another warning me of that? Who does not know about that child, I wonder?”
“Never mind that, me boy. History and old grudges. She means you no good, I can tell you that. She led her father a merry old dance before he had the biscuit.”
William looked slightly puzzled. “I thought the letter supposedly came from his lordship, Uncle, and that it was he that requested my presence, but Horace said that she, and not her father, had sent it.” He sounded confused by it all.
“Horace had that right. Lies, my boy, lies. All lies. His lordship never requested it. Don’t be fooled by that. I told you, he’s dead. She means you mischief because of that Trevelyan chit and that baby of yours. I don’t know the truth of it either way and wouldn’t care if I did. She intends to castrate you one way or another boy, or to shrivel you up somehow, flay you, skewer you, eviscerate you, and send you off to the knacker’s yard. So don’t get sucked in to anything with that arch-wife.” His nephew was already well aware of that, for his sister had hinted as much.
He knew better than to take his uncle too seriously. “You’re looking well, Uncle, even if you may not feel it.”
“Too late, brat. You’re five minutes off the pace. I thought we’d already got that out of the way. I may look well, but I don’t feel it. Damned toothache! Why I came to town. I’ll see my own tooth puller and not that damned fellow in Bath. By the way, congratulations on bumsquabbling old Windy Winthorpe. There was a mob thirsty for your neck or your blood, waiting for you at the dock until yesterday. He was making a lot of unflattering noise about you there for a while until more friendly voices came into play. Especially Cadogen’s. Pity we can’t do the same for that Seymour woman and her gossiping about you and the rest of us and dragging our name through the mud.”
“Cadogen? My old colonel? He’s dead, surely? That was what we heard in Portugal. Suffered a cannonball through his tent I heard, while we were off somewhere.”
“No. He survived that and everything else that went with it, fortunately for you, for he rose to your defense rather well and got the dock cleared. That cannonball blew his arm off. He spent six months in Greenwich getting patched up but he was never fit for duty again. White hair now but a tongue on him still that would take the barnacles off a boat. I was privileged to hear him sound off about Winthorpe two weeks ago when he came to your defense. He had a lot more to say too, about him and about his sheer incompetence and stupidity in getting too many of his men killed. He was of the opinion that he should never have been put in charge of the latrines, never mind fighting men, and especially not soldiers the like of you who knew where their duty lay. As that utterance was made in the officers’ club, in the midst of company that was well acquainted with both him and Winthorpe, and which was highly influential with the military, it had its effect, but by God, it took it’s time. Winthorpe’s not been seen since. Gone into hiding to lick his wounds. Cadogen also had some nice things to say about you, me boy, and he has the ear of Wellesley.” He dropped his nephew a knowing wink. “Wellesley, no less. Any time you want a promotion, it’s there for you I would say, after that.” He began to realize that he had blabbed on for too long and said too much.
“Ah well. You don’t need your head swelled any more by whatever he said, but I tell you, your credit in the military is raised high indeed. Better be off to my club before I say something I might regret. Oh, while I remember. I got a whiff that your mother wanted to see you married off before you do any more damage. Don’t know what put that maggot into her head. She couldn’t do it before, and she won’t be able to now, I expect. If she tries to get you to offer for that Collishawe chit, run for the hills. She’d sour you and emasculate you faster than your godmother ever could. Women of that kidney are the worst kind of whores, but they are all whores one way or another. They can any of them be bought. It’s just a case of finding the right price. Her price is low right now. Wrong side of thirty, and she squints.”
“What an unkind thing to say about the cream of London society, Uncle.”
“True though. Those women are all the same. They are disturbing and disturbed. We can neither live easily with them nor survive comfortably without. Some of them. Don’t ask me to explain it. Do not expect to have a rational conversation of longer than about two minutes with any female before it devolves into a welter of emotions. They are all about feelings of the heart and commiseration, tearfulness, happiness, palpitations and tremblings and blame, and never this and always that. No half measures, extremes all the way. Maddening. Beautiful and charming—but not that Collishawe female—even as they drown you in their tears or disembowel you and unman you with their simpering ways. They animate at length about such trivia as buttons, cotton, muslin, silk, and gossip. They pride themselves upon their hair but with no wit worth speaking of lurking beneath it. Put them in front of a mirror, and they are lost for an hour or two admiring and preening. One of the women of the other kind who understands what a man really needs is worth tying oneself to. Find her. Marry her.” He suddenly thought better of that. “Or perhaps not.”
William was amused by the outspoken animadversions of his uncle. “But then, marriage is not in my future, Uncle. You warned me off not two minutes ago.”
“Just remember that, me boy. Say it every day when you get out of bed as I do, and when you get into it. If there’s anyone there to hear you, they won’t care about that, or they wouldn’t be there. More than they expect from you anyway, or they’d not be anywhere near you in the first place. But then what has marriage got to do with being happy or contented? Usually the opposite I found. Mark my words, boy, keep clear of that old witch or she’ll kill you like she was rumored to have done her father and her brothers before him. He didn’t deserve it, but they did. Rumor has it that they meddled with her when she was a young girl, just like you did with that niece of hers, and she found some way to see them off—her and that protective butler of hers. She’d do the same for you. She may have held a grudge against her father for not putting a stop to it himself.”
He continued. “Her father’s not been seen for years now, and no one knows where he is or can track him down. I’m betting she did for him. I don’t know what to think for certain, but his lordship seems to write a lot of letters these days that I swear he never wrote at all, but not nearly as many as he used to, nor in his usual cutting and meaty style, which is why I said what I said. I doubt he’s in this world at this time, but it’s no use me saying anything.” He sighed and was lost in thought. “We used to exchange letters all of the time, but they dropped off a lot some years ago. And the ones I get once or twice a year now, never cover the same ground that we used to cover. Lost their flavor and his sharp edge and their salty language that was a pleasure to roll around the mouth. I’d swear he never wrote the ones he is credited with now, but a woman did from what I can see. Fond of the women his Lordship was, but one of his closest acquaintances....” His mind drifted off for a moment. “Flori— ah, dear Flori, most obliging female—got turned away and not allowed to see him. Even if he’d been dead, there’d have been a sudden revival in the old boy when she walked in on him. She could do that to a man she could. Still can. But turned away she was.” He was momentarily lost in thought.
“I must thank her ladyship for that though, for the delightful Flori looked me up instead, and we manage to rub along a lot more than well enough and she fired up that old spark in me. Another reason for my trip to London.” He winked at his nephew and grinned. “Might even be time for me to get married and make a respectable woman out of her, but then she always was selective about who she associated with and might not go for it.” He frowned at his nephew, recognizing that he had already said too much and had even managed to contradict himself about marriage. “But don’t go blabbing that to anyone.
“But turning Flori off like that?” He shook his head. “It would have killed him if he’d known. If he’d been alive. So I firmly believe he’s dead. It has nothing to do with that stroke. She did for him just like she’d do for you given the chance, so keep away. Something havey-cavey going on there and you should keep clear of it all. She’s playing a rare game, and after what she believes of that Trevelyan chit, she’s either out to castrate you or kill you. But I told you that. Same deal in the end. Women do that to us all in time. Not Flori though. But it would happen to you overnight with that Collishawe female. Bugger all use for anything after that.”
He seemed red around his neck. “Seems you’re struck dumb and you’ve got nothing to say for yourself, so I’ll be off. But keep quiet about what I said.” He nodded and winked at his nephew as he put a forefinger to the side of his nose in some Masonic kind of a signal. “Wouldn’t have said anything about that…that meddling thing and the other…” He realized he’d overstepped the lines a little. “So keep it to yourself, except I thought to give you a pointer to what she might be capable of. I’ll go and ask Flori if she’ll have me once I get this damned ache-er…my tooth…out.”
His nephew watched him drive off into the city, and set out for Kellands as he went over in his mind as much of what his uncle had said as he might remember. So, just how many of his past indiscretions were about to dusted off and thrown in his face?