Rather than dine at the Coaching Inn on the road back to London, the cousins waited with Vincent's curricle as the horses were rested and watered. Sending Hugo's groom to procure ham, bread and ale.
“For John Joseph's the only one of us fit to be seen.” Hugo declared.
Vincent could only agree. Several of the capes on his driving coat were torn and the rest showed evidence of substances he preferred not to think about. Hugo's great coat and leather breeches were spattered with mud from his furious ride to intercept Vincent and had now acquired a layer of other dirt from their onerously acquired charge.
As for Pip himself, the blanket in which the boy was wrapped, despite bearing unmistakable signs of having recently graced one of the horses, was the cleanest thing about him. His initial excitement upon being liberated from his erstwhile master and being told he would be returning to London with Mr. Darracott had given way to fatigue from his recent ordeal. He barely managed to swallow a few bites of ham and bread, and finish off the mug of milk John Joseph had obtained for him, before falling asleep against Hugo's huge shoulder.
“I have to be doubly thankful for your assistance on this expedition, Ajax. Much as it annoys me to admit it, you have indeed pulled me out of a tight corner.” Vincent told Hugo, while once again gathering up the reins of the curricle and setting off toward town. John Joseph trotting behind them, leading Hugo's horse.
“I would not have known how to care for the child even had I been able to rescue him without your uncanny knack for diddling the dupes. I doubt I would have ever been able to pry him loose from that blackguard on my own.”
“Eh, I'm sure you would have managed somehow,” Hugo, by now and experienced father, said placidly. “Although I have to confess I'm a trifle flummoxed as to why you were madly dashing across the countryside hunting down one small potential pickpocket?”
“You do not know?” Vincent asked in surprise. “Then how did you come to follow me into that bandit's lair?”
“Finding ye was not the problem.” Hugo smiled. “Claud said you'd gotten yourself into a bit of a scrape over the lad, that you might need some help taking care of it and that I should find you in Essex. Mind you, I was none too sure how I was to locate you with no more direction than that, but it proved easier than I thought. I'd just to follow the trail of carnage and destruction. You know, cousin, my regiment moved through parts of the peninsula without leaving such a trail as you managed.”
“Er, yes.” Vincent considered the last few days. “I believe I have some restitution to make to that innkeeper.”
“And the farmer in Colchester.” Hugo supplied. “I left both with directions to send an accounting to Lissett. He'll set them to rights. The Curate I've no sympathy for, however. T'is one thing to overlook the sort of doings that as was going on with that rogue, putting bairns out to thieve, but the Curate should have kept better watch over the poorhouse. To allow child selling in his parish is a disgrace. I've a mind to report him to his Bishop.”
“I believe Miss Taylor has already done so.” Vincent told him. “But if Claud sent you after me, did he not explain why?”
“Well, Claud was heading off to Dover just as Athena and I arrived at your parent's house.” Hugo explained. “I'd come to town for business and Anthea came along to see the doctor.”
“Yes, Mother mentioned that, since you are between leases on a London house, you would be staying with them rather than going to an hotel,. Is Anthea not well?”
“She says she's fine, but she's been sicklier than she was before so I want her to see a London doctor. She's increasing again.” Hugo finished proudly.
“My congratulations. And yet you came riding to my rescue.”
“Your mother will look after Anthea. And although what little explanation Claud threw at me before he dashed off to Dover was truncated even by our Claud's standards, still it sounded like there might be an even more pressing family obligation to take care of here.” Glancing down at the ginger hair of the boy sleeping in his lap, Hugo added. “Though now that I've seen the lad, that seems less likely.”
Vincent laughed, “No, the boy's no by-blow of mine. I undertook his only rescue because I failed miserably to assist Miss Taylor in keeping the charity school he was at from being disbanded.”
“Charity School? Forgive me, but that's not your usual line” Hugo asked curiously.
“Yes, well, it all started when I won two thousand pounds off Lord Oversly at faro. In order to pay me, he was obliged to sell off some land, which contained the Charity School. It really was not my fault he had fallen to such straits regardless of what Miss Taylor maintains.” Vincent went on to explain the events of the last few weeks. By the end of the tale Hugo was not even bothering to contain his mirth.
“You certainly managed to get yourself into a right fix, I must say.” Hugo got out between chuckles.
“I fear I am not cut out to be a benefactor. Whenever I attempt the role I do more harm than good.” Vincent sighed.
“Nay, Vincent, you did right well for this lad.” Hugo nodded toward the sleeping child in his lap. “What's to become of to him now?”
“I've no idea.” Vincent sighed. “Had Miss Taylor not decamped on me, I would turn him over to her. Now, well, perhaps my mother can find him a position at a different Charity School.”
“Happens we can do better for him than that.” Hugo mused. “He's a bright lad. And with a year or so of our little Ralph. Even with the new bairn coming in the spring, these days Ralph has no one close to his own age for company. If Anthea's agreeable Pip can come stay with us at Darracott Place. Be good for Ralph to have someone to keep him on his toes.”
Young Ralph's loneliness arose from a diphtheria epidemic last winter which had left in its wake a small new grave in the Darracott family cemetery. Before today it seemed to Vincent as though his cousin's normal high spirits had been buried there as well. This expedition seemed to have resurrected some of Hugo's good humor. Between that and bringing the boy to safety, Vincent had to count it as a success, even if his own hopes had been dashed by Miss Taylor's departure.
“Unless,” Hugo suggested deferentially, “You've a mind to set up your own nursery . I don't mean to interfere.”
“Really? How odd. For you do it so well.”
But Hugo never rose to Vincent's baiting. “I could'na help but notice how prominently Miss Taylor figured in your tale.”
“Jane Taylor is a meddling, self-righteous, Blue Stocking.” Vincent declared. But seeing as Hugo was having none of his bluster, he added. “Who responded to my offer of marriage by running off to China to take a position in a mission school after giving me a flea in my ear. So no. I don't think I shall be setting up housekeeping any time soon.”
“Eh, I'm right sorry, lad.” Hugo was genuinely sympathetic.
After a moment of silence Vincent remarked. “Hugo you've never been one to sugar coat. Am I a selfish, worthless, care for no one?”
“Well, I would'na myself call you useless.”
Vincent snorted. But Hugo continued “As for the rest, you're no where near as bad as when I first met you. Ye learned your lesson from the trouble you let young Richmond fall into. And it's not completely your fault. It seems to be a Darracott failing. Look at your Grandfather. Lately you seem to at least be avoiding following his example.”
“Now that would be a disconcerting prospect.” Vincent agreed.
Late afternoon brought them to Vincent's parent's townhouse in Mount Street. Where both Hugo and young Pip were to stay.
“It is only to be hoped that Mother does not cast me off entirely when I leave this young devil with her.” Vincent declared. “But I simply can not care for him in my rooms. Not to mention Crimplesham would immediately give notice if I took him home with me. He is already sorely vexed with me.”
“Aye, Ferring mentioned that his Uncle was vexed because you found that lad who wants to marry Ferring's sister a position. I could'na quite make out why. From what Ferring says the rest of the family is right pleased.” Hugo kept a grasp on Pip as they headed into the house. Now that the boy was awake, he was looking around with interest. Vincent was thankful his cousin was showing his usual good sense in keeping a firm hold on the boy. He really was not up any further hijinks today.
“How nice to know I have managed to please your valet.” Vincent nodded to his parent's butler who was holding the door open for them with a look of severe disapproval. “Regrettably mine apparently had other plans for his prettiest niece beyond marrying a carter and is now quite displeased with me.”
At this point they were interrupted by the appearance of Vincent's brother. Claud's usual dandyism seemed a bit travel worn. And he was feeling the strain. “There you are. About time. Didn't want to leave until you had gotten here, but by heaven, dinner's in less than two hours and I need to go home and change. Can't sit down at mother's table like this.”
“Don't let us detain you then, Claud.” Vincent said.
“Won't. Just wanted to let you know, I managed where you failed. Got Miss Taylor to forgive you.” Claud smirked.
“What?” For once Vincent let his usual sardonic mask slip in surprise.
“That's right. Had to drive like anything to get to Dover before the ship left. Already on board when I caught up to her.” Claud was clearly pleased with himself. “Had to think fast. Asked myself, what would Hugo do?”
Vincent raised his quizzing glass to stare at his brother with a look of dismay. Hugo chuckled. “An' what did you decide that would be, lad?”
“Knew what you'd do.” Claud declared. “Cut some kind of huge wheedle that would have her convinced that Vincent was a wonderful chap and have her running back to him.
“Thing is,” Claud continued, “Couldn't figure out how to do that. Haven't got your talent for improvisation. 'Sides probably wouldn't do in the long run, because she bound to find out the truth sooner or later, you know. Vincent's not a nice chap and the longer she knows him, more likely she is to figure it out. Surprised she hasn't by now, seems a smart woman.”
“Claud, what did you do?” Vincent demanded, starting to advance on his brother.
Long experience with his cousins' interactions caused Hugo to intercede before things could escalate. “Did you come up with a plan, Claud?”
“Did indeed. Told her the truth. Worked like a charm.”
“The truth?” Vincent frowned.
“That's right.” Claud was smug. “Been down right decent since you met her and got involved in all those good works she's doing. Told her if she ran off and left you, no doubt just go back to your old ways. Be a shame, cause boring as this turn of good works is to hear about, it's a damn sight better than having to put up with your old surly disposition and nasty pranks. Told her it was nearly her duty to stay and take you in hand.
“Did the trick neatly. She agreed and so brought her back here.” Claud finished. “Upstairs with Mother now.”
“You introduced her to Mother?” Vincent could not believe what he was hearing.
“No where else for her to go.” Claud responded. “Would have taken her to stay with Hugo and Anthea, but they're staying here and her people are up in Lancaster. That wouldn't do.”
Not waiting to hear his brother's explanation as to why it would not do for Jane to return to the bosom of her family, Vincent took the stairs to his mother's sitting room, two at a time. Claud called after him. “Getting along famously. Been chattering away all afternoon.”
Fearing the worst, Vincent was amazed to find the scene exactly as Claud had described. Miss Taylor and his mother were seated on the settee conversing with all the appearance of long time companions. Anthea sat across from them engaged in some sewing.
“Ah, Vincent, you have returned at last.” Lady Aurelia greeted him. “Excellent. Did you meet with success in your endeavors?”
“Er, yes. Hugo is seeing to getting Pip settled. I trust, Mama, that I may impose upon you to keep him here until other arrangements can be made?”
“Certainly. I look forward to meeting the child that Miss Taylor has described. He sounds most lively boy.” Lady Aurelia stated in her usual calm manner.
Anthea had quickly tidied away her sewing rose and informed the company, “I'll just run down and see how Hugo is doing.”
“And I would like to see Pip.” Miss Taylor rose as well. “Thank you for locating and rescuing him, Mr. Darracott. I feared him lost to a life of crime.”
“Although he is no longer lost, it may take some doing to keep him from a life of crime.” Vincent bowed slightly.
“Yes. He will need strong moral guidance.” Jane deliberately ignored Vincent's levity.
“Anthea, please take Miss Taylor to … Pip.” Lady Aurelia directed. “Vincent, stay a moment.”
Stealing himself to hear what he assumed would be his mother's comments on Miss Taylor, Vincent opened the door for the two younger women. Once they were gone, Lady Aurelia told her son, “While her visit with us commenced with yet another of those escapades of yours and Hugo's that I cannot bring myself to condone, I must say, Vincent, that I am agreeable surprised by Miss Taylor. She is a woman of sound understanding and sober mind. Just the sort to help you overcome your unsteadiness of character of which I have long despaired.”
“Er, I am delighted that you approve of her, Mama.” Vincent temporized for a moment then decided to have it all out at once. “You are aware that her family is... not of the ton. I fear Grandfather will not regard her as a suitable match for a Darracott.”
“Her birth while not august is genteel.” Lady Aurelia stated. “Her family are noted educationalists and her Uncle is a clergyman who has authored a book of sermons which is a particular favorite of mine. True your grandfather's notion of propriety may be offended, but I believe your father will find her more than suitable.”
Vincent's father generally agreed with whatever his wife chose to endorse.
“Thank you, Mama, but when we discussed the matter Miss Taylor showed me no sign of desiring an alliance with me. Your approval may be premature.”
“Her presence here would seem to indicate a change of heart.” Lady Aurelia suggested. “Perhaps you should have a word with her before dinner. I will sent her down.”
After settling Pip in the nursery, with one of the housemaids to keep an eye on him, Hugo and Anthea retired to their rooms to change for dinner. As they did so Hugo asked, “What do you think of this gel Vincent's brought home, luv? He seems right taken with her.”
“Oh, Hugo.” His wife gave in to the amusement she had apparently been keeping in check all afternoon. “She is exactly like Aunt Aurelia. The two of them spent the whole afternoon indulging in the most high mind conversation which ranged from educational reform to universal philosophy. It has been all I could do to keep a straight face through it.”
The young woman in question had joined Vincent in the sitting room. After several moments of of further discussion regarding Pip, his rescue and his future, that topic was depleted. Vincent was searching for how to work up to the question foremost on his mind when Jane took the initiative. “I had a long conversation with you brother, and he has convinced me that I may not have given sufficient consideration to your offer when last we spoke. That is, if he is correct and you still are of the same mind?”
“Claud is in general a fool, but on this point he is uncannily correct. My mind has not changed. I would be honored above all else if you would accept my offer and marry me.”
“Very well.” Jane agreed. “That is settled. We shall marry.”
Despite the apparently composed acceptance, she showed no signs of objecting to Vincent's more passionate expression of pleasure at this declaration.
Some time later saw them settled on the settee, Vincent's arm still around her, she spoke, “I am concerned that I shall be thought of as accepting you only for your wealth and position. I should not like to be regarded as mercenary.”
“No chance of that, my dear.” Vincent told her. “I do my suit no good, but I would have you know my situation. I've no funds but my allowance. Mother's fortune will come to me eventually, but between settlements for my sisters and a share for Claud, I fear we will be able to count on little more than a few hundred a year.”
“A few hundred a year is more than enough to live comfortably.” Jane assured him. “Although it is to be fervently hoped that your mother will be with us for many years to come, so we must not count on her money for our housekeeping. I am sure we will manage nicely on your allowance.”
“Only with the most severe economizing. I am willing to sell off my stable and carriages but I will not have you living on the edge of Dun territory as I have done as a single man. No, I will need to find some occupation to support a wife.” Vincent declared. “I fear I have not yet been able to determine for what I be suited.”
“If you truly wish to find a worthy occupation I have some thoughts on the matter.” Jane informed. “Your mother and I discussed some possibilities this afternoon.
“But I think such discussion should wait. We do not wish to delay dinner and I must unpack in order to find a gown your mother would deem suitable for the evening.”
Dinner was a small family affair. Vincent's father having sent word that he was dining with some Ministers regarding the up coming election, they sat down an even six, Claud having returned, once again resplendently attired. “Had to see how things come about.” He, Hugo and Anthea congratulated the newly engaged couple without any great surprise.
“Regrettably it may be some time before we can actually bring it about.” Vincent said. “I need to find a way to support a wife and it would be best if we could reconcile grandfather to the idea.”
He turned to his fiancée, “Grandfathers' views on such things as educational reform are somewhat unenlightened.” And the less said about the old man's opinion about marry outside of ones class the better given the circumstances.
“Down right primeval.” Amplified Claud. “Doesn't realize this is the Nineteenth Century after all.”
Hugo snorted. “How to handle Grandfather is simple. Introduce Jane as your betrothed and don't bother to tell him anything about her background. He won't ask and it's not like he ever sees any one but family these days to tell him different.”
“I should not like to deceive the head of the family.” Jane demurred.
“You won't be deceiving him.” Anthea told her. “We all learned long ago that the best way to not upset Grandfather is to simply avoid discussing things which will upset him. It's better for his health at any event.”
“Sides, Grandfather hasn't really been head of the family since Hugo showed up.” Claud declared. “Fellow's pretty much been running things since the beginning.”
No one bothered to dispute this remark. Not even Hugo.
Who had, it appeared, been thinking of other things. “You know, Vincent, your father's been talking about the general election that's to be held soon. If it's work you're looking for, you could stand for the parliamentary seat at Darracott Place. Fellow that Grandfather's backed must be as old as he is and I think pretty much missed all of last session.”
“And the one before that as well.” Lady Aurelia added. “Both your Grandfather and father were most displeased at his absence. I'm sure they would lend you their support were you to run for office.”
“I say, that's an idea.” Claud endorsed it. “Be a fine parliamentarian. Always arguing, which is what those chaps do.”
“Oh, yes, Vincent.” Jane cried with delight. “Just think of how much good you could do as a member of parliament!”
“If you think so, my dear, I shall undertake the challenge.” Vincent responded. At the very least it was a path his previous life of sporting and gambling had well equipped him for, he thought to himself.