As planned, Aubrey Lanyon went up to Trinity College for the Michaelmas term. Like so many other students, he took the Mail, though he rode inside and made no request to tool the coach. He was accompanied by Fingle, who was surprised to be elevated from groom to valet—but then, Aubrey never had cared a farthing for the appearance of his dress. His dogs remained at the Priory. Later that month, Lord and Lady Damerel happened (purely by chance, of course) to drive to London via Cambridge. They stayed only long enough to satisfy themselves that he had settled in and pass over a basket of delicacies packed by Mrs Imber. A quiet word with Fingle elicited the information that the slow jostling journey had quite overset his master for several days after their arrival. Before departing, therefore, Damerel gave his young brother-in-law a purse, with strict instructions that the contents were to be used to hire a post-chaise at term’s end.
“The easier trip will do him a world of good,” he commented to Venetia as they settled into the carriage. Knowing Aubrey as they did, they left in the expectation that he would, like as not, forget their visit altogether as soon as he returned to his studies. Indeed, Mr Appersett had prepared him well for his entrance to Cambridge; and he took to the academic life of the University like a hound to the hunt.
Neither Venetia nor Damerel, however, considered the effect that living for the first time among his peers could have on even the most bookish of lads. Though Aubrey found several congenial friends, he feared that the more sympathetic among them saw him as an object of pity. Meanwhile, it could hardly escape his notice that there were others among the students who eschewed his company as if a bad hip were contagious. His pride stung, he made an effort to prove himself in their eyes. Too slight to box effectively, he essayed the sport of cricket, and quickly became adept at wielding the willow. Sadly, with his bad hip, he could not take proper advantage of this skill. Nevertheless, his fellow students did recognize him as a “plucked ’un”, ready to try anything, at least once.
It was thus he found himself one night with a rowdy pack from more than one college, trying to climb the wall after curfew. The others made it over the top, and clambered down to find their way across the Great Court in the dark. Hampered by his hip, Aubrey lagged sufficiently for the pursuing pro-proctor to seize him by the ankle and draw him down. He appeared for judgment the next morning. The hue-and-cry had come to the attention of the Master, who wanted an example made. On the other hand, it was a first offence. Given his youth and clear record, justice was therefore tempered with mercy. Aubrey was sent down, but only for the rest of term; and, as it was already mid-November, this would cost him no more than a fortnight or so from his studies. Still, he felt the shame keenly—not so much with regard to his crime (which was venal) but on account of the enforced neglect of his pursuit of learning. He returned to his rooms full of self-recrimination. Bags were packed; a post chaise was procured; and he and the faithful Fingle made their way to the Blue Boar, where the hired horses were even then being set to the traces.
Long before reaching Lincoln, Aubrey found that his hip was troubling him. He therefore broke his journey at the George and Dragon in the High Street, but spent an uneasy night. The next morning, however, he insisted that he was fine, though Fingle could not but notice that his young master scarcely broke his fast. As a result, by the time they arrived at Elliston Priory late that afternoon, Aubrey was sharp-set with hunger yet feeling slightly sick from the ache in his bones.
At first, there was no response at the door. Then Imber opened it. Trained butler though he was, his expression betrayed surprise at the sight of young Master Lanyon and his valet-groom, appeared out of the dark unannounced and unexpected.
“I’m just sent down till next term,” said Aubrey, making light of it.
Imber held up the tall candlestick, lighting him into the hall. “Lord and Lady Damerel are still in London,” he said, “and there’s no staff to speak of. No matter, sir. I’ll get your chamber set to rights. Have you eaten? When would you like your dinner?”
“God, no,” said Aubrey. “Nothing to eat.”
“You should at least have a tray,” said Fingle, with the familiarity of a servant who had known him for years. “You’ll regret it by morning if you’ve no food in you, sir, you know you will.”
“Something light, Master Aubrey,” agreed Imber. “I’ll see to it.”
“And the post-boys, please,” added Aubrey, resigned to whatever Mrs Imber considered “light”. He handed over what was left of Damerel’s purse. In due course, therefore, the postilions were sent on to the Red Lion, where they warmed themselves with a tot of buttered rum, slept soundly above the stable, and left the next morning.
Sir Conway Lanyon had finally returned to England, a development of great interest in the district and a joy to his wife. Only a few months previously, he had finally decided that the Duke’s entourage could manage in his absence; and, although the delay in his departure from Cambray meant that he missed his sister’s wedding, on the other hand he thus contrived to remain absent from Undershaw until well after Charlotte’s lying-in. She was delivered of a girl. He did not reproach her when she wrote, in her unformed childish handwriting, a rambling letter giving him news of the birth of a mere daughter rather than the heir for which he must have hoped. Indeed, when he arrived, he visited the nursery with unexpected goodwill, and remarked that the infant quite resembled her lovely mother. If, on the other hand, he regretted the continued presence of his unlovely mother-in-law, he did not reproach Charlotte for that, either. Sir Conway had always been an easy-going man. He may, of course, have wished that Venetia had dealt with the matter before betaking herself on her honeymoon; but, if so, he was too well bred to say so—if only because his sister was not herself there to hear him.
In many ways Sir Conway had preferred his life in the army. Nevertheless, he had been raised to run the estate. When, within short order, he took up the reins of management, he was not at all surprised to find that, in his absence, his sister had kept all in good fettle. He was closeted with his steward when the letter arrived.
Beyond instructing Ribble to pay the tariff, he bothered to read only that it had been posted in Cambridge. Not unnaturally, he assumed it to be from Aubrey, though he could see no reason why his younger brother would be writing home—unless, for some reason, he suddenly needed more funds, which would suggest an uncharacteristic profligacy. Setting the letter aside for later, he returned to the business at hand. When he did finally slit the seal much later that afternoon, he was astonished to see that the signature was that of the Dean of Trinity College. For a moment, he felt a pang of alarm. However, by the time he had finished reading the news of Aubrey’s rustication, he was grinning broadly. By George! He hadn’t thought his bookish little brother had it in him!
Dropping the sheet of paper on his desk, he went out to tell Mrs Gurney to expect Aubrey’s arrival within the next day or so.
From Aubrey’s perspective, the next week was thoroughly enjoyable. Rufus had been left in the stable at the Priory; so, the weather being clear, he was able to go for long rides around the estate. The fresh, somewhat chill air of late autumn stimulated an appetite which Mrs Imber tempted further with her best cooking, which he took on a tray in the library. At Cambridge, he had been working his way through the Peloponnesian Wars with his tutor; and he returned to Thucydides with pleasure.
It did not occur to him to write to Venetia; nor did he ride over to Undershaw to visit his brother. His most recent memories of his family home were of veiled insult from Mrs Scorrier and shrinking distaste from Conway’s bride. As he said, when Fingle tentatively suggested it, if he had not been welcome at little Amabel’s christening, he saw no reason to imagine that he’d be welcome now. As for Conway, Aubrey did not say to Fingle that his older brother, though kind, always made him feel a cripple. It was, nonetheless, true; and he had no wish to go home and find matters unchanged. Nor did he want recriminations on being sent down from Cambridge if it should be that Conway felt it his duty to come the older brother over him. In Aubrey’s mind, the best part of that episode was his treatment by the other students, who had finally accepted him as one of themselves, and by the College authorities, who had sanctioned him as they would anyone else. Besides, he had already had his dressing down from the Proctor and did not need another.
It was several days before Conway began to wonder at Aubrey’s failure to arrive home. Even then, it took a few pointed remarks from Mrs Scorrier to bring the matter fully to mind. “I suppose he must still be lingering in Cambridge,” she said, adding, “in defiance of his obligation to return to your authority, and face censure for his misbehaviour.” Her expression indicated strong displeasure; and, although Conway had, by now, been made fully aware of her distaste for Aubrey’s limp, he had no doubt that he was himself the true target of her criticism.
Being no hand at his letters, he had never wished to attend the University himself. It had been much to his preference that his father purchase him a commission in the Army. Nevertheless, from conversation with those of his fellow officers who had furthered their education, he was familiar with the regulations of both Cambridge and Oxford. With some satisfaction, therefore, he was in the position to discomfit her by informing her that what she suggested was impossible.
“Since he has been sent down, he must quit the College entirely—indeed, the town itself is out of bounds,” he declared.
“But then where can he have gone?” said Mrs Scorrier, with infinite insinuation in her glance.
With sudden inspiration, he responded firmly, “To London, of course. He plans to spend the Christmas recess with Venetia, I believe. I can think of nothing more suitable,” he added, “considering that it is a shorter journey for him, and the City must be more to his taste than a household of infants.”
“Just the one infant,” said his mother-in-law archly, “and that your own.”
“But not his,” pointed out the child’s father. Amabel had just started teething; and, though the nursery was far from his bedchamber, she could be heard throughout the house. As far as Conway was concerned, Aubrey had made a most sensible decision.
That day, Aubrey broke his studies to take out his brother-in-law’s guns. In the absence of Flurry, who was not permitted to roam loose without his mistress, the game had settled into complacence. With Bess at his side, therefore, he had no difficulty in bagging two brace of pheasant, which he handed over to Imber, who in turn passed them to his wife to hang in the larder.
Dinner that night was scallop of veal poached in a champagne velouté with mushrooms. Aubrey scraped off the sauce; but he did eat all the veal before returning to his books.
Not until the following Sunday, when Conway paused to talk to the Dennys after church, did he begin to worry.
“I received such a lovely letter from Venetia,” Lady Denny informed him. “It arrived on … let me see … Tuesday; and it is clear that she is having a splendid time in London. Much more than last year when she stayed with her aunt. Of course, the Season had not really begun when she returned to us; and, in any case, she must enjoy it much more as a married woman, with the freedom that entails. I gather she is planning to hold a ball in the New Year. It is such a good thing that Damerel never sold his family’s London house.”
“I’m sure I wish it to be a great success,” said Conway agreeably.
“Oh, come over to us tomorrow,” urged Lady Denny. “I have it safe put away; you can read it.”
The thought of struggling to read his sister’s writing (for all that it was infinitely better than his own illiterate scrawl) brought Conway to say urgently, “No, no—all frills and lace and parties, the stuff ladies adore, I’m sure, but ….”
This brought a smile to her lips.
“Just tell me what she says of Aubrey,” he finished. “I trust he arrived all right?”
“Aubrey?” she said, puzzled. “Dear Venetia said nothing of him. Isn’t he still at the University? I’m sure it lacks a week yet till term’s end.”
He passed it off. Still, he returned to Undershaw sufficiently troubled to consider writing Venetia himself for confirmation of Aubrey’s arrival. The result was both brief and scarcely legible—one would hardly think it worth the price of its postage, though its composition cost him over an hour. It was folded, sealed, and inscribed; and a groom was sent to take it to the nearest post office.
It was two days later that Lady Denny came over to Undershaw in her barouche-landau to pay an afternoon-visit, bringing Clara with her. She expected to take tea with her hostess (and no doubt, if regrettably, also with her mama), and was not a little surprised when Ribble showed them up to the nursery. There she found Charlotte, quite elegantly attired, presiding over a little group of chairs that had clearly been brought up from downstairs. She explained prettily to her guests that she did not like to leave little Amabel alone, especially when she was in such discomfort with her teeth.
As Nurse was, at that time, rocking the cradle wherein the infant, mercifully, was asleep, “alone” could hardly be said to be accurate. Nevertheless, Lady Denny forbore to comment, making allowances for a young mother with a first child. It did make for an awkward tea, though the food was excellent. She was, however, too well bred to question her hostess.
To her chagrin, Clara could not contain her curiosity but burst out, “Do you eat up here all the time?”
Charlotte flushed. “Oh, no,” she said. “Only during the day. Of course, I dine with my husband.” After a moment she added, with greater embarrassment, “He has rather a lot of dogs, you know.”
Lady Denny was not unfamiliar with Conway’s hounds, which were notoriously ill-trained. She would never herself have permitted any more than a lap dog within doors; and both her husband and son knew better than to suggest it. Charlotte was clearly cut from weaker cloth, and she thought the less of her for not keeping her husband—or at least his dogs—in their proper place. None of this, however, excused Clara’s impertinent inquiry, nor the fact that she had clearly discomfited their hostess. Still, Charlotte quickly recovered her composure, poured out nicely, and made proper conversation; the infant Amabel remained silent; and Mrs Scorrier did not put in an appearance. All told, the visit could have been much worse.
It was shortly before they made their departure that Clara mentioned Venetia’s letter, apologizing for forgetting to bring it with them so that Charlotte might read the London news from her sister-in-law.
“Oh, my husband has written,” said Charlotte innocently. “He asked her if Aubrey has arrived in London yet, you know, since we expected him to come here when he was sent down.”
“Sent down!” exclaimed Clara. Her mother gave her a reproving glance which she ignored. “Aubrey?” she went on incredulously. “What on earth could he have done to be sent down? ”
“I don’t know exactly,” admitted Charlotte. “My husband didn’t say. I don’t think it could have been too terrible, though—for what, after all, could he do, crippled with his hip as he is? Still, sent down he is; and he has been expected here for a good week. If he has not gone to Lady Damerel, I don’t know where he could be.”
This artless disclosure was confided by Clara to her sister that evening; and Emily (as romantical as ever) promptly began to speculate on all the ills that might have befallen a lame boy between Cambridge and home. “Perhaps he was so upset that he decided to run away?” she finally suggested.
“And go where?” said Clara sensibly. “Unless you count going to London as running away, for, after all, Conway thought he was heading here.”
“To sea,” offered Emily, her hands clasped with the thrill of the thought. “To be a pirate or a smuggler.”
“I cannot see any pirate or smuggler considering Aubrey, with his limp, as a possible member of their band,” declared Clara. “Nor that he’d want to join them. Now, if it had been Oswald sent down…!”
However, their brother, when the question was put to him, displayed a regrettably law-abiding turn of thought, and averred that, if he were fool enough to run to sea, he would take passage to Jamaica, for his visit there had been most interesting. Like Clara, he thought it probable that Aubrey was, even now, safely arrived at the Damerels’ London house. “For you know, it does take a while for a letter to arrive,” he pointed out, which Emily could hardly deny.
In fact, though, Venetia’s response came by return mail: Aubrey was not in London; nor had either she or Damerel heard of his rustication.
Most reluctantly, Conway realized that duty demanded that he bestir himself to sort matters out. For over a day he dithered, hoping to think of someone else upon whom he could lay the responsibility. He was tempted to lay the matter before Mytchett and instruct him to see to it. In the end, though, he had to admit that it was hardly the sort of thing that normally lay within the purview of the family lawyer. It would probably be best if he went to Cambridge himself.
He then had to determine how best to proceed. On the one hand, he was tempted to ride. The journey would take no more than two days, or perhaps three; and, as a former soldier in Wellington’s Army, this travail was nothing to him. Yet he knew quite well that his reception at inns en route would be more favourable if he arrived with a suitable quantity of baggage and servants. Furthermore, he would undoubtedly have to put up in Cambridge as well, for he doubted Trinity College would provide guest quarters to the brother of a delinquent. So should he, then, take one of their own carriages? If so, then which? He did not at all fancy driving there in the barouche; and the phaeton—which he conveniently forgot to be Aubrey’s own—was too open to the weather for such a long drive at a time of year when bad weather could almost be guaranteed. In the end, he opted to hire a post-chaise.
The journey was no worse than one might expect; the news that met him in Cambridge, on the other hand, was disturbing. Aubrey had departed well over a week before; furthermore, the general opinion was that he had been heading for Yorkshire. As his legal guardian, Conway was permitted access to Aubrey’s rooms, which he found denuded of clothes, books, and other tackle. Clearly, his brother had indeed departed, and presumably on a northward route. He concluded that there was nothing for it but to return home, inquiring as he went.
What could have become of Aubrey? An accident with the carriage was the best that might be hoped for: with luck, he might, in that case, find the delinquent kicking his heels in some country inn waiting for a wheel to be fixed. After such a time, though, Conway could not but fear that Aubrey had been injured, perhaps badly. He had visions of an overturned carriage, his brother carried to the nearest village on a gate or slung over the back of a horse cut from its traces, someone hurrying to fetch a country quack—or worse, the village wise woman with her simples.
He tried not to dwell on his worst fear … that Aubrey might have been set upon by highwaymen.
In fact, Aubrey was only set upon continuing his studies. Investigating the shelves of the Priory library, he found a copy of Stanyon’s Grecian History; however, perusing it, he concluded that it was sadly out of date. Then, looking further through Damerel’s collection, he discovered Mitford’s History of Greece, complete even unto the recently published final volume. Ignoring the tray of luncheon that Imber had just set down upon the table, Aubrey settled comfortably into one of the well-upholstered armchairs to compare the two accounts.
The following morning he rose early. It was in the library that Imber sought him to suggest that he might like to attend church. Aubrey simply shook his head and returned to his books. The Imbers walked into the village to attend the service themselves; but neither was inclined to gossip—indeed, had they been, Damerel would hardly have kept them in his employ. As for Fingle, he remained at the Priory to serve his master, should anything be required.
Not for Mrs Scorrier the healthy walk to church on a Sunday. Though the young Lanyons had been wont to go on foot save in the worst of weather unless Aubrey had decided to go with them, she insisted on having William Coachman set the horses to, come rain or shine. Or snow, for that matter, it now being well into the month of December. The barouche was therefore brought round; and she and Lady Lanyon set forth, attended by the new lady’s maid. Nurse remained home with young Amabel; but the rest of the staff naturally were expected to attend. After the service, Charlotte had converse with the Yardleys and the Dennys, as well as others of sufficient status for her mother to consider suitable.
Mr Yardley heard her concerns most attentively. “I can only hope that Aubrey will, in the end, be found safely,” he said gravely. “Perhaps there was some accident with the carriage, or a mistake in his route that has led him miles astray. We can but hope that it is nothing more serious.”
“Surely,” Charlotte said, “he would have sent word by now of any delay, and been set on the right road if he took the wrong turning. I dread what Sir Conway may learn of his brother’s fate.”
“One would think a message would have been received by now, I agree,” said Mr Yardley; but his familiarity with the household compelled him to add apologetically, “I fear your brother-in-law lacks sympathy with the sensibilities of even his nearest and dearest.” He felt it an outrageously rude comment to make to a relation, even only one by marriage. “I have known the Lanyons for years,” he added, “and been on terms with them as intimate as any outside the immediate family circle. I have always considered that Aubrey has been permitted undue liberties. By excuse of his disability, to be sure, but I fear that he is prone to take advantage.”
His mother, meek at his side, nodded sagely with every word. Nor did Mrs Scorrier, standing beside her daughter, make any demur. She had never liked Aubrey: she could not like cripples. Charlotte, whose own horror of disability was mitigated by true concern, merely said softly that she hoped, most sincerely, that Conway would soon discover his brother’s whereabouts and Aubrey be returned to the bosom of his family.
On the way home, Lady Denny quickly realized that her daughters found the situation fascinating. Though naturally herself worried about Aubrey, she quickly quelled their curiosity with the firm instruction to stop gossiping like a pair of kitchen-maids. As soon as they arrived home, she sent Emily up to the schoolroom with instructions to occupy herself in some activity more appropriate to the Sabbath. There Oswald repaired in due course, full of his own notions; and he and his sister egged each other on to ever wilder speculation. Capitulating on the probability of Aubrey turning smuggler, Emily passed from the morbid notion that he would be found dead in a ditch, his neck broken when his coach was upset, to accepting the more exciting idea—suggested by Oswald—that he might have been held up by highwaymen and rapt away to be held for ransom. As servants gossip, this news quickly passed to the nether regions of the house.
Sir John, consulted by his wife that night, opined that it was all a storm in a wash-basin. “Depend upon it,” he said, “the boy has simply gone back to stay at the Priory, as he did last summer.” This common-sense, however, was uttered in the privacy of their bedroom; and as neither staff nor children was foolish enough to mention the matter in their presence, both Sir John and his good lady remained ignorant of the opinion of the rest of the household.
It should be added that, through conversation between the Undershaw staff and those with whom they spoke after church, the news spread throughout the neighbourhood. While there was no agreement on Aubrey’s fate, it was much discussed. By nightfall, there were few in the parish who had not heard of the mysterious abduction and disappearance of young Master Lanyon.
Leaving Cambridge, Conway headed north towards Peterborough. Along the way, he stopped at Huntingdon, and again at Alconbury, at Sawtry, and at Stilton. Nowhere did he find information about Aubrey’s journey. Too much time had passed on a road too busy: there was no recalling memory of one post-chaise among many, carrying so commonplace a pair of passengers as a youth and his manservant. Beyond Peterborough, though, Conway was perplexed as to the best route to take. The westernmost was the likeliest choice (and, indeed, had been his own route south) by virtue of being the most frequented. Still, there was also an easterly route through Boston, across the Wolds, and then to the ferry over the Humber River (though he doubted this were running so late in the year). And then there was the middle route via Bourne and Sleaford to Lincoln. This, however, would also require a circuitous route around the lower reaches of the Humber … well, unless the ferry was still running. Whilst the horses were changed at the Bull Inn, he inquired within; but, although he obtained useful information about the state of the roads, once again no one remembered Aubrey passing through.
Deciding to take the Great North Road, Conway passed through Stamford and Colsterworth, Grantham and Newark. He stopped at the George and the Angel and the Saracen’s Head. Nowhere did he hear word of Aubrey, or of a coaching accident, or murderous highwaymen within the previous fortnight. By the time he arrived at Doncaster, he was beginning to think that his brother must have taken a different route. The sky was grey, the air was chill, and the wind was starting to blow from the north. It looked far too much like snow; and he badly wanted to get home before the road became impassable.
The staff at Elliston Priory had, for a considerable time, been unaccustomed to having the family in residence over the Christmas season, for Lord Damerel’s parents had been used to journey to London in the autumn and remain until the end of the parliamentary session. The previous year had been little different. Once Damerel had agreed to marry Venetia, she had therefore gone to stay with his aunt, Lady Stoborough, in order that she might ostensibly encounter him for the first time in unexceptionable circumstances and be swept off her feet for a whirlwind wedding. (Neither she nor Damerel had been willing to wait out an engagement of any length.) The house had been shut up; and Aubrey had gone, for a time, to stay at the Parsonage with the Reverend Julius Appersett, who had continued to prepare him for entrance to university, and with whom he had therefore remained until his departure for Cambridge.
This year, however, Aubrey was at the Priory, waited on by the mere skeleton staff required to keep up the house when empty. Given that he seemed disinterested in social intercourse, Imber was surprised when, less than a week before Christmas Day, Aubrey asked what celebrations were intended in the servants’ hall, and intimated that he would not be averse if some of that cheer were to spread upstairs. It emerged that the Lanyons of Undershaw were inclined to keep many of the old-fashioned country customs; and, as children, had often ventured below stairs to participate in the revelries of bob-apple, hot cockles, and hoodman blind. Each year, the great fireplace in the oldest part of the house had been filled with as large a Yule log as could fit, and greenery bedecked the public rooms as well as the kitchen—though it had to be admitted that Sir Francis had never allowed the hanging of mistletoe. This had continued after his death, for Venetia was never inclined to alter family custom for the sake of fashion.
Thus licensed, Mrs Imber promptly baked several raised pies, shredded beef for mincemeat, and began to stone fruit for a splendid Twelfth Cake complete with the traditional bean and pea.
There were, however, no such preparations at Undershaw. The previous year, when applied to, Mrs Scorrier had promptly scorned the old festivities as impossibly out-moded. She and her daughter would, of course, attend church on the Day; and she considered it quite proper that Lady Lanyon should continue such charities as had been her sister-in-law’s habit. However, she quite banned the Christmas fire and evergreen boughs, and even went so far as to curtail some of the pleasures of the servants. They had, not unnaturally, been hoping for a reversion to custom now that the new Squire had returned from the War. But that, of course, had been before Aubrey had gone missing.
Conway returned therefore, driving the last ten miles from York through increasingly heavy snow, only to find his ancestral home bereft of the Christmas preparations he had been expecting. After his cloak—spangled with snow even from the short walk up to the front door—was taken from him, he was not warmed with a mug of spiced ale and a hot mince pie. Instead, Ribble showed him into the drawing room murmuring about “a quiet Christmas, sir”. There he discovered that, in his absence, his dogs had been banished to the kennels.
Shortly thereafter, there was quite a flurry of activity below stairs.
As for the errand that had taken Sir Conway away, the mere fact of his return without his brother told his failure. While he thawed himself in front of the meagre fire, he could only determine to send for Mytchett as soon as the weather allowed. He feared—though he did not say this to the ladies—that it might be necessary even to go so far as authorize the lawyer to hire a Runner from Bow Street, for it was clear that a systematic search would be needed if they were to discover Aubrey’s fate.
The snow lay thick until after Christmas, and the parish churches in Yorkshire were ill-attended that year by those who lived in the ruralities. Fingle nevertheless ventured out long enough to cut some greenery from the nearer regions of the Park; and the servants decorated their own part of the house, leaving a sufficiency of swags of ivy and holly to festoon the upstairs rooms to Aubrey’s satisfaction. He had, by now, completed reading Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and, discovering that the library possessed a very fine Atlas of the world, spent his days poring over the maps of Greece and Asia Minor, tracing out the route of Alexander the Great.
In due course, the highways were cleared sufficiently for the Mail coaches to get through, winds swept much of the snow from the byways, and a carrier from York brought a letter from London addressed to Master Aubrey Lanyon. Venetia, no less perspicacious than Sir John Denny, had concluded that her younger brother had returned to Elliston Priory upon his rustication.
“You would, I think, have had a more amusing time if you had come to us in London,” she wrote, “though I acknowledge that parties are not your line. The theatres and concerts, however, must surely have pleased you; and I dare say you would find much of interest at the Museum. Nevertheless, knowing you as well as I do, I am sure that you have spent most of your time at your studies, and will be well prepared for your return to Cambridge when the Hilary term begins.
“Also, knowing you as I do, let me recommend that you not spend quite all your time with your nose in a book. Do recall that you have family only a few miles distant! Yes, I know that you have no love for your sister-in-law, and still less for her mother. Nevertheless, you also have a brother, who has now returned home from France, and would probably like to see you, if only briefly.”
Aubrey took little note of this adjuration, but did fold the sheet carefully and put it away. He had a great fondness for his “dear sister Venetia”, as she signed herself. Her letter did bear some fruit the following day, though, when he realized that, although the snow was too deep for him to venture safely out on foot, the weather was nevertheless now fine enough for him to go for a ride. It occurred to him—belatedly—that he most certainly owed Mr Appersett a visit. Yes, thought young Master Lanyon with unexpected chagrin, he most certainly should have called at the Parsonage long since.
In his rounds of visiting the members of his parish, Mr Appersett always heard much of the gossip of the neighbourhood. He had therefore become well aware that Aubrey had drowned in a ditch, joined Bonaparte’s forces (despite the end of the War), been taken for a highwayman and imprisoned in York Gaol, and rapt from his bed at the college to be held for ransom by masked bandits. He had been forced to conclude that there had to be a kernel of truth in it. Oh, the more romantical rumours he dismissed. Nevertheless, his old pupil did seem to be missing. Sir Conway had, after all driven to Cambridge in search of him—that, at least, was certain fact.
When the knock came, he was in his study; but he heard his housekeeper’s tread and the slight creak as the front door opened. Someone came in, though the voice was too light for him to make out what was said; and, with a slight sigh, he set aside his pen. Whoever it was, his sermon could wait.
The sight of Aubrey in the doorway astonished and joyed him. The prodigal returneth, he thought. What he said aloud though was, “My dear boy, how good to see you.”
“I’ve been sent down, sir,” confessed Aubrey, “but not for long. It was the most idiotish thing, and I won’t do it again.”
“Well,” said Mr Appersett, biting his lip, “I’m glad to hear that. You should keep your mind on your real reason for attending University, you know, and not permit yourself to be led astray. Still—” and he smiled “—you’re only young once. I assume this means that you are making friends; and I can only be glad of that.” Then, after a moment’s debate with himself, he added, “Aubrey, I was wondering … where have you been staying?”
“Oh, at the Priory,” came the easy answer. “Yes, I know Jasper and Venetia are up in London—they visited me on their way, you know—but I’m certain that he won’t mind my using his library again. In fact, I know it, for Venetia wrote in her letter that she expected I had my nose in a book.” He smiled ruefully. “Greek history, actually. I’ve been reading Thucydides again, and wouldn’t mind the chance to discuss it with you.”
“Certainly, my boy,” said Mr Appersett, “though perhaps not today.” He hesitated, and then added, “By the way, have you visited your brother since your return?”
“Conway?” asked Aubrey, puzzled. “Why?” And then he added, “You know, Venetia also suggested I go over there.”
“Did she?” said Mr Appersett. “Yes, I dare say she did: she knows you well.”
“I suppose I might ride over tomorrow.”
Mr Appersett raised a brow.
“Well, I doubt they’ll care all that much,” said Aubrey defensively. “Though I suppose Conway wouldn’t mind. He’s not seen me for a while.”
“Quite,” said Mr Appersett drily. “I have another suggestion. Stay for luncheon—I’m sure my housekeeper is expecting it—and ride there this afternoon. Consider it the hypotenuse of the triangle. It won’t take you that far out of your way.”
“Hardly the hypotenuse,” Aubrey protested, “considering the lay of the lanes. Anyway, I think I’d rather go later.”
“Nevertheless,” said Mr Appersett firmly.
And so he went.