There remained only a week until Christmas, and the whole of the Kent coast was enveloped in a swirling mantle of snowflakes, all the way up the Rye Road to Hawkhurst. A lingering unseasonable warmth had made the roads quite bad; but at least a dirty road might be attempted, while a bad blizzard, such as had blown up after lunch-time, threatened to ruin the house-parties of many a hostess whose fashionable guests had been too late in leaving Town.
One of many hostelries thrown into uproar by unexpected guests seeking shelter was the Queens Inn in Hawkhurst. The inmates of the stagecoach having filled the common room, the members of that order of society known to the innkeeper as the Quality were obliged to share the private parlour, where all of them were seated as near to the fire as decorum would allow.
In the case of Mrs Morble, her companion (addressed only as Nurse), and young Master Jack Morble, this was quite close indeed, as the sopha had been drawn nearer the hearth; and with the aid of numerous shawls and rugs, Mrs Morble was able to assure the company, none of whom received any special gratification from the information, that they would be quite comfortable. Even the stout gentleman on the other side of the fire was able to achieve what appeared to be his ease by stretching his feet out to the grate, and so disposing his considerable bulk upon the smaller sopha that not even Master Jack could have hoped to squeeze into the space remaining. As he had volunteered no information at all, however, but retreated at once behind his newspaper, this reasonable conclusion was based solely on conjecture.
To Mr Claud Darracott, cooling his heels quite literally in one of a pair of incommodious Queen Anne chairs (which offered little padding in the sadly flattened seat cushion, and did nothing to set off the dashing lilac tint of his pantaloons besides), all four of these persons were objects of some envy. Being arrayed perpendicular to the open fire, they did much to obstruct the flow of warmth to the rest of the room, and made it impossible for Claud to obtain a position any nearer to those invitingly crackling flames unless he wished to stand directly before them, a course prevented him by the presence in the room of a sixth and seventh person – a colourless schoolroom miss by the name of Lady Patience Pickford, and her governess, a tall, thin woman who watched Claud with a gimlet eye.
The cherry-coloured breast of Claud's waistcoat concealed a heart in which lurked a deep and abiding nervousness of young ladies. A proud member of the dandy set, Claud desired more than anything to become a true leader of fashion the likes of Mr Brummell, whose flight to France had left a vacancy on the Throne of Fashion imperfectly filled by his friends and imitators; but in Claud's years on the town, none of his attempts to set a trend had as yet succeeded. Though he had learned long ago at Eton that his baser desires could find satisfaction only in the members of his own sex, he knew that the uncritical admiration of his sartorial efforts which he craved was rarely to be found amongst the gentlemen and ladies of fashion who comprised his social circle; for that he must look to young females, the younger and less sophisticated the better. While a gently-reared young lady was often unsophisticated, Claud's harmless flirtations might raise in her (or worse, in her Mama) Hopes which he had not the smallest intention of satisfying. The matchmaking Mama, even above Claud's grandfather, ranked as the most frightening figure of his acquaintance. It was for this reason that he typically sought feminine companionship in the lower ranks of society, and was even rumoured, in the gentlemen's clubs, to have sustained a gunshot-wound in pursuit of a country girl - a fabrication which did his reputation no disservice.
While the flow of cheerful prattle emanating from Mrs Morble was aimed in the direction of the large gentleman, however little attention he paid it, there could be no doubt that Claud's obligation was to converse with Lady Patience. Unhappily, that young lady, an ardent peruser of the pages of La Belle Assemblee as well as of the novels of Mrs Radcliffe, had a great appreciation for fine masculine apparel which, when for the first time introduced to such vibrant-hued splendour as Claud's, had rendered her shy and tongue-tied. She had read of, but never seen, the wadded shoulders and wasp waist of the coat sewn for Claud by Nugee; she had known of the Inexpressibles, a garment whose popularity rivalled that of knee-breeches in the capital, but had never conceived of its being such a startling shade of pale lilac. Her appreciation was obvious, and with that Claud contented himself, lapsing into relieved silence after a few valiant attempts to discover any acquaintance in common, whether she liked Kent, and whether she did not find it cold.
Mrs Morble had just called upon Nurse to agree with her that Master Jack's constitution was quite delicate, a gross falsehood which Nurse was drawing breath to demolish, when the door to the parlour was pushed open again by the innkeeper to admit another gentleman.
The figure was plainly that of a gentleman of fashion, by the quality of the beautiful caped greatcoat (too conservative by half, and graced for unknown cause with a paltry four capes, but clearly new-made by a master, and of the finest material). "This will do very well, thank you," said a cultivated and familiar voice. "I may dine later, if the weather has not cleared; until then, something hot to drink."
The gentleman set his hat upon a convenient table, and, removing his coat, revealed a sturdy form, neither slender nor well-built, which made up what it lacked in beauty in grace of carriage, and the exacting details of its dress. The breeches were elegant and outlined muscular thighs, and the boots, glittering with half-melted snowflakes, were beautifully made, with snowy white tops proclaiming their wearer a man of fashion. The coat, though an unimaginative bottle green, had been chosen by a discerning eye to show the wearer to advantage. The white hands which presently twitched his cuffs into place, and made a deft adjustment to the folds of his cravat, were well-shaped, and it was these, even more than the voice, which gave strength to Claud's conviction that they were previously acquainted.
The gentleman turned away from the looking glass.
"Hethersett!" said a startled Claud, standing a touch precipitously and offering his hand.
"By Jove! Darracott!" An engaging smile of real pleasure transformed the unremarkable countenance of Mr Felix Hethersett to a memorable one. His nose was neither aquiline nor straight, his jaw indecisive, and his forehead too large; but his eyes were the brilliant, deep blue of - Claud may be pardoned this comparison, in light of his strong preoccupation with colours - a summer sky. These gleamed up at Claud when he smiled (for Mr Hethersett was not tall). "Pleasure," he added, politely, and returned a strong handshake.
"Yes," Claud agreed, earnestly. "What I mean is, dashed unexpected! Your people aren't from these parts: I'd know it, if they was!"
"No: raised in Somerset. Was bound for Hastings," said Mr Hethersett. "Shooting party, you know. Don't know if I shall make it now, if this snow don't clear up. Wished to be on my way again tonight, but m'coachman says it don't look promising. Road's a blur," he added glumly. "Wouldn't know your nose from a pikestaff out there."
"Better put up here tonight," advised Claud, "for the roads will only get worse, and I've a notion Hastings is some ten or twenty miles south. Myself, I was only bound for Darracott Place: I was never obliged to stop so close by, before. It's a matter of five miles."
Mr Hethersett agreed that the prospect looked bleak and, these preliminaries out of the way, acquiesced readily to Claud's invitation to come nearer the fire.
On the long sopha, Master Jack Morble had succumbed to weariness, and, being immobile in his sleep, had drawn the admiration of Lady Patience, who had, in consequence of the compliments paid to young Master Jack, been offered the use of Nurse's place at her side. Both ladies were now engaged in fancy-work and the discussion of such absorbing subjects as the merits of laudanum and the cost of Mechlin lace.
Mr Hethersett's finely-graded bow received a nod from Lady Patience, saddling Claud with the task of introducing his companion simultaneously to two strangers of vastly different, but to Claud equally foreign, social orders: a schoolroom miss of noble breeding, and a richly-dressed matron of undetermined gentility.
This unwelcome duty accomplished, however, the ladies relieved his mind by their uninterest in conversation, Mrs Morble going so far as to request the gentlemen "pay them not the slightest mind", and Lady Patience offering her support to this suggestion with a nervous smile. The portly gentleman still occupying the whole of the other sopha gave no sign of awareness that he shared the apartment with other persons, except an occasional rustle, or mumbled imprecation upon the ways of Young People; and as Claud did not know his name in any case, he chose to pass over him, and concentrate his energies instead upon making Mr Hethersett known to the fireplace, by means of a slight bow and an inviting gesture.
Hethersett extended the hands which had been so cold in their handshake to the flames, and enquired with impeccable civility after Claud's brother. "Your brother is Vincent Darracott, I think. We've met at Jackson's. Very handy with his fives."
"I believe he is: at least, everyone says so, and I see no reason to doubt 'em," said Claud. "Fact of the matter is, I ain't much of a sportsman myself. He always milled me down easily enough when were lads, but I shouldn't think that was too difficult."
"No," Mr Hethersett agreed, thoughtfully. "Daresay you were a slight lad."
Claud nodded. He was still slight: taller than the rule, and slender, he took after his mother, Lady Aurelia Holt, who was the daughter of an Earl, and bore all the high-bred appearance of one. Claud knew that his features were good - in spite of the deep-set eyes and long nose which belonged to the Darracott countenance, and comprised the whole of Claud's resemblance to his brother, he was fine-featured and fair - but far from being aware of the admiration frequently excited by his willowy frame and delicate face, he had only fault to find, for the fashion called for an athlete's broad, well-muscled frame, and he envied those fortunate gentlemen who could wear their coats without any recourse to buckram wadding to lift the shoulders, or enhance the chest.
He was an infrequent guest at the closely-guarded parties for select male members of the ton sharing in his particular, sometimes called Classical tastes; and though he had never visited it after dark, he knew of Barbican Street and the taverns and clubs there which catered to his counterparts in the lower classes. Claud even numbered amongst his acquaintance gentlemen who secretly kept gowns of their own, but whatever his grandfather might say, he was neither a fop nor a fribble; there was no inclination for sport in him, but neither did he nurse any desire to imitate the dress of a woman, nor did the mollies appeal to him, with their painted faces and their bodies concealed in drapery. His favourite partners, in the transitory quest for pleasure, had all strong arms and legs, broad chests, muscles into which he could sink his teeth. As far as Claud was aware, that was the masculine ideal. He entertained no suspicion, though he had always found willing paramours plentiful, that he could be considered beautiful, or that he might embody another's beau ideal.
"He's well?" pursued Mr Hethersett.
"I should think he's there already, for I didn't meet him on the way," grumbled Claud, who was inclined to resent his brother's favoured pastime of scorning his driving, and always throwing him into the shade by overtaking him on the road: although Claud's temper was in general amiable, his weakness was his vanity, and Vincent was much inclined to gloat. "He ain't here, at least." This thought cheering him somewhat, he added more charitably, "He'd be better fed, for the old castle is falling to bits. Devilish tight-fisted, m'grandfather. - Say, ain't you cousins with the Earl of Cardross?"
Despite the deplorable (to Claud) moderation of his shirt-points, Mr Hethersett was, if not a leader of fashion, at least a preceptor of it; his name was known, and his acquaintance sought, by Beaus, Dandies, and Corinthians alike. He was widely known as the cicisbeo-in-chief of Cardross's countess, who was quite one of the ton's most fashionable ladies. Claud's brother would certainly have apostrophized him as a nodcock for having forgotten a connexion which figured as common knowledge. Mr Hethersett, however, took no offence, but correctly divining the thrust of this question, only explained, "Yes. Staying in London for the winter: Lady Cardross in a very delicate condition!"
Mr Hethersett's other relations being in good health, they were free to converse on other subjects. Claud was not the least curious as to whether Mr Hethersett liked Kent, and nobody's thoughts on the weather could differ principally from his own in finding it frightful, miserable, and a dashed nuisance. "The roads will be all ice," Claud prophesied, "if they ain't knee-deep in snow. It wouldn't surprise me if everyone was obliged to put up here for the night. If it comes to that, there's no saying the beds ain't better than at Darracott Place, too, for you may say what you like about posting houses, but you won't put your foot through the linens by mistake."
"Fine establishment," Mr Hethersett assured him. "Highly unlikely to do so! Recommended to me by Chistleton!"
Where they stood, before the rustic inglenook, was quite the most comfortable location in the large parlour, and Claud wondered whether Hethersett's hands had warmed now, after several minutes by the fireside. Though it was his bow which was frequently remarked on as the epitome of grace, Hethersett was, reflected Claud, studying him covertly, all grace; not least remarkable in his hands, which were neither large nor small, but aristocratic and finely-formed without being thin; strong and elegant, and just the sort of hands Claud preferred to have touch him.
Claud's preferences in other gentlemen were of long standing, and he could with confidence have made this judgement on the cursory inspection made possible in their earlier handshake. That, however, was unnecessary. Acquaintances but not friends, they exchanged nods at Watier's and in the Park, but moved in different circles; and as neither was a gambler, and Claud had never crossed the portals of Gentleman Jackson's, these most universal of gentlemanly pursuits had never provided them a chance meeting. Indeed, they never had exchanged a handshake before; and if not for a very particular sort of gathering some months previous, at a hunting lodge in Middlesex owned by George Burnley, his taste for Felix Hethersett's hands would certainly have been only conjecture. Although Claud rarely pursued multiple liaisons with the same gentleman, and indeed often forgot the names of his paramours, he remembered many details of that night in Middlesex with a certain warmth: Hethersett's hands were merely the most decorous of these.
He was just beginning, in defiance of his better judgement, to remember some of the others when the innkeeper returned, bearing a bowl of hot punch and the intelligence that the weather being such that he himself would hardly dare step out-of-doors, he thought it proper to inform them all that supper could be made available to them in a short while.
All the company agreeing to this (even the gentleman behind the newspaper, who growled, "It's about damned time!"), they were presently served a hearty repast of soups, game-hens, a goose, and a braised ham, with removes of turbot and smelt: a very satisfying meal, but a very unsatisfying conversation spent learning, from Mrs Morble, of the accomplishments of Jack, the benefits of sea air, and the imminent return of her brother, presently stationed on the continent with the Army of Occupation.
This last point aroused Claud's interest, as his cousin Richmond, an officer in the 7th Hussars, was at Paris; but as they were seated on opposite sides of the table he said nothing, and as Mrs Morble retired directly after the covers were removed, bearing a squalling Jack in her arms, he had not another opportunity to enquire more particularly. Lady Patience soon followed her example, leaving the gentlemen in sole possession of the parlour.
"Ramshackle busybody," uttered the old gentleman with a beetling scowl, addressing nobody in particular, as the door closed behind Lady Patience. Having apparently exhausted the newspaper's resources, he proceeded to produce a small leather-bound volume from somewhere about his person, and bury his head in it.
"Don't know whose order that's to: should like to know who is ramshackle if it ain't him!" remarked Hethersett in an under-voice, ladling out another glass of punch.
"Mrs Morble, I should think," said Claud. "He's out there, though: she ain't ramshackle. Not a busybody either, in fact, but you can't deny she's a bit of a gabster."
Mr Hethersett drank quickly from his punch, hiding his smile, and turned the subject. "Martin Chistleton. Dear old soul: friendliest fellow on Earth! Queer as Dick's hatband, though. Was there when he bet Lewis monkeys to kippered herrings whether Balmore or Dillinger would have the taller hat: measured 'em, too. Balmore's was taller, of course - "
"I should think so," said Claud in derisive accents: "puts flowers on 'em! Anybody would realize!"
"Lewis was five sheets to the wind at the time," said Mr Hethersett. "Ordered the kippers straight away. Chistleton insisted. Ate 'em at once, too."
Claud stared. "Kippers at night?"
"Past four," Hethersett confirmed, with a satisfied air. "What's more, upended the butter dish over young Ashley in a rage. Ruined his coat!"
Claud was deeply horrified. "Butter? No, no!"
"Blue superfine," disclosed Mr Hethersett, in a tone of deep disapproval.
"Is he to be one of the party? You had far better not go!" said Claud, earnestly.
"I won't deny it gave me a bit of a turn. Still, his brother's house: can hardly go flinging butter-dishes over people. Not done. What's more, ladies present."
"Yes, but kippers at four in the morning? At Watier's," said Claud. "Well, I mean to say, there's no telling what the fellow might do!"
The conversation progressed from Viscount Chistleton's younger brother to the play (both gentlemen having preferred the farce to the play in the latest production of Henry V), and then to the daily fashion parade provided in Hyde Park by Lucy Cooper, a dashing Cyprian who had begun driving there daily in a gilt barouche and displaying a series of ever more extravagant gowns. The barouche's gilding, which more nearly resembled that of a carriage of the previous century, had occasioned a great deal of remark in other quarters, but it was not la Lucy's barouche which interested Claud and Mr Hethersett, but her gowns.
Claud opined that she was bang up to the knocker, and Mr Hethersett agreed that she knew how to choose a gown, but maintained that her all-pink ensemble of two Fridays past, trimmed in pink ermine, had been a failure.
"Ought to have been white," he insisted. "No call for pink ermine. As for pink velvet - too much. One or the other: not both!" He stood by this assertion, even when he proved unable to comply with Claud's command that he "say the pink feathers did not become her, if you can."
"I don't say that white ermine wouldn't be more tasteful, though I think her style of female looks very well in pink. But what I say is, you don't parade in the park in a barouche with enough gilt for twenty portrait-frames, if you don't wish people to stare!"
"Stare at the barouche first," agreed Mr Hethersett. "Notice the gown after: better to notice it for being top o' the trees, and not for being precisely the same colour from top to toe!" Claud rarely omitted to combine different, but equally bright colours in his dress, and this shaft struck home, causing him to reflect that she had missed an opportunity to highlight her ensemble to great effect with spring green, or bird's-egg blue; and his renewed sense of perfect amity was only increased when Mr Hethersett expressed exactly his own opinion by applauding la Lucy's more recent emergence in a fur-lined cloak of deep cherry, over a spencer trimmed in gold braid.
This happy sensation lasted through another cup of punch and a game of backgammon so soothing to Claud's emotions that he was beginning to think himself quite lucky to have been caught in a snowstorm when the door to the parlour opened again to admit the innkeeper. This interruption proved the final straw for the patience of their large companion, who had remained for some time so unmoving as to have seemed to be asleep, if not for the constant snorts and grumblings addressed apparently to his own neckcloth in a somewhat impenetrable, mumbling accent, about infernal nuisances, deuced common establishments, and damned Macaroni-merchants.
With a growl which caused Claud to take a step back, he heaved his considerable bulk up from the depths of the sopha and, condemning the innkeeper for creating so much noise and bother that one would think he mistook his own parlour for a public marketplace, took himself away at last.
Rising from his bow, the innkeeper then turned to inform Mr Hethersett that he desired to speak to him.
"What is it you wish to say?"
"Your coachman, sir, sent word that it will be quite impossible to take to the road tonight," explained the innkeeper. "My chief stableman is of the same mind, too. It's a rare blizzard out-of-doors. I've got some ten from the stage as will have to bunk down in the taproom, and all the rooms doubled up as well, except Mrs Morble, her having the child and the Nurse with her, and Lady Patience, as has her maid, and Commodore Mason as is such a large gentleman."
"Have you no place at all, then?" demanded Mr Hethersett.
The innkeeper glanced sidelong at Claud. "The fact of the matter is, sir, the only beds I could put you in are Commodore Mason's, or Mr Darracott's, here." Turning to Claud, he added, "I don't hardly like to ask, sir, but the snow being as it is, and you having arrived quite late yourself, after the Commodore, that is -"
"That's just fine," said Claud hastily, cutting off the flow of explanation. "I don't mind."
The man appeared just as relieved as he had earlier looked anxious, and bowed with slightly overzealous depth in his excitement. "Thank you, sir - of course, the charges - "
"Yes, yes, it ain't your fault that we've all been snowed in! Just inform my man, so he don't get into a taking. Frightfully sensitive, my valet," he added for Mr Hethersett's benefit, and vouchsafed for the first time a glance in that gentleman's direction. Their new circumstances were hardly scandalous, but had ignited rather suddenly a heat in him from the pleasant warmth of their earlier conversation. In fact, Claud wondered to himself why it was that he felt so queer, almost queasy, instead of the comfortable pleasure one might expect; he was no green cub in anticipation of his first liaison.
Mr Hethersett's countenance revealed nothing, though, as he thanked the innkeeper; he was polite and pleasant, a model of gentlemanly conduct, without anything in his manner to speak of nervousness.
Of course, to conduct a liaison in so public a place as a crowded posting-house would be highly imprudent; and the corridor being rather narrow, Claud's bedchamber afforded little privacy.
It was a handsome apartment, no doubt one of the inn's finest, containing a large window, with a view over the street rather than the stableyards. The bed was more invitingly made-up than the beds at Darracott Place, so that Claud's prediction of its greater comfort seemed more likely than not; and the room contained also the advantage of a lit fire. Polyphant was waiting to help Claud out of coat and boots.
"Most unhappily crowded here, sir," he remarked, as he set about this task. "The house will be full to bursting, and us expected at Darracott Place tonight! I shouldn't wonder if we were cooped up here for the whole of Christmas."
"Well, I shouldn't think so," said Claud. "We're devilish close and, after all, even if the snow lies ten feet deep we could hire a sled."
Polyphant sniffed, conveying the impression that only a consciousness of his position prevented him from delivering a withering speech upon the dangers of sleds, and set Claud's boots aside with great tenderness. "Not a scratch on them, in spite of the snow!" he said, with an air of pride.
Claud turned his back to allow Polyphant to ease the cherry coat off his shoulders. "Dashed wet out, but it ain't very hard going. I haven't been hiking through brambles."
"I should hope not!" said Polyphant, in horrified accents.
"Felix Hethersett is to room here: the whole inn's doubling up," Claud thought to say, as he went about the delicate business of untying his neckcloth. "His man must be using the room as well, so you needn't raise a dust if you see another valet nosing round in the morning."
Polyphant seemed to take offence at the notion that he might require this reminder, remarking stiffly that he had already been informed of that circumstance and that he hoped he knew his job; but as he then went on to add darkly that Claud should not be surprised if he discovered his belongings missing on the morrow, his credibility was somewhat undermined. He left with Claud's boots in dignified silence just as Mr Hethersett entered with a servant who must be his own valet.
The floor was quite cold on his stockinged feet, but Claud did not like to disrobe entirely and get into bed, so he went instead to the grate, and stirred the fire a bit. By the time he heard the door close unexpectedly quickly behind Hethersett's valet his feet were cold through, and he turned quickly to see Hethersett taking off his own coat, and laying it aside. Their eyes met, and something passed between them in a protracted moment of silence, Hethersett pausing with his fingers at the top button of his waistcoat, and a queer thrill ran through Claud.
It would have been the height of bad ton to ever make reference, outside the confines of one of Claud's and Felix Hethersett's very particular sort of gatherings, to the events of one. An acquaintance begun there was often begun again before continuing elsewhere, while Claud knew of more than one pair of gentlemen in the habit of intimacy there, who in the outside world were not even acquainted, and would not so much as exchange nods at a dinner-party. Still, there was no question that an ordinary Town friend of Claud's, who knew his habits (but not all of them), would have been exceedingly surprised by the degree of warmth with which he and Hethersett had exchanged greetings. Anyone, however, having witnessed that scene, would have been equally surprised by their unease now.
"Dashed cold, of course, but they've laid a proper fire," Claud offered. "Nothing shabby about it: a hot brick in the bed, too."
"Quite comfortable, if it wasn't such a squeeze," said Mr Hethersett, in an apologetic tone, and continued to unbutton his waistcoat. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
"Well, it isn't one," said Claud. "In fact, it's likely this bed will be more comfortable, with us both in it, than my room at Darracott Place. A bit on the small side for two, of course," he said, not adding that he looked forward to the crowding. Hethersett's reputation as a stickler was well-established; but if he had shown Claud more interest than decorously averting his eyes, and waiting for him to get into bed before extinguishing the candle and climbing in carefully on the far edge of the mattress, Claud was quite prepared to have become the initiator of a second encounter.
Instead he civilly returned Mr Hethersett's "Good-night," and resigned himself to remaining unsatisfied.
Claud lay on his back a time in the dark, with his eyes closed, in a state of some disappointment. After the pleasant evening they had had, and a glimpse of the smooth, broad curve of Hethersett's back as he climbed into his night-shirt, Claud was hot with excitement, and unable even to relieve his frustration by the application of his own hand. Not even the snores of their nearest neighbour, quite clearly audible through the wall, were enough to reconcile him, in his state, to what had obviously been the more prudent course. But the bed was firm, the linen good, and the presence of another body under the covers did much to warm them; and the great comfort soon led them both to slumber.
"I am told the roads remain impassible," said Lady Patience, taking a dainty sip of her chocolate. The parlour was mercifully empty but for Lady Patience and her governess when Felix entered it with Claud Darracott in the morning. The curtains were open to let in the glare of sunlight on white snow, which had wholly blanketed the stableyard, besides collecting in tremendous drifts. Far from being shoveled wholly out of the way, the snow had only been trampled in dirty paths under the window, and instead of a bustling stable, they looked on a tranquil scene, that might have represented an inn on a day without any guests.
"D'you mean to say no-one has left?" enquired Felix. Darracott, resplendent in a coat of startling green, was busy at the sideboard, heaping a plate with roast beef, eggs, and toast.
"Locals only," she said. "It is the carriages which are cooped up here."
"Nuisance," he said glumly, going to fill his plate; as he did, he met Darracott's eyes quite suddenly, and, attempting to detect a look of warmth in them, cursed himself. Usually no fool for a pretty face, Felix was rather at sixes and sevens after meeting young Darracott publicly so soon after their night at Burnley's hunting lodge.
Tall, thin, and delicate-featured, with dark golden hair waving gently onto his forehead, Darracott was just the style of beauty to which Felix was most susceptible, and he was presenting a real danger to Felix's resolution. It was only rarely he indulged himself at house-parties thrown by Burnley and his set, for though their secret had as yet not been revealed, not all that circle was entirely good ton. Even a breath of that sort of rumour could be fatal: nothing was more abhorrent to Felix than scandal-broth, and he knew that to avoid this it was essential that he take great care when and how he indulged. His energies had been more restrained than not, of late, and he could only suppose that his appetites had been reawakened by that tantalizing taste.
Claud Darracott was a friendly young man, seemingly immune to the sorts of entanglements which so often led to acrimony; in addition to this, he was beautiful to look at, even in the ridiculous dandyish togs he wore, and more so underneath them; all of which was as much as to say that he was much sought-after, at those very particular sorts of house-parties.
"The coachman says we may not leave until tomorrow, at the earliest," said Lady Patience.
"I hope mine don't agree with him," said Darracott.
But his hopes were not to be answered. The innkeeper came in as they were finishing their tea with the intelligence that his groom had been out round the town on horseback inquiring at the other inns, and the Rye road was snowed under far too deep for carriages; they must wait until the way had been cleared or the snow had melted somewhat. The only direction in which travel by coach was possible was North toward Hartley; and the innkeeper could not yet offer Felix another room, though he did not know what might happen later in the day.
Felix began to wonder how many hours might be whiled away at backgammon.
Lady Patience removed to her room again soon after breakfast, leaving Felix and Darracott to their own devices. From the table a reasonable view of the comings and goings in the stableyard could be obtained, and it was here they remained for perhaps an hour, playing silver-loo from a deck missing the knave of hearts and the four of spades, and watching a few horsemen come and go. At the end of this time, an unusual pair of figures was seen to emerge from the back of the inn, consisting of one tall woman's silhouette in a brown drab travelling cloak, and one a great deal smaller, but so well wrapt that it resembled a sausage on legs.
"If that don't beat all! It's Master Jack Morble," said Darracott. "Is that his Mama or his nurse?"
"Mrs Morble's dress very fine!" protested Felix. "Cloak can't be hers."
"Daresay it's the nurse then. - If he ain't walking in it, too! The little fellow must be queer in his attic: it's cold as Hades!" As Darracott spoke these words, the little figure wobbled and flopped to the ground. The resultant wail could not be heard through the window, but must be inferred from the actions of Nurse, who lifted up the child and began petting and soothing him.
"He's a goer," said Felix dubiously, as the child was put back onto his feet and toddled away with every evidence of eagerness. The attempted speed of his progress was presently explained, however, when his destination was seen to be the stable: "Horse-mad!"
"I shouldn't think he was old enough," said Darracott. "But then, I shouldn't have thought he was old enough to walk, from the way the two of them cosseted him yesterday."
"Shouldn't wonder if he ain't three or four at least," offered Felix.
"I'll tell you what," said Darracott, "the fellow puts me in mind of my cousin, Richmond. With the 7th Hussars in Paris. - Yes, and what's more, he used to squall just like that, too, when he didn't get his way. Not scared: angry! Wanted to try again! Up to any gig, and caused the devil of a dust."
The tones of mixed revulsion and wonder in Darracott's voice were not to be wondered at, thought Felix, for anything less like the complacent, even temperament of Claud Darracott would be difficult to imagine. He knew Claud's brother Vincent slightly; they had been the same year at Eton and Oxford, but never familiar before chance interactions at Gentleman Jackson's and Watier's. Vincent was a member of the Corinthian set, a handy boxer and at the clubs a deep player. He was convivial company, but his tongue was as sharp as his wit was quick, so that in every respect but a certain cast to his darker countenance, his resemblance to his brother was slight. It sounded as though Claud were the least Darracott-like of the family.
"Army of Occupation, your cousin?" asked Felix presently.
"Yes. He joined a few years ago - Army-mad!" said Darracott. "He ain't of age, even now. I expect all Christmas will be full of when he's to return home! And my brother ain't a particle of use, if he ain't stopped on the road at Tunbridge Wells - I say!" with this exclamation, he turned precipitously in his chair to Felix.
"Come to Darracott Place with me!"
"What the deuce are you blabbing about?"
"Yes, by Jove!" said Claud. "Save your coats. Besides, no getting to Hastings in this weather till Christmas is over. Plenty of space at the old pile. Mediæval castle! M'grandfather is a rum 'un, but everybody else ought to be dashed glad to see an unfamiliar face, instead of reading the latest letters over again and staring into the fire!"
"Couldn't possibly intrude! Family party!" Felix protested.
"Just told you it ain't anything of the sort! Obliged to go: the old man is full of mediæval notions, but he don't like a one of us above half, except for Richmond; and with m'aunt and cousin fretting themselves to pieces over him, and too distracted to do more than order dinner, the whole lot of us shall be Friday-faced! My brother too, if the weather keeps him from his sport! No shooting!"
In his excitement, Darracott was both engaging and irresistibly persuasive; and if part of Felix suggested that it was hardly healthy for his resolution to accept such an invitation, another part pointed out that it would be foolish to refuse it when he would otherwise be obliged to spend perhaps the whole of the week at an over-crowded posting house. "Well," admitted Felix, "Got a new coat with me."
His companion pounced on this first show of weakness. "Dash it, your togs 'ud be perfectly safe at Darracott Place! I won't say you'll sleep comfortably, because no one could with the chimney smoking and rats running about, but you'll find more to occupy you there than here. Billiards!"
And, having uttered what he considered to be a clincher, Darracott sat back in his chair with an expectant look. "But ain't the Rye Road all snowed under?" said Felix, in the last line of resistance.
A grin of triumph transformed Darracott's face to a picture of boyish mischief, his clear cat-eyes sparkling. "Nothing easier: go by horseback! Was raised here, and I know the country! Send for the carriages later."
Nothing else standing in their way, this plan was accordingly put into action without further demur. Some little delay was occasioned in the business of packing up their luggage, when Darracott's valet was so horrified at what was asked of him that he stopped packing altogether, until Darracott informed him that he could very well stay with the coach, then, and leave his master to the mercies of his cousin's valet. This produced such a determined look of injured pride that some personal grudge must persist belowstairs at the Place; and Polyphant informed the room frigidly that he hoped he knew his duty better than to abandon his master's raiment to the hands of quite Ignorant Persons who had got their position only through their relationships to other persons, of whose superior Ways, and inferior Skills, the less said the better.
The ride was not a long one, but the snow made difficult going for the horses, in spite of Darracott's familiarity with the terrain, so that a ride which might have taken a quarter-hour in fair weather lasted them until nearly dinner-time at their destination. The sky was beginning to be quite dark when they came over the crest of a hill, and the manor loomed into view. It was an ugly, lopsided old pile, with a mediæval castle at one end, to which a Jacobean ancestor had unwisely added another wing; but perched on the gentle curve of a hillside covered in a smooth mantle of snow, its mismatched turrets and bow-windows crowned with a dusting of white, it made an imposing and even charming picture.
They approached not from the front of this edifice, which, Darracott informed him, faced to the South, but from its Northwestern angle, and made directly for the stables, where they were met by the head groom himself exclaiming over Master Claud with the privileged tone of an old retainer.
"In this weather!" scolded that grizzled personage, "Riding!"
"Stuff!" said Master Claud firmly. "If ever I heard such a dust! Dash it, Little, I ain't ridden from Town: as if anyone could in this weather! Was snowed-in last night at Hawkhurst!"
Little, taking Master Claud's reins from him, said docilely that he was that glad to see him and only hoped he didn't take chill, and refrained from observing that other persons, of less exalted station or hotter blood, might well be supposed to have ridden from London to the Kent coast in weather such as this.
Little having no information to relay on the whereabouts of Major Hugh Darracott, the heir to the estate, the gentlemen went from the stables into the main wing of the house, after a pause to dust the snow from themselves. They entered the main wing through a draughty corridor which must be supposed to lead to the main hall; and the first person they saw was a servant hurrying down it, who stopped and bowed at Darracott's greeting.
"Ferring! Where's my cousins?" he enquired.
"I couldn't say, sir," said the man, with a queerly anxious look; "but I believe his lordship is in his library."
Claud retorted, "Don't want to see him! No one would!", but at the servant's fidgeting, waved him away. They watched him lope off in an even greater hurry than before; and when he had rounded the corner, Darracott observed, "You know, I've got a dashed queer feeling something ain't right here!"
Felix was beginning to feel he had made a mistake in agreeing to come. Darracott appeared not to feel any awkwardness about it, however, and in any case, he could hardly hope to ride back to Hawkhurst now, so he had no recourse but to follow. They looked into a billiard room panelled in dark wood, and then into a drawing-room, with the fire crackling in the hearth and a branch of lit candles on the table, but both were empty. He had just opened his mouth to suggest that they could ring, when the door flew open to admit a dark-haired lady.
"Claud!" she exclaimed, hurrying into the room and shutting the door firmly behind her, "Thank goodness you have come!" Then, observing Felix's presence, she broke off abruptly with a stare. "Oh - hello," she added, making a visible effort to collect herself, and put out her hand. "You must think me shockingly lacking in manners! I am Anthea Darracott, Claud's cousin. And Mrs Hugh Darracott, you know, as well! But Claud, we had no idea we were to have any guests!"
"Anthea, Felix Hethersett: he was making for Hastings. Got snowed in at Hawkhurst with me. Stagecoach was there, and several ladies, and a ramshackle Navy cove, with the most abominable manners! I don't know what the Navy is about, making a Commodore out of such an uncivil toad! Never said a word to anybody, and talked the whole of the evening to himself! Coarse-tongued, too!"
"I don't believe that breeding is a requirement for rank in the Navy," said Mrs Darracott in an apologetic tone. "I rather think it has more to do with the taking of prizes, and - and sailing, and so on! - And I am very happy to make your acquaintance, Mr Hethersett! You are welcome, of course!"
Recalled to his duty, Claud added, "Hethersett, my cousin Anthea. Richmond's sister!"
The lady's countenance underwent a change from relieved, to doubtful, and finally worried: "Oh, do you know my brother?"
"No, no. We were talking of the Army," explained Darracott. "Mentioned him."
"Oh. Well, you will meet him at dinner, at least," she revealed.
Darracott started visibly. "What, Richmond, here?"
"Yes!" said his cousin. "He arrived several days ago, for Christmas."
"He ain't deserted, has he?"
"No - oh, no, nothing of that kind! It is only that - well, he is on leave! The regiment are to land in England in the New Year, in any case, and he has merely made the trip a few weeks early!"
"Well, if he ain't deserted, I'd like to know what's got you all in a pucker! Rarely seen you so distracted, cousin! I should think the place would be full of excitement, now that hell-born babe is back!"
"Claud!" said Anthea Darracott reprovingly. "Richmond isn't a hell-born babe!"
"He is, though!" said Claud. "No denying it! Why, my grandfather would never have countenanced his joining the Army if not for all the trouble he kicked up! What's more, involved the whole family in his games! If it wasn't for Hugh -"
"Yes, yes, Claud, but please, not now!" she interrupted in agonized accents. Felix, engaged in polishing his quizzing glass with great attention, gave a discreet cough.
Claud, recovering himself, became absorbed in brushing a fleck of dust from his sleeve. "Oh - that is - didn't meet Vincent on the road. Met him in Town two nights ago; said he hadn't the least desire to dance to grandfather's pipe and had half a mind not to come. Didn't think he meant it, though," he added thoughtfully. "I mean to say, he comes when the old man calls him to heel: depends on him to pull him out of the suds at the end of the quarter! But he was in a devilish taking."
"No, that is, I believe he was, for I know Vincent, but he arrived here that same night, well before the snow, although not, of course, in time for supper. Grandpapa called him deuced havey-cavey for arriving so late, but of course, Vincent was insufferably smug when we saw how it had begun to snow."
"The whole clan is here, then?"
"Yes, and it is the most vexing thing, because - excuse me, I needn't bother you with that, Claud, when you have company!"
Darracott appeared confused by this speech, as well he might, Felix thought. "Bother me with what?"
"Nothing," said the lady firmly. "Simply a matter of - of house-keeping!"
"House-keeping? If it's about the chimney in my room again -"
"No, nothing of the sort! You need not concern yourself! - And, Mr Hethersett, you will need a room! You had better have speech with my mother: she is in the small saloon. Claud will take you there! I'm afraid I must finish a few chores before dinner. You will both want to change your dress: it is nearly five o'clock, you know." With these words and a friendly nod she took herself away nearly as briskly as the servant had done.
Darracott blinked. "If that don't beat all! Wanting us to change for dinner in less than an hour!" These words were sufficient to spur Felix also, and he put from his mind the queer behaviour of Darracott's relatives and the awkwardness of his own situation until after he might be dressed for dinner.
They found the elder Mrs Darracott, a round and handsome woman in a lace cap, seated in an armchair by the fireside, with a rug across her lap. "Is that you, Richmond?" she said, beginning to turn; and then, catching sight of them instead, exclaimed "Oh, Claud! We had thought you trapped in Town by the snow!"
Bending to bestow a kiss on her plump cheek, Darracott assured her that that was not the case. "On m'way already," he explained. "I was obliged to stop in Hawkhurst at the Queens Inn. Met my friend there. Beg you will allow me to present Felix Hethersett to you, ma'am!"
Laying aside her handiwork, the lady offered a warm smile. "By all means! Mr Hethersett, I'm afraid you find us quite disordered today! My son is newly returned from the Continent and I believe there is much to do around the estate!"
Felix made his bows while Claud launched into an explanation of his presence. "The thing is, the stagecoach was at the inn as well. Tap room filled, and five persons forced to share the private parlour! What's more, there wasn't enough rooms to go around! Had to double up. The point is, coming here seemed the best course - plenty of beds, and he ain't going to make Hastings by coach in this weather, not before Christmas!"
Mrs Darracott was plainly a soft-hearted woman. The picture of Felix stuffed into an over-crowded bed in a posting-house for a week, and locked away from the loving bosom of his Mama who, she imagined, was very worried, had plainly touched her deeply. "I don't know if I could bear it," she said, "a Christmas wouldn't seem like Christmas without - pine boughs, and a Yule log, and mistletoe - for you must know that though Lord Darracott wouldn't permit it for years, last year he was persuaded, after Hugh and Anthea had decked out the Dower House! So fortunate! - And rice pudding, as well!" she added, somewhat obscurely. "You are most welcome, and you must write to your family at once, and tell your Mama you are with us!"
Felix thanked her, feeling it was not the moment for mentioning that his Mama, far from worrying, was celebrating the holiday in Greece, and had not the least notion of his last-minute decision to join the shooting-party at Hastings. He had more important things in mind: there remained not quite an hour to dress for dinner.
It was not until he had been settled in the Yellow Room, reunited with Ridgway, and dressed immaculately in the stockings and knee-breeches which were still required for dinner at Darracott Place, that Felix allowed his mind to wander again over the sequence of curious events he had encountered since arriving at the house.
As he adjusted his neckcloth with the aid of the looking glass, he remembered the strange behaviour of Anthea Darracott, and her seeming discomfiture on discovering his arrival. There was her unusual haste, and the servant's; the absence of her husband, her brother, and Darracott's brother; and most recently, as Felix dressed for dinner, a sound like weeping whose origin he could not discover. The sound was too faint to be emanating from any of the neighbouring rooms on the corridor, and though Felix had been told that animals in pain could sound quite human, he could not conceive that on an estate the size of this one, any animals would be kept near the main wing of the house.
In short, something deuced queer, if not downright havey-cavey, was afoot.
Felix, whose fastidiousness was not limited to dress, but extended to all questions of good ton, conduct, and propriety, was frankly disturbed to discover that he was enjoying himself. The potential for embarrassment remained high; but as he could see no way of extricating him from the situation before the arrival of his carriage at best, he must resign himself to the irregular circumstances.
There was a knock at the door. Opening it, Felix was only a little surprised to find Claud Darracott on the other side. "Was just about to come down," he offered.
Darracott offered an open, friendly smile. "That wasn't my purpose! I only wanted to say what a pleasure it is that you have accepted my invitation, and I hope - that is, didn't think my cousin would be here, but he's a right 'un, when he ain't making mischief! Daresay my grandfather may make a cake of himself at dinner, because he usually does. Disregard it!" he begged. "I mean, only too happy to do - whatever I can to make you comfortable."
The invitation was plain in his voice and face. Felix, finding that his mouth was quite dry, was obliged to swallow before speaking. "Much obliged!" was the most he produced, at last, with a curt bow; which was perhaps as well, for he was not entirely certain how to answer.
An affaire with a gentleman, begun in the midst of his noble family, would be a very different matter from the discreet, infrequent liaisons Felix usually satisfied himself with: at private gatherings, surrounded by like-minded fellows, and frequently without the exchange of proper names. Except for the rarity of his indulgence, he had never had a fault to find with his way of life; and he had always certain friends who might oblige him, if the need were dire. Yet he would never have considered passing a whole six hours at conversation and parlour-games with George Burnley. Two or three, perhaps, if piquet or poker were the game, and both gentlemen were imbibing freely; but not backgammon and hot rum punch, which had left both him and Darracott, when they retired, quite sober. He had found that he very much liked Darracott, and so it was clear that to accept Darracott's invitation would be a change: the question was whether a change for the better, or the worse.
Darracott's speech had brought a blush to his cheek, and Felix felt that his own face was uncomfortably warm; so they were both somewhat relieved to go down to the drawing-room together, to wait for the dinner bell. There stood two men, in addition to Anthea Darracott, who must be Darracott's cousins: one a fair-haired giant, standing well over six feet, and the other a strikingly handsome young lad with the same dark colouring as Anthea and Vincent Darracott.
"I tell you it's nothing of the kind!" said the younger gentleman passionately, pushing a hand through his hair in a distracted gesture which clearly proclaimed him, to Felix's horrified eyes, not to be a man of fashion, though his coat was far more stylishly cut than his cousin's.
"Eh, lad, I believe you!" chided Major Darracott, with gentle good humour. "Steady now!"
"Richmond, you must see it isn't what's true, but what people will believe, which Hugo is concerned with!" said Anthea. Turning with her hands on her hips and drawing breath to speak, she caught sight of them in the door and broke off: "Claud, Mr Hethersett! Do come in, and be introduced. This is my husband, Major Hugh Darracott, and my brother, Lieutenant Richmond Darracott, who is with the 7th Hussars. Richmond, Hugo, Mr Hethersett!"
Major Darracott and Lieutenant Darracott each shook Felix's hand, with a smile of simple amiability and a cheerful grin respectively; and both greeted Claud with the same friendliness.
"I am glad you've arrived!" added Richmond impulsively, clasping Claud's sleeve. "You know what Vincent is!"
"Yes, but don't think you'll get any help from me to get round him," replied Claud frankly (while anxiously checking the site of Richmond's grip for any sign of a crease). "Seems to me anyone 'ud catch cold at it, excepting maybe you!"
Richmond's laugh carried a note of mischief. "No, of course you aren't to get round him, Claud! You are meant to draw his ire!"
"You've gained a fine working knowledge of military tactics, I see!" Major Darracott congratulated him.
"Not at all," sniffed Anthea. "Diverting the ire of uncivil persons onto the innocent is one of Richmond's oldest talents!"
Major Darracott interjected, "Don't scare the lad! He'll think the blizzard's washed him up in a proper den of wolves! Don't be thinking you need to run away on horseback again only because a Darracott takes a swipe at you over the pea soup."
"Well, I hope one won't," said Mr Hethersett. "A brawl is one thing: have had 'em myself. Peas is another. Present a greater danger! Green!"
"You must hope it lands only on me, for my jacket is green already," said Richmond.
"But not, Bantam, quite the green of a pea soup. Take care of that coat, please! I went to some pains to induce you to buy it!" said Vincent Darracott, coming into the room. His drawling tone of superiority was as unmistakeable as his swarthy, long-jawed face and strong black brows. "But who is this? I perceive we entertain an outsider to the family in our midst. Hello, Hethersett! Claud, can this be your doing?"
"Yes," said Claud.
"The first to bring a friend home to meet the family - how quaint! Myself, I had always found embarrassment an insuperable barrier, but perhaps..." he trailed off with an elegant shrug. Richmond smothered a chuckle, but Vincent, flicking him a sideways glance, did not laugh.
"Nay, Vincent, you needn't feel ashamed," urged Major Darracott. "Your manners are as fine as any I've seen, I'll warrant."
"What a bouncer," remarked Anthea.
"I believe that's cant!" said her fond spouse, impressed. "But you should know, Anthea, that Vincent can turn a phrase as fine as fivepence - when he pleases!"
"Oh, that I do know!"
"Very funny," returned Vincent silkily. "And when, dear cousin, am I to enjoy the pleasure of seeing your fine Town friends at Darracott Place?"
Then Claud stepped into the fray, diverting his brother's attention as predicted. "Never, I should think. Anthea would have to invite you to the Dower House to meet 'em, first."
Vincent's mouth tightened and his eyes flashed in real pique. To Mr Hethersett, an only child, it was a revelation to witness the same behaviour in two grown men which he was accustomed to as a Nursery inmate during childhood visits spent with his Cardross cousins. Equal parts impressed and horrified, he might well have attempted to make an escape if the dinner bell had not just then sounded.
At the head of the table sat Lord Darracott, a gaunt old man with a beaklike nose and an unpleasant scowl on his face, who snorted sharply before barking "How-d'ye-do!" Also present were Darracott's parents, a forbidding matron dressed in a sober-hued silk gown and a red-faced, heavy gentleman. During the meal there was such a general interest in hearing Richmond's tales from Paris, that very little other conversation was necessary on Felix's part, aside from informing Mrs Darracott what he thought of Kent.
When the ladies had retired, however, and the port had been poured, the atmosphere became strained. It was Lord Darracott who first broke the silence, fixing Claud with a glare and snapping, "You were expected yesterday, jack-straw!"
Felix nearly blinked at this mode of address, but Claud appeared not to notice. "Should have arrived in time for dinner, too, if not for the curst snow," he explained. "Caught at the Queens Inn in Hawkhurst! The Rye Road was snowed under last night, and the end of it is that we were forced to ride here today."
"I suppose that being a devotee of posting-houses, you were delighted," Lord Darracott growled.
"No, sir!" said Claud. "At least, I don't say it was bad. Wasn't very comfortable, though. Forced to share the parlour - Viscount Pickford's daughter - a city-mushroom's wife, with a baby - and a damned ramshackle Navy cove! Hethersett as well."
"The latter, I perceive, not being numbered amongst your list of faults," observed Vincent.
"The thing is, the roads ain't likely to clear before the week is up. Not enough beds, either. The whole inn was doubled up," said Claud, ignoring his brother.
"A practice I have the greatest detestation for!" said Matthew Darracott. "To be forced into the company of sometimes quite vulgar persons is my greatest dislike, in travelling."
"And only think how distasteful, father," Vincent interrupted, "to be forced instead into the beds of quite vulgar persons! - Present company excepted, Hethersett. This fate I apprehend we have all been lucky to avoid, even, at least this weekend, Claud."
This remark, when it had sunk in, brought a flush to Claud Darracott's face, and so shocked Felix that he at first felt he must have misheard, and then that he would very much have liked to plant Vincent Darracott a facer; something which he was not entirely certain in his ability to do, but which he was very willing to attempt.
"I don't know what you mean," said Claud, scowling.
"No?" Vincent feigned surprise. "But - do I suffer under a misapprehension? I felt sure you must have been obliged to double-up in an inn before. Even I have had that experience, and I in general complete my journeys in one day whenever possible."
"I should like to have seen you drive through the blizzard last night!" said Claud, taking the bait; and the earlier portion of the conversation passed harmlessly away, without, Felix realized, on a covert look around the table, touching the comprehension of either Claud's father, or his grandfather, who both appeared to be irritated and amused.
Richmond, however, had gone rather still, with his glass of port at his lips, and his knuckles white; and Major Hugh Darracott - Felix suddenly observed - was narrowly watching him with such an astonishingly calculating look in his guileless eyes that, when it vanished, Felix could almost think he imagined it.
Lord Darracott next retired to his library, taking his son with him, and leaving the rest of them to make their own way to the drawing room. The silence was a little strained until Major Darracott said calmly, "You did a nice impression of a bear with toothache, there, Vincent!"
"Thank you, cousin."
Richmond added, frowning, "You needn't have said it so! God knows the neighbourhood already thinks that Claud has a taste for low-born women -"
"A subject on which I think we can all agree," interrupted Vincent, icily cool, "that you had better offer no comment. Excuse me, I have remembered an errand I must attend to, Richmond - to your order. Claud, do at least keep your companion out of the way." He spun on his heel and stalked in the other direction, leaving Felix less sure than ever, except that whatever was afoot in the house, Vincent Darracott had just alluded to; and whatever it was, it had put him sadly out of temper.
"What the deuce is so important, Hugo?" demanded Claud. "Never blown a cloud in my life! Nobody would believe it!"
"Nothing simpler," protested his cousin, "tell them you wish to start a fashion - jewelled cigarillo-holders, or some other finery that you'd be the expert on, not me! I don't say you'd be taken in by it, but none of us here are alive to the ways of fashion the way you are, lad."
"Not jewelled!" uttered Claud, horrified. Hugo's suggestion, though, had given him just the germ of an idea, because cigars, though gaining in popularity with military men, had never found vogue amongst the dandy-set: and Claud himself would never have been tempted, because of the lack of elegance in them. But with the right accessory, he reflected, anything might become stylish - the trick was ordering the proper holder, or box. Pondering the relative merits of engraving and enamel, he was so lost in thought that he did not at first hear Hugh's next statement, and was obliged to ask him to repeat himself -
"Did you say baby?" he cried suddenly, when a word of explanation penetrated his preoccupation. "What's this about Richmond?"
"Richmond," repeated Hugh grimly, "arrived here two days ago, bold as brass, with a French common girl in tow with hardly two words of English to rub together, with one little boy already, and another baby on the way so near arriving it may be a matter of days, says Mrs Hutchins."
Claud's eyes rounded and he gaped at his cousin in what must be a very unattractive fashion before he at last recovered his powers of speech. "Richmond? Brought his French mistress and his by-blows, here?"
Hugh shook his head more tiredly than in negation. "Anthea and Vincent and I have been fairly run off our legs, keeping it from the old man and the ladies! She's at the Dower House now. Richmond offered hardly a word of explanation, but he tells Anthea and me just this evening he's not the father!"
"He's got windmills in his head!" Claud decided. "It don't even matter which - have to be queer in the attic to bring his own mistress here, let alone a Frenchwoman, while as for children! But someone else's? Well, there's not a particle of sense in it, any way you slice it!"
"It seems his motive was charity, and the young woman begged him for help! However, there's no use fratching over it now: the question is what to do with her, and how to keep a sickening lass and two babes-in-arms under wraps! Eh, but you picked a bad time to bring your friend home, Claud!"
Claud protested instantly, "I couldn't help it - Hethersett 'ud be stranded at Hawkhurst till Christmas, like as not without a proper bed! Besides, we ain't especially friendly - acquaintances!" The reflection that this protest would have been more accurate yesterday, and that Claud had several times since then attempted to increase their intimacy, weighed only slightly on his conscience, since, thought Claud, Hugo could have no way of knowing this.
"Really?" his cousin fixed him with a curious stare that did more than one of Vincent's exquisitely-graded eyebrow arches to bring a blush to his cheek; but rather than pursue the advantage, Hugh said only, "If you say so, lad! He seems to like you, any road. I hope you'll be able to keep him well out of the way, and help distract the others."
Claud blanched. The last thing he wanted was involvement in another one of Richmond's tangles, especially as the last such plan of Hugo's making had resulted in Hugo's sticking him with a pin, as well as nearly a month cooped up in Mayfair, pretending to nurse a gunshot wound. But it was the whole family name at stake; and there was no denying Major Darracott had brought the family out of the last situation all right and tight. "I'll try," Claud promised. "But look here, what's to be done with 'em? You can't hide a bunch of French brats in the Dower House straight under m'grandfather's nose forever!"
"Nothing, until the babe's born," said Hugh. "So says Mrs Hutchins, and Richmond and Anthea take her part. It's got John Joseph in a taking, for the two of them have been fratching over who's to rule at the Dower House since day one, but now there's nursemaiding to be done it's her word is law! As for after - I've not an idea."
The whole situation filled Claud with a mild feeling of dread, but at least he could be grateful that he was not called upon to create plans, attempt to communicate with French persons, or take charge of any children; and if his part so far consisted only in diverting attention from his cousins, and particularly absorbing the time of Felix Hethersett, he could undertake it with confidence.
At the end of the card-game, Richmond invited Claud and Hethersett to join him for billiards; but within a few minutes, the door of the billiard room opened, and his sister put her head in, requesting that he show her particularly which hangings needed replacing, as she fancied she had some suitable silk at the Dower House, and would like to take some measurements.
"Oh, blast it!" said Richmond wryly, offering his cue to Claud with a smile. "I was winning, too, Anthea!"
Claud was presently alone with Mr Hethersett, leaning on his cue-stick and observing with a new motive the precise, finicking movements as that exquisite moved around the table, lined up his shot, and bent to make it; or, if not a new motive, a new consciousness, that the circumstances made it past unwise, nearly impossible to lightly enter a casual liaison; and that knowing it had not affected the determination he had formed to pursue a nearer relation with Mr Hethersett in the least.
"Lost your taste for billiards?" said Hethersett.
"Thinking," said Claud, excusing himself. "Always a quarrel on the go in this house: I ain't heard half so much fuss in London these three months as I have here today! If it don't make one want to turn around and go straight to Town again!"
"Can't," said Hethersett practically, but not without sympathy.
Claud shook his head, and abandoning the billiard table for stronger forms of comfort, went to the cabinet for a bottle of claret. "I'll tell you what it is," he continued. "Runs in the family! Vincent sharpens his tongue on everybody, and cuts up rough whenever he is out of temper; flies into a rage, too, just like m'grandfather! Anthea and Hugh bandy words with 'em for sport. Richmond joined the army, because he was forever kicking up larks, and he ain't satisfied without causing somebody a panic! It's me who's out of the ordinary in this lot: I'm a dashed stuffed-shirt, in fact! What's more, I like boredom. Claret?"
"Thank you," said Hethersett, taking the glass from him. "London ain't boring precisely: balls, routs, clubs, parties. Bit of sameness, perhaps: decorous."
"The Darracotts ain't decorous," said Claud, resignedly, drinking deep.
Hethersett drank as well, perhaps feeling that neither agreeing nor disagreeing with this statement would be politic. "Hold your own fairly well," he observed, after lowering the glass.
Claud startled, wine sloshing in the glass but fortunately not near the rim. "Eh?"
"Keep your cool," elaborated Hethersett. "You ain't a pudding-heart! Answer back, even to the old gentleman. If it was me, don't know if I would. In fact, I didn't: Grandfather Cardross was a regular bear! Giles answered back to him; I didn't!"
To Claud this praise was so pleasing that he felt obliged to have another glass of wine, pouring another for his companion, too; and after drinking down half of it, he turned and almost swaggered back to the billiard-table. "I don't so much wish to play at billiards," he remarked, leaning his hips against the table's edge, where he arrayed himself carefully, his feet braced apart, and legs open.
"I - no," said Hethersett slowly, "don't think I do either."
"Then," suggested Claud, "we ought to think of something else to play." The smile he gave Hethersett then was not one he would ever have thought to use in the house of his ancestors; but, as he was facing away from the door, which was soundly closed, he did. Men less ready to be charmed than Mr Hethersett had succumbed to it; it was guileless but heated, and seemed to invite Mr Hethersett to share in a joke.
Mr Hethersett drew breath carefully, then said, "No: better notion. Show me more of the house."
"Happy to," said Claud with alacrity, and they departed the billiard room in perfect understanding.
Claud had spent a great deal of time at Darracott Place from a very young age; he and his cousins had together explored the decaying hangings of the Queen's Bedchamber, the rotten floorboards of the house's crumbling mediæval wing; and he had many times run down these same corridors chased by a brother five years his elder. Thus it was surprising, that the path between the billiard room, and the somewhat disused corridor on which the guest chambers were located, had never seemed longer.
"The old stair," explained Claud, leading Mr Hethersett up the architectural feature named, "nearer the guest chambers." After the unaccustomed length of the walk, he was equally surprised to discover they had arrived so quickly at Hethersett's room; and it was with a small measure of trepidation that he turned the key in the lock behind them.
At the foot of a massively carved oaken bed which had seen better days sat a heavy chest, the depository of some earlier generation of Darracott bride's trousseau; this being precisely the height of a chair, Hethersett sat on it to remove shoes and stockings, while Claud lit a branch of candles from the fire. Some few minutes were occupied in each gentleman removing his cravat and setting it aside to be re-tied. In Middlesex, Claud had tangled his fingers in Mr Hethersett's cravat, crumpling it sadly, before finally tugging it free of its knot; but tonight there remained the return to his own bedchamber to be thought of.
Smoothing his neckcloth over the back of a chair, to prevent the formation of any creases, Claud looked up to find Hethersett standing close behind him, near enough that the flames of candles nearby were reflected in his blue eyes. "Allow me to help you out of your coat," he said.
Claud tilted his head, and put out his arms to assist him in this aim; but Mr Hethersett, in no hurry, smoothed his hand down the coat's sleeve first, then its side-seam, ending at Claud's waist in a firm caress. "Stultz!" he observed, tracing the lapels, and finally setting to work on the buttons; "Don't wear it myself. Don't like his work in general."
"I shouldn't have thought you did," retorted Claud, shivering a little as Mr. Hethersett eased the coat back off his shoulders.
"It's a damn fine coat, though," said Mr Hethersett apologetically. "Dashing shade - cut quite a figure!"
"Some prefer Weston," allowed Claud, mollified by this concession, which had probably cost the tasteful and moderate Mr Hethersett something to say. "But it's Stultz or Nugee for my money."
"Ain't like Weston: his cut don't call attention to itself. Can hardly take one's eyes from you," complained Mr Hethersett, lending credence to his claim by pausing to drink in the appearance of Claud stripped to his shirtsleeves, and quite abandoning his task of removing from him his resplendent white satin waistcoat.
Claud, grown impatient, dispensed with Mr Hethersett's services to remove the rest of his raiment himself; an arrangement which, besides expediency, recommended itself to him by allowing him to better observe at a distance as Hethersett turned away to hang his shirt, exposing to the glow of fire and candles the smooth expanse of his back, pale and rosy and dappled with a multitude of faint brown spots, as though he had been in the sun. Even in unfastening his breeches and unmentionables Hethersett's movements, Claud observed, were economical and graceful; his shape was stocky without being especially powerful nor in perfect form, but still it was pleasing, from the soft flesh round his middle, and the brown curls on his chest, to the solid muscles which sporting his canvas at Jackson's had given to his arms and shoulders, and to the wet pink bow of his mouth, which reminded Claud pleasantly of the excellent use he could put it to.
"D'you have a preference?" enquired Mr Hethersett courteously, these preparations dispensed with, as Claud fondled him familiarly.
"No," said Claud, surprised, and ventured a firmer stroke. "Why?"
"Ah -" Mr Hethersett, appreciative of his efforts, required a moment to collect his thoughts. "Last time. All to my orders!"
Claud could not restrain a breathless chuckle at this. "Well, it was very much to my taste, I assure you!" Applying himself to this assurance, he inadvertently caused Mr Hethersett to stumble back against the side of the bed; and by unspoken accord, they climbed into it. "Though, actually, I do have a preference: just thought of it!" added Claud. "Kissing!"
Mr Hethersett, eager to accommodate his wishes, wrapped an arm around his slim waist under the covers to assist him into the perfect position, and, after an exploratory nuzzle at his jaw, commenced to kiss him firmly.
At length Claud discovered other preferences: the sounds Mr Hethersett made when kissed on the neck; the soft flesh low on his belly; the dappling of spots which lay across his thighs, imperfectly concealed in the springy curls of golden-brown hair; the serious attention with which he devoted himself to kissing and sucking Claud's prick and lapping up its spendings.
Exhausted after their ecstasy ebbed away, they rested for some minutes with Hethersett still lying between Claud's thighs, breathing gustily onto his neck, where he had disposed himself after a lingering kiss to share the flavour of emissions. His bulk was greater, but not uncomfortably so. Claud, agreeably engaged in tracing with light fingertips the curve of Hethersett's left shoulder, bestirred himself at length to ask doubtfully, "D'you really like the colour of my coat?"
"Not precisely the thing," Mr Hethersett admitted, lifting his face a very little. "Suits you, though: lighter colours!" After an interval of thought, he added, "Better try a greyer shade. Touch of violet! Be just the thing."
"Violet!" said Claud, admiring. "Capital! Dash it, Hethersett - Felix - may I call you Felix? - your rig ain't what I like, but you've got a fine eye!"
"Yes, of course," said Felix. However, though not insensible of the honour of this encomium, he was understandably stung to add, "Your rig ain't what I like either!"
"You couldn't wear it in any case," said Claud frankly.
"I should think not."
This understanding reached, Claud turned the subject to one which had been weighing upon his mind, and took simultaneously the opportunity to try his new permission: "Your eyes are extremely blue, Felix."
Correctly interpreting this statement as a compliment, Felix kissed him again before saying, "Ought to dress and go down again - put in an appearance. Still early. One of your cousins likely to return to the billiard room."
Claud regretfully agreeing that this was the case, they put this program into action. "But as for later...," said Felix delicately, as he finished re-tying his neckcloth - achieving a result which would never have passed Claud's inspection, as he had exchanged a Trône d'Amour for a Mail Coach (a softer style, and more forgiving of wrinkles), but which would no doubt escape the notice of the rest of his family.
"Obliged to send for Polyphant to undress: can't have the servants talking. Shouldn't think there would be any difficulty after, at least, not until morning."
As they descended the back stair (carefully, for, as Claud pointed out, some of the boards were quite rotten), Felix suddenly exclaimed, "Say!"
"Call me Claud!" Claud begged.
"Claud, then. Should we say you've showed me the house?"
Claud greeted this question sceptically. "It don't sound at all the sort of thing I should do."
Felix, readily willing to believe this, abandoned the subject, thinking that the Darracotts were sufficiently absorbed in their own problems to be unlikely to make any inquiries.
Indeed, so far from doing so, Hugo and Vincent - all that remained of the party - were disposed in the collection of armchairs before the fire in the saloon next to the billiard room, engaged in a quiet rubber of Casino, and neither showed any interest in their return, but merely invited them to the table. A few more hands, and both Claud and Hugo were smothering yawns.
"I don't know when I have attended a more stimulating house-party," said Vincent dryly. "There remains only for half the company to come down with a chill, and the mood of festivity will be complete."
"Think on, a chill 'ud be a good way out of it!" said Hugo. "With that excuse, you could hide away in your room undisturbed!"
"He couldn't," contradicted Claud. "Not undisturbed. Not with Mama in the house! She don't fuss and hang over one, but she'd disturb him all right, if he said he had a fever - particularly if he was in no state for visitors, and didn't at all wish to have the doctor called in!"
"You may listen to my brother, gentlemen," said Vincent with a smile. "As you perceive, he speaks with the voice of experience."
"That ain't your problem at all," interjected Felix unexpectedly.
Vincent twitched an eyebrow in interest, and Hugo invited genially, "What is it?"
"Party ain't unstimulating," he elaborated. "If anything, too much of it! Tense ain't the word. What you need is a breather!"
Claud, in anxiety for what sort of set-down his brother would next deliver, watched instead as the second eyebrow rose to join the first; then Vincent murmured, "A very palpable hit!"
"Yes," said Hugo, "and I think I'll take mine at home: it's time I was asleep! Vincent, if you see Richmond at breakfast, tell him where I've gone, please!"
Vincent, in fact, abandoned the card table as well, and followed Hugo from the room, after an ironic bow in the direction of the card table. Claud rose from the table promptly when they were gone, and smiled at Felix, practically unable to help himself; considering that, Richmond's crack-brained schemes and his other cousins' understandable panic aside, he did not know when he had last enjoyed a house-party more.
At Darracott Place, breakfast was the favourite meal of the day for the majority of residents. Mrs Darracott and Lady Aurelia were pleased to take breakfast in their rooms, whether of languidness or a desire to avoid company one might guess; Anthea and Hugo, who occasionally breakfasted at the main house, where much of their time was yet spent, preferred to do so early, and frequently avoided the company of Lord Darracott altogether; while the fewer persons intruded on his breakfast, the better pleased their grandfather was.
When Claud entered the breakfast room the next day, Matthew and Vincent, equally as disinclined to conversation as their progenitor, sat across the table from each other, eating in silence, while Lord Darracott glowered over his kippers and roast beef at the head of the table. Perfunctory nods were exchanged and, in his grandfather's case, grunts; and he settled down to a cup of coffee and piled his plate high. In contrast to his father and brother, Claud's mood was light, and his appetite heavy, owing to the same cause: having spent most of the night in Felix Hethersett's bed, and slept very well for at least half of it. Waking before the arrival of the maids to kindle the fire, he had crept back to his own bed and slept quite satisfactorily for several more hours, and was now prepared to encounter glowering grandfathers, cutting remarks, and possibly even unforeseen emergencies of Richmond's authorship.
Richmond, who might have been supposed to be the most Friday-faced in the house in Claud's view, bounded into the room in snow-dusted top-boots and buckskins, his face ruddy with cold and hair tumbled around his ears.
"You haven't been riding in this weather!" snapped his grandfather.
"As it happens, I haven't," said Richmond cheerfully, helping himself to eggs and kippers. "I went out to the stables, and stayed to look at the new whelps. Some of them resemble Farrago quite strongly, and Little thinks there are good hunters amongst them."
"They may well freeze, if Little thinks to keep them out there! And if he thinks they're coming indoors, he is much mistaken!"
"Oh, they have been sleeping in the kitchen until recently, I'm told," said Richmond, in a deceptively docile tone. Anyone would suspect him of baiting Lord Darracott purposely, thought Claud.
"Who's the sire?" enquired Vincent, emerging for the first time from his thoughts.
"Jonas Lamb's Bramble - from Blackthorn, you know," said Richmond, settling beside Vincent with his plate.
"The pups look promising?"
Eagerness kindled, Richmond leapt into a rambling speech beginning with "Little says," to which Claud, having no interest in hunting, failed entirely to attend.
Sufficient time had elapsed for Vincent to polish off his eggs and Felix to enter the breakfast room before the speech wound down, and Vincent said, in reply to something or other, "That reminds me, Bantam. Our tallest cousin charged me with a message for you: he meant to ride out in the estates this morning on some errand or other. Dare I hope this intelligence is less obscure to you than me?"
Richmond tilted his head, giving his cousin a quizzical look. "No - that is," a mischievous grin lit his countenance, "I'd wager so, for you never lack daring, Vincent! I, however, am a military man, you know; we like a sure thing!"
Claud snorted indelicately. "What a load of hum-gudgeon! Like a sure thing! It seems to me you like nothing better than a set of long odds!"
Richmond's face, at this, turned unexpectedly and queerly pensive. "Oh, I like that too," he assured Claud. "In this instance, however, I mean to ask my sister: I daresay she'll clear up the mystery! Your servant, grandpapa." And making a short bow, he departed the room as quickly as he'd come in.
Vincent, his sardonic eyebrow elevated slightly, returned to composedly sipping his coffee.
"'Morning," said Felix, taking the first opportunity to speak, though he had by now consumed a whole slice of toast. Claud, experiencing an unaccustomedly powerful urge to smile, stuffed a forkful of eggs in his mouth.
It was a great relief to Claud when first his father, then his grandfather departed the room, for until last night the possibility had never occurred to him of sharing a room with them and someone whom he had ever fucked (or hoped to be fucked by) at the same time; and his pleasant memories of the night before, fired up again at Felix's entrance, were causing him to endure a great deal of discomfort, whenever his gaze fell upon his parent or grandparent.
His brother was another matter: long aware of Claud's habits, Vincent had once characterized them as "schoolboy-stuff", but since then never offered a word on the subject until last night's double-edged comments about vulgar persons in his bed. Indeed, Claud had occasionally suspected him of being sympathetic, for he had once observed Vincent, at Watier's, to interrupt a bout of rumour-mongering on the subject of Charles Balmore in order to inform Fotheringay and Stone that he'd be happy to back Balmore over either of them in a fight, for Balmore (he said) was more skilled at handy-blows than the pair of them together.
Before leaving, however, Lord Darracott commanded Vincent to desire Richmond to come to him in his office; and so Vincent went out after him, with very little delay and only one ironic remark that fortune having reversed, it seemed now to be his role always to run after Richmond.
"Pleasant night?" enquired Felix politely, when they were alone.
"Yes," said Claud, grinning. "Thank you. Were you comfortable?"
"Dashed comfortable! Slept very well."
"Peculiar's what it is," said Claud. "I've slept at Darracott Place a hundred times before, you know, and never been quite so comfortable before!"
"Really?" said Felix. "So uncomfortable as that?"
"Not that!" Claud hastened to say. "At least, I don't say I dislike it; what I mean is, no one could! A fellow needs to sleep, and there've been plenty of times I've been near dying of exhaustion, and it hardly mattered where I slept. But ever since I first discovered - at Eton - how much I liked sleeping - "
"Eton, eh?" said Felix.
Claud nodded. "Remember it quite well! Since Eton I've known I liked to sleep - it ain't that. There's a difference between sleeping well, and passing a really comfortable night, though! Well, I had no wish to get up this morning! If it hadn't been necessary -"
"Must have breakfast," nodded Felix.
"Yes, breakfast," Claud agreed. "You see?"
Felix frowned a little, and helped himself to another cup of coffee. "Why?"
"Why last night?"
Claud wondered at first if Felix was funning, but there was still that faint crease between his brows; so Claud bent his mind to the question, and at last came up with - "New linen!"
"You saying it's sleeping in new linen that's made you comfortable?" said Felix.
"Well, yes!" said Claud. "I mean to say - makes all the difference, what you sleep in! Get linen you like - it stands to reason you ought to try to use it again!"
Felix appeared to take this proposition under advisement. He said nothing, at first, though the line between his brows had smoothed away; and he drank his coffee methodically. What the deuce, Claud wondered, could be found in this assertion to quarrel with?
"Dash it," he burst out.
Felix blinked and stared at him, surprised by his impatience.
"If you feel you 'ud sleep better in - in London after all, only say so!" Claud exclaimed. "Of course, I don't believe the road is clear yet, because we should have heard if it was. But the chaise will likely arrive later today."
"Not trying to irritate you: noticed the linen particularly myself! Pleasure to sleep in it!"
"Oh," said Claud, a little confused.
"Was merely thinking," Felix explained, "whether it would be wise to try taking it to London."
It was perhaps fortunate that no servants ventured into the breakfast room during this exchange, as they could have been pardoned for forming the impression that the discussion concerned stealing (or, stranger still, purchasing) some of the threadbare bedlinens which their mistresses - Mrs Darracott as well as the housekeeper, Mrs Dudgeon - were frequently heard to lament.
Moving from the breakfast room to the morning room, both gentlemen settled into chairs by the fire, Felix taking up a book, and Claud amusing himself with a game of Patience for a little while. It was not long, however, before a great deal of noise outside the door brought them out into the main hall, where they observed quite a spectacle.
The elder Mrs Darracott, in a handsome morning gown of deep blue twilled silk and a voluminous shawl, stood clutching a very small child, surrounded by a collection of persons Claud recognized as Ferring, Hugo's valet; Mrs Dudgeon, the housekeeper; Chollacombe, the butler; and a number of footmen.
"You must ask all the servants at once!" insisted Mrs Darracott. "Of course someone knows him! - Claud! I am so distracted - a child, in the house, and Ferring says he found him! No one knows who he belongs to, or where he came from!"
Perceiving that this must be the French child, Claud realized that he must at all costs be prevented from speaking, at least not intelligibly, to anyone; and yet how to achieve this aim he could not devise, since even if it had been at all likely that he should ask to be given charge of it, he would have not the least idea how to go on. From the stricken look on his face, poor Ferring was deeply conscious of having failed in his appointed task (whatever it was which had brought the child here).
Here it was Felix who unexpectedly saved the day. "Must be upsetting the little fellow!" he said - a remark which evinced considerable powers of invention, since, far from distressed, the child was calm and appeared to be considerably interested by his surroundings. "Besides - no wish to disturb Lord Darracott! Come into the morning-room!"
Mrs Darracott obeyed this suggestion; but the servants, having been given no orders, hesitated, and Ferring especially appeared alarmed. Must have been charged with the care of the fellow: probably feared to lose him, though what he could possibly fear with a master like Hugh Claud didn't know.
"Chollacombe - Mrs Dudgeon - my aunt will want anyone who might know the boy to, ah, look at him! What I mean is, anyone who don't know if they know him. Discover if anyone knows a child of his size and - what was his appearance?"
"I believe the boy was dark-haired, sir," said Chollacombe.
"Exactly. But don't send 'em in yet. No doubt Mrs Darracott will ring! Ferring - you found the boy - you come, too!"
In the morning-room, the child had been set on the floor and had begun to look around him, and Felix was bending his efforts, with remarkable success, to soothing the agitation of Mrs Darracott.
"- One of the servants will recognize him, no doubt," he was saying.
"But what are we to do with him until then?" said Mrs Darracott. "His clothes are not fine - though he is wrapped quite warmly, you perceive, he is plainly a farmer's or a labourer's child. Oh, dear, his mama must be quite distracted with worry!"
"Shouldn't take long," improvised Felix.
"Tell you what," said Claud, having a stroke of genius. "Ought to ask m'mother."
"Oh, Aurelia -! No, she would be so shocked!"
Claud, who knew his mother perhaps best of all involved, rather suspected that she would consider such irregularities a feature of life with the Darracott family, which she would regard with disapproval. As she would never say so, however, this was not an evil of which he was frightened; but the consideration that she would very likely mention the child to his father or grandfather, at dinner if not before, stayed his hand. "Very true!" he agreed. "All right: send a note to Anthea!"
Mrs Darracott wavered visibly.
"Said she would look up some stuff for curtains today," offered Felix quite truthfully. This was the clincher; Mrs Darracott was persuaded to go in search of paper and ink with which to pen a note to her daughter.
"So, this is the tyke," said Claud grimly, once he was fairly certain they were in no danger. He looked at Felix: it was too late for secrecy there, and impossible to send him from the room.
"I'm so sorry, sir! But his poor mama was feeling so sickly that Mrs Hutchins said I must take him away where she couldn't hear the crying - and Mrs Darracott - the young Mrs Darracott - said that he was talking about horses in French, so I thought if I just took him to the stable - but he slipped away from me, and Mrs Darracott and Mrs Dudgeon happened to see him -"
"French! My aunt 'ud be bound to understand that! We must hope he don't start talking again!" said Claud, nearly succumbing to the urge to tug on his own hair. "What on earth am I to do?"
Fortunately or not, he was given little time to make this decision. A footstep could be heard in the hall, and the door swung open to the sound of Richmond's laughing voice expostulating, "Really, Mama, you must be hoaxing me!"
He froze in the door, though, catching sight of the child. Really, Claud could almost believe he had never heard of the boy before, so convincing was his look of blank shock. "Good God! Wandering the house, you say? He appears to be outfitted for a polar expedition! The poor thing, he must be roasting!"
Not a glance did Richmond give to Ferring, who stood nearly quaking, but came into the room and knelt directly before the boy, beginning to divest him of his wrappings. "He seems to be wearing as much as I am! Whoever lost this child has certainly dressed him with care!"
"Dab hand with him, ain't you?" murmured Claud, watching in amazement as Richmond deftly unfastened another garment.
This earned him a quick, sharp look from Richmond. "Oh, we've several papas in my regiment!" he explained.
"But what are we to do with him?" demanded Richmond's Mama.
"Do?" Richmond chuckled. "Lord, Mama, I don't know! Feed him, I suppose?"
"Ain't time for nuncheon yet," inserted Felix. "Seems happy."
Richmond, who had by this time removed a pile of excess fabric from the boy, seemed struck by this. "He does, though! Pretty-behaved!"
"Chollacombe and Dudgeon are to ask the servants after him," Claud said at last, feeling it was important that Richmond be warned. "Can't have come from nowhere: somebody must know him!"
"If only cousin Hugo were here," said Richmond, with a tolerable, if slightly strained, assumption of casual amusement. "He'd know just what to do! Here, Mama, calm yourself! Sit and ring for a glass of water: you will fly into a conniption! Perhaps Chollacombe will have found the boy's people! Claud, I will stay with Mama: perhaps Hugo has returned! Will you go and look? Ferring, you may as well return to the Dower House!"
Felix, looking a little dazed, followed Claud out of the room, with one questioning look which it was out of Claud's power to answer, other than to say, as Ferring sped away from them, "If Hugo ain't here, nothing for it: have to find Vincent!"
By the simple expedient of walking down to the stables to ask Little, Claud ascertained that Hugh was still absent. Vincent proved more elusive, as he had not taken a horse out, but was not to be found in any of the first-floor saloons. "Either he's gone into the old wings, or he's gone to his room: either way, I ain't going after him," concluded Claud, at the end of his quest, throwing himself down onto the nearest chair to the door in the large saloon. "I'm damned if I know what to do!"
"I certainly don't," admitted Felix. "Or what the devil is going on!"
"I know," said Claud distractedly. "It's a rare tangle! And all Richmond's doing, of course! I told you about him," he added bitterly. "What's more, I really think there will be no escaping the scandal this time! There's no way of possibly keeping the whole from you, now, in any case: Richmond's smuggled a common French girl across the Channel with him and brought her here, in secret! That boy is hers, and what's more, Hugo tells me she's in a family way: supposed to pop any day!"
"Good God!" uttered Felix. "Why?"
"That's the question that is plaguing me!" said Claud. "Hugo says the children ain't even his! He said he thought Richmond was motivated by charity!"
"Watched him with the boy: didn't act like a father," pointed out Felix.
"No," Claud agreed. "But that ain't any help! - And think: we could be sharing a parlour with Commodore Mason and Mrs Morble, in Hawkhurst!"
The large saloon not being intended for morning use, the fire had not been kindled; Claud had chosen it merely because the morning room containing his aunt, he could not have spoken freely in it. The weather was still too cool, however, for sitting in a room without a fire. Claud got to his feet. "Felix," he said, moodily.
Felix, lost in contemplation of Richmond's problem, looked up at the still-startling sound of his given name.
"I've got half a mind to actually show you the house," said Claud recklessly. It occurred to him, after speaking, that he perhaps took Felix's complicity too much for granted; after all, all discussions of London and linen aside, Felix was known to be a high stickler, and a less proper picture could hardly have been given him of the Darracotts.
Felix, however, was still enjoying himself; and he accepted this invitation at once.
And that was how Anthea Darracott came to find her cousin kissing Felix Hethersett in the family's ancestral portrait gallery.
Certainly both Claud and Felix had been behaving very incautiously; but, in consideration, the gallery was quite long, and the old wing of the house so deserted, that they could hear anyone approaching from quite far away; but recognizing the voice calling his name as Anthea's, Claud was perhaps less quick in moving away from Felix than he otherwise would have been. In fact, they were no longer touching when they entered her view, but Anthea, taking in the scene at a glance, ran forward, exclaiming impulsively, "Oh, thank goodness!"
"Anthea!" said Claud in some embarrassment.
"You must both come at once," said his cousin breathlessly, ignoring the note of reproach in his voice; "Angelique has actually entered labour, and Mrs Hutchins says there is no time to wait for a doctor!"
"Entered - she's giving birth?" gasped Felix.
"Yes, so there is no time to lose! Only Ferring is there, and Mrs Hutchins may need help at any time!"
"Yes, but -! Dash it, Anthea! What the devil do you expect me to do?" said Claud.
"Well, you see - Angelique is asking for Richmond!" said Anthea, rather desperately. "He is the only one she really knows, and there is no denying his French is by far the best! She regards him as a benefactor, you know! He has been very kind to her."
"Yes, he has!" said Claud. "A dashed sight too kind!"
"Claud, there's no time," she said impatiently, and seized his sleeve in a firm grip.
"What - don't! You'll crumple it!" said an alarmed Claud, drawn along in her wake by a desire to save his coat.
Ignoring Claud's protests, Anthea addressed Felix over her shoulder instead. "Mr Hethersett, you must excuse us: not that there could be any excuse! When Ferring related to me what had happened, I was so distressed that you were forced to be a party to our intrigues! I am glad to perceive a reason for your loyalty to Claud: and we are all quite fortunate in his choice of friend!"
"Not at all," said Felix. "Happy to help!"
As they descended the old stair, rather faster than was strictly prudent, Anthea returned her attention to Claud and said, "You must stay with Jean-Pierre, and prevent Mama from alerting grandpapa, or Aunt Aurelia, to his presence!"
Here, for the second time that day, Felix interrupted unexpectedly to offer a better plan: "No. It won't do!"
"If there were another way -!"
"There is," he said firmly. "What you need is to take the boy back!"
"I can hardly do so without explanation!"
"Not without explanation. Say you've found the parents - applied directly to you! Looking for the boy and met you first. Makes perfect sense! Take Lieutenant Darracott with you!"
"Oh!" she said. "Of course - how stupid of me! And Claud, you must go directly to the Dower House!"
"No! I say!"
"You needn't attend the birthing, or see any blood - you may drink tea downstairs the while!"
On receiving this assurance on the point which had been preying on his mind - for he had the greatest dislike of blood - Claud fell in with the plan at last, from lively curiosity. What use his cousin could suppose him to be he did not know, but to stay at the main house, and forego the opportunity of seeing Richmond's reunion with his new dependants, must have been, in Claud's view, the action of a zany.
Felix, however, though not a zany, was in some real doubt of the appropriateness of their being there; but as Claud was perfectly correct that he was already aware of enough to ruin Richmond and his family several times over, and he, too, felt curiosity, he was able to put aside his embarrassment, and go with Claud to the Dower House. The wind was blowing, but the path through the snow had fortunately been well-trodden, so that they arrived in only a little disorder, and were soon tending the fire in the drawing room, which must have been abandoned in haste when the child was discovered missing, or Mrs Darracott called away to soothe the mother - Felix had at least an idea that the process was quite distressing, and uncomfortable, though this impression was mercifully without particulars.
Ferring, answering the door to them with the cryptic intelligence that John Joseph would have him by the ear, and that Ferring could only wish him luck on his errand, had immediately run away upstairs again, and his voice and footfall could occasionally be distinguished from above, mixed with the quieter tones which must belong to the housekeeper, and occasional and quite alarming cries of pain.
"Good God," Claud shuddered, after one frightful wail. "And my cousin would have us drink tea!" He turned the key in the corner cabinet, and, investigating within, presently emerged with a bottle of rum instead, which he poured into a pair of glasses.
A metallic crash from upstairs sounded in the midst of this task; startled, Claud swore and splashed liquor onto the table. "Vincent will be right at home in this!" he predicted. "He need not regret being snowed in, and unable to see a mill!"
Having attended a number of mills in his time, and enjoyed them tolerably well, although they were not among his favoured modes of entertainment, Felix could have corrected this misapprehension of the level of noise and disorder obtaining at one. However fond a pugilist or blood of the fancy might be of blood, however ready to display his bluff, and however unconcerned by chaos, he might still be moved to unease by cries such as these. In spite of the quantity of injury involved, a mill gave rise to few wails or cries of pain, and far more to grunts, shouts, and roars of anger from the combatants or encouragement from the crowd. Suspecting that Claud would be as irritated as enlightened by this information, Felix kept his counsel, and gratefully accepted his glass of rum.
It was not long before they were interrupted by the arrival of Claud's cousins with the French boy, Jean-Pierre as the younger Mrs Darracott had called him; and this was in fact a welcome distraction, even though Lieutenant Darracott's first act, on ascertaining that the room was occupied by persons known to him, was to thrust the child fully-clothed at the first person in his reach, which circumstance dictated to be Felix.
Felix had never held a child before, at least not since his cousin Letty had been a babe in arms, and he but ten years of age; and Jean-Pierre, who had seemed so calm in the morning-room at Darracott Place, compounded his new nursemaid's intimidation by recognizing about him familiar surroundings, and setting up at once a wail (in French) for his Mama. Lieutenant Darracott had of course by this time vanished up the stairs, without even pausing to remove his top-coat.
Comprehending the substance of the piercing cries, but too flustered to respond to them in French, Felix cast an urgent look at his hostess; but Anthea Darracott only said, "You are here! How fortunate! - Jean-Pierre, please calm yourself! Your mama is in bed, and you may see her soon!"
The reply was too garbled by tears for Felix to understand, and perhaps for Mrs Darracott as well; but as she was not attending, but had gone back out into the hall, this was of no moment.
"They mean to leave us with the boy!" said Claud, his indignant tone unconsciously echoing (though more quietly) Jean-Pierre's. "I might have known!"
Recalling that the child had stood unassisted earlier, Felix tried putting him on the floor; but he simply stood red-faced where he was put, tears running down his cheeks, and saying "J'veux ma maman!" and "J'veux pas!", over and over. "What the deuce are we to do with him?" said Felix.
"Dashed if I know!" said Claud, watching Jean-Pierre with much the look he might have given a small dog known to bite. "Have a drink!" he recommended, suiting action to words.
This idea was not unappealing, but Felix, having been handed the child, felt it would be improper to simply abandon him - however willing he was to be abandoned - in favour of liquor. "I've a notion!" he said suddenly. "Take the extra clothes off him! Lieutenant Darracott did it!"
"D'you think it will make him stop crying?" Claud asked, kneeling down in front of the boy.
"No," said Felix, not troubling to wrap it up in clean linen.
The woollen cap was plain enough; the quilted coat was quite long, and possessed a number of buttons on both sides, as well as a tie under the chin, but at length it came off, to reveal a second overall. Happily, Claud's memory of wearing a similar garment provided the key to its unfastening, located under the arms and in the back; and so absorbed was he in his task that he did not at once notice when Jean-Pierre's sobs gave way to an intrigued silence. Thus it came as a very unpleasant shock to him when the child, being freed from his overall, lunged instantly at him with, thought Felix, much the speed and determination of a small dog, and gripped with both small fists the folds of Claud's exquisite neckcloth.
Even from Felix this drew a wince. Claud, understandably, reacted more strongly, with a thunderstruck shout of "What the devil!"
Jean-Pierre, absorbed in his new toy, spared the owner of it only a curious glance before returning his attention to more pressing matters.
"That's my neckcloth - a perfect Mathematical! No! That is - No! Release it at once!" he expostulated, without appreciable effect.
"No sense taking it back now," Felix informed him, not unsympathetically: "it's perfectly ruined! Shouldn't wonder if it was soiled as well! Better borrow one from your cousin!"
"Borrow one of Hugo's neckcloths?" said Claud, momentarily diverted from Jean-Pierre, who, evincing considerable concentration, had climbed onto his knee and was blowing contented bubbles to himself. "Have you gone mad? The paltriest things! No! Entirely insufficient!"
Felix had, in fact, made note of Major Darracott's predilection for the narrower Osbaldeston knot; though it was winter, he had thought its simplicity not inappropriate for a military gentleman, and one, moreover, of such remarkable size. "You're right," he admitted. "Have to send Ferring for a new one. Later!"
"You may give him your neckcloth," Claud retorted, stung. "I don't mean to!"
All his efforts, however, to remove Jean-Pierre from his person met with failure. The boy did not cry; however, his grip was strong, and he used both his hands to great advantage, so that every time one was loosened, he latched on again with the other. Felix came to his aid, but his prediction for the neckcloth - that it was both soiled, and irreparably crumpled - had proven correct; and Jean-Pierre immediately wriggled so furiously that he slid out of Felix's hands, and seizing Claud's leg at the knee, used it to pull himself up and reach for the object of his interest again.
"No -!" moaned Claud, making no further efforts to resist his advances. He eventually, with the aid of a second glass of rum, became resigned to his fate, though observing that he would greatly have preferred his liquor in the form of hot rum punch, a sentiment with which Felix was in complete agreement.
Vincent arrived at the Dower House shortly thereafter to discover his brother seated in Hugo's large wing-chair, his head turned to the side in order to sip his drink, with Jean-Pierre standing in his lap, and halfway through his self-appointed task of unravelling backwards the mysteries of the Mathematical.
The sight startled a rarely good-humoured laugh from him. "Well, if this isn't a pretty picture!"
"I'd like to see you have resisted him," said Claud sourly. "Only way he'd shut his gob!"
"I would express an insincere surprise to find you of the party, Hethersett," observed Vincent, "but rather than waste our time, I will simply relate my experiences of the past hour. On emerging from my chamber I was informed that a labourer's babe was found wandering unattended, outside in the snow, and half frozen to death, by my aunt, and that no one being aware of its provenance, my brother subsequently - I confess the connection here continues to elude me - turned the house upside-down searching for me. As Crimplesham tells me the child's parents subsequently applied to my aunt for his return, I must either conclude that they were instantly prevailed upon, for no reason I can perceive, to sell their offspring to Claud; or that another chapter in the litany of Richmond's misdeeds is in fact the cause of all the fuss."
"You know very well it's the French girl's child!" said his brother impatiently.
"I confess that was my suspicion," drawled Vincent.
"Girl's in childbed," Felix explained. "House in an uproar - housekeeper set Major Darracott's valet to watch the child, with instructions to take him away from his mother! Silly thing to do: must know in a house of this size it's impossible. Took him to the manor - observed by Mrs Darracott. Your cousin brought us back here: the Major ain't back yet, and the chit was asking for the Lieutenant -"
At this point Felix was interrupted by a high-pitched shriek of pain from upstairs, in vivid illustration of his narrative, so that Vincent's sceptical expression was quickly transformed to one of stupefaction, tinged with the same wince of horror induced in Felix and Claud by each of the cries. Jean-Pierre, curiously, betrayed the least interest.
"It's been hours, then?" said Vincent curiously. "Can that be normal? I apprehend no doctor has been sent for."
"Mrs Hutchins thought there was no time," said Claud.
"Perhaps she was right." Vincent looked involuntarily to the ceiling as a low sob trembled in the air; then, shaking himself, went to the sideboard and, without examining the bottle, poured himself a glass of rum, too, and, producing a pack of cards from a drawer, invited Felix to join him.
"But what about me?" Claud protested.
"You are quite adequately occupied!" said his brother unfeelingly.
"Already tried to remove the little fellow once: it won't work!" Felix added in apology.
However, by observing the ensuing game of Commerce and commenting derisively on the play, Claud contrived to keep himself amused for an hour or more, even after Jean-Pierre, without ever growing tired of his occupation, sat down on his knee and went to sleep, threatening to spoil his coat and waistcoat, as well as his neckcloth, with drool, so that Felix's handkerchief had to be sacrificed to their protection.
At last the door opened again; the gentlemen in the drawing room, startled out of an uneasy calm (still punctuated by unsettling noises from upstairs), roused themselves in alarm, fearing an incursion from the manor; but Vincent, at the door, called back in relief, "It's only Ajax!"
"Vincent," replied the baritone voice of Major Darracott. "Where's Anthea?"
"Upstairs with the girl - who is in childbed!" said Vincent. "And has been these several hours!"
"Of all the times -!" The clumping footsteps of the Major quickly mounted the stairs, without waiting to be acquainted with the remaining events which he had failed to witness; and Vincent, shrugging, retreated to the drawing-room.
"Dash it, can't he come and take this child off me?" said Claud. "I've half a mind to drop him on the floor!"
"No fear," said Vincent. "I don't imagine cousin Hugo will find himself welcome in the sickroom!"
In this prediction Vincent was correct. An indistinct babble of voices, including Anthea Darracott's, could be heard from upstairs; and a moment later Major Darracott entered the drawing room with an apologetic air, as if by moving quietly he could make his large and unmistakable presence less obtrusive. "What's this I hear about the lad, then?" he enquired, looking around the room and taking in the glasses, the cards, and the wing-chair's two occupants.
Claud and Vincent acquainted him quickly with the events of his absence.
If they were hoping for either an instant solution, or a panicked reaction, they were disappointed. Their cousin only heaved a sigh and said, "Well, that's about what I feared! We're in a right pickle!"
"Yes!" Claud snapped. "We are, and you can come take the boy off me now!"
Obeying this summons, Major Darracott had occasion to observe closely the wreckage of Claud's neckcloth, and opened his eyes wide. "Eh! Sacrificed your fine cravat and all, and watching a baby! Claud, that's something!" he said admiringly.
Claud was not flattered. "If you think I meant to, you're a slow-top!" he said. "And what's more, I'd like to see you spoil your neckcloth."
Major Darracott shook his head. "Nay, lad, that you wouldn't. I've seen it before, and I promise you, it's a sight you wouldn't enjoy!"
"Well, perhaps you're right that it wouldn't be fair. Richmond's, then!" Claud conceded.
With a chuckle, Major Darracott laid the little boy on the sopha, and recommended Claud to spoil Richmond's neckcloth if that was how justice must be achieved.
But Felix could not let this pass. Encouraging the destruction of neckcloths, in general, he could in no way countenance; besides which, he was sure that the pursuit of an action so distasteful to his nature would later pain Claud more than his intended victim. "No!" he said. "It won't fadge! If you ask me, your cousin wouldn't care!"
Claud looked stricken. "I believe you're right," he said, more shocked than before, and lapsed into depressed silence.
"I understand it's thanks to you the poor babe isn't currently being paraded before the whole of the servants' hall, Mr Hethersett," said Major Darracott next.
Felix shook his head. "Simple pretext! It won't last: not an ounce of explanation in it!"
"Ay, that's the trouble!" the Major agreed.
"Here's what I don't see," said Claud, who had been engaged in attempting to repair, to the best of his ability, some of the worst depredations to his neckcloth. "Why on earth did Richmond bring them here? And don't say 'charity'!" he advised severely. "It's all very well to say 'charity', but that don't explain why he should smuggle a common girl and a couple of brats out of France, or why he should bring 'em here! It won't wash!"
Without giving Hugh a chance to explain, Vincent said, "Claud, can it be your education has been so lacking? And I felt sure the addition to our little party of Hethersett indicated quite positively that you were not as naïve as might be supposed!"
Felix, retrieving his quizzing-glass from its pocket, wondered whether he might be in danger of damaging it through over-polishing.
"Dash it, my education ain't lacking!" said Claud. "Said they weren't his! Not that it should make a particle of difference: not as though he means to marry her! - Sorry, Hugo!"
"If you believe that faradiddle, you are naïve!" retorted Vincent, with a startling note of savagery. "Near as thick-headed as our gudgeon of a cousin, who, you are forgetting, has a great deal more gumption, and wit, than propriety - and no concern for reputation at all! It's plain she is his mistress - no doubt his first love, as well!" he said scathingly. "Therefore, out of chivalry, and a complete disregard for the principle that one is to provide for, and not associate with one's by-blows, he has saddled us with this mess!"
During the latter part of this speech, unobserved by Vincent, Lieutenant Darracott had come down the stairs to stand in the door to the drawing room, and stood there silently listening with two spots of colour burning high on his pale cheeks. It was plain, thought Felix, from his face, that he was a military man, for he must be put to some trouble to hide his emotions so.
Waiting until Vincent had stopped of his own will, he said calmly, "I ought to plant you a facer for that, Vincent!"
Vincent, taken by surprise, turned, and did not even invite the Lieutenant to try, if he thought he could land one, but only said, rather white-lipped, "It would be doing the family a service if I were to give you one, on behalf of all of us!"
Ignoring this, Richmond continued scornfully, "My first love indeed! And me nearly twenty! I'll have you know that if Angelique were my mistress, she could not have been my first love, not by a long chalk, for I never met her till six months ago!"
Major Darracott, watching from the side of the sopha with every appearance of interest, made no attempt whatever to intervene; while Claud, unconvinced by his brother's first tirade, had edged round the small card-table to stand at Felix's side, ready to whisper commentaries in his ear.
"How you relieve my mind!" said Vincent with awful sarcasm.
"Evidently!" replied his cousin. "You seemed so bothered by the notion that she should have been that I felt compelled to reassure you it was nothing of the kind! You are far off in all the rest too: Angelique wouldn't have been my mistress if I had had the smallest interest in her - which I hadn't! Good God, you don't imagine I was cutting a swath through all the maids and shop-girls of Paris!"
"I suspect that when you brought home a shop-girl and two small children, the thought had crossed all our minds!"
"A nice picture you all have of me!" said Richmond bitterly. "I know that I'm to blame for that, but - well, even I can see there's a world of difference between rum-running and - that! It's the last thing I should ever - well, I didn't know that Langhurst had done nothing for her until he was dead! I can't tell you how distasteful it is to me now to reflect that I called him friend! So often as he was with Angelique - and we all knew that Jean-Pierre was his son! She could not have stayed there with the regiment gone! She lost her place, and the local folk were after her, calling her a traitor, for it was well-known that she was Langhurst's mistress, and - and she begged me for help!"
"Pitching it too strong!" Vincent said, but less angrily than before; he frowned, but was no doubt ready to listen to argument.
Seeing that, Lieutenant Darracott came into the room and stood at the empty side of the table. "Well, she did," he said. "I knew she had no claim on me particularly - but she knew me as her protector's friend! She has a claim on the regiment - on England! And to leave her there would very likely have been to condemn her to starve, or worse. I own, I did not think it would be so difficult to hide her, or to find a place for her," he admitted. "For she grew up in the country, you know, on a farm, and I thought it could not be so very different."
Vincent sighed and said, "That, at least, I can instantly believe."
Richmond smiled up at his cousin wryly. "Well, perhaps I am a little naïve!"
To the amazement of Felix, who had never witnessed anyone quite so mercurial-tempered before, Vincent smiled back, at first reluctantly, then affectionately, and squeezed Richmond's shoulder. "You're an insufferably conceited, spoiled cub!" he replied, and Richmond laughed.
"Sometimes, Richmond can be a bit of a right 'un!" whispered Claud, for Felix's benefit. This agreed with Felix's judgement; though he could not stop the unhandsome thought that, if Richmond's charitable impulse had been combined with a better forethought and sense of propriety, the risk of exposure might have been avoided.
"Stay a minute!" said Major Darracott suddenly, holding up his hand: "Listen!"
His audience, with the exception of Jean-Pierre, who had so exhausted himself in his excitement over Claud's neckcloth that he had slept easily through the entire argument, turned their faces and tilted their heads to do as he suggested.
It was Claud who said, "It's gone quiet!"
"I know!" said Felix. "The new babe! Got to be!"
And in moments, his prediction was confirmed by a softer, thin cry, quite different from the others they had heard. The younger Mrs Darracott entered the room presently, a bit pale, but smiling, and announced, "As you have no doubt apprehended, the child has been born! It is a girl, and Angelique seems all right, says Mrs Hutchins: I have been sent for a pot of tea and some toast, but I have been banished from the guest room for the time being."
"Happen you'd better have a seat, love!" said her husband, pressing her gently into the wing-chair vacated by Claud. "You look a bit peaky! I'll take the teapot up to Mrs Hutchins, and drop a word in her ear. The rest of you ought to sit down: I've a bit of news from my errand this morning!"
Thus cruelly abandoning them to their curiosity, Major Darracott went from the room, and was gone some minutes while his cousins debated amongst themselves the nature of his news. Claud predicted that they were soon to discover the Law were searching for Richmond; Anthea thought he had no doubt searched through every household on Darracott land, without discovering a single person who spoke French; Richmond expected he would not have learned anything of use; while Vincent held that another unexpected guest had very likely arrived, and this one would be Beau Brummell himself, smuggled back across the Channel in Richmond's sail boat and setting the Tidesmen on all of them again in the process.
To Felix's relief, none of these theories proved to be true. Major Darracott entered to the room bearing a tea tray compliments of Mrs Hutchins, who, he assured them, had returned to her domain. "In fact, it's not my news, but John Joseph's," he said apologetically, taking a seat again in the small bit of sopha remaining after Jean-Pierre's small feet.
"With all respect to John Joseph," said Vincent, "I really must insist that you deliver it to us regardless."
"Oh, don't fret!" Major Darracott said. "I mean to! The thing is, it's a prospect, but not at all sure thing, and the truth is, I don't know how we're to make it work."
"What is it?" said Richmond eagerly.
"Well, there's a family needs a wet-nurse at Oxley's Green, and a nurse after," said Major Darracott. "The vicar, it seems, and his wife is sickly."
"But that's capital!" Richmond exclaimed.
"Not so fast, lad!" his cousin cautioned.
"We have still to provide an explanation for her presence," Vincent reminded him. "The Ajax cannot simply present a respectable family with a French girl!"
"It's nearer than I like, too," Major Darracott said, "when I hear my aunt's told all the servants at Darracott Place about a mysterious little boy, and just his size!"
"The trouble is that everyone in these parts knows us!" said Mrs Darracott. "And it is beyond possibility that any of us could have come by Angelique by normal methods! I mean, you, Vincent, and Claud, have been in London, and I suppose there are emigres there, but not, I am sure, penniless shop girls, for how should they have come there? Richmond alone has been in France - and I am afraid it is quite impossible for him to have helped her out unexceptionably! No one would believe it!"
"That I know!" said Richmond. "I did not expect anyone to have to believe it, except my cousins - but I find that even they were unconvinced."
"They don't know all of us, though," Claud interrupted, fortunately before Vincent could form a reply to this.
"Of course they do!" said Vincent impatiently, his ire diverted to another target. Then he checked himself: "But - no!"
Major Darracott looked thoughtful. "You're right, Claud! Nobody knows Mr Hethersett."
"Oh, Hugo!" exclaimed his wife. "We cannot!"
"I ain't been to France recently," Felix said, apologetically. "Tell you something, though: m'father. In the Diplomatic Service! Parents recently returned from Prague: in Greece now!"
"The Diplomatic Service - of course!" murmured Major Darracott. "It's perfect!"
Claud was still doubtful, however. "But she ain't Austrian! Anyone would notice!"
"No, that might be explained," said Mrs Darracott. "If she had married a young man in the diplomatic service, she might easily have followed with them to Prague! And if he were subsequently killed what could be more likely than that the Embassy would bring her back to England?"
"That's good!" said the Major approvingly.
"Well," Claud admitted at last, "I don't know why the vicar shouldn't swallow it - providing he don't happen to know your father, and ask him about it, Felix!"
"Can't," said Felix. "No acquaintance in Kent!"
"Sussex," corrected Vincent.
"Well, no acquaintance there, either: only in the ton! Lived in London most of his life, you know! But when it comes to that, wouldn't need to ask him: believe I can come by a reference! No need to ask m'father. Mother would do it."
"Oh, that would be just the thing!" said Mrs Darracott, forgetting her objections to the scheme.
"If you're sure, Mr Hethersett!" added Lieutenant Darracott, rather anxiously. "We've no right to ask it of you!"
"Not asking me: offering!" said Felix firmly.
"Then all that remains, I think, is to provide Angelique with a wedding ring," Mrs Darracott said. The Darracotts fell into discussion of this important point, for obtaining one discreetly could be difficult in the country - particularly when the snow would prevent anyone from riding very far away in pursuit of a jeweller.
While their attention was elsewhere, Claud leaned over to whisper in Felix's ear, "Do you really want to do it, though?"
Felix assured him that he did; and made a mental note to explain again later, when they were alone, in case other assurance should be necessary.
It was some few days later that the time was finally set for the transfer of Angelique, Jean-Pierre, and little Yvette away from the Dower House and the anxious care of Mrs Hutchins, to the house of Mr Barton, the vicar.
Felix and Mr Barton shook hands eagerly in the drawing-room, Mr Barton friendly and anxious to please, and Felix full of gratitude, he said, for the weight that would be lifted from his Mama's mind, for she had been so concerned when poor Angelique had begun to sicken in London, and must be found a place in the country instead.
Claud's cousin Hugo stood in the background, wearing the satisfied grin of a simple man pleased as Punch to have solved a slight problem not of his own concern, but for two of his friends; Claud himself, along with his brother and his cousin Richmond, watched surreptitiously through a gap from the dining-room next door. The door-way was a trifle crowded.
At length John Joseph opened the door to announce that Major Darracott's coach was ready to convey the emigres to Mr Barton's house in Sussex; and with cheerful farewells from Hugo and Felix, a bow from Mr Barton, and a shy smile from Angelique (a young, fresh-faced, round country girl with dark French colouring), they at last departed.
Several moments passed in silence during which the Darracotts continued to peek through the crack in the door; but then, finally, Anthea entered the drawing-room, giving a significant little nod, and Hugo and Felix each breathed a sigh of relief. Richmond pushed open the door, and after a little confusion, the three of them emerged into the drawing-room, without too many encounters between the waist of one gentleman and the elbow of another.
"By Jove, I'm glad that's over!" declared Richmond, throwing himself down on the sopha.
"No thanks to you, Bantam!" said Vincent.
"It is Mr Hethersett whom we have to thank," said Anthea.
"Already done so," Felix pointed out. "No need to belabour it!"
"Nay, we won't do that," soothed Hugo. "Anthea only wishes to say that without your presence, it would have been impossible to wrap the latest of Richmond's scrapes in clean linen!"
"In that case," Vincent said, "It is once again Claud who ultimately has provided our salvation, for it is to him we owe Hethersett's presence."
"That's true!" said Claud, struck by this insight.
"In fact," he said later to Felix, as they walked together down the corridor from the stables to the main hall back at the manor, "Neither of us would have been at the Queens Inn if not for that blizzard."
Felix assented to this. "No. Fortunate! A blizzard ain't my favourite weather for winter, however! Hope we don't have one next week. Don't want any delays on the trip back to London!"
"Anxious to get home, ain't you?" Claud said curiously.
"Yes!" replied Felix. "Particularly now: got some new bedlinens I wish to try!"