by Madeleine Robins
His Grace the Eighth Duke of Tylmath, having completed the troublesome letter before him in his best, most formal style, was yet unsatisfied. His dissatisfaction was not so much the missive itself, but with the subject it concerned, and its recipient. At length, and with reluctance, his Grace decided to seek the advice of his mother. That lady, as he well knew, was to be found at this hour of the afternoon seated in her parlor, writing letters, reading subscription library novels, or lecturing whichever of her female children were in residence and had made themselves available for the purpose. When Tylmath, having crossed the Great Hall, passed through the stair hall and ascended the stairs which led thence through two corridors, finally attained the chambers of the dowager Duchess, he found, beside his mother, his married sister Lady Susannah Reeve, his niece Amarantha, and his mother’s dame de compagnie, Miss Frances Weedwright. The latter was the first of the ladies to notice the Duke’s presence, starting up nervously and announcing that His Dear Grace had come to pay His Dearest Mamma a visit. The Duchess was not visibly impressed by this show of filial duty.
“For heaven’s sake, Fan, take Ammy off to Nurse before she drives me to a fit of nervous prostration,” Lady Susannah said irritably. Miss Weedwright immediately gathered Amarantha to her sparse bosom and departed in search of the nurse, much to the Duke’s relief.
“Well, Julian, to what am I beholden for this signal honor?” Judith Honoria drawled coolly. It was no secret, save perhaps to Miss Weedwright, that the Duke was the least favorite of his mother’s children. In fact, the Duke was not the favorite of any member of his large family, owing to a temperament neither obliging nor tactful, and a rather mean intelligence unseasoned by humor or humility. A person less certain of his own consequence would have paused, at least, under Judith Tylmath’s scrutiny, but the Duke had come a considerable distance from his bookroom to consult with his mother, and he schooled himself to stand fast.
“I’ve come to ask your advice, ma’am,” he announced, as if this were an everyday occurrence.
Lady Susannah, a plump, handsome woman dressed in a round gown of purple jaconet trimmed in mourning ribbons, raised an eyebrow at her brother. “Good God, Ju, next you’ll tell us you intend to follow the advice as well!”
His Grace favored his sister with a disagreeable look.
“Children.” The Duchess stared down her short nose at her offspring. “Now, Julian, since you are so obliging as to request my counsel, what is the matter?”
“It’s this widow of John’s, Mother,” he said, as if that made all clear.
“This widow of John’s? My dear boy, you speak as if John had left a veritable stable of widows from which to choose! What about her troubles you, pray? Have you heard from her since we agreed to invite her to Catenhaugh? I had supposed that you or Peele wrote some months ago.”
His Grace stirred uneasily in his chair. “To tell the truth, Mamma, what with one thing and another—the righting of the estate after my father’s death, and—”
“Fustian!” his mother interrupted. “I collect you are going to say that you are only now trying to write the girl! What on earth could have possessed you? We have no idea what the situation is in Brussels now, or even how John left his wife situated there. Why, the girl and her mother—it was her mother Kit mentioned living with them, wasn’t it, Sue?—they might be starving for all we know of the matter. How could you be so impossibly remiss? And don’t try to bam me by laying the blame at your father’s door; I know as well as you the state in which Tylmath left his affairs, and that Peele and Garifeather between them have had the entire management of Catenhaugh and the other properties since he died. You are the head of the family now, as you take such pains to remind us; it is your duty to see to the welfare of your brother’s widow. So?”
The sparks in the Duchess’s eye boded ill for her son; he looked every which way for some moments, wondering why, now he was a Duke, he was still unable to command respect and obedience in his own house.
“Mamma, it isn’t as simple as that,” he hedged. “What if the girl’s unacceptable? I’ve heard tales of marriages the soldiers were making in Brussels before the great battle, as well as what sort of society was convened there. Need we saddle ourselves with some strange young woman and her mother—no better than they ought to be, I suspect—because John married her in a distempered freak? As to her starving—” he uttered a laugh which might have been meant to indicate sardonic humor. “I place no dependence upon that. These sorts of females never starve, ma’am. I am loath to suggest anything which may prove offensive to your sensibilities, but—”
“Gammon,” Lady Susannah countered roundly. “You are perfectly delighted to suggest all manner of horrid things about this poor creature, whose one crime was that she married John. And you always disliked John, Julian.”
“I consider that remark to be wholly beneath my notice,” the Duke replied loftily, returning to his mother. “Think, ma’am. What female with aspirations—” he sniffed significantly—”would refuse to visit here? And once she is come, and from such a distance as Brussels, too, I misdoubt we shall ever be rid of her. I have the strongest apprehension about the whole affair. Of course, if you wish it, I will send my letter and extend the hospitality of Catenhaugh to her, but I shall thank you to remember my feelings in the matter when it turns out that the chit is no better than she should be.”
“Good heavens, Julian, you sound like a mifty abigail!” the Duchess snorted.
Lady Susannah was outraged. “The poor thing must think herself entirely cast-off by us by now, Mamma. It is full six months since John died, and if she has received no word from the family at all—”
“Not quite that, Sue. I bestirred myself to write the girl a letter when hers arrived with the news of John’s death. And received a very pretty, proper note from her in return. At which time,” the Duchess turned her gaze reproachfully on her eldest-born, “it was decided that she should be invited to spend the summer at Catenhaugh.”
Tylmath regarded his mother with the air of one determined to predict the direst of outcomes. “I will, of course, invite her, ma’am, if you wish it. But—”
Lady Susannah opened her mouth to jibe at him, but he turned upon her first.
“It is easy enough for you to talk, Sister. Reeve will take you back to Dorset whenever you request it, and you need have no further connection with the Widow. It is upon the rest of us—”
“As to that, if our new sister comes, I’ve a notion to write Reeve and tell him I shall prolong my visit here.” Lady Susannah eyed her brother with a speculative air. “After all, it will be such good sport to watch you eat your words. And I make no doubt the child will need some protection from your tempers, Ju.”
The Duchess’s voice, smooth and inexorable, spread itself over the escalating conflict between her children, effectively smothering it. “Julian, once John’s widow is arrived I shall not trouble you to do more than maintain a semblance of civility toward her. It is no secret in the ton or elsewhere that you disliked John, so it will surprise no one if you do only what is civil for his wife. But you will do that,” she assured him. “As for the rest, Bette and I, and Susannah if she is able, will see to—what is the chit’s name? Olivia? Thank you. We shall see to Olivia’s comfort. After all, my dear,” she reminded him, “Kit has met her and says she is a very good sort of girl. We know her family is good, although I cannot recall having met any Martingales in Town these last many years.”
His Grace favored his mother with a sulky look ill-suited to the dignity of his seven-and-thirty years. “I shall not scruple to remind you, ma’am, that my brother Christopher’s standards for a ‘good sort of girl’ may not be the most stringent. However—” he cut off a rising protest from his sister. “I shall of course do my possible to oblige you, and to assure that Miss Martingale’s— damme, that Lady John Temperer’s stay at Catenhaugh will be comfortable. I hope I know my duty well enough for that. I can only hope that you will not have cause to regret this ill-considered—”
“Enough,” the Duchess said shortly.
“But I must reiterate—”
“No, must you?” Lady Susannah interjected pointedly.
“Since neither you nor my sister wish to discuss this matter seriously, Mamma, I shall take my leave of you.” The Duke favored the ladies with a short, petulant bow and swept from the room.
“Quite like Covent Garden,” Lady Susannah remarked dryly.
“Certainly, dear. He always was, although why you insist upon plaguing him I do not know.” The Duchess smoothed the black bombazine of her skirts over plump knees and settled more comfortably on her sofa. A woman of impressive size, she was dressed in mourning for the death of her husband, nearly a year before, and the death of her youngest son only four months after. The sober hue of her gown combined with her massive presence to make her an awesome personality, until one noticed lips which invited a smile and the eyes which lit with a shrewd and humorous intelligence. “Kit did say the girl was acceptable, didn’t he?” she asked belatedly.
“As I recall, Mamma, he said that she was a beauty, an out-and-out charmer, and that he could see no reason for her to have leg-shackled herself to our nodcock John.”
“Dear Christopher,” the Duchess said feelingly. “Well, if she is a beauty and a charmer, perhaps she and your sister Bette can keep each other company this Season in London.”
“And think, Mamma, if the widow were in Town this Season, she could chaperone Bette to some of the parties, and save your strength for the affaires you wish to attend.” It was a popular fiction in the Temperer family that the Duchess was easily exhausted by the exertions of managing her household, her family, and the lives of her neighbors. In fact, despite her bulk and her six-and-fifty years she was in remarkably prime twig, taking as much pleasure in the activities of her life as she had done twenty years before.
“But the girl will be in full mourning until December, Sue,” she reminded her daughter.
“Well, ma’am, so will we. And in any case, if Julian only sends his letter to Brussels today, it may take a month or more to reach—what is her name?”
“Olivia. And there you have July quite gone. By the time she can rid herself of her establishment and return to English soil, I warrant we will be deep in September. Even if she came to Catenhaugh for a few months, by the end of them all of us must be out of mourning at last, and she and Bette—and you and I, of course!—can go to the warehouses for a new wardrobe for the Season.” Lady Susannah’s eyes shone with visions. “I wonder if she’s been presented yet. She and Bette could attend the same Drawing Room, sponsored by you, of course. Wouldn’t that put Julian’s back up!”
Judith Tylmath smiled speculatively. “It would, wouldn’t it? Not but what you are a wretched child to think of the matter in such a light, Sue.”
“Nothing of the sort, Mamma. Company for Bette, and I should think that the widow will be in need of some gaiety after a year of mourning. I feel heartily sorry for her.”
“I only hope that Tylmath will not be too difficult,” the Duchess murmured.
“Bother Julian. I’m of a mind to write to Kit and ask him to forego his trips to Yorkshire this fall during the hunting if the widow does come, to lend the poor little thing some countenance. And wouldn’t that destroy Julian completely? I suspicion this Olivia will need all the support we can muster, and I intend to ensure that she has it.”
“Susannah, I must admit that this unnatural delight you take in plaguing your brother is rather disturbing,” her Grace chided mildly.
“Do you disapprove?”
The Duchess smiled broadly, and a little wickedly at her daughter. “In principle, of course. In actual fact, and given what an odious toad Julian has become since your father died—not in the least. In any case, there is one catch we have not considered. What if the girl and her mamma have other plans? It may very well be that while they are amenable to a visit of courtesy at Catenhaugh they will not like to be presented or run through a Season, even under our sponsorship.”
Lady Susannah gave the matter some thought. “Faugh, Mamma,” she said at length. “How can she object? After all, whatever Kit says, I doubt the girl can have enough backbone to stand against your determination and mine both. Not to mention Bette’s. I cannot picture John marrying a woman of character, can you? And a shy Miss, however pretty, is likely to be overwhelmed by you, and me, and Bette. Not to mention Julian in his Ducal mood.”
“Pray do not mention him,” the Duchess urged, retrieving the book she had laid aside at her son’s entrance. “I hope you do not mean to recruit all the Temperers to the girl’s aid, dear. Beside the shocking squeeze it would mean here, you know that Sophy and Bette cannot be in the same room together without coming to blows, and that would probably scare our poor little widow away completely.”
“Not to mention her mother. But I think Kate is safe enough, don’t you? And Uncle David, of course. He’s harmless enough, for he can’t hear anything at all, and he does lend such a distinguished touch to the dining room with those incredibly outdated evening clothes of his.” Lady Susannah beamed at her mother and lapsed into a void of daydreams consisting about equally of Court dresses and confrontations with her odious brother. Half an hour later the Duchess heard her daughter sigh: “If only John married a woman of character, what fun we would have.”
Wisely, the Duchess did not ask for elaboration.
The Duke, having retraced the many steps back to his bookroom, sat and stared dourly into space. Some time later, with great misgivings, he went so far as to request his secretary to fair-copy the letter to Lady John Temperer for him, but when the missive was placed in front of him, it put him in such a temper that it was immediately crumpled up and tossed into the fire. The draft of the letter was retained by Mr. Garifeather, who was a cautious soul, and although his Grace contrived to forget for several days that it had not been sent, finally he requested that the regrettable thing be resurrected. This time he did not bother to have it fair-copied, but surveyed the thing, admired his own elegant phrasing, and tossed it aside, forgetting to frank it for another week altogether. Only a chance remark by the Duchess (actually a highly pointed remark, but his Grace was not much given to picking up subtleties) reminded him of the invitation. Mr. Garifeather, producing the letter yet again, finally succeeded in acquiring the Duke’s frank upon it, and at last, a mere four months delayed, it went on its way. The letter was not to find its destination easily, however. To the delay already incurred was added the delays of weather, a broken axle on a French postal chaise, and, finally, the inability of the Belgian postal clerks to decipher his Grace of Tylmath’s idiosyncratic hand. At last, on a particularly sunny and hot morning at the beginning of August, the letter was delivered, together with several other letters, a few bills, and a few invitations to such affaires as were permitted to a lady in mourning, into the hand of Lady John Temperer.
by Madeleine Robins
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-150-4