The manor house at Appleacre had been built in the years before the squirearchy had considered it more appropriate to their dignity to hide themselves away from their tenants, screened by parkland, and was set but a little distance off the main road that entered the village from the north. It was true that a pair of imposing gates were placed at the end of the short drive, but they were rarely closed, and there was no lodge with a keeper to supervise the entrance of visitors. Opposite these gates was a small plain house built in the style of Queen Anne a century before, with a pleasant well-tended garden surrounding it. Its gate, much less imposing than the ones of the manor house, gave onto a flagged path that led in a few yards to the front door.
This door now opened, and a tall, stately girl emerged, paused for a moment on the threshold to throw back a laughing remark to some unseen person within, and then stepped down onto the path. She was smiling as she trod towards the road, her simple white muslin round gown revealing the grace of her movements, unhurried, yet firm. On her arm she bore a small basket, the corners of a napkin visible above the edges. It might have been some gracious chatelaine going to visit some poor dependant except that Mary Wyndham, on opening the gate into the road, crossed over this and proceeded through the manor house gates and along that drive.
This was straight, widening into a semicircle in front of the house itself, but before Mary reached it she struck off to the right, skirting the corner of the house and making for a part of the garden that was enclosed by yew hedges, and where she knew that at this hour she would find her friend and the children.
This enclosed garden had been a bowling green once, but had long ago lost the immaculate shaven look of such places. Now it was a sheltered playground for Caroline Grafton’s two older children, and they were usually to be found there in the afternoons while their mother sat and sewed, or often, to the horror of certain elderly ladies who maintained that such laxity would be the ruin of her children, romped and played with them.
Mary passed under the archway opening onto this garden and halted, the smile on her full red lips deepening, for Caroline was seated on the grass, her skirts spread about her, making a daisy chain. The little boy Peter, six years of age, and his sister Jane, a year younger, were vying with one another to find the daisies with the longest stems. But Jane soon saw their visitor, and with a shriek of joy ran across to fling herself onto Mary.
“Did you bring the toffee?” she asked breathlessly, and Mary laughed, holding her basket away from the flailing small arms.
“Jane! How very impolite of you!” her mother scolded, but with a hint of laughter in her voice. “You would spoil them, Mary dear!” she continued, rising to greet her friend.
“I did after all promise to make them some, Caroline,” Mary responded, and bent to put her basket on the grass. “Peter, Jane, here is some for each of you now. You shall have more when your mama says you may.”
Contentedly sucking their toffee the children wandered away, and Caroline sank down onto the grass. Mary dropped down beside her and idly began to thread the daisies that were scattered about them into a chain.
“When is Arthur due to return?” she asked.
Caroline smiled. “Sometime today, for his business in London was not like to occupy him above a couple of days, and he should have been able to start back this morning. He will arrive in time for dinner, no doubt, but he must be here tomorrow, for the evening party I am giving is on the following day.”
“The children are all well? What of Elizabeth?” Mary asked, referring to Caroline’s youngest child, a baby of scarce a year old.
“Much better. That cordial you brought her soothed her cough, and she is greatly improved. Where did you discover it?”
Mary laughed. “In an old household book that belonged, I believe, to my mother’s grandmother. I was hunting in the attics one day and came across it and other papers. Some of the recipes and hints in it appeared useful, though others contained the most revolting ingredients!”
“Now if I had happened on such a book I would most likely have tossed it aside without a second glance. You, however, make use of it! Mary, some man will discover a treasure in you! You are so competent!”
Mary disclaimed, blushing slightly. “I have no desire whatsoever to marry while my father needs me,” she said quickly. “I will bring you the recipe for the cordial so that you may make it whenever it is needed.”
Caroline nodded, abstractedly. She was not to be put off her favourite topic of late.
“It is astounding, you know, that we are the same age, and I have three children while you are not even married, even though you are eminently more fitted to run a household than I, and vastly prettier into the bargain!”
She put her head on one side and gazed frankly at her friend. Mary was tall, but not too much so, and she carried herself gracefully. Her figure was excellent, and she had pretty arms and shoulders, a long slender neck and a well-shaped head shown to advantage by the coils of smooth black hair that framed her face. Her complexion was faultless, white and rose, and she had a straight nose and a wide generous mouth. Her eyes, however, were her chief beauty, wide set, large and luminous, and so dark they might have been black like her hair. The expression in them at the moment, though, was one of acute embarrassment.
“You will make me inordinately vain,” she protested.
“Fustian! Besides being beautiful, you are modest and endowed with all the qualities a man looks for in a wife. You’d be wasted on Geoffrey Knowle,” she concluded, at which Mary blushed yet more fiercely.
“Caroline!” she protested, but weakly, knowing that once her friend was well launched into this subject it would be more speedily disposed of if she refrained from arguing.
“Has he offered?” Caroline demanded.
“No,” Mary replied shortly.
“But he has approached your father?
“Geoffrey would be incapable of conducting his love affairs in other than the approved fashion,” she commented, laughing slightly.
“Oh, Mary! You would be wasted on a country curate!”
“Apart from the fact that I have no wish to marry and leave my father, what other offers are likely to come my way?” Mary asked lightly.
“My dear, I know! It was tragic that your mother should have died just before your coming out, and that there has been no other opportunity. Why has your father not made a push to take you to London?”
“Doubtless he would have done so had I asked him. But I have no desire to parade myself in the marriage market with neither fortune nor grand connections to recommend me,” Mary rejoined a little tartly. “I am content keeping house for him and Matthew, and I ask no more.”
“Will you accept Geoffrey if he offers?”
“I have the utmost respect for Mr Knowle, and am convinced that he will make an estimable husband,” Mary said slowly, and Caroline suddenly gurgled with laughter.
“What female in her right mind considers whether the man she loves will be estimable!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Mary, Mary! I do not mean that I wish you to marry a rake, or a gambler, but when you fall in love I promise you that the worthiness of your lover will be the last thing that you will consider!”
“I cannot imagine the necessity of considering it,” Mary remarked. “I know all the young men in the locality, and none of them has shown the slightest partiality for me. And since I am not like to meet many others, my prospects are limited.”
“It’s my belief they are afraid of you,” Caroline suggested. “You are so capable. Naturally Geoffrey would appreciate that, for I understand he expects to obtain a living soon from his uncle, and you would be an asset to any parson. But could you love him?”
Mary considered this. “He is good, and kind, and of good family, though a younger son. But I have no wish to desert my father. What would he do without me?”
“You would not be so reluctant to leave for a man you loved,” Caroline commented shrewdly. “Your father could be just as comfortable with an efficient housekeeper. You must confess, my dear, that he takes little heed of anything outside his books!”
Mary laughed. “I do! He is forever losing track of what he intended to do because he suddenly thinks of a new reference and must immediately look it up! I do not believe his book will ever be completed, but he is content. His income is sufficient for modest comfort, and now that Matthew has finished at Oxford he has fewer worries.”
“Is Matthew enjoying being in London?” Caroline asked, realising it would pain Mary to be told that her father was inconsiderate and selfish to keep her immured in this small village, with no company other than what she might find at the vicarage and the manor, and small likelihood of meeting with suitable young men. Mary’s lack of fortune Caroline disregarded, certain that Mary’s beauty would attract men who did not need to marry for money, and convinced also that four and twenty years would be no disadvantage to a sensible man.
Mary smiled at the mention of her brother. “I have not had a letter for some time, and the last one was a most scrappy affair,” she admitted. “He was so full of all the entertainments to be found in London, and the vast number of people who had invited him to parties, that I felt positively honoured he had spared the time to write at all! I can only hope he does not let it go to his head! His income from our uncle’s legacy will not permit him to live extravagantly. I am convinced I can count on his good sense not to get into debt, or to waste his substance by gambling, but the first few weeks in society must have an exhilarating effect.”
“Arthur said he would look for him,” Caroline remarked. “He did not wish to seem interfering, of course, but he thought Matthew would not be averse to meeting an old friend from home.”
“I am positive he would not!” Mary declared. “You are both of you much too good to us all!”
“Nonsense! It is entirely self interest,” Caroline laughed. “If you were not here, who would bear with my starts? And help me when I become disorganised? I know that some of the old dowagers consider me hopelessly unfitted to run a household, but if you were not here to help and encourage me they would have proof of it! Now, for this party I am giving, I must have your advice. I have made myself a new gown and I cannot decide whether lemon or pale green ribbons would be best. I’ll take the children to Betsy, and then do come and advise me!”
They spent the next hour happily discussing the latest fashions, and then Mary parted from her friend and walked slowly home. It was true that she did not particularly wish to accept an offer from Mr Knowle, who had been living in the parish for the last three years as curate for the elderly vicar, Mr Johnson, but she was uncertain whether this sprang from lack of feeling for him, or a reluctance to leave her father.
Caroline spoke justly when saying Mr Wyndham did not appear to notice anything which went on outside his study, but Mary knew that nonetheless he was very fond of her and relied enormously on her company. Barely sixteen when her mother had suddenly died, she had immediately taken the running of the household into her own hands, and had dealt competently with every domestic matter since that time. Yet however efficient a housekeeper could be found it would not be the same for Mr Wyndham without her companionship.
As for Mr Knowle, Mary was certain she did not love the young man, though she felt friendship towards him. He had been interested in Mr Wyndham’s work on the ancient Greek writers, and spent hours discussing the precise meanings of the words to be translated, or the phrases to be understood. Although she did not particularly desire marriage, she knew that few enough chances of it would come her way, and when her father died her life would be very bleak. With liking and friendship to begin with, perhaps love would come after marriage, she thought. When Mr Knowle did make his offer she ought at least to consider it very carefully.
That he would make an offer she knew. Already he had approached her father and requested in the proper form that he might pay his addresses to Mary. Mr Wyndham told him it was a matter for Mary to decide, and then, casually, had informed Mary that she ought to be prepared for the coming declaration. For several days, undecided, she had shrunk from meeting Mr Knowle, but still was no nearer to a decision. Fortunately, when they had met it had been in the company of others, and she was spared an embarrassment. It could not be put off for ever, though, and as she reached the gates she paused, still sunk in thought, but vaguely aware of the sound of carriage wheels approaching.
They came from the north, and whatever equipage it was seemed to be in desperate haste. The village street was only a hundred yards distant and Mary, her attention now fully engaged, hoped the driver would slow his reckless pace to negotiate it. Appleacre was not on a post road, and since the villages further south were served by a far superior road that passed by to the east, they saw very little traffic.
The vehicle, a shabby post chaise, came into sight round a slight bend in the road, and began to slow down. Mary waited for it to pass, idly wondering what brought its occupants to this part of the world, when she suddenly realised it was halting outside her own home.
Hidden from sight the passengers descended from the chaise, a portmanteau was quickly unstrapped, and Mary saw with astonishment her brother Matthew walk along to hand money to the postilion. The man nodded and then urged his horses on towards the village, leaving Mary confronted with the sight of her brother, burdened with the portmanteau, two band boxes, and an enormous bird cage, hastening towards his front door. At his side walked a petite, modishly attired girl who seemed to Mary’s incredulous eyes to be little more than a child.
Shaking off her surprise, she started across the road and passed through the gate in their wake. The gate swung to behind her, and the click of the latch made Matthew turn round in dismay. His companion gave a little scream and clutched at his arm, causing the bird cage to sway precariously.
“Oh, he’s followed us! Save me, I beg!”
“Be careful!” Matthew expostulated sharply. “You nearly upset this damned bird!”
A squawk of rage came from the cage, followed by an ear-piercing screech, so that the girl’s reply was lost. Matthew, depositing his burdens on the ground, grinned amiably at her.
“Don’t be a ninny! Apart from the obvious fact that it isn’t Ingram, he has no idea where you are. Mary, how are you?” he went on, taking his sister’s hand and lightly kissing her cheek.
“I am well, but a trifle bemused,” Mary replied, eyeing her brother with some trepidation. Several inches taller than she, equally dark and handsome, Matthew had a lively spirit that had in the past led him into innumerable scrapes. Usually his charm of manner had enabled him to escape severe penalties, and there had been no major disturbances while he had been at Oxford. She had begun to entertain hopes that the years had brought discretion with them, but now she wondered.
Matthew’s companion had been standing back a little, watching Mary anxiously. Mary turned to her, and saw that the girl was rather older than she had at first supposed, probably seventeen. She was small and slight, ethereally fair, with wide, innocent looking blue eyes, a tip-tilted nose, rosebud mouth, and a riot of short blonde curls. Her dark blue pelisse was of the latest style, and she wore an amazing confection of a straw bonnet, trimmed with an abundance of artificial flowers.
“Matthew, can you not introduce us?” Mary prompted, and Matthew grinned boyishly.
“Oh, my wits have gone a-begging, getting up at the unearthly hour Teresa insisted on! I was forgetting that you don’t know Teresa. Teresa, this is my sister Mary, and this is Miss Standish, who has done me the honour of promising to marry me.”
Mary merely blinked before extending her hand to Teresa.
“Do call me Mary, and if we are to be sisters, may I not call you Teresa? But why are we standing here? Let us go indoors where we can be more comfortable. If you have travelled from London you will no doubt wish to tidy yourself.”
Teresa emerged from the trance she had apparently fallen into on seeing Mary.
Smiling prettily, she greeted Mary and then, as though she suddenly realised where she was, cast an apprehensive look about her and moved closer to Matthew, who had seized her luggage and was attempting to balance the bird cage on top.
“Oh yes, pray do let us go indoors. I cannot help feeling hideously unsafe until I am hidden from Ingram!”
“He won’t know where to look for you,” Matthew responded curtly. “I wish you’d get the notion out of your head that he can discover everything. Oh, thank you,” he added to Mary as she retrieved the recalcitrant bird cage from his insecure grasp. “I said that damned bird would be a nuisance!”
“Damn bird! Damn bird!” suddenly squawked the cage’s occupant, and Teresa broke into a trill of laughter.
“Oh Matthew! Isn’t he clever! He’s heard you say that no more than half a dozen times, and he’s learned it already!”
“Well, I wish he hadn’t!” Matthew said with a faint blush, and an apologetic glance at Mary. She stood holding the cage up and interestedly surveying the occupant, a brightly coloured parrot.
“Caroline’s children would be enchanted with him,” she remarked easily. “But do come inside. I’m surprised father has not come out to see what is amiss.”
“If he’s reading his precious Plato he won’t even have heard us,” Matthew replied, leading the way through the front door and depositing the luggage on the hall floor. Mary smiled reassuringly at Teresa and they followed him in just as a startled maid appeared from the kitchen quarters to stand gaping at the unexpected visitors.
“Ah, Susan, please bring some cakes and tea into the parlour. This way, Teresa,” and Mary led them into a bright parlour to the left of the front door. She was still carrying the bird cage, and she set it down with some relief on a small table near the window. Then she turned to Matthew.
“Where is father?” he asked, slightly nervously, she thought.
“In his study. But as he has apparently not heard us, I suggest you do not disturb him for the moment. While Susan prepares the tea I will take Teresa up to my room to wash.”
Teresa seemed excessively shy of Mary during the few minutes they were apart from Matthew, and Mary did not attempt to discover from her the reason for this unheralded appearance. Let Matthew do his own explaining, she thought a trifle grimly, and confined her remarks to showing Teresa to her room, and helping her to remove her bonnet and pelisse.
When they were installed in the parlour and Mary had dispensed tea, she lifted her eyebrows quizzically at her brother. Now that the moment for explanation had come, he seemed ill at ease, tugging unthinkingly at the folds of his intricately arranged cravat.
“I do apologise for not being ready to receive you,” Mary said gently to Teresa. “No doubt Matthew’s letter went astray. How long do you propose to remain?” she went on, turning to Matthew.
He looked uncomfortable. “I - I did not send a letter,” he muttered. “There was no time. I’m sorry, Mary, if it inconveniences you. I - I am not certain what it is best to do next. But I knew that you would take pity on Teresa and shelter her until I can arrange to have the banns called.”
“Shelter?” Mary was startled, though she contrived not to show her surprise.
“From my cousin!” Teresa interjected. “He is the most abominable man, forever telling me that I must not do things I wish to do, and trying to force me to do things I detest. I truly believe he would have made me stay on at that horrid school in Kensington if I had not run away so often Mrs Bloom refused to take me back in the end!”
Mary blinked at this spate of revelations.
“Your cousin? Is he your guardian?” she enquired cautiously.
“Yes!” Teresa replied bitterly. “Papa appointed him, and he is also my trustee, and what is worse, he controls mama’s capital so that she can have merely the miserable pittance he allows!”
“And is it he you were afraid of seeing? Does he not approve of your engagement?”
“I dared not tell him!” Teresa uttered, shuddering, and casting an appealing glance towards Matthew.
“You see, Mary,” Matthew contributed, thus prodded, “Sir Ingram wants to marry Teresa himself.”
“And what of her mama? Does she know?”
Teresa blushed and looked down into her lap. “No. I did not dare to tell her either, for you see, she is so terrified of Ingram, that she would tell him everything the moment he asked her. She can never stand up to him, and he is so overbearing and detestable we decided it was safer, and better for her too, that she should not know where I am. We have eloped, you see,” she concluded ingenuously.
“Well, I’m thankful Matthew had the good sense to bring you here,” Mary declared, her concern as she began to disentangle the threads of this new scrape Matthew had become embroiled in tempered by relief that he had not made it worse by attempting to carry off this child, for she was little more, to Gretna Green. It appeared, too, that she was an heiress, if she had trustees.
“I knew you’d help us,” Matthew said with relief. “Truly, there was nothing else to be done.”
“Have you approached this Sir Ingram? What is his other name?”
“Leigh. No, I did not dare. Not that I was afraid, you understand, but for Teresa’s sake.”
“You see, he threatened to send me to stay with an absolutely antiquated aunt at Cheltenham, just because I was a few minutes late returning from a morning drive!” Teresa declared. “He means to marry me for my fortune - though I would have thought he had sufficient of his own - and he tries to discourage every man who shows any interest in me. If I even hinted that I had any partiality for one man his life would be in danger, so you see I could not possibly have told him about Matthew!”
“Surely you exaggerate!” Mary replied, shocked at this incredible suggestion.
“You haven’t met him,” Matthew said gloomily.
“He has already killed one man I wanted to marry!” Teresa declared.
Mary stared at her. “How is that?” she asked. “And if so, how was he allowed to get away with it?”
“Oh, he was clever enough to hide it, but I know! He made friends with Godfrey, or that is what he said, when Godfrey went to him to ask permission to address me. And then he took Godfrey to the most dreadful places, and one night he was killed. Of course Ingram pretended he had been set on by ruffians, but he was not even scratched himself, and there was no blood on his clothes, and no one saw it happen! If his story were true then he’d have been hurt too, because they’d both have been attacked. But he wasn’t, and Godfrey died. I’m terrified the same thing might happen to Matthew, and that’s why I begged him to bring me away.”
“I know it’s not the proper thing, Mary,” Matthew said slowly, “but it was all I could do, truly. Mrs Standish could not have helped, for Sir Ingram would cut off her allowance if she defied him. Apart from the business of Godfrey Delaine he is a most unreasonable man, and dominates Teresa, or tries to, in everything.”
“He refuses to allow me to entertain my friends at Leigh House, in town, or at any of his country houses. And I am permitted to accept only a few invitations, and even then I have to take a governess with me!” she said in disgust. “Oh, he calls her a chaperone and a companion, but why he must insist on her when mama is able to take me to balls and assemblies and parties, I cannot think! And she is a most disagreeable gorgon, for he dismissed my dear Matty, saying she was too old to control me! And she has been with me almost from the time I was born, and was mama’s governess before that!”
“How odious he sounds,” Mary commented, pity for the unknown Matty surging up within her, for she had met elderly spinsters whose charges no longer needed them, and knew of the difficulties they encountered when trying to obtain a new situation.
“He is abominable!” Teresa shuddered. “Although I have a vast fortune, he will allow me only a pittance, and he sends back to the shops anything which I have bought that he does not approve of. And - and he beats me! Truly! Only last week when he was angry with me over some trifling purchase I had made, and I argued with him, he beat me! Then he sent me to my room and locked me in, and permitted me to have bread and water only for two days. It was mainly that which showed me that I had to escape. Besides,” she added darkly, “there have been several attempts on my life, and as he would inherit my fortune if I died before I married, he must have been responsible!”
“What in the world do you mean?” Mary asked, startled.
Teresa sighed deeply. “Once, when we were at Leigh Park, there was a thorn put under my horse’s saddle, so that he would become frantic when someone mounted him. Fortunately my groom was still holding him and was able to control him while I dismounted. Another time, a shot was aimed at me when I was walking in the woods. Then there was the fence on the little bridge over the river that had been sawn through. Fortunately it was a friend of Ingram’s who fell in, for he could swim and I could not.”
“They could all have been accidents, I suppose,” Mary said, but doubtfully.
“Possibly. But not the saddle girth that had been cut almost through. Luckily my groom is conscientious, and discovered it in time.”
“It sounds incredible,” Mary said slowly. “If your mother is unable to help, is there no other relative who might be appealed to? I know little about such things but are there not normally two or three trustees? Could they not help?”
“The other one is an elderly uncle, but he leaves everything to Ingram. He suffers from gout and spends all his time in the country, so that he cannot see what happens. But even if he were in London, I have no doubt Ingram would contrive so that he agreed with him!”
“Well, we must think what to do,” Mary said with sudden decision. She had listened to Teresa’s outpourings with some scepticism at first, but as the catalogue of the unknown Sir Ingram’s offences grew, she concluded that even if she allowed for some exaggeration natural in the circumstances, Teresa’s guardian did seem to be an undesirable person to exercise such control over her.
“Then you’ll help us! I knew you’d do it! I told you it would serve best to come here, Teresa! Mary’s a great gun!” Matthew exclaimed. “You can stay with Mary while the banns are called, and I will go back to town to throw him off the scent. Then we shall be married and there will be nothing he can do to harm you.”
“We must discuss this,” Mary said firmly. “I am not convinced it is possible, for Teresa is not of age. You must ask papa. But Teresa is welcome to remain here while we talk things over. I will go and help Susan prepare a room.”
She smiled comfortingly at Teresa and rose. As she moved towards the door it opened, and Susan entered, looking rather flustered. Looming large behind her in the doorway was a tall man, even taller than Matthew, and with broad shoulders made even broader by the many-caped greatcoat he wore. His eyes were a startling blue in a face deeply bronzed by the sun, and his sardonic glance as he took in the scene presented to his gaze was accentuated by the upward slant of his black eyebrows.
“Oh, Miss Mary, the gentleman wanted to see Mr Matthew,” Susan gasped, and then recalling her training, “Sir Ingram Leigh, Miss.”
Mary stared at him, encountering his gaze, and seeing something there which sent shivers down her spine. She was incapable of moving, for her legs appeared to have been turned to water, and for a fleeting moment thought Teresa was wise to be afraid of him. Then she became dimly aware of the commotion behind her as Matthew leapt from his chair, oversetting it in the process, while Teresa screamed and the parrot, tired of his long silence, celebrated the excitement by emitting a piercing shriek, then gabbling “Damn bird! Damn bird!” continuously at the top of his voice.