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Toblethorpe Manor

Toblethorpe Manor by Carola Dunn
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Richard Carstairs discovers a young woman who has suffered a riding accident and cannot remember even her own name, let alone the circumstances from which she came. Christened Clara Fell by the Carstairs family, the mysterious lady proves herself not only charming but talented. Can Richard take her at face value? And can Miss Fell trust that she will not disgrace him, when position in society is so necessary to his well-being?

Regency Romance by Carola Dunn

Belgrave House; June 1981
237 pages; ISBN 9780446969437
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Toblethorpe Manor
Author: Carola Dunn
 
Excerpt

A ruthless hand flung back the bed-curtains and its owner looked down in amused distaste at the recumbent figure sprawled on its back with its mouth open, an un­lovely sight. He poked it in the ribs.

Lord Denham awoke with a yelp and sat up abruptly, his nightcap awry.

“What the devil?” he roared, his usually placid face wrathful. Then he saw his attacker and subsided. "Damme, Carstairs, what do you mean by waking me in the middle of the night?” He slid down under the covers and winced as Richard Carstairs threw open the draperies at the win­dow, allowing a flood of sunlight to assault his half-closed eyes.

“It’s a glorious morning, Tony, and we are going for a ride. We don’t often have a day like this in Yorkshire at this season, and I’ll not miss it for my slugabed friend!”

“Go without me, Richard, by all means go without me. I shall be perfectly happy to miss it. I came here for a rest, not to be routed out of bed at cockcrow.” Tony pulled the quilt close about him.

“You rested in the chaise all day yesterday and the day before,” Richard pointed out. “And you can, and do, sleep till all hours in town. Come on, there’s a good fellow. I have already sent Willett to wake your man, and ordered the horses saddled. Chocolate in the breakfast room in ten minutes.”

“Oh, very well,” groaned Lord Denham. “I can see I shall have no peace unless I comply with your outrageous demands. I’ll be down in twenty.”

Satisfied, Mr. Carstairs left him to the ministrations of his valet, who looked quite as sleepy as his lordship.

“Like master, like man,” he commented to his own servant with a grin that lightened his dark, somewhat saturnine face.

“Something of the sort might be considered appropriate, sir,” replied Willett primly. He himself had an­swered his master’s bell at dawn, immaculately dressed and without a hair out of place. Richard sometimes won­dered if he ever slept.

Returning to his own chamber, he pulled on his glossy riding boots, and Willett helped him into a tight-fitting coat. Tailored by Stultz, it had no need of padded shoul­ders to set off his tall figure to perfection.

“I shall need a greatcoat, Willett,” Richard ordered. “It will be cold in spite of the sun. I expect there is still snow on the moors, though not drifted too deep for riding, I hope.”

“There is frost on the lawn this morning, sir, but I believe most of the latest snowfall melted during our absence. A beautiful day for an outing, if I may say so, Mr. Richard.”

“Well, I think so. However, his lordship took some persuasion. He’s a regular townsman and seems to prefer smoky slush to our fresh moorland air.”

“I trust Lord Denham will not be distressed by the chill, sir. There is hot chocolate waiting in the breakfast room.”

“So I told him, and I rather think that was the clinch­ing argument. Pierre’s chocolate is a rare concoction, and Tony is a rare trencherman.” Richard grinned. “Thank you, Willett."

He made his way below stairs. His mother and sister had not yet risen. Maids scurried about laying fires to warm the old stone mansion that had been the home of the Carstairs family for generations. They bobbed curtsies to the master, noting that he was looking cheerful. Though Mr. Richard was a fair and generous employer, he was not noted for lightheartedness. The servants were glad to see his stern face relaxed and set it down to Lord Denham’s good-humoured presence.

That gentleman shortly joined his friend in the break­fast room, still grumbling. A few sips of Monsieur Pierre’s hot chocolate soon restored his spirits.

“I don’t suppose your chef would tell my Alphonse the secret?” he asked wistfully.

“He might, if Alphonse would reciprocate with his wild duck recipe that you guard so jealously.”

“Ah, who would come to my shooting parties if they could eat that duck elsewhere?” sighed Lord Denham. “I shall just have to keep visiting you. It is ambrosial, posi­tively ambrosial. Bedford! My compliments to Monsieur Pierre.”

"Certainly, my lord,” assented the butler.

Tony insisted on a second cup before Richard could drag him out into the crisp morning. At last they were mounted and riding up the lane, a new panorama exposed to their view at every twist and turn.

A light crust of snow sparkled in the sun as the two gentlemen galloped along a moorland ride. They pulled to a walk and the steam of the horses’ breath hung in the still, bright air.

“Well, Tony?” drawled Mr. Carstairs, grinning at his friend’s scarlet complexion.

“Oh, I’ll admit it is a beautiful morning, but damme if my nose is not frost-bitten,” complained the fair young man. “You Yorkshiremen are bred hardy. If you want to ride before breakfast tomorrow, zounds! you can go by yourself!”

“Tomorrow it may be raining, or foggy. This is too good to miss. We shall go a little farther; I want to see if there are any sheep on Daws Fell.” His tanned face did not appear to have felt the biting frost and his hair, cut short in the fashionable Stanhope crop, had fallen neatly into place, unlike Lord Denham’s tousled mop, after their wild ride.

“Dash it, Richard,” said Tony in annoyance, “do you never look anything but elegant?”

“Not if I can help it,” Mr. Carstairs replied firmly. “Come on now. Another ten minutes and we shall turn back.”

His chestnut mare and his friend’s grey gelding were now picking their way daintily between snow-rimed heather bushes.

“I must have this ride cleared as soon as it thaws,” muttered Richard. “I don’t come up here very often, and my agent seems to have…What’s that?”

Standing in his stirrups, he pointed at a blue-grey heap half hidden by a gorse thicket to one side of the path. Tony peered in that direction but had no answer.

“Here, hold my reins while I investigate.” Richard dismounted and strode toward the bundle, which revealed itself as a motionless figure.

“Good Lord, Tony, it’s a female! What the devil…?”

Lord Denham hastily dismounted and, leading their horses, made his way among the snowy tussocks of grass to where his friend stooped over a huddled form.

“Dead?” he queried succinctly.

“I don’t believe so,” said Richard Carstairs, as he gently turned her over. “But look, she’s been hit on the head.”

The brown-stained hood of the girl’s blue-grey cloak had fallen back, revealing a deathly pale face with a red crescent on the temple. Her copper-colored hair was matted with blood, and the snow where her head had lain was crimson.

“Horse kicked her,” proposed Tony. “The snow is all trampled around. Must have taken fright at something.”

“You could be right. It must have been a glancing blow or she’d not be alive now. She has bled a lot though, and we cannot guess how long she has been lying here. Let’s get her home quickly.”

He mounted and held out his arms to receive the young woman. As Tony laid her in them, she moaned. Her eyes opened and she looked up into Richard’s face. Her body tensed, her lips parted and she seemed to want to speak, then she was limp again, eyes closed. If it were not for the slight rise and fall of her breast, he would have thought her dead.

“Do you ride ahead, Tony, and warn my mother. She must send for Dr. Grimsdale and prepare a chamber.”

“A guest room?” asked Lord Denham.

“How the devil should I know?” was the impatient reply.  

Tony raised his eyebrows, but said no more.

Richard Carstairs, walking the mare so as not to jolt his burden, studied the girl in his arms. A thin face, a little too long for beauty, soft, delicate lips contrasting oddly with a strong chin. Red-gold hair, where it was not sticky brown with blood, pulled back smoothly from a high forehead, but trying to escape at the sides. Her eyes, he thought, grey or green? Odd, I don’t remember. About twenty-six or twenty-seven, he decided.

He transferred his gaze to her clothes. The cloak was thick and warm, but old-fashioned and a little shabby. One leather glove, too large, probably a man’s. Where had she lost the other? The ungloved hand was square and capable, but with long sensitive fingers. It did not seem to be work roughened. Icy cold. He somehow managed, with his one free hand, to remove his own glove and work her hand into it.

She wore a riding dress and leather boots, again shabby, though they had once been of good quality. Prob­ably a lady, then, unless they were castoffs. Perhaps she was a governess. Guest room or servants’ quarters? He’d leave his mother to decide, he thought, impatient now with himself.

He bent his mind to a more significant question. What had she been doing riding alone on the moor, and so early in the morning? Judging by the tracks, her horse had galloped off by itself after throwing her. He wondered briefly whether he should send someone to search for it. It could be miles away now, heading for home. Where had she come from and where was she going? He knew most of the families in the West Riding and he was certain he’d never met this girl. She must have ridden far.

There was no way to find out the answers until the young woman woke. Richard pondered more practical problems. What was his mother going to say? She was planning to leave for London in a week’s time, weather permitting, to introduce his young sister to Society. A smile lit his eyes as he remembered Lucy’s excited plan­ning for her first Season, her endless questions and her attempts to practise behaving as a young lady should. Well, doubtless she would be equally excited by the sur­prise he was carrying home, but the unknown girl must not be allowed to spoil his mother’s plans. For a moment he almost wished he had not seen her cloak, obscured as it had been by the bushes. Then he looked at her white face as she rested so helplessly in his arms, and could only be glad that he had forced Tony to ride those few furlongs farther.

His left arm, supporting her shoulders, was growing numb, and he shifted a little to ease it. The movement brought another moan, though the girl did not rouse. Damn, he thought, she must have injured her back. Thank heaven we are nearly there.

They had passed the home farm, and Richard could see the slate roofs of the village of Toblethorpe in the valley below, streamers of smoke rising straight from the chimneys. The drystone wall of the park was on his left, winding along the lane down the treeless hillside. The gates were open and old Matthew Braithwaite stood at the door of the gatehouse, scratching his head.

“Eh, lad,” he said, “it’s a graidely mornin’, an’ thy gran’ Lunnon friend in such a hurry he near jumped t’wall a’fore I could open. ‘Leave it for Mr. Richard,’ he says, so open it be yet, sir. Should I be a-closin’ of it now?”

“No, Matt, there will be more coming and going shortly. You may leave it as it is. Did someone ride for the doctor already?”

“Nay, Master Richard, but here come Jem now. He’ll be after t’doctor, I daresay. Is tha hurt then, Master Richard?”

“Not I. We have found a young lady injured in an accident on the moor.”

“Oh, aye. That be who tha has in thy arms, then. Come, Jem!” the old gatekeeper shouted, “there’s a wee bitty lady hurt hersen up t’moor. Tha mun ride faster, lad.”

“Hush thy noise, Matthew!” cried the young groom. “Mornin’, sir. I be off after t’sawbones.” He dashed past and down the lane on the big cob, obviously delighted with the urgency of his errand.

The carriage drive led around the side of the hill and approached Toblethorpe Manor from the west. The steep slope to the north protected the old stone house from winter winds and provided shelter for a wood of chestnuts and beeches, now leafless, which had been planted by Richard’s great-grandfather. The weathered limestone looked warm and cheerful in the low rays of the eastern sun, and smoke pouring from many chimneys promised snug warmth inside.

Wide steps led up to the massive front door, and on them stood a lissome brunette of seventeen, shivering in a thin wrap. Seeing her brother ride around the corner of the house, Lucy raced toward him in a most unladylike manner.

“Richard, who is it? Is she badly hurt? Mama is hav­ing the Blue Room prepared, and she sent Jem for Dr. Grimsdale. Tony—I mean Lord Denham—was practically incoherent when he arrived. It was so funny!” She gig­gled, and then stood on tiptoe and peeked at her brother’s burden.

“Oh!” she gasped, “she is so pale! Come, bring her into the house quickly.”

“If you would hold the horse while I pass her to Tony, I might be able to do so,” said her exasperated brother. “Get out of the way, chit.”

Lucy pouted but obeyed. Lord Denham hurried down the steps to help and soon the injured girl lay on a sofa in the drawing room before a roaring fire, while the butler, a footman and two maids hovered, oohing and aahing

“Bedford, where is my mother?” Richard demanded of the butler, who came to his senses, shooed the other servants out, and replied with unimpaired stateliness.

“I believe she is instructing Mrs. Bedford concerning the preparations to be made for the young lady, sir. I will inform her of your return.”

Richard knelt by the sofa and drew the gloves from the cold hands. Lucy was busy unlacing the boots.

“Come help me, Tony, er…Lord Denham,” she ordered.

“Very well, Lucy, er…Miss Carstairs,” answered Tony obediently. She looked at him suspiciously, but his face was straight.

Richard chafed the icy hands of the unconscious girl. Already the warmth of the room seemed to be having an effect. A tinge of color, barely perceptible, crept into the white cheeks. She opened her eyes (grey-green, he thought, like the sea) and gazed up at him.

“Where am I?” she whispered.

“Oh, just like a novel!” crowed Lucy and clapped her hands.

The girl looked at her with a puzzled frown, then at Tony and back to Richard.

“Who are you?” she asked painfully. “I don’t under­stand… What has happened? My head hurts so.” She raised one hand to her forehead, and Richard hastily re­leased the other, which he was still holding.

“My name is Richard Carstairs. This is my sister, and a friend, Lord Denham. You are safe at my house, Toblethorpe Manor.”

“But why am I here? I was… How did I get here?”

“We found you on the moor, near Daws Fell. You had had an accident. We think your horse must have thrown you and kicked you.”

Lucy pressed forward.

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Why were you on the moor so early?”

The girl looked at her blankly.

“Hush your chattering, child,” commanded Richard. He turned back to the girl. “We must inform your family of your whereabouts,” he said gently. “What is your name?”

She looked up at him helplessly, a sudden fear in her eyes.

"I…don’t know. I don’t understand. Who…who am I?”

Richard frowned.

“Where do you come from? Where is your home?”

“I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything.”