'The scarlet-coated lady and the young man sat opposite each other, and occasionally exchanged glances of acute dislike'
'The scarlet-coated lady and the young man sat opposite each other, and occasionally exchanged glances of acute dislike'
A thin covering of snow already lay on the ground when the Bath and Bristol Light Post Coach set out from Holborn at two o’clock in the afternoon of a bleak December day. Only two hardy gentlemen ventured to ride on the roof; and the inside passengers consisted only of a pessimistic man in a muffler, a stout lady with several bandboxes, a thickset young man with small eyes, and a jowl, a scarlet-coated young lady and a raw-boned countrywoman, who appeared to be her maid.
The scarlet-coated lady and the young man sat opposite each other, and occasionally exchanged glances of acute dislike. Upon their initial encounter in the yard of the White Horse Inn, the gentleman had uttered: ‘You going to Bath? Much good may it do you!’ and the lady had retorted: ‘You travelling upon the stage, Joseph? I had thought you would have gone post!’
‘I am not one to waste my substance,’ had pronounced the gentleman heavily.
Since then they had indulged in no conversation.
The coach was making bad time. At Maidenhead Thicket the snowflakes were swirling dizzily, and the temperature had dropped to an uncomfortably low degree. The young man wrapped himself in a rug; the young lady hummed a defiant tune: she had not provided herself with a rug.
Slower and slower went the coach. At Reading the fat woman got down, and her place was taken by a farmer, who said that he disremembered when there had been such another hard winter, and prophesied that the roads would be six foot under snow by Christmas. The pessimist said that he had known at the outset that they would never reach their destination.
The coach laboured on, but past Theale actually picked up its pace a little, and for perhaps ten minutes encouraged the passengers to suppose that the weather was clearing. Then the snow began to fall more thickly still, the coachman lost his bearings, and the whole equipage lurched off the road into a deep drift.
It was thrown on to its side with some violence. The two outside passengers were hurled over the hedge into a field, and those inside landed in a heap on the near-side door.
The thickset young man was first to extricate himself, and to force open the off-side door. He scrambled through it, rudely thrusting the pessimist out of the way, floundered into deep snow, and fell upon his face, a circumstance which afforded the pessimist a sour pleasure.
The farmer and the young lady were too much occupied with the abigail, who had fallen awkwardly, to notice this interlude. The abigail said in a faint voice: ‘I’ve broke my leg, Miss Sophy.’
‘Oh, Sarah, do not say so!’ besought her mistress. ‘Well, it’s just what she has done,’ said the farmer frankly. ‘We’ll have to get her out of this, missie.’ He hauled himself up to look out through the open door, and shouted: ‘Hi, you! Come and lend a hand with the poor wench here! Lively, now!’
Thus adjured, the thickset young man came back to the coach, asking rather ungraciously what was wanted. He seemed disinclined to lend his aid, and the scarlet-coated young lady, who had been trying unavailingly to move her henchwoman into an easier position, raised a flushed face in which two large grey eyes sparkled with wrath, and uttered: ‘You are the most odious wretch alive, Joseph! Help to lift Sarah out this instant, or I shall tell my grandfather how disobliging you have been!’
‘You may tell him what you choose – if you reach Bath, which you are not now very likely to do, my dear cousin!’ retorted Joseph.
‘You hold your gab, and do what I tell you!’ interposed the farmer. ‘Jump out first, missie: you’ll only be in my way here!’
Miss Trent, pausing only to pick up her cousin’s abandoned rug, allowed herself to be hoisted through the door. Joseph received her from the farmer, and lost no time in setting her down. Her feet sank above the ankles in the snow, but the pessimistic man helped her to reach the road. By the time she had spread the rug out on the snow Sarah had been extricated from the coach, and the coachman was helping the guard to unharness one of the leaders.
Sarah was laid on the rug; Miss Trent, her bonnet fast whitening under the gathering flakes, knelt beside her; and the coachman informed the assembled company that there was no need for anyone to worry, since the guard would ride on at once to Woolhampton, and get some kind of a vehicle to fetch them all in.
This speech greatly incensed the pessimistic man, who demanded to be told when the next coach to Bath was due.
The coachman said: ‘Lor’ bless you, sir, we’ll be snowbound a week, I dessay! Nothing won’t get beyond Reading, not if this weather holds!’
There was a general outcry at this; Miss Trent exclaimed: ‘Snowbound a week! But I must reach Bath tomorrow!’
‘Can one hire a chaise in Woolhampton?’ asked Joseph suddenly.
‘Well, you might be able to,’ acknowledged the coachman.
‘I’ll ride in with the guard!’ Joseph decided.
Miss Trent started. Stretching up a hand, she grasped a fold of his coat, saying sharply: ‘Joseph, if you mean to go on by chaise you’ll take me with you?’
‘No, by God!’ he retorted. ‘I didn’t ask you to come to Bath, and I shan’t help you to get there! You may hire a chaise for yourself!’
‘You know I haven’t enough money!’ she said, in a low, trembling voice.
‘Well, it’s no concern of mine,’ he said sulkily. ‘A pretty fool I should be to take you along with me! Besides, you can’t go without your woman.’
Miss Trent’s eyes were bright with tears, but she would not let them fall. She said passionately: ‘I’ll get to Bath if I have to trudge there, Joseph – and then we shall see!’
He responded to this merely with a jeering laugh, and moved away to confer with the guard. Miss Trent made no further attempt to detain him, and in a very few minutes he had ridden off with the guard in the direction of Woolhampton.
With the departure of the guard a new and more fearful mood descended upon the coachman. He became obsessed by the idea that highwaymen would descend upon the wrecked coach, grasped his blunderbuss nervously, started at shadows, and ended by firing the weapon at the mere sound of muffled hoofbeats.
The sound of horses plunging and snorting was almost immediately followed by the appearance round the bend in the road of a curricle and pair, which drew up alongside the coach. A wrathful voice demanded: ‘What in hell’s name do you mean by firing at me you fat-witted, cow-handed ensign-bearer?’
The coachman, reassured by this form of address, lowered his weapon, and said that he was sure he begged pardon. The gentleman in the curricle, having by this time taken in the group by the wayside, briefly commanded the groom beside him to go to the horses’ heads, and himself jumped down from the curricle, and approached Miss Trent, still kneeling beside her stricken attendant. ‘Can I be of assistance, ma’am?’ he asked. ‘How is she hurt?’
‘I very much fear that she has broken her leg,’ Miss Trent replied worriedly. ‘She is my maid, and I am a wretch to have brought her!’
The gentleman, whose momentary outburst of wrath had swiftly given place to an air of languor which seemed habitual, said calmly: ‘Then I had better take you both up, and convey you to the nearest town.’
Miss Trent said impulsively: ‘Would you do that, sir? I should be so very grateful! Not only on poor Sarah’s account, but on my own! I must reach the next town quickly!’
‘In that case,’ responded the gentleman, rather amused, ‘let us waste not a moment. I’ll drive you into Newbury.’
The farmer and the pessimistic man, both applauding this scheme, at once volunteered to extricate Miss Trent’s baggage from the boot, and to strap it on to the back of the curricle; Sarah was soon lifted up into the carriage, and made as comfortable as possible; and the groom, resigning himself to a most uneasy drive, perched on the baggage behind.
Miss Trent, squeezed between Sarah and her very tall and broad-shouldered rescuer, bade farewell to her old travelling companions, and looked buoyantly towards the future. This seemed, at the moment, to consist only of snowflakes.
The light, moreover, was beginning to fail, so that she would not have been surprised had the curricle, like the coach, plunged off the road into a drift. But its driver seemed to be very sure of his ability to keep the track, and drove his pair along at a steady pace, his eyes, between narrowed lids, fixed on the road ahead.
‘How well you drive!’ remarked Miss Trent, with a sort of impulsive candour, as engaging as it was naïve.
A slight smile touched his lips. ‘Thank you!’
‘I do trust we shall reach Newbury,’ confided Miss Trent.
‘For one thing, I must have poor Sarah attended to, and for another, I must get to Bath!’
‘I collect that it is of importance to you to reach Bath immediately?’
‘Of vital importance!’ asserted Miss Trent.
‘You might be able to hire a chaise,’ he suggested. ‘I fear there will be no stage-coaches running for some days.’
‘That,’ said Miss Trent bitterly, ‘is what my cousin means to do! He can afford it, and he knows very well I cannot, and he won’t take me along with him. He is an odious man!’
‘He sounds quite abominable,’ agreed the gentleman gravely. ‘Is he one of the unfortunates we were obliged to leave by the wayside?’
‘Oh, no! He rode off with the guard to Woolhampton.
Trying to steal a march on me, of course!’ She added, on an explanatory note: ‘He has eyes like a pig’s, and his name is Joseph.’
‘How shocking! One scarcely knows whether to feel pity or disgust.’
Miss Trent knew no such uncertainty. ‘He is a hateful wretch!’ she declared.
‘In that case it is unthinkable that he should be permitted to steal a march on you. May I know your name? Mine is Arden.’
‘Yes, of course! I should have told you before,’ she said. ‘I am Sophia Trent. Do you live near here? I have come all the way from Norfolk!’
Never before had Sir Julian Arden announced his identity with so little effect! Indeed, it was seldom that he was put to the trouble of announcing it at all. Not only was he the acknowledged leader of fashion, a crack shot, and a nonpareil amongst whips: he was quite the most eligible bachelor in Society as well. He had been toadied all his life; every eccentricity was forgiven him; every door flew open at his approach. Mothers of likely daughters had laid siege to him for the past ten years; while the efforts of damsels of marriageable age to engage his interest were as ingenious as they were unavailing. He was so bored that nothing kept his interest alive for more than a fleeting moment. Very little, indeed, had the power to rouse his interest at all. But Miss Trent had achieved this feat quite unconsciously. His name meant nothing to her.
He permitted himself one swift glance down at her before resuming his steady scrutiny of the road ahead. There was not a shadow of guile in the big eyes, which met his in a friendly smile. Miss Trent was merely awaiting an answer. He said: ‘No, I live for the most part in London.’
‘But you did not come from London today, in this weather!’
‘You see,’ he said apologetically, ‘someone laid me odds I would not venture on it.’
‘And you set out, in an open carriage, for such a reason as that! I beg your pardon, but it seems quite nonsensical!’
He appeared to be much struck by this view of the matter. ‘Do you know, ma’am, I believe you are right?’
‘I think,’ said Miss Trent severely, ‘that you are quizzing me. Is your destination Newbury?’
‘My present destination, yes. We shall forget my original one. I daresay I should have been very much bored there.’
‘But your friends will wonder what has become of you!’
‘It need not concern us, however.’
This indifferent answer made her blink, but she forbore to press the matter, and chatted away on a number of unexceptionable topics. She held Sarah in one arm, and appeared to be more concerned for the maid’s comfort than her own, assuring Sir Julian that she thought the whole episode a famous adventure.
‘You see, my home is quite in the country,’ she explained, ‘and nothing exciting ever seems to happen, except when Bertram broke his leg, and Ned was thrown over the donkey’s head into the horse-pond. Thieves did once steal three of my stepfather’s best hens, but we knew nothing about it until the next day, so it was not precisely exciting.’
Entranced by this artless confidence, Sir Julian at once enquired into the identities of Bertram and Ned. He discovered that they were two of Miss Trent’s three half-brothers, and that her stepfather was the incumbent of a parish in Norfolk. She had two young half-sisters as well, and very little prompting was needed to induce her to expatiate on their many engaging qualities. In this way the journey to Newbury was largely beguiled, and when Sir Julian turned his horses in under the archway of the great Pelican Inn, a mile short of the town, Miss Trent exclaimed that she had not thought it possible they could have arrived so soon.
A number of ostlers and waiters came hurrying to serve the newcomer, and in a very short while Sarah had been carried up to a bedchamber, a groom sent off to summon the nearest surgeon to her aid, and a private parlour bespoken for Miss Trent. She came down to it presently, and found her protector warming himself before a leaping fire. He had shed his hat, and his many-caped greatcoat, and Miss Trent, who had already formed a very good opinion of his person, now perceived that he was decidedly handsome. He was dressed in a coat of blue superfine, which more experienced eyes than Miss Trent’s would have recognized as coming from the hands of a master; his buckskins were of impeccable cut; and his cravat was tied in the intricate style that had long baffled all imitators.
Sir Julian was also pleased with what he saw. Now that she had removed her bonnet, and he beheld her in the full candlelight, he perceived that Miss Trent’s hair grew in profuse ringlets, and that her eyes were even bigger than he had supposed them to be. He liked the frank way they lifted to his, and found it refreshing, to say the least of it, to encounter a lady who was neither arch nor simpering, and who had obviously not the smallest notion of enslaving him.
She let him lead her to a chair by the fire, and said: ‘I have made up my mind to it that the most important thing is for me to reach Bath, sir. I did think at first that I ought not to spend the money I have put by for my fare back to Norwich, but I now feel this would be foolish. So I shall hire a chaise to take me on. Do you think I shall be able to go tonight? I know the coaches travel by night, and the mails too.’
‘Nothing travels at night in such weather as this, ma’am. It has been snowing here, I discover, for three days. However, local opinion seems to be that a change is coming, so we must hope that the snow may have ceased to fall by tomorrow.’
‘Oh!’ said Miss Trent, dashed. She hesitated, and then asked shyly: ‘How much will it cost me, do you think, sir, to stay here tonight?’
‘As to that,’ he replied, ‘I have informed the landlord that you are a young relative of mine, travelling in my charge. I think he will expect me to pay your shot, don’t you?’
‘No!’ said Miss Trent, with decision.
‘I meant, I need hardly say, a loan!’ explained Sir Julian.
Miss Trent, her mind relieved, thanked him, and adjured him to keep a strict account of any sums he might incur on her behalf. He promised most gravely to do so, and an understanding being thus reached Miss Trent was able to relax, and to sip the Madeira he had given her. ‘Then all that remains to be done,’ she said, ‘is to hire a chaise in the morning, for the landlady says she will take care of Sarah for me, so I may be easy on that head.’
‘You may be easy on both heads,’ Sir Julian said. ‘I propose to escort you to Bath tomorrow myself, whatever the weather.’
Miss Trent was too unsophisticated to conceal her pleasure at this prospect. ‘Will you indeed?’ she cried, warm gratitude in her eyes. ‘I do think you are the kindest person I have ever met, sir! But ought you not rather to join your friends?’
‘Certainly not,’ he replied. ‘A very dull set of people! My whole desire is to revisit Bath.’
At this moment the waiter came in to announce the arrival of a surgeon, and Miss Trent went off to lead this practitioner up to the sufferer. When she returned to the parlour, the table had been laid, and dinner awaited her. She made an excellent repast. She said that Sarah must not travel for a few days, but that she was much easier now the limb had been set. ‘So there is nothing for it but to leave her here, poor thing!’ she said. ‘She says she will do very well, but I feel the veriest brute! But if my cousin were to get to Bath before me there is no saying what might happen! He would serve me a back-handed turn if he could!’
‘But what has engendered this violent antipathy between you, ma’am?’ asked Sir Julian, a good deal amused.
‘We both want the same thing,’ said Miss Trent darkly, ‘and he is afraid that I shall get it! But I have detested him all my life.’
She did not stay in the parlour for long after the covers had been removed, but retired early to bed, leaving her protector still ignorant of what her business in Bath could be. Local prophecy turned out to be exact. It stopped snowing during the night, and although the landscape was thickly shrouded next morning, the sky had lost its leaden hue, and the sun showed some faint signs of breaking through the clouds.
Miss Trent came down to breakfast in a mood of high hope. ‘I believe it will turn out to be a beautiful day, sir!’ she announced. ‘And if you will really be so obliging as to escort me to Bath, we may go in your curricle!’
‘It would be far too cold for you,’ he said.
‘No, indeed, I should like it of all things,’ she insisted.
‘And only think what a deal of expense you may save!’
Sir Julian, who had never in his life considered such a sordid matter, agreed to it meekly, and went out into the yard after breakfast to give orders to his groom.
It was while he was engaged in the stables that Mr Joseph Selsey arrived at the Pelican, having plodded all the way on foot from Woolhampton, carrying his valise. It was perhaps not surprising that he should be in an evil humour, but the head groom made no allowance for this circumstance. Peremptory persons looking suspiciously like provincial merchants would get no extraordinary attention from the Pelican’s supercilious servants. No post-chaise, stated the groom, would leave the inn that day. It was not until Mr Selsey had dragged the landlord into the dispute that he was able to hire, not a chaise, but a saddle-horse.
He was obliged to be satisfied, and to trust that he might be able to exchange the horse for a chaise in Hungerford. He then called for hot coffee to be brought him whilst the horse was being saddled, and in crossing the hall of the inn came upon Miss Trent, issuing from the parlour.
He stopped short, staring at her. ‘So this is where I find you?’ he ejaculated. ‘Fine doings, miss! Very pretty behaviour, upon my word!’
‘Why, what is wrong?’ she demanded.
‘Of course you would not know!’ he said, with one of his jeering laughs. ‘But it is all of a piece! By anything I ever heard, your mother was just such another, always ready to run off with any man who offered!’
‘How dare you?’ cried Miss Trent, her eyes blazing.
Sir Julian, who had come in from the yard in time to overhear this passage of arms, here interposed, saying in his languid way: ‘Ah, so this is your cousin Joseph, is it? Dear me, yes! Come with me, sir!’
‘Why should I?’ demanded Mr Selsey, taken aback.
‘That you shall see,’ said Sir Julian, leading the way out into the yard.
Mr Selsey followed him in some bewilderment, and Miss Trent, running back into the parlour to peep above the blind, had the felicity of seeing her objectionable relative dropped sprawling in the snow by a blow from Sir Julian’s famous right.
Mr Selsey picked himself up and bored in furiously. Sir Julian side-stepped neatly and dropped him again. This time Mr Selsey remained on the ground, nursing his jaw.
‘And let that be a lesson to you not, in future, to insult a lady!’ said Sir Julian calmly.
Mr Selsey, uneasily measuring the size and style of his opponent, said sulkily: ‘I didn’t mean – that is, I didn’t know –’
‘You know now,’ said Sir Julian, and turned, and went back into the inn.
He was met by Miss Trent, her face aglow with admiration.
‘Thank you!’ she said. ‘I have been wanting to do that all my life!’
‘What, did you see it, then?’ he asked, startled.
‘Yes, through the window. I clapped my hands! I wonder you did not hear me!’
He flung back his head and laughed. ‘You incorrigible child, you should be in a swoon, or indulging in a fit of the vapours!’
‘Pooh, as though I had not seen Bertram and Ned at fisticuffs a score of times! When do we set forward?’
‘In about half an hour, if you can be ready then.’
‘Should we not go at once? I am sure Joseph will be off now without waiting for his coffee!’
‘Very likely, but you have no need to be uneasy: we shall overtake him soon enough.’
They overtook him even sooner than Sir Julian had expected. Only fifteen miles from Newbury, where the road passed between the great trees of Savernake Forest, a solitary figure came into view, leading a very lame nag.
‘It’s Joseph!’ exclaimed Miss Trent. ‘Poor Joseph!’ she added piously.
‘Humbug!’ retorted Sir Julian, a note in his voice no other lady had as yet been privileged to hear.
She laughed. Mr Selsey, upon hearing the muffled beat of horses’ hooves, wheeled about, and, although he must have perceived who was driving the curricle, placed himself in its way, and waved his arms. Sir Julian drew up, and sat looking down at him with a sardonic lift to his brows.
‘Sir,’ said Mr Selsey in a voice of deep chagrin, ‘I find myself forced to request you to take me up as far as to the next town!’
‘But you cannot leave the poor horse!’ said Miss Trent.
‘Besides, it belongs to the Pelican!’
‘No, it does not!’ said her cousin angrily. ‘It belongs to a rascally thief! He took my horse and my purse, and left me with this jade!’
‘A highwayman? Oh, what an adventure!’ cried Miss Trent.
Mr Selsey ground his teeth.
‘You have only three or four miles to walk before you reach Marlborough,’ said Sir Julian helpfully. ‘Stand away from my horses’ heads!’
‘But I have no money!’ shouted Mr Selsey.
Sir Julian’s pair began to move forward. Miss Trent said quickly: ‘No, no, we can’t leave him in such a case! It would be too shabby!’
Sir Julian glanced curiously down at her earnest little face. ‘Do you wish him to reach Bath?’
‘Yes!’ said Miss Trent resolutely.
‘Very well. I will leave word with the landlord of the Castle Inn, sir, and he will provide you with a conveyance,’ said Sir Julian, and drove on.
Mr Selsey, by no means content, bawled after the curricle: ‘And you stole my rug, you hussy!’
‘Oh, dear!’ said Miss Trent, dismayed. ‘It is quite true, I did! We ought to have taken him up, perhaps!’
‘Nonsense! A walk will do him good.’
‘Yes, but if his purse has been taken he won’t be able to hire a chaise, even if you do bespeak one!’ objected Miss Trent.
‘Have no fear! I will arrange the whole, since you wish it.’
‘I think you have the most extravagant notions!’ said Miss
Trent severely. ‘And, pray, how am I ever to repay you?’
‘By satisfying my curiosity and telling me why we are racing Joseph to Bath!’
‘Did I not do so?’ she cried, astonished. ‘I quite thought I had explained it to you! I have the greatest hope that I may win a fortune!’
‘Then in that case you will be able to pay your debts, and you have nothing to worry about,’ said Sir Julian, only the merest quiver in his voice betraying him.
‘Yes, but I shan’t win it quite immediately,’ she said. ‘Not until my grandfather dies, and although he seems to think that will be soon, there is no telling, after all!’
‘Very true. Are we going to call upon your grandfather?’
‘Yes, and I fear he will prove to be very disagreeable.’
‘Are all your relatives disagreeable persons, Miss Trent?’ he enquired.
‘Certainly not! Mama, and my stepfather, and the children are the dearest creatures!’ she replied. ‘In fact, it is for them that I am going to Bath. If only my grandfather likes me better than Joseph, the boys may go to Eton, and Clara have lessons upon the pianoforte, and Mama another servant, and Papa – But this cannot interest you, sir!’
‘On the contrary. And is Joseph also bent on winning this fortune?’
‘Yes, and he does not need it in the least! You see, the case is that my grandfather quarrelled with both his daughters – my mama, and Joseph’s mama – because they married men he did not like. Mama says he was determined they should make splendid matches, and they did not. Mama ran away with my papa to Gretna Green – only fancy! He died when I was a baby, and I believe that he was not a very steady person. He was related to Lord Cleveland, and in the 1st Foot, only his family cast him off. So, I think, did the 1st Foot,’ she added reflectively. ‘Mama says he was very wild.’
‘Most of that family are,’ interpolated Sir Julian.
‘Oh, are they? I have never known them. Papa left poor Mama in sad straits, and if it had not been for my stepfather I don’t know what would have become of her. He married her, you see, and they are most happy! But Papa has a very small stipend, and there are five children, besides me, so that when my grandfather suddenly wrote to say that he felt his end to be approaching, and since he must leave his fortune to someone, I might go to spend Christmas with him, and perhaps he would leave it to me, it seemed as though it was my duty to go! And then I found that he must have sent for Joseph too, but I do think that he may like me better than Joseph, don’t you, sir?’
‘Miss Trent,’ said Sir Julian, ‘unless your grandfather is mad, you need have no doubts on that head!’
‘Yes, but I think he is!’ said Miss Trent candidly.
‘Who is he? What is his name?’
‘Kennet, and he lives in Laura Place.’
‘Good God, not the Miser of Bath?’
‘Oh, are you acquainted with him, sir?’
‘Only by reputation! Bath used to be full of tales of his oddities. I fear it is you who will not like him!’
‘No, but in such a cause one must stifle one’s feelings!’ said Miss Trent.
He agreed to it with becoming gravity, and for some miles entered in the fullest manner into all her plans for the advancement of her family. The journey was a long one, and the weather inclement enough to have daunted most females, but Miss Trent remained cheerful throughout. Sir Julian, who had been sure, twenty-four hours earlier, that he had run through every emotion life could hold for him, realized by the time the outskirts of Bath were reached that he had fallen in love for the first time since his salad days.
It was dark when the curricle drew up before a house in Laura Place, and the street lamps had been lit. ‘Tired?’ Sir Julian said gently.
‘A very little,’ owned Miss Trent. ‘But you must be quite dead with fatigue, sir!’
‘I have never enjoyed a day more.’
Miss Trent said shyly: ‘I – I have not either!’
‘In that case,’ said Sir Julian, ‘let us go in and beard your grandfather!’
‘You too, sir?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘Certainly. I must ask his permission to pay my addresses to you.’
‘To – to –? Oh!’ said Miss Trent in a faint voice.
‘Yes, may I do so?’
Miss Trent swallowed. ‘I have the most lowering feeling that I ought to say it is too sudden, or – or something of that nature,’ she confided.
‘Say what is in your heart! Would it displease you to receive my addresses?’
‘Well, no, it – it wouldn’t displease me – precisely!’ confessed Miss Trent, blushing in the darkness.
‘Then let us instantly seek out your grandfather!’ he said gaily.
They were admitted into the house by an aged retainer who reluctantly showed them into a bleak parlour on the ground floor. He left them with a single candle. Miss Trent said: ‘It is not very – very welcoming, do you think?’
‘Most quelling!’ said Sir Julian.
In a few minutes the door opened again to admit a buxom lady of uncertain years and improbable golden ringlets. She said without preamble: ‘Are you Mr Kennet’s Sophia? He’s that forgetful he must have forgotten to write! However, if you want to see him you may! Step upstairs with me, dearie! Don’t tell me this is Joseph you have brought with you!’
‘Who – who are you?’ gasped Miss Trent, utterly taken aback.
The lady bridled. ‘The name’s Flint,’ she said. ‘But I’m changing it. I was your grandpa’s housekeeper.’
‘Oh!’ said Miss Trent. ‘Then will you have the goodness to take me to my grandfather, if you please?’
Mrs Flint sniffed, but turned to lead the way up one pair of stairs. She opened a door giving on to a large parlour, and said: ‘Here’s your granddaughter, Mr K!’
From a winged arm-chair by the fire a desiccated old gentleman peered at Miss Trent. ‘Well, it’s no use her coming here, because I’ve altered my mind,’ he said. ‘Maria’s girl, hey? Damme if you don’t look like her!’
Mrs Flint, who had taken up a position beside his chair, said with a simper: ‘Me and Mr K. is going to be married.’
‘It’ll be cheaper,’ explained Mr Kennet simply.
Miss Trent sank nervelessly into the nearest chair. Mr Kennet was meanwhile subjecting Sir Julian to a severe scrutiny.
‘A fine buck you’ve turned out to be!’ he pronounced.
‘What’s your name? Joseph?’
‘No,’ said Sir Julian. ‘My name is Julian Arden.’
Both Mr Kennet and his prospective bride stared very hard at him. ‘Mr K., if it isn’t Beau Arden himself!’ palpitated the lady.
‘Are you the son of Percy Arden, who was up at Oxford with me?’ demanded Mr Kennet. ‘Sir Julian Arden?’
‘I am,’ said Sir Julian.
‘What do you want?’ asked the old gentleman suspiciously.
‘To marry your granddaughter,’ replied Sir Julian coolly.
This intelligence produced an instant change in Mr Kennet’s attitude. He rubbed his dry hands together and ejaculated: ‘That’s good! That’s the girl! Come and give me a kiss, Sophy! I’m proud of you, and I’m sorry I said you was like your mother! Damme if I don’t do something handsome by you!’
Miss Trent, submitting unwilling to his embrace, was feeling too dazed by the shocks of the past few minutes to speak, but at this her eyes lit with a faint hope.
‘I will!’ said Mr Kennet, with the air of one reaching a painful decision. ‘You shall have your grandmother’s pearls!’
‘When we’re dead and gone, Mr K.,’ interpolated the future Mrs Kennet firmly.
‘Yes,’ agreed Mr Kennet, perceiving the wisdom of this.
‘And I’ll give her my poor Charlotte’s garnet brooch for a bride gift, what’s more! I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment, but I’ll send it. Where are you putting up, my dear?’
Sir Julian, perceiving that Miss Trent was quite stunned, took her hand in a comforting hold, and said: ‘She will be staying at the Christopher, sir. And now I think we must take our leave of you.’
Mr Kennet brightened still more at finding that he was not expected to entertain his grandchild and her betrothed to dinner, and said that if she liked she might come to visit him again before she left Bath. ‘But I won’t have your cousin Joseph coming to batten on me!’ he added, suddenly querulous.
‘Which leads one to wonder,’ remarked Sir Julian, when he had extricated Miss Trent from the house, ‘what is to become of Joseph!’
‘What is to become of me?’ said Miss Trent, wringing her hands.
‘You are going to marry me.’
‘Yes – I mean – But poor Mama! Bertram! Dear Ned! I have no right to be so happy when I have failed so miserably!’
He lifted her up into the curricle. ‘My little love, you have not so far given my circumstances a thought, but I must inform you that I am accounted to be extremely wealthy.
Bertram, and Ned, and Tom shall go to Eton, and Oxford, and anywhere else you may choose; and Clara shall have her lessons on the pianoforte; and your mama shall have a dozen maids; and –’
‘Good God, you cannot be as rich as that!’ cried Miss Trent, quite frightened.
‘Much richer!’ he averred, mounting on to the box beside her.
‘But you must not marry me!’ she said, in great distress.
‘There must be dozens of eligible females whom you should rather marry!’
‘I am not the Grand Turk!’ he protested.
‘No, no, but you know I have no expectations!’
‘I know nothing of the sort,’ he said, possessing himself of her hand, and kissing it. ‘You are to inherit your grandmother’s pearls! But if I were you,’ he added, gathering up the reins, ‘I would not build too much upon that garnet brooch, my love!’
If you're disappointed not to be going away this summer, console yourself with these disastrous trips from fiction. They'll make a fortnight on the sofa all the more enticing.
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