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72. The Impetuous Duchess, страница 1

 

72. The Impetuous Duchess
 

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72. The Impetuous Duchess


  AUTHOR’S NOTE

  ‘Marriage by Declaration’ before witnesses or ‘Irregular Marriage’ was legal in Scotland until the Act was repealed in 1949.

  Napoleon Bonaparte’s action at the renewal of hostilities in 1803 in treating ten thousand English tourists in France as prisoners of war was condemned at the time as a violation of all civilised behaviour.

  CHAPTER ONE

  1803

  “Excuse me, Your Grace.”

  The Duke of Warminster raised his eyes from the book he was reading while he ate.

  Standing in the doorway of the private parlour of the Posting inn was his second coachman, somewhat awkwardly twisting his velvet cap in his hands.

  “What is it, Clements?” the Duke enquired.

  “The weather be a-worsenin’, Your Grace, and Mr. Higman thinks it’d be unwise to tarry long. He learns ’tis some distance to the next inn where we could change ’orses or rest for the night.”

  “Very well, Clements. I will not be more than a few minutes,” the Duke replied.

  The second coachman bowed and went from the parlour.

  The Duke closed his book reluctantly and picked up the glass of inferior wine that was the best the inn could provide.

  The meal had not been a good one – the mutton had been tough and there had been no choice of dishes.

  But what could be expected in such a wild part of the country, with at this time of the year few travellers of any consequence?

  It had been, as the Duke was well aware, an unusual procedure for someone of his standing to journey to Scotland when there was still snow on the ground and the weather, to say the very least of it, was uncertain.

  But he had been extremely anxious to discuss with the Duke of Buccleuch at Dalkeith Palace some manuscripts he had recently discovered at Warminster that linked their families in the reign of Henry VIII.

  He had therefore braved the elements and been rewarded for his courage by having what had been to all intents a smooth journey to Edinburgh.

  He had stayed at Edinburgh Castle for some nights and then proceeded to join the Duke of Buccleuch at his Palace for a number of long, earnest and erudite discussions which they had both much enjoyed.

  “Warminster is far too young,” the Duchess of Buccleuch had said tartly to her husband, “to spend his time poring over dusty volumes when he might be looking at pretty women.”

  “His Grace does not find contemporary Socialites as alluring as past history,” her husband replied with a smile.

  The Duchess, however, had done her best to interest the Duke of Warminster in their youngest daughter, a pleasant young woman with considerable talents in music and painting.

  The Duke, although extremely polite, had made it quite clear that his only interest in visiting Dalkeith Palace was to talk with its owner.

  He had set out on his homeward journey well satisfied with the results of his visit and convinced that, as it was now the beginning of April, spring was in the air.

  But during the last few days there had been unprecedented gales, which had made the Duke’s carriage rock precariously on the rough roads, made hard and slippery with recent frosts.

  However, the Duke was too immersed in his books to notice such minor discomforts.

  He had stayed at Thirlstone Castle with the Earl of Lauderdale and for a few nights at Floors Castle, a magnificent building erected in 1718 by Vanburgh.

  Now he had no more visits to make and there were no more convenient hosts to offer him hospitality before crossing the border.

  As was usual on such occasions, the Duke’s servants grumbled and complained at the discomforts of the journey far more than their employer.

  It was true that the second coach, carrying the Duke’s valet, also contained besides his luggage certain comforts that were not accorded to lesser personages.

  His Grace for instance always travelled with his own crested linen sheets, soft lambswool blankets and his special goose-feathered pillows.

  There were also some bottles of excellent claret and brandy, which despite the jolting they had received were considerably more palatable than anything that could be purchased at the local inns.

  It was unfortunate that, when His Grace had stopped at The Grouse and Thistle at midday, the second travelling coach had fallen behind.

  This was doubtless because Higman, the Duke’s first coachman, had insisted on taking all the best posting-horses for himself, which meant that only very inferior horseflesh had been left for the second coach.

  “I tells His Grace afore we starts,” the third coachman said bitterly, “that us couldn’t rely on obtaining decent animals in an ’eathen barbaric country like Scotland! But would ’is Nibs listen? No!”

  It was a statement the other servants had heard a hundred times since they had set out from Warminster.

  The fact that the Duke himself had journeyed to Scotland in his yacht before joining his coaches at Berwick-on-Tweed had done nothing to mollify the coachman’s resentment.

  Inferior animals though the horses might be, they certainly seemed impervious to the roughness of the roads and the sharpness of the winds, which would undoubtedly have disturbed and perhaps incapacitated horses from the South that were not used to such weather.

  As he finished his wine, the Duke rose from the table he had been sitting at and, crossing the room, picked up the fur-lined cloak he always travelled in.

  He was holding it in his hands as the door opened again and a mob-capped maid who, he thought, must be the daughter of the landlord bobbed him a curtsey.

  “I’ve a request to make of Your Grace,” she said in a broad Scots accent.

  “What is it?” the Duke asked, putting on his cloak with some difficulty in the absence of his valet.

  “There be an elderly lady, Your Grace, who begs you’ll be kind enough to allow ’er to travel with you to the next Postin’ inn. She’s ’ad an accident with ’er coach and there be no way for ’er to reach there without the ’elp of Your Grace.”

  The Duke paused in the process of buttoning his cloak.

  He had a rooted objection to travelling in a coach with anyone, let alone a stranger.

  He liked reading while he was travelling or simply contemplating quietly in silence the many projects on which he was engaged on his many estates.

  The mere idea of having to make conversation or to have someone chattering to him on the long miles that he must journey before he reached the Posting inn filled him with dismay.

  “Surely,” he said tentatively, “there must be some other way that this lady can reach her destination?”

  “Nay, Your Grace,” the maid answered. “The stagecoach only comes through ’ere once a week and we’ll not see it agin till after the Sabbath.”

  The Duke longed to allege that there was no room for a passenger in his coach, but he knew that the well-sprung, recently built vehicle had evoked interest and admiration wherever it had appeared.

  Doubtless the elderly lady in question had already inspected its interior before asking him if he would give her a lift.

  It was therefore with a sigh of exasperation, which he could not repress, that he replied,

  “Very well. Will you tell the lady I am pleased to offer her a seat in my carriage, but that I am departing immediately?”

  “I’ll tell the lady, Your Grace,” the maid said, and curtseying, sped from the parlour.

  The Duke was about to follow her when the landlord appeared with his bill. This was something the Duke had forgotten.

  Whenever he travelled without a Courier, his valet invariably settled all the accounts. The Duke himself was never bothered with bills or the necessity for carrying money.

  Fortu
nately he had a few golden sovereigns in his waistcoat pocket and he placed one on the salver that the landlord handed him waving aside the suggestion that there should be any change.

  He had obviously overpaid, for the landlord was profuse in his gratitude, bowing and scraping in an excess of goodwill, as he escorted the Duke to his carriage and expressed many regrets that he had not been previously advised of His Grace’s visit so that better fare could have been provided.

  The Duke closed his ears in a manner that he had found most convenient when he did not wish to listen. Yet, by smiling pleasantly at the man when he finally reached the door of the carriage, he left the landlord with the conviction that he had been extremely pleased with his reception.

  A blustery wind blowing round the side of the inn almost swept the Duke’s hat from his head. Holding it firmly in place he stepped hastily into the carriage.

  Already seated in the far corner of the coach was the figure of a woman wearing a dark travelling cap, the hood trimmed with fur pulled forward, leaving her face in shadow.

  She was covered with a fur rug and, as the Duke seated himself, the second coachman tucked another round his legs. He felt beneath his feet a foot warmer that had been refilled at the inn.

  “Good evening, ma’am,” the Duke said to the lady beside him. “I regret to learn that there has been an accident to your coach. I am glad that I can be of service in conveying you further on your journey.”

  “Thank you.”

  The words were spoken in a low and what seemed a quavering voice.

  His companion, the Duke decided, was obviously very old, in which case she would probably sleep and would therefore not disturb him.

  To make quite sure that she was aware he did not intend to converse, as the horses turned out of the yard and onto the open road, he opened his book ostentatiously.

  There was no doubt that the wind had risen a great deal since the morning and now it beat ferociously against the carriage, so that if the vehicle had not been so well made the windows would undoubtedly have rattled.

  The Duke settled himself comfortably feeling that, if anyone could get up a good speed out of the four horses pulling the carriage, it would be Higman.

  At the same time he hoped the second carriage would not be too long delayed. He was well aware, when it came to spending a night in a local inn, how indispensable his valet was to his comfort.

  Trusgrove had been with him ever since he was a boy and in some magical manner he could always conjure up hot water, bed warmers and even an edible dinner however unprepossessing their accommodation might appear.

  The Duke stopped thinking of his valet in the second coach.

  He suddenly realised that they must have travelled for some miles and yet his lady passenger had neither moved nor spoken.

  He told himself that this was exactly what he wanted, that it was a source of real satisfaction, so that he would not regret having performed a kindly action in giving her a lift.

  At the same time he could not help feeling curious as to whom she might be and he found himself ostensibly reading a whole page of his book and yet not taking in a word.

  A sudden fresh gust of wind gave him an excuse for saying aloud,

  “Surely, ma’am, this is unprecedented weather for the time of the year?”

  “Yes – it is.”

  The words were low and again the voice sounded quavery.

  It was obvious, the Duke thought, that the lady had no wish to talk and he told himself with a smile that for once he had found someone who was more of a recluse than he was himself!

  He turned back the page of his book and began to read it again.

  As he did so, they came to a sudden bend in the road and what must have been a recent fall of snow caused the coach to check for a moment.

  Then it slipped sideways so that the lady was flung from the other side of the coach against the Duke.

  He put out his hands to save her from falling and, as he did so, the hood of her driving cape fell back a little to reveal two large bright eyes in a small heart-shaped face.

  The Duke stared in astonishment.

  This was no elderly woman but a young girl, very young it appeared! She quickly pulled the hood back into place and slipped back into the corner of the carriage, but the Duke had already seen her.

  “I was told,” the Duke said slowly, “that it was an elderly lady who required my assistance.”

  There was a moment’s hesitation and then the girl, for the Duke was convinced that she was nothing more, said almost defiantly,

  “I had a feeling you might – refuse to take me unless you thought that I was old and in need of – help.”

  “You are quite correct in your supposition,” the Duke said. “But now that it is no longer possible for you to continue with your pretence, perhaps you would tell me why you are travelling alone?”

  In answer she pushed back her hood to reveal vividly red hair that curled in a rather unfashionable manner over her head.

  Her eyes were a very dark grey-green almost the colour of the sea and, even in the dimness of the coach, the Duke could see that her skin was white, clear and translucent.

  She smiled at him and said gaily,

  “I am glad I no longer need to use that trembling voice. But it did deceive you, did it not?”

  “It did indeed,” the Duke replied. “But then why should I suspect that what I had been told was untrue?”

  “I was so afraid that you would refuse to help me,” his companion said. “But now we are at least three miles on our way and there is nothing you can do about me.”

  Her tone was so complacent that the Duke could not help saying,

  “I could, of course, set you down on the roadside!”

  “Leaving me to freeze to death in this weather?” the girl asked. “That would be extremely ungentlemanly!”

  The Duke looked at her, taking in the small pointed face and the clear-cut features.

  She was not beautiful, he decided, but she was extremely pretty and there was a fascination in the way she smiled and in the sparkle of her eyes that he had not encountered in other young women.

  More than anything else she was obviously a Lady of Quality and, with a sense of some dismay, he asked,

  “I think it would be best if you were frank with me. I enquired as to why you were travelling alone. Let me repeat the question.”

  She gave him a glance from under her eyelashes and replied,

  “It’s a secret, but I have urgent and important despatches that must be carried to London immediately! An ordinary messenger or Courier would be intercepted on the road, but it is unlikely that anyone would suspect me!”

  “Very dramatic!” the Duke remarked dryly. “And now perhaps you will tell me the truth!”

  “You don’t believe me?”

  “No!”

  There was a silence and then the girl said,

  “I don’t wish to tell you the truth and there is no reason why you should demand it!”

  “I think there is every reason,” the Duke replied. “After all, you are enjoying the hospitality of my coach and quite frankly I do not wish to be involved in any scandal.”

  “There is no likelihood of that!” the girl said quickly – almost too quickly.

  “Are you sure?” the Duke asked. “Perhaps it would be best if I turn the coach round. Your own carriage can doubtless be repaired and you can wait at The Grouse and Thistle until it is completed.”

  The girl thought for a moment and then in a very different tone she asked,

  “If I tell you the truth, will you promise to help me?”

  “I can make no such promise,” the Duke answered, “but, shall I say, I shall give you a sympathetic hearing.”

  “That is not enough!”

  “I am not prepared to offer more!”

  Again there was a silence and at last in a small voice the girl said,

  “I have – run away!”

  “I guessed that,” the
Duke observed.

  “Is it very obvious?”

  “Ladies – even Scottish ladies – do not travel unaccompanied and do not beg lifts from strangers!”

  The girl did not answer and the Duke went on,

  “Well, are you running away from school?”

  “No, of course not!” came the response. “I am eighteen and grown up! As a matter of fact, I have never been to school!”

  “Then you are running away from home?”

  “Yes!”

  “Why?”

  As she hesitated, the Duke said,

  “I must insist upon knowing the truth and it will be easier if you tell me of your own free will without my compelling you to do so. Suppose for a start I learn your name?”

  “Jacobina.”

  The Duke raised his eyebrows.

  “Then I gather from that you are a Jacobite?”

  “Of course I am!” the girl agreed. “And so are all my Clan. My grandfather died in the Rebellion of ’45.”

  “And now the Young Pretender, Charles Stuart, is dead too.” the Duke remarked. “You can hardly fight for a King who no longer exists.”

  “His brother, James, is still alive!” she answered quickly, “and, if you think we would acknowledge those German upstarts in London as our rightful Monarchs, you are very much mistaken!”

  The Duke smiled to himself.

  He was well aware of how loyal many of the Scots were to their Stuart Kings and he could not help admiring their courage. The English had never been able to destroy their persistent and obstinate adoration of the man who they thought of as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’.

  “Well, Jacobina,” he said, “go on with your story.”

  “I am called ‘Jabina’,” she said. “‘Jacobina’ is too much of a mouthful, but that is what I was Christened and I am proud of it!”

  “I can quite believe that! But do you think those who Christened you would be proud of you at this particular moment? I should imagine that they will be searching for you.”

  “They will not be able to find me,” Jabina said firmly.

  “Start from the beginning!” the Duke suggested with a note of command in his voice which those who served him would have instantly recognised.

  “I don’t wish to talk about it,” Jabina protested.

 
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