Read An Honest Deception Online

Authors: Alicia Quigley

Tags: #Nov. Rom

An Honest Deception

Chapter 1

It was
a January day in Wales and the skies were blanketed with those peculiarly British
low-lying clouds that enclose the world and make it small. A light snow
fell, and the damp permeated everything; no stone, no plant, no animal could be
immune. Morgan Place would have fared ill in this unforgiving light even if the
gravel of the drive had been recently refreshed, the shrubs which ornamented it
trimmed of late, and the building subjected to proper upkeep.

As it
was, the dilapidation of the estate was obvious when an elegant traveling
carriage, perched on the best springs and pulled by a team of very sweet-goers
bowled up to the house. The door of the chaise opened and a modishly dressed gentleman
sprang out, his fair hair ruffling slightly in the wind. He waited as the
coachman pulled down the steps and then handed out an extremely fine lady,
whose traveling dress of grey silk twill was in the first stare of fashion and
became her tall figure admirably. Her auburn tresses were dressed rather severely
and her hands were inserted in a large sable muff.

“Are
there no servants here to assist Grissom with the horses?” wondered the
gentleman.

“There
may not be. You know how very reduced Letty’s circumstances have been,” his
companion replied.

The
fashionable gentleman grimaced. “It seems you will have to wait a few moments
for assistance, Grissom,” he said to his groom. “I will have the butler find someone
to come out to you as soon as we are within.”

The groom
nodded and watched as the gentleman gave his arm to the lady, helping her up
the steps to the door. It was swathed in black crape, and together with the
weeping skies and the house’s deteriorating native stone façade, which was much
in need of tuckpointing, the scene exuded a distinct air of gloom. A black bow
was tied about the knocker, and the gentleman lifted it, rapping firmly twice. The
crepe muffled the sound and the knock echoed hollowly. They waited several
moments in the misty rain for the door to open.

“Upon
my word, Isobel, no grooms and now it seems no butler either!” exclaimed the
gentleman. “Shall we be required to show ourselves in, I wonder?”

“It
does seem very irregular, Francis. Surely all of her servants cannot have left
Letty at such a distressing time.” Isobel Wheaton, Viscountess Exencour, looked
worriedly at her spouse and bit her lip. She was just opening her mouth to ask him
to open the door himself, when the sound of the latch lifting could be heard,
and an ancient and decrepit servant appeared. He looked inquiringly at the
visitors.

“Lord
and Lady Exencour,” the gentleman said, entering the hall. He handed his hat
and coat to the servant, and turned to help his wife remove her muff and cape.

“Where
is Lady Morgan, please?” asked the lady, somewhat anxiously.

“Her
ladyship’ll be in the drawing room where his lordship is laid out,” the old
servitor responded.

“Well,
show us there, man,” said Lord Exencour somewhat impatiently. “Lady Exencour
and I have made a long journey and have no wish to wait any longer to see her. And
find someone to help my groom and the coachman take the horses ‘round to the
stables.”

Lord
and Lady Exencour followed the butler across the hall to the drawing room,
where he opened the door and announced them in suitably dolorous tones.

The
drawing room had the air of a place where only money was wanting. It was
spotlessly neat and clean, and the wood of the furniture shone impeccably, but
light spaces could be seen on the wallpaper where pictures had once hung, and a
close examination showed that the curtains, while well-pressed and made of fine
damask, were old-fashioned and growing somewhat threadbare. Toward the end of
the room, there was a bier, with candles burning at either end of a coffin. It
was draped in black fabric, and floral tributes were heaped about it. On a settee
a young and very beautiful lady sat wearing widows weeds and a black veil, with
two small children at her side. Several visitors were ranged around, talking in
hushed tones.

At the
sound of their names the widow leaped to her feet and came forward. Lady Exencour
fairly ran to her, clasping her in a warm embrace.

“Oh my
dear, we came as soon as we received your letter. What a shock it must have
been to you.”

“Isobel,
you cannot possibly imagine how glad I am that you are here,” whispered the
lady in black. “Alfred’s affairs were in such a tangle, that I cannot think
what to do. There is no one I can turn to and the creditors are dunning me, even
now, before his body is laid to rest. But we must not speak of it for,” she
said, raising her voice, “here are Squire Musgrove and his lady, and the
Johnstones come to visit me. Let me make them known to you.”

Letitia,
Lady Morgan, drew Lord and Lady Exencour forward and made the introductions. For
a time the conversation was confined to those subjects usually deemed
appropriate on such occasions, until at last the visitors left. The children’s
nurse was summoned and the little boy and girl returned to the nursery, their
immature countenances reflecting all the fear and confusion that a death in a
family produces.

“Letty,
I hardly know what to say to you,” Isobel began. “I cannot say that I am sorry
for Alfred’s death, and it can only be most improper to say that you are better
off without him.”

“Oh,
Isobel, your candor is so welcome,” said Letty, hovering between laughter and
tears. “I have sat here for the past two days while the county came to offer
condolences, and I have not spoken a true word in the whole time.”

“Well,
you shall tell me the whole story, and tell it frankly, for here are no
censorious ears, only friendship and compassion. How came Alfred to break his
neck in a hunting accident? I had thought he was still on the Continent,”
Isobel said.

“He
returned very suddenly. I fancy there must have been some contretemps in Spa,
which is where he had been staying for the past three months. Some woman, or
gambling debt, no doubt,” said Lady Morgan bitterly. “In any event, Alfred
appeared here, and has done little but roister about the neighborhood and hunt
ever since. A fatal accident befell him three days since, when his hunter
stopped at a stone wall, and Alfred was pitched over it. The ground lay downhill,
magnifying the effect of the fall, and his neck was broken.”

Isobel
was silent after Letitia recounted these events, only taking her friend’s hands
in her own and holding them tightly.

“He
should have waited for his horse,” drawled Lord Exencour unsympathetically,
gazing at the coffin through his quizzing glass. “It’s much more difficult to
come to grief when one is on top of one’s mount. But then I make no doubt that when
this mishap occurred Lord Morgan was in no condition to ascertain his exact relationship
to his mount.”

Isobel
shook her head at this disrespect for the departed, but made no reproof, for no
one in the room had any reason to think well of the late Lord Morgan.

“Ah, I
hesitate to distress you further, dear Lady Morgan, but you mentioned the duns,
some moments past,” murmured Lord Exencour in a gentle tone, which was greatly
at variance with the cynical accents he had employed in remarking on the circumstances
of Lord Morgan’s death. “If it is not too trying for you, perhaps you had best
reveal the situation to me, and I will contact your man of business and attempt
to assist you in settling matters.”

Letitia
frowned. “Alfred’s first action on returning home was to declare that the
bailiff had been cheating him of the estate’s revenue in his absence, and he
dismissed him and put him out of his house on those grounds. It was shocking,
for Grieves has been here quite twenty years, I am sure. I hope that he remains
in the neighborhood, but he may have gone to his sister in Bristol, which will
make it more difficult to find him. As for our solicitor, Mr. Linkwall, he is
in Chester, and I have sent for him. I hope that he will be here by tomorrow. The
situation is really most alarming; I have no notion of the extent of Alfred’s
debts, but there have been a number of individuals who have called today who
are apparently money lenders, and I do not know what type of security Alfred
may have given them, but I greatly fear—”

“Lay
your fears to rest for now, Lady Morgan,” interrupted his lordship in a
soothing tone. “I will engage to seek out Grieves and will meet with Linkwall
when he arrives tomorrow. I expect that he will wish to read the will, but
surely that must wait until after the funeral.”

“Oh
yes, that takes place in the morning tomorrow, and I expect that we will hear the
will read that afternoon,” Letty replied.

“Very
well then. You and Isobel are to enjoy a comfortable coze. I will undertake
inquiries as to Grieves’ location, and at tea time, we will discuss what is
next to be done.” Exencour bowed elegantly over Lady Morgan’s hand, and, with a
warm smile at his wife, left the room.

Letitia,
who had borne up under the many strains of the preceding six weeks, proceeded
to burst into tears. Isobel held her hand and patted her back soothingly,
waiting for the storm to pass. At length, Letty’s sobs grew softer, and she
sniffed audibly, searching for her handkerchief. Isobel withdrew a serviceable
white linen square from her reticule and handed it to her with a smile.

“A
widow without a handkerchief, my dear? It will not do. The county will surely
surmise how little real grief you feel about Alfred’s demise.”

Letty
smiled through her tears. “You are quite correct. It is not Alfred I weep for;
it is a mere irritation of the nerves, I believe.”

 “One
can hardly call Alfred a ‘mere’ irritation, Letty,” responded Isobel with
asperity. “What happened when he returned?”

“Oh, it
was really rather dreadful, Isobel. He burst in here quite drunk one afternoon
last month, and announced that he had grown weary of the Continent and intended
to take up residence here at Morgan Park once more. The children were very much
confused of course, for Emily did not know who he was, and even little Jamie’s
memories of his father had grown quite dim after an absence of two and a half
years.”

“Letty,
why did you not let me know?” asked Isobel. “Francis would have been only too
glad to run him off as he did before.”

Letty
shrugged. “I do not like to trouble you, and I thought he might have learned
his lesson, or would soon leave again. I think he must have won a rather large
sum of money at play before returning, for he arrived with several horses and a
new carriage, and all of his clothing is likewise new. He joined the hunt and
had been behaving just as always. So much so, that of course it came to all
ears and a fortnight ago, I was very much mortified when Lady Pennibont visited
and hinted in the most odious way that Lord Pennibont had been very much
shocked to have seen Alfred in the company of a rather questionable lady. Indeed,
I am sure he did, but did she never wonder exactly what Lord Pennibont had been
engaged upon that he happened to encounter Alfred in such a situation?” Letty
asked in a vexed tone.

“Well
Letty, it is all very bad. But if Alfred has won a large sum at play, perhaps
he did not have a chance to waste it all before his untimely death, and it may
alleviate your circumstances,” said Isobel hopefully.

“It
would have to be a vast sum of money to do that,” said Letitia wanly. “But I
suppose anything at all would be a help. I hope Grieves is found quickly; it is
a very raw day for Exencour to be on such an errand for me. I am so grateful to
you both, Isobel.”

“’Tis
little enough among friends, Letty. After the will is read, and the financial
matters untangled we must study what is to be done, and how we can be of real
service to you.”

Letty
shook her head smilingly, and was about to answer, when her aged butler
entered. “Lord Bainstall has arrived, my lady,” he announced.

Letty's
sweet expression instantly changed to one of vexation. “My cousin. Well, to be
sure, good manners almost require his presence, but I wish he had not come.”

“I can
only echo that sentiment,” said Isobel. “I’m sure your cousin is the most
tedious man alive, and I’ve never had to endure his company. The correspondence
he sent you when you stayed with me in London was enough to give me the vapors!”

Letty
smiled despite herself. “Perhaps it is not his fault; his mother doted on him
excessively, and he was accustomed to being the center of her worries and
concerns. When my father died so suddenly and he inherited the estate, it only
increased his notion of his importance.”

“For
some reason people with no more than average understanding always seem to feel
they know best how to order the affairs of others,” observed Isobel. “I feel
for you, my dear.”

Letty
turned to the butler. “Very well, Banning. Please show Lord Bainstall in,” she said.

“Letty,
you must not allow him to bully you,” Isobel urged her earnestly. “Remember
that one of the chief advantages of being a widow is the right to do as you
please, without the censure of the world.”

“’Tis
the censure of Lord Bainstall, which concerns me rather,” replied Letty drily.
“My cousin, I believe, considers his own views of such matters to be of greater
significance than those of the world at large, being possessed as he is of a
vast belief in his own opinion.”

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