Elizabeth Mansfield (4 page)

The act was a kind of peace offering, and Letitia, who understood her sister’s crochets, accepted it. “I don’t know why you’re so parsimonious with your fires,” she said, pulling the shawl over her shoulders. “Really, Martha, if
were expecting guests, I would have had the fire going in the drawing room from morning on.”

“I feel perfectly comfortable,” Martha lied. “You keep your rooms much too warm.”

As if to contradict her, the wind came up at that moment and sent a spatter of rain against the windows. Letitia shivered. It was a dreadful day, even for London in March, with a chilling rain that showed every intention of falling all afternoon. “Only for the sake of dear Caroline would I have ventured out on such a day,” she muttered.

Martha fixed a cold eye on her. “Then for Caroline’s sake, stop whining about Napoleon and the weather and everything else we can’t do anything about, and sit down to discuss what we
do!” She stomped over to the tea table and helped herself to a scone. “Really, Letty, you look like a crow and sound like a titmouse.”

Letitia had heard this sort of insult too many times to let it bother her. “A crow indeed,” she objected mildly as she sat back down. “You know very well I’m wearing mourning.”

“There’s absolutely no difference between your ordinary garb and your mourning clothes,” her sister retorted. “You simply love black.”

Letitia made a dismissive wave of her handkerchief. “Did you send for me to mock my clothes or to talk about Caroline?” she asked.

“You’re right. Caroline is our subject, not your ridiculous appearance. Though even
should realize that the black rose on your hat is the outside of enough.”

“So are your insults. Keep to the subject, if you please.”

Martha, her expression changing from disgust to worry, drew in her breath. “You’ll find this hard to believe, Letty, but Caro writes that young Meredith is going to drive her out of house and home!”

Letty stared at her in disbelief. “Going to drive her out? Whatever do you mean?”

“It’s plain English. Drive her
Out in the cold, and with Arthur and Gilbert, too!” As she uttered the words their implication struck her full force. Her ramrod back suddenly sagged against the cushions of her chair. “My beloved Whitlow, and Clement, too, must be turning over in their graves!” she muttered, wincing.

Letty’s light blue eyes widened. “Good heavens, Martha, you don’t mean
Meredith! He wouldn’t!”

“Whom else could I mean? He’s the heir, isn’t he?” Martha waved the letter at her. “Only see what Caroline writes! She says he’s notified Halford that he intends to take over the Grange, lock, stock, and barrel, and he wants no one else around to get in his way.”

“But that doesn’t sound
at all
like Kit! He would never do such a thing, would he? I’ve always found him such a very sweet-natured, generous young fellow—”

“Nonsense. You hardly know him, any more than I do. I don’t believe we’ve met him more than twice since Josiah, our short-tempered brother, estranged himself from the family.”

“Perhaps it
only twice, but the boy was delightful each time.” Her eyes grew glassy, as if her mind had gone to some other place and she no longer saw what was right there in front of her. It was a habit of hers that drove her sister wild. “Why, the last time I saw him—at the Farringtons’ ball, I think it was—he sat beside me for almost the entire evening, and—oh, my dear, he was
kind! When he realized I’d come alone, he insisted on seeing me home!”

“Dash it, Letty, pay attention! The Farringtons’ ball was six years ago! He’d not even bought his commission. Perhaps the years of war have changed the boy. Hardened him.”

Letty’s wrinkled lips quivered. “Do you really think so? That he’s become hard?”

“What else am I to think? Isn’t that what happened to his father? Why, after Josiah and Clement quarreled, Josiah hardened his heart against the whole family, didn’t he? Perhaps it’s proof of the adage ‘like father like son.’“

“I don’t believe it. I always felt that Kit was more like his mother than like Josiah.”

“But Caroline is not the type to complain without reason. And I’m not saying it just because she’s my brother-in-law’s daughter, or because she and the two boys are all that’s left of my dear Whitlow’s family. I say it because she’s not the sort to complain at all. In all the years she’d tended Clement—and given his nature, we can guess she had a great deal to put up with—she never uttered one word of complaint, did she?”

“No, never. Not once.”

“Then we must assume she has good reason for what she says in the letter.”

Letty sighed. “Yes, I suppose we must. Poor Caroline!”

“Yes. The question is, what shall we do about her? I suppose I shall have to offer her shelter here with me.”

“Here?” Letty gave a small snort. “You’re not serious.”

Martha looked over at her in surprise. “Why not?”

“Because you’re too set in your ways and too short-tempered to put up with long-term guests, especially two young boys. Besides, you’d freeze them to death.”

Martha ignored the gibe, being preoccupied with the un-pleasing prospect of the disruption of her quiet household. “I don’t relish the idea of a house full of youngsters, I admit, but my dear Whitlow would have wished me to take in his brother’s children.” She looked over at Letty speculatively. “If you would agree to take one of the boys—”

“Is that what you’ve been getting at all this while? That you want me to offer to house one of the boys?”

“Well, yes. That would make things a bit easier for me.”

“Heavens, Martha, you can’t wish to separate the family! Gilbert is only a child, and a change from the country to London will be hard enough on him without his having to be torn from his brother and sister.” She paused for a moment, her eyes taking on that faraway look, and then she said suddenly, “Why don’t I take them all?”

Martha gaped at her. “You can’t mean it!”

Letty gave a cackling laugh. “Ha! I’ve startled you, haven’t I? You look as if you’re going to swoon.”

“You know I never swoon. Never in my life! But you
surprised me. Why are you making this offer? Caro and the boys aren’t even related to you.”

“They weren’t related to Clement either, yet he made them his wards. And I’ve grown to love the girl over the years, just as you have.”

“But, Letty, you barely have room for yourself in your tiny house.”

“It is smaller than this one, I admit, but I wouldn’t call it tiny. I have two unused rooms on the second floor, and a perfectly decent apartment in the attic.”

Martha blinked thoughtfully. “Yes, I suppose that would serve,” she murmured, her spirits rising at the possibility of being able to help Caroline without putting herself out. But it would not be fair, she told herself sternly, to put this all on Letty’s thin shoulders.

While she debated with herself, Letty reached for her cane and struggled to her feet. “My place will serve very well,” she said with unusual decisiveness.

Despite the obvious advantages of Letty’s offer, Martha didn’t like to have decisions taken out of her hands. “What makes you think you can put up with the confusion and chaos better than I?” she demanded.

“Because I can be agreeable, while you are usually contentious. It is my nature to avoid argumentation, while it is yours to seek it.”

Martha, who ordinarily would have made a sharp retort, was startled into silence, both by the generosity of her sister’s offer and the truth of her last remark. “Would you really take them in, Letty?” she asked after a long moment’s consideration. “You’re not just acting on impulse, are you?”

“No, I’m quite willing to do it.” She dropped the borrowed shawl on the sofa and started toward the door. “Someone has to. I am the logical one.”

Martha followed her sister down the hall. “You have no idea how you’ve relieved my mind,” she said. “I’ll write to Caro at once.”

Letty, after being helped into her outer garments by the butler, paused in the doorway and went into another one of her daydreams. “Heavens, Letty, keep your mind on what you’re doing!” Martha barked. “Your coachman is holding the door for you.”

Letitia blinked up at her sister, her eyes filling with tears. “Oh, dear, I just can’t help it. All this talk of family disruption has made me dreadfully discomposed.”

Martha stiffened. “You’re not going to tell me you changed your mind!”

“About taking in Caro and the boys? No, of course not.” She wiped a tear from the corner of an eye with one gloved finger. “But it’s all so sad.”

“What is? That poor Caro has to leave her home?”

“Yes, that, of course. And that Kit Meredith has become so hard-hearted.”

Martha shrugged. “I’ve observed more than once that matters of inheritance often bring out the worst in people. Whatever is greedy and selfish in human nature seems to come to the surface after wills are read.”

Letty shuddered and stepped out into the rain. “My dear Kit Meredith, greedy and selfish?” She shook her head as she limped slowly to her waiting carriage. “I find it almost impossible to believe.”







Kit Meredith could not leave Spain simply as a consequence of having acquired a title. He needed money. Travel was expensive, and his most recent payment to his landlord for the rooms he and Mickley occupied had left him down to his last farthing. Thus, when he wrote to Mr. Halford, the executor of his uncle’s estate, to acknowledge receipt of the news of his inheritance, he was forced, despite considerable embarrassment, to explain his predicament.
I cannot undertake to return home at this time, he wrote, unless the estate is solvent enough to defray the costs of the return to England for myself, my man Mickley, and my four horses.

Mr. Halford responded promptly (though somewhat cryptically) with the information that
the estate is quite solvent enough for any expenses that Your Lordship may incur.
The solicitor went on to say that he hoped the enclosed check would be adequate to take him and his man to London in a style
appropriate to His Lordship’s position,
and that he would be happy to receive His Lordship in his chambers in the City, at which time he would fully apprise him of the extent of his wealth.

The check had been amazingly generous; not only was it large enough to permit the new viscount to ship his horses home and to provide excellent accommodations on an English merchant vessel for himself and Mickley, but there was enough left over to enable Kit to purchase a very fine new phaeton. That purchase was his very first act after landing in Southampton.

But he did not use the phaeton to make for London, as Mr. Halford had instructed him to do. Instead, he set out for Crittenden Grange as soon as the phaeton was delivered to his keeping. Now that he was back on English soil, he explained to Mickley, he was burning with eagerness to see his new English abode. Going to London would have necessitated a detour to the east. He was determined to head straight north to Shropshire.

Not wishing to arrive at a household that was unprepared to receive him, Kit sent a letter to the Grange, addressed
to whom it may concern,
containing the information that he and his man would be arriving in two days. Then Mickley strapped their few possessions onto the back of the new phaeton, and they were on their way.

Kit let Mickley take the reins on the drive north. He wanted to be free to feast his eyes on the early-spring landscape, so different from the dry, brown Spanish terrain he’d become accustomed to. But though he reveled in the views, he permitted no dawdling. The only pauses they made along the way were two brief hours in Oxford (paying a sentimental visit to the rooms where Kit had stayed years ago when he was a student), and a mere four hours at an inn near Stratford-on-Avon to get some sleep. In less than two days of riding they reached their destination.

It was early afternoon when they entered the outer gates. As Mickley turned the new phaeton onto the curved drive that led to the Grange, Kit felt his pulse race with excitement. He barely noticed the shabby old landau that lumbered past his carriage, making its way out. Mickley, however, gave the equipage a quick glance as it passed by. He noticed a young lady within who appeared to be consoling a weeping, towheaded little boy with a freckled nose, while an older boy peered forlornly out of the carriage’s rear window. “Did ye see that?” he remarked to Kit. “Two boys an’ a lady, lookin’ fer all the world like they was comin’ from a funeral.”

Kit turned to look after the disappearing carriage. “What business could they have had at the Grange?” he wondered.

But he gave the incident no other thought once he arrived at his new home. He was too overwhelmed by what he saw to think of anything else. Crittenden Grange was much lovelier than anything he’d imagined. Though he’d visited the Grange once or twice in childhood, before his father and his uncle had had their rift, he had only vague memories of those visits. He did remember, however, that his father had often spoken of the Grange with an unmistakable nostalgia. The Grange had been his father’s boyhood home. Kit sensed that it pained him afterward to be so forcibly separated from it. Nevertheless, those wispy memories were incapable of preparing him for what he now saw.

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