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It was only a few days before Halloween in the year 1800, and the October weather was warm and balmy as Polly Peach tended the garden of Horditall House, on the heights above the famous Cheddar Gorge in the county of Somerset. Trowel in hand, a basket beside her on the grass, she knelt in the morning sunshine, planting carnation and sweet william slips for next year. She was twenty years old, the orphaned heiress to the Peach's Bank fortune, which she would inherit in three years' time, and she lived with her miserly uncle, Hordwell Horditall. The garden was her pride and joy, because since her arrival she had single-handedly rescued it from a monstrous tangle of thorns and weeds. The reason for its sad state was Hordwell's summary dismissal of the two gardeners, whom he had then declined to replace. Now, thanks to her endeavors, everything was a carefully nurtured blaze of autumn flowers--Michaelmas daisies, chrysanthemums, asters, goldenrod, and nasturtiums, to say nothing of a commendable display of late roses that had escaped the summer rampage of the dreaded greenfly.
There was one unusual thing growing in the garden, an American pumpkin plant. Such things were very rare indeed in England, and Horditall House only possessed one because Bodkin, the house's resident brownie, knew a brownie, who knew another brownie, who looked after a very grand country house owned by a renowned horticulturalist lord. This lord had recently returned from the New World with all kinds of wonderful new plants and seeds, but had somehow neglected to plant the pumpkins. His brownie, never one to tolerate waste, had prudently shared the seeds among his friends, and thus one had fallen into Bodkin'shands. Now the fruit of this protracted tale was flourishing close to the Horditall House beehives.
Polly knew that pumpkins were supposed to be eaten, but Bodkin informed her they weren't being grown for their culinary qualities. He declared, rather mysteriously, that his pumpkins were going to be renowned throughout the brownie world, but more than that he wouldn't say. Unknown to Polly, he had marvelous plans for Halloween, a very important festival for brownies, by whom it was also called Mischief Night. There would be all sorts of high jinks, and jack-o'-lanterns made from the traditional, rather puny turnips, but Bodkin perceived that the American pumpkin would make a much more impressive jack-o'-lantern, indeed it would make a jack-o'-lantern so wonderful it would be talked of ever after. So he tended his precious plant with infinite care, and the pumpkins had grown to a prodigious size.
Bodkin's bees droned contentedly in the hives, and doves cooed in the cote as Polly's trowel dug satisfyingly into soil that had benefited from all the recent rain, but then the peace was disturbed by the sound of an approaching carriage. She sat back on her heels in alarm, fearing her uncle had returned early from Bath. She felt disloyal for enjoying his absence, but he could be so disagreeable that his temporary absence had proved an immense relief. As for debt-ridden Lord Benjamin Beddem, the gentleman with whom he had been staying at Bath's renowned Royal Crescent, well, the least said the better.
Polly regarded the dissolute, overweight second son of the Duke of Lawless as one of the most odious persons in creation, and it was her misfortune that not only had he attached himself to her uncle, but also that he had asked for her hand in marriage. Lord Benjamin was a man in dire need of a fortune to stave off the duns, and it was with money in mind that he bestowed such marked favor upon Hordwell, even to the extent of several times deigning to stay here in Horditall, which he clearly regarded as the back of beyond. Polly wasn't deceived by him at all, and rightly guessed that he had only leased the house in Royal Crescent, which it seemed impossible he could really afford, in order to impress her uncle, who was extraordinarily gullible when it came to the aristocracy. Hordwell so longed for a family alliance with the duke, that he blithely overlooked the fact that every Beddem since the time of wicked King John had been a villain and philanderer. Sly Lord Benjamin had led Hordwell to believe that his elder brother was about to be excluded from the family fortune, if not from the title itself, from which he could not be separated. This Beddem cataclysm would make Benjamin heir to the entire family fortune.
Needless to say, Polly wasn't taken in by Lord Benjamin or his tales of family upheaval, and she said so in no uncertain manner whenever the opportunity arose, but Hordwell brushed her protests aside as he endeavored to secure the match of his dreams. She would as soon fling herself over Cheddar Gorge as become part of such a family of aristocratic scoundrels and seducers! All this ran through her mind as she gazed anxiously along the road. If it was her uncle's carriage returning, please let him be alone!
Adjusting the cream woolen shawl around her shoulders, she waited apprehensively for the vehicle to come into view beyond the stone wall and sentinel beeches. The sun dappled her face through the wide brim of her straw hat, and the gentle breeze lifted the wide white ribbons beneath her chin. She had lavender eyes and a heart-shaped face, and a thick ash blonde ringlet fell over her left shoulder. Her slender figure was gently outlined by the soft folds of her blue muslin chemise gown, and she possessed the sort of pale, clear complexion that many a London belle would have died for. It might be thought she was little more than a defenseless porcelain doll, and indeed her uncle had made that very mistake, but such was not the case, for Polly Peach was not only spirited, but also accomplished, well read, intelligent, sympathetic, and thoughtful. She also had a deliciously impish sense of humor, which she often turned to great effect upon her uncle, although he rarely realized it.
At last the approaching vehicle drove into sight, and she was comforted to see it wasn't Hordwell's, but an expensive traveling carriage with a coat of arms on the door. Drawn by four excellent high-stepping grays, it was a gleaming equipage, green, with bright yellow wheels and polished brass, and for a split second Polly feared it might belong to Lord Benjamin, but then she remembered that her unloved suitor's colors were crimson and silver, whereas this liveried coachman wore green and gold. She breathed out with relief as the carriage drove past.
Because the window glass was lowered, she could see the solitary occupant, an exceedingly handsome gentleman with tousled dark hair and fine taste in clothes. A tall fawn beaver hat was tipped back on his head in a rather world-weary way, and a jeweled pin flashed on his creamy white neck cloth. There were discreet shirt frills peeping from the flared cuff of his tight-fitting sage green coat, and his gloved fingers tapped upon the window ledge as he glanced out. Polly's breath caught, for he was quite the most attractive man she had ever seen. Who was he?
But then the effect was spoiled as she noticed the hauteur of his expression. For a long moment his eyes met hers, and as he looked coldly to the front again, her feelings were extinguished, as if doused with a bucket of cold water. She was piqued, and suddenly rather glad that the superior gentleman and his magnificently garbed coachman would very soon discover they'd been misled along this road, a storm-driven ship lured by Wrecker Johnson. With a little clever manipulation of the signpost on the Bath highway, the pig farmer was wont to divert travelers through Horditall. Once these unfortunates had passed the hamlet, they suddenly found themselves in the narrow lane that led only to his property, where they were permitted to turn around only if they paid for the privilege.
Under any other circumstances she would have called out a timely warning to the coachman, for there was ample room to turn in the driveway to Horditall House, but since the gentleman clearly looked down upon her as a lesser mortal, he did not deserve to be rescued. In a short while now Mr. High-and-Mighty's elegant vehicle would find itself in the farm lane, which was positively awash after the recent rain, and there would be no turning until reaching Wrecker Johnson's muddy, decidedly cramped yard. After the humiliating exercise of fending off some of the fattest pigs in Somerset, then paying the grasping farmer's fine, the prideful gentleman and his now filthy carriage would suffer the further indignity of having to drive past Horditall House again. If she caught his eye then she would treat him to a patronizing smile. And serve him right.