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"It is out of the question, my dear aunt," he said firmly. "I am promised to Miss Forbes and there is no honorable way in which I can break that engagement."
"Fiddlesticks!" she returned, her cold black eyes raking his face. "A young lady of five and twenty will hardly be willing to wait a year to wed. She's on the shelf now, my boy, and you can be sure she has no intention of waiting a twelvemonth with all its inherent hazards now that you are Viscount Pontley."
"I should think it all the more reason she would be willing to wait," he murmured.
"For your title? There's little enough in it, Pontley. My sons, God rest their souls, had no idea of estate management and were both addicted to gambling."
There was no trace of grief in her hard, bitter face, though her body was encased in the deepest black bombazine of mourning and the room about them was shuttered and the furniture draped with black. "In your position it will be necessary for you to marry an heiress in order to restore Lockwood to its proper glory. Miss Forbes cannot bring you above two thousand pounds."
"Not so much, I assure you." The young man opposite her rose and paced about the room, his limp obvious to the old woman but ignored by himself. The years of naval activity brought a stiffness to his bearing which immediately identified him as a military man, and lent dignity to his height. His aunt studied the frowning face with its high forehead, intense brown eyes and pursed lips. She was pleased with the progress her attack was making, but no indication of this appeared in her demeanor.
"Miss Forbes will realize that your change in position must allow for some leeway in theusual conventions. With a peerage you can look far above her for a bride, and in your year of mourning you are bound to be the object of a good deal of interest. She will only be distressed to see the caps flung at you by young ladies of unimpeachable birth."
"There is nothing wrong with her birth," he retorted with a scowl.
"Surely you must know that there is a question of her paternity!" his aunt exclaimed.
Pontley turned to regard her unbelievingly. "I know no such thing."
The Dowager Lady Pontley shook her head wonderingly. "Had you spent more time in London, you could not have missed hearing the rumors."
"I am not interested in gossip."
"When it concerns your prospective bride, you should be," she snapped.
"Mr. Forbes accepts her as his daughter. They are very devoted to one another."
"Indeed. I dare say she is the comfort of his old age, but there was a time when?"
"I will hear no more on the subject." Pontley's eyes blazed with annoyance and his chin, with its remarkable cleft, was set firmly.
"As you wish. No doubt your loyalty does you credit," she retorted sarcastically. "But it can only place Miss Forbes in an unenviable position to be brought into the light of public notice by marrying you. She had agreed to you as a husband when you were an unknown naval captain."
"Miss Forbes is familiar with London society, and is in regular correspondence with Lady Garth. I have never witnessed the least discomfort in her with regard to her birth. When she spent a season in London she was invited to all the best homes."
"No doubt she told you so herself." When the viscount did not respond to her jibe she continued "Oh, I don't doubt Lady Garth writes to her, or even that Miss Forbes was indeed welcomed into a certain element of society. For a while there was a fascination with her playing of the harp, as I recall. But that was years ago, my dear nephew, and I have not been advised by any of my correspondents that Miss Forbes has endeavored to venture into society since that first season when her aunt brought her out. Do you not find that circumstance in itself suspicious?"
Pontley gave an exasperated shrug. "Why should I? I am not interested in attaining a position in society, nor ever have been. My means would have precluded it in any case, and it was hardly my object in offering for Miss Forbes."
"Why did you offer for her? I am told that she has no great beauty, no fortune, no talent in fact in any way except on the harp. Surely such a mouse could not have engaged your affections."
"Your opinion of Miss Forbes is irrelevant, Aunt, and I have no desire to discuss with you my reasons for offering for her."
Lady Pontley was not moved by this cut; her sensibilities were nonexistent and her feeling toward her nephew would have been one of contempt had he not now succeeded to the viscountcy. Within the span of a few weeks she had learned of the death of her younger son in India, and had witnessed the death of her elder son of the influenza which raged about the countryside. The news of Keith's death had taken months to reach them, along with the word that Lord Wellesley had taken Delhi, and when it arrived it came on top of the recent death of his older brother William, Viscount Pontley, stricken down by influenza, his body already ravaged by drink and excess. Lady Pontley herself proclaimed that it was the chill brought on by his exercises in the rain with the volunteers he commanded that had been his downfall, and no one questioned her. The habit of years was strong, and she showed every intention of attempting to direct her nephew's life as she had her sons', with as little success.
When she spoke, it was with biting sarcasm. "You have been elevated by your cousin's untimely death to a position of which you are not deserving, and it does not surprise me that you are willing to elevate a nobody with you. My sons had a proper regard for the consequence of their situation which you will never achieve, I fear. You have no regard for the respect due the Hobart name, young man, and turn a deaf ear to the advice of those older and wiser than yourself."
"Your interest in me is flattering, Aunt Gertrude, and I will overlook your rudeness in face of your double bereavement." He leaned against the mantelpiece to still the pain in his left leg. "I will respect your wishes insofar as waiting a year to wed is concerned, to show due deference to my cousins. It will mean a postponement of the wedding only, however, as I have no intention of breaking my promise to Miss Forbes. If she should have a desire to terminate our engagement in those circumstances, then your fondest wish will be granted. For my part, I cannot see that she would have any wish to do so, since it would be a more advantageous marriage than I was able to propose previously. Your visions of affluent young ladies tossing their caps at me are, if you will forgive me, ludicrous. If the position at Lockwood and the other estates is as bad as you imagine it, I am no prize in anything save title, and my previous engagement will forestall even the heartiest of mamas from pushing their daughters forward, I should hope. I pray you will reconcile yourself to Miss Forbes and cause no dissension when we are wed."
"You are foolish beyond bearing, Pontley. Before you throw away your life I would advise you look into the circumstance of Lady Garth's friendship with your betrothed." When he made a gesture of dismissal she adopted a self-righteous pose. "I will say no more on the subject, you may be sure. It would behoove you to visit the estates in Gloucester and Somerset to bring them to some semblance of order after you have looked to Lockwood itself. You will find more than enough to keep you occupied for some time, I assure you. When you visit Huntley you must pay your respects to my brother's children near Tetbury. His older daughter, now Lady Morris, has her sister living with her. You will find the girl charming, accomplished and strikingly attractive, in addition to being an heiress. Your Miss Forbes could not hold a candle to her for birth or fortune."
"I shall be enchanted to make the acquaintance of your nieces," he retorted ironically. "My first destination must be Hastings, however, to speak with Miss Forbes. I shall convey your regards, as it would be most unwise for you to be at outs with her if she is so lacking in sensitivity as to maintain our betrothal."
"Your sarcasm is lost on me, Pontley. You are a babe in the wood when it comes to worldly knowledge and you will live to regret such an injudicious choice. What influence can she offer you? My niece at least has good political ties through her family, and mark my words, Pitt will resume the leadership of his party within the month. Addington is finished." The dowager waved a deprecating hand. "But then you are probably too innocent to know the value of such ties, though your naval career should have made you aware of them. Lady Garth is a follower of Fox," the old woman snorted "and I have no doubt your Miss Forbes is as well."
"It is a matter of no concern to me."
"Fool! You are not in such a position that you can whistle down the wind some influence in Parliament. Do you think the fate of the Hobart estates rests only on their management? There are enclosures going forward near all of them. Your service in the navy will buy you no influence, my boy."
Pontley had only a vague understanding of the countryside. Left to his own resources at a young age, he had opted for the life at sea and had distinguished himself in the naval service. An authority on blockading and sprung masts, he had never had reason or desire to understand the functioning of an estate. His life had been devoted to his duties on board ship, which he had accomplished with ease and authority; to handling the crises of gales from the west which split masts and tore sails to tatters; to struggles with tides and rocks, which could be more hazardous than a weekly battle. He had suffered the seclusion from the world for months at a time which was the fate of sailors during the blockade of Brest. Only too aware of his ignorance of estate management, he had never expected nor even wished for his elevation to the viscountcy. In spite of the bland exterior he presented to his aunt, he was not unaware that her knowledge on the subject exceeded his by leaps and bounds.
"I don't doubt the truth of what you say, my dear aunt. It will take time for me to grasp the reins of the estates in my hands and obtain a satisfactory understanding of their working. Nonetheless, I am committed to Miss Forbes and no enticement of influence, wealth or birth can induce me to break my word to her. Let us speak no more of the matter. By your leave, I would appreciate an early evening so that I may start for Hastings in the morning."
"It is your house now," she replied bitterly "and you may retire and rise at your own leisure. I will be removing to the dower house within the month."
"I pray you will not move with undue haste, Aunt Gertrude. There is not the slightest need for your removal at such a distressing time for you, and I have no idea when I will take up residence here."
His aunt scowled on him. "I have no desire to remain where I am not wanted and where my advice is held in low regard."
"I assure you I am not unaware of your greater understanding of the estate than my own, and I shall not be impervious to your advice on such matters, Aunt. On other matters I must be guided by my own principles. You will need several months, I should imagine, to recover from your recent shock and to plan the removal of your belongings to the dower house." He watched the old tartar's lips twitch with triumph.
"That is kind of you, nephew. I shall look about for a companion to assist me in my move, as I have not the strength at this time to carry out the necessary tasks."
Pontley pitied the companion her lot, but said nothing further on the matter. He retreated to his room not entirely easy in his mind, in spite of his proclamation to his aunt. The problem was that he did not really know Miss Forbes all that well owing to his life at sea. After hours, days, months, of loneliness on board ship he had been intrigued on meeting her by her vivacity and her calm capability. But most of all he had been won over when he heard her play the harp, as many others were. Her skill was extraordinary and he had envisioned quiet evenings by the fireside listening to her play. True, she was not a beauty, but she was well enough to look at, and with an ease of making friends which he could not but admire. His own years away from the ordinary intercourse of society had made him uncomfortable amongst the gently bred until he had met her and been accepted into her own circle of acquaintance. Not that he was not well liked by the officers and men whom he met in his naval duties; with them there was no question of being ill at ease. Their life was his and he partook of it freely and with enthusiasm. He had not intended to change his way of life, and had been forced to only by the dual necessity of his injury and his accession to the viscountcy.
His aunt had impressed upon him the necessity of undertaking the management of the estates, with their hundreds of families dependent upon the lord of the manor for their livelihood and well-being. Still, he knew nothing of such matters and would have retreated to the sea had it not been for his injury. It was a time when every knowledgeable sailor and naval officer was needed to prevent invasion by the French flotilla, but the wound did not heal properly, continued to cause pain, and he might be left with a perpetual limp. He wondered what Miss Forbes would think of that.
Surprising that she had accepted him, when he came to think of it. The life he had offered her was one of continual absence, of meager means and no social position beyond his connection with the Hobarts at Lockwood, who completely ignored him. The reverse was likely to be true now, aside from the precarious financial position his cousin William had left. Would the transition from Captain Philip Hobart to Viscount Pontley indeed impress Miss Forbes? Why had she chosen to accept him when there were half a dozen men in her circle only too ready to carry her off as a bride? That was unusual enough in itself, considering her age and lack of fortune, but he knew for a fact that it was true. Had he not spoken with two of her rejected suitors before he, at twenty-eight years of age, had put his own case to the test?
Under his aunt's attack, he had had little to say except that he did not intend to undertake the dishonorable course of breaking off his engagement. Her insinuations had left him nonplussed, and annoyed with his lack of knowledge of his prospective bride. He drew a hand wearily through his crop of straight brown hair. Everything had seemed so simple at the time. They would marry--a comfortable sort of arrangement whereby he would have someone to come home to from his duties at sea. She would bear him children and raise them, and he would spoil them when he was on leave. He had in fact been in the process of negotiating for a house in Hastings when his aunt had summoned him to Lockwood with the news that his cousin William was dead. Only a week after his arrival, the news of Keith's death reached them, and his aunt had been seized with a frenzy such as he had never before seen. Her grief was not so much for the loss of her sons, but for the loss of the Pontley title to him, an outsider.
Under her storm of invective he had attempted to calm her agitation, and in time she had shifted the balance of rage to a premeditated assault on his choice of a bride. With deadly calm now she proceeded to undermine his purpose and propose her own niece as a far more fitting viscountess. Pontley could see that the thought of her niece in such a situation was a salve to her wounded sense of what was proper. And he could see that she hoped through her niece to maintain some of her fast-diminishing power. What he could not see was whether her intimations had any basis in fact and whether they would affect him if he married Miss Forbes. It seemed unlikely that she would pass on groundless rumors to him, knowing that sooner or later he would find out the truth of the matter. She had never met Miss Forbes, however, and information she had was doubtless on hearsay from old crones with whom she corresponded.
Nonetheless, the calm, uncomplicated life he had envisioned had been ruthlessly shattered during the past month and he saw no hopes of piecing it together with any semblance of pleasure to him. Would the Miss Forbes he had envisioned as his comfort on leave prove a satisfactory companion in the continuous setting of lady of the manor?