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Georgette Heyer

The Unknown Ajax

Chapter 1

Silence had reigned over the dining-room since his lordship, midway through the first course, had harshly commanded his widowed daughter-in-law to spare him any more steward’s room gossip. As Mrs. Darracott had merely been recounting to her daughter the tale of her activities that day the snub might have been thought unjust, but she accepted it, if not with equanimity, with a resignation born of custom, merely exchanging a droll look with her daughter, and directing one of warning at her handsome young son. The butler glanced menacingly at the younger of the two footmen, but the precaution was unnecessary: Charles had not been employed at the Darracott Place above six months, but he was not such a whopstraw as to make the least noise in the performance of his duties when his lordship was out of humour. That was the way Chollacombe described as knaggy an old gager as ever Charles had had the ill-fortune to serve. Stiff-rumped, that’s what he was, always nabbing the rust, or riding grub, like he had been for months past.

Charles had thought himself lucky to have been taken on at Darracott Place, but he wasn’t going to stay above his twelve-month, not if he knew it! It might suit James, being Kentish born, to work in a great, rambling house stuck down miles from anywhere, in a marsh flat and bare enough to give anyone a fit of the blue devils, and with never a soul, outside the Family, coming next or nigh it, but when Charles went after another place he was going to London. Let alone he was always one for a bit of life, you could earn extra gelt in London, for there were always errands to be run, or notes to be delivered, and you got a shilling every time you were sent off to execute such commissions. If messages had to be carried in the country it stood to reason they were taken by one of the grooms; while as for the throng of open-fisted guests his Dad had told him it would be his duty to wait upon—well, a houseful of guests might have been what his Dad was used to in his day, but it wasn’t what they was used to at Darracott Place!

Such visions as Charles had indulged when he had first blessed his good fortune at being hired to fill the post of second footman in a nobleman’s establishment! A proper take-in that had been, and so he would tell his Dad! Dad, honourably retired from employment as butler to a Gentleman of Fashion, had assured him that to be hired to serve in a lord’s country seat did not mean that he would be immured in rural fastness throughout the year. My lord (said Dad) would certainly retire to Kent during the winter months; but at the beginning of the Season he would remove to his London house; and at the end of the Season (said Dad) the chances were that he would hire a house in Brighton for the summer months. And from time to time, of course, he would be absent, visiting friends in other parts of the country, during which periods his servants would enjoy a great deal of leisure, and might even be granted leave to go on holiday.

But nothing like that had happened at Darracott Place since Charles had first entered its portals. My lord, whose grim mouth and arctic stare could set stronger knees than Charles’s knocking together, remained in residence all the year round, neither entertaining nor being entertained. And no use for anyone to tell Charles that this was because the Family was in mourning for Mr. Granville Darracott and his Son, Mr. Oliver, both drowned off the coast of Cornwall in an ill-fated boating expedition: Charles might only have been second footman at Darracott Place for a couple of months when that disaster occurred, but no one could gammon him into thinking that my lord cared a spangle for his heir. If you were to ask him, Charles would say that my lord cared for no one but Mr. Richmond: he certainly couldn’t abide Mr. Matthew Darracott, who was the last of his sons left alive; while as for Mr. Claud, who was the younger of Mr. Matthew’s two sons, it was as much as anyone could do not to burst out laughing to see my lord look at him as if he was a cockroach, or a bed-bug. Nor, though he didn’t look at him like that, could you think he cared a groat for Mr. Vincent neither; while as for poor Mrs. Darracott, as kind a lady as you’d find anywhere, even if she was a bit of a prattle-box, it seemed like she had only to open her mouth for my lord to give her one of his nasty set-downs. He didn’t, it was true, do that to Miss Anthea, but that was probably because Miss Anthea wasn’t scared of him, like her Ma, and would maybe give as good as she got: it wasn’t because he was fond of her, as you’d think her granddad would be. It wouldn’t be Miss Anthea as would coax him out of his sullens; it would be Mr. Richmond.

But Richmond, his grandfather’s darling, after one thoughtful glance cast under his lashes at that uncompromising countenance appeared to lose himself in his own reflections. Some pickled crab, which he had not touched, had been removed with a damson pie; and his sister saw, peeping round the massive silver epergne that almost obscured him from her view, that he had eaten no more than a spoonful of this either. Since he had partaken quite liberally of two of the dishes that had made up the first course, she was undismayed by anything other than her grandfather’s failure to notice his present abstention. In general, Lord Darracott would have bullied Richmond into eating the pie, imperfectly concealing his anxious affection for the youth, whose earlier years had been attended by every sort of ailment, under a hectoring manner, to which Richmond, docile yet unafraid, would submit.

As little as Charles the footman did Anthea, or Mrs. Darracott, or even Richmond understand the cause of his lordship’s brooding ill-humour; rather less than Charles did any one of these three believe that it sprang from grief at the death of his eldest son. His lordship had both disliked and despised Granville; yet when the news of that fatal accident had reached Darracott Place he had been for many minutes like a man struck to stone; and when he had recovered from the first shock he had horrified his son Matthew, and Lissett, his man of business, by saying several times over, and in a voice of icy rage: “Damn him! Damn him! Damn him!” They had almost feared for his reason, and had stood staring at him with dropped jaws until he had violently ordered them out of his sight. Matthew had never dared to enquire what extraordinary circumstances had provoked his outburst, and this lordship neither offered an explanation nor again referred to the matter. Only a black cloud seemed to descend on him, rendering him more unapproachable than ever, and so brittle-tempered that Mrs. Darracott quite dreaded having to address him, and even Richmond several times had his head bitten off.

Dinner was always a protracted meal; tonight it seemed interminable; but at last it came to an end. As the servants began to remove the covers, Mrs. Darracott picked up her reticule, and rose.

His lordship’s hard, frowning eyes lifted; he said curtly: “Wait!”

“Wait, sir?” faltered Mrs. Darracott.

“Yes, wait!” he repeated impatiently. “Sit down! I have something to say to you!”

She sank back on to her chair, looking at once bewildered and apprehensive. Anthea, who had risen with her, remained standing, her head turned towards her grandfather, her brows a little raised. He paid no heed to her; his eyes were on the two footmen, and it was not until they had leftthe room that he spoke again. So forbidding was his expression that Mrs. Darracott, in growing trepidation, began to search wildly in her mind for some forgotten error of omission or commission. Chollacombe softly shut the door on the heels of his subordinates, and picked up the port decanter from the sideboard; he perceived that his master’s hands were clenching and unclenching on the arms of his chair, and his heart sank: there had been a storm brewing all day, and it was going to burst now over their heads.

But when my lord again spoke it was as though it cost him an effort. He said: “You will be good enough, Elvira, to inform Flitwick that I expect my son and his family here tomorrow. Make what arrangements you choose!”

She was so much surprised that she was betrayed into uttering an unwise exclamation. “Good gracious! Is that all? But what in the world—I mean, I hadn’t the least notion—”

“What brings them here, sir?” asked Anthea, intervening to draw her grandfather’s fire.

He looked for a moment as though he were about to utter one of his rough snubs, but after a slight pause he answered her. “They are coming because I’ve sent for them, miss!” He paused again, and then said: “You may as well know now as later! I’ve sent for my heir as well.”

At these bitterly uttered words Chollacombe nearly dropped the decanter

“Sent for your heir as well?”repeated Richmond. “But my uncle Matthew is your heir, Grandfather—isn’t he?”

“No.”

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