Part Four of Conversations
Mountsel Park, in Arthur’s opinion, was at its best on those Spring mornings when the rhododendrons in the Step-Wood were in full bloom, the lawns were silvered by dew and a gentle mist diffused the hard lines of the house’s stone-hewn grandeur. Mountsel was an old house but a merchant’s house, given more to display than beauty, more to theatre than poetry. Yes, theatre was everywhere; in the echoes of the grand, almost baronial hall, the high windows, the extravagant statuary, heavy tapestries and drapes. Part of such a place’s function was, after all, to impress, but those it sought to inspire were traders, not literati, and the higher echelons of London centric society were rarely to be spotted here. Instead, on the nights when its doors were thrown wide the salons and corridors were filled by prosperous local stomachs that could comfortably support a wine glass without the aid of a table, and ribald local humour such as graced the better houses of many provincial cities where money was made and exchanges were done.
In the brightness of day the house’s commanding position, too, giving it such clarity as a viewpoint, could only be softened by cloud or rain. The aspect from which, on brighter days, could be picked out so clearly the urban clutter of Mountchester and extend down the navigable river Leven to the Channel and beyond would be muted by distance to a watercolour palette of melted tones; greys, blues and a dozen more subtle shades. Upon these mornings Arthur could imagine himself immersed in a timelessness when the hours no longer mattered. He could lose himself – he could mask the dark and haunting things that pursued him always: in essence,he could forget.
It was the Spring of the year following Hart-Witterington’s passing. Arthur had not relinquished his mourning, for he missed the old man and his idiosyncrasies sorely; he had regarded him as immortal; never thinking that, despite his great age, death could overtake so dominant a life-force. But then, on the one weekend he had been away, the one weekend he had extended by a day, his protector, the great man of substance who had built this house, had left him.
Alone in the world was a description Arthur did not care for: he put it to the back of his mind, for Hart-Witterington had left him everything; the house, the business that provided eggs which, if not golden, were at least sterling silver; everything, in fact, but the gift of good company. He had much to be grateful for, in terms not just of the warehouses he now owned, stacked along the City bank of the river and bursting with artefacts from the emerging markets of the East, but the organisation which conferred upon him a wealth of leisure to enjoy it. Too much leisure.
He had breakfasted on his favourite devilled kidneys early, taken one of his horses for exercise in the parkland that surrounded Mountsel, before visiting one of his tenant farmers who was in feud with a neighbour over the damming of a stream. By the time he had returned to the house and changed out of his riding clothes, the hour was eleven o’clock local time. He was contemplating means to fill the final hour before luncheon when Edkins discreetly tapped upon his study door.
“A visitor, sir. Without appointment, I’m afraid; a Miss Delisle? She has a child with her.” The old butler imparted this information with the controlled horror of a meticulous house servant for whom exposure to children was deeply distressing; “Shall I tell her you’re unavailable?”
Surprised, Arthur managed a slight shake of the head, “No, Edkin, show them to the morning room, if you would.”
The old butler raised an eyebrow, “But a child, sir?”
“A very well behaved one, if my memory serves me. See if they require refreshment? A brandy for myself, too, if you please.”
Approaching the doors of the morning room, it would be fair to say Arthur’s emotions were mixed. After his chance encounter with Francine Delisle he had entertained thoughts of meeting her again and how such a rendezvous could be devised. The tragic news of his protector’s impending death had all but driven her from his mind, so only recently had she revived in his thoughts. Yet there must be grounds for this sudden visit: had some misfortune befallen her?
She was seated on a salon chaise, and much as he remembered, if anything the more alluring because until this moment he had seen her only by candlelight, or otherwise protected from full view by cape and bonnet against a gale. Her countenance was pale, emphasised by a grey dress trimmed with rose, her eyes the darkest pools of solemn blue
“Mr Herritt, how kind of you to receive me!” She said quietly, “I do hope I do not impose?”
He smiled, “Not at all. I thought we addressed each other in familiar terms, Francine. I was Arthur; do you not recall?”
She returned his smile. “Indeed, I do.”
Arthur turned his attention to young Samuel, who had positioned himself defensively behind his mother; “And you, sir. I trust you are well?”
The child looked uncomfortable, and rather trussed in his blue velvet suit. He mumbled a muffled “Well, thank you sir,” without raising his eyes.
Francine stepped in hurriedly, “As are you, Arthur? We are so pleased to see you are in good health!”
“The cholera, you mean? That has largely passed, has it not?”
And so, haltingly at first, the ease of rapport they had found over dinner at ‘The Rifleman’ in Bleanstead was renewed, until it was almost as if a momentous three months had vanished altogether. Edkins brought tea and shandy for the visitors, a brandy for his master. As the conversation at last turned to the reason for Francine’s visit, her brow creased in a frown.
“I suppose I must declare myself, mustn’t I? First may I ask for your indulgence a little further? Could Samuel be entertained elsewhere? Another room, perhaps. He is quite independent.”
“Mama!” The boy protested.
“Darling boy, you need not be distressed. I have something to say that is for Mr Herritt’s ears alone. A confidence, do you see? And you needn’t fear for my honour, I promise. Mr Herritt and I have already flouted convention without his giving me any cause for distrust. Can it be managed, sir?”
Arthur said it could, and Mrs James, his housekeeper, was sent for, to lead a reluctant Samuel away for ‘A look at he hatchery’.
As soon as they had gone, Francine, having sipped from her tea bowl, as if by doing so she would gain time to choose her words, began her tale. “You might think this curious, Arthur, that our fortunes should have taken such similar turns these past few months, but they have. Oh, we have not suffered such tragedies as you, my guardian is still very much with us, Heaven be praised, but he is grievously beset. His fear is for Samuel and I. He is convinced our lives are in danger.”
“Why should he reason thus?” Arthur asked; “Who wishes you harm?”
“I do not know. By my faith I don’t. I have so few answers! We had returned from Bleanstead only three days when he confronted me with his concerns. He was quite ashen, as though he had just received a shock, and he told me I must find another, safer situation. I managed to placate him, as a consequence submitting Samuel and myself to virtual imprisonment within his house, and we have been in this condition every day until last evening when he raised the matter with me again, quite forcefully!”
“You say he is your Guardian,” Arthur interposed. “He is not a blood relation?”
“Would I know his name?”
“He has begged me to repeat his name to no-one. He seems terrified to have any association with me. It is quite unbearable!”
Arthur walked to the window that looked out upon the park, half expecting to see some strange carriage or a posse of runners, so earnest was his companion’s tone, but the tranquil innocence of the park was undisturbed. The mist of morning was fully lifted now and the lawns might be already dry. He rather wished the same clarity could have visited his mind. “What, do you suppose, renewed his anxiety?”
“I can throw no light upon it. But this morning I discovered a valise packed for us and ready in the kitchen. A handsome had been ordered to the tradesmen’s door “
“With no destination at all?”
“None! Oh, he did not leave us without money. I have sufficient to keep us in lodgings somewhere – until summer, he said. I am not to contact him or acquaint him with my address because, in his words, it would be better if he could not have the information extracted from him. To that end, he was also emphatic that I should not return to Bleanstead. That would, apparently, endanger Maud, because whoever pursues me will expect me to go there.”
Arthur shook his head. “So we have to assume he is fearful of violence, or torture, perhaps. Who does he believe to be pursuing you, that is the question? Could there be somebody from your past who bears you ill-will?”
“ I have no notion.” Francine’s hands were clasped her in her lap and her knuckles were white. “It is possible, you see, that I have enemies. May I be frank with you, Arthur? Can we rely upon each other’s confidence?”
Exigency in the silk of her voice brought him immediately to her side. “Never doubt it,” he said gently. “What is it you need to say?”
“I did not make my circumstances known to you when last we met, and I should do so now. Indeed, it is imperative that I do. Arthur, I have no past.”
“My word!” He exclaimed, taking her hand in his. It was cold, trembling slightly within the protection of his fingers. “Many of us might wish we had no past, but the truth must be otherwise. What are the circumstances that lead you to this conclusion?”
“If you want me to phrase it differently I shall. I have no memory of anything before a night when I awoke to find myself lying, heavy with child, before my guardian’s door. His housemaid discovered me and I recall it so vividly because I have never felt such cold, never since then. I really think that within another hour I might have died.”
Very gently, Arthur relinquished his grip on her hand, only to feel her reach for its reassurance once more. “Oh, I am shameless! Given a day, you would find me recovered to my usual self. Today? Today I had such a need to share my story, and you came first to my thoughts. I cannot make any other excuse!”
“Nor should you be required to.” He nodded. “I am glad to be of service.”
“How must you see me?”
“With nothing but respect for your courage. I see something must be done, and I see that it would be cruel to persist with this discussion. I will reunite you with Samuel, and I hope that you will grace this house with your presence, for tonight, at least. There are clearly many things to be said, but they will not suffer by waiting. My housekeeper will conduct you both to a room where you can rest. Perhaps you might join me for luncheon? I normally eat at noon.”
Was he a little peremptory? Under disguise of consideration for Miss Delisle’s welfare, had he concluded their conversation too soon? Might he have learned more if he had allowed the thread to continue? Arthur took no pride in his suspicions, nor was he blind to the meaningful glance his housekeeper bestowed as she took charge of Miss Delisle and her son: he, a man newly come into a fortune, a fact that was well known in Mountchester; she a young woman in straightened circumstances. A mother possibly without a husband, and certainlyt without alternative means of support. If his thoughts were darkened by suspicion, who would doubt him, or blame him for that? Of Miss Delisle he knew very little – one meeting, a convivial evening, some three months since. Yet such meanness of spirit was not natural to him and he was, before all things, a gentleman, not a gallant. He would not condemn a beautiful woman to hazard the road alone, without escort: these were not the most propitious days for travel. He had to know more.
Left to himself with an hour to squander before next meeting Francine, Arthur could have returned to his library, as was his normal custom before his midday meal. He did not. Instead, desiring the fresh air of a very pleasant spring morning he turned his feet towards the terrace on Mountsel’s facade, from which to could overlook the park. Leaning against the stone balustrade he watched as the normal industry of morning took place on the driveway below: deliveries in a purveyor’s horse and cart diverted by a scullery maid from the road reserved for privileged visitors, to head around the East Wing in the direction of the kitchens; a pair of coach horses being led back to the stable block, three of Mr. Maple, the Head Gardener’s apprentices, attacking the rose beds by the fountain, pruning back to old wood, Bees from the kitchen garden hives were busy adding their note to the proceedings, peacocks rehearsing in more raucous tones, all playing their instrumental part in the symphony of day.
In spite of all the distractions, it would have to be said Arthur’s inner thoughts were never far from Francine Delisle. Her solo part in the orchestra of the estate was less voluble, but no less intrusive. In his rapture, Arthur was unaware of an urgent approach of hooves, a thunder of heavy horse and furious haste. It came upon him unexpectedly: not from the driveway he could see, but around the West Wing, around the orangery, around the hatcheries, around the high walls of the tropical gardens. Challenged by the shouts of the ostlers, the hooves spurned the civilised, muffling crunch of Mountsel’s imperious drive, opting instead for the flight of steps that ascended to the end of the terrace – the very terrace where Arthur stood. He had barely time to turn before this horse was upon him; before its hot breath was panting down in his face and its rider – its mighty, bronzed rider, whose flint-cold eyes glared fiercely enough to rip his soul from his breast – parted savage lips in a screeching war-cry. It was a banshee screech, but the words that followed it were plain enough:
“The woman is ours!”
Before Arthur had time to respond, horse and rider had wheeled around, and by a cacophony of clattering hooves, returned from whence they came..
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