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Lord Silverfield crept through the dark garden in a furtive manner that would have astonished his many cronies, had any of them been privileged to witness this strange behaviour.
The most sought-after but obdurate of bachelors, he was welcome in most houses; and it is true that were he to appear at the front door of the residence he was now so stealthily approaching he would have received admittance readily, if with some surprise at the lateness of the hour.
His goal was the distantly-lit ground floor where long windows opened straight onto the garden in the modern style; and when, at the expense of a torn coat sleeve, he finally drew near to them, he stole as furtively as any burglar to the nearest and peered in.
The room contained but one occupant. A middle-aged gentleman of full habit was sprawled in a comfortable chair pulled up to the fire. His face was flushed, and his unfashionable Brutus wig had fallen awry revealing a skull as bald as a gull's egg.
An empty decanter stood at his elbow, and his heavy-lidded eyes were shut. The reverberations of a monumental snore rattled the window.
Lord Silverfield hastily ducked his head down again. This glimpse of Sir James Derwent en deshabillé was illuminating, but it was not what he had come to see.
At the third window he was luckier. Cautiously peering over the sill, and partially concealed by the ivy growing so rampantly over the window frame, he surveyed the peacefully domestic scene of two ladies sewing by the light of candles.
The elder was a well-preserved, haughty-looking woman in, he guessed, her late forties, who must be Lady Derwent; indeed, that high-bridgednose and the close-set, protuberant eyes began to stir in him some chord of recollection.
She was attacking a piece of embroidery in a no-nonsense manner, and appeared to be lecturing her companion, a fair, plump and peevish looking girl.
Faint murmuring sounds came through the glass, but he could not make out the words. The peevish girl, at any rate, did not seem to be enjoying the lecture.
She had at first glance appeared to be pretty, causing him to feel a lightening of the heart, but upon a closer examination his spirits sank again.
The glowing blonde hair was prettily arranged, the eyes wide and blue; but already sulky lines were turning down the corners of her tight-lipped mouth.
Side by side there could be no mistaking the resemblance between the two ladies, and he could not doubt that this was Lady Derwent's only daughter, Louisa.
Although he knew that he must have met her in London, he had no recollection of ever having done so.
He gave a dismal sigh and began to back cautiously away from the window into the concealing darkness.
At the edge of the shrubbery he paused to regain his night-sight, and to rally his nerves with a judicious nip from his pocket flask.
"What are you doing?" enquired a voice from directly behind him in tones of lively curiosity.
He gave a start and dropped the flask with a swiftly muffled oath. Whipping round, he peered at the spot from where the voice seemed to have emanated.
The slight figure of a girl materialised out of the darkness and drew near.
He relaxed a little. The voice had been a young girl's; probably a servant out late without leave whom he could fob off with a tale. It was lucky that there was no full moon that night, so that he was in no danger of being recognised if she saw him again.
"How long have you been there?" he enquired in his pleasant, deep voice.
"Oh, for ages!" said the girl. "I watched you from my window for a while, and then when you moved closer to the house I could not see you, so I came down to see what you were doing."
"Hell's teeth!" he exclaimed. "If there's one thing I can't abide, it's an inquisitive wench!"
"I am not asking you to abide me!" she pointed out, a ripple of amusement running through her voice. "And after all, I might have roused up the household instead. Are you a burglar?"
"No, I am not!" he snapped.
"Well, why are you skulking about the house then?" she enquired reasonably. "For I saw you look first into my brother's room, and then where Maria and Louisa are sitting."
"Maria and Louisa?" he said in baffled tones, rapidly rejecting his earlier estimate of her status in the household. "Who the devil are you?"
"I think it more to the point if you tell me who you are. After all, I have a perfect right to be here, and you have not!"
"Do you, by God!" he exclaimed. A notion struck him. "I have it!" he exclaimed excitedly. "There are two of you!"
The alarming thought came into her head that he might be an escaped madman, and she wondered if she ought, perhaps, to call for help? He was very tall, and seemed to loom menacingly over her....
She stepped back nervously and said as soothingly as she could: "I am afraid there is just one of me. Tell me, did you perhaps knock your head on a branch whilst you were creeping about in the shrubbery?"
"No I did not! Of course I know that there is only one of you!" he snapped. "What I meant was, that I didn't know that Sir James had another daughter besides Louisa."
"Oh, he hasn't. Only a son."
"Endymion? I know about him--he isn't important." Lord Silverfield airily dismissed Sir James' cherished son and heir.
"He is to James and Maria--the very centre of the universe!" she said a trifle bitterly.
"Well, that is all beside the point!" he replied impatiently. "I can see now that you are not Sir James's daughter, or you would not be calling him 'James' in that familiar way. So just who are you?"
She sighed. "I do not see why I should tell every chance-met stranger my pedigree, but if you must have it: I am Sir James's half-sister, and Louisa is my niece."
"Half-sister?" His voice sounded incredulous. "But.... you sound to me to be very young, and Sir James must be at the very least forty-five!"
"Forty-six. My Father married for a second time very late in life, and I am the result. Sir James is old enough to be my father, but he is nevertheless my half-brother, and my niece is older than I am."
"It all seems very strange!" he said. There was a short silence while he did swift mathematical calculations in his head. "But your Mama....?"
"Died three days after I was born. She was eighteen," said the girl bleakly.
But once the problem of her identity was solved he lost interest, his own insoluble problems rising up to engulf him. "Well, that is all by-the-by. It was Louisa I came to see, and," he added, in tones indicating that he had not found the vision alluring, "I have!"
She pondered this, straining her eyes to see him more clearly. He was very tall, and though his voice was very deep it sounded young. She was quite sure that she had never met him before, so why then should he be skulking round the house at night taking peeps at Louisa through the window? A snippet of overheard conversation floated up from the depths of her memory, and light dawned.
"I have it: you must be Lord Silverfield!" The last word ended on a gasp of pain as he grasped her wrist ungently.
"What have you heard, that you come out with my name like that?" he demanded harshly.
"Why, only that you are to m-marry Louisa, and James has b-been in expectation of your coming to make her an offer," she stammered nervously.
He let her go, to her relief. "The devil he has! But that means.... they must know about the Will already! But how the deuce...?"
He was talking more to himself than to her, but she said helpfully: "There was a letter, forwarded by a lawyer, that made them all very excited. It was after that that I first heard mention of your intentions towards Louisa."
"Intentions!" he muttered. "They are so sure of me?"
She rubbed her maltreated wrist. "Well, James is very pleased about it, and Louisa is so cock-a-hoop there is no bearing it!" she said frankly.
"But Maria told her that it had taken a threat by your Uncle of disowning you to bring you to it, so she need not be too puffed up in her own esteem!"
"Not disowned," his voice was tired and bitter. "Just disinherited! And my Uncle's money will go to a distant cousin."
He turned on her suddenly. "Do you know what that will mean?" he demanded.
"Why.... n-no!" she stammered.
"It means that I will have lost my only chance to put Lepe Abbey back into the state it should be in. My Father never cared for the place, and ran it into the ground, and it is all I can do to keep it together! When I think of the money, that could be used to such good effect in bringing the estate back into order, going to my cousin .. Damn it, the man's not even English--his branch of the family went to America years ago!"
"Lepe Abbey' conjured up in her mind romantic ideas of a half-ruined ancestral home straight from the pages of a Gothic novel. "It is too bad!" she exclaimed with warm sympathy. "But have you no money of your own?"
He warmed to the sympathy in her voice. "A small income only--many times less than it should be if the estates were put back in order! But that will be impossible if I do not do what he has set out in his will: to marry your.... your niece within a twelve-month!"
"Oh! Is that how it is..." I think that is very unfair! Was he deranged, or just so taken with the benefits of the marital state that he wished everyone to be so?"
He laughed shortly. "Neither. My Uncle was a bachelor. But he considered me to be of so sadly unsteady a character that the only thing liable to reform me is a good wife; and who better than the daughter of his old friend Sir James Derwent?"
"Almost anyone, I should think! To tell the truth, I have never much liked her, even if she is my niece. Have I shocked you?"
"No, I admire your honesty," he said with a laugh. "And I must admit that I was not altogether enraptured by my first sight of her just now; but I can't think of anyone that I would wish to marry, even if I had a choice!"
"Your first sight of her?" repeated the girl blankly. "But she told me that she had often been in company with you in London last season!"
"I daresay. But I could not for the life of me bring her face to mind."
She giggled. So much for Louisa and her spoilt-beauty airs and graces! "It is tiresome when people try to force you to do things just because they think it will be best for you!" she said warmly. "I know it only too well."
"You? Come, there can't be anyone trying to force you into doing anything half so bad!"
"Well, that's all you know!" she retorted rudely, "Because as soon as Louisa is married to you, they mean to announce my betrothal to Sir Montagu Morley!"
"Sir Montagu Morley! You cannot be serious! He will never see forty again, and you, I am convinced, cannot have long left the schoolroom!"
"I am seventeen, and very nearly eighteen," she said with cold dignity. "Besides that, I am excessively pretty!"
He choked. "Here, you should not say such things! People will say that you are vain, even if it is true."
"I don't see anything to be vain about, when all that being pretty leads to is marriage with Sir Montagu!"
"Why are they so eager to marry you off if you are as pretty as you say you are?" he asked disbelievingly. "If they think I am about to offer for Louisa they could wait until she is married and then get her to launch you into the ton. You would then have the chance of making a much better match than Sir Montagu!"
"I can see that you don't believe me; but we have come to such a pass lately that it is only Louisa's marriage to you that will hold us back from ruin! They think it better for me to make sure of Sir Montagu than to risk losing him by delaying in search of wealthier prey."
"You know, if you are only seventeen you ought not to be talking like that!" he said severely. "Come to that, you should not be talking to strange men in the shrubbery at night anyway!"
"You do not seem strange, so do not be so stuffy! Besides, you will very soon be related to me by marriage."
"Yes," he said gloomily, "But it is still not the thing! I can't imagine why they have not yet come out to search for you!"
"Oh, they never look in on me at night. At any rate, I told them I had the headache and went to bed early."
"You do not sound to me as if you have the headache!"
"I haven't. I wanted to be alone to try and think what I could do to escape becoming betrothed to Sir Montagu."
"And did you think of anything?"
"Oh, all sorts of things! Becoming a governess, or going on the stage, for instance." She sighed. "But it would not be practical, for I can't but see that I am too young to become a governess, and I daresay that it is more difficult than I might think to become an actress without anyone to sponsor me into that profession!"
"Very true!" he said, with an effort keeping his voice from betraying his amusement. "Did you think of anything else?"
"Well, the easiest way would be to say No to Sir Montagu when he offers for me, and to keep on saying it; but there would be such a fuss, and they would all keep on and on at me until they wore me down, or else try and marry me to someone even more awful!"
"Here! Sir Montagu isn't that bad! Too old for you, of course. Still, I daresay he would be very kind to you."
"I don't want someone who will be kind to me!" she cried passionately. "If I must marry I want it to be to someone young, and perhaps handsome, whom I can love!"
"Lots of women in love with Sir Montagu!" he said encouragingly. "No telling but what you may fall in love with him yourself." But he felt uneasy about the match, for in his opinion Sir Montagu was little better than a gull-catcher, who had introduced several young men of his acquaintance to a notorious gaming house, to their detriment, besides being up to every rig in Town.
"I could never love him. Never!" she said hotly. "He makes me feel.... the way he looks at me.... Oh! I can't explain it, but I loathe him!"
A faint breeze rustled the branches of the shrubbery mournfully, and a pallid, sickly moon drifted languidly from behind the clouds.
"Well," he sighed, "I daresay we will both do our duty in the end. I can't say that I wish to marry Miss Derwent in the least. That's why I came here like this tonight, to see if she looked ... well, pretty, amenable ... you know! Someone I might find it bearable to live with!"
"And didn't she? She is thought to be pretty, you know, though she has not had any offers that James thought worth considering; and she is three-and twenty now, you know, and desperate to marry. Why, if it were not for the prospect other marrying you they would have betrothed her to Sir Montagu instead of me, and what is more, she didn't mind!"
"Three-and-twenty! She is a year older than I am, then. I wish that confounded will had even said that I must marry someone within a twelve-month; I could at least have found someone congenial. But no. The daughter of Sir James Derwent' it must be."
"She will probably send you to an early grave. That is all the comfort I can offer you!"
They remained chatting a little longer in the comfortable anonymity of the darkness, and then the girl said that it was very late: she must go in.
"Just how do you propose to do that without being discovered?" he enquired.
"Oh, I shall not confide all my secrets to a chance-met stranger!" She laughed merrily, and picking up her skirts ran lightly towards the dark bulk of the house and was soon swallowed up in its shadow.
He was too inexperienced in the ways of young girls to know that they possess a natural ingenuity in getting out of places meant to keep them securely, and so waited until he felt sure that she must have reached her room safely before turning and striding off to where he had tethered his horse.