SILENT ON THE MOOR
“For now sits expectation in the air.”
“Julia Grey, I would rather see you hanged than watch any sister of mine go haring off after a man who will not have her,” my brother Bellmont raged. “And Portia, I am thoroughly appalled that you would not only condone such behavior, but abet it by accompanying Julia. You are her elder sister. You ought to set an example.” I sighed and stared longingly at the whisky decanter. Portia and I had known that the summons to our fatherís London townhouse was a thinly-veiled ambush, but I do not think either of us had expected the attack to be so quick, nor so brutal. We had scarcely taken our seats in Fatherís comfortable library before our eldest brother launched into a tirade against our proposed visit to Yorkshire. Father, ensconced behind his vast mahogany desk, said nothing. His expression was inscrutable behind his half-moon spectacles.
Catching my wistful glance, Portia rose and poured us both glasses of whisky. “Take this, dearest,” she urged. “Bellmont is in rare form. He will surely rail at us until supper unless he has an apoplexy first,” she finished cheerfully. Bellmontís already high color deepened alarmingly. “You may well jest about this, but it is unacceptable for Julia to
accept an invitation to stay with Brisbane at his country house. He is an unmarried man, and she is a widow of thirty. Even if you are there to chaperone, Portia, you must admit, it would be a complete violation of propriety.”
“Oh, Julia hasnít been invited,” Portia responded helpfully. “I was. Julia rather invited herself.”
Bellmont clicked his teeth together and drew in a deep breath, his nostrils going white at the edges. “If that is supposed to offer me comfort, it is a cold one, I assure you.”
Portia shrugged and sipped at her whisky. Bellmont turned to me, deliberately softening his tone. At more than forty years of age and heir to our fatherís earldom, he had long since grown accustomed to having his own way. It was only with his eccentric family that his success was mixed. With a cunning blend of sternness, cajolery, and logic, he was sometimes able to bend us to his will, but just as often he found himself not speaking to more than one of his nine siblings. Now he attempted an appeal to my reason.
“Julia, I understand you were quite bereft when Edward died. You were very young to be a widow, and I am sympathetic to the fact that you felt compelled to search out your husbandís murderer.” I raised my brows. He had not been so sympathetic at the time. When I had unmasked my husbandís killer in a dramatic scene during which my townhouse was burned down and I nearly lost my life, Bellmont had actually stopped speaking to me for two months. Apparently, murder is a failing of the middle classes only. Aristocrats are supposed to be above such unpleasantness.
He went on. “I realize your connection with Mr. Brisbane was a necessary evil at the time. He has proved himself a thoroughly capable inquiry agent and, mercifully, a discreet one. But your association with this man cannot continue. I do not know what Father was thinking to invite him to Bellmont Abbey at Christmas, but it was badly done, and it has given you ideas.”
“And God knows women mustnít have ideas,” Portia murmured into her glass. Bellmont did not even bother to look at her. We were well-accustomed to Portiaís pointed asides.
I looked helplessly at Father, who merely shrugged and poured himself a glass of whisky. If Bellmont continued on we should become a family of inebriates.
“Monty,” I began, deliberately sweetening my tone, “I do appreciate your concern. But Father has already explained to you Brisbane was there to pursue an investigation. He left before the family arrived for Christmas. You did not even see him. I have never invited him to accompany me to your home, nor have I ever foisted him upon you in any social situation; although, he would not be entirely out of place. His great-uncle is the Duke of Aberdour, you know.”
Bellmont rubbed a hand over his face, smoothing the furrows that marked his handsome brow. “My dear, his antecedents are quite immaterial. He is in trade. He is a half-Gypsy vagabond who makes his living by dealing in the sordid miseries of others. His exploits are fodder for the newspapers, and we have been dragged through those rather enough at present,” he finished, shooting Father a look that was ripe with bitterness.
Father waved an indolent hand. “Do not blame me, boy. I did my best to sweep the entire matter under the carpet, as did Brisbane.” That much was true. The newspapers, through Fatherís influence and Brisbaneís connections, had taken little enough notice of the events at Bellmont Abbey; although, a few rather distasteful morsels had found their way into print.
Bellmont swung round to face Father, while Portia and I huddled closer to one another on the sofa and drank our whisky.
“I am not unaware of your efforts, Father. But the press have always been interested in our little peccadilloes, and you have simply not done enough to keep them at bay, particularly when you were so indiscreet as to entertain your mistress at the same Christmas party as your children and grandchildren.”
“A hit, a palpable hit,” Portia whispered. I stifled a giggle. Bellmont was being rather unfair to Father. He had exercised as much authority over the press in the matter as he could. Considering what had actually transpired at the Abbey, we were lucky it had not become the scandal of the century.
“Madame de Bellefleur is not my mistress,” Father said, puffing his cheeks indignantly. “She is my friend, and I shall thank you to speak of her respectfully.”
“It does not matter what she is,” Bellmont pointed out acidly. “It only matters what they say she is. Do you have any notion how damaging such stories could be to me, to my children? Orlando is considering a run for Parliament when he is established, and Virgilia is to be presented this season. Her chances for a good match could be completely overthrown by your conduct, and it will not improve matters for her aunts to be seen chasing off to Yorkshire to stay with a bachelor of questionable reputation.”
Portia stirred. “I should think the fact that I live openly with a woman would be far more damaging to her chances for a society marriage,” she remarked coolly.
Bellmont flinched. “Your relationship with Jane is something to which I have become reconciled over these past ten years. It is a credit to Jane that she lives quietly and does not care to move in society.”
Portiaís eyes glinted ominously, and I laid a warning hand on her wrist. “Jane is the love of my life, Bellmont, not a pet to be trained.”
Father held up a hand. “Enough. I will not have you quarrelling like dogs over an old bone. I thought we buried that particular issue long ago. Bellmont, you forget yourself. I have permitted you to abuse your sisters and me quite long enough.”
Bellmont opened his mouth to protest, but Father waved him off. “You have a care for your sistersí reputations, and that does you credit, but I must observe for a man so often hailed as one of the greatest brains of his generation, you are remarkably obtuse about women. Youíve been married going on twenty years, boy. Have you not yet learned that it is easier to pull a star down from the heavens than to bend a woman to your will? The most tractable of women will kick over the traces if you insist upon obedience, and, in case it has escaped your notice, your sisters are not the most tractable of women. No, if they are intent upon going to Yorkshire, go they will.”
Portia flicked a triumphant gaze at Bellmont, who had gone quite pale under the angry wash of red over his fair complexion. I took another sip of my whisky and wondered not for the first time why my parents had found it necessary to have so many children.
“Father,” Bellmont began, but Father rose, straightening his poppy-colored waistcoat and raising a hand.
“I know. You are worried for your children, as you should be, and I will see that their chances are not damaged by the actions of their aunts.” He paused, for dramatic effect no doubt, then pronounced in ringing tones, “Your sisters will travel under the protection of their brother, Valerius.”
Portia and I gaped at him, stunned to silence. Bellmont was quicker off the mark. Mollified, he nodded at Father. “Very well. Valerius is thoroughly incapable of controlling them, but at least his presence will lend the appearance of respectability. Thank you, Father.” He turned to leave, giving us a piercing look. “I suppose it would be too much to ask that you conduct yourselves like ladies, but do try,” he offered as a parting shot.
Portia was still sputtering when the footman shut the door behind him. “Honestly, Father, I do not see why you didnít have him drowned as a child. Youíve four other sons, whatís one at the bottom of the pond?”
Father shrugged. “I would have drowned him myself had I known he would turn out Tory. I know you want to remonstrate with me over the suggestion of traveling with Valerius, but I want to talk to your sister. Leave us to chat a moment, will you, my dear?” he said to Portia.
She rose gracefully and turned, pulling a face at me as she went. I tried not to fidget, but I felt suddenly shy and uncertain. I smiled up at Father winsomely and attempted to divert the conversation.
“Valerius will be simply furious with you, Father. You know he hates to leave London, and he is devoted to his work with Dr. Bent. Heís just bought a new microscope.”
It might have been a good diversion under other circumstances. Father could rant easily for an hour on the subject of Valerius and his unsuitable interest in medicine. But he
had other game afoot.
He turned to me, folding his arms across his chest. “Do not look to distract me,” he said sternly. “What the devil do you mean by hunting Brisbane like a fox? Monty is right, though I would not give him the satisfaction of saying so in front of him. It is damned unseemly and shows a distinct lack of pride. I reared you for better.”
I smoothed my skirts under nervous fingers. “I am not hunting Brisbane. He asked Portia to come and help him sort out the estate. Apparently the former owner left it in a frightful state, and Brisbane hasnít any lady to act as chatelaine and put things in order.” I opened my eyes very wide to show I was telling the truth.
“Nicholas Brisbane is entirely capable of ordering his own bed sheets and hiring his own cook,” he commented, narrowing his gaze.
“There is nothing sinister afoot,” I assured him. “Brisbane wrote in January to accept Portiaís offer to help arrange his household. He told her to wait until April when the weather would be more hospitable. That is the whole of it.”
“And how did you become involved?” Father demanded. “I saw the letter and thought springtime on the moors sounded very pleasant.”
Father shook his head slowly. “Not likely. You mean to settle this thing between you, whatever it is.”
I twisted a bit of silken cushion fringe in my fingers and looked away. “It is complicated,” I began.
“Then let us have it simply,” he cut in brutally. “Has he offered you marriage?”
“No.” My voice was nearly inaudible, even to my own ears.
“Has he given you a betrothal ring?”
“Has he ever spoken of marrying you?”
“Has he written to you since he left for Yorkshire?”
My replies dropped like stones, heavy with importance. He waited a long moment and the only sounds were the soft rustling of the fire on the hearth and the quiet ticking of the mantel clock.
“He has offered you nothing, made no plans for the future, has not even written. And still you mean to go to him?” His voice was soft now, free of judgment or recrimination, and yet it stung like salt on a wound.
I raised my gaze to his. “I must. I will know when I see him again. If there is nothing there, I will return to London by the first train and never speak of him again, never wonder what might have been. But if there is a chance that he feels for me—” I broke off. The rest of it need not be spoken aloud.
“And you are quite determined?”
“Quite,” I said, biting off the word sharply. He said nothing for a moment, but searched my face, doubtless looking for any sign that I was less than resolute and might be persuaded to abandon my plans.
At length he sighed, then drained the last of his whisky. “Go then. Go under Valeriusí protection, however feeble that may be, and find out if Brisbane loves you. But I tell you this,” he said, folding me into his embrace and pressing a kiss into my hair, “I may be above seventy years of age, but I still fence every day and if the blackguard hurts you I will hunt him down and leave a stiletto in his heart.”
“Thank you, Father. That is very comforting.”
Dinner that evening was a peculiarly quiet affair. Portia was a charming hostess and kept an admirable table. She was renowned for the quality of her food and wines as well as the excellence of the company. She knew the most interesting people and often invited them to little suppers arranged to show them to perfection, like gems in a thoughtful setting. But that night there were only ourselves—Portia, her beloved Jane, and me. We were all of us occupied with our own thoughts and said little, our silences punctuated with phlegmy snorts from Portiaís vile pet, Mr. Pugglesworth, asleep under the table.
After one particularly nasty interlude, I laid down my knife. “Portia, must you have that dog in the dining room? He is putting me quite off my food.”
She waved a fork at me. “Do not be peevish just because Bellmont took you to task today.”
“Puggy is rather foul,” Jane put in quietly. “I will remove
him to the pantry.”
She rose and collected the animal, coaxing him out with a bit of stewed prune. Portia watched her, saying nothing. They were a study in contrasts, each lovely in her own way, but different as chalk and cheese. Portia had a fine-boned elegance, coupled with the classic March family coloring of dark hair faintly touched with red and wide green eyes. She dressed flamboyantly, in colors suited to the pale alabaster of her skin, always in a single hue from head to toe.
Jane, on the other hand, seemed determined to wear all the colors of the rainbow at once. She was an artist and scholar, and her face was modeled along those lines, with handsome bones that would serve her well into old age. Hers was a face of character, with a determined chin and a forthright gaze that never judged, never challenged. People frequently offered her the most extraordinary confidences on the basis of those eyes. Deep brown, touched with amber and warm with intelligence, they were her greatest beauty. Her hair, always untidy, was not. Dark red and coarse as a horseís mane, it curled wildly until she grew tired of it and thrust it into a snood. It resisted all other confinement. More than once I had seen Portia, laughing, attempting to dress it, breaking combs in its heaviness.
But she was not laughing as she watched Jane remove Puggy to the pantry. She merely took another sip of her wine and motioned for the butler to fill her glass again.
“When do you think we ought to leave—” I began.
“Tomorrow. I have already consulted the timetable. If we leave very early, we ought to make Grimsgrave by nightfall. I have sent word to Valerius to meet us at the station.”
I blinked at her. “Portia, my things are not yet packed. I have made no arrangements.”
She looked down at the pale slices of pork on her plate. She poked at them listlessly with her fork, then signed for the butler. He removed the plate, but she kept hold of her wine.
“There are no arrangements for you to make. I have taken care of everything. Tell Morag to pack your trunk, and be ready at dawn tomorrow. That is all that is required of you.”
I signaled to the butler as well, surrendering my wine, and wishing Portia had done the same. She did not often drink to excess, and the extra glass had made her withdrawn, icy even.
“Portia, if you do not wish to go to Yorkshire, I can go alone with Valerius. I am offending propriety well enough as it is. I cannot think that traveling without you will make much of a difference.”
She stared into her wineglass, turning it slowly in her palms, edging the dark, blood-red liquid closer to the crystal rim.
“No, it is better that I should go. You will need someone to look after you, and who better than your elder sister?” she asked, her tone tinged with mockery.
I stared at her. Portia and I had had our share of quarrels, but we were extremely close. She had offered me the use of her townhouse when I was in London, and my stay had been a pleasant one. Jane had welcomed me warmly, and we had passed many cozy evenings by the fireside, reading poetry or abusing our friends with gossip. But every once in a while, like a flash of lightning, brief and sharp and hot, a flicker of something dangerous had struck between us. I was not certain why or how, but a new prickliness had arisen, and more than once I had been scratched on the thorns of it. A word too sharp, a glance too cold—so subtle I had almost thought I had imagined it. But there was no imagining the atmosphere in the dining room. I glanced at the door, but Jane did not return.
“Dearest,” I began patiently, “if you want to remain here with Jane, you ought to. I know Brisbane invited you, but he will understand if you decide to stay in London.”
Portia circled the glass again, the wine lapping at the edge. “To what purpose?”
I shrugged. “The season will be starting soon. You might organize a ball for Virgilia. Or give a dinner for young Orlando, introduce him to some of the gentlemen of influence you have cultivated. If he means to run for a seat in Parliament, he cannot begin too soon.”
Portia snorted and her hand jerked, nearly spilling the wine.
“Our nieceís mother would never permit me to throw a ball for her, as you well know. And the gentlemen of influence would have little interest in meeting our nephew at the dinner table, and I have little interest in meeting our nephew. He is a dull boy with no conversation.”
She was being far too hard on Orlando, but I knew that recrimination would only provoke her. “And you hope to find good conversation in Yorkshire?” I teased, hoping to
jolly her out of her foul mood.
She stared into the glass, and for just a moment her expression softened, as though she were prey to some strong emotion. But she mastered it as swiftly as it had come, and her face hardened.
“Perhaps there is nothing to find,” she said softly. She tilted her hand and a single crimson drop splashed onto the tablecloth, staining the linen with the finality of blood.
“Portia, leave off. You will ruin that cloth,” I scolded. The butler moved forward to scatter salt over the spill. Portia put her glass down carefully. “I think perhaps I have had too much to drink.” She rose slowly. “Julia, do enjoy dessert. I will retire now. I must supervise Minna whilst she packs. If I leave her to it, she will hurl everything into a bed sheet and knot it up and call it done.”
I bade her a quiet good-night and told the butler I wanted nothing more except a strong cup of tea. He brought it scalding and sweet, and I sipped it slowly, wondering why the trip to Yorkshire, which had filled me with elation, should now cause me such apprehension. It was not just Portiaís antics that alarmed me. I knew very well that Brisbane had not invited me to Yorkshire. Moreover, I knew his uncertain temper and how scathing his anger could be. He was entirely capable of packing me onto the next train to London, my purpose unresolved. I knew also his stubbornness, his pride, his stupid, dogged persistence in blaming himself for my brush with death during our first investigation together. I had told him in the plainest terms that the idea was nonsense. If anything, Brisbane had saved my life and I had told him so.
Whether he had listened was another matter entirely. The whole of our acquaintance had been an intricate, twisting dance, two steps toward each other, three steps apart. I was tired of the uncertainty. Too many times I had abandoned myself to the exhilaration of his company, only to be thwarted by circumstance or his own stubborn pride. It seemed a very great folly to attempt to force a declaration from him, but it seemed a greater folly to let him go. If there was a single chance at happiness with him, I was determined to seize it.
But determination was not enough to silence my jangling nerves, and as I put the cup onto the saucer, I noticed my hand shook ever so slightly.
Just then, Jane returned. She resumed her place, giving me a gentle smile. “I do apologize about Puggy. He is not a very nice dinner companion. I have often told Portia so.”
“Think nothing of it. With five brothers I have seen far worse at table,” I jested. Her smile faded slightly, and she reached for her glass as I fiddled with my teacup.
“I wish you were coming with us,” I said suddenly. “Are you quite certain your sister cannot spare you?”
Jane shook her head. “I am afraid not. Anna is nervous about her confinement. She says it will give her much comfort to have me in Portsmouth when she is brought to bed; although, I cannot imagine why. I have little experience with such matters.”
I gave her hand a reassuring pat. “I should think having oneís elder sister at such a time would always be a comfort. It is her first child, is it not?”
“It is,” Jane said, her expression wistful. “She is newly married, just on a year.”
Jane fell silent then, and I could have kicked myself for introducing the subject in the first place. Anna had always been a thorn-prick to Jane, ever since their father died and they had been cast upon the mercy of Portiaís husband. Younger than Jane by some half-dozen years, Anna had made her disapproval of Janeís relationship with Portia quite apparent, yet she had happily reaped the benefit when Portia had insisted upon paying the school fees to have her properly educated. Portia had offered her a place in her home, an offer that was refused with the barest attempt at civility. Instead Anna had taken a post as a governess upon leaving school, and within two years she had found a husband, a naval officer whom she liked well enough to enjoy when he was at home and little enough to be glad when he was abroad. She had settled into a life of smug domesticity in Portsmouth, but I was not surprised that she had sent for Jane. Few people were as calm and self-possessed, and I hoped that this olive branch on Annaís part would herald a new chapter in their relationship.
I almost said as much to Jane, but she changed the subject before I could.
“Are you looking forward to your trip into Yorkshire?” she inquired. “I have never been there, but I am told it is very beautiful and unspoilt.”
“I am not,” I confessed. “I should like to see Yorkshire, but I am rather terrified to tell you the truth.”
I nodded. “I just wish I knew. Itís all so maddening, the way he drops me entirely for months on end, then when we are brought together, he behaves as though I were the very air he breathes. Most infuriating.”
Jane put a hand over mine. Hers was warm; the fingers calloused from the heavy tools of her art. “My dear Julia, you must follow your heart, even if you do not know where it will lead you. To do otherwise is to court misery.” There was a fleeting shadow in her eyes, and I thought of how much she and Portia had risked to be together. Jane had been the poor relation of Portiaís husband, Lord Bettiscombe, and society had been cruel when they had set up house together after Bettiscombeís death. They had a circle of broad-minded and cultured friends, but many people cut them directly, and Portia had been banned from the most illustrious houses in London. Theirs had been a leap of faith together, into a world that was frequently cruel. And yet they had done it together, and they had survived. They were an example to me.
I covered her hand with mine. “You are right, of course. One must be brave in love, like the troubadours of old. And one must seize happiness before it escapes entirely.”
“I will wish you all good fortune,” she said, lifting her glass. We toasted then, she with her wine, I with my tea, but as we sipped, we lapsed into a heavy silence. My thoughts were of Brisbane and of the very great risk I was about to take. I did not wonder what hers were. It was only much later that I wished I had spared a care for them. How much might have been different.
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