The library, whose curiously carved bookshelves and gilded and painted ceiling had earned it honourable mention in every Guide Book to Gloucestershire, was a handsome apartment, situated upon the ground floor of the mansion, and furnished with sombre elegance. It had been used, until so short a time previously, almost exclusively by the late Earl of Spenborough: a faint aroma of cigars hung about it, and every now and then the widow's blue eyes rested on the big mahogany desk, as though she expected to see the Earl seated behind it. An air of gentle sorrow clung about her, and there was a bewildered expression on her charming countenance, as though she could scarcely realize her loss.
It had indeed been as sudden as it was unexpected. No one, least of all himself, could have supposed that the Earl, a fine, robust man in his fiftieth year, would owe his death to so paltry a cause as a chill, contracted when salmon-fishing on the Wye. Not all the solicitations of his host and hostess had prevailed upon him to cosset this trifling ailment; he had enjoyed another day's fishing; and had returned to Milverley, testily making light of his condition, but so very far from well that his daughter had had no hesitation in overriding his prohibition, and had sent immediately for a physician. A severe inflammation of both lungs was diagnosed, and within a week he was dead, leaving a wife and a daughter to mourn him, and a cousin, some fifteen years his junior, to succeed to his dignities. He had no other child, a circumstance generally held to account for his startling marriage, three years earlier, to the pretty girl who had not then attained the dignity of her twentieth year. Only the most forbearing of his friends could think the match allowable. Neither his splendid physique nor his handsome face could disguise the fact that he was older than his bride's father, for his birth-date could be read in any Peerage, and his daughter had been the mistress of his establishment for four years. When no heir to the Earldom resulted from the unequal match, those who most deprecated the Earl's many eccentricities pronounced it to be a judgment upon him, his sister, Lady Theresa Eagle-sham, adding obscurely, but with conviction, that it would teach Serena a lesson. Any girl who dismissed her chaperon at the age of twenty-one, refused two flattering offers of marriage, and cried off from an engagement to the most brilliant prize in the Marriage Mart was well-served when her father brought home a young bride to supplant her, said Lady Theresa. And all to no purpose, as she for one had foretold from the outset!
Some such reflection seemed to be in the widow's mind. She said mournfully: "If I could have been more dutiful! I have been so very conscious of it, and now the thought quite oppresses me!"
Her stepdaughter, who had been leaning her chin on her hand, and gazing out at the trees in the park, just touched with autumn gold, turned her head at this, and said bracingly: "Nonsense!"
"Your Aunt Theresa -"
"Let us be thankful that my Aunt Theresa's dislike of me has kept her away from us at this moment!" interrupted Serena.
"Oh, don't say so! If she had not been indisposed -"
"She was never so in her life. Wretched work my Uncle Eaglesham made of her excuses. He is a poor creature."
"Perhaps she has stayed away, then, because she does not like me," said the widow unhappily.
"No such thing! Now, Fanny, don't be absurd! As though anyone could help liking you! For my part, I am excessively obliged to her for remaining in Sussex. We can never meet without rubbing one another, and although I think her the most Gothic woman alive, I own she had something to bear when I spent my first Season under her roof. Poor woman! She brought two eligible suitors up to scratch, and I liked neither. My character was retrieved only when I was stupid enough to become engaged to Ivo Rotherham, and lost beyond recovery when I put an end to that most abominable episode of my life!"
"How dreadful it must have been for you! Within a month of the wedding!"
"Not in the least! We quarrelled more royally than ever before, and I positively enjoyed crying-off. You will allow, too, that there is a distinction in having given the odious Marquis a set-down!"
"I should never have dared to do so. His manners are so - so very unconciliating, and he looks at one as though he held one in contempt, which throws me into confusion, try as I will to overcome such folly."
"Oh, Serena, hush! You cannot always have thought so!"
Her stepdaughter threw her a quizzing glance. "Are you in one of your romantical flights? Goose! I became engaged to Ivo because I thought it would suit me to be a Marchioness, because Papa made the match, because I have known him for ever, because we have some tastes in common, because - oh, for a number of excellent reasons! Or so they seemed, until I discovered him to be unendurable."
"Indeed, I don't wonder at it that you could not love him, but have you never - have you never met anyone for whom you felt a - a decided partiality, Serena?" asked Fanny, with a wondering look.
"Yes, indeed! Does that set me up in your esteem?" Serena replied, laughing. "I fancied myself very much in love when I was just nineteen years old. The most handsome creature, and with such engaging manners! You would have been in raptures! Alas, he had no fortune, and Papa would not countenance the match. I believe I cried for a week, but at this length of time I cannot be sure."
"Oh, you are funning!" Fanny said reproachfully.
"No, upon my honour! I did like him very much, but I have not laid eyes on him in six years, my dear, and the melancholy truth is that Papa was quite right when he assured me that I should recover from the disappointment."
The widow looked as if she thought this melancholy indeed. "Who was he, Serena - if you don't dislike telling me?"
"Not in the least. His name was Hector Kirkby."
"And you have never met him again?"
"Never! But he was a soldier, and his regiment had just been ordered to Portugal, so that that cannot be considered wonderful."
Excerpted from Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer Copyright © 2004 by Georgette Heyer. Excerpted by permission.
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