A WOMAN'S ESTATE
by Roberta Gellis
The time it had taken for Abigail to send a note to Stonar Magna and receive one in reply assuring her that Sir Arthur was at home and would receive her at any time did nothing to diminish her fury. Not that she thought the shot had been fired at Victor as Victor. Her rage was not on her son’s account as an individual but for the sake of humanity as a whole.
Although Abigail had been born and lived all her life in a town, she knew all about English game and forest laws. Since her husband had emigrated unwillingly, to escape debtors’ prison, he regretted what he had left behind. Moreover, he knew that his father could not disinherit him, and he expected to return to England with his wife and children. Besides that, he was not at all interested in Abigail’s business, so most of his conversation was about England, about his amusements there—at least, those of which he was not ashamed. The principal of these was hunting, and connected with that was the preservation of game.
Francis’ sweetness of temper had not extended to poachers, and he had spoken with relish of the methods used to discourage them and the punishment meted out to those who were caught. At the time, Abigail had listened with indulgence. Poaching was stealing, and as a merchant she had a dim view of stealing. But now she was far less sympathetic. Breaking a man’s leg in a mantrap was bad; shooting a twelve-year-old child was murder.
Abigail thought of having the carriage brought around so that she could arrive at Stonar Magna with dignity, but driving through Rutupiae’s park, out along the road, and then up Stonar’s long drive would take almost half an hour. She was far too impatient to wait that long to tell Sir Arthur what she thought of him, and she realized, as her teeth gritted together in anticipation, that every minute she delayed was making her angrier instead of calmer. But Abigail knew it would be stupid to lose her advantage by scolding like a hysterical fishwife. She would be sensible to forgo dignity and take the ten-minute walk through the woods to Sir Arthur’s house. Possibly the exercise would calm her.
Perhaps it would have had that effect if Abigail had not been carrying Victor’s coat as evidence. Her fingers kept slipping into the tears and holes made by the shot, and cold terror alternated with hot rage all the time she trod the well-marked path between the houses. However, the butler’s astonishment when he found her on the doorstep clutching a ragged coat as if it were her dearest possession was so apparent that a ray of humor pierced the darker emotions that had filled her.
“I am Abigail Lydden,” she said. “Sir Arthur is expecting me.”
“Oh yes, my lady,” the man said, hastily moving out of the doorway and inviting her to enter. “If you will come this way.”
He showed her to a door about a third of the way down what was obviously the great hall of a late medieval castle, all hung with ancient weapons, shields and banners, and furnished appropriately with heavy, carved chairs and settees upholstered in dark leather. The sight annoyed Abigail, the baronial splendor seeming to cry aloud of arrogance and the right of might, so that she hardly took in the smaller room to which she was led.
“If you will make yourself comfortable, my lady,” the butler said, “I will inform Sir Arthur you are here.”
“Thank you,” Abigail replied.
She was tempted to add that she would appreciate not being kept waiting long but did not, and in fact, the remark would have been wasted. Sir Arthur entered the room only a moment or two after the butler left it, coming forward with a hand outstretched to greet her. Abigail drew in her breath. The face certainly went with the hall, she thought furiously, noticing only the high-bridged nose and the heavy-lidded eyes that seemed to stare down it superciliously.
“I am very happy to meet you, Lady Lydden,” he said.
“I am afraid I cannot return the compliment,” Abigail snapped.
Sir Arthur stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening, his mouth open to pronounce another platitude of greeting, which now stuck in his throat. He looked slightly ridiculous, but Abigail had no impulse to laugh. There was something intimidating about the purposeful, authoritative way Sir Arthur moved, and he had come close enough for her to realize that he would tower over her. But Abigail had learned to deal with feeling intimidated, whether the feeling was imposed deliberately or unintentionally, and she cast an insolent glance over her opponent from head to foot. He was taller than Francis had been and more heavily built. Broad shoulders filled his coat smoothly without need for padding, and the surprise and tension her words had produced showed in the knotting of the hard muscles of his powerful thighs when he stopped short.
Her examination had discovered no weakness in him to bring her comfort, but Abigail’s righteous anger upheld her. She did not wait for him to absorb fully the shock of her response but continued, “It cannot give me much pleasure to meet a man who would order his gamekeeper to kill a twelve-year-old child for the high crime of disturbing his foxes or his pheasants.”
“What?” Arthur gasped, blinking as if she had hit him, and then stiffening with outrage, he said icily, “I am not certain what you are talking about, madam, but you must be in the wrong place and addressing the wrong person.”
For answer, Abigail walked forward and handed him Victor’s coat.
“My God,” he cried on perceiving the condition of the garment, and then an instant later, furiously, “what is the meaning of this outrage? These may be shot holes, but the coat is dry, not a spot of blood on it.”
“Are you regretting that?” Abigail asked angrily and continued without giving him a chance to reply, “My son was not hurt. Thank God, I do not have to accuse you of murder, but it was only by God’s intervention that I do not. Less than an hour ago my son was in your wood. He put his coat over a bush while he pursued a toad—” Her voice began to tremble and she stopped.
As she explained, Sir Arthur had looked down again at Victor’s coat. Abigail was surprised to see him slowly turn paper white. “You say the boy had hung this garment on a bush?”
There was so strong an expression of anxiety on his face that Abigail’s rage began to abate. She took a deep breath and spoke less antagonistically. “Yes, and he was trying to catch the toad, no doubt making the bush move—”
“I am so sorry, so terribly sorry,” Arthur interrupted. “Please believe that I am not trying to deny my responsibility for this dreadful occurrence or to shift the blame, but I swear it was not by my instructions that this shot was fired.”
That annoyed Abigail all over again because accepting and denying responsibility in the same breath seemed disingenuous—to say the least. “You mean to tell me that you make no effort to discourage poachers?” she asked sardonically.
“No, I do, of course,” he replied, but it was plain from the abstraction in his voice that his mind was still on some problem Victor’s torn coat had presented, so that although he heard Abigail’s question, the tone in which it was asked had made no impression. “I don’t like poaching, largely because of the snares they use—the animals suffer. Lady Lydden, where did this happen?”
The mention of the effect of snares on animals considerably softened Abigail’s attitude toward Sir Arthur, particularly as it was said so absentmindedly as to preclude any desire on his part to influence her. She saw now that the gray eyes under their heavy lids were kind and concerned, and she began to regret her hasty attack.
“I am not perfectly certain,” Abigail replied. “The best estimate I can give is the wooded area north of Rutupiae Hall but farther west than the path. If it is important, Victor could probably point out the place, although perhaps not the exact spot.”
“Good Lord, no!” Arthur exclaimed. “I wouldn’t want to remind the boy of the fright he had.”
Abigail had to laugh. “You are far more likely to remind him of his rage at the escape of the toad. My son is, indeed, very angry about being shot at, but not for the reason you might suppose. He had a nefarious purpose for that toad, I fear, and the ruin of his coat exposed his intended crime before he could commit it.”
For one long moment Sir Arthur’s eyes locked with Abigail’s. Understanding of Victor’s purpose was mirrored on his face. “I am so sorry,” he said with a depth of sincerity that startled her into recognizing that Sir Arthur was regretting the failure of Victor’s plan. Before she could respond to this rather shocking revelation, he dropped his eyes and went on, very wistfully, “Forgive me. I should not have said that, but when Francis and I were children, I never really had the opportunity and he was too kind, despite his detestation. He was concerned for the toad.”
The wistfulness at the lost opportunity for boyhood mischief utterly undid Abigail, who laughed until her eyes were full of tears, hearing with pleasure the deeper male laughter that echoed hers. When she at last caught her breath, she held out her hand.
“Do please forgive me for being so rude, and let me say I am glad to meet you.”
“No, no,” Arthur said. “Considering the provocation, I’m glad that you were only rude. I’m surprised that you didn’t shoot me. But, Lady Lydden, there is something very peculiar about this incident. There is little reason for a gamekeeper to be in that area at all, much less fire a gun there. That bit of wood is no more than a screen between the two houses and a pleasant shady walk on hot days. There is also a good deal of traffic through that piece of woods—the servants coming and going, even quite late sometimes. No poacher in his right mind would set a snare there.”
Abigail stared up at him, all laughter quenched. “Are you trying to tell me that someone deliberately aimed at my son, intending to kill him?”
“No! Good God, no!” he exclaimed. “That is not what I meant at all. That the shot was fired at Victor must have been a mistake. All I meant was that either there was a special reason for a gamekeeper to be hidden, ready to shoot with intent to do real harm, which I find hard to believe, or someone was out to solve a personal problem permanently—which means either one of your servants or one of mine has a violent enemy and is in considerable danger.”
“But Victor could not have been mistaken for a man,” Abigail protested. “He’s only twelve.”
“You told me the coat was thrown over a bush,” Arthur pointed out. “It is possible that the way it was spread gave an impression of greater girth, and the attacker may have thought his intended victim was bent over. But this is idle speculation. Let me call my secretary. He will be able to tell us whether there was any special reason for someone to be lying in ambush in the woods.”
He pulled the bell cord, then went to the door to speak to the footman, who appeared almost at once. He had placed the coat on a table when he moved to ring the bell, and Abigail now picked it up, wondering why he had been so strongly affected from the moment he realized Victor had not been wearing it. But her attention was distracted by Arthur’s return and his formal statement of regret over Francis’ death. She made an equally formal reply, but this time when their eyes met, each looked away quickly. There had again been too much understanding in the mutual glance, and both were ashamed of the fact that they were relieved rather than grieved by Francis’ death.
A slightly awkward silence followed, broken, before either could think of a tactful change of subject that would not be too obvious, by the entrance of Bertram Lydden, who stopped short in the doorway and stood staring at Abigail for just a moment. A strong expression of surprise was also mirrored on Abigail’s face, but it disappeared as Arthur made the introductions.
This time it was Abigail who went forward with her hand outstretched. “How glad I am to meet you, Mr. Lydden, and to learn that you were Francis’ cousin. For a moment I thought my eyes were deceiving me. Did you know you bear a strong resemblance to Francis?”
“Oh, don’t tell him that, Lady Lydden,” Arthur protested, laughing. “You will break his heart. I’m afraid Bertram did not admire your husband, particularly in his manners or his careless mode of dress.”
“There were times when I did not admire them myself,” Abigail said dryly, and then smiled at Bertram. “I am sorry if I offended you. My mother never could teach me to think before I spoke, but I felt Francis was rather handsome, you know, and meant what I said as a compliment.”
Bertram also smiled and gently waved his scented handkerchief. “My dear Lady Lydden, even if you said I resembled Arthur and smelled like a goat, you could not offend me. Any remark at all made by an angel must be considered a rare gift.”
There was no sarcasm in the voice, except when Bertram mentioned resembling Arthur, and the admiration in his expression made a pretty compliment out of words that might have been a gibe. Still, Abigail raised her brows as he took her hand with infinite grace and kissed it.
“I am not quite sure that you have forgiven my blunder,” she said. “All biblical angels seem to say highly disagreeable things. They invariably make horrid threats or predict unpleasant dooms.”
Bertram’s eyes lit with amusement. “Touché,” he remarked, laughing. “That was clumsy. I apologize. What I really meant was that your beauty would compensate me for almost anything you said—and despite Arthur’s naughty attempt to make mischief—”
“I intended no such thing,” Arthur interrupted, and he had not, but he stopped speaking without explaining himself further.
He realized that he might be presuming too much in his own interpretation of a single glance. Like Abigail, he had spoken without thinking, because he knew that Bertram was another of the small group of people who had not found Francis completely delightful. However, as soon as he made the remark, it came to him that he might have been wrong about Abigail’s disenchantment with her husband. And even if he had not been wrong, she still might not like to have him imply that she had so quickly confessed to an utter stranger her reservations about the perfection of the dear departed.
Abigail smiled at him. There was something very pleasant in the teasing between the two men. It had been clear to her from the beginning that Sir Arthur’s comment had not been made with the intention of denigrating or hurting his secretary, and Bertram’s riposte—calling Sir Arthur by his name without his title and lightly accusing him of intending to make mischief—fully confirmed that the two men were as much friends as employer and employee. Her opinion of Sir Arthur had already improved, and this easy relationship with his secretary raised it higher.
“I am sure you did not, Sir Arthur,” she said. Then, shaking her head and clicking her tongue in pretended disapproval, Abigail looked back at Bertram, extracted her fingers from his lingering grip, and said, “Worse and worse, Mr. Lydden. Now you have left me without a word to say, unless I pretend to a simpering modesty, which would ill befit my years—and do not go from worser to worstest, as Victor used to say, and tell me you mistook me for a blushing maiden.”
“Not blushing—no,” Bertram said with great gravity so that Abigail burst out laughing.
“That’s quite enough of this nonsense,” Arthur put in, but there was a sharpness in his voice that surprised him.
He had not been aware until he spoke that he resented the rapport being established between Lady Lydden and Bertram. And when the idea came into his mind, it shocked him. Not once in any of his love affairs had he felt the smallest desire that his inamorata be denied ordinary social contacts. Once or twice he had felt a prick of pique when a lady preferred another gentleman during an active courtship, but that had nothing to do with this situation. He was certainly not courting Lady Lydden—but neither was Bertram.
While Arthur pointed out that he had asked Bertram to join them for a more serious purpose than to introduce him to Lady Lydden, showed him Victor’s coat, and described the circumstances under which it had been riddled with bullets, he told himself not to be ridiculous. To feel disappointment because the spark of understanding and friendship that had leapt between himself and Lady Lydden was not exclusive was not only foolish but dangerous. It implied that he felt a deeper interest in her than he had felt for any other woman.