Lord Reginald Marford was uncommonly nervous. The summons itself was out of the ordinary, but the serious demeanour of his oldest brother about the matter was enough to concern any man. The Marquess of Carrbridge was, as a rule, the most easy-going and affable of brothers, never letting any setback disturb his equanimity. If some extraordinary event should manage to ruffle his feathers, then the marchioness was sure to smooth everything out in the most delightful manner. Nothing was permitted to interfere with the regular round of pleasure which any well-born family expected to pursue. In such comfortable ways, life had gone on in the Marford family for generations.
But now, it appeared, all was gloom, the marquess was miserable and even his wife’s good humour was replaced by anxious fluttering and an unusually short temper. It was not right that such a charming lady should have even the smallest worry to distract her, when her beauty and accomplishments entitled her to a life of unalloyed happiness. Such were Lord Reginald’s thoughts as he made his way down the oak-panelled staircase at Drummoor to the great hall.
Monty was there first, naturally. No matter how punctual one might be, Monty was always there first.
“Is it going to be bad, Reggie?” he said at once, raising those huge, innocent eyes to his older brother. Reggie was only six years older than Monty, but sometimes he felt very old, far older than his nine and twenty years.
“I think it might be,” Reggie said.
“It is all my fault, I know it,” Monty said, twisting his hands together. “I should never have bought that pair from Longman. I was completely taken in, for he told me they were such fine animals, and they certainly looked it. Such a bargain, as I thought at the time, but it was not so. I am sure we will have to retrench and it is all my fault.”
“Nonsense, Monty, but you should remember to take Gus with you next time. He knows everything there is to know about horseflesh.”
“Oh, I tried to! I told Longman I would wait until Gus was back from Newmarket, but he would not have it. He had another buyer, you see, and the deal could not wait even another day, so what could I do but close with him at once?”
“You could have called his bluff. He bamboozled you, and that is the size of it. But you need not despair, for your doings have been nothing to Gil’s, and even Humphrey has been losing at the tables lately. If we are in the basket, it will not be because of that broken-winded pair Tom Longman managed to foist on you.”
Monty tried a smile, managed only a lop-sided quirk of the lips and abandoned the attempt. “I shall give up my curricle altogether, I believe, for I do not need it. One horse to ride — what more could any man want?”
Reggie was too much astonished by this pronouncement to form an answer. His own needs were modest, having but three hunters, a single pair to his curricle and a couple of hacks for everyday riding, and he could not imagine getting by with but a single horse.
Monty went on, “I am certain it will be bad.”
“Everything that Merton fellow has a hand in is bad, it seems to me,” Reggie said gloomily. “He has a face like a wet Sunday in Lincoln. There is no joy in him, and he delights in making everyone else’s lives as joyless as his own.”
“Oh no, Reggie, I am sure you are mistaken,” Monty said. “He is a very good sort of man, I think.”
Reggie sighed. “I am out of sorts today and not minded to be fair, but nevertheless I cannot dispute the point with you. He is indeed a most worthy sort of person, and was there ever anything more dispiriting than such a man?”
Monty managed a genuine smile. “You are just cross because he defeated you at chess.”
Chess was the least of his worries, but Reggie managed a smile. “A perfectly valid reason to be cross with anyone, I should think. I would not mind so much if he would be so obliging as to lose occasionally. Not every time, for I am not unreasonable, but once a week or so would be enough to make me happy. Is it asking so much? It would be a politeness in him as a guest, considering that he eats our partridge and drinks our claret, and never even looks as if he enjoys it. Ah, here are Humphrey and Gus.”
The third and fourth Marford brothers were laughing at some private joke, but seeing the long faces on Reggie and Monty, Humphrey said, “Cheer up, you two! How bad can it be, truly? If we are really under the hatches, we must all marry heiresses to set ourselves straight. Ladies love a lord, you know.”
“They love a peer,” Reggie said, determined not to cheer up. “Being the mere brother of a marquess is less appealing.”
“Nonsense!” Humphrey said. “They all want to be Lady Something-or-other. But if matrimony holds no attraction for you, Reggie, you might think about taking up a career.”
Reggie shuddered. “Lord, no! Can you see me in the army, galloping about with a sword in my hand? Far too energetic for me. And as for the church, that is not energetic enough. No, I should infinitely sooner find myself an heiress.”
“Heiresses are always bracket-faced,” Gus said. “I prefer my horses, thank you all the same.”
“Ah, but will we have any horses left us after Merton has done his work?” Monty said.
Gus’s expression turned instantly to alarm. “No! Carrbridge would not — would he?”
“We must all make sacrifices,” Humphrey said, his smile suggesting that he had no serious fears of such a thing. “No more than half a dozen hunters, perhaps, and you might have to give up one or two of your curricles, Gus.”
“It is all very well for you,” Gus said. “You do well enough at cards to keep you in style, but I seem to have done nothing but lose lately.”
“You will not attend to the play,” Humphrey said. “You get distracted too easily. And I lost a fortune last year, remember. I daresay I am part of the problem. But I shall come about, whereas you—”
“Ah, here is Hattie,” Reggie put in quickly, before the two could lapse into their familiar debate. “And Carrbridge and Connie. Excellent.”
The marquess and marchioness made a handsome couple, but their usual smiles were absent today. Lady Harriet Marford, by contrast, wore an expression of determined cheerfulness.
“What a delightful family gathering,” she asked. “Why so Friday-faced, everyone? No one has died, you know. Are we all here?”
“Still awaiting Gil,” Reggie said.
“Perhaps we should wait,” the marquess said, looking about the hall anxiously, as if he expected the youngest Marford brother to be lurking behind a pillar or hiding in the suit of armour at the foot of the stairs, ready to pop out at any moment to surprise them.
“Who knows when he might appear?” the marchioness said briskly. “Best to get this over with, do you not agree, Lord Carrbridge?”
“Yes, indeed, my love. Let us go in.”
The library at Drummoor was as large as a ballroom, and was indeed used for that purpose once or twice each winter when its three massive fireplaces almost kept the room warm enough for comfort. Now, in January, it was as cold as an ice house, and almost as cheerless, the endless shelves of books filling every wall and the dark-painted ceiling giving it the appearance of a cave. Reggie would not be surprised to spy bats hanging from the chandeliers. As a boy, he had always been terrified of the place, scene of the weekly summoning by his grandfather to be shown a new treasure — a stuffed peacock, perhaps, or a map of Persia, or a bone knife from some long-lost tribe — followed by a lecture on the ingratitude of the French peasantry, or the colonials, or whoever was in revolt at the time. The seventh marquess was long in his grave, but the familiar dread still settled in Reggie’s stomach as he crossed the library floor.
The assembled Marfords filed past long lines of glass-topped display cases housing the collections of former marquesses — eggs, feathers, decorated snuff boxes, pocket watches, strange assortments of bones and numerous sets of miniatures chess pieces, enamelled or bejewelled or carved or gilded into a variety of fanciful shapes. At the far end of the room, the vast arched window depicted in stained glass the triumphant ride of the Earl of Deveron to the king’s aid in the civil war, which resulted in the grateful monarch immediately raising him to the title of Marquess of Carrbridge.
Beneath the window, and painted in jewel colours by the glass, sat a desk large enough for a score of people to dine in tolerable comfort. Behind it, sombrely attired, Daniel Merton stood awaiting them, bowing. Reggie had no great liking for Merton, for he was sober to a fault, and what could be worse than a man who never gambled or drank to excess or even took a mistress? He was a decent rider, Reggie had to give him credit for that, but there was something unnatural about a man who enjoyed rummaging about with old documents and ledgers. And then there was his irritating skill at chess. No, Reggie could not like him.
Chairs were already arranged in front of the desk, and Merton waited politely while they disposed themselves, Carrbridge and the two ladies in front, the rest behind, and one empty chair for Gil. Only then did Merton bow again and take his seat, and even his air of deference irritated Reggie that day.
“My lord?” Merton said politely.
“Yes, yes, do begin. We will not wait for Gil.”
“As your lordship wishes. I have completed my initial assessment of the state of your holdings, my lord. It has not been as complete or as detailed an investigation as I should have liked, for not all the relevant documents were readily to hand, and there are limits to what may be done in only one month, but I have done the best I could.”
“You could have asked Sharp for help,” Reggie said. “He knows everything. He has been here since Grandfather’s day.”
“Indeed, and Mr Sharp has been most willing to offer every assistance,” Merton said. “However, he not very keen on writing things down, and I have a preference for seeing the original papers wherever possible, and not depending upon Mr Sharp’s memory.”
“His memory is perfectly sound,” Reggie said. “He is not quite in his dotage yet.”
“By no means. Indeed, I can well believe that Mr Sharp’s acumen in matters of business is every bit as acute as it ever was. However, when one has been managing the affairs of one estate for three generations, there is a tendency for events to blend together somewhat, or for dates to be confused. It is my habit to refer to written records only, to avoid any such lapses in memory.”
The marquess shuffled impatiently in his chair. “Reggie, I gave Merton a free hand to look into things, so there is no point quibbling about it now. Best to have a fresh perspective, you know. Take no notice of him, Merton. He is out of sorts because he thinks you will force me to sell off Marford House and all our hunters, but things are not so desperate as all that, surely? Are they?”
“No, no, but there are debts outstanding, and—”
“I am very sorry!” Monty burst out. “I will repay it all, I swear it! It was so foolish of me to buy those horses, and I shall find a way to—”
“Oh no, Lord Montague, none of the debts result from any action of yours,” Merton said.
“Oh. Humphrey? Gil?”
Merton shook his head firmly. “I assure you, none of you are responsible.”
“Then who is?” the marquess said sharply. “The fellow must be brought to to account. If there has been any misappropriation, I want it set right immediately and the scoundrel made to answer for it. Who is it?”
“The eighth Marquess of Carrbridge,” Merton said.
There was a long, surprised silence.
“Father?” the marquess said. “You mean that Father left debts when he died, and they have not been settled?”
“That is correct.”
“Well, that is easy enough. They must be settled at once… oh. There is no money to do so, that is the nub of the matter, I collect?”
“Exactly so, my lord.”
The marchioness adjusted her shawl. “What must we do, Mr Merton? Advise us, if you please.”
“My lady, my advice is very simple — to reduce unnecessary expenditure and to increase income. A few very modest economies will bring immediate benefits. For example, his lordship maintains five separate residences in London for the convenience of his brothers, while Marford House sits empty for months on end.”
“What, must we have no independence now?” Reggie said. “Are we to be rubbing shoulders with the aunts all the time, and enduring their disapprobation whenever a fellow might happen to have a glass or two of brandy? It is not to be borne.”
“Then there are three hunting lodges, where one would suffice,” Merton went on relentlessly. “As for stabling—”
“I’ll not have my hunters moved,” Gus said, his voice so low he was almost growling. “Under no circumstances, do you hear me, Merton? Tell him, Carrbridge.”
“My lady’s plans for the new orangery could be postponed,” Merton continued.
“Now that is more sensible,” Reggie said.
“Indeed, it is not as if one needs to grow one’s own oranges,” Gus said. “It is the easiest thing in the world to have them sent from… well, wherever one obtains oranges. They can be had by the sack, I daresay, at very little expense. You can manage without an orangery, I am sure, Connie.”
“I shall not give up my orangery unless you give up keeping all those teams at post houses,” the marchioness said. “It is not as if one needs to keep one’s own horses for the journey to London.”
“What, drive around behind hired hacks?” Gus said, scandalised. “As the brother of a marquess, I have a position to maintain.”
“You are the brother of an impoverished marquess,” Merton said crisply, “and if you do not retrench— Ah, Lord Gilbert.”
“Gil! At last!” Reggie said in relief, for so much talk of economy was beginning to wear at his nerves.
The youngest Marford brother tap-tapped his way across the library floor in a brisk rhythm. He was a handsome fellow — all his brothers were handsome, Reggie reflected gloomily. Carrbridge had more than once been likened to a Greek god, Humphrey was as big and golden as a bear, and the younger ones were fashionably dark and romantic, whereas Reggie had the face of a grocer. One of his Oxford friends had described him so, to his great mortification, and as he examined his uninteresting features in the glass later, he could not deny the truth of it.
“What is all this about, Merton?” Gil said. “I am missing a promising mill on your account, so I very much hope the matter is important.”
“We are to give up two of the hunting lodges,” Gus said. “Furthermore, we are not to stable our own teams at post houses.”
“Ridiculous!” Gil said. “Impossible! How are we to manage?”
“There is worse,” Reggie said. “We must give up our own lodgings and live in Marford House with the aunts.”
“Insupportable!” Gil said. “I shall not listen to such nonsense.”
He would have turned and left at once, but the marquess said, “Do not fly into the boughs, Gil. Something must be done, you know, for we have no money, it seems.”
“How can that be?” Gil said. “We are one of the richest families in England.”
“That is true, Carrbridge,” Reggie said. “Grandfather was wont to boast that he had an income of twenty five thousand a year. Where has it gone to, that is what I should like to know. None of us is particularly extravagant. We do not gamble to excess or have—” He was about to mention mistresses before remembering the presence of two ladies. “We have no expensive interests,” he finished lamely.
“It is a good point, Merton,” the marquess said. “Where is all that money? We should be comfortably situated, heaven knows.”
“Some of it is tied up in estates settled on various female relatives,” Merton said. “The French holdings were lost a few years ago, so that accounts for a part of it, and the eighth marquess lost two of the most profitable estates at the card tables. All of that constrains your current income considerably, yet no reduction in expenses has been attempted. If you want my honest opinion, my lord, it is my belief that your income cannot sustain your present expenditure. I cannot be sure, because not all the relevant papers could be located, but I believe your current income does not exceed five thousand pounds a year.”
They were all silent, contemplating this appalling state of poverty. Reggie had never thought much about money, for there had always seemed to be more than sufficient, but he knew that such a sum was inadequate to maintain them in their present style.
“What is to be done, Mr Merton?” the marchioness said. “You have mentioned some economies, but there must be more we can do.”
“Indeed there is, my lady. On the one hand, a full inventory of all his lordship’s estates and review of rents should provide some means of increasing his income. There has been no rise in rents for years, it seems. On the other hand, some means must be found to reduce every unnecessary burden on the estate. Lord Carrbridge’s brothers—” Gil gave an exclamation of disgust at the idea that the brothers might be regarded as a burden. Merton went on relentlessly, “Lord Carrbridge’s brothers might consider the options chosen by younger brothers for centuries, and take up respectable careers. Or, if they prefer, they might wish to marry women of independent means.”
“Heiresses, I suppose,” Reggie said in disgust. “So it is the church, the army or government service, or else get ourselves leg-shackled to some fish-faced cit’s daughter. Lord, what a choice! I had rather become a pirate. Whatever are we to do?”