From Stranger at the Hall: Strangers Book 6
Chapter 1: A Change Of Circumstance
Cameron walked briskly up Canongate, the wind swirling dust around his legs. All around him the life of Edinburgh swarmed, the street crowded with carts and wagons and a few men on horseback. Two children led a goat and kid on string, and a woman with a basket, shawl around her head, dodged between farmers’ carts laden with sacks of produce from outside the city. High above, a maid leaned from an upper window, vigorously beating a rug. There was so much energy in the city that he could not help smiling. The streets hummed with it, and gave him energy, too. He felt so alive here, like a lightning bolt crackling with life force. He could not imagine living anywhere else.
On the High Street, two men hailed him as they passed by.
“Are ye coming tonight?” one said.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Cameron said. Friday night was the meeting of his reading society, a group of men like himself who couldn’t afford a subscription to the library, so they each paid a little and then passed around the books they bought, and discussed them afterwards. They met at the howff, so there was a certain amount of drinking went on as well, but mostly it was talk. Lord, how they talked! They were not, perhaps, as clever or as well read as the great minds of the age, but they had their opinions, nevertheless, and no hesitation in expressing them.
Cameron turned into Parliament Square, joining the little stream of other clerks beginning the working day at the bank of Sir Arthur Dunstan and Company. They filed through the side entrance, Cameron nodding at this one or that one he knew well. He took his place at his desk and a few minutes later, the bell rang and the bank was open for business.
The morning wore away as it usually did. Cameron never minded the tedious nature of his work, for the importance of accuracy could never be understated. There was no place for mistakes in a bank, that much was certain, and he was meticulous in his scribing. He had not made an error in ten years, and if he continued in the same way he would rise slowly up the rungs of the clerking ladder and up the building, too. One day, he might be chief clerk with an office two floors above and that would be beyond all his expectations, but senior clerk was his current ambition, and he suspected that he was now quite close to achieving it. And then… with the higher salary and Jamie bringing in money at last, he could consider taking a wife.
The bank was very old-fashioned in its ways, insisting upon knee breeches, stockings and shoes for all its staff, with black coats and waistcoats, but thankfully no wigs, except for one or two of the elderly partners. Cameron was rather proud of his dark curls, and would have been sorry to hide them under a grey wig. Mealtimes were unfashionable too, for the doors were closed at three o’clock sharp so that staff and partners alike could eat their dinner. Noon had been and gone, and Cameron was beginning to look forward to the meal, when he saw Mr Blaine crossing the floor to his desk. That was bad news, for he was the supervisor for all the clerks on the banking floor, and therefore not a man Cameron would normally wish to see. What was worse, he was smiling, and anything that brought Mr Blaine pleasure was bound to be bad news.
“Ye be wanted upstairs,” he said gleefully to Cameron, in such a loud voice that half a score of other clerks turned from their desks to stare.
“Upstairs? Shall I finish this line first?”
“Aye, but look sharp about it. Don’t want to keep ’em waiting, now do ye?”
Them? Little prickles of alarm skittered through him as he bent his head to write, then wiped his pen and sanded the page. Handing it to his junior to be filed away, he turned to Mr Blaine.
“Upstairs, then. Mr Robertson?”
Mr Blaine laughed in pure delight. “Not him, no. Floor above that.”
The partners’ floor! The prickles became icy spears of pure terror. He was about to lose his position and he could not for the life of him think why. He had made no error, not a blot nor a carelessly written number had marked any of his work. Trying not to tremble, he followed Mr Blaine through the polished wooden doors that separated the banking floor from the offices. Up the stairs they went, Cameron’s knees shaking with every step. What would he do if he should lose his employment? He would never get another place at a bank, and he would be reduced to clerking for a merchant or a grocer, perhaps. What sort of salary would that command? Not much, he was sure.
Mr Robertson awaited them on the first floor landing, chewing his lip anxiously. That too was a worry, for while he was strict with all those below him in the hierarchy, he was usually impassive.
“Here he is,” Mr Blaine said cheerfully, chuckling all the way back down the stairs.
“At least ye look presentable,” Mr Robertson muttered. “Come along, come along now.”
Up again to the much more opulent quarters of the bank’s partners, where deep carpets deadened their footsteps and footmen stood in pairs outside every door as still as statues, staring at nothing in particular. As Mr Robertson neared the furthest pair of doors, the footmen on either side came miraculously to life and thrust them open.
“Come along now,” Mr Robertson said, half pushing Cameron through into a room that was so sumptuously appointed that he felt as if he had strayed into a palace. “Here he is, my lord, gentlemen. This is Cameron Saxby.”
My lord? Was there a lord in the room? There were, in fact, five men gazing at him, but without hostility, he thought. If he had been required to describe their expressions, he would have said they showed more curiosity than anything else. His panic subsided a little. Now he recognised two of the men. Seated behind the large desk that dominated one end of the room was Sir Arthur Dunstan himself, the bank’s founder and senior partner. Standing beside the window was Mr Liddell, the minister from the Canongate Kirk. That was a puzzle. What was he doing here? Unless — oh God, not Jeanie or Sandy?
Perhaps Mr Liddell saw the sudden terror in his eyes, for he smiled and gently shook his head.
“Come in, Saxby,” Sir Arthur said in reassuringly kindly tones. “No need to look so alarmed. It is good news, m’boy. Thank you, Robertson, you may leave us.”
“Very good, sir. Thank ye, sir.” Robertson backed out of the room, bowing all the way, and if Cameron had not been so bewildered and apprehensive, the sight of his superior reducing to grovelling obsequiousness would have amused him greatly.
“Now, Saxby, let me introduce everyone,” Sir Arthur said, gesturing to three gentlemen seated in a semi-circle around one end of the desk. “This is Lord Hillingyre from the Lord Chancellor’s office, and beside him Sir Rathbone Willerton-Forbes, and the gentleman over there is Sir Lester Markham, from the chambers of Markham, Willerton-Forbes and Browning.” Cameron’s eyebrows rose. Two sirs and a lord. Good grief, whatever was this about? “They have come all the way from London to find you, m’boy. Sit down, will you — yes, that chair there — for Sir Rathbone wishes to ask you some questions. You must answer as best you can, you know. He is one of my best clerks, Willerton-Forbes, so you will not find any dissimulation about him. We only employ the very best clerks here, all of them honest, respectable men who follow proper religious principles. No Catholics in my bank.”
“Good, for a Catholic would be… awkward,” Sir Rathbone said, with a slight smile. His accent was very English, very aristocratic, and all three of the Londoners looked like the rich, pampered nobles they were. Quality, as Jeanie would call them. “Let us start at the beginning, with you, Saxby. You are Cameron James Saxby of Lochend Close?”
“I am, sir.”
“You are six and twenty, you have a sister, Jane Isabella Saxby, aged four and twenty, and a cousin, Alexander Grant Saxby, aged two and twenty, is that correct?”
“And none of you is married? Or has ever been so?”
“Mr Liddell, you can confirm that this young man is indeed the same Cameron Saxby that you baptised?”
“Indeed I can, Sir Rathbone. I have known Cameron all his life, and his parents before him.”
“Excellent,” Sir Rathbone said, leaning back in his chair with a satisfied smile.
Cameron’s initial fears had subsided, and his pulse was almost back to normal. He was no longer in dread of finding his employment terminated. Instead, he had wandered into some strange dream world where nothing made sense. Why had three members of London’s upper echelons travelled all the way to Edinburgh to ask him such questions? To find him, Sir Arthur had said. But why? It was unfathomable. So he sat and answered questions and waited patiently to be told what this was all about.
“Your father was Alexander William Saxby, I believe, and his father — your grandfather — was James Donald Saxby and your great grandfather was… let me see… ah, here it is… Edward Henry Saxby. And his father, your great great grandfather, was Charles, Lord Saxby, the Second Baron. Is that so? You are aware of your ancestry?”
“Oh yes!” Cameron cried, suddenly filled with amusement. “Tis something of a joke within the family. A mere four generations it took for us to go from baron to bank clerk. At this rate, my bairn’s bairns will be crossing sweepers.”
All the gentlemen chuckled and exchanged glances.
“That is unlikely, Saxby,” said Sir Arthur gently.
Now that was something to the good! If Sir Arthur thought he had prospects, Cameron might yet make chief clerk.
“Do you ever hear of your relations?” Sir Rathbone said. “The barony continued on after your great great grandfather, and is occasionally mentioned in the newspapers.”
“The London newspapers? I never see them, and never heard of any other Saxbys apart from ourselves, but then I wouldnae expect to. My great grandfather moved up here and they stayed down in England somewhere, so we wouldnae meet even if we moved in the same level of society. Which we dinnae do.”
The conversation was bizarre, and Cameron was quite certain that all these questions were leading up to something, but he found it impossible to guess what it might be. Since he could hardly ask such important people what it was about, he waited patiently for them to explain.
“So you would not know that the Sixth Baron recently died, in tragic circumstances. A curricle accident.”
“No, I ken nothing of it.”
“His only son was in the curricle at the time, and, after briefly becoming the Seventh Baron, he also died.” He paused, looking at Cameron as if he expected an answer, but Cameron could not think what he wanted him to say. “We — Lord Hillingyre and Sir Lester and I — have been engaged in tracing the late Lord Saxby’s relations. Would it surprise you to learn that you are his nearest living male relative?”
“Am I?” Cameron laughed. “Tis odd indeed, for the relationship must be very distant. Oh but… is this about an inheritance? Lord Saxby left me something, perhaps? A watch, or… or money?” he said hopefully.
Sir Rathbone gazed at him solemnly. “He did indeed, Saxby, he did indeed. Money and a great deal more. In fact, he left you everything.”
There was such a long silence that the cries of the street callers outside and the rumble of passing wagons filled the room.
“What precisely is everything?” Cameron said in a small voice, not sure whether he most feared or hoped for the answer.
“The estate in Shropshire is the principal residence. The London house, leased out at present. A house in Bath, also leased. Several farms. A forest in Wales. About twenty miles of canal somewhere. A pottery. Two coal mines. Have I forgotten anything, Markham? Oh, a ferry across the Severn. Very profitable, that is. Total annual income, on the order of four thousand pounds.”
“Four thousand… a year?” Cameron croaked. “Saints preserve me! But why? Why me? Am I truly his only living relative?”
“Oh no, indeed not, but you are his nearest surviving male relative. Everything is entailed in the male line, you see, just like the title.”
“The title…” he repeated, suddenly filled with utter dread.
“Yes, indeed. The title comes to you, too. Congratulations, Lord Saxby. It appears that you are the Eighth Baron.”
Cameron walked home unseeingly through the bustling streets. Twice he bumped into passers-by, and once he stepped in front of a wagon, so that the driver had to pull up his horse sharply while abusing him in colourful terms. Cameron staggered on, his mind in turmoil. A baron! Houses, land, businesses… wealth unimaginable. Whatever was to become of them all?
When he reached the close, Chrissie, their maid, was out scrubbing the steps. “Master Cam? What ye doin’ hame at this time o’day?”
He gave her no answer, but stepped carefully over the washed stones and pushed open the door. Jeanie’s cloak was missing, so she must be out. He collected the almost empty bottle of sherry and a glass and went upstairs. His room was on the top floor, tucked into the roof of the house. Boiling hot in summer, freezing in winter, yet it was his refuge, the safe place to which he retreated whenever life pressed hard on him. It had comforted him on the terrible day that Sandy’s parents had died, and then again when his own father had died and all his cherished hopes of university had died too. The next day, he had gone to his father’s bank and asked for a job. Sir Arthur had given him a ten pound advance on his salary and told him to go out and get a decent coat and waistcoat and shoes. The day after the funeral, his life as a bank clerk had begun.
Now it had ended. He would go to London and become a baron and… then what? He could not see the shape his life would take. What did barons do? Not very much, if the English aristocracy he had encountered were much guide. He hurled aside his coat and then the waistcoat, too, and ripped off the neat neckcloth so that it was crumpled beyond repair. For a moment he stared at it, dismayed. Now Jeanie would have to press it again.
He poured sherry into the glass — one of the last of a wedding gift to his parents — and opened the window wide. This was why he loved this room best, why he had chosen to sleep here instead of one of the bigger rooms down below. From the open window, he could look down the narrow wynd and over the closely-packed roofs of the old town to the clean lines and wide streets of the new town. If he leaned perilously through the window, he could even catch a glimpse of the edge of Calton Hill. His city, his home… and now it must all be left behind. He drank the sherry at a gulp, and threw himself onto the bed in disgust.
Jeanie found him there some while later.
“Cam?” she said, her voice high with anxiety. “Chrissie said you came home early. Have ye lost your job?”
Guilt washed over him at the sight of her face creased with worry. “Not exactly, but I have another position,” he said, quickly, for it was true, in a way. “I’ll explain when Sandy comes in. What time is it? Is he home yet?”
“Not yet. Soon. Will ye come down? Company’s better than sitting up here, just yerself and the sherry bottle.”
To please her, he went downstairs again. They sat in the faded little parlour that they all preferred to the more formal front room, Cameron silent and Jeanie telling him the trivial doings of the day, but nervously twisting her hands together. Poor Jeanie! She was such a worrier.
Eventually Sandy bounced in. Sandy always bounced. Chrissie said he had springs in his heels, but he was simply the sort of man who was always in charity with the world. Nothing ever put him out of frame, and however dire times were, he would come through it smiling and jesting, his blond hair making a halo round his head.
He was not smiling now. “Cam, what happened? Ye didnae come for dinner and someone said ye went upstairs and then left. Have ye been dismissed?”
Before Cameron could answer, Jeanie said, “It’s all right. He has a new job.”
“Ohhh…” Sandy exuded palpable relief. “Thank God! Another bank? Where?”
“London!” they cried in astonished unison.
“And… Shropshire,” he said, almost apologetically. “And Bath. And I cannot tell ye what else, for I forget. A canal… I remember that.”
“Are you mad?” Sandy said. “Jeanie, does he have a fever? Cam, have ye been at the whisky?”
“Only one small glass of sherry, and I am not mad, just slightly stunned, for it is all true. It seems… I can hardly say this, even now, for it is just so incredible, but it seems that I am now a baron. The Eighth Baron Saxby, to be precise. Lord Saxby.”
They stared at him in frozen shock. Then, very slowly, Sandy began to laugh. “The devil ye are! Ye gods, but a lot of people must have died to make you the heir to the title.”
“But what does it mean,” Jeanie said, wringing her hands anxiously. “Am I Lady Jane or some such now?”
“I cannae say,” Cameron said helplessly. “I don’t understand these titles.”
“Is there money?” she went on, her voice rising again. “We cannae eat a title, no matter how grand.”
“Oh, there’s money,” he said. “Four thousand a year.”
Even Sandy’s jaw dropped at that.
Jeanie gasped. “Four thousand! Pounds? Oh Cam, ye know what this means? I can buy a new bonnet at last.”
And in that moment Cameron understood the enormity of their change in circumstance. They had never been desperate for money, but they had always had to be careful to live within their means. Now… everything had changed. “Sister dear, you can buy as many bonnets as your heart desires.”
“May I have a horse?” Sandy said eagerly. “If ye have to go off to London to be a lord, and swimming in riches, the least you can do is set me up with a mount. Will Jeanie go with you? You’ll have a troop of servants, I daresay, so you’ll not need her to keep house, will ye? Someone has to mend the sheets for me, after all.”
Cameron frowned, not having considered that point. “I cannae say how it will work out,” he said slowly. “All I can say for certain is that my money is yours, so ye can have a horse, if you want, and Jeanie can have bonnets and pretty gowns and we can buy new sheets at last. And I… I can have books. As many books as I want. I shall have my own library.” Laughter burst from him. “No more counting pennies for us.”
“And I shall never have to turn sheets again,” Jeanie said with satisfaction.
Chapter 2: Leaving Edinburgh
“If I lose my job because of this, Cam, I shall be very cross,” Sandy said, as they entered Dumbreck’s Hotel. “Lord, tis a fancy place. Look at those mirrors! There’s so much money this side of Princes Street.”
“Shouldn’t we go in through the servants’ entrance?” Jeanie said anxiously. “I feel terribly out of place. They’re looking at us as if we’re something the cat dragged in.”
“This is where Lord Hillingyre and the lawyers are staying, and we were all told to meet them here, aye, even you, Sandy,” Cameron said. “Sir Arthur himself agreed to it.”
Since no one approached him, he went up to the desk. “Cameron Saxby to see Lord Hillingyre,” he said. The lofty personage in charge raised one disbelieving eyebrow, so he added, “He’s expecting us.”
“I will enquire.” The lofty personage went off to confer with an even more lofty personage, but it appeared that they were indeed expected, for he returned at a run, bowing with comical energy as he went, his face wreathed in smiles. “Pray step this way, my lord… madam… sir.”
Up the wide stairs they went, and along a deeply-carpeted corridor where a footman bowed as they passed by, then into a luxuriously appointed room. “Lord Saxby, Miss Saxby, Mr Saxby,” the lofty personage intoned, before withdrawing in a flurry of low bows.
Lord Hillingyre and the two lawyers rose politely to greet them. Introductions were made, civil enquiries exchanged, refreshments offered and refused, chairs arranged. They all sat, and the three Saxbys waited expectantly.
“Well now,” Lord Hillingyre said, rubbing his hands together. “How does your situation look after a few hours to think about it? For you were too shocked to take it in yesterday, I think, Saxby.”
“I’m still shocked,” Cameron said. “Tis a very great change in my circumstances.”
“A change for the better, however, for all of you.”
“I cannae see how it affects me,” Sandy burst out. “Except that Cam said he’ll buy me a horse now that he’s rich, which will be wonderful, but I should be at work today. I only started in the counting house a month ago and—”
Lord Hillingyre raised one placating hand. “Mr Saxby, pray do not concern yourself with that.”
“But I must! I’ll never get another job as good as this one.”
“Mr Saxby, have you considered what would happen if Lord Saxby should have the misfortune to fall under the wheels of a carriage as he leaves this building?”
“What? Why would you even— Oh. Ye mean… I would be the lord.”
“Precisely so. You are his heir presumptive, which means that until he marries and has sons, you are the next in line for the barony. Just as he must learn about his new rôle, so must you in case you are ever called upon to fulfil it yourself. I cannot force any of you to do anything, naturally, but I most strongly urge you all to go south as soon as it may be arranged.”
“To do what?” Cameron said. “I have to claim this title, I understand that, but what is there for Jeanie and Sandy to do?”
“The formalities comprise but a very small part of it,” Lord Hillingyre said. “The most important — the most urgent — requirement is for all of you to learn to move in a society very different from any you have known before. To this end, we propose that you stay in London at the residence of Sir Lester, who has a large house and three sisters who would love to help you learn to find your way in this complicated world of the nobility. They will clothe you for your new rank, show you around the metropolis and teach you all you need to know about the so-called beau monde. Then I suggest you go to Shropshire, to learn to manage your estate there.”
“You expect me, then, to conform to the pattern of English aristocracy?” Cameron said, his chin lifting. “What if I don’t want to go to London? What if I care nothing for this title that’s been thrust upon me, or the estate in Shropshire? What if I’m happy right here in Edinburgh?”
Lord Hillgyre smiled at him. “Then you may stay here, if that pleases you, Lord Saxby. No one can make you do anything against your will — except His Majesty, perhaps, or another royal personage. This has come upon you without the least warning, so naturally you are uncertain of the way forward. I will tell you, however, what my father told me as soon as I was old enough to understand the honours that would one day be mine. A noble title, he said, is bestowed upon a man for services to the Crown, and therefore it is a great privilege to receive. The holder has a sacred duty to uphold the honour of his King and of his country, and fulfil the obligations of rank, which include attending Parliament and helping to make the laws of this fine kingdom of ours. Land is another kind of sacred duty. You will find that you have a great many people who depend upon you and your estate for their livelihoods, and you owe it to them to maintain your holding in productive order so that your people may prosper. And finally, there is a sacred duty to your family name, to put no blemish thereon, to raise a new generation worthy of it and ensure that your inheritance is passed to your heirs in better order than you received it.”
Cameron nodded. “A sacred duty… that’s something I can understand. So we must go to London, to learn to be aristocrats.”
“To learn to be gentlemen, in the case of you and your brother. And Miss Saxby…” He smiled at her benevolently. “Miss Saxby will grace the drawing rooms of England with her beauty and feminine charms, and in the fullness of time will marry into the aristocracy.”
“I don’t want to marry anyone, least of all some stuck-up nob,” she cried.
The lawyers laughed, and Sir Lester said, “Then you need not, Miss Saxby. This brings you better opportunities, that is all. Who would you have married if none of this had happened? A bank clerk, perhaps? A tailor or shoemaker?”
“Or no one,” she said acidly.
“Agreed,” he said. “But now you will mingle with much wider society — the sons of the nobility, certainly, but also respectable gentry, self-made naval commanders, wealthy merchants, Italian counts and the displaced French, clergymen, barristers, diplomats—”
“Aye, I get the point,” she said, laughing. “More to choose from.”
“But also better choices, in the most basic sense. There are good men and less good at all levels of society, but you will now meet men who do not toil for their bread, men who can provide all the material necessities of life so that you may devote your energies to your husband and children without fear of starvation. However, if you decide to remain single, why then your brother is wealthy enough to support you in comfort, also. You are free to marry or not, as you prefer. Most women would envy you that freedom to choose your future, Miss Saxby.”
“But I am not free to choose whether to marry or not, am I?” Cameron said slowly. “That sacred duty to raise the next generation… that means I must find myself a wife, but I’ve no idea how to go about it. How do people in the beau monde find wives?”
“They go to balls during the season,” Sir Lester said promptly, then laughed at the horror on Cameron’s face. “Or ride in the park, or attend musical soirées, or the opera, or—”
“Then I’m utterly sunk, for I can’t dance or ride or play an instrument more challenging than a penny whistle. And who will invite me to a ball? I shan’t know a soul. All that mingling ye talk about will be impossible for us as outsiders to all these people.”
“That is where a wife will be a great help,” Lord Hillingyre said. “A woman raised to that level of society will help you to navigate the turbulent waters of the ton and avoid the whirlpools and quicksands.”
“But how am I to meet such a woman?” Cameron cried. “If I cannae even find a wife without navigating this ton, whatever it is, I don’t see how it is to be done.”
“There is a way,” Sir Rathbone said. “The Sixth Baron left behind four unmarried daughters. It would be seen as a most generous act to marry one of them, thus joining the two widely divergent branches of the family. The eldest has some kind of deformity and is besides betrothed to the local parson, and the youngest is not yet out, but the other two have had London seasons. Miss Agnes is a most accomplished young lady, and Miss Flora is very pretty. One or other of them would suit you very well, I am sure. They are still in residence at Maeswood Hall, and so you could get to know them without venturing into a single ballroom. It would resolve your difficulty rather well, do you not think?”
‘Edinburgh, 25th August. Lady Saxby, Pray accept my sincere condolences upon the recent tragic events which have befallen you and your daughters. It is with a heavy heart that I accept the burden thrust upon me, knowing the sorrow that has caused my change in circumstance. Having only a few days since received the news of my most unexpected elevation, I intend to quit my home here in Edinburgh as soon as I may and remove first to London, where the formalities relating to the barony will be conducted, and thence to Shropshire. Do not expect me before October at the earliest. I shall be bringing with me my sister, Miss Jane Saxby, and my cousin, Mr Alexander Saxby. Since I have no wife and my sister is quite unused to the management of a large establishment, I should be most grateful if you would maintain your present rôle of mistress of the house, if this should not be inconvenient to you. Maeswood Hall has been home to you and your family for many years, and it would please me greatly for this situation to continue indefinitely. With every good wish for the most cordial relations between us now and in the future, I am, madam, your respectful cousin, Cameron Saxby.’
“He writes a good hand, Mama,” Cass said, when it was her turn to read the letter. “He expresses himself well, and he sounds sincere in his wish to get along with us.”
“A bank clerk!” Lady Saxby sniffed. “How could a bank clerk express himself well, may I ask? But I daresay he had help from some educated person.”
The Saxby ladies were stationed in the parlour, a room used when there were no visitors to be entertained. Here they could sew or chat or read or merely stretch out on a chaise longue, as Lady Saxby was. Cass was mending a nightgown, Agnes was reading an improving book of sermons, and Flora was trimming a bonnet. Honora, the youngest, would have liked a chaise longue to lie upon like her Mama, for she fancied she had a fever, but there being only one in the room, she was making do with a chair and footstool. The parlour was one of the smallest rooms at Maeswood Hall, but in winter it was cosy and in the present summer heat, its north-facing position rendered it pleasantly cool.
Cass reread the letter, admiring one or two well-turned phrases. Yes, it was definitely well expressed and the hand was a strong one, each letter perfectly formed, although perhaps that was to be expected from a clerk.
“It is good news that he is not going to throw us out, surely,” she said.
“A stranger in the house!” Lady Saxby murmured faintly. “A bank clerk, and two rag-tag relations. How are we to bear it?”
“Will he eat peas with a knife?” Flora said, giggling. “Or talk with a terrible accent? Perhaps he will wear labourer’s clothes, like Bill, the ditch-digger, and call you ‘mum’. ‘Yes, mum, no, mum, have it finished by dinner-time, mum.’”
“Nonsense,” Cass said firmly. “He worked in a bank, so his clothes will be respectable. Mama, shall you stay, as he wishes?”
“Of course,” she said, a small frown creasing her forehead. “This is our home, Cassandra. I shall not be winkled out by a bank clerk, you may be sure.”
“We did not know about the sister and cousin, did we?” Agnes said. “What do you suppose they will be like? Young, handsome and good-humoured? Or old, fat and cross?”
“That is a good point,” Cass said. “We have no idea of his age, either — Lord Saxby’s, I mean.”
Her stepmother shuddered. “Please do not call him that in my presence, Cassandra. You have not the least compassion for a grieving widow.”
“I beg your pardon, Mama, but it is his name, after all. When he arrives, where shall we put him? He had better have the Duke’s suite, for you will not want him in Papa’s room, I imagine.”
“Let him have it,” Lady Saxby said, lying back and closing her eyes, a vinaigrette to her nose. “It is of no interest to me. He has everything else of your father’s, so he might as well have his bed, too.”
“As you wish,” Cass said. “Then Mr Saxby may have the larger guest bedroom, and Miss Saxby had better have Miles’s old room.”
“Not Miles’s room,” Lady Saxby said firmly. “The Duke’s suite.”
Cass’s eyebrows lifted, but she said evenly, “May I go and advise Mrs Brooks of the numbers expected? Mrs Woodfield will want to know, also.”
Lady Saxby waved a languid arm which Cass took as approval, so she quickly made her way downstairs to the housekeeper’s room. Her errand thus accomplished, she returned upstairs but not to the parlour. She had her own little room squeezed between the Gold Room and the gallery, where she prepared the household accounts. Hastily she sat down and dashed off a quick letter.
‘Maeswood Hall, Shropshire. 27th August. Sir Rathbone, We have today received a letter from Lord Saxby informing us that he will arrive here in October, with his sister and cousin. However, we know nothing of them, and would be most grateful for some information which would enable us to best ensure his lordship’s comfort. Is he, for instance, an elderly gentleman who might appreciate dishes of the more digestible variety? Has he any infirmity of which we should be aware? Yours, Cassandra Saxby. Post script. Should we send Lord Saxby’s travelling carriage to him in London? It will not inconvenience us for we go nowhere just now.’
The answer, when it came, was not quite so satisfactory as she might have hoped.
‘London, 31st August. My dear Miss Saxby, You need have no fears on the question of Lord Saxby’s comfort. He suffers no infirmity, nor any digestive problems of which I am aware. I feel tolerably certain that he, Miss Saxby and Mr Saxby will eat of any dish with which they are presented. I do not feel that their arrival will be of any inconvenience to you and your family, in fact, you may in time be glad of it. Pray send the carriage if you are sure it can be spared. Respectfully yours, R Willerton-Forbes.’
How like a man to suppose that the addition of three people to the household, not to mention their attendant servants, would be no inconvenience! Of course they would — it would turn the house on its end to have them there, and all manner of disruption to be suffered on their account. But as to whether they were young or old, handsome or plain, generous or stingy, good-humoured or cross, she supposed they would all have to wait until they crossed the threshold.
Cameron thought the journey would never end. He existed in a strangely unreal world, all the certainties of his old life torn away but the new one had not yet begun, like a boat cut free of its moorings and left to drift inexorably onwards. When he eventually came to rest, it would not be home, it would simply be somewhere else.
The last few days in Edinburgh had been frantic, settling accounts, sending notes to friends, finding someone to rent the house furnished and finally packing up their few possessions worth keeping. Then the endless days in the swaying carriage had begun, and the succession of posting houses and toll gates and bridges, bustling towns and small villages, moorland and fields and forests, rolling hills and steep-sided valleys. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the austere towers and baronial flourishes of Scottish buildings in the border counties gave way to the sprawling, erratic styles of England. Dark stone was replaced by brick, turfed roofs by slate and even the clothes were different, brighter and more flamboyant. Sandy loved it all, of course, grinning with excitement and pointing out every church spire or tower, every market cross, every great house peeking through distant trees. Jeanie sat quietly, watching and worrying.
Cameron did his share of worrying, too, but now that the die was cast, there was no point in fretting over it. He could not think more than one step ahead, and the first hurdle was to present himself and his papers to the proper authorities who would verify his claim to the barony. Or not. The London lawyers had been in no doubt of the outcome, but until he knew for certain that he was indeed Lord Saxby, he could not begin to contemplate the future in earnest.
Lord Hillingyre and Sir Rathbone Willerton-Forbes had departed ahead of them to prepare the way in London, but Sir Lester Markham travelled with the Saxbys, managing the posting houses, determining their route and, during long, dull roads, improving their knowledge. The workings of the peerage were his first concern, and he instructed them on all the nuances of rank, the titles, courtesy titles and complex forms of address. When they stopped overnight, he showed them the various forms of greeting required, and precisely how to bow to each rank.
“You must remember, Lord Saxby, that you are the equal of any nobleman in England.” When Cameron threw him a look of disbelief, he laughed. “Yes, hard to credit, is it not? Yet in many ways it is so. There will always be greater respect accorded to some on account of age or the holding of high office, but you may rub shoulders with dukes and not think yourself any less than them. And you must never, ever address one as ‘Your Grace’. That is to be putting yourself in the position of a servant.”
“They’ll look down on me,” Cameron said. “For all these fine words, ye know it will be so.”
“Of course they will, just at first, because they are haughty and like to trace their ancestry back to the Conqueror, but just remember that in fact most of their ancestors were running around barefoot in the muck at that time, just as yours were. They hauled themselves up by their fingernails and made some lucky guesses as to which squabbling prince to choose, that is all. So hold your head high, Saxby, and do not be browbeaten by them. When they see that you conform to society’s expectations and are not about to foment a worker’s uprising, they will accept you readily enough.”
Cameron laughed. “I’ve no plans to foment any uprisings, but as to conforming to society’s expectations… that will be difficult.”
“Nonsense. You will get into the way of it soon enough, have no fear.”
There was no point in arguing in the face of such confidence, but Cameron had seen enough members of the aristocracy passing through the bank to keep his expectations somewhat lower.
Chapter 3: Clothes Maketh The Man
London was vast. Edinburgh had seemed big enough, but it was possible to walk from one side to the other in under an hour even at a leisurely pace, stopping to greet acquaintances on the way, whereas London sprawled into the distance in all directions. Each imposing mansion in Mayfair had its own stables and coach house, so that the inhabitants need not spend their days walking for hours to reach a friend’s house, and there were hacks for hire to the less wealthy to convey them about. Cameron, who had been used to walking everywhere, now had to grow accustomed to the carriage being ordered for even the shortest journey, for Sir Lester would no more consider travelling on foot than riding about on a donkey.
Sir Lester’s house in Brook Street was tall and narrow, but it had the elegance of the New Town about it, everything classically simple and regular, rather than the higgledy-piggledy untidy charm of Canongate. The house was shared with his three sisters, Miss Markham, Miss Freda and the widowed Mrs Crabbe, and an unnerving army of silently efficient servants. Sir Lester himself could have been any age from forty upwards, for his hair was dark and abundant, and his somewhat rounded face largely unwrinkled. His sisters, however, were easier to place on the cusp of old age, for they were grey-haired and beginning to be stooped. Their eyes shone with liveliness, however, and they welcomed their new guests with excited girlish chatter.
From the boredom of the travelling coach, the Saxbys were thrust into a whirlwind of activity, and the official business of claiming the title was the least of it. Cameron and Sandy spent their mornings with tailors, hatters and boot-makers, riding and shooting instructors, and the general business of learning the life of a gentleman. Jeanie was whisked away by the Markham sisters to a succession of feminine emporia, which was apparently so enjoyable that it rendered her speechless. The afternoons were spent with dancing masters and deportment instructors.
They were also offered elocution lessons, but here Cameron drew the line. “There’s nothing wrong with the way we speak,” he said firmly. “If it’s good enough for the streets of Edinburgh, it’s good enough for London, too. I’ve no objection to new clothes, as long as they’re not strung about with too much ostentatious display, and dancing and riding are useful skills, but I’m not going to pretend to be anything I’m not. I’m a plain man and a Scot, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
“The people you meet will judge you by the way you speak, Lord Saxby,” said Miss Markham, fluttering her hands anxiously.
“Then they would be very wrong,” he said quietly. “A man should be judged by his actions, not by the manner of his speech.”
And he would not be shifted from that position. He quickly found, however, that it was easier to make himself understood if he spoke a little more slowly and took care to avoid the Scottish vernacular, and as the days passed, the three cousins tacitly came to moderate their language, if not their accent.
In the evenings, the seven of them ate together in Sir Lester’s opulent dining room, and these occasions were lessons, too. The array of silver and crystal, and the succession of dishes quite unrecognisable to Cameron, were an introduction to the habits of the upper echelons of society.
“Tonight we shall have guests for dinner,” Sir Lester said one morning at breakfast. “We shall wear full evening dress.”
This caused a flurry of excitement amongst the ladies, and an immediate withdrawal to an upper floor to plan their gowns and furbelows for the evening. None of the Saxbys had yet begun to wear their new clothes, for if a coat arrived, there was no waistcoat for it, and if the waistcoat should be ready, the boot-maker had not yet done his work, and Jeanie at least had seemed quite content in her comfortable old gowns. But now they must all be dressed in style.
Their maid Chrissie had pleaded to come south with them, so she now acted as Jeanie’s lady’s maid, under instruction from the Markham sisters’ own rather grand maid. Sir Lester had engaged a valet for Cameron and Sandy, a man called Neate, as small and unobtrusive as his name implied, who went silently about his work. When Cameron retreated to his room to dress for dinner, he found Neate already laying out an array of garments. Apart from a gaudily brocaded waistcoat, which Cameron was already regretting being persuaded to order, everything he had bought so far was plain, just as he liked it, although of vastly better quality than anything he had previously owned.
“Do these items meet with your approval for tonight, my lord?” Neate said.
“They will do very well, Neate. Clothing is not a matter of much interest to me.”
“Should you care to try a more elaborate style of neckcloth for the occasion, my lord?”
Cameron raised his eyebrows at him. “Trying to spruce me up, are ye, Neate?”
“Clothes maketh the man, so they say, my lord.”
“Ah, ‘vestis virum facit’. Or as Polonius has it, ‘the apparel oft proclaims the man’. Do ye truly believe that, Neate?”
“Shakespeare was a most perceptive man, my lord.”
“I prefer another saying from Polonius, ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ I am not at all certain that ‘mine own self’ would be comfortable in some construction so high that it becomes impossible to turn the head.”
“No indeed, my lord. I had nothing like that in mind, but it is a compliment to the ladies for a gentleman to make an effort with his apparel at table, especially on formal occasions.” Cameron was still sceptical, so he went on, “A gentleman’s outer garments are the face he presents to the world, my lord. In town, a gentleman might wish to be… oh, sophisticated, perhaps, or careless of worldly considerations. He might dress to attract notice, or to avoid it. He might wish to display his wealth or not. He might dress to please the ladies, or to impress a man of power, or to establish himself as a man of fashion. In the country, he will most probably wish to look like a responsible custodian of his land. But above all, in all places and at all times, he must look like a gentleman.”
Cameron smiled. “And he must be a credit to his family name and the honours he holds… is that it, Neate?”
“And to his valet, my lord. Especially to his valet.”
So Cameron donned his fine raiment without further dissent, and allowed Neate to fashion an arrangement of his neckcloth which, so the valet assured him, was very fashionable, but still allowed Cameron free movement of his head.
Sir Lester and his sisters were already in the drawing room when he arrived, and he had to admit that they all looked very fine. The ladies wore too many jewels for his taste, and Sir Lester too much pomade, but otherwise their attire was relatively sober. However, the guests, when they began to arrive, made him shudder. Lord Hillingyre, himself inoffensively attired, brought two of his daughters, with screeching voices that assaulted Cameron’s ears, and garbed in gowns cut so low that Cameron blushed and averted his eyes. Sir Rathbone Willerton-Forbes’ wife, a lady as elderly as he was, wore puce satin and enough feathers in her turban to make half a dozen dusters, braying loudly as she greeted everyone. The younger men were, if anything, even worse. Sir Rathbone’s nephew, Mr Pettigrew Willerton-Forbes, his friend, a Captain Edgerton, and Sir Lester’s nephew wore such flamboyant garments that Cameron could hardly tear his eyes away from them. Only Captain Edgerton’s wife was simply dressed, her gown starkly plain and no more than a jade pendant and ear drops to adorn her.
The last to arrive were Sandy and Jeanie, and that, too, was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. Sandy’s clothes were no more ostentatious than Cameron’s but he looked remarkably fine in them. He had the broad shoulders and shapely legs that were enhanced by the present fashions, and his smiling face set it off perfectly. And Jeanie… Cameron’s jaw dropped when he saw his sister. When had she grown so beautiful? Clothed in silk, with her hair bound up in ribbons and Mama’s silver cross at her throat, she looked… she looked like a lady, he realised. A lady who would grace the drawing rooms of England, as Lord Hillingyre had put it.
“Well, Cam?” she said, chewing her lip anxiously. “Is it too much, do you think? I made the seamstress put lace around the top, so it’s not so… so revealing, but is it too much?”
“Ye look very well, Jeanie,” he said. “Very well indeed.”
She smiled and let out a breath. “Sandy said so too, but he always says so. If you say it, then it must be true.”
Sir Lester came forward then to introduce her around the room, and Cameron was addressed by Lord Hillingyre, but even as he talked, his eyes followed his sister as she moved about. He noted with approval her demure manner, her respectful curtsies, the slight blush when she responded to a question. She could be forthright enough at home, but in company she exhibited a pleasing shyness. Such a manner was a great deal more appealing to him than the brash confidence of the Miss Hillingyres. When he looked for a wife, Jeanie was just the sort of woman who would suit him — modest and quiet.
“Lord Saxby?” Sir Lester murmured. “Our dinner is ready, so will you do the honours and lead the way with Mrs Crabbe?”
“Me? You want me to go first?”
Sir Lester looked amused. “You are the highest ranking gentleman here, Saxby. It is for you to lead the hostess into dinner, while I escort the highest ranking lady.”
“Am I?” Cameron ran through the ranks in his head. One baronet, one knight… and another baron. “Surely… doesn’t Lord Hillingyre outrank me?”
“No. His barony was created more recently than yours, so you have precedence.”
“Oh.” He laughed. “How complicated it all is.”
Sir Lester patted him genially on the shoulder. “You will soon get into the way of it.”
Cameron doubted it, but such a moment could only confirm the advice he’d been given. What he needed was someone to guide him through the uncharted waters of the ton and keep him straight on all matters of protocol. He needed a wife.
The dinner was enjoyable, for although it was more elaborate than any he had encountered before, all the dishes were ones which had been previously presented, so there was nothing to alarm him. Sir Lester had educated them well, as far as the table was concerned. The conversation was lively, and since Cameron was seated between two of the most sensible of the ladies, Mrs Crabbe and Mrs Edgerton, and far from the shrill Miss Hillingyres, he was quite content.
Once Mrs Crabbe had led the ladies away to their feminine seclusion, the noise level in the dining room dropped to a more bearable pitch. The gentlemen rearranged themselves around their host and for a while the talk was all of politics, of Parliament, the situation in Spain, a recent naval battle and the question of how soon Cameron would receive his writ of summons from the King, now that his claim had been recommended for approval by the House of Lords. Even though this latter point concerned him personally, Cameron could not quite connect the discussion with himself. The very idea that he should come to the notice of His Majesty, a personage remote from distant Edinburgh and as high above a bank clerk as an eagle, was impossible to grasp. So he smiled and nodded and let the discussion rumble around him.
He jumped. “Your pardon, my lord. I’m not yet accustomed to the title.”
“Or mine,” Lord Hillingyre said, beaming at him. “You address me as Hillingyre now, or Lord Hillingyre, if you wish to be more formal. But enough of politics. Let us talk of your future home, Saxby, for Edgerton has spent some time in Shropshire lately and knows Maeswood Hall well.”
“It is as fine a seat as a man could wish for,” Edgerton said. “A splendid place, with an extensive deer park. I hope you like venison, Saxby.”
Cameron laughed. “I have no idea. I’ve never eaten it in my life.”
“I warrant you will be heartily sick of it within a twelvemonth,” Edgerton said. “There is good fishing and shooting, too, if you are so minded, and the grounds are magnificent.”
“What makes them magnificent? I’ve never had a garden, so I haven’t the least idea. Large, I suppose, but what else?”
“Very beautiful. Lawns sweeping down to lakes, elegant stone bridges, grottos, temples, pavilions… woodlands, I suppose.”
“Lakes… woodlands…” Cameron murmured. More than one lake!
“He will see it all soon enough,” Sir Rathbone said. “Tell him about the daughters, Edgerton. I have suggested that he look there for a wife, either Miss Agnes or Miss Flora. Tell him about the young ladies.”
“Ah, yes… Miss Flora. Very pretty. As dainty and exquisite as a little porcelain doll, just like her mother.”
“And Miss Agnes?” Cameron said, amused. “The accomplished one?”
Edgerton’s face fell. “Very accomplished, it is true, but… in looks, I am told that she takes after her father. Most unfortunate. But a sensible girl, if that is what you are after. Not as sensible as her older sister, but few women are. Quite a lady, is Miss Saxby. When the simple knife-sharpener was accused of murder, she set out single-handedly to prove his innocence, and she did it too. A very clever girl.”
“Does she take after the mother or the father?” Sandy put in, sending a ripple of laughter around the room.
“Different mother,” Edgerton said, “but sadly she tends more to the paternal side.”
“Ah, but is she accomplished?” That was Sandy again, with a broad grin that suggested he’d drunk a little too freely of the wine.
Edgerton frowned. “I never heard her described so, no. A very capable woman, by all accounts, for she manages the household, since her stepmother’s health is indifferent. More housekeeper than daughter, I should say, but everyone speaks well of her, and she has the most tremendous fortune. Seventy thousand pounds, would you believe.”
Sandy gave a low whistle. “And she is as yet unwed? A miracle! Let me at her, at once!”
“There is something wrong with her, I understand,” Cameron said, trying to remember. “A deformity of some sort?”
“Yes, she has a pronounced limp from a childhood illness,” Edgerton said. “She is also betrothed to the village parson.”
“Ah, I knew there would be some snag to my cunning scheme,” Sandy said. “Do the younger girls have good dowries, too? I might make a push for the fairy-like Flora for… oh, twenty or thirty thousand.”
“The three daughters from the second marriage get ten thousand between them,” Edgerton said. “That is so, is it not, Sir Rathbone? I break no lawyer’s privilege here, for the sums are much talked of in the village.”
“That is true,” Sir Rathbone said.
“The daughters have not so much as they expected, sadly,” Sir Lester said. He glanced at his nephew, who was engaged in rolling walnuts about the polished table, clearly bored. “Richard, I am sure you would rather be attending the young ladies in the drawing room. We shall not mind if you withdraw.”
Mr Richard Markham rose with alacrity, turning to Sandy. “Mr Saxby, may I persuade you to join me? Stimulating as this discussion is, I believe that we may find female company even more enticing.”
“Yes, do join the ladies, Mr Saxby,” Sir Lester said. “They will not miss most of us, but you young gentlemen will doubtless be eagerly awaited.”
Sandy could not resist such an appeal, and the two young men left the room.
“There! Now we may speak freely,” Sir Lester said. “Not that your cousin is untrustworthy, Saxby, but there are matters which we would prefer to discuss with you privily. The fewer people who know of this, the better.”
“This sounds very serious,” Cameron said.
Sir Rathbone hesitated, his penetrating gaze fixed on Cameron. “Lord Saxby, what do you know of your predecessor, the Sixth Baron?”
“Nothing at all, apart from the few gleanings you have let fall.”
“He was… a prudent man, shall we say. Careful with his money. He kept a small fund designated to provide dowries for his daughters, which on his death contained ten thousand pounds, but he always intended to provide more amply for them. If he should die untimely, he expected that his son would do so in his stead. But now…” His voice tailed away.
“So I am expected to provide for the unmarried daughters, am I?” Cameron said, resignedly.
“Not expected, precisely, but… any such generosity would be received with gratitude.”
“I’d have to look into the financial position carefully before I could agree to such a scheme. There’s no knowing what lies behind the wealthy façade until the accounts book is opened. There’s any number of Edinburgh worthies who live as high as lords but are almost paupers.”
The gentlemen chuckled. “Ah, you could tell some tales, Saxby, were you not bound by banker’s privilege,” Edgerton said. “Your Edinburgh worthies interest me not at all, and they may be as rich or poor as they please, it is nothing to me. Your predecessor is another matter.”
The room stilled, as if a pebble had been dropped down a well and all waited for the splash at the bottom.
“How so?” Cameron said cautiously.
“You will examine the accounts with expert eyes, Lord Saxby, and, being an outsider, with no preconceptions. If you should find any irregularities, I would be very glad to hear of them.”
“What sort of irregularities did you have in mind, Captain?”
He sighed. “I cannot say, except to be certain that there is something amiss. Let me tell you the whole story, and then you will see the quandary in which we find ourselves. Lord Saxby died in a curricle accident in January last. He liked to travel at speed, and had in fact maintained this particular stretch of road in good order at his own expense, precisely so that he could do so. It was a long, straight stretch, very fit for the purpose. However, on this particular occasion, the curricle overturned and his lordship died, not from the usual type of injury caused by such an accident, but by the misfortune of a stray branch piercing his chest.
“His son, Miles, a boy of fourteen years, was also in the curricle, and he sustained the usual sort of injuries — broken bones aplenty. However, he was carried home and well tended. By good fortune, there is a physician residing in the village as well as a surgeon-apothecary, so he had every attention and it seemed as if he would survive his ordeal. His wounds were healing well and the physician was confident of a good outcome.”
“But he died,” Cameron said.
“Yes. Clearly he died, or you would not be here. Two weeks later he died, but before he did so, he told the attending nurse that he had seen someone just after the accident — Victor Hutchison, the simple-minded boy who sharpens knives. Not only that, Miles said that Victor had driven a stake through Lord Saxby’s heart. As you may imagine, the boy was questioned and when he could not account for his movements, he was arrested.”
“But he was innocent,” Cameron said thoughtfully. “Miss Saxby proved his innocence.”
“She did, but the question of the stake stayed in my mind,” Edgerton said. “It was such an odd way to die, and for Miles to say that he saw someone drive it through Lord Saxby’s heart — could he have imagined the whole? Was it a laudanum-fuelled dream? Or did he see someone — not Victor, but someone else — murder Lord Saxby?”
“Good God!” Cameron cried. “Is it possible?”
“My sentiments precisely,” Edgerton said. “Is it possible? But it seemed there was nothing at all to suggest foul play, until a few weeks ago. At that time, a man arrived from the north who had worked for a coach-builder, and had some experience of carriage accidents. Having an interest in this one, he wished to examine the scene of it, and declared at once that there must be mischief about it. A good straight road, no ruts or stones, fair weather… why should an experienced driver overturn at that point? So he examined the place more thoroughly, and do you know what he found? Let me tell you at once. There are two trees just there, one on either side of the road. Few other trees nearby, and none in pairs but these two. And when examined closely, there are marks on the bark which suggest that a wire had been tied between them and drawn tight.”
“God preserve us!” Cameron said again. The others nodded, unsurprised. They clearly already knew of it.
“Indeed. There is no doubt in my mind that Lord Saxby was murdered,” Edgerton said. “What I still do not know is by whom and why. And that is where you may be of inestimable value, Lord Saxby, for you may find, when you examine the accounts, that there is some evidence of wrong-doing. Large sums of money going out or coming in, perhaps, suggestive of blackmail or corruption. And thus we might find some clue to the perpetrator of this wicked deed.”
“You may be sure I will do all in my power to aid your endeavours,” Cameron said.
“That is good,” Edgerton said. “Because until we know the person responsible, we cannot be sure whether anyone else is in danger. Such as yourself, for instance.”