Charles Trevor, not a man given to excessive displays of emotion, could not help but emit a small sigh of relief as the carriage pulled up into the drive. Alver Park at last! He had predicted that the voyage would be far from restful, but he had not foreseen the fatigue that a journey of such length with such a family would inspire. Charles had indeed greeted his employer's demand that he accompany the party to Alver with a marked lack of enthusiasm; had he been able to predict the true terrors that awaited, he would have been strongly tempted to quit his present position as Lord Alverstoke's secretary at once.
Alverstoke's conveying of his betrothed's family to his estate had required all of three carriages, in addition to the luggage that had already been sent on to Alver. Miss Merivale had made the arrangements with her customary knack for management, and Charles had to admit that she had done her best. She was not to be blamed if it was impossible to divide the Marquis, the Marquis' widowed aunt Mrs. Buford, the Marquis' valet, the Marquis' secretary, her two brothers, one sister, and a rather excitable Baluchistan hound in such a way that would satisfy everyone. Although Charles had been happy to escape the company of young master Felix, whose recent illness had made him more of a gabster than ever, he was not at all pleased at having to share the carriage with the dog, as well as with Master Jessamy and the valet. Not as displeased, however, as poor Knapp, who was not at all fond of dogs, particularly those who were known to lick his employer's extremely valuable Hessians.
As he descended from the carriage, Lufra prancing about his heels, he cast a look at Alverstoke, who was handing Frederica out of the carriage before them. Charles had to suppress a smile at the look of longsuffering upon the man's face; Alverstoke caught his look and said drily, "Exactly so, Charles." He was then called upon to restrain Felix from tumbling down the carriage steps.
"Felix, I know you are overjoyed to be in the country and that I will soon be swarmed with tenants complaining of barns spontaneously combusting, but I have to remind you that there is no need to alarm your sister by catapulting out of the carriage," he told the boy. Felix merely grinned and told his lordship that he thought Alver looked a bang-up place, and that he though Lufra liked it very much too.
Jessamy, somewhat mortified by the sight of his canine friend enthusiastically marking his new territory, quickly called Lufra to heel, and Mr. Trevor soon had the pleasure of watching the entire party make their way into the grand house. He followed them at a slower pace; it had been many months since he was last at Alver, and every time he came back, he found himself reflecting on the connection between Trevor and Dauntry families. It seemed strange to him that every circumstance of his upbringing and career should have revolved upon the noble family's patronage of his father, the Reverend Laurence Trevor. Charles had been brought up in sight of Alver, had owed his daily bread to the Alver living, had spent many Sundays staring at the Dauntry ladies' church finery, and after his completion of school had found himself in the employ of the current marquis. He knew he had been beyond fortunate to obtain such a post, though his tastes ran more to a political career. His life had been shaped by his link to the Dauntry family. And now, he thought to himself ruefully, he had even had the imprudence to fall in love with a Dauntry.
Ah well, it was of no use to think of Chloe now. Even if it was not to be a quite hopeless business, it would be years before there was any use to think of it. He would do better to concentrate on the task at hand, which was to assist the marquis and Miss Merrivale in planning a wedding amidst the distractions offered by two schoolboys, a large mongrel, and a beautiful but lovesick damsel who was not likely to be of much use to her sister. He found his way slowly to the front room that generally served as his office when he was at Alver and absently began to organize papers. It was not long before he was joined by the Marquis.
"At work already, Charles?" his lordship enquired, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall. "I should have thought you would have ridden over immediately to the parsonage."
"Oh, I shall presently, sir," replied Charles. "But I thought it best to wait to see if you needed any assistance in… er…"
"Arranging the nauseatingly large and loud family that I seem to have acquired?" supplied his lordship. "And to think that I believed myself to be doing quite well at arranging them myself! It is quite a blow to my self-esteem that you should rate my capacities so low."
Charles grinned. "So they are all arranged this quickly, then? You are a complete hand, sir."
Alverstoke laughed and said, "You are quite right, Charles, I am indeed taking refuge from the noise in your office. Between my betrothed and my sainted aunt, all is being managed, and I was only getting in the way. How disheartening to think I shall never enjoy a moment's peace again. I wonder if I was quite sane in not pawning the boys off onto their elder brother. Well, in any case, you should certainly ride over to see your father. You will, I trust, send my best wishes to your parents and you will perhaps invite them to tea tomorrow."
"Yes, my lord," Mr. Trevor was saying, when Miss Merrivale peeped in the doorway.
"There you are!" she exclaimed, walking toward the marquis. "Alverstoke, I beg you to come and make Felix see reason. He refuses to rest, says he wants to get to work on his laboratory, and of course Jessamy had to point out that you never promised him he could have a laboratory, so the boys are quarreling. I must say, I am grateful that you engaged Mrs. Buford to come with us, for she has at least managed to take Charis off my hands."
"It was but a brief respite," murmured Alverstoke as he followed Frederica from the room. But he could not fool his secretary. Charles knew very well that underneath all the air of a harassed aristocrat lurked a man who was enjoying every minute of being managed by his chosen bride.
At Alverstoke's suggestion, Jessamy accompanied Mr. Trevor on his ride to Alver Parsonage. Felix would be much more manageable without his elder brother's presence, and in any case Jessamy was longing to try out one of the many horses in Alver's stables. The ride was not a long one, and as the men tied their horses to the neat wooden fence, Charles was hailed by voices from a looming tree.
"Uncle Charles, you are here at last!" was the general cry, and Jessamy started as three small figures tumbled down from the branches, landing with a thud in a mess of fair curls. Charles stepped forward to greet his two nephews and niece, who seemed none the worse for wear.
"May I present my sister's children? Miss Cassandra Leighton, Master James Leighton, and this rather sticky mess here is my beloved godson, Master Charles Leighton. And this is Mr. Jessamy Merrivale, whom you are to welcome as politely as is within your power."
Jessamy made his bow, as Miss Leighton, a slight girl of perhaps twelve years of age, smoothed her dress and dropped a curtsey. The two young boys made no such formal acknowledgement, only glancing at Jessamy before demanding if their uncle had brought them any presents from London.
"Perhaps, but you will not be given anything until Charlie has removed this mass of masticated biscuit from his hair," replied their indulgent uncle. "I wish to see my parents, and only Cassie seems presentable enough to enter the drawing-room, though I do think perhaps she is a bit old now to be climbing trees."
"I wonder," Miss Leighton pondered aloud, "how old you were when you stopped climbing trees, Uncle Charles?"
"Uncle Septimus still climbs 'em, and he's twenty-one," said Master Jeremy.
"And I'm only thirteen," said Cassandra, smiling the smile of one who has irrefutably proved her point.
"Uncle Septimus doesn't wear skirts," said Charles. "I daresay you have quite shocked Mr. Merrivale with your complete want of conduct."
Jessamy protested, startled to be called upon to enter the discussion. "I'm not at all shocked, for I enjoy climbing trees myself," he said, then blushed. "Though I'm not a girl- I mean, I think I should like to even if I was a girl. Charis never did, and I don't remember if Frederica did, but I'm sure she wouldn't think it shocking, in any case."
"Are Charis and Frederica your sisters? What funny names you all have," remarked Cassandra as she accompanied the two gentlemen into the house, leaving the grubby boys behind to continue in their amusements. "Is your sister really going to marry Lord Alverstoke? Papa told me, but I think it very strange, for is not the Marquis quite old? I should have thought if he had wanted to marry, he would have done so years ago! Oh, here are Mama and Grandmama in the drawing-room, Uncle Charles."
"Cassandra, what a savage you look!" said that damsel's mother and she moved to greet her brother. "Dear Charles, what a joy to see you – Cassandra, do go and tidy your hair at once, then come directly back – I do hope you scolded her Charles, for it is not at all the thing – Is his Lordship arrived, then? – And don't make such faces, young lady! – Oh, I see we have a guest."
This was all spoken in a very rapid tone of voice by a fluttering woman whom Jessamy took to be Mrs. Leighton. She shook his hand and continued to ramble on in a mixture of questions and statements until her mother cut her off by saying,
"Do be quiet, Julia, and let your brother speak. I am very glad to see you Charles, and your young friend, who remains to be introduced."
Mrs. Trevor, a sensible, no-nonsense woman, was properly introduced to Jessamy, and soon the party was enjoying a comfortable coze in the drawing room. Charles was caught up on all the parish and family news, and the upcoming wedding was a source of high interest to Mrs. Leighton, who asked Jessamy a number of questions that he was entirely incapable of answering. As she rarely paused for a response, this was not as embarrassing as it would otherwise have been. Young Miss Leighton reappeared after some minutes, her hair having been vigorously brushed and ruthlessly arranged, her gown changed, and her face scrubbed so that her cheeks still glowed pink. She sat demurely on the edge of a chair next to Jessamy's for all of five minutes before growing bored of the conversation and turning to her neighbor.
"I daresay you don't find the neighborhood gossip very interesting," she said in a half-whisper, "for I don't find it very interesting myself, and I live here. Do let's talk of something else. Tell me about your family. Have you any younger sisters as well as elder ones?"
"No, only a younger brother. He is about your age," replied Jessamy, not sure if it was quite proper to break off from the main conversation in this way, but not feeling equal to snubbing Miss Leighton. So they talked of brothers and climbing trees and flying kites until Jessamy began to feel quite at ease in the Trevors' drawing room.
Meanwhile, the Marquis of Alverstoke was enjoying a tete-a-tete with his betrothed in the drawing room at Alver Park. He had not been required to expend a great deal of effort on the arrangement of this. Miss Merrivale had expertly made Felix go to bed, and both Charis and Mrs. Buford had withdrawn to rest of their own accord. The couple were seated side by side on a sofa, and Alverstoke lazily watched his love in the midst of pondering a ticklish question.
"You seem concerned about something, Frederica," he said. "Surely Felix is recovering excellently."
"Oh yes, he is, and I am so happy to have him here in the country," said Frederica, her grey eyes suddenly smiling. "What a good idea it was of yours, to be sure. No, I was thinking about Charis."
"Must we think about Charis?" he complained. "I confess I find nothing so tiresome as you sister's maudlin love affair. Besides, I thought everything had been arranged. What more can there be to think of?"
"Well, it is not about her precisely," said Frederica. "In fact, my thoughts are much more selfish. I was wondering why I had not considered the matter before, for the problem must have been obvious if only I had been paying attention. The thing is, I have been so wrapped up in Felix's health, and then with- with our own affairs, that I have not spared enough thought to consider anything else."
"If this is to say that thinking about me has caused you to, for however brief a period, cease to worry yourself over Charis, I confess myself moved, my darling," said his lordship, much struck. "I do realize that Felix's health will ever be of greater importance than our marriage, but I always knew that it must be so."
"How can you be so absurd?" laughed Frederica, diverted. "Of course our marriage is of great importance to me! It's just that I find it capable to be concerned about a great many things at once. I have noticed that men do not seem to have this ability and are usually only able to set their mind to one matter at a time."
"How very true," remarked Alverstoke. "This explains perfectly why I presently am only thinking about kissing you, and why I won't be able to listen to you talk about Charis until I have done so."
This Frederica allowed, being sensible of man's limitations, but she was not to be easily distracted. After regaining her breath she told his lordship severely that he must now pay attention.
"As a matter of fact, it is to do with wedding preparations," she said. "I had assumed that Charis would be of great help to me in this matter, but it is not to be so. Every time I have engaged her upon the subject, I have found her absent-minded and quite useless. Her mind is far too full of her own approaching nuptials, and I fear that she is pining for your block of a cousin already. Your aunt is so kind to occupy herself with Charis, speaking so cheerfully to her and attending to her every comfort."
"But such occupation prevents my aunt from being of much help to you," supplied the marquis. "I see your difficulty. Shall I see if I can get Eliza to come down?"
"Oh no, Lady Elizabeth has only just returned to her family and I would not impose on her for the world! I have only just conceived of a much better plan." There was such a sparkle in her eye that conveyed a hint of warning to his lordship.
"What devilry are you brewing, Frederica?"
"None at all!" she protested. "I thought how nice it would be to have Chloe to come and be of service to me!"
"Chloe? I hardly see how she should be of use to you, a chit barely out of the schoolroom."
"No, only think what an obliging and sensible girl she is! I'm sure she could be of use to me in a dozen ways!"
"Frederica," said Alverstoke, "you are trying to bamboozle me, and it will not do."
"I don't know what you mean," said Frederica primly.
"You don't want Chloe here to help you, you want her here so you can throw her together with my hapless secretary," he said.
"Well, and if they should be meeting very often, I don't see what harm can come of it! I know you think the match a hopeless one, but I do not. Mrs. Dauntry has come to hold Mr. Trevor in very high regard, and there is Diana to be considered, you know! I am sure we can bring it about!"
"We?" Alverstoke sighed. "Am I to be implicated in all your benevolent schemes for the rest of my life?"
"Why, of course," said Frederica, softening this blow by rubbing her cheek against his shoulder. "Do let me invite her, my love. It is not as though she would be a burden to you."
It was a pitiable thing, the marquis thought, that he had been so thoroughly caught in parson's mousetrap, and equally pitiable that he should be so thoroughly enjoying his state of enslavement.