Mr. Peregrine Tyndall was often described by his friends and acquaintances as the laziest man in London, and with some justice. In traveling to Lakeford Hall, the country seat of his cousin James, earl of Shipton, he took such easy stages as would have drawn the scorn of his more dashing friends, with his last stop being at an inn barely five miles from his destination. There he spent a comfortable night, rose from his bed at an advanced hour of the morning, breakfasted at his leisure, and then was handed into his curricle, leaving the reins in the hands of his groom and leaving his valet to pack and follow in the traveling coach carrying the luggage.
What took Mr. Tyndall to Lakeford Hall was not its fine coveys or trout streams, for Mr. Tyndall was not a sporting man. Nor was Mr. Tyndall a social man, so the balls, dinner parties, and other assemblies hosted at Lakeford did not draw him there. Neither was he a great reader, so the extensive library built up by successive earls of Shipton only vaguely attracted him. Mr. Tyndall travelled to Lakeford to enjoy the company of his cousin, who was also his closest friend, and he always journeyed there in a spirit of self-congratulation at the sacrifice of time and effort he was making to keep the earl from boredom.
He also went because, for that period of time, he was expected to do nothing except occasionally be polite. Such ease appealed to his naturally indolent nature.
He was now arriving in response to a specific invitation from the earl, begging for his company. It was August, a month he normally spent in a cooler seaside resort, and the sun was hotter than he liked, so he pulled his hat down to shade his face. However, his groom turned the carriage off the main road, and they were soon tooling along a pleasant country lane, shaded by overhanging tree limbs. Comfortable in his well-sprung curricle, Mr. Tyndall leaned back, relaxed, stuffed his hands in his pockets and stretched out his legs, sagging in the seat, almost asleep.
Unlike many men of his age, which was seven and twenty, he did not travel behind a pair of prime cattle (much less a team), but behind a pair of horses which combined velvety-smooth gaits with the virtue of placidity. They were perfectly matched bays and well set-up, but far from being high-spirited bits of blood needing to be handled with the greatest finesse, these fine animals had no inclination to bolt for any reason at all. Nor was it unusual for Mr. Tyndall not to hold the reins in his own hands; his groom Josiah drove them competently. Mr. Tyndall was certainly able to handle the reins in acceptable fashion, having been taught as part of his upbringing as a gentleman, but his custom in life was never to do anything which resembled work, or in fact required effort of any kind, if someone else could and would do it for him.
Since he was on his way to Lord Shipton's home, and very close to his destination, he was not unduly surprised when, as the curricle turned a corner in the twisting lane, he was hailed in a cheerful way by Shipton himself. What did surprise him, and cause him to come out of his half-doze and sit upright, was that his cousin's voice was weak, and that he was calling from beside the lane, where his tall, lean form was stretched out on a door which had been made into a makeshift stretcher. The earl was solicitously surrounded by six men of the burly and rustic type, and his head was wrapped in an awkward bandage.
"Hallo, Perry! Look, it is my cousin Perry!" Shipton helpfully informed the others. "Good old Perry, I knew he would be along about this time. You see, Nichols, I told you he would never leave the Unicorn before noon!"
Josiah was already drawing Mr. Tyndall's horses to a stop, anticipating his master's command. Perry, with an alacrity unusual for him, leaped down from the curricle as soon as it ceased moving. "Good God, Ship. What have you done to yourself?"
"Just knocked myself silly, dash it all. Got a bump on the head. Look." Lord Shipton flipped up the bandage that circled his brows, revealing a long, bloody gash on his forehead surrounded by blue and purple swelling.
Perry drew back in revulsion. "I would much rather not look, thank you very much!"
"It is not so bad. I am sick as a horse at the moment, but I will be right again in no time, you shall see."
"You have sent for the doctor, I assume?" The weakness in his friend's voice, and the extreme pallor of his face, worried Perry more than did the actual wound, which was messy but not deep.
"Nichols sent one of the handlers with a message, so Tewkes will probably be at the Hall by the time we arrive. But this being carried about is pretty painful, let me tell you. I feel as if these stout fellows are trying to rip my head right off."
"Not to mention that, there being six of them, you look as if you are being borne to your graveside."
"That was one aspect I hoped no one would remark upon. I should have known you would, you merciless cad. Anyway, I am far from deceased, and while this mode of travel is better than walking--since, curse it, every time I stand, I get dizzy and sick--I have put up with it and been grateful." This was said with one of his charming smiles directed at his bearers.
The earl was a handsome young man a year older than Perry, and a man who, with all the advantages of birth and wealth, and with all the cosseting which such advantages add to a life, had somehow never lost the sweet good nature of his childhood. He had been the earl for some years now, but had never developed the arrogance that often came to those elevated to high rank while still young. He was affable and civil to everyone and an excellent landlord. Perry was sure that, when he had fallen, there had been no dearth of volunteers to help him, even amongst these more humble men than himself.
"Still," the earl went on with a grimace, "the swaying does make my head hurt, so I begged them to stop here for a short time in the hopes that you would come by in your curricle. And here you are."
"Yes, here I am, and I suppose you wish to be taken the rest of the way in my place."
Josiah said politely, "You can drive him yourself, sir, and I can make my own way to the Hall."
Perry had naturally considered that option already. But Josiah was, of the two of them, the better driver. Besides wishing to get Ship to the doctor as quickly as possible, Perry did not relish spending several miles with Ship beside him, either being sick or, if not sick, then teasing him about his lack of driving skills. Perry also foresaw that, once they arrived at the Hall, there would be a great fuss and botheration, and he would be expected to do any number of things that he did not want to do. So he said, "No, Josiah, you shall take his lordship to the Hall and then come back for me. Or...Ship, I do not suppose your horse is anywhere about to carry me to the Hall, is it?"
Shipton's normally cheerful expression clouded over with concern. A true sporting man, he cared more for his horse's health than for his own. "No. I took a bit of a facer, and Paris' forelegs are injured. It is nothing that rest and poultices will not cure, thank God. He is being taken back to his stable slowly and carefully, and Reade will see that he is well doctored. There might be some slight scarring, but Paris will not care for that. Game as a pebble, that horse! Got up after the fall, legs bleeding, but ready to go on, and he looked back at me as if I were being derelict in my duty because I was lying there on the ground."
"I think the horse is as foolish as you are. Both of you, neck or nothing."
"Oh, say what you will, old Stiff Shanks, but do lend me your carriage. I will send it back for you directly, if one of the other guests does not come along and give you a ride before then."
"Other guests?" repeated Perry in blank dismay. "What other guests?"
"Can we discuss that later, please? I know you feel no sympathy for my predicament, but truly I am in a great deal of pain."
Perry scowled at this cowardly diversion, but then grinned. "Oh, very well, you cawker. Josiah, go to their heads and...oh, you are already there. Good man."
With Josiah holding the placid pair and six sturdy men to help (the number did not include Mr. Tyndall, who simply watched the proceedings), Lord Shipton was lifted into the curricle and made comfortable. Josiah mounted onto the seat and sent the horses off at the slow, even trot which would cause the least amount of jolting to the earl. Shipton gave Perry a cheery wave of thanks over his shoulder, and in seconds the carriage was out of sight around the next bend.
The helpers dispersed with touches of their caps at Perry. Nichols, who had known Perry from a boy, offered to wait with him, an offer which Perry declined with thanks. Nichols then headed for the Hall by the shortest route, across the fields, muttering that it was a hem set-out and very lucky the master hadn't broken his neck.
Perry stared after him, and as these casual words sunk into his consciousness, his initial amusement descended abruptly into a horrible thought... If Ship had broken his neck, I would be the earl now!
This horror did not spring from surprise over the circumstance. He had naturally been aware of this fact all of his life, if only in a vague sort of way. Shipton, the 5th earl, had no brothers, so in lieu of direct heirs of his body, the title would pass to the 4th earl's younger brother, Perry's deceased father, and through him to Perry himself. But Perry had never once given thought to the possibility of actually inheriting. Why should he have done so? Ship was young and healthy, was he not?
He scowled at the ground. True, Ship had never been prone to illness. But Perry had never once taken into account the possibility of a fatal accident, and therefore had rarely considered the potential consequences of his cousin's reckless nature. The earl was not the sort who was ripe for any spree--no, he was far too responsible for that--but he was utterly fearless and quite willing to take risks on the hunt field or anywhere else he might (honourably) find himself. Memories came to Perry: of watching Shipton climb onto the Hall's gabled roof when they were boys; of running for his life from a bull Shipton had deliberately provoked; of clinging to the seat of a racing phaeton that Shipton was steering around a slower carriage on a narrow road; and of many other equally alarming events to which he'd never before given more thought than, at the time they occurred, to shudder and attempt to make Shipton swear never to repeat them. Shipton's reputation as a bruising rider who always led the way was well established, but never, until now, had Perry thought of this as something which might directly concern himself.
However, seeing Shipton pale and bloodied, and probably only inches from having suffered the dire fate that Nichols had muttered about, Perry was suddenly awake to the fact that his cousin was not immortal. He could die. In fact, if he kept on with this way of life, he might kill himself at any time.
The thought of losing his cousin was a grievous one. But it was not the apprehension of grief which engendered that extreme feeling of horror in Perry. What had brought on that scalp-prickling, shuddering sensation was the thought which had next struck him--if Shipton did happen to die now, then he, Peregrine Tyndall, was the next in succession to the title and responsibilities of the earldom.
Head of the family. Overlord to tenants in four different counties. Organizer of hunts, balls, and family gatherings. Quarter days, rent collections, Christmas benefices. Letters of business and long consultations with stewards. Acting as a magistrate. A seat in Parliament. Being forced to abandon his own snug little home in town for that great barn of a house on Grosvenor Square.
Good God, no. I cannot do it. The uprooting of his comfortably indolent life, where everyone who knew him expected almost nothing from him, and a subsequent plunge into a world where decisions would be demanded every day from aunts, uncles, cousins, housekeepers, butlers, baileys, stewards, tenants, and who knew what other sort of person...he could see all this in a flash, and it loomed on his horizon, only one accident away from being reality. Today, only a few inches away, if Nichols were to be believed!
Once his initial panic subsided, along with the tendency of his hair to stand on end, he knew he had to make a decision. Making decisions wasn't difficult for him. Carrying them through generally was, but in this case, he felt he must bestir himself. No effort would be too much to expend. His decision was that he had to prevent his shatter-brained care-for-nothing cousin from killing himself.
He didn't even consider sitting down with the earl and having a tete-a-tete during which he could convince him of the desirability of his staying alive. Shipton would just laugh at him. Perry would have to be more circumspect. He would somehow have to manipulate the earl into maturity and wisdom...and safety. So he asked himself the questions, What would give sobriety and discretion to a man generally lacking in them? Or, barring that, what would prevent me from having to succeed to the title if he does break his fool neck? (It was something to his credit that the latter question came to him long after the former.)
The answer to both questions, when it presented itself to him after much pondering and many fits and starts, was so simple that he was surprised at himself for having taken a good five minutes to hit on it. A wife! Shipton needed a wife! And, of course, besides the lady, he needed the heir which was the common consequence of having a wife.
Ship desires a wife, after all. Does he not? Perry told himself. After all, it had been only last year that he had proposed to that Rowland chit. Too bad that had not worked out! But there were plenty of other girls in the land, any one of which would jump at the chance to wed the earl of Shipton. He had every quality for a prime catch, being handsome, amiable, wealthy, and titled. Girls were throwing themselves at him constantly, and those who didn't throw themselves willingly were pushed toward him by their matchmaking mamas. All Perry had to do was to find another girl like Georgiana Rowland, a girl that Shipton might like enough to prompt him to pop the question. Or, if that turned out to be too difficult, he would have to discover another and more devious means of getting the earl leg-shackled. Then, if he were lucky, once that desirable event took place, this yet-unknown young woman would produce a son within a year of the marriage and cut him from the succession.
Therefore, if all went well, by this time next year, or perhaps the year after, he would be able to banish the horrid spectre of the earldom from his mind and be contented once again.
He set himself to running through his mind all the young ladies of his acquaintance, trying to hit on one who would suit his cousin enough to lure him into instant matrimony. The list was not a long one, for he was too lazy to dance unless forced to, notoriously careless of his appearance, and of a disposition which did not suffer fools gladly, and therefore he received few social invitations, despite his noble connections.
He was shuffling this list of prospective countesses in his mind when the sounds of hoof-beats, wheels rattling, and wood creaking announced that a carriage was approaching. In a moment it had come around the bend in the lane, a hired post-chaise with two postilions. The modest equipage had evidently been chosen for comfort rather than style, with an old-fashioned round body and broadly set wheels. Furthermore, it was drawn by a plodding team, mismatched and of a more deliberate pace than even Mr. Tyndall's own pair.
This equipage made its way toward him at a sedate pace, so Mr. Tyndall had plenty of time to step out where he could be seen more easily. At a command from the chaise's occupant, the postilions brought their horses to a stand. The window was let down, and a familiar, feminine face appeared. "Hallo, Perry. What are you doing standing about on the road?" the young woman asked.
It was his cousin, Miss Portia Freestone. Her face filled Perry with mingled dread and joy. The dread came from the awareness that, if Portia were on her way to Lakeford Hall, then so was her stepmother, Perry's formidable Aunt Caroline. The joy was that, as if by divine providence, the answer to the perfect female for marrying the earl was now smiling at him.