"Whitton? Who the devil is Miss Whitton?" cried Lord Iverbrook in exasperation. He ran one hand through already dishevelled brown hair.
The lawyer looked at him in mild surprise, peering through gold-rimmed pince-nez that seemed as dusty as everything else in the gloomy office.
"Your late brother's sister-in-law, my lord," he explained.
"Gil's sister-in-law? Of course. I'd forgot he married a Whitton."
"Indeed, my lord. If I may continue, it is to Miss Whitton that the guardianship of your nephew has been entrusted."
"Not merely my nephew, dammit, Hubble. The child's my heir and ought to be under my protection. That's why I came to see you as soon as I reached England. Not to be raked down for freeing my slaves. Of all the cork-brained, ramshackle notions, to make my heir the ward of a female! Who put that into Gil's head, I'd like to know?"
"He is your heir presumptive only," reminded Mr. Hubble, "and your lordship was absent at the time. Mr. Carrick had the will drawn up several months after your departure for the West Indies. There was no knowing when you intended to return, quite apart from the risks inherent in a lengthy ocean voyage and a protracted sojourn in foreign climes."
"Gil might have guessed I should return as soon as the news of his death reached me. I suppose the will can be contested?"
Behind the opaque lenses, the lawyer's eyes gleamed. How many of his brethren had made their fortunes from contested wills! With luck and good management the case might be drawn out for years, decades even, and Hugh Carrick, Viscount Iverbrook, was a plump pigeon for the plucking.
"Certainly, my lord," he said quickly. "I shall enter a suit in Chancery at once."
"Not so fast, man! I'll call on this Whitton woman and I daresay she will see reason. After all, it cannot be pleasant for a hubble-bubble female to be saddled with such a burden."
"I understand the lady to be of a serious turn of mind, my lord."
"Bluestocking, is she?"
"No, my lord..."
"No matter. All women are the same. They're all out to get what they want, one way or another, and I've never met one yet who wanted responsibility!"
Mr. Hubble held his peace. It was not his place to point out that his lordship's career up until this, his twenty-ninth, year had been singularly lacking in evidence of any desire on his own part to accept responsibility. "Miss Whitton resides near Abingdon, in Berkshire, my lord," he said, his bland voice offering no hint of his thoughts. "My clerk will give you her precise direction."
Lord Iverbrook stood up, his tall, loose-limbed form filling the cluttered room. His movement disturbed motes of dust dancing golden in an errant sunbeam which, having mistakenly entered at the grimy window, was unable to find a way out. His lordship had no such difficulty. Retrieving his hat from a pile of mildewed documents, he flung a casual "You'll hear from me," at his lawyer and was gone before that worthy could rise to bow humbly and declare his everlasting servitude.
In the copying room, into which no sunbeam ever strayed, three depressed-looking clerks perched on high stools at a long desk. They all glanced up from their work as the viscount emerged from the inner office. He addressed the youngest, a pallid youth whose rusty black coat failed to conceal his patched shirt.
"Miss Whitton's direction, if you please."
"At once, my lord."
The clerk slipped down from his stool and trotted into a dark corner to consult a huge, leather-bound tome. Lord Iverbrook noticed that his boots, though well polished, were cracking at the ankles; he dropped a half-crown back into his pocket and fished for a sovereign.
"Milford Manor, my lord," announced the young man. "Kings Milford, near Abingdon, Berkshire." He flushed with pleasure as he caught the gold coin. "Thank you, my lord. Is there anything else I can do for your lordship?"
The viscount smiled and shook his head. The elderly clerk nearest the door hurried to open it for him, and crossing the dingy lobby, Iverbrook stepped into the street with a feeling of relief, to stand blinking in the brilliant July sunshine.
"Lawyers!" he muttered. "Damn the whole tribe!"
A high-perch phaeton rattling over the cobbles drew his attention. Its occupant was peering at him, hand raised to shade against the glare. It pulled up with a jerk beside him.
"Hugh! It is you then. Thought I couldn't mistake that gangling figure. My dear fellow, when did you return?"
Lord Iverbrook looked up into the plump, welcoming face of Mr. Lennox Hastings.
"Hullo, Hasty. That's a neatish bay you have there. What are you doing in town at this time of year?"
"Pockets to let," admitted Mr. Hastings sheepishly. "Can't afford Brighton. This nag's the only thing I've won these six weeks and more. The devil's in the bones."
"Been playing hazard, have you? You ought to stick to faro and piquet. You always were unlucky at dice."
"Promised old Crowe I'd stay away from the tables till my next quarter's allowance is due. He's a Friday-faced old proser but he's kept me from drowning in the River Tick so far. I say, my dear fellow, can I give you a lift? Going to see Schultz to order a new coat. Always cheers me up after seeing my man of business." He cast a critical glance over his lordship's apparel as his friend climbed into the carriage. "Looks as if you could do with one yourself, Hugh. Daresay there ain't such a thing as a first-rate snyder in Jamaica, eh?"
Mr. Hastings was, as always, immaculately dressed after the discreet style of Beau Brummell, from the snowy Mathematical perfection of his cravat to the high gloss of his top boots. Hugh regarded him with the tolerant amusement of one to whom clothes are a means of keeping warm and appearing decent in public.
"You're the very man I need," he decided as the phaeton moved on. "Dimbury still with you?"
"Yes, and you can't have him."
"I don't want him. Wouldn't suit me at all. The thing is, I brought a fellow back from Jamaica with me. You don't have anything against blacks, do you?"
"Against mourning? Lord no, not in its proper place!"
"No, not mourning. Blacks, negroes, Africans, whatever you like to call 'em."
"My dear fellow, you mean you've brought one of your slaves home with you?"
"Joshua's no slave, and I don't own any. Freed the lot a month after I reached Kingston. Hasty, you wouldn't believe ..."
"Daresay I wouldn't, and I don't care to hear it," interrupted Mr. Hastings firmly. "I'll have Dimbury help this man of yours tog himself out decently, if that's what you want, but I can see you've got a bee in your bonnet about slavery, Hugh, and you're not dragging me out to Clapham with you!"