Sir Desme Orlando Farnham, known by all as Tony, was warming his feet before the fire in his private parlour at the Black Swan. He lay with his shoulders pressed against the back of a sturdy oak chair, his Hessians propped on a low stool, legs crossed at the ankle, hands deeply thrust into his pockets. For many a man this would have been an uncomfortable position. But Sir Tony was lean and limber; it did not disturb him at all. Neither was he overly concerned that this pose might rumple his coat or spoil his neckcloth, though the cut and quality of both might have adorned the Beau himself.
He yawned contentedly. For the past half-hour he had sat thusly and watched the flaming logs, making little bets with himself about which large splinter of the hot, reddened oak would be the first to succumb and fall amongst the coals below. Now that he was thoroughly warmed, he considered searching out a more lively form of entertainment among the crowd in the public rooms. Perhaps there would be a traveler or a local farmer with whom he could converse. It would please him to hear a country dialect once more before returning to London on the morrow. He had been charmed by the Yorkshire accents he had heard on his recent visit to a friend's country estate.
But the warmth of the hearth and the excellence of the innkeeper's rum punch delayed him, and the coals continued to entertain him, until the sound of raised voices in the passageway offered the possibility of greater amusement. After listening to a rather blustering male voice for a few moments, Tony let his feet drop to the floor and, without taking his hands out of his pockets, launched himself out of the chair with a slight push of his shoulders. He strolled casually to the door that led to the passageway and opened it.
In the hallway, confronting the innkeeper was a red-faced, bewhiskered gentleman of middle age. He was appropriately dressed for travel, though lacking in the elegance, which might distinguish a frequent visitor to Town from a country gentleman. There was a lady standing next to him, presumably his wife, who was pretty, though rather tired and faded. She was quietly and ineffectually making suggestions to her husband.
A little ways behind them and off to one side was a young lady--their daughter, Tony guessed. She, unlike her mother, did not seem at all disturbed by the altercation in front of her, but rather was looking about her surroundings in an absent sort of way. She was pretty, too, in a fresh, pleasant fashion, with curling brown hair, brown eyes and features on regular lines.
The girl's mother was still speaking gently, "We can try another inn, dear. There is no need to make a fuss."
But the gentleman would have it not. He ignored his wife's comments and spoke to the innkeeper again, "Come now, my good man. Would you have me believe that there is not one private parlour in this great inn of yours to be had? I tell you, I have traveled enough for one day and I do not wish to go farther. You must have some room."
The harassed innkeeper relented enough to say, "It is as I've told you, sir. I can give your ladies a room together for the night, and I would be willing to turn out my son from his room for you, sir, but you will have to take your dinner in the public rooms. All my private ones are taken."
The problem now clear, Tony judged that it was time to intervene. It appeared that his entertainment for the evening had come to him.
"Pardon me," he said. "Perhaps I can be of assistance." Their eyes turned towards him. They had not noticed the fair young man leaning lightly against the doorway with his hands in the pockets of his pantaloons. He lifted himself with another slight push of his shoulder and came forward to greet them with a bow.
"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sir Tony Farnham. I could not help overhearing your difficulty," he said, smiling, "and I would be honoured if you would share my parlour with me."
The whiskered gentleman looked pleased, but his wife was even more distressed. "Oh, no, sir," she answered quickly. "We could not think of imposing upon your privacy."
But her husband frowned, so Tony responded quickly, "Please. It will be no imposition. I was just thinking how lonely I should be dining with no company."
Before his wife could object again, the gentleman, whose face was taking on a more normal hue, spoke firmly, "Now see there, Clarissa. Let's have no more of that nonsense. Sir," he said to Tony, "we are in your debt. I shall hope to return your hospitality at my club in Town."
"And which club would that be?" asked Tony, ushering them into his snug parlour. He bowed his head politely to the daughter as she followed them through. She seemed no more interested by what was going on now than before and gave him only a perfunctory smile in passing. "Perhaps we are members of the same club?" Tony ended.
The gentleman answered enthusiastically, "Boodles, sir!"
"Ah, yes," Tony said, nodding. "Then you would be Sir John...?"
"Corby, sir!" Sir John answered promptly before giving thought. Then he started with sudden realization. "Did you hear my name mentioned in the passageway?"
"Oh, no," said Tony with a grin. "But you must know it is said that every Sir John in the country belongs to Boodles. I was just playing the odds, but it is rather gratifying to guess right."
Sir John regarded him with less than his previous candour, but there was no malice in Tony's smile, and he relaxed again. "I see. Well then, I take it that you are not a member there".
"No, sir. I am a member of White's. I have lodgings in Arlington Street. Perhaps we shall run into one another in Town."
They were interrupted by the innkeeper who brought them some ale and told them what he could give them for dinner. Tony's speedy resolution of the conflict over rooms had left this hard-pressed man filled with gratitude, for a customer as loud and insistent as Sir John could have disturbed the peace of his house. In a few moments he had left, leaving Tony a mug of ale which was brimming with an especially generous serving.
Sir John resumed where Tony had left off. "We have taken a house in Berkeley Square," he said with a satisfied air. "Perhaps you will call on us there."
"I would be delighted," said Tony. "What part of the country do you come from?"
"From the best county there is!" answered Sir John with conviction.
"And what might that be?" Tony asked politely.
Sir John was astonished, "Why Leicestershire, of course!"
Tony's eyes lit with understanding. "I see. You are a sporting man, Sir John." His guest nodded proudly. "I am surprised to find you on the road at this time of year. I did not think the hunting season was ended up your way."
Sir John's smile faded. He sighed and shook his head. "No, of course not. A couple of fine weeks in March and it's over for you fellows in the plowed countries, but we have another month at least in the grass countries. We are coming to Town because of our daughter, Sophia, here."
He turned to look at her resentfully. "Her mother will have it that it is time she was brought out. But," he added philosophically, "she should be married off in no time, and we shall not have to come again until her sister Emma's turn, and that's not for another five years."
"Sir John," Lady Corby scolded gently. "It ought really to be no more than four. As I told you, Sophia ought to have been brought out last year. She is nearly nineteen," she explained to Tony.
Tony smiled at her reassuringly and then turned to Sophia. She had shown no interest in the conversation up until now and still seemed uninspired. Tony thought she must be shy and spoke to her kindly, "One year's difference will not matter in the least. You will find that many girls do not appear until the age of nineteen for various reasons, and no one is the wiser. I congratulate you, Miss Corby, on the prospect of an exciting season."
The girl looked at him and did not comment. He thought she looked rather wan. Supposing that she did not like to be discussed in this way, he tactfully changed the subject.
"Well, Sir John, let us hope that your stay in London will be a pleasant one. There will be plenty of things in Town to amuse you." He raised his glass cheerfully.
But Sir John looked unhopeful. He sighed again. "I suppose I should be glad that we weren't called upon to come any sooner. I should not have been able to leave before February was out, and I will be worried enough as it is about my youngest hunter, though I gave strict instructions for his care."
"Oh?" inquired Tony with the hint of a smile about his lip.
"Yes," responded Sir John. "You see, it was he that I rode on my last hunt just before we left. It was a rare run--over three hours from start to finish. I feared he would not survive it." Encouraged by Tony's polite expression, he elaborated, enthusiasm mounting in his voice.
"The fox broke cover just in front of me," he began. "T'was I gave the view-halloo," he added modestly, but waited for Tony's congratulations nevertheless before going on. "Oh, there is nothing in that, I suppose, but you have to have experience to know what to anticipate. Anyway, there I was leading the field on my youngest nag, when what does the villain do but lead the hounds across the fence at its highest point. I was not about to lose the lead so quickly, I assure you, even though it meant putting my horse to a six-rail spot in the fence with two ditches behind. I thought I must certainly lose him on the first go, but he was pluck enough to sail over it without disturbing a rail--just a rather rough landing on the other side. But I stayed seated, and he got to his feet--breathing pretty heavily, of course, but sound on his hooves. After that it was clear running for a while, enough time for him to get his stride, though the pace was rough."
Sir John took a sip of his ale as the innkeeper reentered with their dinner. Tony used the interval to seat the ladies at the table and to see that their needs were met.
As soon as they were seated, Sir John continued impatiently, "As I was saying," he said, his fork raised, "my horse had settled in and was going comfortably, still keeping up a spanking pace set by the hounds. (We were not crowding them, mind you--I never try to rush the hounds.) When suddenly, the fox made for a cover the other side of a great ditch. By this time, my hunter was in prime gig and took it sailing with feet to spare."
Tony glanced at the ladies and found that they had silently settled into their meal. Lady Corby was giving her husband her dutiful attention, but there was a fixed look to her features, which suggested that she had heard the tale before. Sophia was once again gazing about the room at the furnishings, apparently lost in her own thoughts. Her expression was one of dream-like detachment, which Tony somehow found disturbing. He wondered what she was thinking and what it would take to waken her from her dreamy state.
But his family's inattention did not stop Sir John. He gave a full description of the hunt, with each jump, his position in the field, the resulting condition of his horse and the riders who did not survive the ordeal. Tony listened with fascination throughout, but began to wonder after two hours, if the telling of the hunt would duplicate the full three hours of it. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Sophia smothered an occasional yawn, while Lady Corby's head was nodding in a highly suspect fashion. Fortunately, however, Sir John wound down.
"And there we were, my youngest hunter and I," he was saying, "having regained the lead after Lord Bixbury's last fall. My horse's sides were heaving so hard that I feared for his survival, I can tell you. When suddenly it all came to an end." He took another swig from his glass. Tony waited expectantly, but Sir John seemed to have come to the end of his tale.
"You caught up with the fox?" asked Tony helpfully.
"No," said Sir John shortly. "The scent was lost. Some scoundrel had let his sheep cross the road at that point, and the hounds were confused. They never did pick up the scent again though we let them search for an hour. And the master of hounds judged it ill-sport to help them along. You've never seen such disappointed animals."
After two hours, Tony, too, was a bit let down. "Oh," he said lamely, "bad luck."
Sir John was staring morosely at the fire, his sympathy for the hounds having overcome him. Tony had to hide an amused grin before turning to the ladies and smiling. This encouragement seemed to work, at least with Lady Corby, who spoke for the first time since the beginning of the meal. "And where do you come from. Sir Anthony?" she asked.
"It is Tony," he corrected her gently. Lady Corby seemed disconcerted by this inconsequence, so he explained. "You see, my name is not Anthony. It is Desme Orlando, after two of my father's friends. My father insisted upon the name even though my mother objected to it strongly. She wanted me to be called Tony, so that is what she called me, and fortunately it stuck--though not with my tutors, naturally." He smiled engagingly, and then seeing comprehension in Lady Corby's eyes, went on to answer her original question.
"I'm from Hampshire."
Sir John roused himself with renewed interest. "Then you must hunt with the Hampshire Hunt," he said. "I've never ridden with them, but Mr. Villebois has bred an exceedingly fine pack. Quite a decorous group, I'm told." He lifted his eyebrows questioningly,