In the autumn of 1814 Lady Maria Cheney attended the wedding of her nephew, Commander the Hon. Mark Anthony Peter George Cheney. It was an affair of much pomp and circumstance, as befitted the alliance of two of the oldest and most influential families in the county. The history of the Cheneys stretched far back into the days of the early Plantagenets, and the present Earl of Dartmouth, Mark's father, had been for forty years the most important man in Devon. The bride was Caroline Gregory, and the Gregory family, while not so illustrious or wealthy as the Cheneys, was quite as old.
The marriage was celebrated in St. Peter's Church, the parish church for Dartmouth Castle. Surrounding the assembled congregation of Cheneys were the memorials of their past: the Dartmouth arms were on the pillars, Dartmouth names adorned the windows, past earls were buried behind the altar, and the churchyard outside was filled with the graves of dead Cheneys.
The present heir to the earldom moved now from the sacristy to the front of the church to await his bride. Mark wore his naval uniform, and Lady Maria wiped away a surreptitious tear at the sight of his composed young face. She did not entirely approve of a boy of twenty assuming the responsibilities of marriage, but she was aware of the pressing need for him to do so. As the music began and the wedding procession started to move down the aisle, she glanced at her brother next to her in the front bench.
The Earl of Dartmouth looked older than his sixty years. The death of his other son, Mark's older brother, Robert, had aged him badly. As she listened to the magnificent strains of the organ, Lady Maria reflected on that tragic event of just under a year ago. It had been such a freakish accident! Robert was a very good boxer. The blow to the head he had sustained had not seemed so serious at first. Concussion, the doctor had said. And then, two days later, he was dead.
She looked at Mark's clear-cut profile, and, sensing her regard, he glanced at her for a minute and winked. Then Caroline was at the front of the church and he moved to join her. The two young people ascended the altar steps, knelt, and the service began.
Robert's death had changed Mark's life more than anyone else's, thought Lady Maria, as she automatically followed the prayers. As a second son, he had chosen the traditional Cheney profession of the navy. Not for Mark the landowner's education of Eton and Oxford. He had gone to sea as a child and his schoolroom had been the cramped and turbulent cockpits and gunrooms of frigates. He had been a midshipman at eleven, a lieutenant at seventeen, and at nineteen he had been posted to the rank of commander.
Lady Maria was much afraid that Mark's naval days were ended. Which was a pity, because he had loved it so. Lady Maria treasured and still reread the letters he had written to her over the years. She was the closest female relative he had; his mother had died when he was seven.
Mark's job in future, she reflected, was to run the affairs of his family, his property, his county, and his country. His immediate job was to produce a son. Her brother had been quite clear on that score. The fragility of human life had been brought home to him most forcefully with the untimely death of the twenty-five-year-old Robert. Ever since Mark had arrived home six months ago, he had heard little else from his father but this one refrain: marry and get sons. The Dartmouth line, unbroken in six hundred years, must not be allowed to die.
Mark, however, had not needed much urging to marry Caroline Gregory. One look at her delicate beauty, her big blue eyes and shining golden curls, and he had been smitten. She looked entrancingly lovely today in her white dress and pearl-encrusted veil. You would have to travel very far, Lady Maria thought, as the music started up again and the wedding party prepared to depart, to find a handsomer couple or one more probably destined for happiness. Everything about them matched: birth, fortune, beauty. And they were in love. Lady Maria sighed, wiped her eyes once again, and allowed her brother to take her by the arm.
The wedding breakfast was held at Cadbury House, the Gregory home on the outskirts of Dartmouth. It belonged now to Sir Giles Gregory, Caroline's older brother. He was twenty-six, the same age Robert would have been. The two of them had been at school together, Lady Maria remembered.
Lady Gregory, Caroline's mother, lived with her son, and she was the hostess for the reception. The church had been very crowded and a large number of the congregation arrived back at Cadbury House for some post-ceremony refreshment. As one would expect in Devon, there were a great number of naval men in attendance.
Lady Gregory, a dimmer, older version of Caroline, was a happy, not to say triumphant, mother of the bride. As well she might be, Lady Maria thought, her eyes on her nephew. That tall, slim young man with his splendid shoulders, his lithe carriage, his long-lashed golden-brown eyes--what mother would not rejoice to have him for her daughter? Not to mention the fact that he would be the Earl of Dartmouth one day.
Sir Giles was a courteous and conscientious host. He came in for a good deal of teasing from his own relations, and from the Cheneys, most of which followed the lines of "your turn next." He took it in good-enough humor. Lady Maria thought there was occasionally a frosty look in his blue eyes, but to his credit, his smile never faltered. He had the reputation of being a very kind brother and a devoted son.
All in all, the day was a decided success. A highly desirable union had been forged, and all present had had a reasonably pleasant time.
Lady Maria accompanied her brother and assorted relatives back to Castle Dartmouth for the night. The family had given up living in the huge fortress of Dartmouth Castle almost a hundred years ago. The tenth earl, Mark's grandfather, had commissioned Nicholas Hawksmoor to build him a country house which would afford more comfort and convenience than the imposing fortification that had first been built in Norman times to guard the River Dart. The result had been Castle Dartmouth, so named to underline the fact that while it was a new location and house, the family had not changed. The house was generally held to be Hawksmoor's masterpiece.
The Earl of Dartmouth, his cousin Admiral Sir William Cheney, and his sister Lady Maria were the last to go to bed that evening. They sat together in the large, comfortable library, and the talk turned to Mark. The Admiral, evidently, had a point he was determined to make.
"I don't want to see that boy resign from the navy," said Sir William.
"Nonsense," replied the Earl gruffly. "He will have more than enough to occupy him here at home. I'm getting old: Can't do what I once did."
"You don't need to," put in Lady Maria. "You have a very well-trained and responsible estate agent. The estate practically runs itself anyway, and what else is necessary, Mr. Farnsworth is perfectly able to see to."
Her brother glared at her, and Sir William took advantage of his opening. "Maria is right. There is no reason why Mark can't keep his naval commission."
"Why should he?" grunted the Earl, staring at his cousin from under his formidable white eyebrows.
"Because Mark has shown exceptional talent as a scientific investigator. He is widely recognized by the Naval Lords as being the best hydrographer we've seen in years."
"Really?" said Lady Maria.
"Yes. The charts he's made of the River Plate in Argentina and of parts of the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean are the most accurate we have ever had. In fact, for the last few years he's been supplied with three chronometers--an extraordinary compliment, I assure you, that is usually accorded to only discoverers and navigators."
"He almost drowned in the River Plate," Lady Maria put in conversationally. "He was fourteen and had been sent out with the expedition to Buenos Aires. His ship was wrecked and quite a few men drowned--all for the want of an accurate chart. I think that's where his obsession for surveying began. But I did not realize his work was so well-thought-of."
"It is," said the Admiral.
"Well, this is all very interesting." The Earl rose to his feet. "Mark's duty just at present, however, is not to produce a chart, but a son. Good night, Maria. William." And he stumped out of the room.