It was not with the intention of disobliging his family that Lord Robert Weatherly, in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and twenty-five, fell in love with a dairymaid, although a moment's reasoning must have been sufficient to inform him that his Molly, whatever her charms, could hardly be thought a suitable match for a son--even a younger son--of the fourth duke of Montford. But in the end it was love, not reason, that carried the day, and so Lord Robert carried his blushing bride to the altar. His father, the duke, celebrated the nuptials with a visit to the office of his solicitor, where he derived a certain satisfaction in drawing up a new will in which his second son was cut off without a shilling.
The scandal of Lord Robert's mesalliance was eventually forgotten, as such scandals invariably are once more recent on dits drive them from public memory, but the duke never relented. An excruciatingly correct letter from Lord Robert to his father two years later notified the latter of the birth of his grandson, but this was never acknowledged, and communication between the two houses ceased. Eventually the elder branch of the family was able to forget the shame visited upon it by the simple expedient of ignoring the younger's existence. Lord Robert's descendants, for their part, had little time to waste in dwelling on such matters, occupied as they were with earning their bread.
And so the noble connection grew more tenuous with each generation that passed, to such an extent that fully a century later, when the ninth duke of Montford passed on to his eternal reward, the College of Arms was obliged to embark upon a four-month search to locate the tenth duke. But locate him they did at last, in the form of one Mr. James Weatherly, great-great-grandson of that long-ago fourth duke, and at present serving as curate of Fairford parish.
Informed of this discovery, Mr. Henry Mayhew, solicitor to the late duke, was dispatched at once from London to Fairford. Upon being set down at the local posting-house (for Fairford only offered one, being little more than a village), he obtained a room for the night and lingered there only long enough to remove the dust of travel from his person before setting out for Mr. Weatherly's residence. This humble dwelling proved to be a hired room over a chandler's shop.
"Is Mr. Weatherly in, please?" he inquired of the proprietress, a buxom woman with a maternal air.
"Aye, he is, but he's giving a lesson," was her unpromising response.
"May I at least arrange a time when I might see him?" Mr. Mayhew persisted. "I've come from London on a matter of some importance."
The proprietress crossed her arms over her substantial bosom and regarded her visitor with mingled suspicion and respect. "London, eh? Very well, follow me."
She led him through the back door of the shop and up a narrow staircase, which clung to the outside wall. As he neared the landing, Mr. Mayhew could hear the high-pitched voice of a young boy reciting declensions in labored Latin.
"Mensa, mensa, mensas--"
"Mensas?" a second voice gently questioned.
"Mensam," the young scholar hastily corrected himself. "Mensae, mensae--"
Without waiting for the end of the exercise, Mr. Mayhew's hostess rapped on the door.
"Come in," the more mature voice called from within.
"You've a visitor from London, Mr. Weatherly," that gentleman's landlady announced as she opened the door.
Both of the room's inhabitants looked up at the unexpected visitor. The pupil, a stout lad of seven, went so far as to bounce up from his chair at this welcome respite from his studies. It was not the boy, however, but his tutor who drew Mr. Mayhew's attention. A scholarly young man of twenty-seven, he was possessed of a countenance as gentle as his manner, with a rather long, thin face, fine blue eyes that might occasionally be seen to twinkle behind wire-rimmed spectacles, and golden locks that were prone to droop, as now, over his aristocratic brow. Indeed, he might have been accounted handsome, were it not for a rather prominent nose, which tended toward the concave. As he stood at his visitor's entrance, it became evident that he was exceptionally tall, and thin to the point of lankiness--a circumstance which accounted for the fact that the sleeves of his threadbare black coat did not quite reach his wrists.
Mr. Mayhew, noting this dreary garment, at first thought that Mr. Weatherly must already have received word of his noble cousin's demise. But a moment's reflection reminded him that sober attire was indicative, not of mourning, but of Mr. Weatherly's profession.
"Mr. James Weatherly?"
The younger man sketched a slight bow. "Yes. How may I serve you?"
Mr. Mayhew glanced uncertainly at the boy, and Mr. Weatherly, taking the hint, turned to address himself to his pupil. "You may go now, Thomas. Remember to study your declensions before next week's lesson."
The boy left the room readily enough, but Mr. Mayhew was obliged to give the proprietress, hovering expectantly just inside the doorway, a rather pointed look. She gave a little huff of indignation, then turned and clattered back down the stairs.
Alone with his visitor, Mr. Weatherly spoke to the solicitor. "Is something amiss, Mr.--?"
"Mayhew. And no, nothing is amiss."
The mild blue eyes twinkled. "You will never convince me that you made the journey from London merely for the pleasure of making my acquaintance!"
This drew a smile from the solicitor. "No, it is considerably more than that." He reached into his breast pocket and drew out a sheaf of papers. "It is my duty and privilege to inform you that you are now the duke of Montford."