June was such a lovely month in the countryside of Kent that not even a visit from Lady Monteith could quite destroy the afternoon. Samantha Bright espied the crested carriage crawling up the hill at a pace that told her the check string had already been pulled, and pointed it out to her mother. She took a last approving look at her garden. The sudden hot spell had brought forth a blaze of color. Irises, peonies, and lilies swayed gently before the sentinel row of delphiniums. To her left, the rose bushes stood off to one side--aloof, commanding respectful admiration. Rather like Lady Monteith, Samantha thought.
The horses drew to a stop in front of the Willows, a pretty half-timbered mansion on the crest of the hill. Below, the town of Lambrook spread like a living picture. Houses, horses, carriages, and pedestrians seemed shrunk to an insignificant size, but despite the seeming insignificance, Lambrook was Samantha's world. It was to St. Michael's old Norman church that she went every Sunday to attend the service executed by Reverend Russel. It was along the busy High Street that she visited the shops, met her friends, bought her necessities and a few modest luxuries. The northern limit of her geographical interest was Lambrook Hall, three miles farther along the road, where Lady Monteith lived alone in splendor for most of the year. Lady Monteith's peace was interrupted often by neighbors, occasionally by large house parties, and rarely by one or all of her three sons.
As it was June the fifth, the day after the official closing of the London season, Samantha wondered if Lord Monteith might be with his mama. With this in mind, she tilted her leghorn straw bonnet daringly over her eye, drew off the gardening gloves that were soiled from picking weeds, and wiped the perspiration from her brow. Lord Monteith was not the sort of gentleman to find charm in the homely pursuit of gardening. Indeed, he found only minimal charm in anything rural, as he was a creature of London himself.
"She's getting out," Mrs. Bright said, as the liveried footman hopped down and held the door of the carriage. "Tell Foley to serve tea in the drawing room, Samantha."
Samantha noticed that Lady Monteith came alone, and went with no excitement to order tea. Where would Lord Monteith be the day after the London season finished? Gone on to Brighton, perhaps. Monty often did that. She went to her room to freshen up before taking tea.
As she looked at herself in the mirror, she was just as happy Monty hadn't come to call. Her strawberry-blond hair was all askew, and her face was flushed with the heat. She brushed out her curls and studied the face gazing back at her. At six-and-twenty, she still wore every evidence of youth and some of beauty. Her dark blue eyes were wide set and generously fringed with sooty lashes, lending distinction to a face that was otherwise only pretty. Her short, straight nose was lightly dusted with freckles. With a tsk of annoyance for those freckles, she straightened her gown and ran downstairs.
"Ah, Samantha! Come and join us. Lady Monteith was just telling me an intriguing piece of news," Mrs. Bright said. She cocked her head to one side, like a bird, and smiled brightly.
Lady Monteith, with no real social equals in the neighborhood, had chosen Nora Bright as a friend. The widow of a colonel must always be acceptable, and on top of that, Mrs. Bright's own family was unexceptionable. A little better, in fact, than that of Lady Monteith, nee Irene Grimm, daughter of a captain. All this ancient family history had long since been buried under the weight of nobility Irene now carried, of course, but still it was there. The usual condescension of Lady Monteith's manner was noticeably diminished when she called at the Willows.
Samantha had a premonition the intriguing news had to do with Monty, and felt her interest quicken. Engaged! Monty was going to be married! She had always known this news would come one day, and told herself the fluttering in her breast was only natural excitement. Her curtsy was graceful, and her smile undimmed as she made her greeting to her godmother.
"How interesting." She smiled. "What is the news, Lady Monteith?"
Lady Monteith gazed a moment on Nora Bright's daughter. During a life in which little had been denied her, she had failed to gain a daughter. Three rowdy sons, and much good they did her, forever racketing around the countryside, getting into mischief. She carried the hope that Samantha might one day be a daughter-in-law, but it was a hope locked in her own breast. The dowry was insignificant. Her two younger boys must marry money, and as to Monty--well, of course Lord Monteith must look higher than a colonel's daughter. If he had no more wits than his papa in that respect, his mother more than made up for it.
"The news? I have just been telling your mother that Lord Howard--my late husband's younger brother--is home from India."
"Is he at Lambrook now?" Samantha asked eagerly.
"No, I had word from Monty that he is in London and will be landing in on me today."
"Is there any special reason for his returning?" Mrs. Bright asked. "I hope he is not ill--one hears such stories of the havoc caused by India's climate."
"It would take more than a monsoon to bother Howard," Lady Monteith said rather irritably. "He has business to settle up with the East India Company today--something to do with his pension, I expect. I hope it is enough to let him set up a place of his own. I don't want him battening himself on me at the Hall."
Mrs. Bright raised an eye bright with mischief and said, "Why, Irene, you used not to be so uncharitable toward Howard. I seem to recall ..."
"That was long ago, Nora. Once I met Ernest, I realized Howard was a rakehell."
This was French for saying Howard was a younger son. Howard had been her initial quarry, certainly, till she had managed to snare his elder brother and his title.
"Lord Howard was the black sheep of the family, you must know," Lady Monteith added primly. "Oh, he was a handsome fellow, with the sort of raffish appeal of that breed. At least, it appealed to me briefly when I was too young to know better."
Nora Bright gave a knowing look and murmured, "Of course. Now you are much older, and wiser."
To prevent the visit from deteriorating into a squabble, Samantha asked, "What did he do in India?"
"He held some junior position with the East India Company, I believe. He seldom wrote home. The only communication we had was parcels of Indian things he used to send from time to time."
"I shouldn't think he'd want to settle in the country," Mrs. Bright said pensively. "Howard was too lively for that."
"Does he have a family with him?" Samantha asked. What she really wanted to follow up was that note from Monteith, but she was patient. It would come in its time. The tea arrived and they settled in to gossip.
"I never heard of his marrying. No, I believe he will be alone. I shall have his Indian junk hauled out of the attics and make him take it with him. Such ugly old debris as he sends across the ocean to litter the Hall. With all the jewels and fine muslin and tea to be had in India, I don't see why he must send us elephants' feet and dangerous-looking weapons. And a stuffed cat! That was really doing it much too brown. I gave it to the last church sale."
Lady Monteith's fine hazel eyes snapped with anger as she remembered that cat. It had nearly frightened her out of her wits when the carton was unwrapped and there was what looked exactly like a frozen cat staring at her with green glass eyes from a glass case.
"Mrs. Armstrong bought it," Samantha mentioned. It had struck her as odd at the time that anyone would pay five shillings for a hideous stuffed tabby.
"Lord Howard should have some lively stories," Mrs. Bright mentioned.
"They won't be fit for polite company, but I hope you will come to hear them anyway. Monty says I must do something to welcome Howard. I am having a small dinner party this evening. The sooner the proprieties are taken care of, the sooner I may hint him away."
"This evening, you say?" Mrs. Bright asked. "Oh, dear, I have asked the Russels to dinner."
"That is all taken care of. I stopped for a word with the vicar in the village. He and his wife will be joining us. That should dampen Howard's enthusiasm if he plans to attach himself to the Hall like a barnacle. I told Mrs. Russel I would tell you."
Mrs. Bright felt a vestigial trace of rancor at this highhanded way of arranging her life, but on the whole she was curious enough to see Lord Howard again that she didn't object. Much good it would do. Irene ruled the town with an iron fist.
"Who else will be attending?" she asked.
"Clifford, of course."
Lady Monteith had been a widow for ten of her fifty-three years. For five of those years, she had given some encouragement to Mr. Clifford Sutton that he might eventually win her hand. As Monty edged past thirty, it was always on her mind that he would marry, and Mr. Button's mansion in Lambrook was infinitely preferable to the Dower House. Mr. Sutton was in commerce, but in such a large way that no stain of the merchant colored him. He dealt with bank directors and government boards and members of Parliament, not the general public. Indeed, it was not unknown for him to entertain three cabinet ministers at the same time when he had some new scheme afoot.
"And the Sutton ladies?" Samantha inquired. Clifford had two sisters, no longer Suttons really, but still referred to in the plural by their maiden names for easier conversing.
"Yes, and that about completes the party. Till I see just how bad Howard is, I don't mean to parade him publicly. Oh, and Monty will be with us, I fancy. He had a postscript on the bottom of his note which might have said that. He writes such an abominable hand there is no knowing, but he seems interested in Howard."
Samantha's smile didn't widen by so much as an inch, but her heart beat a little faster and her mind flew to her best gown. She'd sew the new blue ribbon on it for tonight.
With the big news delivered, conversation wandered to the roses, the summer assembly to be held later in June, and the new silks at the drapery shop. After two cups of tea and a slice of Cook's Chinese cake, Lady Monteith rose and left.
"What do you know of this Lord Howard, Mama?" Samantha asked idly, as she filled her cup.
"He was packed off to India before I married. Irene had been walking out with him--quite a catch he was for her, too. Once she caught Lord Monteith's eye, however, she made short shrift of Howard. I don't believe he was ever serious about her. He was running around with some widow lady as well. When Irene nabbed Ernest, the widow connection heated up. India seemed preferable to such an ineligible connection, and his papa sent him away. Howard's major vice was always women. He never could keep his hands off them. But all that would be behind him now-- he's much older than I. He must be going on sixty. The Indian climate is very hard on Englishmen. I daresay he's an old relict, come home to die, but he'll not be allowed to do it at Lambrook Hall, poor soul."
"The Dower House is vacant. She might let him stay there."
"Much depends on what sort of a gentleman he's become. If he's presentable, Irene might let him have the Dower House. Clifford Sutton will urge her to do it, I daresay. He is such a kind man. I often wonder what he sees in Irene."
"Perhaps he sees what Irene saw in Ernest--a title."
"Oh, Clifford is not a climber! He could have a title himself if he wanted one. He allows her to claim him because he is too good-natured to resist."
"A pity you had not imposed on his good nature first," Samantha said, and received a quelling stare. "It should be an interesting evening, in any case. I'm going to sew the new blue ribbons on my gown."
"I should get busy topping and tailing the gooseberries for Cook, but it makes a shambles of my manicure. I wonder if Monteith will stay in the neighborhood for the assembly," Mrs. Bright mentioned idly. She was unaware of any special interest on her daughter's part. Samantha seldom mentioned him.
"I shouldn't think so. It's not for a few weeks. Of course the season is over...."
The season was only a rumor to Samantha. She heard of it, but it might as well take place in India for all it mattered to her. The end of the season usually meant a brief visit home from Monty, of course, and that was of some interest. If he didn't bring guests, he often came to call on her and Mama. He jokingly referred to Sam as his "country flirt." Anyone who had grown up in his shadow realized this was a very poor compliment indeed. Still, even a second-rate compliment from Lord Monteith was secretly cherished.
Mrs. Bright put down her cup and glanced at the casement clock. "Too late to go back to the weeds, and too early to dress for dinner. I believe I'll risk my manicure. We'll be leaving around seven, Samantha."
"I'll be ready." And waiting, she added silently. Really, she had been waiting since Christmas for Monteith's brief visit home. He'd smile and flirt a little, and fly off to London or Brighton or Scotland. Like the rest of her set, she would smile blandly and say, "It was nice to see Monty again." It must be nice to be Monty, she thought.
Her life was not arduous, but a single lady with no husband or children was bound to feel dull at times. There seemed no point to her existence. Her few childhood friends had married and moved away, leaving her to find a life amongst her mother's set. She was beginning to settle in too comfortably with the older married folks and widows. Life shouldn't be "comfortable"; it should be exciting, but outside of Monteith's pending visit, the only excitement was the arrival of a dissolute old man home from India. She sighed and went upstairs to sew the bows on her gown.