How the Duke of Saymore and his sanctimonious spouse had come to sire a demon was a subject of frequent and regretful discourse between them, but that such a disgrace had been visited on them was known to the whole kingdom. Their only son?such a sweet babe he had been, too?was hero of a thousand scandals before he reached his majority and another couple of thousand since that day. He had broken a score of bones while still in breeches by riding the wildest nags in the county, had driven two tutors to drink with his escapades and one to the local roundhouse for aiding him in kidnapping a local beauty. He had also announced himself publicly as a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his father a Tory!
It was assumed as a matter of course that the child of every unwed mother in Saymore's domain was to be laid at his door; that the staggering sums paid out by his papa went to either the moneylenders or the muslin company; and that he would never get into Oxford, thus breaking a long family tradition. In the earliest family records, the first Duke of Saymore had gone to Oxford in the twelfth century and every Duke of Saymore since had done likewise. It was perhaps this long history that opened the portals of the place to the upcoming Duke, but his stay there was brief. Before the first term was out, he was sent down for striking a master.
His mama prayed for him, and with him when he was home, three times a day. He was made to memorize the first ten chapters of Deuteronomy and was led to church every Sunday, where he placed tacks on the seats and freed mice, frogs or any other animals of a size to slip into his pockets. With all this religion, how did it come he remained possessed of Satan?
His aunt Sara declared it was a judgement on the parents for not entering the strict Methodist religion as she had done herself in a bid to reclaim him; and in desperation the Duchess tried even this extreme measure for six months, but to no avail. Helver remained the wayward youth he had always been and when at sixteen he sold his prize stallion to buy the Widow Malone a garish set of garnets made up in exact duplicate of the Saymore rubies, the ladies reverted to their comfortable Episcopalian faith and gave up hope of his ever amounting to a hill of beans.
And not another son to comfort the parents, or even a daughter. Just this one child of their old age. This was deeply regretted until it occurred to the Duchess that all their offspring might have been tainted, and she became resigned to the great wisdom of the Almighty. She searched the family records for a preview of this streak of evil that must have lain dormant in her blood or the Saymores? all these generations but found nothing. Bishops, magistrates, cabinet ministers, one Prime Minister and one Lord Mayor of London were the ancestors that had led to this unsavoury culmination. There was no explaining it. The devil had got a toehold on the family tree, and the best and likeliest thing to happen was for this last twig to die before producing a legitimate heir.
They were always happy to ship him off to any unsuspecting relative for a few months, and he happy to go; but he invariably came home with some new disgrace dogging his steps?a son led astray, a good match in the family ruptured (best not to inquire too minutely as to the how or why), or, at the very least, the neighbourhood in an uproar. Helver reached twenty-three with very few signs of improvement, and the despondent parents were half relieved when he expressed a desire to go to Europe to view the Congress of Vienna. It would give England a little respite from him.
Perhaps the Saymores exaggerated their son's notoriety. He was not discussed every day in the drawing rooms of London, as they imagined him to be; but in the Duke's village he was certainly the topic of paramount discussion, and Tisbury was the real center of their world. It was a sleepy little place in the south of Wiltshire where things had not changed greatly in a hundred years except for the enclosure of the common lands. The neighbouring roads were lately improved; but a visit to Bath twenty-five miles north was still a major trip not taken by many and London, a hundred miles away to the east, was a fabled spot peopled with characters only half believed in.
The real king and queen were the Duke and Duchess and their son, Helver Trebourne, who was never called Lord Helver or given any sort of a title, was the heir-apparent to the throne. His frolics were more known and talked about in the village than those of the other prince, and also taken more seriously. Prinney might have his closet wife and his public wife, but Mrs. Fitzherbert and Princess Caroline were not personally known to them, whereas Helver's women were their own neighbours, cousins, and daughters. No wonder if they should find the Widow Malone, who jostled elbows with them at the butcher in silk gowns and garnets, a more fascinating creature than a famous lady in London.
Helver was a prime one, called Helver by them all, down to the lowliest dustman, despite his high position. He had roamed free amongst them from his earliest years, cadging sweets and chasing dogs when he was young, and their daughters when he was a little older. As he was not home to ascend the throne when his father died, he went on being ?that Helver Trebourne? in their minds and talk, and was not officially given his title.
No tutor could handle Helver for a whole day. With a mind like quicksilver, he finished the day's prepared lessons in a morning and in desperation they gave him the afternoon off. He read and he thought, and what he thought was that the world was unfair. Why should so few have so much, and so many be so poor? Why should he, who had never done a day's work in his life, live in a palace while Joe Styles, with ten children, worked like a dog and lived in a two-room hovel? Still, he liked his palace very much, and was not such a philosopher that he ever envisaged moving Joe and his brood into the Hall, but he thought about such things. He championed the French Revolution when he was taught it and did not share the national hatred of Frenchies. He thought they had a good deal of gumption to take a stand and rather wished he had been born a French commoner twenty years sooner than he had been born an English nobleman. He began calling himself a Republican when he was seventeen and bought a white hat to proclaim his status, but failed to excite his elders with it as they did not realize its significance. He had been a dandy a month before, and they thought it only the newest fad from London.
All things considered, the Saymores thought they could part with their son for a few months if he wanted to go to Vienna. He was bound to embroil himself in the lowest forms of debauchery while there, but at least he wouldn't be doing it in England. In November of 1814 he left the Hall. That he never returned would be better luck than his mama could hope for, though after a time she did fall to wondering what had happened to him. She assumed this rest from her son's presence would have a beneficial influence on her husband's failing health, but it proved to be not the case. Helver was not gone a month before the Duke was struck down with an ague and taken to his Maker, there presumably to render an account of himself and this monster he had produced.
While Helver Trebourne frolicked amidst the gay international set gathered to make merry in Vienna, breaking ladies? hearts and men's heads, his father was laid to rest in the family plot. Helver had not been there long before he heard of plans by various groups to go to Elba and meet the lately deposed Emperor. Without a moment's hesitation he turned his back on the Congress and headed south, to be one of the first to be presented to Napoleon. He liked him amazingly and went on to Corsica to see his place of birth. With only the Mediterranean Sea between Corsica and Spain, it seemed foolish not to go on and have a look while he was so close. Portugal, situated between Spain and the Atlantic, was taken in along the way, and with a run of luck at the gaming tables he was enabled to spend some considerable months in these latter two countries.
His mama wished she knew where he was. It did not occur to her son to let her know, nor to her to institute inquiries once she learned he had left Vienna. So while Helver Trebourne, now Duke of Saymore, though he did not know it, frittered away his time chatting to Napoleon and jauntering to this and that foreign city trying out their wine, homes and women, Tisbury and the Duchess shook their heads and declared it was just like him. When he finally strayed back to the Hall nearly eighteen months later, it was to be met with the intelligence that he was now fatherless, a duke, the head of the House of Saymore, lord of three vast estates and their combined incomes, and what was he going to do about the roof, eh?
It was to this last irrelevancy that he asked, with his head reeling, "What??
"The roof, Helver. It has been leaking for months," his mother nagged in an accusing tone. "The upstairs chambers all awash and the maids all sleeping in the good guest rooms. Oh dear!" The chagrined expression that flew to her face was due to this troublesome propinquity of a dozen lively wenches to her lusty son. Not that a flight of stairs would stop him!
"When?" he asked, trying to assimilate the dreadful news.
"Two months ago, at least," she said, frowning with the effort of memory. Helver was only twenty-four, but his mother had been middle-aged when she bore him; and with the burden of such a son, she had become an old woman. Her hair was snow white and a secret source of pride to her. Her eyes were a faded blue, and her face well lined.
"Why are you not in mourning?" he asked, glancing at her grey gown.
"What, for a roof? Don't be foolish. I am just out of mourning for your father."
"You said two months ago," the confused man answered.
"The roof took to leaking on us two months ago. Something must be done about it. It has seeped through the ceiling of the green suite, and your Aunt Sara has had to be moved into the blue suite. She hates blue. It makes her bilious."
The heartless youth paid no heed to this calamity but persisted instead to ask his mama about his father's passing. She could hardly recall the details, except that he had a very nice funeral, with two cabinet ministers down from London for the occasion. Time was nothing to her, and it seemed eons since she had had her husband nagging at her across the breakfast table. It was his unpleasant custom to chew out his wife and son at every meal. He had been a hard man to live with, but like most husbands, he had improved considerably with death. It was her custom to speak of him in hushed tones in the village and to remember only his two good points: he had taken marvelous care of his properties, and he had not been a tight-fisted man. But to her son no such feigned reverence was necessary and she spoke quite brusquely.
"Nothing can be done about that. He is dead and buried these eighteen months. What you must do is speak to your man of business about getting some money. He will give me nothing but a pittance, and roofers must be paid. You really must get some money from Buskin and fix the roof, Helver. Well, I daresay you would like a glass of negus," she said, to make him welcome home from his travels.
Helver went in a trance to her private parlour and sat benumbed at the news of his father's death. A deep frown settled on his handsome brow and his hands dangled between his knees.
"A year and a half?a whole eighteen months! Mama, why didn't you let me know?" he asked.
"Why didn't you come home and you would have known," was her unanswerable reply. "Where were you anyway? Here, try the negus," she said, to let him know she cared for him still, even if he was a reprobate and hadn't bothered to come sooner.
He pushed the glass aside, and his mama rather thought she remembered then that Helver didn't care for negus. "It's very good. Cook put nutmeg in it," she told him.
"Thank you, Mama, but I have never cared for lemon juice in my wine, nor nutmeg either. What caused his death??
"God caused it, of course! The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
After a good deal of discussion, Helver discovered that the Lord had given an ague and taken away his father; and he discovered very little else, except that the roof leaked.
Fatigued from his trip and saddened at the news of his father's death, Helver went to his room to think. So far as he could see, it had not been touched since his leaving, except for a casual dusting. His riding crop still lay on the edge of his dresser, a handful of coins at its side, a pair of topboots kicked under a chair. On his bedside table there was a little note from his neighbour, Edith Durden, wishing him a bon voyage. "I hope you have a wonderful trip, Helver, and don't get in too many scrapes. I will miss you." If she had missed him, she was one of very few who had. He lay down on the bed and crossed his arms over his eyes.
He remembered the scores of times he had caused his father pain, and the equal number of times he had been forgiven with hardly a cross word spoken. His father chewed and jawed about little nothings?a new jacket or waistcoat?but never lit into him over his real transgressions. Yet despite that unending kindness he had never felt close to his father nor, truth to tell, liked him very much. He was the last person applied to in difficulty, and never for advice before committing an indiscretion. He liked his mother better for all her silliness and preoccupation with religion. They had neither of them seemed much like parents.
He had really been raised by Travers, his mama's companion who was turned into a nursemaid and then a nanny for those few years when one was required, and a friend for the rest of his life. It was Travers who bound his wounds, who sat with him after having a bone set or during the heat of a fever, who mended his clothes before Mama discovered they were rent and pretended she forgot to tell him to take the pears to the Vicar to save him a scolding. She had written to him at Oxford warning him his father was planning to shoot his favourite mount, only because it had nipped a groom. Poor old Travers, he must go and see her before he went to bed.
A wave of pity for himself, his father, his mother?he hardly knew who?washed over him, and he crawled off the bed to go to Travers to be comforted. He was considered a man's man, but he always felt better, more civilized, when there was a woman around and especially when he was blue. Her room was next to his mother's and he found her there, as he always had, mending, as she always was.
"Still at it, Travers," he said, smiling. "The whole world would fall apart at the seams if you ever stopped mending."
"Helver! Helver, you've come home at last!" She ran to him with tears of gladness in her eyes and threw her arms around him.
He lifted her off her feet and swung her around, as she used to do to him twenty years ago. "The prodigal returns," he said, touched at her joyful reception. Here in Travers's little room was home. Here with this lace-capped lady of the bluebell eyes and hawk nose he was himself?Helver Trebourne and not ?that Helver? as he was to the rest of the family.
"Have you missed me, Travers?" he asked, setting her on her feet.
"Does the sky miss the sun?" she asked, urged to an unusual fit of poetry at seeing his dear face.
"The sky might, but I don't think the mother did," he answered.
"Ah, she did, Helver. We all did." She pulled him in, gave him the best chair by the window, petted and cosseted him and told him all the things he couldn't find out from his mother. All the sad details of his father's passing and the duties awaiting him.
"I've been such a disappointment to them," he said. "Such an awful son. What's the matter with me? I mean to do better, Travers, truly I do."
"Of course you will," she answered confidently. Looking at his guilt-ridden face, she believed it. But then she had always believed there was good stuff in Helver, if only he hadn't been born to two fools old enough to be his grandparents. A mother who preached religion and worshipped comfort, and a father who despised his son for being the devil-may-care rascal he had made him. Why must they keep the boy home instead of sending him to school like a normal person? No one to chum around with, and when he got older, nothing to do. Not trustworthy enough to handle any of the estates?oh, no. Not an iota of responsibility must be given to him, in case he wouldn't have time to run himself into one scrape after another. Be sure to let him know, after he fooled them and was accepted into Oxford in spite of their efforts to keep him ignorant, that he was expected to fail, or worse. Never give the boy a word of encouragement, but only shake their heads and say by their looks, what next? How will you top this scandal? Oh, no, he hadn't failed them; he had done exactly as they expected, and turned out a ne?er-do-well.
But there was time yet to reclaim him. Only twenty-four. The old Duke hadn't expected to go for another ten years, when the boy would be well and truly ruined. She supposed she was being too hard on them. Hel (so well named) had been a rowdy little boy, and they too old to know what to do with him. They mistook every childish prank, shooting a pigeon or chasing a pig, as signs of criminality and gave him the notion he was a scoundrel. And when he started to grow into a young man, what must they do but fill his pockets with gold, saying wisely between themselves that if they didn't keep his purse well filled, he'd take to robbery! Helver, who rode all the way back to the village when the woman at the sweet shop had given him a shilling too much change!
They chatted for a long time, and when finally he arose to go, she said, "You'll do just fine as the Duke, Helver. I'm always here if you need me."
"Why couldn't you be forty years younger, Travers, so I could marry you? I don't want ever to lose you."
"Oh, you can do better than an old lady like me. What we must do now is find you a nice wife. Your flirts won't like it, but they can't be depended on. They've all been getting married off while you were away, you know."
"All?? he asked with a teasing smile. "I'll have to turn off half my tenant farmers and bring in some new blood if that's the way they've been cutting up behind my back."
A pretty little maid hustled past, casting a welcoming smile on the new master, and the look was returned with interest. Travers drew in a breath and surmised that Helver's resolutions to do better had not quite firmed up yet. "She's engaged to one of the grooms," she mentioned casually.
"I'm just looking, Travers. Jealous?" he asked, and strolled back to his room.