The Dowager Duchess of Crewe stood in the doorway of her drawing room and contemplated the man who had requested an interview with her. She had recognized his family name immediately: it was one of the most ancient in England. But she did not recall ever having met this particular Champernoun before.
He was standing with his back to her, apparently absorbed in a portrait that was hanging on the far wall. He looked to be extraordinarily tall. "Mr. Champernoun?" she inquired, a trifle imperiously.
The man turned and she knew at once she had never seen him before. One would not forget that face. He was dressed correctly, in buff pantaloons and blue superfine coat, but somehow he did not look quite civilized. His straight, ebony-colored hair was a trifle too long. He smiled, showing very white teeth, and crossed the room, greeting her in a voice that was deep, educated, and indefinably loaded with authority.
The beautiful old woman nodded graciously in response. "I do not believe we have met," she said pleasantly, "but of course I know your name. Are you related to the Earl of Denham?"
"He is my cousin."
"I see." She smiled at him. "What may I do for you, Mr. Champernoun?"
"I have brought you something, Your Grace. From Egypt." He was speaking slowly, almost carefully.
"Ah," said the duchess, comprehension dawning. "Egypt." She thought he might almost have passed for an Egyptian himself, with that black hair and those straight black brows. But his height gave him away. And his eyes. Meeting them full, the duchess felt a little shock of surprise. One did not expect to find such a brilliant blue green looking out of that deeply sunburned face. She couldn't quite read their expression; it might almost have been pity. "Have you brought me news of my son?" she asked sharply.
"I have brought you your granddaughter," he answered.
"Julianne?" the old woman said on a note of fear. "What is Julianne doing in England?"
"I brought her with me on my ship. I am in England on a mission for the pasha."
"Is my son dead?" The duchess's voice sounded harsh in her own ears.
"Yes, Your Grace," came the grave reply. "I am sorry to have to tell you that he is." She felt a strong hand under her arm and in a minute she was sitting on the sofa. "Let me procure you a glass of wine," he was saying. She shook her head but he did not seem to notice. The butler came into the room and in a short time a glass of Madeira was in her hand. "Drink it," said a calm voice and she did.
She put the glass down. "I am all right now." She spoke with dignity. "It was the shock." She turned and looked at the man who was sitting now in a chair close by. After a moment she asked collectedly, "What happened to Richard, Mr. Champernoun? Was it the natives or the fever?"
There was an almost imperceptible pause before he replied. "The fever,Your Grace. He was in a very primitive part of Abyssinia when he became ill, I believe he did not suffer long."
"Your granddaughter will be able to tell you more details. She was with him at the time."
The dowager duchess rose to her feet. "You were looking at his picture when I came in, Mr. Champernoun." She walked across the room to stand before it herself.
He followed her. "I wondered if it were Lord Richard. I did not know him myself."
The two of them stood for a moment in silence, regarding the portrait before them. It was of a young man dressed in a black coat and holding a book in his hands. However, it was not the pose but the face that riveted the eye. John Champernoun thought that he had never seen modern features that so closely resembled the ideal of classic Greek beauty. "Is it like him?" he asked.
"It doesn't do him justice," his mother replied. "Next to Richard, Apollo would have looked second-rate. And what good did his looks ever do him? He went into the Church, a perfectly appropriate profession for a second son, but was he satisfied with the excellent living he had here at Crewe? No. Richard could never be satisfied with a normal life. He had to have a cause."
Champernoun looked from the duchess's face back to the pictured face of her son. Lord Richard was indeed beautiful, but Champernoun was not surprised at the character his mother gave him. That stem young face did not look gentle or yielding. There was something implacable in the line of the straight classic nose, in the Athenian purity of mouth and chin and brow. He himself knew something of Lord Richard from his daughter and he was curious to see if Richard's mother's assessment would be similar. "However did the son of a duke come to be a missionary in Africa?" he asked.
The duchess's mouth tightened. "He began as an active member of the antislavery movement; that was where he met Mr. Wilberforce and his friends. Richard was one of the founding members of the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East. The idea was to concentrate anti-slavery efforts on Africa, where the traffic was most extensive. But they could get no one to go out to East Africa. Richard wanted to go. We fought with him for years and finally, in 1809, we could hold him no longer. He went and with him he took Judith, his wife, and Julianne, who was fourteen at the time."
"East Africa is hard on women and children," Champernoun said noncommittally.
"I begged him to leave Julianne with me, but he would not listen. The comforts and amenities of life had no meaning for Richard. His soul was always straining after higher things. He could not rest, and he did not approve of others' resting either. Certainly not his wife or daughter. Judith died after only a year."
There was silence in the room for a full minute, then the duchess turned to John Champernoun. "I was very angry with Richard, but I learned to forgive him. He could not help what he was. He was, I suppose, a great man. But he was not a comfortable man. He was not a good son or husband or father. Poor Julianne. What a life she must have led!"
There was suddenly an expression on the lean, dark face before her that caught the duchess's attention. "I believe Miss Wells is something of a strong character herself," he said.
"She always adored her father," sighed the duchess. Then, giving herself a visible mental shake, she turned to the present. "How did you come to be my granddaughter's escort, Mr. Champernoun? You said you did not know my son."
"No, Your Grace, I did not. Lord Richard, as you know, was charged with creating a series of twelve mission stations along the banks of the Nile from Alexandria to Abyssinia. He was not far from Harar when he became ill and died. He left your granddaughter completely unprotected. She managed to get to Harar, and fortunately I happened to be in the city--in disguise, of course. As I said, it was fortunate I was there. A blond unveiled girl walking on the streets of a Moslem city does not go unnoticed. Harar, besides being a sacred city, is also a center of the slave trade. Fair-haired women are deeply prized in Africa."
"Oh my God." The duchess looked horrified.
"She is all right, but she had a very unpleasant experience, Your Grace. I brought her back to Cairo with me, and then when Mohammed Ali--the Egyptian Pasha--asked me to undertake a mission to London as his representative, it seemed the perfect opportunity to bring Miss Wells home."
"Do you mean Julianne has been in your company, unchaperoned, for all this time?" The duchess looked even more horrified than she had at the suggestion of the slave market.
Champernoun regarded her with amusement. "She has been perfectly safe, Your Grace. I managed to control my animal instincts."
"So you say," the old lady returned tartly. "It is what everyone else will say that concerns me."
"There is no reason for anyone at all to know that Julianne has been in my company. As I told you, I was in disguise when I was in Harar. No Christian may enter a Moslem holy city, you understand. And no one in Cairo knew of her presence. The crew of my ship will not talk." He smiled at the duchess with calculated charm. "I suggest you say that your granddaughter was escorted to France by a Frenchwoman to whose care she was commended by Lord Richard. There are plenty of French in Egypt now. And, if you can procure some respectable woman for me quickly, I will escort both Miss Wells and chaperone here tomorrow. We will announce we have come from France."
The duchess looked at him doubtfully and his eyes suddenly narrowed. "If you want me to marry your granddaughter, I will," he drawled, a note of contempt in his deep voice. "But like Lord Richard, I am not the material out of which good husbands are made. I like my freedom too much. Miss Wells can do much better."
"I am sure she can," said the duchess, stung by the note in his voice. "Very well, Mr. Champernoun, I will go along with your arrangements. I am quite sure Julianne's former nurse will be willing to act as chaperone. She lives in a cottage on the grounds of Crewe. Where is Julianne staying?"
"At the King's Inn, Harwich."
"Mrs. Brightling will be there by evening."
There was a gleam of what could have been mockery in those sea-blue eyes, but his voice was perfectly courteous as he answered, "Yes, Your Grace," and took his departure.