Dunham 33: Chapter Thirty-Three

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April 26, 1780
Rathbone House
Mayfair, London

Celia allowed George to awaken her after noon and give her a small saucer of hot chocolate and one slice of dry toast.

“That’s all she’ll allow, Cap’n,” George whispered. “A footman is stationed at the larder and the housekeeper informed me I was not allowed to fetch you food. No one accused me of stealing for you, but the cook noticed.”

“I hate her,” Celia grumbled.

She allowed George to dress her in yet another atrocious gown while she informed Mary of Rafael’s news. “I hate Bancroft,” she grumbled.

She allowed George to guide her to the dining table for nuncheon. I hate this, Celia thought.

She allowed herself to be fed exactly one bowl of beef broth, a small cucumber sandwich, and a biscuit. Also dry. I hate her.

Even after her large meal last night, Celia was ravenous, and this was all she was allowed. What she would not give for a roast capon or two.

Or three.

“Celia,” her aunt said as she swept into the dining room. “Where is your mother?”

As usual, she schooled her features to betray nothing but vague interest. “She is coming, Aunt.”

“Good. We have a dilemma or two.”

“Here I am, Harrie. Good afternoon, Celia.”

“Good afternoon, Mother.” Celia looked up to see her mother progress slowly through the door toward the table. With the help of a footman, she was soon seated beside Celia and patting her hand, even as another footman served her a plate piled high with delicious items. Celia looked longingly at it, not bothering to hide that, as it was normal for The Simpleton to want more food.

“You look fetching today, my love,” Mary said, her voice trembling a bit.

“You as well, Mother.”

“I quite agree,” Aunt Harriet said tightly in the manner of someone who is not paying attention.

But in fact, they were both hideous: Between Mary’s illness and Celia’s madness, neither of them were in the least presentable. Celia may not have inherited a jot of Mary’s beauty nor a tittle of her skill with money, but her acting ability was all her mother’s doing.

“Where is his lordship?” Mary murmured.

“At the Admiralty, reporting to Hylton and getting word on when he can expect another command.”

Celia took a careful glance at her aunt. Something in her voice made Celia want to ask whether she preferred Rathbone to stay or go.

“And that,” she said, murdering a piece of toast with her butter knife while she spoke, “is what I need to discuss with you, Marianne.”

“What has happened?”

“Several things. Firstly, the court has granted Hylton custody of Celia.” Mary pulled in a breath. Celia whimpered as if she did not already know. Aunt Harriet slid her a side glance. “I am so sorry, Celia. I know you cannot want this.”

“No, Aunt.”

“On what grounds?”

“That you are . . . infirm . . . and that, in the face of Hylton’s paternity, I have no right to provide for her care once you—ah . . . ”

“I apprehend,” Mary said tremulously, then dabbed at her eye with a kerchief.

Harriet cleared her throat. “Secondly, he has settled a dowry upon Celia for her to wed straightaway. He is practically taking applications.”

“That makes no sense, Harrie,” Mary murmured. “Who would wed her and why would any court in the land allow such a contract to stand?”

“The contract is not between Celia and the gentleman. ’Tis between Hylton and the gentleman. He can do with her as he sees fit, and apparently, he sees fit to marry her off. Since she was not born mad and her parents are of sound mind, she is not undesirable for the purposes of bearing an heir. However,” she went on, now set upon murdering another piece of toast, “my solicitors appealed the decision straight away, so until that is heard, Celia will not be required to move house nor will there be any contracts signed.”

Celia’s mother breathed a sigh of some relief, but Harriet snapped her knife in the air and said, “Do not send gratitude up to heaven just yet. My husband,” she snarled, “has been apprised of the situation and has cut my funds so that I cannot pay my solicitors. Not only that, but he is enraged with me for denying a man his daughter who has been missing for so long. He will not hear of Hylton’s disregard all these years. He is entirely unreasonable on the subject.”

Celia should have realized Rathbone would cut off his wife’s access to those funds, but how could Celia pay for the solicitors herself without exposing her charade? She began to sway in her seat and chant, “Nonny Nonny Nonny Nonny Nonny—”

“What is she doing?” the marchioness snapped.

“The anger in the room is distressing her, Harrie,” Mary said calmly, petting the back of Celia’s fist clenched around her spoon while she continued to chant softly. “I suspect Nonny was someone who might have cared for her during her captivity, but who but God can know? Yes, Celia, dear, I will take you to see Nonny later today.”

Her ladyship took a deep breath and murmured, “I apologize, Celia.”

Celia gulped and stopped chanting. “Thank you, Aunt,” she whispered.

“I can’t imagine there is anyone interested in Celia’s hand,” Mary said calmly.

Au contraire. There are dozens, but—and I will give Hylton his due—he has cast off all but one as fortune-hunting wastrels. He has narrowed the field down to Dr. Covarrubias, but I have heard whispers he hopes to persuade Lord Tavendish to the match.”

Silence but for the murder of a third piece of toast and Aunt Harriet’s angry mutterings while doing it. Celia exchanged a cautious glance with her mother. Lord Tavendish was married with three grown sons. ’Twas Tavendish’s second son to whom George had been sold.

“Lord Tavendish,” Mary began thoughtfully. “I am not familiar with that family.”

And off Harriet went, into a more detailed account of Croftwood’s tale: Machinations. Assassinations. Machinations. High treason. Machinations. Politics. Machinations.

What shocked Celia was the marchioness’s description of “that butcher” Lord Kitteridge, a bitter and hate-filled description that bespoke a personal offense. Celia wondered what, to what extent, and to whom, but she dare not ask.

But on and on and on Harriet raged, with no further useful information forthcoming.

“Lord Tavendish, though—” Mary asked, interrupting her sister. “He has three grown sons? He must be ancient. What does he want with a bride?”

“If you had let me finish, Marianne,” Harriet said pointedly, “I would have reached the point of the story where the thirteenth earl and his heir died in a coaching accident on the road from London to Northumberland. The countess’s back was broken and she lost the use of her legs, poor dear. Elliott Raxham is the new Earl Tavendish.”

That was a shocking twist.

God help a house with a prison-mad earl at the head of it.

No wonder he had had to scrape the dregs of American merchant gentry to find a fiancée in the first blush of her childbearing years, only to have her stolen from him, which meant he was reduced to entertaining the possibility of wedding a simpleton.

Lud, had any one man ever had a worse run of luck?

Her aunt continued: “Since I have no more say in the matter,” she muttered, directing her anger to the already dead food upon her plate, “I can only pray Tavendish will be desp—will agree. Lord Covarrubias is far too extraordinary to be—”

—wasted on an imbecile.

The marchioness attempted to look at Celia, but could not quite meet her eyes. Then again, she never could. “I know you have developed a tendre for the count, Celia, but in Tavendish you may find a kindred spirit.”

Wed mad to mad.

Neither of them born that way, thus their offspring would not carry such a taint.

She took a deep breath. “In any case, I have approached our next problem.”

“When it rains, it pours,” Mary intoned.

“Indeed. The earl—this one, Elliott—” Every time Celia heard the man’s Christian name, it grew more appealing. “—did have a betrothal contract in place, but I have received word that the girl’s parents lied about her age. So Tavendish was already without a bride without his knowledge, but to add insult, on their voyage, that girl was also taken by pirates.”

Oh, if it weren’t so dire, Celia would have shattered with laughter. It was a comedy of errors and she was at the center of it.

“Their child taken?” Mary asked wonderingly. “How absolutely horrible. No mother should have to bear such a thing.”

Aunt Harriet’s throat bobbed with her gulp and she blinked rapidly. “We both know about that, do we not?” she croaked.

“I cannot imagine what such brigands will do with her.”

She took a deep breath. “Yes, well, as to that, ’twould indeed be hard to imagine because she was taken by the American woman, one of their privateers, the one who blew up Rathbone’s ship.” Her nostrils flared. “If that woman were here right now, I would demand to know why she did not make sure he went down with that bloody boat—and then I would slap her for her negligence.”

Celia coughed.

“It is to be hoped,” she went on, “that a ship captained by a woman would not be as tragic a place for a girl as one full of men. But who’s to say.”

“That is a problem,” Mary said thinly.

Both Celia and her mother jumped when the marchioness brought her fist down on the table and roared, “No! That is not the problem!”

It did occur to Celia that if, perhaps, she exposed her deception to her aunt, it would benefit all three of them and George. She was about to pursue that thought when Aunt Harriet revealed what the problem actually was:

“The parents who fostered that fraudulent document and signed away their girl only to lose her in transit to that woman—the one who did not have the foresight to make sure my husband was dead—have been offered hospitality here. Thanks to Rathbone. He wants them here so he can find out more about that woman who was not considerate enough to make me a widow. I know not how long he intends to keep them or how he plans to dispose of them once they are of no more use to him.”

“Oh, no,” Celia whispered.

“Indeed,” Aunt Harriet agreed and then bent to her plate of food, which was now thoroughly mashed together in an unrecognizable mess. “The Mockslings will be staying with us for the foreseeable future. Tavendish, God bless him, wants nothing to do with them. It appears that Rathbone has some notion they will be welcome in Society and that I will be sponsoring them—ha!”

None of them spoke while Harriet and Mary finished their nuncheon. Celia had finished her measly portion long ago, but now she was a bit nauseated. She was still hungry, but feared that anything she put down her gullet would come right back up again.

She needed a bottle of that fine rum from Sint Eustatius’s master distiller.

Nay, two.

“Which brings me to the last problem.”

Celia, already on tenterhooks, barely bit back a moan.

“Celia. It is true the courts have ordered you not be removed from this house to Hylton’s for the nonce; however, he has requested and been granted permission for you to attend him next week at his home. Alone.”

Her hand curled around her knife and clenched.

Bancroft had unwittingly strapped her to her own mast and she had unwittingly given him the perfect length of rope with which to do it.

Hang Washington’s orders. Hang her letter of marque. Hang the Americans’ bid for independence.

Nathan Bancroft was a dead man.

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