Children of One Family
by Pam

Part Six

 

They were in the library. Margaret could hear the voices drifting towards
her as she walked down the hall from the nursery--Medora's clear and
definite, Archie's lighter and mildly questioning. Words became discernible
as she neared the half-open door.

". . . and these fans--like the celadon bowl--came from China. The brown is
sandalwood, the white, as you've probably guessed, is ivory."

"Exquisite." Archie's tone was frankly admiring. "So there was a Tresilian
who traveled to the Orient?"

"In a manner of speaking. Great-Uncle Anthony was sent off to work for the
East India Company. He was a younger son, and quite wild--the family black
sheep. His parents were afraid he'd squander his substance or end up in
prison. Or an early grave."

"So instead he was packed off to make his fortune on the other side of the
world," Archie finished. "Did it work?"

"Amazingly enough, yes. He proved a successful merchant and led, by all
accounts, a most exemplary life thereafter." Medora paused, then added
mischievously, "Well, except for keeping two Chinese concubines, of course!"

Margaret rapped on the door loudly enough to be heard over her brother's
laughter. At the sound, Archie and Medora turned away from their joint
contemplation of the curio cabinet, their faces lighting in welcome.

"Oh, you're back!" Medora came forward with a smile. "We were beginning to
wonder. No trouble at the mine?"

"No, dear--everything is proceeding according to plan. But Edward was there
again today; he's invited us to dinner tomorrow, at Tresilian Manor."
Margaret's gaze traveled from Archie's bewildered face to Medora's carefully
blank one. "Oh, pray do not all cheer at once."

Archie colored at her dry tone. "Forgive me--very gracious of him, I'm sure."

Margaret relented and offered him a wry smile. "I suspect curiosity has far
more to do with it than graciousness. Edward is quite eager to make your
acquaintance."

"Or Fanny is," said Medora, not quite under her breath.

Margaret raised an ironic eyebrow and did not even try to resist temptation.
"Fanny eager to meet a Kennedy? Most unprecedented."

Archie's expression of bewilderment grew. "I don't--quite understand . . . "

"Not surprising," Margaret agreed. "Oh, dear--I suppose I'd *better* warn
you about Fanny. Only . . . " She glanced at Medora, now listening intently
to this exchange.

"Pas devant les enfants?" Her sister-in-law placed the correct interpretation
on the glance, gazed up at her with beseeching grey eyes. "Please,
Margaret--I shan't be an 'enfant' for much longer. And you *know* I can be
trusted not to repeat anything you tell me in confidence!"

"Of course I know that, my dear. Only--I am a little surprised that you do
not already know some of the story, from Henry or Hugh."

Medora shook her head. "I was ten when you came to live here. At that age
they send you out of the room whenever *anything* the least bit interesting
is about to be discussed. All I knew was that . . . there didn't seem to be
much love lost between you and Fanny."

"There's not much love lost between Fanny and the Kennedy clan as a whole,
especially our branch." Margaret turned back to a wide-eyed Archie. "You
see, before her marriage to Edward, the Honorable Frances Sedgwick had hopes
of a certain peer of the realm. The Earl of Langford."

Archie blinked. "L-Langford? But he married--"

"Our sister, Alice," Margaret supplied. "You may not know this, but Alice and
Fanny came out the same year and were rival belles. *Bitter* rivals, or so I
understand, which is often the case with two ladies closely matched in looks,
birth, and fortune."

"And at the end of the season, Alice received an offer from the Earl," Archie
remembered.

"For which Fanny has never forgiven her--or any other member of our family.
I'm afraid she was not at all pleased when Hugh brought me to Keverne as his
bride."

"She was the only one, then," Medora said loyally.

"Most kind." Margaret inclined her head towards her sister-in-law. "And
since then--well, at the *best* of times, Fanny and I maintain . . . a
guarded truce."

Archie sighed. "Why do I suspect that dinner tomorrow will be an enterprise
fraught with peril?"

"Perhaps not," Margaret replied. "I've no doubt things will be much calmer if
*I* do not attend--which may be the case. Robin seems to be starting a
cough, and Nurse tells me he is off his food as well. If he is worse
tomorrow, then, of course, I must stay home. That needn't prevent the rest
of you going, however."

Medora flicked her a thoughtful grey glance, then crossed to the sofa and
sank down upon it with a die-away air that would not have disgraced Sarah
Siddons. "Have I mentioned," she remarked in languishing tones, "that I am
beginning to feel most unwell myself?"

Margaret regarded her narrowly. "Are you indeed?"

"Oh, yes," the girl assured her. "A nervous spasm, I believe. Or," she
rolled back her sleeve, examined one smooth forearm, "something involving a
hideous outbreak of spots."

"Most ingenious," Archie approved, perching on the arm of the sofa. "As for m
yself--perhaps I am not as recovered from my cold as I first thought."

"Perhaps we can *all* catch your cold and stay home that evening!"

"You are thoroughly incorrigible, the pair of you," Margaret began, then
abandoned the attempt at severity as a lost cause when her listeners grinned
unrepentantly. "And I appreciate your loyalty more than I can express."

"But truly, Margaret," Archie was becoming serious again, "I am connected to
the Tresilians only through you. It wouldn't be right for me to attend if you
were not there. And if young Robin is that poorly, there's another reason to
cry off."

"I agree." Medora sat up straighter. "Do you know what ails him, exactly?"

"In all likelihood, probably just a cold. I hope it's not croup--but I
shall write Dr. Enys and ask if he can visit tomorrow. Which reminds me,"
Margaret addressed her brother, "he can take a look at *you* as well, while
he's here."

"There's no need," Archie protested. "My cold really is gone--or near
enough."

Margaret fixed him with a stern blue gaze. "Humor your aging and querulous
sister."

"Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?" he retorted, unimpressed. "Very
well--if it means you will cease to worry about me."

*I do not think it is possible to cease worrying about you, now,* Margaret
thought but did not say. Aloud, she asked, "Is anyone hungry? I was
thinking of having some tea sent up here. Supper is usually the main meal on
Mrs. Polwhele's half-days," she explained to Archie, "so dinner this
afternoon may have seemed a trifle skimpy."

"We had soup and part of a meat pie. Both of which were very good," he added
hastily.

"It's a long wait until supper, though," said Medora. "Tea sounds like a
lovely idea."

Smiling, Margaret turned to summon a servant.

*****
Tea--and the afternoon post--arrived some fifteen minutes later. Margaret
glanced at the letters addressed to her, barely concealed a grimace at the
sight of a familiar hand on the back of one, and put them all aside on the
desk to take up the much more pleasant task of pouring out the tea.

Her staff had quite successfully anticipated the appetites of several healthy
young people. Tea was accompanied by sandwiches, toasted crumpets, and slices
of a moist currant cake--more than enough to fill up the empty hours between
dinner and supper.

"Will Henry be joining us?" Archie asked, accepting another cup of
tea--prepared just as he liked it--from his sister.

"Not until later," she replied. "He dines with the Pendennises again today."

Medora gazed into the fire with a faint, mysterious smile. "Charity must be
home from Mrs Hemple's this week."

Archie raised quizzical brows. "Are you, by any chance, referring to love's
young dream?"

"Perhaps. Although," the girl amended, "he may have to wait a bit. Charity's
only a few years older than I am."

"That will do," Margaret interposed. "Henry's courtship--if it can be called
that--is entirely his own business. I daresay he'll tell us himself when the
time comes. More cake, Archie?"

"No, thank you. One more piece and they'll be able to tie a rope round my
waist and toss me overboard if they lose the anchor!"

"Nonsense, you're too thin."

Archie shook his head. "You should see my friend, Lieutenant Hornblower. He
is *unquestionably* too thin."

"Hornblower," Margaret mused, with a faint shake of her head. "Now there's a
name one doesn't hear every day."

"His Christian name is Horatio."

"Horatio Horn--oh, dear!" Margaret put a hand to her mouth. "That poor young
man!"

A small giggle escaped Medora; she looked instantly contrite. "I *am* sorry .
. . but it does sound rather like a name from a novel, like 'Roderick Random'
or 'Peregrine Pickle'!"

"I suspect it's the bane of his existence," Archie agreed with a grin. "But
once you come to know him--his name is really the only absurd thing about
him."

Margaret studied him thoughtfully. "You admire him?"

"Without reservation," Archie admitted softly. "He is a fine officer--and a
better friend. I do not know how I should have survived El Ferrol--my last
prison--without him. He helped keep me alive . . . and sane, until the Dons
granted us our freedom."

His sister smiled. "Then he must come here someday, so that we may thank him
personally."

He returned her smile. "I think such cosseting as I've enjoyed in the last
few days would do Horatio a world of good! He does not receive much of it."

"Not even from his family?" Margaret asked.

"Oh, his father is a fine gentleman, but a little . . . reserved. His mother
is no longer living and he has no brothers or sisters."

"None at all? Then he must be very lonely indeed!" Medora exclaimed, grey
eyes alight with sympathy.

Archie's smile turned wry. "Well, I'd offer him Malcolm or Duncan, but I
think he'd refuse. Besides, I want to *keep* Horatio's friendship!"

"He's welcome to Malcolm," Margaret agreed. "Duncan is . . . somewhat less
objectionable when he's on his own." She sighed. "I speak out of sentiment,
I suppose. He was decent to me in childhood. At least until he went away to
school and decided little girls were quite beneath his notice when he came
home for the holidays."

"More fool he," Archie retorted and meant it.

"Now, that's something you haven't mentioned before, Margaret." Medora
turned a curious gaze towards her sister-in-law. "You don't speak of your
childhood much at all, in fact. Was it so terrible?"

Brother and sister exchanged a quick glance. "Not 'terrible', perhaps,"
Margaret replied with an obvious attempt at lightness. "'Difficult' might be
a better word. It was--easier when Mama was alive; she had a gift for making
any house into a home."

Archie nodded agreement. "Aylesford Hall in Scotland, Kennedy Manor in
Oxfordshire, the townhouse in London. It did not matter *where*--if Mother
was there, that made all the difference." He sighed. "I don't think . . .
Father had the same knack. somehow."

"That," Margaret said with asperity, "is considerably understating the case."
She and Archie looked at each other in complete comprehension. "I suppose
'curtailed' might be another way of describing our childhood. We ended up
scattered to the four winds, only meeting at Christmases or weddings."

"I don't know that we even met *that* frequently," Archie responded. "The
last time was Alice's wedding, I think. I don't even know who's speaking to
whom these days."

"Oh, well, as to that," Margaret folded her hands and began, with the air of
one reciting a litany, "Alice is speaking to *everyone*, including Papa. She
may be the only one to do so. I have not heard from Duncan in some time, but
then he never was much of a hand at writing letters. As for Malcolm . . .
well, unless his handwriting has changed dramatically in the last six months,
I do believe I've received one of *his* letters this very afternoon, but I
hesitate to inflict it upon either of you!"

"I must confess," Archie admitted, "to some curiosity as to whether he's as
prosy as he ever was."

Medora's brow crinkled dubiously. "Could his letters possibly be duller than
Edward's when he is from home?"

"Shall I satisfy your curiosity on both points by reading from it?" Receiving
no objection--along with a marked degree of bright-eyed interest--from her
would-be audience, Margaret fetched the letter from the desk, broke the
wafer, seated herself and began.

"'My Dear Sister,

I trust this letter finds you in your customary good health and that the
Cornish rains of this season have been neither too scarce nor too plentiful.
I myself have spent these past months in Our Fair Metropolis, where the
Quality of the Entertainments and the Level of Society must compensate for
any insalubriousness of Climate and Pestilence of the Air.'"

"My eyes are glazing over already," Archie murmured.

"' This Thursday sennight I was a guest at a dinner given by Lord and Lady
Faversham, whose table is much praised and whose chef--a Frenchman, I am
given to understand--is accounted a marvel. We began with Soup a la Reine,
proceeded to a saute of sweetbreads and mushrooms, a fricandeau of veal, and
fowl in a Sauce Bechamel. I must confess, however, that the dinner served at
the house of Sir Walter Abingdon this past Saturday was at least of a
comparable quality. The first course consisted of--'"

"Margaret," Medora broke in, "is he *really* going to tell you about
everything he ate at every dinner he attended?"

"If he does, I promise to skip some of it . . . " Margaret quickly scanned
the pages and corrected herself, "Most of it. The rest of it," she amended,
scanning further.

Archie sighed. "Does our eldest brother manage to include *anything* of
interest--even inadvertently?"

"Let me see. Ah--I do believe we have finally come to the heart of the
matter, here." Margaret cleared her throat, and resumed reading. "'You will
be gratified to know'--will I, indeed?--'to learn of the signal honor
bestowed upon our father this past month. By dint of his faithful service in
the House of Lords, he has been made an earl by letter of patent, and will
henceforth be known as *Earl Kennedy*, or, more familiarly, *Lord Kennedy*. I
need not impress upon you, of course, the elevation in your own position that
accompanies Father's rise in status--'" she broke off, shaking her head.
"Now what on earth can he be talking about?"

"I think he means that, as an earl's daughter, you now have a courtesy title
of your own," Archie explained. "You could go by *Lady* Margaret Tresilian,
if you wanted."

"Well, I don't," Margaret declared firmly. "Having spent three-and-twenty
years choosing *not* to be a lady--according to Papa's standards--by
disposition, why should I wish to become one by designation?"

"What of you, Mr. Kennedy?" Medora inquired. "Does your father's becoming an
earl alter your position?'

"Not one whit." Archie shrugged. "Younger sons of earls are merely known as
Honorables--and I had the same designation as a viscount's son. Malcolm, on
the other hand, succeeds to our father's next highest title." He grinned
wickedly at his sister. "What do you wager he wasted no time putting that
title to use in his letter?"

"Not a farthing--you'd win." Margaret turned to the last page of the letter
to see the closing. "Ah--the title *and* all four of his names: Malcolm
Charles Ronald Kennedy, Viscount Aylesford!"

Archie leaned his head against the back of his armchair and laughed
immoderately.

Margaret began reading again, "'With further regard to your position, allow
me to add--'" she stopped, feeling the blood burning in her cheeks at the
sentiments she saw expressed in the next paragraph. Burning in her cheeks,
roaring in her ears . . . the letters squiggled on the page before her like
inimical black tadpoles and the urge to crumple the paper into a ball was
nearly overwhelming--but it would have revealed too much. She willed herself
to remain calm, strove to prevent her hands from curling into claws--somehow.

"Margaret, are you all right?" Archie was leaning forward in his chair, blue
eyes wide with concern.

She took a few careful breaths before attempting to respond, then, "Perfectly
all right, my dear." Her voice sounded almost normal. "The stupidest
thing--and not at all amusing." She struck the offending page with a light,
dismissive flick of her fingertips and rose to her feet. "I rather think
Malcolm has bored us enough for the afternoon," she continued, walking back
to the desk and shutting the letter in a drawer. "His maunderings will keep
for another day. Meanwhile, I promised Robin I'd play spillikins with him
and Nurse after tea. Would the two of you care to join us? It's far more
entertaining with more than three people."

She did not miss the quick glance Archie and Medora exchanged, before the
latter rose from her seat on the ottoman. "I think a game of spillikins
sounds like an excellent idea," the girl said staunchly. "Have you ever
played?" This last addressed to Archie.

"Not for many years," he admitted. "But I trust it will not be too difficult
to resume?"

"Not in the least," she assured him. "All you need are quick fingers."

"And a willingness to let the youngest player in the game win sometimes,"
Margaret added, smiling. Mistress of herself once more, she ushered her
brother and sister-in-law out of the library, closing the door behind them.

It was not, Archie reflected, the act of a gentleman to read another person's
letters.

*But how else am I to find out?*

Nonetheless, his conscience and upbringing still niggled at him. With a sigh,
he set the lamp on the corner of the desk, sat contemplating the closed
drawer.

All around him, Keverne had settled down for the night. Spillikins had been
followed, in due course, by supper and an evening spent chatting pleasantly
around the fire. Henry, on his return from the Pendennises, had contributed
more stories about the Tresilians of yore and their adventures at home and
abroad. Medora had chimed in about some of the scapegraces on the distaff
side of the family--the late Lady Tresilian had been a Drummond, *her* mother
had been a Cameron, and both clans had had members who fought at Culloden by
the side of the Young Pretender. Archie, after a brief hesitation, had
mentioned a few exploits of Kennedys past, including the one who had barely
avoided being taken in the Babington plot.

Margaret had contributed little to the conversation, but sat smiling benignly
by the fire, knitting needles flying as she worked on a cap for Robin.
Anyone might have believed her utterly tranquil and untroubled . . . but
Archie knew what he had seen that afternoon. Blessed--or cursed--with the
same fair complexion as his sister, he understood what those sudden changes
of color meant. Something in Malcolm's letter had upset her--and he intended
to find out what it was, if possible.

The house was silent, all its inhabitants having retired to their respective
bedrooms. Archie had waited perhaps an hour before slipping back to the
library, the volume of Pope tucked innocuously under his arm. He had
finished reading it, after all . . . and no one would think it odd if he went
in search of another book to replace it. And no one need know if he just
happened to steal a glance at something else while he was there.

*Not the act of a gentleman . . . but if I wait for her to tell me, then I
will NEVER know.* Of that he was completely sure. He had never known
anyone so determined to keep her own counsel as Margaret. Compared to her,
Horatio was positively *garrulous.* Just what had that fool Malcolm said?

Unbidden, an image of his brothers, as he had last seen them, rose in his
mind. Drinking heavily in the Yellow Salon, where they'd retired with all the
other young bucks after Alice's wedding festivities were done. Wine-flushed
faces, loud, boastful talk . . . Duncan in military scarlet, laughing that
raucous laugh of his, Malcolm stuffed into an elaborate suit of lemon velvet,
his short neck swaddled in a bristling cravat. Inevitably, the talk had
turned to who'd be the next to get spliced. Malcolm, radiating
self-importance, had boomed that, as the next Viscount Aylesford, he had but
to toss the handkerchief and the ladies would come running. Duncan had
laughed even more loudly at that. "I'm a better rider, a better fighter, and
a better lover than you!" the younger Kennedy had jeered. "I don't need a
trumpery title to have the ladies setting their caps at *me*!" Malcolm had
taken immediate offense, lunging across the table in an apparent attempt at
fratricide. At that point, Archie himself had slipped quietly from the room,
unable to tolerate either of his brothers any longer. He did not know if
the altercation had degenerated into fisticuffs--especially since Malcolm and
Duncan spent the next day in their respective rooms, presumably casting up
their respective accounts--nor did he much care. If they were pounding on
each other, that meant they were leaving *him* alone.

Archie grimaced at the memory. Not surprising that those two louts were so
maladroit in their dealings with women, including, it appeared, their own
sisters. He only hoped he could do better . . . even if he was about to
commit a social solecism. Setting his jaw, he opened the drawer and reached
inside.

The letter was where Margaret had deposited it. After a quick, furtive
glance, he unfolded it and began to read, skimming over nearly a page of
trivialities before he found the relevant paragraph.

"With further regard to your position, allow me to add [Malcolm wrote] that,
despite your unfilial decision five years ago to marry against Father's
wishes, your sad bereavement must arouse sentiments of pity and forbearance
in the sternest breast. Rest assured, dear sister, that despite youthful
intractability and indiscretion, you and your son need not fear for your
welcome at Aylesford Hall or Kennedy Manor. Indeed, it may be hoped that you
will be consent to be guided by the wisdom of your elders in your future
choice of Conjugal Partner, should he present himself to you in the fullness
of time."

Archie released a breath he did not even realize he had been holding, then
laid the letter down upon the desk, and swore--softly but viciously--for
several minutes.

Two things he had learned today. That Margaret had loved her late husband
very much . . .

And that Malcolm was as big an ass as he had ever been.

END PART SIX