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Chapter One of SKYLARK
The Berkshire Informer, October 7th, 1816
"We hail the return of Johnny Tring, despaired of by his family when lost at sea six years ago. As a result of the might of His Majesty's navy and the bravery of Britain's sailors, he, along with nearly two thousand other unhappy Christian souls, has been liberated from durance vile in the cruel hands of the Mahometan corsairs of Algiers. Most of these unfortunates were from hot Mediterranean lands. How much deeper must Tring's gratitude be to Him on high when now restored to Berkshire's cool and green Elysium."
More likely a nasty shock to the system, Laura Gardeyne thought, tucking her woolen shawl more closely around herself. The chancy sun had slid behind clouds again, and a cool breeze rustled the newspaper and the dying leaves in the oak above her seat.
But still, to be released from slavery and imprisonment must gladden any heart.
Her son ran up to her. "Mama, may I have my ball?"
As a child must gladden any heart. She smiled at three-year-old Harry and gave him the ball and a canvas bag. "Why not ask Nan to build a tower with your blocks? Then you can try to knock it down."
He ran back to his nursemaid, a sturdy bundle of energy in nankeen trousers and a short blue jacket. Free, as happy children are always free. As adults rarely are.
She gazed around this small piece of Elysium. The park of Caldfort House was lovely, even on a dull day, designed as it was in the natural style. The grass that ran from house to River Cald was kept neatly short by sheep and dotted with majestic old trees.
Caldfort House itself stood on a rise, square, pale, and dignified -- the very picture of a modern country home.
What had Lovelace written?
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
It worked in reverse, too. An idyllic setting could be durance vile. In fact, she remembered where the phrase "durance vile" came from. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet.
In durance vile here must I wake and weep....
Her son's laughter broke her mood and she shook herself out of poetic melancholy. It was not at all in her nature, and compared to most, she was a fortunate woman. She was a widow, to be sure, but that sadness was nearly a year old, and she had a handsome jointure that meant she need never fear poverty.
And she had Harry, the joy of her life.
She watched him roll his red leather ball again and demolish at least half the blocks. He was developing a good eye for a three-year-old, but then his father had excelled at every type of sport. Harry had his dark curls from her. The rest of him was pure Gardeyne -- square chin, brown eyes and hair, and the promise of height and strong build.
His next attempt sent the whole tower flying. Laura put aside the paper and applauded. "Well done, Harry! Well done!"
He hurtled to her for a hug then back to roll his ball at the rebuilt target. It hit only the corner, but it made a sound like an explosion. He raced back to her again. "Mama! Mama!"
Laura caught him up, thinking, Thunder?
But crows had risen cawing into the gray sky.
It had been a shot!
Laura realized immediately what had happened, but she still held her son close. "Don't be frightened, Minnow. It's just your Uncle Jack enjoying some sport."
The maid came over. "Shall I take Master Harry in, ma'am?
"No, of course not. Reverend Gardeyne would never aim his gun near us, and Harry's enjoying himself, aren't you, darling?
After an uncertain moment, Harry nodded and scrambled off her lap to run back to his game.
With hard-won skill, Laura kept a slight smile in place as she watched, then let her eyes move to the coppice wood that spread between the house and the village of Cald St. Edwin's. The shot had come from there, but the wood offered no extra information. The crows had settled and there was nothing to see.
Surely she'd spoken the truth. Her brother-in-law would not be careless about where he aimed his gun. Jack Gardeyne was vicar for the local parishes of St. Edwin's and St. Mark's, and a good one. Like all Gardeynes, however, hunting, shooting, and fishing were the true joys of his life.
In six years of marriage, Laura had grown accustomed to living among dogs, horses, and firearms. Guns hadn't bothered her until recently. Until she'd begun to suspect that the Reverend Jack Gardeyne would like Harry dead.
Now sweat trickled down her spine. She tried, as she did all the time, to convince herself that no man, but especially a vicar, would wish harm to his innocent nephew. Even if the child did stand between him and a title, a fortune, and all the hunting, shooting, and fishing he could want.
She wasn't convinced, and she couldn't stop herself from hovering over Harry's play as if watching could hold off disaster. No one could watch a child all the time, however, and as he grew older it would become impossible. A boy must be allowed to explore and have adventures, but as things stood now, Laura didn't know how she could bear to let him out of her sight.
She noticed that he was throwing the ball more wildly and becoming frustrated. Time for his nap....
Then she leapt to her feet and ran.
Harry had hurled the ball right past Nan. It was rolling down toward the river and he was chasing it, but that wasn't what alarmed her. A black dog had streaked out of the woods with the same intent.
The dog got there first and snatched the ball in its sharp teeth. Harry had already reversed. He'd spun around and was fleeing toward safety -- toward her. She swung him into her arms and held him close, murmuring reassurances that she could hardly hear over her own thundering heart.
"Don't be cowardy custard, Harry! Bouncer won't hurt you."
Laura glared over her child's head at the source of the hearty voice. Jack Gardeyne was strolling toward them, jolly smile in place.
How could anyone see him as a monster? He was a fleshy man, portly around the middle, but strapping, like all the Gardeynes, and full of vigor and bonhomie. He carried a gun under his arm, but safely pointed down.
In his casual country clothes he looked as harmless as could be, but his free hand gripped the legs of a dead pheasant, its limp head brushing the grass. Laura was not mawkish about dead animals, but at this moment the corpse made her shiver.
"Your uncle's right, darling," she said, hiding her tension. "His dog won't hurt you."
She made it a statement for Jack rather than for her son. When Nan hurried up, Laura passed Harry to her, then went to his retriever and grabbed the ball. "Release, Bouncer!"
Bouncer snarled deep in his throat.
Though fear leapt inside, Laura didn't let go. She wanted Jack to know that he faced not only a small child but her. She stared a demand at him.
His smile set a little. "Bouncer, release! Heel!
The dog let her have the ball and turned to settle at his master's side. It was surely her imagination that saw a sneer in its panting expression.
Jack shook his head. "Laura, my dear, dare I suggest that perhaps you are a little overprotective of Harry?"
He'd started this line recently, trying in subtle ways to separate her from her son. She feared that he was slowly turning his father, Lord Caldfort, to his side.
"He's only three, Jack," she said, drying the ball on her handkerchief. "There'll be time to toughen him up later." She attacked back. "I'm surprised to see you out. We received word that Emma's confinement had started."
"Nothing for a man to do there," he said. "In the way, in fact. I've been through this three times before, remember."
"But I hope all is going well."
"Midwife said so. Hoping for a boy, of course, this time. Father would be pleased. Always good to have a spare as well as an heir."
Laura's throat tightened, but she looked straight at his cheerful face. "I'm sure it is, though it's unlikely that anything will happen to Harry, isn't it? Children don't die as frequently as they used to."
"God be praised! But still, His divine will takes some innocents. Wise men pray for the best, but prepare for misfortune." He nodded. "Good day to you, Sister. I'll drop by to see how Father is, then get back home."
She watched him stroll toward the house, corpse dragging on the grass, trying to persuade herself that the threat was entirely in her imagination.
Jack Caldfort was a man of God, and a good enough vicar in his way. He ran the services responsibly, preached excellent sermons, and organized the care of the less fortunate of the parishes. He was a good father and a kind husband. In fact, he seemed to care for his Emma more than Hal had cared for her once the first bloom was off their marriage.
She looked at Harry, and saw he was limp in Nan's arms, his head on the maid's shoulder.
"Time to go in, Minnow," she said as if nothing unusual had happened, and bent to gather up the blocks and ball wishing Jack hadn't been on his way up to the house. She didn't want another encounter.
She sighed. It was considerate of Jack to visit his ailing father so often, to talk with him, play cards, and perhaps laugh over wicked, manly jokes. Laura would have done the same -- even the latter, but Lord Caldfort didn't care for the conversation of women. He also believed women should never gamble and he only enjoyed playing cards for money.
She straightened, tightening the drawstring of the bag. Lord Caldfort was not an easy man to live with, but she tried to be understanding. He'd been an active man for most of his life and becoming an invalid had turned him sour. It had been particularly bitter that his health had failed just as his fortune turned, just as he had inherited title and estates from his brother.
An unlucky family, the Gardeynes. Her father-in-law had come into the title because his brother's only son had drowned in the Mediterranean. Now his own older son was dead at thirty-two.
Any ill-luck wouldn't carry on to her son. Laura made a vow of it. She picked up her newspaper, checked that nothing else was left, and led the way back up the slope toward the house.
She had once thought Caldfort House delightful. It wasn't large, which was part of its charm for her, since she'd grown up in a modest house. Built only fifty-two years ago, it was perfectly designed for a private family home and occasional gracious hospitality. Its proportions were elegant and it had plenty of long windows to let in the light.
Yes, she'd liked it when visits had been an occasional respite from life in the fashionable whirl. Being stuck here for ever with bitter Lord Caldfort and peculiar Lady Caldfort was another matter entirely. Add in Jack and her macabre suspicions, and the house was as appealing as a cell in the Tower of London.
Needing the comfort of her son in her arms, Laura exchanged burdens with Nan. Harry had his thumb stuck in his mouth but she didn't try to remove it. He only did that when he was upset and tired.
He was a sweet, trusting weight, the most precious thing in the world. Hers to raise. Hers to protect. Even if her fears seemed insane at times she couldn't afford to ignore them. She'd never forgive herself if anything happened to Harry that she could prevent.
The closer they came to the house, the slower her steps became. She didn't permit herself pointless regrets, but they settled on her now. She'd felt blessed by the gods on her wedding day, but she'd not found true happiness in her marriage and now her future was bleak.
She was only twenty-four years old, but she was a prisoner as surely as if she were in the Tower.
Lord Caldfort insisted, with some justification, that his heir be raised here. She was allowed to take him away, but only for short visits to her family. Her movements were not restricted, but how could she leave Harry, even for days, when she worried about his safety?
She straightened her shoulders and walked into Caldfort House. Her prison until her son was of an age to take care of himself.
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