Sprig Muslin

by Georgette Heyer

It did not take long to accomplish the journey to Whitehorn Farm. Leaving Trotton with the curricle, Sir Gareth was ushered by Mr Ninfield into the rambling old house. Dusk was beginning by this time to shadow the landscape, and in the large, flagged kitchen the lamp had been kindled. Its mellow light fell on Amanda, on the floor, and playing with a litter of kittens. Seated in a windsor chair, with his hands clasped between his knees, was a stalwart youth, watching her with a rapt and slightly idiotic expression on his sunburnt countenance; and keeping a wary eye on both, while she vigorously ironed one of her husband's shirts, was a matron of formidable aspect.

Amanda glanced up casually, as the door opened, but when she saw who had entered the kitchen she stiffened, and exclaimed: "You! No! No!"

Young Mr Ninfield, although not quick-witted, took only a very few seconds to realize that here, in the person of this bang-up nonesuch, was Amanda's persecutor. He got up, clenching his fists, and glaring at Sir Gareth.

He was perfectly ready, and even anxious, to do battle, but Sir Gareth took the wind out of his sails, by first nodding at Amanda, and saying amiably: "Good evening, Amanda!" and then coming towards him, with his hand held out. "You must be Joe Ninfield," he said. "I have to thank you for taking such excellent care of my ward. You are a very good fellow!"

"It's the young lady's guardian, Jane," Mr Ninfield informed his wife, in a penetrating aside.

"It is not!" Amanda declared passionately. "He is trying to abduct me!"

Joe, who had numbly allowed Sir Gareth to grasp his hand, turned his bemused gaze upon her, seeking guidance. "Throw him out!" ordered Amanda, a sandy kitten clasped to her breast in a very touching way.

"You'll do no such thing, Joe!" said his mother sharply. "Now, sir! P'raps you'll be so good as to explain what this means!"

"All's right, Jane," said Mr Ninfield, chuckling. "It's like you thought, only that it was school Miss ran off from."

"I didn't!" cried Amanda, her face scarlet with rage. "And he's not my guardian! I don't even know him! He is an abominable person!"

"Of course I am!" said Sir Gareth soothingly. "Though how you know that, when you are not even acquainted with me, I can't imagine!" He smiled at Mrs Ninfield, and said in his charming way: "I do hope, ma'am, that she had not been troublesome to you? I can't thank you enough for your kindness to her!"

Under Amanda's baffled and infuriated gaze, Mrs Ninfield dropped a curtsy, stammering: "No, no! Oh, no, indeed sir!"

Sir Gareth glanced down at Amanda. "Come, my child, get up from the floor!" he said, in a voice of kindly authority. "Where is your hat? I never abduct ladies without their hats, so put it on, and your cloak too!"

Amanda obeyed the first of these commands, largely because she found herself at a disadvantage when sitting at his feet. She could see that the tone he had chosen to adopt had had its inevitable effect, even upon her moon-struck admirer, but she made a desperate bid for freedom. Staring up into his amused eyes, she said: "Very well! If you are my guardian, who am I?"

"An orphan, cast upon the world without a penny," he replied promptly. "You have lately been employed by a young lady, whose widowed father - a most reprehensible person, I fear - made such improper advances to you, that --"

"Oh, how I much hate you!" she cried, flushing with mortification, and stamping her foot. "How dare you stand there telling such lies?"

"Well, but, missie, it's what you told us yourself!" said Mr Ninfield, hugely entertained.

"Yes, but that was because - well, that was just make-believe! He knows it isn't true! And it isn't true that he is my guardian, or that I ran away from school, or anything!"

Mrs Ninfield drew a long breath. "Sir, are you her guardian, or are you not?" she demanded.

"No," he replied, his voice grave, but his eyes dancing. "I am an abductor. I met her only yesterday, and that by chance, snatched her up into my curricle, and bore her off in spite of all her protests to a gloomy mansion in the heart of the country. I need scarcely tell you that she contrived to make her escape from the mansion while I slept. However, it takes a good deal to daunt a thoroughgoing villain, so you won't be surprised that here I am, having hunted her down remorselessly. I am now about to carry her off to my castle. This, by the way, is perched on a precipitous rock, and, besides being in an uncomfortable state of neglect and decay, is inhabited only by ghosts and sinister retainers of mine. From this fortress, after undergoing a number of extremely alarming adventures, she will, I have little doubt, be rescued by a noble youth of handsome though poverty-stricken aspect. I expect he will kill me, after which it will be found that he is the wronged heir to a vast property - probably mine - and all will end happily."

"Now, sir --!" protested Mrs Ninfield, trying not to laugh. "Give over your nonsense, do!"

Joe, having listened with painstaking concentration to the programme laid down for Amanda's future entertainment, once more clenched his large fists, and uttered, slowly, but with determination: "I won't have her put in no castle."

"Don't be a gaby!" said his mother. "Can't you see the gentleman's only making game of her?"

"I won't have him make game of her neither," said Joe stubbornly.

"Please to pay no heed, sir!" begged Mrs Ninfield. "Now, that's enough, Joseph! Do you want the gentleman to think you're no better than a knock-in-the-cradle, which I'll be bound he does?"

"Not at all! I think he's a splendid fellow," said Sir Gareth. "Don't worry, Joe! I was only funning."

"I don't want you to take her anywhere," Joe muttered. "I'd like her to stay here, fine I would."

"Yes, and so would I have liked to stay here!" said Amanda warmly. "I never enjoyed anything half so much, particularly feeding all those droll little pigs, and these lovely kittens, but everything is spoilt now that Sir Gareth knows where I am, and it would be of no use staying here anymore." Her voice trembled, and a tear sparkled on the end of her long lashes. She kissed the sandy kitten, and reluctantly set it down on the floor, giving such a pathetic sniff that Mr Ninfield, a tender-hearted man, said uncomfortably: "Don't you take on, missie! P'raps, if my missis is agreeable --" He stopped, as he caught his wife's eye, and coughed in some embarrassment.

"Cheer up, my child!" Sir Gareth said. "This is no time for tears! You must instantly set about the task of thinking how best to revenge yourself on me."

Family Tree by Warren Mendes

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