The Alter Ego – Elizabeth Bramwell

Lord Arthur Weatherly, younger brother and unfortunately still heir to his brother the Duke of Lexborough, strolled into the George without much enthusiasm and ordered a small lunch from the Landlord. “Of course, Lord Arthur! I can have it with you in a trice while your horses are refreshed,” said Rogers, beaming at him with genuine warmth. “The private parlour is available for your use, of course, and I’ll fetch you a tankard of ale myself since I know you prefer it to anything stronger at this hour.” It did much to lift Arthur’s melancholy, and he found himself smiling at the Landlord in return. Ever since he had come into a sizeable fortune a few weeks earlier, he had been flattered and fawned over by almost every member of the Ton, either because they wished to marry him off to one of their insipid daughters, or because they were eager to part him from his new-found riches. Rogers, at least, was treating him with no difference than his usual cheerful charm. It was refreshing to talk with someone who was not immediately trying to sell him the most expensive thing on offer, and three of them besides. “Good man,” said Arthur, “but would you be so good as to lower your voice? I’m rather adverse to the idea of anyone knowing I’m here.” “Oh!” said Mr Rogers, looking slightly perplexed. “So you are not on your way to Bath?” “Naturally I am, Rogers. Why else would I be in this neck of the woods?” Rogers shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “But…won’t you be known there?” “It’s the summer, even if this weather doesn’t feel like it. Few members of the Ton will be there, so I don’t anticipate running into any friends if that’s what you mean,” said Arthur, feeling only relief at the notion. Of course, he did have a few distant relatives in Bath that he’d need to meet with, but he was confident that he’d hit upon an idea before he had to face them. “Yes, of course,” said Rogers, sounding anything but convinced.

“I know you are not a regular visitor, my Lord, but there are plenty of people who know you, if only in passing acquaintance.” Arthur spread his arms wide, feeling pleased with himself. “Not with my disguise, as you can see, Rogers. Did you not note the truly appalling cut of this jacket?” He did not mention that he had raided his brother’s wardrobe before fleeing the family estate. As much as he’d deplored his brother’s appearance when Alex turned up out of the blue, he was currently grateful that he’d also been in possession of some truly mediocre clothing, not to mention old-fashioned. The landlord pulled at his neckcloth. “But… but I recognised you immediately!” This gave Arthur pause. “True,” he eventually said, “but I plan to crop my hair a la Caesar. Since I’m famed for my curls, it will throw everyone off the scent.” “But…” started Rogers as he stared at Arthur’s hair, currently styled in a fashionably wild way, but appeared to be at a loss for an answer.

Arthur nodded sympathetically. “I know, it will be a sad trial for me I have no doubt, but rest assured that I am confident I can grow it back in by next Season!” “So you won’t be using your own name, then?” “There wouldn’t be much point in being in disguise if I did,” said Arthur with a roll of his eyes. “ Ah. Of Course. Well. Very good then, my lord- erm, I mean, Mr…?” said Rogers, his brows furrowed. He’d gone slightly pink in the cheeks, as though he expected to be struck down by the Lord God for daring to address a peer by anything but his title. Arthur grinned for what felt like the first time in months. “What I would give to be a mere mister! Mr Weatherley would be perfect… actually no, it won’t, for ten to one some ninny who has memorised Berk’s will recognise the family name. I envy you, Rogers.

Truly I do.” Mr Rogers blinked a few times and kept his mouth firmly closed. “Aha!” said Arthur as a thought of sheer brilliance hit him. “You may call me Mr Arthur! Aye, and if anyone asks after me or requests my name, that is what you must tell them. On no account are you to let anyone know that Lord Arthur Weatherly has been in this establishment!” Feeling rather pleased with himself, Arthur grinned at Rogers and began to stroll over toward the private parlour. The Landlord, however, seemed slightly bewildered by this pronouncement and followed him into the cosy room. “I’m to let no one know, my – I mean, Mr Arthur?” “No one at all,” Arthur confirmed as he made himself comfortable in a large armchair. “As you say, Mr Arthur,” replied Rogers, giving his head just the tiniest of shakes. He studied Arthur for a long moment and then appeared to decide there was no point in continuing a conversation that had little bearing on him. “Will you be visiting Lady Seraphinia while you are in Bath? It has been a while since she stopped here on one of her infrequent visits to London, but we all think fondly of her.

” “That’s a shocking untruth, Rogers. Lady Seraphinia is a dragon and never inspires fondness in anyone. Respect, yes. Abject terror, most definitely. But fondness is far too delicate an emotion to please her.” The landlord chuckled. “That’s very true, but she remains a great favourite with my wife! I take it that you are not going to Bath for a family visit, then? His Grace will not be joining you?” Arthur forced his smile to remain in place, knowing full well that gossip was as much currency to a publican as a new shilling. His brother’s sudden return from the Continent after a decade’s absence and his subsequent reunion with his wife, Kate, had set the rumour sheets on fire for the Season. “Lexborough, quite naturally, wishes to reconnect with society. The Duchess is hosting a summer party to allow him to pick up those friendships of importance to him.

” “Naturally, naturally!” said Rogers, looking a little disappointed but knowing when Arthur would not be pressed further. “Well, if His Grace does see the need to meet with family down in Bath then he can be sure that we would take care of him with as much happiness as we do you, my Lord.” “Of course, Rogers. I will be sure to let him know.” Arthur sat down and opened a newspaper, hoping that the Landlord would get the hint. Instead, that good man gave a polite cough and tugged nervously at his collar. “Begging your pardon for any presumption on my part for mentioning it, Lor- I mean, Mr Arthur – but I would like to congratulate you on your recent good fortune. My wife read in the newspaper about you, and she said that it could not have happened to a worthier gentleman!” And there it was. Arthur, good manners drummed into him before he left the cradle, managed to incline his head in thanks without swearing. “Thank you, Rogers, although there are many more worthy men than I.

Loughcroft, for example. However, I’m sure that you now understand that I’d rather not let the whole world know I am here?” Rogers’ face lit up as realisation dawned on him. “No doubt you’ve got every girl of marriageable age after you and need some respite from being hunted!” “Something like that, hence I appreciate your discretion.” Rogers tapped the side of his nose. “No need to worry about that, Mr Arthur! I’m as tight as a drum on such matters, as it were!” Or at least he would be once Arthur had left a hefty amount of the ready for the landlord and his family. “Thank you, I knew I could rely on you. And I look forward to sampling some of your wife’s famous chicken pie for my lunch.” Finally recognising the dismissal, the Landlord bobbed his head in deference before leaving Arthur alone with his thoughts. It seemed that the whole of England was aware of the foolish bets he had made not a month earlier, with the result that he was now, by most accounts, the wealthiest man in all of England. Although he was far from displeased with his newfound wealth – money made life considerably easier, after all – he would have much preferred it if every mother with an army of daughters to marry off had been kept in ignorance of his net worth.

He’d fled from London within days of his fortune being announced in the papers, foolishly believing that his family would provide him with some peaceful shelter until the Ton was distracted by some new gossip. Unfortunately, his sister-in-law Katie, the Duchess of Lexborough, had invited every eligible young lady she could think of to spend the summer at Darlington Park, probably for no other reason than to punish him. Considering that all Arthur had done was turn up drunk to her ball and make a scene – for perfectly understandable reasons! – he could not help but feel hard done by. Even his brother had not taken his side. “She’s the Duchess, old boy, and I’d be a fool to cross her,” was all Alex had said, before staring at Kate with a sickeningly puppyish expression. Arthur had coped for an entire fortnight before he’d found himself cornered in the conservatory by Miss Fitzburgh, her mother no doubt having engineered the “chance” meeting. Had it not been for the happy accident of his sister barging in to demand if it was he who’d told Mr Rumble that she was still in love with him (it was), there was a good chance he would now be desperately seeking a way out of a second disastrous engagement. There’d been nothing for it. Arthur had hastily hatched a plan that very evening, telling no one but his valet, Jenkins, that he planned to hotfoot it to pastures new. Jenkins being such an excellent fellow, the valet had conspired with Alex’s new man to liberate the Duke’s wardrobe of the poorlycut clothes that the Duchess so despised, and delivered them, freshly packed, to Arthur’s room.

All that had remained was to gather his toiletries, hitch up his phaeton, and leave at an hour so early no decent human was yet out of bed. “That was a mistake,” Arthur mumbled to himself. “Another hour of sleep would not have altered matters.” He continued with his silent musings, interrupted only to thank the Landlord for bringing his meal. The truth was, Arthur couldn’t answer the question about why he was going to Bath even if he had wanted to. It had merely occurred to him that no one of any consequence was likely to be there and that he had won a house in the town as part of his recent windfall, so he’d set out in that direction. After all, he was hardly going to be hunted by a bunch of elderly invalids. Unless they had younger relatives staying with them. Or there were young widows there to enjoy the waters. Arthur stared at his remaining food, suddenly finding that he was no longer hungry.

He was seriously considering whether or not he should take the drastic step of moving to Montreal when a small commotion from the entrance of the George drew his attention. A female voice, refined but obviously irritated, was arguing with Rogers, who was struggling to maintain a suitably deferential tone. “Well ask him how long he intends to be, or better yet if he would be so good as to share the space with us,” demanded the woman. “Oh never mind, I see you have no wish to do it. I shall ask him myself, and if he says no, then you can fawn over him afterwards and blame it all on me.” Arthur barely had time to stop laughing before the door to the parlour was thrown open, and a fashionably dressed young woman of perhaps twenty-five years strolled into the room. A raven-black curl escaped from a simple capote that matched a splendid purple pelisse decorated with couched black braid. She hesitated just a moment as she took in his somewhat slovenly appearance, and Arthur had to stop himself from apologising for the terrible cut of his coat. His unexpected visitor steeled herself, however, and shot him a charming smile. “Good afternoon, Sir.

I do apologise for barging in on you like this, but I’m afraid that my daughter is not feeling at all the thing. Would you be so good as to share the parlour with us while she recuperates?” Arthur was aware of a flash of disappointment at the realisation that this respectable-looking woman was married, and it quite killed any desire to share his space with her. There were so many ready answers to her query that would allow him to remain in solitude. He could have suggested that she hire a bedroom for her child to lie down, or pointed out that she could sit quite as well in the taproom as she could in the parlour. Yet it was not manners that prevented Arthur from being rude. The young woman, married or otherwise, held his gaze with expressive brown eyes that were at one strong and desperately vulnerable. He knew what he would want a gentleman to do if it were Helena or Katie making such a request. He stood, and then executed a perfect bow. “There is more than enough room for you and your young daughter, Mrs…?” “Clyde,” she replied, although her mouth kicked up a little as though she were indulging a private joke. “I feel it only fair to warn you, Sir, that you may find Governess will destroy your peace somewhat.

” The thought of a fusty old governess striding into the private parlour was enough to make Arthur regret any chivalrous feeling, although he was too much a gentleman to show it. Children, in his experience, had grubby hands and a disconcerting habit of smearing jam down the legs of new buckskin breeches, but he could forgive that impulse since he was only wearing his brother’s clothes. A governess, on the other hand, would no doubt pin him with a steely gaze that would cause him to confess every prank and trick he’d played in his whole life, and likely leave him feeling like he should retire to his bedroom without any supper. He gave an inward sigh and consoled himself with the knowledge that this would not be his governess, however much he detested that breed of women, and that no one, not even his brother, could compel him to forgo a meal just because he’d glued his sister’s hairbrush to the dressing table. “No trouble at all, Mrs Clyde. I should really be getting on my way as it is.” “Don’t let us rush you,” she said cheerfully, but with a tone that strongly suggested that he should, in fact, hurry up and leave as soon as possible. She turned back to the Landlord and favoured him with a gracious smile. “See, Mr Rogers? I told you there would be no trouble.” The landlord did not look convinced of this in the slightest.

He glanced over at Arthur, who nodded his head. Rogers sighed, and then left the room to inform Mrs Clyde’s daughter and governess that they were welcome to enter the parlour. Arthur stood and was about to take his leave when quite the prettiest young woman he had ever laid eyes upon entered the room. Her guinea-gold hair was escaping a straw bonnet, and her own coat was of a fine merino cloth, complete with fashionable Spanish lapels. There was also no possibility on Earth that the girl was more than five years younger than the woman who had claimed her as a daughter. There was no time to investigate this discovery, however, for the ugliest pug Arthur had ever seen chose that moment to come bounding over to him, and to squat over the toe of his boot. “Governess don’t you dare!” shrieked the girl, lessening her angelic appearance in the process. Arthur yanked his foot backwards, but the pug had already stood back up and was looking at the girl with a half sheepish, half mulish expression. Which was quite a feat, considering how ugly the poor thing was. “I told you not to teach her that trick,” sighed Mrs Clyde as she scooped the animal up into her arms.

“What on earth will people think of you?” The girl turned her eyes to him and smiled. “I do beg your pardon, sir, but I tried to teach Governess to relieve herself on gentlemen callers that we did not wish to encourage, only now she’s such a clever little thing that she believes that if she does so on any gentlemen, I will give her a treat.” “Lily, can we not talk about such things in front of people outside our family?” said Mrs Clyde, looking pained by her daughter’s disclosure. “But it seems important to explain,” said the girl called Lily, looking very earnest. “I would not want anyone to think that she is badly behaved, or poorly trained because that’s not it in the least.” Arthur, recovering from the shock of almost losing his favourite riding boots in a hideous accident, looked between the two women with considerable interest. “You taught your pug that trick?” “Yes, for Governess is very clever,” said the girl with a broad smile. “Was it to deter a specific gentleman or many?” The girl, who was in the process of removing her bonnet, gave a pretty laugh. “Well it started as a way to get rid of my odious cousin, but after father died, it did serve to get rid of any guests impertinent to call on us while we were in mourning.” Her father has passed away, noted Arthur.

In light of Mrs Clyde’s sombre clothing, it occurred to him that she must be a widow. Which, for reasons that he could not and did not want to fathom, cheered him. Mrs Clyde, depositing the dog onto the sofa beside the girl, just gave another weary sigh. “Lily, what have I said about telling our whole life story to complete strangers?” “I can hardly be expected not to answer a question directed to me,” said the girl, “and besides, he wouldn’t be a stranger if you introduced us!” Mrs Clyde closed over her eyes for a moment, although a smile hovered on her lips. When she reopened them, she flashed a dazzling smile at Arthur that made him feel like he’d been punched between the eyes. “This is my daughter, Miss Clyde,” she said. “Step-daughter,” corrected Miss Clyde. “Anna is only five years my senior, after all. I am so sorry that we have invaded your parlour and that my dog tried to, erm, damage your footwear, Mr…?” “Arthur,” he replied without thinking. “Well, I hope that Anna didn’t harangue you too much to let us into the room,” said Miss Clyde with an irrepressible grin.

“Not at all,” he replied. “Nothing could give me more pleasure than to be of service to you.” “You hid that well,” murmured Anna Clyde, but so quietly that Arthur wasn’t sure if he’d heard her correctly. As Governess decided at that moment to pounce on Miss Clyde’s discarded bonnet, the two ladies were distracted by the task of removing it from the tenacious pug, and Arthur found himself lingering in the parlour. He called Rogers and requested some refreshments for the ladies to be added to his bill. “Oh, you did not have to do that,” said Mrs Clyde as the Landlord’s daughters carried in several trays laden with treats a few minutes later. “We are quite capable of taking care of ourselves.” “Naturally, but my mother would likely ring a peel over my head if she thought I had not displayed the appropriate manners.” “How silly, for how would your mother ever find out?” laughed Miss Clyde. There was a twinkle in her eyes that reminded him forcefully of his troublesome sister, Helena.

Arthur forced himself to look grave. “You have evidently never met my mother. She sees all and knows all. Truly, it can be quite disconcerting.” Miss Clyde giggled, and her stepmother seemed to relax, just a touch, at the sound. “I thank you for your hospitality toward us, then,” she said. “As do I, for I was starting to feel ever so sick in the carriage, you know, for I detest travelling,” said Miss Clyde

.

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