Marquis in a Minute

Chapter I

Within a single minute, Andrew Pennington became the new Marquis of Whitbury.

Of a certainty, he had rarely considered the possibility that this could happen. He had always deemed it highly unlikely.

The night his life changed so abruptly, he was sitting at Green's Gentleman's Club with two friends, a glass of brandy in his hand. It was a rainy evening in April. Having just come in from the chilly, wet and dismal weather, Andrew was glad enough to sit down with his closest friend Edward, and Henry, another acquaintance.

Now Edward raised his brandy snifter. "To the memory of your Uncle Elias," he said solemnly.

"To Elias." Andrew and Henry raised their glasses, and then Andrew sipped the brandy. It slipped smoothly down his throat, and instantly warmed his stomach. He held the glass, swirling the dark ruby liquid.

"May he rest in peace," Andrew added. After a moment, he raised his eyes to his friends. "It's hard to believe the old man is gone."

"Yes, he has been around for all our lives," Edward said. "It seemed he would live forever."

"Does he have much family?" Henry asked. Henry had recently arrived from his family home in northern England and was not well acquainted with many of the aristocratic families in London, although he had gone to Oxford with both Andrew and Edward. "Aside from his son Cyril, that is?"

"No. My father was his only--younger--brother," Andrew said, sighing. "When my father and mother died there was no one but Elias, cousin Cyril, my sisters and I." He said the words sadly, the familiar ache welling up inside of him. He still missed his father's jovial face and his mother's more serene countenance. It had been only three years since the carriage accident that took their lives.

"And Elias' wife died long ago," Edward added.

"No, there's not much family left--just my two elder sisters and I," reiterated Andrew, taking another sip of the warming drink. "And of course, Millicent and Elizabeth are both married now and have their own families to tend to. I sent off letters to them about Uncle Elias' demise this afternoon."

"There will be few to mourn him, I presume," Henry said.

"That's true." Andrew sighed. "Although perhaps you didn't know--coming from the north country--but most of society did know Uncle Elias. Not merely because he lived a long time--or because he was the Marquis of Whitbury. It's a very old title, and the family's always been wealthy. No, he was known for the way he increased the family coffers. Partly from wise investments and partly because the old man was extraordinarily--well, everyone knew Uncle Elias was as tight-fisted as they come."

"Now, Andrew," Edward said, with a small laugh, "we should not speak ill of the dead."

"Uncle Elias wouldn't think it ill of me to speak so," Andrew protested. "He was quite proud of his reputation. He used to say to my father and I, ‘look to me as an example of one who knows how to manage money!' My father, however, was more relaxed about money and knew how to spend wisely while still having funds to enjoy life." Andrew paused, stretching his legs closer to the glowing fire in the hearth. The heat penetrated his boots and clothes and was quite comforting. Outside, rain pelted the windows with a sharp report. He twirled the brandy glass once more.

"And when I would say to him, yes, uncle, your business acumen is unparalleled, he would laugh," Andrew continued. "He would say, in the proudest of voices, ‘that's a certainty, boy!' It became somewhat of a joke, something we always said to each other." His voice dropped. "In fact, I said it for the last time to Uncle only this morning, when his doctor summoned me, fearing the end was near." It was comforting to think he had brought Uncle Elias a bit of amusement at the very end.

"It sounds as if he took great pride in being miserly," Henry stated, sipping the brandy in his glass.

"Ah, yes," Andrew agreed. "And he got more tight-fisted after Cyril, my cousin, came of age."

"Why is that?" Henry asked.

"Hmmph." This from Edward, with a grin. He swiftly drained his glass.

Laughter broke out down the hall. The nasty weather had driven many of the town's gentlemen inside this evening, and the club was more crowded than usual. The small room where Andrew sat with Edward and Henry was one of the few not full of gentlemen drinking, looking over the paper or wagering on card games.

News of the old Marquis' death had spread quickly this day. People were amazed, since Elias had hung on so long despite failing health these past ten years. Andrew knew for a fact that some of the ton were already laying wagers on how long it would be before Cousin Cyril went through the family fortune Elias had amassed.

Henry was looking at Andrew with raised eyebrows.

"As for Cousin Cyril..." Andrew shrugged. He had never cared for his self-centered older cousin, the only child of the Marquis and the Marquis' late wife. "Uncle Elias kept a tight rein on the family coffers, especially when he realized Cyril had a penchant for gambling."

"I have heard he enjoys wagering," Henry said, nodding.

"He went on a tour of the Continent several years ago and went through the money Uncle Elias gave him with great speed," Andrew said. "After that, Elias ordered him back to England and kept a close watch on what he spent, only doling out the bare minimum to Cyril."

"Of which he gambled most of that away," Edward said with disgust. "And he has a fondness for drink as well. It has always amazed me that he managed to get himself engaged to Isobel Newmont--one of the most beautiful young women to grace a ballroom in recent years."

"No surprise really," Andrew said. As he placed his glass down on a side table, it clinked against the polished wood. "Cyril was the heir to the Marquisdom. And now he is the Marquis."

"Hmm, yes," Edward said, "still--"

Sudden noise from down the hall interrupted his words. As Andrew listened, he recognized his Cousin Cyril's voice, pitched unnaturally loud, above the others.

"Yes, I am the Marquis! At last!" More noise, and then, "A toast to meself – the new Marquis of Whit--bureee!"

Andrew pictured his cousin raising his glass and downing it in one gulp. It sounded as if it wasn't his first drink of the night. No surprise there, either.

He glanced at Edward, grimacing. "So much for keeping the good name of Whitbury nice and clean," he said, disgust edging his voice. "That was another priority of my uncle's. I suppose now we will hear stories daily of Cyril's wines and wagers."

Both his friends laughed.

"Farewell, friends... I must see to more funeral arrangements!" Cyril was fairly shouting now.

Andrew shuddered. Cyril didn't have to sound so gay about it. Cyril might have resented the old man's tight-fisted ways, but Elias was his father, and due a certain amount of respect upon his death. Andrew had never been close to his Uncle, but Elias had been a man of his word and though tight-fisted, he had taken excellent care of his lands and his tenants. He never spent an unnecessary shilling; but if a repair was needed, he saw to it swiftly.

Andrew could only imagine what would happen now that Cyril was taking charge.

"I do hope my cousin cares for the estates properly," he said, his voice taking on a note of worry. "I would hate to see him neglect the tenants and land so that he could place a wager--"

The voices from the hall grew closer.

"My cousin?... yes... I will see him before I leave." Cyril's voice was definitely slurred. "Andrew..."

Cyril appeared in the doorway to the room where Andrew lounged with his friends. His body rocked back and forth, and he put out a hand to brace himself against the doorway. "Cousin... Andrew," he said, somewhat pompously, his words slurred.

Andrew had seen his cousin only hours before at Whitbury House here in London, when both had been summoned to Elias' bedside. When Elias passed on, Cyril had seemed more gleeful than sorrowing, and it appeared he was now positively celebrating the old man's demise.

"Yes... ?" Andrew responded to his cousin's words, striving to keep his face neutral and not disgusted.

There was a crackling noise from the fireplace as a piece of wood broke off, and Andrew smelled the charred wood.

Cyril hesitated, a foggy look overtaking his round face. His cheeks were quite red, and his eyes appeared dulled. "Can't remember what the devil--ah, yes, that's it." He rubbed his hands together. "The old man--my father--"he paused, and hiccupped. Andrew thought he heard a snort from Edward or Henry.

"Yes?" Andrew asked, his voice colder. Cyril was, quite obviously, foxed.

"The old man kicked the bucket, did ya know that?" Cyril was positively beaming.

"Yes, I did." Andrew stood up and approached Cyril. "The doctor summoned me this morning, remember? I was in the house with you when he passed on." A puff of smoke wafted towards them from the fireplace.

"Passed on. Yes. That's a--nice way of puttin' it," Cyril said. "Cousin Andrew, I believe the--old man wished for you to have his pocket watch as a --token -–" Cyril paused, hiccupping again. "He knew you... like to carry them. I wilsh--will remember to give it to you." His speech became more slurred. "Have to get on home, complete some more arrangements before the night is done."

"I will be honored to take the watch," Andrew replied solemnly. He studied Cyril, who continued to sway in the doorway. "I say, Cousin, you appear to be rather foxed tonight." That was an u nderstatement. Again, there was a snort behind him. "Do you want me to accompany you home?" Andrew certainly had no wish to do so; but he could not imagine how Cyril, who liked to drive his own curricle at a fast clip, would get safely home in this rain.

"No, no, I plan to stop at... " he paused, looking confused once more. "I say, I believe I was--yes, I was planning to stop at Isobel's home. Have not--seen her--yet today. I shall walk," he said, enunciating each word carefully. "I ordered my personal carriage to be --to be--painted with the family crest." Again he beamed.

"So soon?" Andrew blurted out. Uncle Elias wasn't even in his grave and Cyril was making changes.

Cyril's ruddy cheeks grew redder. "Yes," he said, his voice becoming haughty. "I am the Marquis now--it is my right."

"Well, perhaps I should go along with you." Studying his cousin, Andrew decided he had never seen Cyril so deep in his cups. "You are foxed, Cousin Cyril; it may be dangerous for you to be walking about." In his confused state Cyril might not go to the correct house.

"I am a Marquis; I can do as I please," Cyril snapped. "You, Cousin Andrew... are nothing but the son of a second son of a Marquis. A gentlemen, no more." His face took on a sneer. "Watch yourself, Cousin, if you want to be included in my celebrations after the--after the funeral."

Andrew had no desire to be included in any celebrations of Cyril's ever. "As you wish," he told his cousin coldly.

"Cyril, you really should listen to Andrew," Edward interrupted. "The weather tonight is beastly; one of us can bring you home. My home is only a few houses away from yours." Wind whistled, rattling the window as Edward spoke, as if for emphasis. "In the morning you will have slept it off, then you can go to visit your intended."

"She will probably not appreciate seeing you thus," Henry pointed out.

Cyril made a motion with his hand as if to strike them all down. "Enough!" he exclaimed. "I am done listening to you. You all sound like a group of old women." He straightened, slowly, and Andrew observed he still wavered. "I am a Marquis," he repeated, in his most haughty voice. "I will do what I please."

His speech ended with another hiccup, which measurably detracted from any dramatic effect.

"I will see you on the morrow, then, Cousin," Andrew said, and returned to his seat.

"Yes." Cyril turned and, unsteadily, left the doorway. As he walked down the hall, Andrew heard him mutter, "I am the Marquis... the old man is gone!" followed by a gleeful chuckle.

Andrew cast a glance at Edward, then Henry. The two were sitting up in their chairs, sardonic looks on their faces.

"Well, he is wasting no time in taking over his duties," Edward said sarcastically.

"I did not expect him to celebrate so blatantly," Andrew said, sighing. "It does seem disrespectful of Uncle Elias." He stood up again and went to stand closer to the fireplace.

"Yes, well, apparently he has no concern for the mourning conventions," Henry said. "It is a shame to see the title pass into the hands of someone with so

little--so little--"

"Maturity?" asked Andrew.

"Precisely."

They were silent for a moment. Then Andrew added, "he has had far too much to drink. I hope he gets to his fiancée's house in one piece. If he reaches the correct house."

"In his state, I would not be surprised if her family threw him out on his ear," Edward said. He stood up and went to stand by Andrew, leaning against the fireplace mantle.

"She has a brother who is not much better," Andrew pointed out.

"Ah, then perhaps he will look after him," Henry said.

Andrew shrugged. "Well, we offered to help."

"Now," Edward said, looking about for a pack of cards, "are you still interested in a game of chance?"

Andrew suspected his friend was trying to lighten the atmosphere. His own taste ran to card games wherein he and his friends wagered lightly; a bottle of wine, perhaps, or a luncheon. He had never participated in the heavy gambling his cousin enjoyed. The sort of expensive wagers for money or family heirlooms that Uncle Elias had halted when he learned of them. The kind of thing that, he supposed, Cyril was now going to indulge in with frequency.

Andrew and his friends were joined by Edward's younger brother Lawrence, and

spent a pleasant hour playing cards and discussing politics.

When they finished they sat and relaxed. Andrew took out his pocket watch to check the time. It was a quarter hour past ten o'clock.

As he pocketed the watch, he heard a sudden commotion. A servant went rushing down the hall; then another.

"I will see what is happening," Lawrence volunteered. He leaped up and hurried down the hall.

Weariness had set in. Andrew got up, and stretched. "It has been a long day, my friends. I believe I will return home."

"A good idea," Edward said. "You have been occupied all day with your Uncle, and his arrangements."

They could hear raised voices, and now more footsteps in the hall. Exclamations ensued. "Gad!" someone cried out. And another, "we warned him!"

An uneasy sensation clutched at Andrew, somewhere in the vicinity of his stomach. He tried to shake it off.

"I will see you day after tomorrow?" he said to Edward and Henry.

Lawrence burst into the room.

"Andrew!"

"Yes?" Seeing the young man's white face, his look of shock, Andrew's pulse quickened.

"Cyril is dead!" Lawrence cried.

As Lawrence said the words, two older men followed him into the room.

"Dead?" Andrew stared at Lawrence, then the other men, his entire body growing cold.

Lawrence indicated the two men. They wore overcoats splattered with water, and their fine boots were covered in mud. "Lord Fornay and Sir Chanders found him in the pond not a hundred yards from here!"

The gentlemen had removed their hats. "I am sorry," Lord Fornay, a quiet man in his 50's, said with dignity. "We left the club minutes ago; when we were passing the pond, the horses acted skittish, and we observed something floating. We stopped the carriage, and fished out your cousin."

Their wet clothes gave evidence to their rescue attempt. While Andrew listened, stunned, they described how they, and their servants, pulled Cyril from the pond and checked him.

"I--I cannot believe..."Andrew's voice faded. "Cyril... dead?"

"There was nothing we could do, " Sir Chanders said, his tone kind. "Unfortunately, he was already gone."

"He must have stumbled and fell down the embankment," Lord Fornay speculated.

"It is deuced slippery out tonight, with all this rain," Sir Chanders added.

"And he was quite foxed," Edward stated, coming to stand beside Andrew and placing a hand on his shoulder.

Andrew could barely believe it. He was glad for his friend's gesture of strength as he felt all his energy leave his body.

Cyril's celebrations had been his own undoing.

"I appreciate your trying to rescue him," Andrew said, his voice strained. "Gentlemen, come by the fire. Henry, can you get them a drink?" Henry hurried to pour them each a brandy. "Poor Cyril," Andrew continued quietly. "This is--quite a shock." He went to a chair and sat down abruptly.

"Especially with his father just passing on," Lord Fornay stated, seating himself too. "You have our deepest sympathies, my lord."

It was at that precise moment that Andrew realized the import of Cyril's death and Lord Fornay's words.

Within the space of a minute he had become the new Marquis of Whitbury.