Mr Penchley had been on edge the whole trek from Suez to Cairo, chivvying the caravan master to hurry, and insisting on a late stop and an early start from their overnight camp. Papa was determined not to stay over in Cairo, and Mr Penchley had apparently made it his mission to ensure they arrived in plenty of time for the Nile ferry.
Sally was happy to cooperate. Day by day, hour by hour, they grew closer to Europe and to her beloved. Was he still in Greece? Or had he travelled to Italy? She had already written a letter to both places, letting him know that she was heading home to England, and that she would be waiting for him when he came.
The weaker members of their party—Mama and Aronui's little boy Kahu—coped well with the travel despite the oppressive heat. Indeed, Kahu kept both Aronui and the ayah they'd hired in India on their toes as he slipped away from their attention to be with his new friends, the solemn camel drivers and the merry band of boys that herded the baggage train.
Mr Penchley was their only casualty, ignoring the need for frequent drinks and succumbing to fever and nausea as Cairo came into view.
They went straight to the ferry and settled him in his cabin, with a servant to watch him and make sure he drank. The last Sally saw of him before he was half-carried below, he was protesting that he would be fine, and that he needed to talk to the captain to make sure they sailed straight away. Papa assured him it was all arranged.
Sally settled in a deck chair to watch the last of the baggage being brought aboard. She was sorry for Mr Penchley, of course, but she rather hoped he would remain indisposed for the rest of the trip down the Nile. He had made a nuisance of himself since they'd left the islands, offering fulsome compliments, commenting on his admiration for her, standing too close. She'd hoped Maddox's company would cool his ardour, but it seemed to spur him to greater efforts.
On their third night out from Calicut, he had come upon her alone late at night taking measurements of the star system known as the Southern Cross. He'd fallen to one knee and avowed eternal devotion, pressing through with a proposal of marriage despite her efforts to deflect it, and wasting time during which she could have been making a crucial measurement.
She refused him as politely as she could while still making it clear that he had no chance of winning her hand, and after that, made sure she always had a trusted companion for her nocturnal activities.
Just as well, too, for two nights before they reached Suez, he surprised her while Aronui was taking a turn around the deck with Maddox and attempted to embrace her. When Aronui and Maddox came running at his screech, they found him on his back on the deck, with Sally's knife to his throat.
She accepted his apology, though Aronui and Maddox argued for telling her father. She reminded them that Penchley had been a hero when Crowhurst escaped. She didn't give her other reasons: that she felt a little guilty about suspecting him of stealing her letters and for not realising he was growing attached to her. She told her two friends to say nothing to her father—unless Penchley ever again approached her with amorous intentions. "I am betrothed, Mr Penchley, as you have known full well since you entered my father's service. And even were I not betrothed, you and I would not suit."
After that, he had watched her with something like despair, and she wondered if his burst of activity on the overland trek from Suez to Cairo was his way of subduing the feelings she both resented and felt a little guilty over.
Not that she had ever given the man any encouragement! She was sorry to hurt him, that was all. She had nothing to feel guilty about!
They pulled away from the wharf and were soon in the river's current, using both wind power and the speed of the river. Sally moved to where she could keep an eye on the main road from Cairo to the north. Maddox had gone to see if there was any mail, anxious for word from home, and had assured Papa he would hire a horse and soon catch up.
Sure enough, no more than half an hour had passed and the sun was setting when Sally caught sight of him: first his cloud of dust and then he, himself, galloping as if pursued by brigands, though the one rider that followed him was undoubtedly sent by the horse's owner to take it back to Cairo after Maddox boarded the ferry.
The two riders passed the boat, and Sally hurried to the railing to peer after them. He'd join them from the village she could see in the distance, she supposed. She hoped Maddox had good news about his father.
Her parents were waiting with her when Maddox clambered aboard from a small dhow, tossing a grin and his thanks to the man who'd ferried him out into the river. The grin didn't reach his eyes.
"Maddox?" Sally asked, as he reached the deck, "What news?"
He met her eyes, his own concerned. "My father is much improved, but I have other news..." he looked around at the crew and other passengers who were watching the exchange. "Shall we go into our parlour, Your Graces?"
The cabin they'd hired as their private parlour was tiny, but big enough for the four of them. "There's no easy way to say this," Maddox said, as soon as they were alone. "I'm sorry, Your Graces, Sally, but Aunt Eleanor is dead."
Maddox's letters from home—and the ducal package he'd also collected—held more bad news. The Duke of Wellbridge was gone, too, and Sally could not have said which blow struck hardest. The sights of Egypt they had so enjoyed more than a year ago went unseen as the small family group sat sharing memories of their loved ones.
Grandmama had been gone not quite two months, and Uncle Wellbridge had died shortly before they left the islands. "I wasn't there," Papa kept saying. "I should have been in England."
"He would have been, if not for me," Sally whispered to Maddox. "He took the post of Governor to protect me."
"If you are assigning blame, my dear, put it on Crowhurst, where it belongs," Maddox advised.
Sally shook her head. If she had been braver, more prepared to face down the scandal... No, it went back further, to the misbehaviour that led to Toad's exile. That was her fault, all of it. He would never have come to Haverford House if she hadn't sent for him; would never have indulged her in forbidden delights if she hadn't tempted him beyond his frail store of self-control.
Perhaps they would have been wed for years by now, and she would be at his side, helping him in his grief and sharing hers.
Sally was barely aware of her subdued maid and others of the ducal party coming and going with food and drink. The days seemed both interminable and over in no time, and the arrival in Alexandria took her by surprise.
Maddox took charge of the transfer to the Reys, and Maddox sent to the waiting ship, but Mama roused herself from hovering over Papa when the captain arrived wearing a black armband to acknowledge the loss of their owner's husband.
"Mourning. We must go into mourning, Sally. Maddox, captain, we cannot sail today. We need to arrange our mourning wardrobe."
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...