‘To hell with Christmas dinner. What do you mean by thinking you can exile me to the other end of the county, give away property—’
‘You will kindly mind your language in front of Miss Ellery. I have neither the power nor the inclination to exile you anywhere and I certainly do not have the ability to give away any of the lands, although why you are objecting since they would end up in your hands, I have no idea. I merely suggested to Father that as you wanted to set up your own estate, he give you one of the unentailed properties to the west.’
‘To get me out of the way? And the old fool thinks that because you boast about your swordplay and your riding that you’re a fit heir all of a sudden?’ Matthew was pacing up and down, hands clenched, shoulders hunched, for all the world like an angry bull, Tess thought.
‘Excuse me. This is obviously a family matter.’ She stepped back into the passageway, then stopped behind the shelter of a screen. She did not want to eavesdrop, but nor did she like the edge of violence in Matthew’s ranting.
‘I am the heir. It is not a matter of choice.’ Alex was hanging on to his patience somehow. ‘I suggested he double your allowance, set you up with a good property in recompense for the fact you’ve been landed with all the work up to now. If you hate the idea, then stay here.’
‘And watch you mincing around?’
‘I do not mince.’ It sounded to Tess as though Alex’s patience was stretched to breaking point. Why his brother seemed to be constantly jibing about his masculinity baffled her.
‘Of course, I was forgetting you were a great swordsman. So show me.’
There was the sound of metal scraping against metal, then Alex said sharply, ‘Take care, Matthew, there are no buttons on those foils.’
‘All the better to prick you with, brother dear.’
Tess looked round the screen in time to see Mathew, foil in right hand, throw a second at Alex. He caught it by the hilt and pointed it at the floor. ‘Don’t be a fool.’
‘What, scared of a little sport?’ Matthew was in a fighting stance, feet spread, left arm out behind, the unblunted foil pointing directly at Alex’s heart.
‘Not at all, but do tell me, are you attempting to alter the succession?’ Alex enquired and lifted his own weapon, adopting the same position. Tess could not see his face, but his posture seemed dangerously relaxed. She recalled how he had looked just before he’d hit the sailor on the ship and felt reassured.
‘Alter the succession? No, you’re welcome to it, but I would be interested to see whether you bleed water or red blood.’
‘At this time in the morning, coffee.’ Alex moved suddenly, a flickering lunge with the blade, and Matthew jumped back. Tess winced at the clash of metal and the two stopped talking and began to fight, it seemed to her, in deadly earnest.
Matthew was more aggressive, stockier and heavier and, to her ignorant eye, far more serious. Alex moved less, but with more grace, and he used his foil with an economy and accuracy that seemed to expend far less effort.
His brother was panting now, with sweat on his brow. Alex, as the fight brought him circling round to face her, looked cool. Matthew lunged straight for Alex’s ribs. Tess clapped her hand over her mouth to stop the scream as Alex stood stock still, let the blade come, then sidestepped at the last moment. His left hand came down to fasten on Matthew’s wrist and with a twist the foil went clattering against the wall.
In the ringing silence Tess braced herself for Matthew to lash out at his brother, but he straightened, his wrist still in Alex’s grasp. ‘Where did you learn to fight like that?’
‘Germany. Where did you?’
‘Father. We’ve been wrong about you, haven’t we?’ Matthew seemed half sullen, half embarrassed.
‘Because I can use the foils?’ Alex grinned. ‘You should get around more, little brother. The man who taught me swordplay fought, shall we say, for the opposition. So does the man who gave me that in Gentleman Jackson’s boxing ring.’ He touched a finger to the thin scar on his cheekbone. ‘But yes, you were wrong about me. I hate to break it to you, but an interest in the arts and a disinclination to slaughter everything with fur, feathers or fins is not a reliable indicator of very much, I’m afraid.’
Tess wondered what on earth they were talking about. But whatever it was, it had changed Matthew’s attitude. ‘You’ve boxed with Jackson? The Jackson?’
‘There is only one.’ Alex stretched up to hook the foils back in their place on the wall. ‘Come on, let’s go and have a look at the maps, discuss which of those two manors you want and I’ll show you a really tricksy cross-buttock throw the Gentleman taught me.’