“Go to bed, Mama, and your headache will be better.”
Lady Weare held her hand to her forehead.
“I meant to take you shopping for new clothes today, Charlotte.”
“I have a good book to finish. But I wish we could shop for some modern furnishings. These rooms are so old-fashioned.”
Lady Weare nodded.
“So do I, my love, but Norville House belongs to Frederick. Your uncle Henry will not permit me to change anything.”
“If cousin Frederick is still alive. Nothing has been changed since great-grandfather’s day, and nothing thrown out. We have this horrid old furniture acquired by his ancestors, where nothing matches, and hangings that are falling to shreds. Grandfather didn’t mind, and Uncle Frederick spent most of his time in France until they killed him.”
“Well, at least we have been spared the more outlandish fantasies of the last generation. Go and read your book. I will go to my room and rest.”
Charlotte went into the green saloon on the entrance floor of Norville House and looked around. There was none of the delicate, elegantly fragile furniture of the sort made popular before the turn of the century by Hepplewhite and Sheridan; none of the inlaid or painted styles of Robert Adam; and no modern hangings. But she was almost at the end of her novel, and soon forgot her unfashionable surroundings. She scattered cushions on a straight-backed walnut sofa until she decided it would be comfortable, and then, oblivious to possible creasing of her simple but elegant sprig muslin gown, curled up so that she could support her head on one hand while the other steadied a book from the circulating library against one of the cushions, in such a position that the reader could follow the adventures of her heroine through the last dozen or so pages of the final volume.
With a deep contented sigh, for she much preferred a novel to shopping, Charlotte turned over a page, and at the same moment there came a knock on the front door. She looked up, her eyes, of a deep blue that was almost violet, enormous in her pale, delicately complexioned face. People said her eyes were her greatest charm, fringed as they were with unbelievably long lashes, and usually sparkling with mischief, but in her opinion her nose was a trifle too short, and her mouth a shade too wide for classical beauty. Not that she cared, and she laughed when people called her pretty. Her only regret was for her black, curly hair, which was as unruly as her behavior tended to be. Although she tried to control both, especially this season, when she was to make her come-out, she was honest enough to admit she did not always succeed with her behavior.
Frowning now at being disturbed by morning callers, she slipped from the sofa and stole across to the window, peeping out to see what visitors were arriving. A landaulet had halted before the door, and a footman was at that moment assisting two ladies to alight. Charlotte exclaimed in annoyance and sped across to the door, intending to ask her uncle’s butler to inform the visitors she was out. As she opened it, however, she paused, for Rivers, the portly butler, was already at the front door. Escape was impossible and Charlotte could only hope that, on hearing her mother was indisposed, the visitors would merely leave their cards and she would not herself be called upon to entertain them.
It was a vain hope. Mrs Maine had no intention of being denied, and from the fact that she was a neighbour in Sussex, considered herself too old a friend to be turned away. Charlotte could hear her rather loud, imperious voice clearly.
“Good day, Rivers,” she was saying as she mounted the steps, followed by her daughter Elizabeth, a ravishing blonde beauty some ten months older than Charlotte.
“Ma’am,” Rivers replied, and Charlotte detected the overly polite tone in his voice which he employed towards people he did not like.
“Is Lady Weare at home?”
“I fear she is indisposed, Ma’am, and has retired to her room with the headache.”
“Headache? Unlike Sophia!”
“It is no doubt the effects of the journey from the country, and of shopping. My lady asked me to apologize should anyone call,” Rivers informed her, but Mrs Maine swept past him, nodding sympathetically.
“Indeed yes, if she’s not feeling the thing she won’t want to be bothered with gossip. However, I’m persuaded she will wish to see me for a moment, as she desired me to bring her the direction of an excellent milliner. Pray send her maid to inform her I am here, Rivers, but will not disturb her above five minutes.”
Rivers attempted to dissuade her, saying his mistress had been most positive she was not to be disturbed, by anyone, but Mrs Maine smilingly shook her head.
“Yes, of course, and normally I would not dream of insisting, but there is something I must say to her ladyship which cannot wait, and she would doubtless have left orders to admit me had she expected me to call. Elizabeth, you can wait for me, for poor Lady Weare will not want both of us intruding on her.”
“I believe Miss Charlotte is in the green saloon. Perhaps you would care to leave your message with her?” Rivers suggested.
“No, that won’t do, I’m afraid, but you can sit with her, Elizabeth. Now, Rivers, must I announce myself?”
Bowing to the inevitable, in the knowledge that Mrs Maine was fully capable of doing just that, Rivers turned to usher Elizabeth into the saloon. Charlotte, who had been standing just inside the slightly open door, looked round swiftly for a means of escape. It presented itself in the double doors leading to a small saloon at the back of the house, and Charlotte whisked herself through and pulled them almost closed, but did not dare close them completely for fear the click of the latch would betray her.
She was about to steal into the hall and escape by way of the back stairs when Rivers, who had handed Mrs Maine over to Lady Weare’s abigail, could be heard opening the front door again. To Charlotte’s dismay she realized the coach containing their luggage, which had followed them from Sussex, had just arrived, and footmen were being summoned to assist in the unloading of it. There was no escape now, and Charlotte silently expressed the hope Mrs Maine would not exceed the five minutes she had promised, for she was most anxious to discover how the heroine of her romance, trapped bound and gagged in the blazing tower of a remote Scottish castle, which was surrounded by a pack of ferocious wolves who were curiously unaffected by fear of the flames, would escape from the vengeance of the wicked cousin who sought to destroy her and steal her fortune.
Frustrated of this satisfaction, she put her eye to the crack of the door and contemplated Elizabeth. She had not penetrated far into the room, but had seated herself primly in a chair beside a heavily ornate table in the centre, and was occupied in smoothing out the fingers in her gloves.
Generally held to be the greatest beauty in their part of Sussex, Elizabeth had perfectly cast features, a pink and white complexion, softly rounded figure, and silky blonde curls which were, like their owner, very correctly behaved.
Although they had known one another from babyhood, the two girls had never been great friends, and Charlotte pondered the reasons. It was not, she assured herself, that she was jealous of Elizabeth’s beauty or the invariable elegance of her appearance, for Charlotte did not care a jot about her own looks, and considered the inordinate amount of time most of the young ladies of her acquaintance spent discussing the latest fashions a shocking waste. Nor was it the fact that Elizabeth, the only child of fond and wealthy parents, was a considerable heiress, for Charlotte had a large expectation herself, although her brother James would inherit the bulk of her father’s vast fortune when he came of age.
It must, she concluded, be Elizabeth’s excessive propriety, and entire lack of willingness for the unconventional exploits Charlotte herself delighted in. That, and her habit of looking at all men with what Charlotte scornfully termed sheep’s eyes, while she simpered and agreed with all they said. Elizabeth would be horrified if she knew Charlotte was at that moment hiding, as a child might, from an unwelcome visitor.
There was no time for further reflections, however, as the door burst open and Harry, Charlotte’s cousin, came impetuously into the room. Harry Norville was a tall, well-built young man of four and twenty, as dark as Charlotte, though his hair was less curly, and his complexion tanned from all the time he spent in the open. He was attired in pale fawn buckskins and gleaming boots, with an excellently fitting superfine coat, and he carried a greatcoat with at least half a dozen capes, and a whip. He cast these and his gloves onto the table and turned to Elizabeth.
“I saw your mother as I was coming downstairs. She told me I would find you in here with Charlotte. Where is she? Why has she left you alone?” he demanded, taking the hand she extended to him and carrying it reverently to his lips.
“Oh, she was not in the room when I came in, though she appears to have been reading here not long since, for surely no one else would wish to read that sort of nonsense,” Elizabeth replied, smiling demurely up at Harry through what Charlotte was convinced were artificially darkened lashes, and indicating the book Charlotte had left open on the sofa.
“Well, that’s all to the good, for I wanted to speak with you. I was just about to call on you. Have you an answer for me? I beg of you, Elizabeth, cease tormenting me and say you will agree to marry me! Why do you not answer me?”
Charlotte stood beside the connecting doors, rigid with dismay. She had just reluctantly decided she must, whatever the chagrin she would feel at having to confess to hiding away from the visitors, reveal her presence, and was wondering if an excuse about looking for something in the small saloon would be believed, but before she could open the door she had heard enough to be certain that Harry, were he to learn his entreaties to Elizabeth had been overheard, would be mortified and justifiably incensed. It had been the fashion amongst the young men of Sussex to profess adoration of Elizabeth, but none had, to Charlotte’s knowledge, offered for her. How could her beloved Harry have chosen such a girl, when there must be dozens more girls more worthy of him? Appalled, Charlotte moved away from the doors, seated herself on a small chair, and tried to cover her ears, but Elizabeth’s clear tones and Harry’s deep ones still came to her.
“You know it is useless, Harry, and I have told you above a dozen times papa would never permit me to marry you, not as matters stand,” Elizabeth replied, patting her immaculate curls and smiling provocatively at him.
“What has he against me? I’ll admit I have no title, and my expectations from my father are no match for your fortune, but there might be Rowanlea! Is that the difficulty? I know it’s uncertain now, but it seems more than probable my father is the real Viscount!”
“Might be Rowanlea,” Elizabeth repeated. “That is the rub. Although I have no need to marry a rich man, papa says it is wrong to marry anyone who cannot equal my fortune, and he, or rather it is mama, has set her heart on my acquiring a title. There is no certainty, Harry, that your father is heir to Rowanlea or the title, should your cousin prove to be still alive.”
“It seems unlikely after all these years when we have heard nought. The Peace was agreed six months ago, and surely they could have contacted us by now if they were alive. That’s the devil of it, we don’t know! Father might have been Viscount Rowanlea these nine years, after his brother was killed in ninety-three, and we might have been living at Rowanlea, but he will not do so until he is assured beyond all doubt young Frederick is not alive too! Instead he spends most of his time keeping up the estate against his possible return!”
“And perhaps for himself and you, if Frederick also died in the Terror,” Elizabeth reminded him gently. “Have you heard aught new?”
“No more than we heard years since, that my uncle had contrived to smuggle his wife and son to safety out of Paris when the King was murdered, but then he went back to help someone else and was taken and killed. The man who told us that much, an émigré, knew no more, for he left them at Versailles to make his own way to the coast. Without Uncle Frederick’s protection they may have been taken too, for we have had no word since. It has been impossible while this war continued.”
Elizabeth regarded him speculatively.
“But it is over now,” she remarked. “The treaty was finally signed at Amiens last month. They could have waited until it was ratified, or whatever they do with these things. Perhaps you will hear soon, for people are flocking to France.”
“Much good the Peace has done us!” he commented. “But you are right, we ought to be able to discover the truth of it at last.”
“Then possibly,” she smiled up at him, “you would be acceptable to my father.”
“Is that all that matters? If I become heir to Rowanlea, you would accept me? Does love not come into it at all?”
“It cannot,” she said with a slight sigh. “If love were the only thing that had to be considered all would be different.”
“So you do love me!” he said triumphantly, seizing her hands in his.
Elizabeth laughed and tried to pull her hands away. “I have not said so! You go too fast, Harry!”
“You do not?” His dismay was ludicrous.
“I have never said so!”
“But—all this winter—you have implied—I have thought— Dash it, Elizabeth, you would not have treated me as you have these past months without loving me!”
“Love is not a consideration where marriage is concerned. At least, so mama assures me,” she said, casting down her eyes and smiling. “I must not love any man until I am wed to him, so how could I tell you such a thing? But I have not said that I could not love you!” She sighed, and peeped up at him. “Mayhap, when you have certain news from France— “
“When!” he interrupted angrily, releasing her hands and turning away to stride about the room. “In the meantime, here you are in London aiming to sell yourself to the highest bidder!”
“No, no,” she responded soothingly. “Harry, come here, I cannot talk with you if you pace about like a wild beast in a cage! I am to be brought out this season, and I want to enjoy it. I want to go to parties and balls. That is natural, surely, especially as it had to be put off last year because of poor grandfather’s death.”
He returned to her side, but stood glowering down at her, ignoring the hand she held out to him.
“And you’ll meet many men, richer or titled men, and forget me. You are heartless, Elizabeth!”
“No, merely practical. Whatever my wishes, and I am not going to give you the satisfaction of hearing what they are, I cannot disoblige my parents by ignoring their plans for me.”
“So you do intend to marry a man merely for money and position?”
“I would not marry anyone whom I could not love,” she replied slowly. “Once we are married, that is. It is unfortunate that love alone is insufficient.”
He was about to reply when Mrs Maine’s voice was heard approaching the saloon, and with an exasperating smile Elizabeth rose and moved gently towards the door as it opened to admit her mother.
“How is dear Lady Weare?” Elizabeth asked.
“Not at all herself, but I’ve recommended an infusion of peppermint and valerian, with a cold lavender compress. They always take away my headaches. Good morning, Harry. I did not expect to see you here, alone with dear Elizabeth. Where is Charlotte?”
“I do not know, but Harry has been entertaining me.”
“Servant, Mrs Maine,” Harry said curtly, and Mrs Maine’s eyes narrowed as she looked swiftly from him to her daughter.
“I expect Elizabeth has been telling you what we have been doing this week. Dear girl, she is so excited, enjoying her first season.”
“Indeed yes. Will you take some refreshment?” he offered.
“Thank you, but no. I mean to call on Lord Fenton and his mother, they arrived in London a couple of days ago, so we must be on our way. Such a pleasant young man, and it’s a very old title. Do you stay long, or will you be going back to supervise your little farm? Dear me, it must cost your father an inordinate amount, buying all that machinery. Little better than toys, Mr Maine says, but there, it keeps you out of mischief! I wish all young men had such harmless interests instead of gambling and prize fighting.”
Charlotte, an unwilling witness to these conversations, clenched her fists in fury. She could not find words sufficiently strong to describe her opinion of Mrs Maine. And how could Elizabeth, when such a handsome and adoring man as Harry wanted her, be so perverse? She had encouraged him to pay her attentions for years, long before she began attending local assemblies and parties in Sussex. Pondering the capriciousness of some of the girls she knew, she returned slowly to retrieve her discarded book.
* * * *
It was as much as Harry could do to conduct the ladies to the door with any semblance of civility, for in this comprehensive speech Mrs Maine had delivered several body blows. Lord Fenton, some years older than himself, and a bachelor with considerable estates next door to the Maine lands, had been dangling after Elizabeth for several months, and Harry was well aware Mrs Maine looked on his suit with complaisance. As Harry stigmatized him as a pompous, self-opinionated bore, and seethed inwardly whenever he saw Elizabeth bestowing smiles on him, the thought of this visit made him grind his teeth in jealous fury.
Mrs Maine’s strictures on gambling and prize fighting were, he knew, directed at him, for though he patronized Gentleman Jackson’s saloon, and attended any prize fights he heard about, and could be wild on occasion, ready to accept any mad wager his cronies suggested, he was not addicted to cards or dice. He enjoyed all forms of sport, was accounted an excellent shot, an expert swordsman, and one of the best amateur men in the ring, as well as an accomplished horseman who could master the wickedest horse, and drive a team to perfection.
But it was her slighting reference to his farm and machinery that hurt most. He had a mechanical bent, and had soon seen how many of the new ideas being introduced could alter farming in a manner previously undreamed of. Conscious of his responsibilities to his nephew, should that young man still be alive, Mr Norville refused to permit Harry to experiment on the broad acres of Rowanlea, but handed over one of his own farms, where Harry had installed a tenant who had the same enthusiasm as he did himself for new ideas.
Together they had introduced new methods of cultivation, followed Robert Bakewell’s methods in stock breeding, and generally attended the sheep-shearing festivals on Coke of Holkham’s estates, where they met farmers from all over England, and even from across the Atlantic, and discussed new ideas. Harry’s constant refrain was that the success he achieved could be multiplied many times over if he could only extend these methods to more land, but his father, while proud of his efforts, remained sceptical of their wider application and bade Harry be content with one farm, for after he inherited his father’s lands he might do as he wished.
Reflecting bitterly on the vain ambitions of her mother, for he was encouraged to hope that without them Elizabeth would be only too willing to accept his offer, and the lack of understanding displayed by her reference to his experimental machines as mere toys, he strode back into the saloon, grasped his greatcoat and whip, and set off for the stables, to resume his intended engagement to join some friends and drive his curricle for several miles along the Oxford road. They were a group of young men determined to emulate the far more exclusive Four Horse Club, but in his present mood Harry found he could not endure the thought of their sedate progress. He was an excellent whipster and wanted to drive at what, for most other drivers, would have been a foolhardy speed.
* * * *
Harry’s fury was such that before he reached the stables he changed his mind and went instead to Bond Street. His mood demanded more vigorous action than a sedate drive, and even if he abandoned his friends and took his own road, he knew that the traffic on any road out of London would be such to prevent him from achieving the speed he craved. A session with John Jackson, if the master allowed it, would be more to his taste.
The champion, however, on seeing Harry’s set expression, shook his head sorrowfully.
“Never fight when you’re angry,” he advised. “You’ll run risks and more likely than not leave yourself open to hits. Take it out on the punching bag, and when you’re calm I’ll take you on for a round.”
Harry ruefully accepted this advice, and after half an hour of imagining the punching bag was Lord Fenton and several other of Elizabeth’s admirers, was permitted to face Jackson himself.
He half expected the champion to treat him gently. Jackson occasionally allowed a favored pupil to score a hit, and when it became clear that was not to be, Harry grew somewhat despondent, inattentive and lacking any defense. When he left his guard wide open and Jackson, with an almost perfunctory tap on the chin, floored him, he lay there for a moment and wondered whether he would be better advised to return to Sussex, forget Elizabeth, and become a hermit.
“Come, Mr Norville, that was not like you. Now I will give you more advice.”
For half an hour Harry, rather bemused and wondering why he was being singled out, had the benefit of Jackson’s attention as he demonstrated a variety of moves and counter moves. By the time he left he knew his technique had improved, and the glow of achievement did something to banish his gloom. Elizabeth might change her mind. There was no certainty Fenton or the others would offer for her. His father might discover he was the rightful owner of Rowanlea. All he had to do was be persistent.
* * * *
Charlotte went slowly back to the sofa where she had resumed her seat, but instead of reading her book she sat there thoughtfully biting her lip. She was aware Harry had been hanging after Elizabeth these past six months, but assumed he was adopting the same attitude towards her as most of the other young men in the neighborhood, and it was merely another form of rivalry amongst them. She certainly had not realized it was so serious, and he had actually made her an offer. Part of her was annoyed he should be attracted to such an insipid female, but far greater contempt was reserved for a girl who could reject the offer of so magnificent a being as Harry, and for such a paltry reason as the uncertainty of his inheriting a title. Mrs Maine’s acid comments she dismissed as irrelevant, for she was well aware many of her mother’s friends considered Harry wild to a fault, indulging in all kinds of crazy pranks and dangerous sporting pursuits, but to her he was perfect, the epitome of all the fictional heroes she had ever sighed over—dashing, debonair, handsome and fun-loving, always ready to encourage her own starts, and to rescue her from the unforeseen results of many of them.
This hero worship of her cousin did not preclude Charlotte’s quarrelling with him frequently and heatedly, for they had been brought up together for the past eight years. When her own father had died, Lady Weare had come to live with her widowed brother and care for his children along with her own. But however violent their quarrels, they were always prompt to come to the defense of one another, and Charlotte fumed at the thought that Elizabeth was not only physically out of reach of retaliation, but also safe from it because she could never divulge to anyone else what she had overheard.
The problem of what to do occupied her for some time, and it was only after concentrated but fruitless cogitation that Charlotte picked up the romance she had been so avidly perusing when she had been interrupted. The miraculous rescue of the beleaguered heroine and her rapturous delight at the discovery that the hero had not, as she had supposed, been enamored of the enchanting young duchess, failed somehow to hold Charlotte’s attention, and when she reached the final page she cast down the volume with an exclamation of disgust.
“What a fudge!” she declared aloud to the empty room. “As if real people ever behaved so! Or real wolves could be distracted by so nonsensical a trick!”
Then she fell into a reverie, wondering how it might be contrived to imprison Elizabeth in the old ruined church tower in Rowanlea woods, and make it impossible for Harry to rescue her. The reflection that finding a pack of wolves in southern England might be an insuperable problem caused her to utter a gurgle of laughter as she perceived the absurdity of it all, but she was soon serious again in renewed contemplation of Harry’s misfortune.
Elizabeth was not good enough for him, but how could he be made to accept such a point of view? It seemed he had been asking her to marry him for some time now, and would not easily desist. Certainly no representations from Charlotte would influence him.
Reluctantly, since she had always tended to regard Harry’s desires as of paramount importance, she conceded that if he truly wished to marry Elizabeth she must endeavor to bring about such a conclusion, but for the moment the means of achieving it escaped her, and she went upstairs to change for dinner still in a thoughtful mood. They were going to the theater that evening and she was looking forward to it. Harry was to escort them, and perhaps Elizabeth would be there. She might have some opportunity of doing something to help Harry.