But Angel!" expostulated the eldest son of the Duke of Medcliff, "you cannot suppose that I am after your fortune!?
"Of course not, Damian," responded Lady Evangelina Brenthaven with dignity. "I was merely pointing out that most of my suitors are more interested in my inheritance or my title than anything else."
"Fustian!" The young man studied her golden ringlets, her exquisite heart-shaped face, and her deceptively melting eyes, the blue of the sky at dusk. "With a face and form like yours, you'd be the toast of the town if you hadn't a penny to your name."
"But I would not have received seventeen proposals of marriage, eighteen now. Besides, that is quite as bad. All you gentlemen care about is a pretty face, you don't want to know what is behind it, what I am really like."
"Dash it, Angel, I've known you since you were seven!?
"I expect that is why it has taken you the better part of two Seasons to make up your mind to offer for me," said Angel gloomily.
Remembering some of her more outrageous youthful exploits, Lord Wycherly looked guilty. "That's all over," he assured her hastily and hopefully. "I worship the ground you tread, and your face floats through my dreams like the moon in the night sky."
"Very pretty, but you are just proving my point."
"Then you really won't marry me?"
"Oh, Damian, I like you very well but I want to be in love with the man I marry, and I want him to love me, not to worship the ground I tread on. I am honoured by your offer, sir, but I do not believe we should suit."
Lord Wycherly sighed. "Perhaps you are right, though I'm deuced fond of you, you know. I hope you find the right man in the end. Shall I see you at Almack's tomorrow?"
"Yes, but if you dance with me, everyone will be sure you did not come up to scratch. All the old tabbies think I have not married because I am casting out lures for you. Could you not stand in a corner looking gloomy, like Lord Byron, so they will know your hopes are blighted?"
"And have Caro Lamb transfer her allegiance to me? Not on your life! I'll drop a private word in Lady Jersey's ear, if you like. "Silence? will make sure everyone knows."
"I daresay they will all think me run mad to whistle such an offer down the wind."
Modesty forbade any expression of agreement, but Lord Wycherly would not have been surprised to hear Angel's mother's reaction to the news.
"Dearest, how could you? He will be duke one day, and such an amiable young man! I quite thought you meant to have him!?
"I did consider it, Mama, then found I could not." Angel had run her parents to earth in the library, a spacious, vaulted apartment on the ground floor of Tesborough House. Her mother stood beside the desk at which her father was seated, and both had turned to face her when she entered to make the half-defiant announcement of her rejection of yet another suitor.
"But Angel, you are nearly nineteen!" cried Lady Tesborough in despair. "Damian Wycherly is quite the most eligible bachelor on the town and the only young and unmarried heir to a dukedom. You will never find another match half as good!?
"Do you dislike him, Angel?" asked the marquis quietly.
"Oh, no, Papa, but he is like a brother, not at all romantic. I want to be in love with my husband, as Mama is with you?and you with her."
Lord Tesborough guiltily removed his arm from his wife's comfortably plump waist. "Your mother and I are exceptionally lucky," he pointed out. "Few of our rank marry for love. If you feel affection and esteem for Wycherly, that is a sounder basis for marriage than most are founded on."
"I've told him I'll not wed him. I believe I've met every eligible man in London and I care for none of them. If they are not after my fortune or my title, then they want to set me on a pedestal and simply admire me. Oh, how I wish I were poor and plain!?
"You would not like it at all," her mama assured her anxiously. "Only think how depressing to have to shop at Grafton House, especially if nothing became one!?
"But if a gentleman admired you, you could be sure that it was truly you he wanted."
"Only you would not meet any gentlemen."
Angel dismissed this possibility with a shrug. "Well, perhaps I should not like to be poor, but I begin to think I may never marry."
"There is no reason you should feel obliged to do so," said the marquis, to his wife's horror. "Tesborough Park will go with the title to your cousin Bertram, but you will be a wealthy woman in your own right and may please yourself."
"Frederick, do not say so! Angel, do not heed your father! Indeed, a woman's only happiness is in marriage and I could not bear it if you were to turn into an eccentric old maid like that dreadful Matilda Hemford." Lady Tesborough's lower lip was trembling, and tears sparkled in eyes as blue as her daughter's.
"Come, Louisa, do not distress yourself. You cannot mean to compare our Angel to Lady Matilda!?
"I've talked to Lady Matilda and I think she enjoys life very well," said Angel rebelliously. "And look at Cousin Catherine. I know you offered her a third Season and she refused. She is twenty-four now and perfectly content."
"Dear Catherine! But she is a bluestocking, you know. The case is quite different. Maria was always inclined to be bookish, even when we were children. I cannot think why, for I was never in the least clever. Your grandmother was forever taking her to task for it, and none of us was in the least surprised when she only caught a clergyman. Not that I mean to say a word against dear Clement, for they are nearly as happy as I am with your papa, Angel. But they did encourage Catherine to study overmuch and it is fatal, I assure you. Gentlemen cannot abide a bluestocking and the poor child never took, though she is quite well looking. A trifle tall, perhaps. So you see!?
"I do not see at all," Angel said, "for I am not in the least bookish, as you know well, and no one has ever accused me of being so much as a quarter inch taller than the beau idéal. I am not quite at my last prayers, Mama, so do not despair yet. Let's go shopping. That always cheers you up."
"Oh, yes! I saw the prettiest Paisley shawl in Bond Street. It will go to perfection with your blue mull." She bent to kiss her husband's cheek. "We'll leave you in peace to write your speech, dear. It is very shocking that the Prince has chosen Lord Liverpool, I am sure, and poor Mr Perceval scarce in his grave."
"Perceval was a Tory too, love," said the marquis cheerfully. "Don't bother your head about the state of the nation, but go and make yourselves beautiful for those of us who must."
Angel kissed her father. "Thank you for not reading me a lecture," she whispered. "I did not mean to upset Mama."
"It's your life, child, but your mother must be concerned for your happiness, you know."
"And she has found hers in marriage. Oh, Papa, I hope I shall too, but where shall I ever find another man like you?" * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, as Lady Tesborough settled herself in the comfortable carriage beside her daughter, she echoed this sentiment.
"Your papa is a man in a million," she declared with a contented sigh. "Always occupied with his wretched politics but never too busy for his family. There cannot be another such husband in the world."
"I greatly fear not, and in that case how can you expect me to marry?" teased Angel.
A thoughtful frown marred her ladyship's smooth brow. "I am not at all certain that you would not do better with a gentleman of quite different character, dearest. You are much more independent than I ever was, and much cleverer. I do not think it would suit you always to be taken care of and cossetted. You are so very enterprising, Angel. Only think of all the scrapes you fall into! I was always content to sit with my embroidery, but you must forever be on the go."
"In fact, "Angel? suits you far batter than it does me."
"That is for your looks, though you were the sweetest-tempered child. Evangelina is a pretty name but too long to be using all the time. Your papa took one look at you in your cradle and shortened it immediately."
Lady Tesborough prattled on about her daughter's infancy. Angel lent half an ear to her talk while she pondered her mother's earlier words. Though it made her feel disloyal to her father, she could see that there was some truth in them. Of all her admirers she was most attracted to those with whom she could argue, those who did not expect her to behave like a demure debutante but stretched her abilities.
There was Sir Derek Amboyne, who had taught her piquet and won two-thirds of her quarterly pin money in the process. She had managed to win most of it back before Papa had suggested it was unwise to be seen so much in the company of a notorious gambler and rakehell. Captain Arthur Spence had challenged her to drive his four-in-hand down Rotten Row at the hour of the fashionable promenade, and had coached her daily in handling the ribbons until she was sure she might have managed it. What a pity he had been sent to Spain before she could try! And then there was Lord Peter Doverhaugh, whose odious conservatism had forced her to recall and employ every Whiggish argument she had ever heard from her father's dinner guests. She had not made a Whig of him but he had been obliged to concede once or twice, and she could still relive the glow of triumph she had felt when he had admitted that the prosecution of the Hunt brothers for sedition was a disgrace.
Perhaps her mother was right: a protective, forbearing, and ever-patient husband would not suit her. With a sudden insight, she realised that Mama had never grown up. She was a darling, but she had never had to accept responsibility for anything more exacting than a dinner menu or the ordering of a new ball dress. There had always been someone to guide her every step, to do her thinking for her, and no need to rebel ever troubled the even tenor of her life.
The carriage stopped before the bow-windowed shop of Bond Street's most fashionable modiste. Angel leant over to hug and kiss her surprised mother, as the step was let down by the footman who would carry her every purchase, large and small, and guard her against the least jostling from the busy crowds.
No, that was not what Angel wanted. She was filled with a vague restlessness?one that was unappeased by the acquisition of a dashing Leghorn bonnet trimmed with a scarlet feather. * * * *
The next morning, clad in breeches belonging to her cousin Bertram and accompanied only by that persuadable youth, she rode astride her hack down St James? Street beneath the windows of White's and Watier's. Three things saved her from instant notoriety: she had chosen an hour when few of the dandies usually to be found ogling passersby had yet risen from their beds; it was the end of the Season and the Haut Ton was beginning to disperse to country houses, watering places, or resorts such as Brighton; and last but not least, the previous evening Lady Caroline Lamb had dressed as a page and insinuated herself into an all-male party at Lord Byron's lodging.
Beside such behaviour, Lady Evangelina Brenthaven's exploit paled to insignificance, to her annoyance.
Before she could think up something more outrageous, a letter arrived from her aunt Maria.
Aunt Maria's husband, the Reverend Clement Sutton, held an excellent living in Banbury, a thriving market town north of Oxford. His own inheritance, together with his wife's dowry and the income from his parish, allowed a life of comfort, if not of elegance. Maria's sister Louisa, the Marchioness of Tesborough, had introduced his daughter Catherine to Society at the marquis's expense, and though no brilliant match had come of it, the rector was deeply grateful. Now he saw his way clear to at least a partial repayment of his brother-in-law's generosity.
He had arranged to exchange, for the months of July and August, his Midland parish against one in the Lake District. Knowing Lord Tesborough's political inclinations, he guessed that he would be tied to London for a great part of the summer by the present uncertainty as to who would form the new government under Lord Liverpool. Louisa rarely left her husband, and while Lady Evangelina would certainly receive many invitations, there would be few she could accept without her parents? chaperonage.
Would Angel, Aunt Maria wondered, like to accompany the Suttons into Westmorland?
"Oh, yes, Mama, I should like it above all things! You know I have wanted to see the lakes this age. I cannot imagine anyone better to be there with than Cousin Catherine, for I am sure she knows all Mr Wordsworth's poems by heart."
"So that you need not be put to the trouble of searching for the relevant stanzas," teased her father. "Your aunt mentions that the parish of Barrows End is under the patronage of the Earl of Grisedale, who lives nearby. I was at school with his brother, Toby Markham, and met him quite often though I do not know him well. I will give you a letter of introduction."
"No, Papa, don't do that," said Angel slowly. "I have an idea."
"Oh, dear!" moaned Lady Tesborough in trepidation. "I always have palpitations when you say that, dearest."
"It is nothing very dreadful," assured her daughter, but the beginnings of a gleeful smile were far from reassuring. "I shall go incognito, call myself plain Miss Smith or something. And yes, I shall make myself plain too, tie back my hair and wear a cap and dark, dowdy dresses, and behave very demurely."
"But Angel!" wailed her ladyship, appalled.
"I do not think it such a bad idea," interrupted her husband. "Perhaps it might at least teach you to count your blessings."
"Maybe I should dye my hair," said Angel consideringly.
"Indeed you will not! I never heard such nonsense in my life."
"Very well, Mama, if you think I ought not. I daresay I can pin it up under a cap, or I can cut it short."
"No! Angel, how can you suggest such a thing! Frederick, you must not let her. Do not sit there laughing, Frederick. She will be wanting to paint her face next!?
"Oh no, I mean to go as a Puritan, not a Cyp ... an opera dancer."
"That is something to be thankful for," said his lordship. "Come, Louisa, do not let yourself be thrown into high fidgets. It will do her no harm to see how the other half lives, not that I suppose she means to go without her allowance for the nonce. If Sutton will permit this masquerade, your sister will take good care that it does not get out of hand. Angel is not like to meet any acquaintance in the wilds of the North."
"Thank you, Papa. I will write to Aunt Maria at once. Will you write a note to my uncle to persuade him? If you do not object, surely he will not."
Finding herself outvoted, Lady Tesborough summoned up a last feeble protest.
"Angel, pray do not call yourself Miss Smith. Such a common name." * * * *
A fortnight later, early on a sunny Friday morning, the Tesborough travelling carriage departed from Grosvenor Square bearing Lady Evangelina Brenthaven, her maid, and a footman out of town. Descending at the Catherine Wheel in Henley some hours later, the young lady ordered a private parlour, where she consumed a hearty luncheon. Then, with much stretching and yawning, she requested a chamber where she might lay herself down for half an hour, being shockingly fatigued by her journey. She and her abigail retired to the inn's best bedchamber, having paid the reckoning in advance.
Some thirty minutes and a great deal of giggling later, Miss Evelyn Brent, a sober young woman in a grey stuff gown and a plain, concealing poke bonnet, slipped down the back stairs to the stableyard. A grinning footman, sworn to secrecy, handed her into the Tesborough coach, where she huddled back into a corner.
Her maid, meanwhile, sailed openly down the main staircase.
"Her ladyship forgot her comb," she announced with a condescending nod to the innkeeper's wife, waving the misplaced article as evidence of the truth of her words.
A moment later she joined her mistress in the carriage, the footman swung up behind, and the old coachman, shaking his head, drove the fresh team out of the yard and headed north on the Oxford Road.