The parlour door-latch clicked. Felix glanced up, on the verge of embarrassment at being discovered on his hands and knees on the worn brown drugget carpet, but of course it was only Fanny.
His little rider slid off his back and ran to her, black ringlets flying. "Tía, have you buyed me a great big sugar plum?"
"Bought," Fanny corrected automatically, setting down her basket on the table. As Felix sprang to his feet and dusted the knees of his buckskin breeches, he saw that she was hot and tired, her brown curls limp under the jaunty straw hat with its single sagging plume. Though it was still May, Brussels sweltered under a cloudless sky.
"Did you bought me one?" Anita repeated obediently.
Fanny's round face dimpled in a smile at Felix. "Yes," she assured the child, "you shall have a sugar plum but you must eat your bread and milk first. Did you thank Tío Felix for giving you a ride?"
"Not yet." Spreading her skirts with two tiny hands, Anita wobbled a curtsy, the tip of her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth in her concentration. "There," she said with a beam of triumph. "Thank you, Tío Felix, my lord. You are a good horse."
Laughing, Felix swept her up in his arms and kissed her soft cheek. "And you are a good rider."
"She should be. She started on a Spanish mule before she was two." Fanny took off her hat, crossed to the tarnished looking-glass over the mantel, and did her best with deft fingers to set her curls in order. "Thank you for taking care of her, my lord," she said over one slim shoulder. "The marketing took longer than I expected, I'm afraid. There are more and more soldiers in the streets every day, which I daresay we should be glad of."
"Certainly, since sooner or later it is bound to come to a battle. According to all reports, Boney is still drawing troops to his Eagles."
"But half of ours are raw recruits, or Belgian farm lads of doubtful allegiance. Many of them are mere boys, and of the Brunswickers, too, however impressive they look in their black with those horrid skulls and crossbones on their shakos! Still, today you will see the flower of the British Army. I trust I have not made you late for your appointment with Lady Sophia--or is it Madame Lisle you are taking to the Review?" she added with a quizzing look.
"Lady Sophia," Felix answered curtly. Miss Fanny Ingram should not even be aware of his Belgian chère-amie, let alone mention her. But then, one could not expect the delicacy of a well-bred, sheltered young lady, the exquisite sensibilities of a Lady Sophia, in a female who had followed the drum from birth.
Now what had she said to make him poker up? Fanny wondered. Lord Roworth usually took her teasing in good part. Of course: she ought not to have mentioned his mistress. Mama would have been equally shocked at her daughter's frankness, but Mama was buried somewhere in the Spanish mountains south of Coruña. After six years, it was difficult to remember all her lessons.
Still, if Fanny should not have spoken so, Lord Roworth ought not to have set up a mistress when he was assiduously courting a noble beauty. Frank had told her about Katrina Lisle, and they had shaken their heads together over the peculiar ways of the nobility.
Felix Roworth was handsome enough to keep any number of females happy, with his dark-gold locks, ruffled now by Anita's clasp, his brilliant blue eyes, his tall, broad-shouldered form. But Fanny had no intention of being numbered among those languishing females. Nor had she any intention of letting his disapproval abash her.
"Then you had best be on your way, sir," she said tranquilly.
He grinned, his momentary stiffness vanished. "Lady Sophia does not care for tardiness in her suitors, true, but I'm not late. Wellington is not to arrive until two, I understand."
"Well, you should know, intimate with Old Hookey as you are. Poor Frank and Captain Mercer have been out there with their guns since early this morning. They have to see that the men polish the barrels, as well as their buttons, buckles and boots. Though the Duke never has a good word for the Artillery, Colonel Frazer insists that today they shine as brightly as the rest of the Cavalry."
"Do you go?"
"Not I. Twenty miles, in this heat, to see our fellows dressed up in their fancy coats?" She spoke lightly, with scorn, to hide her wistful desire to see the Review. Her brother's Horse Artillery battery was seldom on parade.
Though usually less than perceptive, Lord Roworth saw through her pretense of indifference. "I wish I might offer to take you, but Lady Sophia is expecting my escort and I've borrowed a curricle which will only hold two, with her groom up behind."
Even if he had a spacious barouche, Lady Sophia would hardly appreciate the presence of a dowdy stranger and a small child on her excursion, Fanny thought sardonically. Just as well it was impossible, but it was a kind notion, typical of his good nature. Whatever his faults, he was a dear.
"Never mind," she said, turning to practical matters, "I really must finish Anita's new dress. She grows shockingly fast."
"My new dress is blue and it has scarlet ribbons," Anita announced with pride. "That's the same colours like Tío Frank's best coat."
"As Tío Frank's coat. Come, Anita, we must take the basket to Henriette in the kitchen."
"I'll carry it," Felix offered, picking it up. "It's heavy! What a deuced nuisance that Henriette will not go to market."
"She is far too busy, not to mention too fat. Madame Vilvoorde used to go herself, I collect, but now she is a landlady and above such things."
"Landlady! She lets out a few shabby rooms at an exorbitant rent!" he snorted. "You ought not to have to shop for provisions."
"I don't mind. Believe me, it is easy compared to foraging in the Peninsula!"
"That I can believe. I'd send Trevor, but he would quit me on the instant, though he's been with me for years. Already he's sorely tried by having to refurbish my old clothes to make them fit for the company I must keep."
"And the company you choose to keep," she said tartly. After all, the pursuit of Lady Sophia was no part of his duties. "No, it would never do to send a gentleman's gentleman to purchase onions and a leg of mutton. Hoskins, being a mere trooper, helps when he can, as indeed he did in Spain."
"I like Hoxins," Anita observed. "He made my so'jers for me."
"Your brother's batman? I suppose he is on parade today with the rest."
"Yes, and you will miss the parade--or at least vex Lady Sophia--if you do not go now. Thank you for your offer, Lord Roworth, but I'll take the basket to Henriette; it is not so very heavy."
"I'll help you," Anita piped up.
Felix went out with them into the cramped entrance hall and paused at the bottom of the stairs to watch them go down the passage to the kitchen. The basket was heavy, but she bore it with an ease that belied her slight frame, despite the drag of Anita hanging onto the handle and trotting alongside.
He smiled at the sight. The Ingrams' three-year-old ward was an obliging child, and she bid fair to become a raging beauty, endowed as she was with the black hair and eyes of her Spanish mother.
He lost his smile as the door on the other side of the hall clicked shut. That damn woman spying again! Not only did Madame Vilvoorde overcharge for her paltry chambers and refuse to do the marketing, she kept vigil over her lodgers' every move. Doubtless she was now listening for the creak of the uncarpeted stairs as he took them two at a time on his way to his bedchamber.
Still, rooms were hard to come by in Brussels at present, and even if he found them, pleasanter lodgings in a better part of town would cost more than he could afford.
Nor could he hope for more agreeable fellow-tenants than Captain Frank Ingram of the Royal Horse Artillery, his twin sister, and their small charge. The captain had been among the first troops sent out from England. Felix had arrived in Brussels earlier, after following Wellington from Vienna, but he then made a quick visit to London. On his return to Madame Vilvoorde's he found the Ingrams just moved in. Accustomed to the free and easy interchange of army life, they had welcomed him with unpretentious friendliness.
As they shared a common dining parlour, he had perforce seen a good deal of them in the six weeks since. His habitual reserve was not proof against their good-natured cheerfulness. Now they were among the select few who knew that he had a purpose in Brussels beyond the social round.
Lady Sophia Gerrold would be scandalized if she ever discovered that Felix, Viscount Roworth, heir to the Earl of Westwood, was employed by the Jewish banker, Nathan Rothschild of London. The daughter of a marquis was entitled to hold herself on high form.
Fortunately, Lady Sophia need never know. As far as she and most others were concerned, he was in Brussels to enjoy the entertainments of the transplanted Season, as she was. Half the Ton had deserted London.
"My lord, your hair! My lord, your cravat!" Trevor's wail of outrage broke in upon his thoughts.
Felix glanced at the mirror on his dressing table and grinned. Anita had used his elegantly tied neckcloth as reins. He looked as if he had been dragged backwards through a bramble bush. Thank heaven only Fanny had seen him.
"I rely upon you to make me fit for Lady Sophia's eyes within ten minutes," he drawled.
Ten minutes later, a fresh cravat in a Waterfall about his neck, his hair brushed into the fashionable Windswept style, his coat creaseless across his broad shoulders, he ran downstairs. His friend Lord Fitzroy Somerset had lent his curricle since, as Wellington's Military Secretary, he would be riding with his commander today. After all, Felix thought, Rothschild had hired him because of his connections in the ton, so he might as well make use of those connections.
He drove through the busy, sultry streets, between the stepped façades of the Flemish burghers' houses, to the Rue de Belle Vue. Here Lady Sophia's parents, the Marquis and Marchioness of Daventry, had rented a splendid hôtel. When the butler showed Felix into the ornately rococo drawing room, he was met by a masculine chorus of groans.
"You're late, Roworth," cried a large young man with luxuriant whiskers, dressed in the scarlet and gold of the Life Guards. "Lady Sophia, punish the wretch by coming to the Review with me."
An older officer in Rifleman's green pressed his claim to the Goddess's exclusive company.
"Milady will be more comfortable in my barouche," suggested a dark, suave gentleman in impeccable morning dress. A large diamond flashed in the folds of his neckcloth. Felix recognized the Comte de St Gérard, a Belgian civilian of reputedly enormous wealth.
"I am promised to Lord Roworth, gentlemen," said Lady Sophia with unruffled calm as she rose gracefully to her feet and offered him her gloved hand. He bowed over it, drinking in the refreshing sight of her cool beauty.
From ash-blond ringlets to dainty foot clad in blue kid, Lady Sophia was perfection. Long-lashed eyes the pale blue of a winter sky, a delicate oval face touched with the blush of wild roses, straight little nose, willowy figure, thirty thousand pounds ... but of course it was not for her dowry that Felix wanted her.
If her beauty were not enough to explain his devotion, he admired her grace and elegance, and above all her unshakeable dignity. The Goddess was the very patterncard of what a high-born young lady should be.
He sighed. Pride forbade his offering for her while his family's fortunes were at low ebb, though his birth matched her own. Yet he could dream of his parents' unqualified approbation--denied him since he went to work for Rothschild--if he took her home to Westwood as his bride. He could dream of the triumph of carrying her off under the noses of his rivals.
She handled her many importunate suitors with well-bred composure. Felix watched her depress the pretensions of an enamoured youth with a blank stare of feigned incomprehension. Rumour had it that in the three years since her come-out, she had dashed the hopes of a full score. Lady Daventry was said to despair of her fastidious daughter. Her younger, plainer sister had already contracted a respectable match and had stayed at home in England with her betrothed's family.
"Sorry, fellows," Felix said smugly, content for the moment with a small victory. "Shall we be off, ma'am?"
Though he had, in fact, kept Lady Sophia waiting for a few minutes, it was beneath her dignity to take him to task, let alone to tease him, as Fanny would have. As he escorted her from the room under the jealous gaze of his rivals, she spoke sedately of the unseasonable weather and the necessity of always carrying a parasol to protect the complexion.
"Your complexion is worth protecting," he assured her with fervour. She looked a trifle displeased at so personal a compliment, so he went on to praise her parasol, an elaborate affair of blue silk trimmed with Ghent lace.
"I purchased it yesterday," she told him complacently. "It is shocking how quickly colours fade in the sun, I vow. None of my others is fit to be seen."
One of Lord Daventry's grooms was waiting with the curricle. Handing Lady Sophia in, Felix said, "I have borrowed Lord Fitzroy's carriage. I trust you will find it as comfortable as St Gérard's barouche." He joined her on the seat, the groom swung up behind, and they set off.
"In general I consider the curricle to be an unsuitable vehicle for a female of delicate principles--even a trifle fast. However, Mama assures me that I am a deal too nice in my notions. After all, we are abroad and cannot expect the same attention to the details of propriety as in England."
"You will not drive too rapidly. Major Peters drove me in his phaeton at great speed last week. I was forced to point out to him that haste is vulgar and unseemly."
"We shall not go above a trot," promised Felix, who had hired the best horses he could afford in the hope of impressing the Goddess with his skill in handling the ribbons.
As a result of their sloth on the road, they reached the parade ground, a natural amphitheatre on the banks of a river, considerably after the Duke and his entourage. The rim of the declivity was crowded with the carriages of fashionable ladies in pastel gauzes, elegant gentlemen in swallowtail coats and polished top boots. All the world had driven out from Brussels and from the French king's temporary court at Ghent to view the splendour of the British Cavalry.
In the carnival atmosphere, Felix had to remind himself that the serried ranks of gaudy-uniformed Dragoons and Hussars, rigid on their magnificent chargers, were preparing for war.
The gleaming guns of the Horse Artillery were an ominous confirmation. Shading his eyes against the sun, Felix gazed at each battery in turn, hoping to catch sight of Captain Ingram so that he could tell Fanny he had seen her brother. In the mass of men, no individuals were distinguishable.
He could pick out some members of Wellington's entourage, though, as they proceeded slowly through the lines, inspecting the troops. "There is the Duke," he pointed out to Lady Sophia, "as always the plainest dressed among all the glittering foreign dignitaries. That's Lord Uxbridge in the Hussar uniform. The stout old chap with the white whiskers is Marshal Prince von Blücher, the Prussian commander."
"I see the Duchess of Richmond and Lady Georgiana," she said. "Pray take me to their carriage. I simply must ask Lady Georgiana where she bought that delightful hat. Is it not charming? Something like a Villager hat but with a subtle difference of shape, I fancy."
Helping her down from the curricle, Felix mentally kicked himself for attempting to draw her attention to the armed might drawn up before them. Fanny might knowledgeably discuss military matters, but delicate young ladies could not be expected to take an interest, he thought with fond indulgence. Thank heaven! If Lady Sophia read the message of those howitzers and 9-pounders, she'd take fright and persuade her parents to flee the country. In that case, months might pass before he saw her again.
The Duchess of Richmond was acquainted with Felix's mother, Lady Westwood, and asked Felix for news of his family. While he chatted with her, Georgiana, a lively damsel of seventeen, laughingly dismissed her court of admirers and invited Sophia to join her in the barouche for a comfortable cose.
Felix caught some of their discussion of the delectable hat, of high crowns and low crowns, plumes and silk flowers. He was recalling with pity Fanny's only headgear, garnished with its single drooping feather, when Georgiana said, "Mama is planning a grand ball, you know. You will receive your invitation as soon as we have settled upon a date. And you too, my lord. I trust you will still be in Brussels?" She smiled up at him with a flirtatious twinkle.
"Now how can he possibly know that," the duchess protested, "when we have not yet set the date, Georgy? I mean to consult Wellington first."
"Oh yes," cried her unrepentant daughter. "How shocking if he could not come!" She turned back to Lady Sophia.
"I was thinking more of the military situation, Roworth," said her grace in a low voice. "Have you any news from Paris? You have connections there, I collect." She was one of the few who had some notion of his position, her husband being an intimate of Wellington's.
Felix passed on the most recent word he had received from Jakob Rothschild in Paris, information he had given to Wellington yesterday. "Napoleon's grand gathering of his supporters--the Champ de Mai, he calls it--is now planned for the first of June. I believe the Duke expects him to be disappointed in the numbers, but whether that will dissuade him from marching on Belgium, who can guess?"
"The whole affair is sadly unsettling. I should take the girls home if it were not for Richmond's insistence on staying. William, too, is determined to be in the middle of things, though he is far from recovered from his fall. And of course March cannot leave. Indeed, he is very happy with his position on the Prince of Orange's staff."
"Slender Billy is an congenial young man, and it is to be hoped that your son will act as a steadying influence upon his volatility!"
The duchess laughed. "Yes, March is a serious boy, compared to the prince at least, though they are both no more than three-and-twenty. And if he fails to restrain the prince, why, I daresay the more experienced officers on his staff will manage it."
"I understand that Prince Bernhard, despite his youth, also has a head on his shoulders."
"Poor Orange must feel quite hemmed in, I vow."
Felix and Lady Sophia strolled on to exchange greetings with a number of other spectators. They moved in the same circles and knew many of the same people.
Lady Sophia remained cool and gracious in the scorching heat, while all around ladies fanned themselves vigorously and gentlemen's starched neckcloths wilted. Proud to have her on his arm, Felix noted the many envious glances cast at him by the officers of foot regiments who mingled with the crowds. Those confounded Life Guards in their flashy scarlet and gold were used to having things all their own way with the ladies. "The Gentlemen's Sons," they called themselves; "Hyde Park soldiers" was the contemptuous name given them by Peninsular veterans like Fanny's brother.
Down on the parade ground, the Review continued. The faces of the Hussars, sweating in fur caps and fur-trimmed pelisses, shone almost as bright as their silver lace. At one of the artillery batteries flanking their precise squadrons, Marshal Blücher had paused and appeared to be inspecting every horse. An occasional guttural exclamation of "Mein Gott, fery goot," floated up.
"This looks as if it could go on for ever," said Felix. "Do you care to leave now?"
"If you wish, sir," Lady Sophia agreed obligingly. "I see that several carriages are departing already."
They made their way back to the curricle. Waiting beside it was Major Sir Henry Bissell of the 95th Rifles. Felix greeted him with annoyance. He had thought the fellow routed at the Daventrys' hôtel.
"How kind in you to come to meet us, Sir Henry," said Lady Sophia, sounding indifferent, "but we are just about to leave, you know."
"I shall ride beside you," declared the major, bowing. "Beauty cannot have too many escorts."
As they returned towards Brussels, Lady Sophia politely divided her attention between the two men. She gave no particular encouragement to the soldier in his smart green regimentals, but nor could Felix flatter himself that she favoured him.
The Goddess's preferences, if any, were a mystery. He was the more determined to win her hand.