"Come in, quick, and close the door." Dropping her book, Lady Constantia straightened the faded blue Paisley shawl draped over her high-necked nightshift. It was more for propriety than warmth, for the coolness of the night air was pleasant after the heat of the day. "If Mama discovers you in my dressing-room, you will be ejected and I shall be reproached for unseemly behaviour, and I do so want to talk to you, Felix. You have been away nearly a year!"
"I might manage to come home more often if Mama and Father were not so quick to find cause for reproach." Her brother moved a vase of sweetpeas and perched on the corner of the dressing table opposite her chaise longue. Tall, broad-shouldered, with golden hair a few shades darker than her own ringlets, he was a handsome figure in his black evening coat and dove-coloured inexpressibles.
Constantia regarded him with affectionate sympathy. "I suppose Papa raked you over the coals again about working for Mr Rothschild?"
"I guessed that must come next when Mama sent me out of the room as soon as you announced that he had rewarded you for an extraordinary service."
"Father will persist in calling him a Jew-moneylender, when he is a highly respected banker and on the friendliest terms with Wellington. He provided all the funds to pay the army and subsidize the allies, you know. The Duke told me he holds Nathan Rothschild as responsible for beating Boney as he is himself. I'm proud to have acted as liaison between them, and I've enjoyed it, too."
"Paris, Vienna, Brussels--all the gayest cities of Europe. I daresay you have enjoyed yourself! But tell me about your reward."
"I'll buy you a silk dressing gown," he said, regarding her shawl with disfavour, "and how would you like a cashmire one for winter?"
"Did Mr Rothschild give you so much money? What did you do to earn it?"
"This is strictly in confidence, Con. Even the parents don't know this bit."
"I shan't breathe a word."
"The moment I learned of the victory at Waterloo, I dashed back to London and informed Mr Rothschild, long before Wellington's messenger arrived. We went straight to Downing Street to notify the Prime Minister, but he and Castlereagh and Bathurst refused to believe us."
She smiled at his indignation. "Disbelieved Lord Roworth, son and heir of the Earl of Westwood? How very undiscerning of them."
"Was it not?" he said with a grin. "But as a result, Mr Rothschild made a great deal of money on the Exchange. The percentage he had promised me came to a very pretty sum. Father will be able to pay off the last of the mortgage, and to make me an allowance suited to my station."
"Heavens, a pretty sum indeed!"
"And you and Vickie shall have your Seasons in Town."
"No!" Her heart sank.
"No? When I went up to the schoolroom just now to tell Vickie my news, she informed me that she will be seventeen next month and ready to put up her hair. While I believe her more than capable of trying to mislead me, her governess was present."
"Vickie will certainly enjoy a Season, but I am too old to make my come-out," Constantia protested.
"To be sure. I'm nine-and-twenty, so you are two-and-twenty, a veritable ape-leader. And an antidote, besides, which is why that callow puppy of a curate never took his languishing gaze off you throughout dinner."
"Oh dear, I simply don't know what to do about Mr Jones."
"Let him languish!"
"Miss Bannister advises me to avoid tête-à-têtes and strolls in the garden, and never to ask after his health, since he is a dreadful hypochondriac and would take it as an expression of interest."
"Sound advice, but forget the wretched fellow." Felix was not to be diverted. "You will enjoy London, Con, the balls and the theatre and concerts, and you will meet gentlemen more proper than a country curate to be your husband."
She didn't want to disappoint him. How was she to tell him that she did not expect ever to marry? He'd demand an explanation, and to her brother, of all people, she could never confide her secret.
He was looking at her questioningly. He must never guess. She had to find a reason for not going to London, for not seeking a husband, that would satisfy him.
"Felix, I don't want to go. I have had offers from eligible gentlemen, you know, even here in the country. Mama has invited friends with suitable sons or nephews. Two or three times I was quite in disgrace for refusing splendid matches, but I could not bring myself to marry a man I did not respect, only for the sake of the family." And that was true, too.
He frowned. "You did not care for any of them?"
"How could I, when they all seemed to believe they were doing me a favour by offering for my hand? Oh, they lavished praise upon my face--and stared at my dowdy gowns with horrified dismay. Mama said I must not regard it, that a daughter of the Earl of Westwood, even portionless, is a fit bride for the highest ranking peer in the land."
"So she is, and you, my dear, are a prize beyond compare."
She shook her head at him, knowing herself to be his favourite sister, though Augusta, long since wed, was closer in age. Gussie had always been priggish, whereas Constantia had followed her adored brother into many a scrape.
"You are partial, Felix. I believe you are stunned by the transformation into a decorous young lady of the tomboy who was used--"
"Gammon! I'm glad you were strong enough, diffident as you are, to hold out against the coxcombs who did not properly appreciate you. But now you'll have a dowry, everything will be quite different."
"I don't want to be appreciated for my dowry. I don't want to go," she insisted.
"Even if you had my wife to chaperon you instead of Mama?"
"Your wife!" Constantia sat up straight, forgetting her troubles. "Felix, are you going to marry? Tell me all about her at once!"
"She's known as the Goddess to her admirers, of whom she has many, alas." Felix explained that he had not yet asked for Lady Sophia Gerrold's hand as he had not seen her since his financial situation had changed.
As he described Lady Sophia's fair, graceful beauty, cool dignity, and fastidious sense of propriety, Constantia's heart sank once more. He did not sound as if he were wildly in love. She was afraid that their parents' disapproval of his work for Mr Rothschild had hurt him more than she realized, and he had chosen a bride more to please them than himself. Lord and Lady Westwood could not possibly find fault with Lady Sophia Gerrold, daughter of the Marquis of Daventry, as a daughter-in-law.
"She sounds very like Mama," she murmured, and sought for something complimentary to say. "I expect she will make a superb countess one day. Who are her other beaux?" She wished she could believe that anyone courted by her handsome brother might choose to wed another.
"Mostly officers, with the advantage of showy uniforms. However, some may have met their end at Waterloo. Believe me, that's not how I would wish to overcome my rivals."
"Those poor soldiers! I wish I could do something to help them. Did you ... did you lose many friends?"
Sombrely he named several killed and others wounded, members of Wellington's staff some of whom he had known for years. "And Frank Ingram was blown up by one of his own shells and dashed near kicked the bucket," he added.
"Ingram? I remember you mentioned in one of your all too rare letters that you were sharing lodgings with a young couple called Ingram."
"Brother and sister, twins, not a couple. He's an artillery officer, as was their father. Miss Ingram has followed the drum all her life." He spoke with far more enthusiasm than Lady Sophia had aroused in him. "She's an admirable person, Connie. Though she has been through the greatest hardships, she keeps a sense of humour, and she is always kind and hospitable. She and Frank adopted the daughter of a fellow officer who was killed in Spain, an adorable little girl. Fanny could not care for her better if she were her own child."
"I should like to meet Miss Ingram."
"Impossible, I fear. They have no connections and don't move in the first circles. Indeed, when I brought them to England, Fanny was quite overcome by the grandeur of Miriam and Isaac's establishment, and the Cohens live in a simple, unpretentious way, you know. That's where I've been since Waterloo, as a matter of fact. I went back to Brussels to fetch them, and then I thought I'd best stay at Nettledene until Fanny felt at home there."
Constantia was startled and intrigued. "You brought the Ingrams to England?"
"Frank needed Miriam's care. I've told you how she saved my shoulder in France with her medical skill."
"Yes, of course." She envied Miriam Cohen the opportunity of nursing a wounded soldier back to health. "And I have wanted to meet Mr and Mrs Cohen this age."
"You're a dear, Con." He crossed to the chaise longue and gave her a hug. "I'd like nothing better than to make them known to you, but it can't be done. Mama would flay me alive with her tongue if I introduced my friends to you."
He bade her goodnight and took himself off, leaving her with a great deal of food for thought.
It was all too true that Felix's friends would never be welcome at Westwood. Though the Cohens lived like country gentry, Miriam's father was a wealthy merchant, a Cit, and they were Jewish. Felix had met them when he worked for the Treasury. After travelling across France with them, smuggling gold to Wellington in the Peninsula, he had returned a different person, no longer an arrogant boy sulkily resentful of his lot in life. Constantia had long wished to make the acquaintance of the people who had wrought such a change.
Before that change, he'd never have considered befriending the Ingrams, an obscure artillery officer with no connexions in Society, and his sister who had grown up in the army's train.
Yet he spoke of Miss Fanny Ingram with eager admiration. He had returned to Brussels to fetch them to England rather than speed to the bosom of his family with his splendid news--or to Lady Sophia with a proposal of marriage. Constantia was suddenly horridly afraid that her brother was going to marry the wrong woman, just to regain their parents' esteem.
Though she had summoned up the resolution to reject the suitors proposed by her mother, Constantia was diffident by nature and had not been brought up to trust her own judgement. She decided the best way to make Felix see his own mind clearly was to encourage him to talk about Fanny Ingram.
The next morning, she put her plan into effect. Having donned her favourite rose-sprigged morning gown, with the little ruff at the high neck, she went down to the sunny breakfast parlour. Felix was already embarked upon a plateful of kidneys and bacon.
He looked up with a grin. "It's my belief the superiority of the British Army is due to the Englishman's proper appreciation of breakfast. How I suffered in Paris and Vienna with nothing but coffee and a tartine to begin the day!"
"But not in Brussels?" She helped herself at the sideboard to a thin slice of ham, a muffin, and a dish of raspberries, and sat down opposite him.
"Miss Ingram taught Henriette, the cook-maid at our lodgings, to provide a decent meal."
"Miss Ingram sounds like a most practical person."
"She has had to be. Foraging for every scrap of food in the Spanish mountains must have been arduous, to say the least, though she makes an amusing tale of it."
As Felix talked, prompted by occasional questions, Constantia found her interest in Miss Ingram's brother growing. He had followed his father into the Horse Artillery as soon as he was old enough. The elder Ingram had been killed in battle while Frank was still a mere ensign, but he had cheerfully shouldered responsibility for his mother and twin sister.
Their mother had died on the retreat to Corunna.
"So they had only each other left?" Constantia asked. "They must have come home to England after Corunna. Had they no family here at all?"
"None on their father's side. It seems their mother was the daughter of a nobleman, but she was cast off when she ran away with an artilleryman. Frank and Fanny know nothing of her family, not even a name, and if they did they have too much pride to go a-begging."
"It sounds like a mystery out of one of Vickie's favourite Gothic novels. But if they do, after all, have noble connexions, surely they cannot be unacceptable to Mama and Papa."
"Unidentified connexions. They are very much aware that such an empty claim would be received with incredulity and contempt. I learned of it quite by accident. They are modest people, Con, not given to fruitless boasting. Fanny doesn't aspire to enter Society, only to take care of her brother and bring up Anita as best she can."
Constantia found herself envying Fanny for having a straightforward goal in life. All she herself had to aim at was to be a good aunt. She did hope Felix wouldn't marry Lady Sophia and have lots of cool, haughty daughters just like Mama.
"You said Anita is a charming child," she said. "How old is she?"
"Three and a half. Her mother was a Spanish lady. She died in childbirth and the father was killed very soon after."
"Then she must regard Miss Ingram as her mama."
"Yes, and Frank as her father, of course, though she calls them aunt and uncle. She adores both of them. I flatter myself I have wormed my way into her affections, too." He laughed. "She used to call me Tío--that's Spanish for uncle--Tío Felix my lord, but she has dropped the 'my lord.'"
"I do so wish I might meet them all!"
"So do I, m'dear, but it's simply not possible. Do you still have that sluggish old mare? Will you ride with me later?"
Though he had changed the subject, Constantia was satisfied that Miss Ingram was very much on his mind. "I'd love to go riding," she said, "if you are willing to dawdle along at Skylark's pace."
In a flurry of white muslin, Vickie burst into the breakfast room, her long, flaxen hair flying. "Felix," she cried, "let us ride together this morning."
"You're just too late. Connie's going with me."
"Drat! It's too bad you and I have to share poor Skylark, Connie, or we could all go."
"Weather permitting, I'll take you tomorrow," Felix promised. "And I shall look around for another mount. I'll have to check with Father, but I believe you need not share any longer."
"Prince of brothers!" Vickie swooped on him and kissed his cheek, then stared across the table at her sister's breakfast. "You have raspberries. We didn't get raspberries for breakfast in the schoolroom." She dashed to the sideboard, helped herself to a heaped bowlful, and sat down beside Constantia.
"Fruit for breakfast is bad for little girls," Felix teased. "You will break out in spots all over."
"Pooh, I'm not a little girl. I ... Oh! Good morning, Papa." She jumped up and curtsied, and Felix rose to his feet, as Lord Westwood entered the room.
Though the earl's hair was grizzled, his face lined, he bore a strong resemblance to his heir, tall and broad-shouldered, with a still-handsome patrician countenance. His haughty air had not been crushed by a decade of struggling to stay one step ahead of the bailiffs. Nor was it softened, Constantia noted, by the end of the struggle.
He responded courteously to his children's greetings, then turned his stern gaze on the youngest. "You are not at your lessons this morning, Victoria?"
"Miss Bannister let me come down to see Felix, Papa, since he has been away so long. I must go back now." She made a hurried escape, taking with her the bowl of raspberries. Constantia caught Felix's eye and smothered a smile.
"Miss Bannister appears to be less successful in inculcating a sense of propriety in Victoria than she was in your case, Constantia," said Lord Westwood austerely, moving to the sideboard.
A maroon-liveried footman came in with fresh coffee. When he left, and the earl was seated at the table, Felix said, "Sir, will it be possible to purchase another horse for my sisters? Victoria will doubtless learn a more ladylike style of riding from Connie than she can from a groom."
"Doubtless. Yes, by all means look about for a suitable mount. Now that the burden of the mortgage repayments is lifted, the income from the estate will be sufficient to support a proper style. I have not allowed the farms to deteriorate during our difficulties."
"Of course not, sir."
"I fear perhaps I did not make myself plain last night, Felix. I would not have you suppose that, because I cannot approve the means, I am ungrateful for your most valuable assistance to the family."
Looking thoroughly uncomfortable, Felix muttered something Constantia failed to catch. She felt quite uncomfortable herself, and she was about to make her excuses and depart when her father continued.
"If you should be so happy as to win the hand of the distinguished young lady upon whom your affections are fixed--I daresay you have mentioned her to your sister?" He bestowed an indulgent smile on Constantia. "She is in your confidence, I know. If, as I say, you wed Lady Sophia Gerrold, the family fortunes will be more than restored and you will earn the wholehearted esteem of your mother and myself."
"Thank you, sir."
Felix's obvious gratification vexed Constantia. Under the sun of their parents' outspoken approval of Lady Sophia, Miss Fanny Ingram's chances melted like snow. She reminded herself that she had never met either young lady. Perhaps Felix was inarticulate on the subject of Lady Sophia's amiable characteristics because he was so much in love.
But in that case, why was he so eager to talk about Miss Ingram?
Her breakfast finished, Constantia changed into her old grey riding habit and went down to the stable yard. She and Felix rode up the steep track behind the mansion, up into the Mendip Hills. At the top, they stopped to look back over the green Somerset plain, to the isolated prominence of Glastonbury Tor with its tower, and beyond into the hazy distance.
Felix told Constantia how Fanny had crossed the Spanish mountains on mule-back, and how terrified he had been seeing her mounted on a huge troop horse at a Review in Brussels.
"I was all ready to rake her escort over the coals for endangering her," he said ruefully. "Then I discovered that she was quite capable of handling the brute, and that Frank was among her escort."
An image of Captain Frank Ingram was building in Constantia's fancy. She envisioned him tall, strong, and handsome on a powerful charger, smart in his regimentals, a valiant soldier yet gentle and loving to his sister and the child. Like the knights of King Arthur's Round Table, he was both bold and chivalrous. How different from the fashionably languid gentlemen she had rejected!
When they returned to the stables, the earl's steward was just leaving to ride around the farms, and Felix turned around to go with him. The train of her habit over her arm, Constantia went into the house.
Crossing the spacious vestibule, with its Corinthian columns framing each doorway and Classical statues posed in niches, she felt the usual twinge of regret. The Tudor Great Hall--the panelling carved with fruit and flowers and mythical beasts, the minstrels' gallery, the hammerbeam roof--had vanished along with a fortune in the earl's passion for modernization.
As she started up the magnificent marble staircase, balustered in gilt wrought-iron, her mother's abigail appeared at the top.
"Lady Constantia, her ladyship wishes to see you in her sitting-room, if you please." The last phrase was undoubtedly added to the countess's command by the tactful maid.
"Oh dear, I cannot go in riding dress," Constantia said in dismay, "and with my hair all blown about. I shall come as soon as I have changed. Pray send Joan to me at once."
Her own maid soon had her fit to be seen by her ladyship and she hurried to Lady Westwood's apartments. She met Vickie on the threshold. Exchanging a curious and apprehensive glance, they entered together. Their mother's private sitting-room retained its formal elegance despite the slight fading of green-striped satin. As a child, Constantia had often been summoned here to receive rebukes for falling into mischief, but Felix had always been chastised more severely for leading her into scrapes than she for following.
More recently, her rejection of several perfectly acceptable suitors had led to lengthy lectures on obedience and obstinacy. In her quiet way, she had held firm.
Lady Westwood was seated at her cherrywood bureau, writing letters. She turned when her daughters entered and motioned them to a pair of spindly-legged chairs. The countess's hauteur was no more reduced by straitened circumstances than her husband's. Beneath pale-blond hair with no hint of grey, her smooth, calm face was untouched by any mark of anxiety, passion, or sorrow, by smile or frown. Constantia sometimes wondered whether her mother had ever succumbed to any emotion stronger than displeasure.
Displeasure was not now in evidence. In fact, Lady Westwood appeared coolly complacent.
"You have heard, no doubt, of your brother's good fortune. It is your good fortune that, unlike many young men, his concern is for his family, not for a life of idle pleasure. I trust you will express to him your appreciation of his generosity."
"Yes, Mama," they chorussed.
"Constantia, I shall take you to London in the autumn for the Little Season. Victoria, you shall be presented in the spring. That is time enough, I believe, for you to amend your carriage and conduct so that I shall not be put out of countenance by your lack of decorum."
Vickie opened her mouth to protest, and closed it again. Though she blithely disregarded her mother's prohibition on reading romances, with that cold gaze upon her she did not quite dare to argue. "Yes, Mama," she said meekly.
"I shall speak to your governess. You may leave us now, Victoria."
Curtsying, Vickie departed with the energetic gait the countess so deplored. Constantia wished she could follow. Her hands, clasped in her lap, tightened as she steeled herself to object to Lady Westwood's plans.
"I daresay Felix has spoken to you of his hopes of marriage, Constantia?"
"I venture to disclose to you that your father and I have been deeply concerned by Felix's propensity for forming an undesirable acquaintance. In the position he insisted on taking up, against all advice, no doubt a certain amount of social contact with persons of no consequence was inevitable. However, your brother has an unfortunate tendency to regard some such persons as friends. We even feared that he might so disgrace his name as to choose a bride of low condition, thus injuring your hopes of contracting an eligible alliance."
She paused, but Constantia had nothing to say. No words of hers would convince her mother either that she did not hope for a husband, or that Felix was perfectly capable of choosing his own estimable friends.
"However, in fact his choice has fallen on an excellent parti, Lady Sophia Gerrold, daughter of the Marquis of Daventry. Such a match cannot fail to enhance your chances, and Victoria's also, of course."
Constantia was driven to demur. "I understood that nothing was yet settled!"
"True, but now that financial difficulties are no longer in the way, it can only be a matter of his making formal application for her hand. Surely you do not suppose that the heir to the Earl of Westwood might be judged unworthy of any female to whom he paid suit?"
"No, Mama." Alas! If Felix proposed he'd be accepted by any female with eyes in her head.
"Nonetheless, as you say, the matter is not settled, so you will not speak of it. I merely wished to advise you that you are likely to have the pleasure of the company of your prospective sister-in-law when we go up to Town."
"Mama, I don't wish to go to Town in the autumn!" Constantia cried.
Lady Westwood stared at this unseemly display of emotion. "You prefer to wait to accompany your sister in the spring? To bring out two girls at once is generally considered unwise, as one is certain to overshadow the other. It would hardly be fair to Victoria. Of course, you are too old to be formally presented to the Ton."
"Much too old, Mama."
"You have lost a great deal of time, owing entirely to your own obstinacy. No, you cannot afford to delay. We shall go to London for the Little Season."
Taking silence for consent, she dismissed her daughter.
Constantia imagined refusing, and having to live with her mother's constant reproaches. How much easier to submit! After all, it was not London she feared, not the balls and theatres and concerts Felix had described, which sounded delightful. Perhaps she'd find Lady Sophia good-natured and charming. Perhaps, in the bustle of Town life, she'd even be able to slip away with Felix for a few hours and meet his friends.
But in Mama's eyes, the sole reason for going to London was to acquire a husband. The compulsion to conform might be more than Constantia could withstand. Felix would support her if she explained, but he must never learn the truth.
If Felix ever discovered why she refused to marry, he'd blame himself. She had never held him responsible for the childhood accident, for the hateful scar, but their parents did and he had accepted the guilt. Seven years older than his little sister, he should have known better than to help her climb the towering cedar.
When she fell, when the broken branch tore her tender skin and blood poured forth from the jagged wound, he had been devastated. Yet by now the accident was tucked away in a hidden corner of his memory. He did not know--only her abigail knew--that the white, puckered scar still slashed across her chest, an ugly furrow from the hollow of her right shoulder to the swell of her left breast.
The décolleté London fashions were not for her. And even if she managed to persuade her mother to let her wear high-necked, concealing gowns to balls and soirées, sooner or later the moment of truth must come. On her wedding night, if not before, her lover would see the dreadful disfigurement and turn from her in revulsion.