"You were aiming too high, to think Stuyvesant might be interested in Lady Gillian," Deborah said bluntly. The Honorable Miss Deborah Swann always spoke bluntly to nonroyals. It was a residue of her three years as lady-in-waiting to the royal princesses. When you daily consort with royalty, something will inevitably rub off. In Deborah's case what had worn off was a great air of condescension.
She had returned to Alderton a year before. The royal princesses had dispensed with her services the minute their dear brother, the Prince of Wales, arranged sufficient income for them to get out from under Queen Charlotte's iron fist and set up their own establishment.
Miss Swann's consolation was that she "corresponded regularly" with the dear ladies still. This was partly true. She certainly scribbled letters off to them with awful frequency. Occasionally a short reply was received in return.
"A baron too high for the daughter of an earl?" Lord Southam demanded. "Gillie has ten thousand a year. He would do well to get her."
Deborah knew the traces of anger that lingered about his haughty visage were not directed at her. Southam was distraught on his sister's behalf. Half sister really, as she had to remind him upon occasion. By dint of repetition, Deborah had convinced him that it was time Gillian found a mate. In the small provincial society of Alderton inhabited by them, eligible partis were rare. In fact, Lord Stuyvesant was the only gentleman of a suitable rank for Lady Gillian. That he was a dasher of the first stare who considered Gillie a child was a little obstacle that must be overcome.
"Unfortunately Gillie has not the accomplishments to match her dowry," Deborah said. "You ought not to let her loiter about the stable, Southam. A lady is known by the company she keeps."
"Damme, she's out of the schoolroom. What is she to do with herself all day? She likes horses. Better the stable than peeling off to the village."
"Is there no relative in London you could send her to, to rub off the rough edges? Oh, I don't mean a Season." This was said with contempt. Deborah held strong views on the corrupting power of a London Season. "It is only March. Send her to town to smarten up her toilet and her manners. I shall arrange an introduction to the royal princesses, of course. Stuyvesant will come around, you'll see."
As well as ex-lady-in-waiting to the royal princesses, Miss Swann also wore the mantle of prophetess, due to her links with the biblical Deborah. Throw in a papa who was in Lord Liverpool's cabinet, though without portfolio, and you will understand that she was no ordinary lady.
"Could you not do something with her, Deborah?" Southam asked. It seemed a fitting job for his fiancee. Soon Deborah would be his wife, the mistress of Elmland, and in loco parentis to the girls. Their mama, Southam's stepmother, had died in childbirth some years before.
Effie and Alice were still in the schoolroom. They would be no problem, but Gillie, at seventeen, promised to be a thorn in his beloved's side. Gillie had taken a dislike to Miss Swann on sight, and the feeling deepened with every encounter. Were it not for Miss Swann's breeding and Southam's temper, their meetings would end in a cat fight. The more usual termination was for Gillie to be told to apologize to Miss Swann and go to her room.
"You forget, Southam, I have to look after Mama. Dear Princess Augusta still depends a good deal on me as well. I must answer her latest letter. She wants to begin a little garden, as her dear father would wish if he were in any state to realize what is going on. Farmer George he is still called, despite his unfortunate malady. The princess has asked my advice. And then there is Papa. A member of the cabinet, you know..." Just what chores Miss Swann, situated deep in the country in Hampshire, rendered to her papa in London were not specified. "It would be easier if I were here every day," she added pensively.
"You are here every day--nearly," Southam pointed out. "You mean, if we were married? Why don't we get on with it, then?" There was more impatience than ardor in the question.
"As soon as Gillie is taken care of," Miss Swann replied firmly. "You and Effie and Alice will be quite enough for me to handle, dear. We shall get Gillie bounced off first; then we shall marry. Now, where can we send her? There is your Cousin Germaine, in London."
"Cousin Germaine is seventy years old! She could not begin to handle Gillie."
"What of your mother's sister, in Cambridge?"
"Aunt Eleanor is a widgeon. Besides, the town is full of rambunctious male students. We'd have a runaway match on our hands."
"Mrs. Searle, then, who married your Cousin Leonard. She is of the proper age."
"Beatrice Searle?" he asked, surprised. "I hardly know her. I only met her twice. At her wedding and at Leonard's funeral."
"She was at Miss Slimmer's seminary with me. Much older than I, of course! A Miss Watkins, she was. Only genteel--there is no noble blood in the family. She did very well for herself to nab Leonard Searle."
"Do you know her well enough to impose in this way?"
"She would be in alt to strengthen her connection to the Southams. It would give her a leg up in society to have Lady Gillian staying with her. You would be doing her a favor. And she is a good, firm lady, as I recall. She would not let Gillian run wild. Well, Bath! How much mischief could anyone get into in Bath?" she asked, in a rhetorical spirit.
"Is that where she went after Leonard's death?"
"That is where she was from. She returned home to Bath."
"I cannot think a few months in Bath will smarten Gillie up much."
"Nonsense! It is the very thing. If you send her to London, she will want a Season. Beatrice Watkins was always an elegant creature, as much as her pockets would allow. She is refined and genteel. She won't take any nonsense from Gillian. We can invite Mrs. Searle for a visit after we are married, to repay her."
"I'll discuss it with Gillie," Lord Southam decided.
"Do it, Southam," Miss Swann said. She did not raise her voice. It was understood, at least by herself, that an ex-lady-in-waiting to the royal princesses would be obeyed. She rose and wound her shawl about her narrow shoulders.
Miss Swann was not beautiful, but she was accustomed to hear herself called elegant. Both her face and her figure were on the long, lean side. Her ash-blond hair was neatly but unostentatiously arranged. Her blue eyes were pale but by no means vacant. Certainly she was the most elegant lady in the small parish of Alderton. She had been twenty-seven years old upon her sudden release from royal duties a year before. She had returned home to a sick mother and an aging aunt. Marriage was the obvious solution. Her choices were limited to two: Lord Stuyvesant or the Earl of Southam. Southam's title was higher and his estate larger. She had decided to marry Lord Southam. Within a day of making her decision, she went to call at Elmland, using the pretext of an interest in ancient sermons. Elmland held a famous collection of these boring articles. She soon made Southam realize that his motherless house was in a shambles. It needed a mistress, and his sisters needed a mother. Until she got her offer, she was all smiles and affability. With the offer now tucked in her pocket, she could be less devious.
The engagement was now of six months duration. Lord Southam was much of a mind to get on with the wedding, but he knew that he must first find a husband for Gillie. She and Deborah could not rub along. A man of plain speaking and little guile himself, he found nothing reprehensible in Deborah's behavior. He knew she wanted to help, and if she occasionally annoyed him--well, it was only to be expected. His whole family knew he was an irascible, impatient sort of man.
Deborah came to plant a dutiful kiss on his cheek before parting. Southam pulled her into his arms for a more satisfactory kiss. He found nothing amiss with her lukewarm response. Deborah was too much of a lady to let passion enter their relationship before marriage. He could wait.
That night he wrote the letter to Mrs. Searle, not because Deborah had told him to, but because he was at his wit's end with Gillie. She had failed to appear for dinner that evening. He found her in the kitchen three hours later, covered with filth, just returning from the stable, where she had assisted the groom in the breech birth of a colt. She discussed this unappetizing affair with gusto while she gobbled down her dinner. Yes, certainly the girl needed training. No local lady had ever succeeded with her. The stables were too convenient.
He went immediately to his office and wrote the letter. Oddly he had no difficulty remembering Mrs. Searle, though he had met her only twice. Her mother, Leonard said, had been Black Irish, and Beatrice had what he thought of as an Irish face. It was pale and oval, rimmed in raven hair. Her eyes were deep green laughing eyes when he had first met her at Leonard's wedding. Perhaps she was not outstandingly beautiful, but she had such charm and liveliness that she seemed beautiful to him. At the funeral service she had been subdued, but even in her grief she was still beautiful. It was a tragic affair, Leonard's death, and with no glory to enhance it. He had been killed in a hunting accident, which was, one felt, the way that a sportsman was destined to meet his end.
All that was long ago, of course. Leonard had been dead for five years, and they'd been married five years before that. The woman, Bea they called her, would be older than Deborah now. She must be thirty-something. Odd she had never remarried. His mind softened by these reflections, he wrote a tender letter, just touching on their former meetings and inquiring for her well-being. He phrased his request as a suggestion, nothing more, and apologized for the imposition of the suggestion. Naturally he would understand if her style of living precluded the presence of a young lady in her household. He just wished they might be closer. Perhaps she would like to come to Elmland and meet Gillie before making her decision? Odd Deborah had not thought of that; she was usually so correct.
Mrs. Searle was handed the post with her coffee two mornings later. She flipped through the letters, recognizing many of the writers by their hand or their stationery. Southam's franked letter caught her eye, and she opened it first. As she read through, a gentle smile played about her lips. Lord Southam--Leonard's noble cousin from Hampshire! Oh, yes, she certainly remembered him! He had given her a pearl necklace as a wedding gift. The grandest gift she received, and one she still treasured.
He was rather like Leonard in appearance. Tall, with that crow-black hair and a somewhat forbidding countenance, all hawk nose and square chin, but with a spark of mischief lurking beneath the severity. He had flirted with her a little. "Lucky Leonard!" he had said as he bent over her fingers. "Where does one find such beautiful ladies? I don't suppose you have any sisters?"
Shy of the title, she had blushed. "I'm afraid not, Lord Southam."
"I might have known you were unique."
Had he been a little bosky? Very likely. The wine had been flowing freely.
She read with interest that he was still a bachelor. Might this request be a ruse to look her over and judge her mothering potential? Southam had a houseful of young sisters, if memory served.
What had Leonard said? "Raoul--they pronounce it Rawl, as the second Lady Southam was a Somerset lady, and had that drawl--has three half sisters. His own mama died when he was young. The papa remarried after several years--trying for another son, but he got a nurseryful of daughters. Old Southam was too ancient for such carrying on as marrying a young wife. He soon stuck his fork in the wall. Then the second wife upped and died, leaving Southam with a houseful of kiddies and no mother or father. But he'll soon remedy that. Rich as Croesus. Every lady in the parish will be throwing her bonnet at him."
Yet, after all this time, he was still a bachelor. She studied the letter for some time--there was no mention of the Honorable Miss Swann--and soon took her decision. A trip to Hampshire in late March held no allure. Let Southam bring this Gillie to her, and if she cared for him, then she might return with them later. Mrs. Searle was not the lady to marry for a title and estate. It was the man she was interested in, and she did not have to go to Hampshire to look over the man.
She had her reply sent off immediately after breakfast, along with replies to various invitations she had received. Mrs. Searle led an active social life in Bath. The post was rife with missives from Elmland for a week. Should Gillie be accompanied by her old governess, Miss Pittfield? Southam would not want to tie Mrs. Searle down entirely. Was there space in the household for Miss Pittfield, or would Mrs. Searle prefer to let her own woman handle the girl? A respectable widow of thirty years did not feel it necessary to hire a companion. She wrote back that there was plenty of space for Miss Pittfield, and Gillie might be more comfortable with someone from home.
A day was set on for Gillie's arrival, the spare room was duly turned out, and a suitable feast prepared. During all the preparations, it was Lord Southam and not Lady Gillian who was uppermost in Mrs. Searle's mind. How would he look after all these years? Would he still think she was beautiful? She dressed with care in a becoming gown of deep green, to match her eyes. Her ebony hair was lifted from her brow, and fell in a bundle of curls behind. As she primped in front of her mirror, she thought that Lord Southam would not be disappointed in her appearance. He knew time had passed.
As twilight fell, the clatter of a carriage drawing to a halt in front of Mrs. Searle's house told her the guests had arrived. She took one last look around her elegant saloon, patted her hair, and prepared a welcoming face. The butler appeared at the door and announced, "Lady Gillian Foster and Miss Pittfield."
Mrs. Searle looked to the doorway, glanced over the ladies' shoulder for a glimpse of Lord Southam, and saw only vacant space. Then she looked at the ladies. Miss Pittfield wore the impoverished gentlewoman's regulation costume: a round bonnet and plain pelisse. She was fiftyish, tall, thin, and cross from the strain of travel. Next Mrs. Searle examined Lady Gillian.
The young lady, girl really, looked like a boy dressed up in a bonnet and gown. She was disheveled from travel, but even if her bonnet had not been askew, and her gown unwrinkled, she would still have lacked style. She was a squab of a girl, with undistinguished brown curls, dark brown eyes, a pug nose, and a determined chin. After performing a graceless curtsy, she gave tongue to an obviously rehearsed and unfelt speech.
"Lord Southam sends his regards. It is very kind of you to have me, ma'am. I appreciate it, and I'll try not to be any trouble." Then her face, tense with the effort of reciting, gave way to a trembling smile of hope. "Do you have any mounts, ma'am?"
"Mounts?" Mrs. Searle said, casting one last still-hopeful look to the doorway.
"Horses, to ride. Or even to drive," Lady Gillian added with diminishing interest.
"I ride, but I have only one mount...."
"That's all right, then." The round face eased into a not unattractive grin. "Rawl will forward Penny for me. He didn't like to do it till we found out whether you ride. He'll pay for her upkeep, of course. I'll write him tonight and tell him."
"Gillian!" Miss Pittfield's sharp voice rapped out. "Mind your manners. The girl is horse-crazy, Mrs. Searle. Always was, always will be." She turned a sorry eye on her charge. "You look as if you'd walked all the way to Bath, missie. Where can I take her to tidy her up, ma'am?"
"The servants will show you to your rooms. I hope you will both join me for sherry before dinner. We shall dine at seven."
Mrs. Searle saw them up the stairs before returning to her saloon alone. She looked at the expensive bouquets of flowers gracing the tables, at the fire glowing in the hearth; she thought of the elaborate dinner prepared for Lord Southam, and her heart hardened in anger. She had had Cook scour Bath for a turtle and ordered up a rack of lamb for this tomboy of a girl and her governess! This was infamous! Palming off an unwanted duty on her, whom he scarcely knew!
She poured herself a large glass of sherry and drank it quickly. She must not let her Irish temper run away with her. There was--there must be--some explanation. Lord Southam was held up at the last moment on some estate business. He would be joining them soon. A pity that tonight's preparations were wasted and must be redone another time, but still, it was a good investment. It would be a fine thing to be Lady Southam, wife of Lord Southam, with the dark eyes and reckless smile.