Tuesday, 14 February 2017
It's been a while since I posted, and I apologise for that. My mother-in-law died, and my husband and I have both been quite ill over the exigencies of long train journeys to visit her. However, here's a Regency romantic short story to get you in the mood for Valentine's day.
Lily in the Shadows
“I hope you feel better soon, Lily, you are kind not to mind me wearing your ball-gown and going in your stead,” said Arabella, pirouetting in a way that made Lily’s aching head spin. She was a vision in the sheer white muslin over a gold underskirt, and her golden hair beautifully arranged like a Greek goddess, two ringlets framing her face. Her blue eyes were brilliant with excitement.
“You look lovely; have a good time,” Lily managed.
Lily felt too ill to feel a pang of envy that the ball-gown looked better on her little sister than it had ever done on her. Catching influenza was most unfortunate, when her stepmother had indicated that she would be willing to bring Lily out, but it could not be helped. And Lily was very fond of her lovely half-sister. She was not especially fond of her stepmother, who was inclined to favouritism, but at least Mrs. Letherington had given in with good grace when Papa had decreed that his elder daughter should have a Season before Arabella should be brought out. Aunt Maud’s legacy ensured that this could happen finally, and if Lily was almost twenty years old, she was not yet on the shelf, and at sixteen, Arabella was really too young, but would doubtless manage to enjoy herself anyway. She would probably enjoy herself the more for not having their father present, though Lily could have wished he was here. She missed his dry, understated humour, and his support when her stepmother favoured Arabella. However, Papa hated Town, and Lily could not blame him. Her main reason for wanting a season was to find a husband who was a pleasant companion, and escape to her own household.
It would be the height of cynicism to wonder if step-mama had sent Lily to take broth to a sick tenant with the hopes that she might contract influenza and prevent her from taking up her place in the ton, but it was something that Lily wondered anyway. She had always been the sickly one, catching any illness that was going around, though she had thought she had grown out of it. Arabella never caught anything, and had not even had the slightest reaction to being innoculated with cow pox. Lily had been miserable for a week, but it was preferable to catching smallpox.
Lily was asleep when the ball-going party arrived home, but she woke up to find some macaroons on her pillow beside her, wrapped in Arabella’s pretty lace handkerchief. How kind of Arabella to smuggle her something nice in her reticule! Lily smiled. Arabella could be a bit of a spoilt brat at times, but she was generous enough in the main.
Arabella crept into Lily’s room behind the maid who brought her broth to drink.
“Are you awake?” asked Arabella.
Lily managed a laugh.
“Silly, of course I’m awake, or I wouldn’t be drinking broth, would I?”
“Well, you might be awake, but not very aware. Should I open the curtains at all?”
“A little, yes please. My head doesn’t ache so abominably now. There, that will do; thank you.” Lily smiled as Arabella came back over to the bed and sat herself down on the end. Now the curtains were open, her eyes were sparkling.
“You’ll never guess what!” Arabella’s voice was full of suppressed excitement.
“You have a beau?” guessed Lily.
“Oh, you did guess! Yes, I have, and he is quite the most beautiful young man I have ever seen, and very sweet natured, and we are going driving this afternoon, Mama said I might do so!” Arabella could not resist a little bounce of excitement, and Lily was somewhat occupied for a moment saving the broth from spilling. “Oh please tell me you are pleased for me!”
“Of course I am pleased for you,” said Lily. “I just had to rescue my broth from your exuberance.”
“Oh, I am sorry! I am in such a state of excitement. And as well as being pleasant and so good-looking, Mama has discovered that far from being Mr. Paul Staithely, he is Lord Staithely, and he is a Viscount, and heir to a dukedom, because his cousin, Blazely, is unmarried, and an old curmudgeon and so likely never to marry!”
“Will you want to be a duchess then?” Lily asked, amused.
“Oh, I don’t suppose it will be much more onerous than being a viscountess,” Arabella waved an airy hand. “And mother is delighted.”
Lily kept her thoughts to herself. Her stepmother, descended from an earl on the wrong side of the blanket, had always said that Arabella deserved to marry a duke. This appeared to be the next best thing.
“I presume that I am to cede my season to you, to pursue the courtship,” said Lily, dryly.
“Oh, well, I am sure we can both go to balls together when you are recovered,” said Arabella.
Lily said nothing. She did not think that her stepmother would be wanting the older sister at any balls to spoil her own daughter’s triumph.
Lily was soon up and about, though something of a shadow of herself for a while. She was pleased to note that her half-sister’s affections seemed to be engaged so far as her viscount was concerned, and she was not merely dazzled by a handsome face and title. She did not meet the paragon when he called, as her stepmother deemed her too pulled for the excitement of receiving, but she did enjoy sitting with her sister helping her decide which invitations to accept.
She was puzzled when Gower, the butler passed her a letter, but it undoubtedly was addressed to ‘Miss Rendersby.’
“Oh, that will be for me,” said Arabella.
Lily felt her brows draw together.
“But you are not Miss Rendersby; you are Miss Arabella Rendersby,” she said.
“Lily, are you so jealous of your sister’s success?” her stepmother snapped.
“No, ma’am, but anyone writing to her would surely address her correctly, not as though she were the elder sister,” said Lily.
There was an awkward silence.
“Oh Lily, Mama said I must not mention that I was out when my sister was not,” said Arabella. “It is Lord Staithely’s handwriting.”
“I see,” said Lily. “I will give you the letter on the understanding that you will clear up this misunderstanding at the earliest possible moment.”
“Really, Lily, what can it matter?” Mrs. Rendersby demanded.
“I am happy to cede my season to my sister,” said Lily, “But I will not cede my position in the household to her. I am the older sister, and glad as I am that she has found happiness, I will not be treated as though I did not exist. I am not Cendrillon, and when I do make my come-out, as you have promised me that I should, I think it would not please the ton to find that they are deceived in the matter of our family, will it?”
Mrs. Rendersby pursed her lips into a thin line. Much as she might like to forget her promise to bring out her husband’s awkward bluestocking of a daughter, it would not be possible to do so, even though it was plain that the girl would never ‘take’. And the girl was right, society did not readily forgive solecisms like deceit, even over relatively minor matters.
“How foolish we have been, Arabella,” she said with a little angry laugh. “We must make it clear that your sister’s health is on the mend. Perhaps we might bring you out in the little season, Lily, my dear, when your health has fully recovered.”
“When there are fewer people in town? I am sure that will be much more convenient for you,” said Lily, cynically. “Arabella, pass that missive to your mama; it is most improper of you to be receiving letters from gentlemen without your mother reading them first to see if they are suitable for you, since you are not yet betrothed to him.”
“And would you have handed it to me, Lily?” asked Mrs. Rendersby.
“Once I knew it was from a man, of course, ma’am,” said Lily. “I do occasionally get letters, you know, from neighbours in the village and from old school friends. I thought it might be from the Simmonds sisters as the hand seems ill-formed and uneducated. It did not occur to me to think of a man writing.”
“It is excruciatingly bad, isn’t it? I will tell him you thought it was from a pair of curate’s daughters who run a haberdashery shop, and who never had more than a most basic education, and he will find it funny too. He has no apology for his writing, you know; he is left-handed in all other things, but of course was not permitted to be so at school.”
“Ah, that would explain much,” said Lily.
The engagement of Miss Arabella Rendersby and Viscount Staithely was duly announced, and Lily was glad that she was feeling almost like her old self again since an engagement party would require a lot of organising, and Mrs. Rendersby generally found her nerves too delicate to do much beyond decreeing that thirty couples would be invited. Lily sighed, and got on with pacifying servants, sending out for outside caterers, ordering drapes for the ballroom, chalkers to decorate the floor appropriately, florists for the decoration both of the ballrooms and to place in epergnes for supper, and left her stepmother and half-sister to agonise over what Arabella was to wear.
The day before the ball, Lily asked her stepmother,
“I have not received a gown for the ball; what did you order for me? Will you hurry the modiste along?”
Mrs. Rendersby stared.
“My dear Lily! I did not think you would be yet well enough to attend!”
“Oh? As you thought me well enough to make all the arrangements, I assumed you thought me well enough to come as well,” said Lily. “I believe I may have to write to Papa and tell him that he will have to employ a chaperone for my own come-out since you are rendered more unwell than someone recovering from influenza over one small ball.”
Mrs. Rendersby went white.
“You need not trouble your Papa, my dear, we shall manage well enough.”
“Mama, am I to infer that Papa has no idea that I have not come out under your chaperonage? You haven’t even told him that I was unwell! Now I understand why he wrote that he understood that I had not had time to write to him, he thinks I have been engaged in the social round! I am sorry, Mama, but the servants will talk and he will get to hear of it, and it would be better if he hears it from you, not from one of them. I strongly suggest that you write and explain, or I shall have to do it for you.”
“I will write to him. Oh Lily, I never meant to deceive him, but it was so hectic!”
“I will write and tell him that I am improving in health; I will not condemn your actions, but I must say that if you cannot be bothered to provide me with a suitable gown, I will not permit myself to be held to ridicule by dressing in something made over from what my sister has worn, or in one of my gowns from last year worn to a local assembly. I have my pride!”
Mrs. Rendersby took refuge in tears, and Lily walked away from her and went to her room. There was a limit to how much she would take.
Lily sat in the library while the ball was under way, sorting out the accounting of the cost of it. There had been no time before to do more than a rough reckoning, and it had to be done. She finished at last, and went to choose a book.
“Does your mistress know you are reading in her library?” The low, musical voice asked, a little sharply.
Lily looked up, removing the spectacles she wore for close work.
“And who might you be, and what do you mean by addressing me in that tone?” she asked, crisply. “I am my own mistress, sir.” Somehow the man’s air of authority made her feel defensive, which was most inappropriate in her own abode. He made her feel quite breathless as he peered at her.
He raised an eyebrow. He was a tall, loose-limbed man whose evening garb, whilst punctilious enough, looked as though it had been bought for comfort, not fashion. His hair, too long for modern tastes, was caught into a bow at the nape of his neck, and his harsh face was dominated by a large, hooked nose. His clothing was of the best quality, however, and she noted that he was assessing similarly her muslin round gown. She felt a blush arise and frowned. How embarrassing to blush like a maidservant caught stealing a spoon!
“I beg your pardon; I saw a woman who was not at the ball, and assumed, I see erroneously, that you must be a companion, governess or upper servant of some kind. My name is Garth Fletcher, and I suppose you are the other sister, spoken of and never introduced. Do satisfy my curiosity, and tell me what is wrong with you that your younger sister is the one who came out, not you. Are you widowed already or something? I can see that you do not squint, and may be supposed not to be dangerous.”
“Were you wondering if I were a Bedlamite then?” she asked. He made her uncomfortable, looking at her so intently, that she answered more sharply than had she felt entirely comfortable.
“There are plenty of people confined in Bedlam who would be quite happy if only given a happy home life,” he said, reprovingly. “Most are not dangerous, merely unfortunate.”
“There are? I confess I had not thought of it. An error on my part not to have considered their distress. I fear I have no experience of the insane.”
“I had an aunt who was confined. I arranged for her to be removed from Bedlam and cared for until her death by a paid companion, and she was quite happy, just inclined to sew intricate embroideries without cloth or thread, poor old soul.”
“Oh, poor woman! I am glad you took care of her properly. Well, I am only dangerous in so far as my tongue is concerned as it can be sharp when I am angry, and I am angry. It was to have been my come-out, Mr. Fletcher, until I contracted influenza. And it would have been profligate to waste the expense of a season when my sister was old enough to enjoy it. But I am still resentful that Cendrillon does not get to go to the ball.”
“Influenza? Lucky your sister did not catch it as well.”
“Oh, Arabella is rudely healthy, and it is not part of a younger sister’s duties to visit the sick.”
“I see. A little reckless to go sick visiting before your season, is it not?” He raised one eyebrow at her.
Her eyes flashed angrily.
“One would think so. Apparently it was a risk my stepmother was prepared to take for me,” said Lily. “Do you think I sequester myself deliberately because I am plain? I do not. I have no ballgown because I made a stupid assumption that while I arranged the ball, my stepmother would arrange my gown as well as Arabella’s. Pardon me, but it makes me a trifle bitter.”
She slammed the accounts book shut and picked it up, together with the novel she had chosen, and walked towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To my room,” said Lily, shortly. “I have embarrassed us both enough already by that foolish and angry little outburst.”
“I am embarrassed only in having congratulated your … stepmother, you say? … on her arrangements for the ball and her exquisite eye with the floral decorations. Ah, a flash of anger? I thought she seemed mystified when I professed admiration at her choice of messages in the flowers.”
“I suppose she was happy to accept your congratulations, however,” said Lily. “My stepmother is a pretty peagoose, and could not arrange anything much more than getting dressed in the morning. As soon as I was about eight, I took over running my father’s household. Why am I telling you this?”
“Because I’m the first person to come into your orbit who is listening and has no trouble in believing you, perhaps?” Garth said. “You are missnamed; you should be a Rose, not a Lily, for you have a few thorns, which only the unwary might mind.”
She gave a half laugh.
“You do not mind my thorns?”
“Not at all; I would grow a hedge of them in your shoes. You see, I already have the measure of your stepmother, I think; a shallow and selfish woman who thinks only of herself and her possessions, in which she includes her own daughter.”
“You are the first person outside the household I’ve spoken to since I had influenza,” said Lily. “Can you believe it; I’ve never even met my future brother-in-law? Mama felt that meeting people would be too fatiguing for me.”
“Was she afraid he would feel obliged to offer for you instead?”
“Who knows? I’d not take him from Arabella, she’s besotted. I wish I knew what he was like, however. He sounds all that is amiable, but I do worry about her, and I fear that Mama sees only that he has an amiable title and good expectations for having a grouchy and elderly cousin who may be depended upon to die obligingly without issue.”
“Oh, Paul is a good sort, and I assure you he is as besotted as your sister. He’s not the sharpest stick in the bundle, so they should suit admirably. He described her as a piece of precious perfection, and I fear the alliteration was entirely accidental. However, I doubt she will notice his mental deficiencies. ”
“You’ve met Arabella, I take it,” said Lily. “I love her dearly, but she is not especially clever. But that makes her more marriageable than the plain featured bluestocking.”
“I think you do yourself down; you have fine eyes, a pleasing bone structure, and your pale complexion and the drawn look may be laid against having been ill.”
“Was that actually a compliment?”
“It may have been; I am not sure how that happened, I do not have a reputation for turning compliments to anyone so it appears to have escaped unbidden.”
“Well, I won’t tell anyone. Nobody would believe any man would compliment me in any case,” she added. “Especially someone who has seen my sister, who is truly lovely.”
“It argues well for her good nature that you speak warmly of her, and that I am glad to hear, for I am fond of Paul.”
“You know him well, then?”
“I have known him all his life.”
“Then your opinion of him is valuable. I hope they will be happy.”
“You are generous, as your sister has had your season.”
“That is no reason not to wish her happy. I love her very much. It is not her fault that my stepmother is … manipulative. I would not wish my stepmother to be unhappy either, I am sorry I lost my temper and you caught the brunt of it.”
“I am certain I would not be so restrained in your situation,” Garth said. “Might I call on you?”
“I should warn you that I am a bluestocking.”
“Yes, you mentioned it. I was hoping to discover how much.”
“I read the newspaper and follow politics, and though I learned no Latin at the small school I went to, I learned some stories of the classics and have read such translations as are available. I read French and Italian, and I study botany as well as the more frivolous studies like the language of flowers. I am enthusiastic about the theories of Lamarck, which the traits of living things which permit them to survive better, will be passed on in the heritance.”
“Then I fancy we will have plenty to talk about. May I call for you tomorrow afternoon?”
“I would like that. But it occurs to me, my stepmother will want to know how I have met you, and that we are most improprietous in being here together. I would not wish her to feel that we were compromised, for I fear she considers it her duty to marry me off, and would not consider your feelings in the matter.”
“Or mine. I can, however, only hope to find someone who accepts my unwomanly interest in politics, so I am more indifferent to her efforts, providing I am not married off to someone too far into his dotage to comprehend that I am a blue stocking. Having my own household is attractive enough to be more tolerant. I would like to find love, of course; who would not? But I accept that it might be an ideal which is outside the bounds of hope.”
“A sad enough prospect. For my part, I have always hoped for at least friendship, and had almost given up hope of finding a female with whom I might hold a rational conversation. I think perhaps we must engineer a meeting in the vestibule; I believe if you will give me a few minutes’ start and follow me out, we might be able to converse there.”
“Thank you; that is quick witted of you.”
Lily came into the vestibule, half wondering whether it was going to be a trick, and some cruel game to make fun of her in public. However, he was there, and he smiled and came over.
“Ma’am! Am I to suppose you are Miss Rendersby? Your butler tells me you were responsible for choosing the flowers and arranging them, did you choose the language of flowers deliberately?”
“I did sir; but we have not been introduced.”
“Oh, I am Garth Fletcher; I wanted to say how much I liked the arrangements. Ivy for married fidelity tumbling down with honeysuckle for bonds of love, the uprights in myrtle and red rose for true love, and Jasmine for amiability, filled out with gillyflowers for lasting beauty. I breed flowers as an avocation. May I call on you?”
“I … I would be delighted, Mr. Fletcher, if my stepmother is agreeable.”
“Then if she is agreeable, I will take you for a drive tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Lily.
“I do not know who this Garth Fletcher is,” said Mrs. Rendersby, when Lily spoke to her next day. “It was a dreadful squeeze, of course, but I did not meet anyone; I did not even get to meet the duke, though dear Staithely assured me that his cousin was there, even though he left early.”
“He was one of those invited; I believe he is a friend of the viscount,” she said. “He congratulated me on the floral arrangements; apparently Gower had told him that I had done them, and he wished to express his delight in the sentiments embodied in the flowers.”
“Dear me, I know nothing of the language of flowers; it is the first womanly accomplishment you have shown, though, Lily. I suppose this Mr. Fletcher is one of the viscount’s hangers-on, but if he is not impoverished I dare say he will do well enough for you. Of course it is a disadvantage of not having had you attending all the balls, you are so gauche you have no idea who anyone is.”
“No, ma’am,” murmured Lily. “He said he breeds flowers for an avocation; a man who was poverty stricken would hardly have the time or resources to do so.”
Mrs. Rendersby brightened.
“No, indeed. Then this may be a most fortuitous meeting,” she said. “Do not be too forthcoming about your deplorable interest in politics or you may lose a potential suitor!”
“I would not want a suitor who did not accept me as I am, ma’am.”
“Lily, do not be stubborn! One cannot expect men to enter into the interests we women have, and they do not expect us to hold any interests in the provinces of those things that interest them. It can only give a man a disgust for you! It is too bad of your father to encourage these unwomanly ideas by discussing politics with you at breakfast, and making you quite unmarriagable by so doing!”
“Then when I find a man prepared to discuss politics with a woman, I will have found one who is suitable for me to marry,” said Lily.
“You are as stubborn a mule!”
“I learned that, too, from my father.”
Mrs. Rendersby sniffed.
Gower raised an eyebrow when Garth arrived and asked to be introduced as Mr. Garth Fletcher, but proceeded to do so. He had a bunch of flowers with him which he handed to Lily.
Mrs. Rendersby greeted him gracefully.
“I recall meeting you, now, Mr. Fletcher,” she said. “We were not properly introduced, but I recall you asking about the flowers. It was so busy though, I did not have a chance to properly credit my other daughter.”
“Fortunately your excellent butler was able to tell me who had chosen the flowers,” said Garth. “I trust your stepdaughter relayed my desire to go driving with her?”
“Indeed, and had she danced at the ball, I should have had to say no, but as it is, I have no objection,” said Mrs. Rendersby.
“Then if Miss Rendersby is ready?” he held out a hand. He noted her reading the message in his floral offering, a single rose leaf, ‘I never importune’; at the front, fern leaves for sincerity and the delicate ferny foliage of Coriander for hidden merit, which was almost insolent of him, in a way, but then, she had been hidden, so perhaps not so very inappropriate. The scent of the clove gillyflower, speaking of dignity, rose to her nostrils, and she breathed it in, and chuckled to see he had included borage for bluntness, the small flowers bluer than even a summer sky.
“I am not quite ready since I need to pick up my parasol and bonnet, once I have asked Gower to place your bouquet in water,” said Lily. “I am glad you did not change your mind!”
She tripped out of the door on Garth’s arm, and waited while his groom tooled the phaeton round the square to bring it to a halt.
“I wasn’t sure how long it would take you to get ready, so I told him to exercise the horses so they wouldn’t cool,” said Garth. “You were delightfully quick.”
“I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting,” said Lily, blushing slightly as he helped her up next to the groom. Garth went round the back of the carriage and was up onto the seat as the groom came down, taking the reins and whip as he went. The carriage bobbed slightly as the groom climbed up behind as a chaperon.
“Beautiful horses,” said Lily. She had never sat so close to a man before, and she felt suddenly shy. She could smell a faint muskiness clinging to him, and it was pleasant, and she coloured. One did not sniff men as one did flowers.
“Do you like horses?”
“Very much. Mama would not let me bring my riding mare to London, though, and did not think it worth while hiring one for the duration of our visit.
“Then you will, perhaps, permit me to provide you with a mount, so we might ride out?”
“Oh do you have a spare horse? I should like that very much. I’ll need to get a saddle.”
“I should think I can manage that, I’m sure there is a lady’s saddle in my stables. My mother liked to ride.”
“Then in that case I should be very grateful.”
“I am hoping you will not mind a slightly spirited mare?”
“No, not at all. I am not a bruising rider, and I do not enjoy galloping at raspers, but I am a sufficiently capable horsewoman to have no problems.”
Garth made a note to purchase a spirited mare at the earliest convenience. Had she been nervous, he would have spoken of borrowing a relative’s mount and acquired a quiet ride.
“Then we shall ride as well as drive,” he said. “You will have to bring a groom of your own if we are riding. I can provide a horse for your groom if need be.”
“Thank you; we have only our coachman and his boy who helps with the horses. Will the boy be suitable? I do not know all the intricacies of etiquette, you know.”
“The boy should be suitable. It is a shame you have not been able to get out much, the Season is wearing on and it is becoming uncomfortably hot, save in the early evening.”
“Mama is considering bringing me out for the Little Season, if she cannot contrive to have me respectably married,” said Lily. “She is of the opinion that someone with enough income to have an avocation like flower breeding, which I told her about, might be quite suitable, so unless you wish her to note that your attentions are particular, it would be a good time to flee.”
“I do not think I wish to flee,” said Garth. “It is too soon to know how deeply my feelings might be engaged, but I am certain that we have a good chance at friendship, and it is rash to ask for more on first acquaintance, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, Arabella was in love with her viscount the moment she met him; described him as the most beautiful young man she had ever seen,” she chuckled.
He glanced at her, and his eyes laughed.
“Well, nobody could say that about me,” he said.
“But then, you have a distinguished face which will still be distinguished when you are old,” she said, seriously. “Beautiful faces fade, but at least they will both fade together.”
“Paul won’t take a mistress when his wife’s looks go,” said Garth, firmly. “He’s steadfast and true.”
“Sounds like a pair of good gun dogs,” said Lily.
“And about as good at independent thought? Yes, I fear so,” Garth sighed. “Not necessarily good for a future duke.”
“So long as he treats my sister well, I don’t actually care,” said Lily. “After all, this duke cousin of his should get married and have an heir of his own if it bothers him. Is your groom quite well? I heard him cough,” she added in an undertone.
“Oh, he has a frog in his throat but he is quite well,” said Garth, glad to be able to speak of something other than the duties of dukes to marry.
“Good, I am glad he is not unwell or I should urge you to take me back right away so he could physick himself.”
“I am glad you are more careful of the welfare of servants than your own family is of yours,” Garth’s tone was sober.
“Oh, Mr. Fletcher, is it wicked of me to think that Mama sent me deliberately? She knows I was a sickly child, though I have mostly outgrown it, but I cannot help but wonder if she hoped I might take influenza so that Arabella might have her chance instead of me.”
“I fear it would not surprise me in the least; your stepmother struck me as quite calculating,” said Garth. “Though I base much of this belief on what Paul has said, for I do not generally go into society. I am more comfortable at home with a good book, and with my Pelargoniums and Georgianas, or out riding on my lands, trying to take as much interest in prosaic farming as I do in growing flowers. My steward keeps me informed and I make intelligent noises from time to time,” he added.
“Papa is happy with the land too,” said Lily, “But he does take an interest in farming. It sounds a very pleasant life, and if you have no need to get married, an idyllic one in not having to be sociable if you do not feel like it.”
“And usually I do not; but I am glad that I permitted Paul to persuade me to go to his engagement ball,” said Garth. “I swear more than half the people there did not even know my name, or even if I was one of the servants, because of wearing my hair long.”
“Not with such fine clothing,” she said. ”You sound as though you find such anonymity very satisfying.”
“I am a private sort of person. I take my place in the House of course, but I do not linger to socialise.”
“Oh, are you a Member of Parliament then? Where do you represent?”
“I … I have enough of a title to allow me to sit as a Lord,” said Garth.
“That will make you more attractive to Mama, I fear,” said Lily.
“Well, she is out of luck, since I don’t intend to propose to her, but to you!”
He could have bitten his tongue and flushed dull red.
“But you don’t know me very well.”
“That is something I hope to change. Miss Rendersby, you are the first female I have met whom I do not find a dead bore, and I don’t especially want to let you get away, unless it is you who wishes to flee.”
“You can make me laugh. I consider that a recommendation to say ‘yes’ whenever you should ask me. Papa is droll enough at times, but I have not laughed since coming to London until I met you.”
“I think we should get to know each other better, before we actually go further than rehearsing the question.”
“You are probably correct.”
The following day he had acquired a spotted filly for her to ride, and they trotted out down the rides of Hyde Park, circumnavigating the Serpentine.
“If my political views were opposed to yours, would that be a consideration?” asked Lily.
“Not at all. I cannot see you being a staunch Tory, however.”
“You are a Whig also?” she was surprised.
“I find myself more in accord with their ideals, often enough.”
“I am glad; I should like to see reforms in factories so children were not harmed by machinery, and to have climbing boys banned. I suppose that the interests of those incarcerated in Bedlam should be those I consider as well.”
“I’ve supported bills to try to force sweeps to use the sweeping machine instead of children or geese,” he said.
“Perhaps you should consider some socialising then,” Lily blushed. “If you had a wife who understood the issues, and who was capable of running dinner parties, when informal chat might soften up the opposition …”
“Lily! You are amazing. You offer to give up some privacy for those poor children …”
“I think I can handle losing some privacy to give a hope to others of growing up whole,” said Lily, seriously.
“Then I will call on your stepmother to ask permission to ask for your hand.”
Arabella was bubbling when Lily returned.
“Why, Lily! You did not tell me you have snared the elusive duke!” She cried.
“What do you mean?” she demanded.
“Why, one of my friends saw you driving with him, Lord Blazely himself!”
Lily felt her head spin.
“I have been driving and riding with Mr. Garth Fletcher,” she said. “No, he is not a Mister, he said he had enough title to sit as a lord. But …”
“Staithely’s family name is Fletcher,” she said. “He’s Paul Fletcher, Lord Staithely. I haven’t told Mama yet.”
“Arabella … if … if he is Blazely … and if he did offer for me, would you be offended?”
“Not in the least! Paul …uh, Staithely … doesn’t want to be a duke, too much like hard work! And whatever he wants, I want.”
“Then … do you mind not telling Mama? I need to decide whether I can accept, knowing that he has been practising a deception or not.”
“Of course I won’t tell her. Is he going to make an offer? Famous!”
“Lily, my dear, Mr. Fletcher has something particular he wishes to say to you!” Mrs. Rendersby looked coy, and Lily tripped down to the salon to speak to her admirer. To her relief, Mrs. Rendersby did not follow her into the room.
Garth was there, looking down his nose, the way he had done in company. He was nervous.
“Lily … I have a confession to make,” he said.
“That you are Blazely? My sister told me,” said Lily.
“And she has not told her mother?”
“Sometimes sisters keep secrets between themselves,” said Lily. “I want to know why, because my first feelings were of betrayal, that you had been playing with me; or that you merely wanted someone who could be talked into providing you with an heir.”
“An heir would be desirable, and I was dreading the idea of looking for a wife until I happened upon you in the library when I was not even seriously considering starting looking,” he pinched the top of his nose. “I did not want to scare you off by giving my title, and moreover, I’d escaped without giving it to your stepmother. I didn’t want to be betrayed. And then … I thought I could court a girl who seemed interesting more easily as a plain ‘Mister’, without as much brouhaha as I thought your stepmother might make.”
“You are correct; she would have made me refuse your invitations,” said Lily. “She would see it as cutting Arabella out, without consulting Arabella on how she felt. I did consult Arabella and as her Staithely has no desire to be a duke, she has no desire to be a duchess.”
“And do you? Have a desire to be a duchess?”
“I’d rather be Mrs. Fletcher, but I suppose the title has to be accepted with good grace if it’s what it takes to marry a man I think I might grow to love.”
He took two strides towards her, and pulled her into his arms, and lifted her chin.
“Lily!” he said, and kissed her.
Lily almost panicked to be in such close proximity to a man, but his lips were gentle on hers, and she found herself flushed with warmth, and opening her lips under the pressure of his, and sliding her arms around him, to reach up his broad back. She wriggled to get an arm free to get it around his neck, and untie the bow in his hair, so she could bury her fingers in it.
“Wanton,” he muttered, near her mouth. He did not sound displeased. “I was wrong. Not a Rose, but a Bramble. A delicate and lovely flower, plenty of prickles, but the sweetest fruit.”
She made a noise of contentment.
The door opened, and they sprang apart.
“Well now, have you an announcement to make?” Mrs. Rendersby sounded even more coy.
“We’d better have, if you’re going to kiss me like that without saying yes,” murmured Garth.
“Oh yes, Garth,” said Lily.
Garth bowed to Mrs. Rendersby.
“Madam, your daughter has made me a very happy man, and I am delighted to announce our betrothal,” he said. “I will send notices to the newspapers, if you would like that, my dear Bramble?”
“I should like it very much,” agreed Lily.
It might be noted that when Mrs. Rendersby read the notices in the newspapers she fell into strong hysterics and needed hartshorn to revive her, and would not even speak to Lily for a week.
By then, however, Garth had ridden into the country and insisted that Mr. Rendersby should come to London for a marriage on an ordinary licence, but one which meant at least that Lily would not have to wait three weeks for the banns to be read to get out from under her stepmother’s baleful presence.
And Lily walked up the aisle on her father’s arm in a wedding gown hastily made up for her, and made her responses firmly.
“And now, my bride, I have no intention of stopping until we are well out of London ,” said Garth, when they finally got into the carriage. “I have arranged a cottage which I own, in which we may stop on the way to my country seat, as a rest from the rigours of travel, but only for the one night. I long to show you my gardens.”
“Good,” said Lily. “I hate to think of all those jealous pelargoniums and georgianas missing you.”
Her husband kissed her thoroughly.
“My dearest Bramble, I look forward to you speading all over my, no, our house and garden.”
“Some gardeners reckon blackberry brambles to be a weed.”
“A weed is a plant in a place you do not want it. I cannot think of any part of my life in which I do not want you very much indeed.”
Lily wrapped herself around her new husband with a contented sigh, and firmly undid the queue of his hair to bury her fingers in it again as she kissed him back.
The coach was too bumpy for the newlyweds to achieve much in the way of satisfactory kisses, but when they got to the cottage, which had roses over the door, with only his groom to cook for them, they might explore further than kisses to their hearts’ content. And there Garth acted as lady’s maid to his new wife and showed her how much he had come to love her.