The first day of the New Year came and went, January morphed into February, and soon the spring air was cheerily invading every corner of Carillon Hall. Warmth permeated the chilly corridors, and the children swooped over the gardens out of sheer joy in being outside again. The gardeners started grumbling about their precious flower beds being wrecked by marauding little Herringfords, and in the last week of March Miss Warren took it upon herself to propose a picnic in the little dell off the woods surrounding the Hall. Sunlit and filled with crocuses at this time of the year, it would be simply lovely to behold. This suggestion was greeted with much alacrity by her students.
"What a lovely idea, Miss Warren!" Diana exclaimed ecstatically. "It would be so lovely to go to Blossom Vale, we have not walked that far for months!" To Alicia she whispered, "I really long to be free of the house again and go off on our own for some time. We can be completely free and act as we want without fear of being reprimanded by Mama or Papa."
But plans were changed a bit when Rachel went to gain the permission of said 'Mama' and 'Papa'. Mrs. Herringford cracked a genteel smile at the notion of sitting under the temperate sun for a whole day. Mr. Herringford got his work completed so that he could be undisturbed. The whole family got ready to lounge around in the flower-filled meadow, even Brian - to Rachel and the Herringford girls' understandable dismay. He is sure to tear the wings off every butterfly he sees, after trampling on every bloom in sight, Rachel thought mournfully as she went to discuss the all-important question of the picnic basket with Mrs. Talcott.
Diana and Alicia had had the same notion. "We can't let him blight our day out, Ally," Diana said determinedly. "He will despoil the place, make Miss Warren run after him the whole time, and dampen everyone's mood. We must keep him back somehow."
"Easier said than done, Di," Alicia replied imperturbably. "Can you see Brian staying back when there is pandemonium to be created?"
"Alas, most true indeed are the doom-laden words escaping your prescient lips. Gone, gone are the lovely days when my beloved brother was strung up by a leg. Ah, when will he leave for school and torture the schoolmasters instead of us?" Diana struck a dramatic pose to make her younger sister dissolve in giggles, before straightening up.
"I believe that we might see to it that he takes his milk like a good boy. Milk will make him grow big and strong enough to bother every unassuming creature in his path." She winked at Alicia, making the other girl draw back a little in alarm. "What are you planning, Di? I do not, repeat do not like the glint in your eyes!"
Diana shrugged nonchalantly, before whispering in the other girl's ear, "Well, you have to admit that I do share some blood with the greatest scourge mankind has ever known. It cannot but show on occasion; but I assure you that I will try to only use my gift for the betterment of mankind."
Brian developed a slight tummy-ache an hour before the party was ready to set out. It soon developed into bowel problems and there was no way he could go with them to the Vale. Mrs. Herringford stayed back to nurse him and try to 'tease his appetite with some nourishing gruel'. Mr. Herringford had to go to fetch a doctor for his ailing son, who reported that apparently the child had ingested some mildly poisonous berries or herbs that irritated his insides, and will be perfectly fine again in a couple of days. On hearing this he was relieved enough to permit his older children to go along and enjoy themselves as planned, since Brian was in no danger and the poor things would be in the way at home in any case. Miss Warren was an adequate chaperone.
Within an hour the delighted maidens were already on their way to have an unblemished picnic, gaily altering their plans for the lovely day ahead sans elders and monsters.
"You are evil," Alicia whispered to Diana out of Rachel's hearing.
"Thank you, sis," the latter replied with a grin.
The girls had a glorious time together. They ran in abandoned fashion across the woods the moment they were away from anyone's scrutiny, and plonked down their things under some trees before sitting down and absorbing the golden splendor around them. At such moments Rachel forgot that she was supposed to be their guide to proper decorum, and became as lighthearted as they. After all, at heart she was but a teenager herself. They waded in a little creek, splashed pebbles in its clear water like boys, wove flower garlands for each other and started a contest of quoting poetry glorifying nature. Rachel even succumbed to pressure and taught her charges the rudiments of climbing a tree.
Two and a half hours after arriving in the enchanted place Rachel was lying on her stomach in a most un-ladylike posture writing a long letter to the Trevelyan sisters, describing the loveliness around her and her contentment with life at present. Alicia had taken her sketchbook along, and was involved in drawing her sister who was sitting in the shade provided by a small tree playing a soft tune on her flute. She was trying to compose a melody commemorating the beauty around her, and had an intense look of concentration and introspection on her face. With her ash-blonde hair in a loose plait hanging over one shoulder and a forgotten flower tucked midway in the hair, Diana looked like the spirit of spring come to life and her fascinated sister tried her best to capture the magical moment.
This beautiful tableau was rudely disturbed by the inelegant arrival of a stranger in their midst. A young man suddenly marched up to Diana from a nearby clump of trees and impatiently chastised her without any preamble whatsoever,
"The problem is with the ending of the song. The breath control is faulty in the second half - you need more strength of lungs before you can carry the tune to the heights you are attempting. If it doesn't work you'd do better to alter it. Perhaps a short trill to bridge the two notes together rather than trying to lift it too much?"
Diana was by then staring open-mouthed at him. So were Alicia and Rachel, who had hurriedly resumed a more decorous position at this curious man's entry. What did he think he was doing, barging in like that and passing judgment on her music without even introducing himself? Diana's face slowly became pink with anger and she stood up, glaring at this rude boy. Indeed, he was nothing more than a boy after all; he could not have seen not more than eighteen summers at the most. And here he was, offering criticism like an acclaimed musician without even a semblance of any opening!
It was Rachel who spoke up, seeing as Diana was shocked out of her speech. Possibly, nothing like this had ever happened in the fifteen years of her sheltered life. Rachel took on the mantle of the governess and inquired politely, "To whom do we owe the pleasure of conversing with, gracious Sir?" A steely undertone was evident in her voice. No one discomfited her students and got away with it. Oh, Rachel knew how to unsheathe her claws with the best of them!
The boy became aware of the others present in the glade, and perhaps realized for the first time that he might have made a social faux-pas. "I am Justin Ashton, Miss…" "Rachel Warren, good Sir," was the saccharine answer. He bowed to her gallantly. "…Miss Warren. I am sorry for interrupting in this unpardonable manner, but I could not stop myself from speaking when I discerned that the young lady," he gestured vaguely in Diana's direction, "was repeatedly making the same mistake over and over and was unable to figure out where the problem lay."
Rachel's demeanor did not soften down. If anything, her eyes narrowed and she glared at the unknown youth. "Do you mean to say Mr. Ashton that you have been listening to her play for a long time? Perhaps you were spying at us while we were unaware of anyone else's presence? I do not need to tell you about the impropriety of such an activity, I presume." The glare which she sent at the hapless stranger following these words ought to have incinerated him on the spot.
No one would believe that she was only a year or so older than poor Mr. Ashton curling up in front of her, contemplated Alicia in wonder. In this moment, she is every inch the threatening chaperone chastising a man misbehaving with her charges.
She is so endearing! Ally concluded with a grin.
Justin backed away in alarm. "Oh, you misunderstand me, Miss Warren. I have not been looking at you three; not before entering this place, that is. I was…some distance away when I heard the song. Since it was being repeated persistently I guessed that someone was attempting to compose a new tune, and when the musician could not figure out where the mistake lay I felt that it should be explained to him, or…as the matter might be, her." He waved in Diana's direction again.
By then Diana had regained her powers of speech, and her indignation bubbled forth. "So you consider yourself to be such a great connoisseur of music that my playing jarred on your sensibilities? Did you stop to consider that perhaps I wanted to work out the kinks in my playing by myself? It is my first composition - I wanted it to belong exclusively to me, imperfections and all!" she was heaving emotionally by the end of her diatribe.
Justin smiled apologetically and rubbed the back of his neck, which was becoming a bright red out of mortification. "I - guess I didn't consider that, no. I am really sorry, Miss…" but Diana made no attempt to introduce herself, leaving him fumbling on. "Ah, um, what I was saying is that - I did not think of it from that point of view. I was working on a composition of my own, and your playing was rather breaking my concentration. So I decided to help you along. It was meant to be a friendly gesture."
And it would have secured you the peace you required in the bargain, no doubt, Rachel thought to herself.
"What composition were you working on, Mr. Ashton?" Diana asked, curious despite herself. "Are you a writer?"
"Oh no!" he laughed heartily at the notion. "I can barely write enough to pass my classes in University. No, I was composing a song; incidentally, one on a flute." He took out a slender silver flute from his pocket deprecatingly and displayed it as Exhibit A in his defense. "You can understand how distracting it was to hear another flautist playing at such a time. Creating music strips me of social civilities, I am afraid."
Diana was still skeptical. "And how come we did not hear you playing, but you were bothered by my flute?"
He grinned sheepishly. "I was up in a tree a hundred feet away, trying to ensure privacy. Sound carries over from here since it's a valley, I guess."
By then the sight of the lovely silver flute had destroyed most of Diana's complaints about his presence. She longed to hear the notes which the instrument could produce. Surprising her chaperone, sister and quite possibly herself, she blurted out, "Will you play something for us?"
The rest of the afternoon was spent in Justin's company, which certainly improved with time. He was a friend from college of one of the boys in the neighborhood, and was here on a short visit. He was enjoying himself hugely; but sometimes the crowds got too much for him when the urge to compose took over, and then he usually ran to the woods to spend some, as he put it alliteratively, 'meaningful moments with myself and music'. His father was a prosperous lawyer in London and Justin was studying to follow in his footsteps in the near future, though his heart belonged exclusively to music and all its manifestations. He was really talented with the flute, and Rachel could understand his impatience with Diana's faulty playing on hearing his own compositions; the boy was almost professional in his genius.
He was a gentle soul as well, and even Alicia managed to lose her natural timidity around him and his teasing banter. Rachel took to him after realizing that the boy was evidently well brought up and discourtesy was the exception rather than the rule with him. As for Diana, she was already roping Justin into an animated discussion on favourite composers and instruments within a quarter of an hour, all the while gazing upon him with adoring eyes. Rachel decided that she would really have to talk with her elder charge seriously after returning home about such behavior. Her beauty and candid expression of feelings could be pretty potent for the other sex in large doses.
It just won't do; she must act more sensibly. I wonder if she knows how lethal those melting eyes and a cooing voice can be for a susceptible young man, she thought amusedly. Justin kept on losing the thread of the conversation more than once whenever he chanced to look upon Diana for too long.
Finally it was time for the girls to return home. Diana seemed to fidget nervously all of a sudden and Justin did not know what to do. Neither of them wanted the delightful meeting to come to an end, but end it did eventually.
"Can I invite him over to our house?" Diana wondered with a blush. "He is such a gentleman; I cannot imagine Papa or Mama finding any fault with our continuing a…a friendship…with him. And oh, he is such a divine musician! I can learn ever so much from him. But can I really invite him to our house? Will it seem too forward? Oh Lord, will it appear brazen and unseemly?"
Alicia sensed her sister mentally wringing her hands, and almost laughed at her obvious dilemma. Oh Di, you owe me for this one, she thought before turning towards Justin with a bright smile. "It was a lovely experience meeting you Mr. Ashton. I am sure my parents would like to meet you and hear your wonderful compositions for themselves; they adore good music and we have so few musicians around here. Will you come and visit us sometime at Carillon Hall?" she finished sweetly, flashing an anxious look towards Miss Warren for approval. She had never invited anyone to her home in her life, and it suddenly struck her that perhaps it was improper in her to issue invitations when her governess and elder sister were both present. Miss Warren inclined her head slightly in acquiescence even while her eyes signaled a warning - while she would let it pass this time, such impetuosity would not always be encouraged. Alicia was growing up, after all - she must be taught that young girls did not act like this. She sighed; Looks like I am going to talk seriously with both of them about decorum and propriety tonight. Ah me!
"I believe that your friend Paul Benetton is coming to Carillon Hall on Tuesday with his parents for tea, Mr. Ashton," she said. "It would give us great pleasure if you were to come with them." The unsaid part was obvious - we cannot invite you on our own, but we would be most pleased to renew our acquaintance through proper channels.
Alicia didn't mind. What mattered was the end result. She flashed an uncharacteristically mischievous grin at the tomato-red face of Diana, before lowering her lashed demurely and listening to Justin's delighted acceptance of the offer. For a man who burst upon her with a rebuke, he seemed to have impressed Diana plenty. This needed to be encouraged - and if she had to bear the censure of her parents and Miss Warren for her unwarranted actions, so be it. That was what sisters were for, after all.
Diana was understandably distracted on their way back home and Rachel and Alicia exchanged sly glances with each other, but decided to be merciful and carried on a merry conversation between themselves that required little or no input from her. It is like their personalities have been reversed, thought Rachel in amusement. Diana's lovesickness seems to have silenced her chatter and unleashed Alicia's impish side. Now whether that is for the best or not, time will tell!
The sun was almost setting when they returned home. Sally met them at the door and took their spencer jackets off with a smile and inquired after their day before informing Rachel casually, "A letter has come for you Miss. I've kept it in your room safely."
"Thank you, Sally. Is it from Kent or London?" Rachel asked absently as she untied her bonnet strings. It had to be from Miranda - her brothers had written to her only yesterday and Lucy had sent a few words in their mother's letter a few days before that. It might be from Cassie brimming over with Little Hanstead news, of course. Unless Grace, that chronically poor correspondent, had deigned to spare some time from her family for her poor toiling sister…
"The letter was sent from London, Miss."
All Rachel's whimsical wonderings came to a halt. London? The only reason someone was writing from there would be if something bad had occurred…
She was about to bolt for her room when she was stopped by a discreet cough from behind. "Miss Warren," Mr. Garner murmured, "Mrs. Herringford would like to see you in the parlor. If you would come with me…"
Rachel went to her employers in an impatient daze. I need to read that letter fast, she kept on telling herself. Why couldn't they call me later? What is so important? Her heartbeat sped up. Has Brian taken a turn for the worse? Oh God, I don't want the child to die, little fiend though he may be…
Her fears were put to rest on seeing the calm demeanor of the lady seated alone in her room. Mrs. Herringford beckoned her into the room before folding her hands decorously together.
"So how did your day go, Miss Warren? I hope you enjoyed yourself while my son was writhing in agony here?"
Rachel winced discreetly. She had learnt to take all barbs with equanimity by now, but some hits went to sensitive places. "How is Brian now, Madam?" She inquired politely. "He is better," was the chilly answer. "Doctor Frost has prescribed rest and light food for a day, and there is an herbal concoction which my baby needs to drink at regular intervals. Little though you seem to care."
"We wouldn't have gone on with our plans if his malady had not seemed to be slight in nature, Madam. The girls had their hearts set on this outing for so long that it seemed to be a shame to stop them; and Mr. Herringford also gave his permission when I asked him before leaving."
Mrs. Herringford tossed out this distasteful fact with a movement of her head. She was angry with the girls for enjoying themselves while she and her darling Brian had to stay back so ignominiously, and she intended the woman standing before her to be aware of the fact. But suddenly she remembered why she had called her in the first place, and her lips thinned even more. Miss Warren had something else to answer for as well. She leaned forward and charged forth without any preamble.
"Miss Warren, how do you know Miss Miranda de Manley?"
Rachel's heart almost lurched to a stop, before accelerating to a dangerous pace. This was really, really unexpected. Were her doings finally found out? "Wh-Why are you asking me this, Madam?" she hedged.
"Do not act coy with me, Miss Warren. I want to know the answer to a simple question. She has written to me to personally ask my permission for you to go to London to attend some sort of soiree at her town house. She wants you to visit her for two or three days, citing your old friendship as the reason behind her intense desire to meet you again after…what had she said? Ah yes…all these years. So I was wondering…how is it that I never got to know that you have such fashionable friends?"
Rachel's first emotion was relief. So it had been Miranda who wrote to her from London, after all. But what was this about a soiree? Why was she inviting Rachel of all people to a fashionable party, knowing fully well that her time was not her own?
"Err, we met in…yes, we have been friends for a long time, though we mostly keep in touch through letters. She had been in Kent recently; I didn't know that she had returned to London." Rachel's voice faltered as the other lady kept on gazing at her unwaveringly. "I do not need to go to her town house if you would rather I didn't, Ma'am. I am sure that she would understand…"
"Oh, don't let us cavil in such a manner," Mrs. Herringford interposed impatiently. She waved a hand. "You know perfectly well that I cannot refuse such an influential person. Even if she wanted to keep you for another month away from your duties I cannot refuse," she sneered. "Therefore, without much ado I give you leave to attend this party and keep your little friends happy. Just remember to return soon." Heaving a martyred sigh she dismissed the governess from the room.
Well, she certainly loves to overact. But the end result was so propitious that Rachel preferred not to criticize her employer's actions and simply swept up to her room to read what Miranda had to say for herself.
The letter was lying innocently on her bed, and she snatched it up in a moment.
"Dear Rachel, (it read)
I hope you are in excellent fettle and welcoming the coming of spring with all the enthusiasm it deserves. I shifted back to London yesterday since my friends kept on insisting that I must not forget my bounden duty of entertaining them like the consummate hostess that I am. Ah, I am already missing my divine estate! The flowers were just peeking out shyly when I left…the meadows would be overflowing with them in a week's time, I warrant. But I must not complain; I love my London life also, and it is really nice to be back in society after all those lonely months. I suppose I should consider myself to be lucky that I have two such enchanting places to dwell in, and let matters rest.
"The purpose of this letter is not only to rhapsodize about my current turn of fortunes but also to invite you to Rosemary Haven, my house in Town, for a little ball to be held on the 6th of April. I have been longing to meet with you in the flesh for ages, but always held back knowing that you may not get leave so soon after…all that. But now ample time has passed, and I thought that I might utilize the power of the de Manley name to twirl the circumstances a little. In fact, there is a deeper plan behind this invitation of mine. I know that your meetings with your family have been shortened after that month on my account, and I have always felt extremely guilty about this fact even if you were a dear and never tasked me with it. Therefore what I propose is this - you come up to London ostensibly to stay at my house, but you may live at your sister's place till the night of the ball itself if you feel like it. Rest assured that I would adore having you with me in my house; but I thought that I should offer to be selfless and suggest the brilliant idea which occurred to me. Do not hesitate to acquaint me with your decision either way…both would give me equal pleasure and friends should not hide their feelings from each other. Even if you are unable to attend for some reason or the other, I beg you to be unhesitatingly frank with me. I do not know if it is a bad time for you to come now, and I would certainly not force you to attend my gathering - but I would be lying if I did not say that meeting you finally would make me extremely happy.
"Keeping any probable unpleasantness in mind, I have personally written to your employers about getting you some reprieve. I know that the lady for one would not have been accommodating enough if the proposal were to come from you directly. I must admit, it was a funny experience to write to them as Miranda de Manley…I almost felt like throwing a few 'sirs' and 'madams' in for good measure!
"So I will keep my letter short and sweet in hopes that you will ponder on my request all the quicker for it, and will put me out of my misery with your answer as soon as possible (Does it not sound like a horrid marriage proposal? I almost feel like sweeping you a courtly bow while flourishing a ring in your face! Though it would be most inappropriate…).
Adieu for now, my fair friend. In hopes of seeing you soon, I remain,
Your loving friend,
Miranda de Manley
"p.s: Oh, did I tell you that Andy would have returned to England by then, and would be attending on the night of the ball as well?"
Rachel's emotions went through a sort of relay race while reading the letter. They started out as an indulgent impatience with Miranda's cheerful ramblings, and proceeded on to amusement, surprise, affection invoked by the lady's thoughtfulness, and finally unadulterated joy at the conclusion. How could one small epistle evoke so many sentiments in her? Every suggestion put a bigger smile on her face than the last. But of course, the fact resounding most noisily in her head at the end was in the postscript, the information which Miranda almost forgot to convey. Andrew was returning. He was unharmed; he would be back in England; she would get to see him soon. Nothing penetrated her head for some time beyond this realization.
Within a minute she had snatched up a sheet of paper and sat down to write to Lucy about Miranda's proposal, before composing a reply to the lady in question on the solid chance that her sister will not refuse to host her for three or four days. She could not keep still for a moment, and her pen flew across the paper. Ten minutes later she had accepted Miss de Manley's gracious offer and had promised to visit her as soon as she could, even though Rachel would be residing with her family as Miranda had so amiably suggested. And she would certainly be attending the ball; how could she refuse when her friend had been so sweet and persuasive about it?
That evening was one of extreme cheerfulness for Rachel, even though she had to go through those awful 'talks' with Diana and Alicia about proper maidenly behavior. It went off pretty well, since the sisters affected a nice demure acceptance of her wise words and apologized prettily for their lapse in conduct. Rachel let them think they had fooled her.
"I know what you are thinking girls; I have been in that age pretty lately, when I thought that I knew best and the adults should be heard but not heeded," she smirked to herself. She trusted her students to keep a cool head and remember her words when the occasion arose, so she had no qualms to disturb her joyful mood.
This happiness was sorely tried immediately afterwards when she had to attempt to feed Brian something light and nourishing as opposed to the three-course dinner he was demanding. But she managed to survive even that, as always.
The coveted letter arrived from London in four days, eagerly extending Rachel an invitation to stay as long as she liked with her family, though it also included a gentle reprimand from her sister about the formality of asking whereas she should have simply turned up without a thought. Rachel smiled tenderly at this, and walked to the post-office at Denbries herself in order to post the letter to Miranda before the last mail coach of the day could leave. She would have three more days before leaving for London, and hopefully the letter would reach its destination before she herself arrived in the Capital. Then she went back and continued the lessons of the day like always, finishing off all residual topics before her departure so that her students could revise by themselves.
Diana had become extremely fidgety since the day Mr. Ashton visited Carillon Hall with his friend Paul Benetton, and charmed the Herringford family into allowing him to come regularly in the evenings to give the Misses Diana and Alicia some suggestions about musical performance. Now he was in their schoolroom at least once every two days sitting with the girls for an hour or so, either discussing the intricacies of proper fingering on the pianoforte or helping Diana compose - and Rachel could do nothing but provide the required chaperoning. She did not like the situation much as Diana and Justin's partiality for each other was becoming more and more evident by the day and she personally considered that both the parties were moving too quickly for their own good; Diana was only fifteen, for heavens' sake! But when Diana's parents had no objection to a young man teaching their adolescent daughters, Rachel could not do anything beyond having another serious talk with Diana about rushing a good thing.
Diana did not brush it off as lightheartedly as she had done the last time Rachel had 'talked' with her about her actions; both of them understood that while that was a mere formality, this talk was more momentous in nature. Therefore, the girl earnestly assured her governess and older friend that she would try to control her feelings until she was old enough to act upon them. She agreed to not enter into things too intensely since Justin still had to make his way in the world even if he felt for her as strongly as she did for him. Finally Rachel got her shaky promise to simply enjoy the time now with him as a pleasant hour or so without too many expectations for the future, and left the morose girl with an understanding squeeze to think about things she was too young to deal with.
Ah, who am I kidding? She thought to herself as she wearily made her way up the stairs to her room. One is always too young to deal with a powerful force of nature like love. I am still being incessantly overwhelmed by its destructive strength.
Rachel commenced her journey on a most beautiful morning when the dew was still fresh on the grass and spring was weaving its bountiful magic in the air. The weather was the only good thing which ultimately remained during the uncomfortable ride to London city in a stagecoach full to the brim with jostling farmers' wives and a man with particularly roving eyes, who made her feel uncomfortable and unclean the entire length of the ride. But everything comes to an end, whether it was good or bad; and finally Rachel was rapping on the large door of Lucy's house on Cresswell Street.
There was instant uproar as her brothers opened the door and rushed up to her, grabbing her hands and jumping up and down with an unintelligible war cry. "Rachie's here, Rachie's back, mother, come and see!" they yelled. Putting her hands to her ears Rachel mock-glared at them for old times' sake, before relaxing and sweeping them into a big embrace. Her dear little scamps, how she had missed their never-flagging enthusiasm! Her brothers might be boisterous, but they had loyal and loving hearts. Besides, they were always well-mannered before outsiders. Of course, she was specially appreciating them since she had come fresh from Brian…
The next to assault her was little Minnie who barreled into her aunt's legs and held on fast, not even letting go when her frazzled mother ran up from the kitchen and demanded that she release her beleaguered Aunty Rachel this moment. Her brother-in-law Paul drifted into the room from his study with spectacles on his nose and a smile on his lips, and the joyous tableau was completed when Mrs. Warren came in from the kitchen garden and dropped her gardening gloves in astonishment, seeing that Lucy had kept Rachel's arrival a secret to surprise their mother with.
It was a grand time they had that day.
The next day saw Rachel wearing her best frock and making a call on Rosemary Haven. The house towered over her as she stood on the doorstep. It was a large building of beautiful proportions with a sweeping entrance and sumptuous gardens, and murmured 'prosperity' to anyone looking at it. Indeed, it was a little intimidating to be approaching the chatelaine of a house like this without an appointment, and Rachel had to remind herself more than once that it was only Miranda who she was calling upon rather than some haughty dame who might snub her poor attire. She prayed that Miranda would be alone so that she need not explain to anyone who she was and how she had become an intimate of one so much higher than herself in station.
That is something we need to work on before the ball, she mused as the butler went in to announce her. Heiresses do not befriend governesses just like that, nor do they invite them to private balls.
She was in luck since the butler ushered her directly into a splendid boudoir where only a solitary woman was sitting, who leapt up on beholding the visitor.
"Rachel, you made it!" Miranda pulled the younger girl into an impetuous embrace, before backing off for a while in which they both surveyed each other. Rachel saw an auburn-haired beauty with bright jade eyes standing before her. The similarities between them were now pretty obvious, even though Miranda was so much better dressed than herself. Gone were the ugly spectacles, maid's uniform and tight cap, and reticent comportment. That was a girl with fear tracking her footsteps at every turn; this was a poised lady with an impeccable lineage behind her and an uncomplicated future ahead. Her smile was serene, and social independence had brought dignity to her features. And yet she was evidently the author of those ebullient letters, thought Rachel fondly as she saw Miss de Manley's impulsive friendliness towards herself.
Miranda on the other hand saw a new maturity in the governess' face, and an extra grace in the way she held herself. Something was lost, and something new was gained in Rachel's demeanor which she could not quite put her finger on. Anyway, it does not appear as if she has suffered unduly by her adventures. These seem to be positive changes, she thought with relief and a slight easing of guilt. However much Rachel may have assured her of her forgiveness, Miranda had continued to feel responsible about the amount of danger the former had been in for her sake.
The silence was ended when they both simultaneously broke out into smiles of pleasure. "Are you done with surveying the changes in the parlor-maid Rosie?" Miranda teased. Not to be bested, Rachel shot back, "Are you done with assessing the damages that might have been done to my person?" Laughter rang out in the cheerful room. It would continue to drift out of the open windows intermittently for the next couple of hours while Rachel stayed at Rosemary Haven.
One of the most important things which were talked about pertained to the story that will be told about Rachel's connection to Miranda. Rachel was adamant about not hiding her background from the other guests, and Miranda wholeheartedly agreed with her. "You are my guest of honour Rachel, and one of my best friends," she said earnestly. "I want to acknowledge you to the whole world, even though I can't elaborate on what you have done for me. Nor do I want you to hide your identity, since that makes you the person you are and I am not ashamed to admit that my friend is a governess to a genteel family. With your permission, I will simply say that you were a childhood friend who I had lost touch with over the years, and that I renewed my acquaintance with you in Brighton where you were nursing your youngest charge." With a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, she continued, "It may put a stop to any proposals you might have otherwise received from swains as besotted with your purse as your beautiful face, but I believe that you will be better off without any such encumbrances, right? Though it is a heady feeling to reject an obnoxious marriage suit with hauteur…"
"Stop it, stop it you puckish creature!" Rachel had tears of laughter streaming from her eyes by this time. "Your plan is fine enough to carry muster and yes, I would much prefer to be known as Rachel Warren, governess extraordinaire, rather than as an exiled princess or Duchess in disguise. Lead me to the fortune hunters of your circle - they will pass me by like the idle wind I fear not." As if I could look at anyone in that manner, with the expectation of coming upon Andrew at any moment! Whether he himself is taken or not, he holds my heart for ever.
Miranda was rather vague about the details of Andrew's return. "All I know is that he would be arriving in England around tomorrow in a ship called The Tamarind Queen. He has finally been relieved from overseas duty, and according to his last letter he has some unfinished business out here which he must attend to in a hurry before reaching London. I have made him promise to attend my ball, but he did say that he might be late in arriving on account of this secret business. He will finally be home again though, and this time for over a month! You simply must meet him before you return to Denbries; even if he is late in arriving on the 6th, you must promise to come with me to Fairfax House the next day before your scheduled return. You will see him, won't you? He thinks the world of you and will be pretty gloomy if he missed you."
Oh Miranda, he thinks the world of you not me, Rachel's heart bewailed even as she smiled and admitted to a desire to meet her old companion once again. She was determined that the happy mood of the conversation would not be spoiled by her personal rain cloud of hopelessness.
Miranda gave Rachel a guided tour of the house she had bought last year and renovated with such passion, and Rachel could only wonder at all that the other woman had managed to accomplish by herself. The house was superb, as beautiful inside as it was on the outside; and yet, it did not seem to be an empty monument to fashion but rather a home to someone who loved it a lot. All it needed was some more people to fill it with gaiety and life, and Rachel soon gathered that quite a few of Miranda's friends from the country would be coming to live there the next day in preparation for the ball.
"Did you like the name of my town house?" Miranda inquired with a roguish smile at one point. She was testing her, Rachel was sure. She twinkled back, "Oh yes, it is so lovely and original. But I don't see any rosemary in your garden. What could you have named it after?" She put on a show of debating the matter while Miranda looked on interestedly. "Oh, could it be a mix of Rosie and Mira, by any chance? They are the only people I know of who needed haven at a certain point in their life, err, lives."
Miranda laughed joyously at the dénouement. "I knew that you would see through it!" she crowed. "The only other person who caught on was Andrew…but then, he is the only other person who knows all the aspects of my life as well." Her countenance sobered suddenly, and she studied her hands for a moment before continuing in a hushed voice. "I had to name it differently from de Manley House, and this name seemed to be perfect. I want some sort of reminder of the events of last year. I know that over time I will become complacent, and my love for my brothers might blind me to the extent that I allow them to re-enter my life and manipulate me again. Then this name will remind me of all that I had lost by trusting them once and it will hopefully prevent me from being taken in again, by them or anyone else."
Rachel sighed, squeezed Miranda's palm (which had not yet completely lost the calluses gained by last year's hard labour), and changed the topic by talking about the lands of Richmond Acres in an attempt to cheer Miranda up. There was nothing to say to this. Nothing at all. Betrayal by your only surviving family is like a sting which is forever embedded in your body, and the most you can hope for is that it will dissolve with time rather than fester and cause further distress.
The next time the friends met was that very evening in a public garden, where Rachel was urgently summoned by a liveried groom with the message that "Miss de Manley presents her compliments, and would be most pleased if you could be gracious enough to join her in the park off Cambourne Square…in the next fifteen minutes if it were possible, seeing as she is already there and most impatient-like to talk with you Madam." Rachel flew there imagining all kinds of dire straits overtaking her friend, and was presented with the sight of a Miranda wringing her hands in desperation.
"What has happened, Miranda?" She ran up to her. The pretty lady sighed with relief on spying that her tension was over for now, and Rachel was presented with the perplexing conundrum of what she was supposed to wear at the ball.
"We forgot to talk about that, and my ball is in three days! I came to see you as soon as it was possible. You need to come with me to Rosemary Haven this very moment, and we will choose a gown for you that can be altered in a hurry. It is lucky indeed that we are mostly of a size, but still some changes might be required. I cannot believe I forgot to talk about this with you today when you had come to the house!"
Rachel almost felt like laughing. So this was the great problem because of which she had suffered palpitations for the past ten minutes! Shaking her head, she forced her amusement down since it was clearly a matter of concern for Miranda and tried to address the question with the sobriety it apparently demanded.
"Do not worry about my costume, Miranda. I have talked with Lucy and she is already altering one of her old gowns for me as we speak. I do not think that dressing me up in borrowed feathers is going to change what I am in essence, so I will adorn myself according to my status in life rather than deceive everyone with a grand Cinderella act. Being married to a university professor, Lucy has more than one appealing gown which would do perfectly well for me."
Miranda huffed in exasperation. "Really Rachel, I swear you take this self-respect thing too far at times. It is fine that you want to be yourself, but don't you feel like simply breaking out of the mould and living for the sake of fun, just for once? Do you not want to sweep all men off their feet with a splendid entrance and leave them yearning for more at the end of the night?"
Rachel faltered in the face of such words. Was she really taking herself and her pride too seriously? She would not be deceiving anyone; she will admit her origins to whosoever asked and hence, no one could accuse her of attempting to entrap any eligible candidate. Should she really play at being Cinderella for an evening, just to see what it felt like to be desired - not by a lecher or an adolescent boy, but a man the world could respect? After all, she would quite possibly never attend another private ball in her life; shouldn't she make use of what opportunities life was gifting her? And maybe it will change the way Andrew looked at her, if only for that one night. He might ask her for a dance…
"Alright Miranda," she whispered. Her companion gave a rather childish squeal of pleasure, on hearing which common sense momentarily returned to Rachel and she added in a stronger voice, "But I will be choosing the gown, not you!"
She had reason to be glad of that clause within the next hour. Miranda's enthusiasm was reaching scary levels. She had several gorgeous gowns in different hues, materials and fashions. Since she was no longer a debutante, Miranda owned jewel-toned gowns as well as the compulsory pastel shades that were considered an essential part of an unmarried woman's wardrobe. The designs were mostly demure and apposite, but there were a couple that almost verged on daring. The materials ranged from wholesome muslins to elegant lace, from stiff brocades to enchanting silks and satins. And presently, all of them were placed at a bemused Rachel's disposal.
"No, Miranda," she finally interrupted the other girl's eulogy on a sapphire silk creation with silverwork across the bodice. "I am not going to go to the ball in something I will not be comfortable in. That silk thing, these glittery pieces of froth, they are not me. In fact, I have already made my selection." She strode over to the collection of muslins piled in a corner, and picked up a particular dress reverently. It was pure white in color, with a modest sweetheart neckline and short puffed sleeves picked out in silver satin ribbons. The ankle-length skirt billowed out from the unfashionably-low waist in soft folds and looked like a shimmering cloud on a misty morning. A tiny bunch of white satin roses sat on one corner of the waistline, the only embellishment something as pure as this dress could require.
Miranda inspected the garment. "I had forgotten I had that one," she murmured, before turning around and appraising Rachel with new eyes. "You are right. Do put it on."
Rachel went off behind the changing screen, and eventually emerged wearing the muslin gown. It was not shapeless on her, though the length required to be taken in a little. In fact it hugged all the right places and made a queenly figure out of the young woman, even with her rebellious hair tumbling out of its bun all over her shoulders. Miranda caught her breath. "I had been trying to play Fairy Godmother all this while so that you could be as carefree as everyone else for a change, but now I understand that I had actually been stifling you. This dress embodies your purity of heart, your modest nature and lets your inner beauty shine through. It is perfect for you."
Rachel blushed furiously. "You know that you are only supposed to say the last part and not cover me in praise without warning, don't you?" she joked. "I did not choose this dress for any reason other than that I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. You are sure that I can borrow it? I might get it dirty by mistake," she added worriedly. Miranda waved away all such concerns negligently. "As I had told you, I had forgotten that I owned that gown before you pulled it out of that jumble. I would offer it to you for keeping, but I know that you would not accept a gift like that. Therefore, all that I ask of you is that you wear it and love it for one evening to your heart's content."
Just like I hope to do with Andrew, Rachel thought with a return of her melancholia. I will see him for one more evening and love him to my heart's content, before returning him wholeheartedly to the woman he loves.
She declined Miranda's offer of coming to the house some hours before the ball so that the real Rosie, Miranda's maid, could dress her hair for her. "You have really done too much for me my dear," she said affectionately. "I don't want our friendship to be brought into the spotlight, as it will doubtless be if I stay at your house and am exposed to your other houseguests for an extended duration. I would much rather prefer to come in unobtrusively after a jolly crowd has gathered, so that there would be less chance of people cross-examining me about my antecedents or our Brighton connection. Rest assured I will be here within an hour of your party getting started so as to not miss out on any entertainment at all."
And thus ended Rachel's association with Miranda till the day of the ball. After that dress selection Miranda became too busy with preparations to call on Rachel, and the later also respected the former's schedule and decided to delay any more conversations until the momentous ball was over. Though it had not been explicitly mentioned, Rachel knew that this was Miranda's first social function as an independent hostess and thus, it was an important affair that could make or break Miss de Manley's reputation in the Ton. Therefore, she distracted herself with her family and prohibited her mind from wandering to Andrew's presence on English terrain - at least more than five times a day.
The three days flew by. Before she was aware of it, the evening of the ball had arrived and she was sitting at Lucy's vanity table having her sister brush her long tresses before twisting them into a simple knot at the nape of her neck.
"I am so happy that you are going to this ball tonight, Rachie," Lucy said absently as she poked a couple of pins into Rachel's long-suffering head. "You might even meet with some wonderful bachelor who will take a shine to you tonight. You have always been too much of a house-bound person; I think that if an adventure were offered to you, you would shake your curls at it and refuse to budge from your kitchen hearth." Rachel felt like both laughing and crying at this statement. What would Lucy think if she knew about her escapades across England with Andrew, prancing around under a false name? She would most probably dismiss it immediately as a gross untruth.
"This Miss Miranda sounds like a good sort," Lucy was continuing as she laced Rachel up prior to slipping the dress over her head. "Anyone who helps you to get by in those days of nursing Brian Herringford must deserve our gratitude for life; after all, she ensured that our Rachel returned to us sane of mind! Now turn around slowly and face the mirror…you are done. My handiwork deserves an award, if I do say so myself."
Rachel swung around with a bit of trepidation, and let out a sigh of relief on beholding her reflection. She still looked like herself, though a much smarter version of herself if truth were told. Her hair was up in some sort of a braided chignon and white tea roses from Lucy's garden were entwined among the loops as well as tucked around the edges of the knot. The few strands left out in the front curled down to her cheeks and shoulders, and seemed artless rather than studied in nature. The dress fit like a dream, having been perfectly modified by an expert seamstress the day before. The low waistline might be behind the times, but it emphasized Rachel's height and slender built and made her look like a sylph. Lucy had offered her a silvery shawl to cover herself against the chill of the spring night air. A cerulean reticule and a silk fan in like tints completed the outfit by giving it a much needed splash of color and bringing out the color of her eyes. The self-same eyes were very bright in Rachel's fresh face in anticipation of the forthcoming evening, and her cheeks glowed pink in appreciation of her image. Lucy sure knew how to dress one up.
Rachel Warren was ready to attend the first ball of her life.
Flares were lighting up the streets of fashionable London as Rachel was carried towards Miranda's house. The city's heartbeat had become magically different by the touch of night, but it certainly did not still its throbbing pace like the other places she had known in her lifetime. She stepped out of her hired carriage outside Rosemary Haven, and took a deep breath to focus her thoughts before entering. However much Miranda might have protested to the contrary, she felt every inch an outsider to such a glittering event. The mansion was transformed from outside by the cheerful lights placed in every possible dark corner, and Rachel knew that inside the change would be even more marked. There was a steady row of carriages lined up before Rosemary Haven, elegant figures moved about on their way inside and the cool air shivered with their chatter and laughter. She looked about at the assemblage covertly, but couldn't see any woman who had come unescorted to the ball - unlike her. That fact in itself marked her out.
Stop over-thinking everything, she admonished herself lightly. Your friend wants you here - and it is not exactly scandalous to arrive unescorted to an exclusive gathering, though it may be unusual. Therefore, just march up that drive and hold your head high.
Of course she listened to herself. Self-admonishment always produces satisfying results.
There was a grave old man in tailcoats at the door divesting every visitor of his or her cloak in a manner which reminded her of Mr. Garner back home, blending dignity with hospitality. Rachel went up to him timidly and introduced herself, at which he bowed and immediately escorted her into a lavishly decorated ballroom. Rachel remembered seeing this room on her tour a few days back and being struck then by its gracious proportions and rose silk curtains. Now she got to see it in all its glory - festooned with long garlands of unseasonal blossoms and ribbons, sparkling with countless chandeliers and overflowing with guests that either milled around desultorily or collected in little groups. Thankfully enough, the select nature of the event ensured that it was not a 'crush' as she had often heard most successful London parties were wont to be. The guests were carefully chosen and there was space for maneuvering during the dances. The dancing had apparently not started till then, and Rachel was conscious of the little dance card that the butler or footman had unobtrusively pressed in her gloved hands at the door. Will she be able to get even a couple of names on it by the end of the ball?
Her white muslin gown, which had seemed so beautiful and tasteful before, seemed to lose its sheen amidst so many glorious creatures as were now thronging Miranda's townhouse. What had possessed her to go for simplicity in the first place? It was all Miranda's fault; she should have warned Rachel about the enormity of the affair and made her wear something more glamorous, by force if necessary! She felt like the proverbial poorer cousin, unaware of the refreshing figure she made in the eyes of more than one person within minutes of her entrance.
Rachel looked around at the crowd, feeling a little lost for the nonce. I know no one out here, she thought with mild panic. Whatever am I doing in this gathering, exactly? But just then she was sighted by the lady of the house herself, who rushed over to her as soon as she could leave her circle of friends behind.
"Rachel my dear, there you are! But you should have arrived an hour ago, you tardy creature," Miranda grasped her hand and smiled joyously. She was scintillating today in a gown of aqua silk with a gauzy green overskirt that matched her brilliant eyes. Diamonds cascaded from her wrists, ears and throat and, as far as Rachel could make out, they were even embedded in her emerald-hued lace fan. Her auburn mane was arranged in an intricate coiffure around her head with curls cascading over her shoulders, and decorated tastefully with strands of seed pearls. Miranda looked every inch a lady of quality and ample means.
Rosie really is a marvel at dressing, just as Miranda claimed, Rachel decided a little wryly. After all, she was human enough to regret a lost chance on occasion! But then her fingers fluttered to her own rosebud-decked mahogany locks that were so lovingly arranged by her sister, and he slight minute of envy evaporated. She was pleased with her looks which complimented her personality, and envying her friend would do her no good. Instead, she unreservedly congratulated her friend on the marvelous party she had arranged and pecked her cheek lightly. Rachel might have felt the difference between them keenly at that moment, surrounded as she was by Miranda's circle of acquaintances and with her riches on full display everywhere; but instead all she could see before her was a young girl throwing her first social event and almost jumping out of her body with nerves. Therefore she whirled around and showed off her dress to her hostess, complimented Miranda on the enthralling picture she made in her marine-tinted outfit and complained that she had artificially curled her hair that day to simulate Rachel's own 'breath-taking style'.
Miranda laughed at the last comment. "Your 'breath-taking style' is nature's boon Missy; but at a time when it is the ultimate fashion to put one's hair up in ringlets and loops, you really cannot ask me to desist from following trends so as to increase the differences between ourselves! It is funny how similar we are in looks when my hair is curled and we are attired in like fashion, is it not? No wonder Andrew got such a shock when he first saw the new governess for Carillon Hall arrive, bearing my primary coloring, my stature and a comportment almost parallel to my own. Did you realize that his speech had momentarily slid into his customary Oxford accent out of surprise? I remember his panic that you would have caught on to his slip, but apparently you had not. It would not be too much to say that poor Andy lost his head when he saw you at the coaching inn.
"He is not here yet by the way, but he had sent word earlier in the day that he will try his best to wind up his work on time so that he could drop by. You can see him then; perhaps he will be in regimentals if he has time to change before coming here. He cuts a mighty fine figure in them, my coz does."
Rachel blushed a little at these words. Andrew was the only person she wanted to think about at the moment, seeing as he was the main reason why she had come on this foolhardy fairytale mission. Observing the society in which he usually comported himself had only increased her eagerness to see him in the flesh, and her eyes had been darting around involuntarily from the moment she had entered the ballroom in an effort to decipher his tall blonde figure amongst the crowds. Miranda's light mention of the fact that he had not arrived sent Rachel's heart swooping down into her stomach before she could collect herself.
So what? He was busy…he had some urgent work to do, after all. He might turn up yet. And besides, it was not as if a ball was anything new for him - why should he strain himself to attend this one, just because you wish him to? Of course, he has not seen Miranda for ages and that might spur him on to grace the ball with his presence.
She was next introduced to Miss Agatha Pennington, Miranda's elderly chaperone and the very same 'Terror of the Dartmoor Wilderness' featured in so many of the irrepressible young woman's letters. Rachel could barely keep her giggles inside at the way this eccentric lady immediately started scolding the poised Miss de Manley for bad posture, a tendency to giggle and a shocking lack of decorum in one single convoluted sentence, without pausing to even breathe between the clauses. Miranda stood it as well as she could, introduced Rachel to her as etiquette demanded, and swept the girl along as soon as possible to meet her other friends.
These young ladies were standing in a corner of the room and had been observing the interaction between the two russet-haired women with interest, and were laughing at Miranda's red face by the time the pair reached their group. They were very nice to Rachel and did not even turn up their noses on hearing that she was a mere governess, though one little redhead did seem extremely interested about where she had procured such a classy gown from, and the cheerful reply stating that it belonged to Miranda procured a satisfied smirk on her lips. They were mostly unmarried, though Mrs. Angela Herbert was one of Miranda's closest friends despite there being almost eight years of difference in their ages. Another lady who stood out in Rachel's mind was Lady Gertrude Allencourt, a petite blonde swathed in yards of silver satin and sister to Lord Allencourt who had helped Miranda gain access to her lawyers by disguising her in Lady Gertrude's clothes. She appeared to be a sweet-natured person, and took Rachel under her wing when Miranda was unable to keep her company due to hostess duties. They both struck up an affectionate relationship and though Rachel doubted that it will continue beyond tonight, she was extremely grateful to the lady for her sterling companionship.
Despite her protests to the contrary, both Lady Gertrude and Miranda undertook to introduce her to some gentlemen in the room - married as well as unmarried, so as to not make their romantic intentions for their friend too clear to either of the parties. At least one of them had been eyeing her interestedly for the past fifteen minutes as she conversed with the women, and moved in to know more about this unknown factor as soon as the necessary introductions were made.
"So where have you been hiding yourself from the eyes of society, Miss Warren?" Rachel looked up at the tall, dark haired man quizzing her. He was extremely handsome in a classical sense, with chiseled features, a cleft chin and dark hooded eyes. His voice was … 'mellifluous' is the only word which comes to mind, Rachel thought dazedly. She was unused to seeing such masculine perfection at near quarters, especially when the man in question seemed to be paying her special attention. Her concentration had to be brought back to the present with an effort, where he was still complimenting her on her features. But for some reason, the suave flirtatious tone reminded her of Lord Edgerton. Suddenly, it had the unfortunate effect of irritating her immensely.
Why do all people in London speak the same language of polite flattery and innuendoes? She felt angry at this artificial world, the secret titters and empty words she could hear surging around the room, at people who judged each other by their prominence in society rather than their intrinsic worth. I for one will not descend to that level. I do not have anything to hide. Right now, that is.
"I don't think that 'hiding' would be an appropriate term to be applied in my case, Lord Harbury," for that was the illustrious person's name, "since hiding implies that I had some ulterior motive in the matter. To put it bluntly, I have been extremely visible in my own sphere of society; but your society differs from my society to a great degree. I am the daughter of a village parson who is currently working as a governess. I have resided in the country all my life. This is my first London ball, and I believe there is great chance that it will be my last."
"And thus was my society impoverished, with only a taste tonight to remind it of what it has lost to your society." Adrian Harbury drawled appreciatively. So this was a woman with a mind, hmm? One who was not very susceptible to customary adulation either; and the fire in her beautiful eyes when she got irked was extremely tantalizing. She presented a stimulating contrast to the polished ladies and simpering belles standing around the room, hopeful for some leavings of his attention. Those women were so pathetic. Now getting to know this acerbic young miss; that sounded like a nice way to pass the evening. She seemed to hide a wealth of sweetness behind that tart tongue. So what if she was a nobody? It was just in fun and even if he developed any serious intentions on her, he had enough funds to make marrying for money redundant.
He pursued Miss Warren relentlessly. He penciled his name in for two dances, and would have asked for another if Rachel had not hushed him. His interest brought Rachel to the notice of men who had previously not spared her a second glance on knowing about her background, and suddenly she found herself to be in demand; a doubtful honor in her case. She would have much preferred to spend the evening chatting with Miranda and Gertrude, but now she was always being claimed by one man or the other.
It is all that Lord Harbury's fault! Rachel huffed in amusement. She had felt repentant for her harsh words to Lord Harbury the moment they were uttered and was grateful to him for covering up her ill-natured barb with such consummate ease. Eager to grasp his offer for continued friendship, she conversed tentatively with him and his intelligent droll humor had effectively torn down her walls of caution within minutes. The two dances they shared brought great pleasure to her, but she could not stop herself from constantly wondering how a different pair of hands might have felt, how another might have executed a particular step, and how he might have felt about some topic she was discussing with Lord Harbury.
I suppose this is what being in love entails, she thought wryly even as she twirled about in Mr. Herbert's courteous arms. Beyond a doubt Lord Harbury is Andrew's superior in looks, station and wit. He is a man of the world while Andrew still retains a boyish outlook hidden behind a serious veneer. Lord Harbury is also obviously interested in me unlike the dear Colonel, though the extent of his intentions is up for doubt.
But he cannot make my heart beat faster like Andrew does; he cannot choke me up with a simple word. I do not burst into flames at his touch. That ability will belong to Andrew, and Andrew alone - however much it might hurt me in the progress.
He is not for you, and never was, she chided herself miserably. This is his world, in which you have no place. He is attached to his lovely cousin over there, to ensure whose safety he demeaned himself as a coachman-groom for months. Do not begrudge him his proper position in the world, Rachel.
But she could not stifle the small voice in her heart which just wanted to weep for the loss of a dream.
Andrew had still not come. The dance following supper was over, and now she was exhausted with all the prancing she had been doing. This was not what she had come here for in the first place, though being so much in demand could not but appease her vanity a little. She had also managed to strike up a handful of friendships which she hoped will last even in the harsh light of day. But she did not get a dance with Andrew; she did not even get to see him. This fact was enough to make the whole ball feel like a disappointment, though she scolded herself bitterly for putting so much store by an event that had been shaky from the start. Her gaiety dropped perceivably as the hours rolled on, and finally she had to plead off from her next dance with an excuse of fatigue.
Harbury saw her moving towards the exit of the ballroom and went to her. "Are you tired out, Miss Warren?" he inquired solicitously. On receiving an affirmative, he made to procure a seat for the lady while getting a drink of lemonade to revive her spirits. But Rachel had had enough of the crowds.
"I…I just need to be alone for some time outside this room, my Lord," she smiled tremulously at him. "Do not worry for me - but I cannot stand this crush any more. I am a country girl, used to open spaces…surely you can understand?"
He understood, but it took Rachel some more effort to shake off his escort for a visit to the gardens. She just wanted a break from everyone connected with the evening for some time, and even an excellent acquaintance like Lord Harbury was not welcome in her present mood. She just took the time to inform Miranda about her destination before making her escape from the overcrowded room.
Walking in the gardens were a delightful experience in moonlight, when colors were leached away from the most vibrant flower and the world became etched in black and white like one of Alicia's charcoal drawings. There were very few couples strolling on the garden paths and Rachel felt a measure of contentment in the solicitude. Breathing deeply of the perfumed air, she composed herself as she pondered her options. She knew that she could very well meet Andrew the next day, as Miranda had suggested - that is, as long as he returned to London by tonight. If he did not…could she ever come across him again? She will not always get days off from work, he could not show his face at Denbries, and anyway he will be leaving London soon enough once his break was over. Will he get engaged to Miranda before he left this time? It was obvious that he could not propose to her last time because he had to leave in a hurry as soon as the deplorable business with Miranda's inheritance was wrapped up. Could she meet him later in the capacity of her best friend's fiancé or husband? Rachel did not think that it was possible; her heart would not give up its love for the man while her conscience would not let her deceive her friend regarding her intentions. It was clear that once an engagement was announced, any future interaction with Miranda would have to be through letters only.
Almost unconsciously, her feet carried her towards the stables; horses had always been her passion and few things calmed her down as well as interaction with the noble creatures, whether it was at home or at Carillon Hall. Horses had been the first connection between her and Andrew; and besides, she had not had an opportunity to meet Miranda's beloved Twilight yet. Her pristine dress might not be the best attire to visit the stables in, but Rachel was past caring and eager for something to take her mind off her own dilemmas. Picking up her white gown delicately to prevent it getting sullied, she searched around the low buildings until she found the place she was searching for.
A polite request later, she was having an impromptu tour of the various stalls provided by a bemused stable-boy who could not stop gaping at this grand lady in her dancing slippers and lovely dress eagerly moving among the tall beasts like a starved being.
The horses were all beautiful thoroughbreds, nosing the crook of her elbow gently in search of sugar and whinnying softly. Twilight was a dainty grey mare with large eyes and a pure white mane, tossing her head and putting on coquettish airs as soon as she realized that she had an appreciative audience. This was really a good idea, Rachel thought with a deep breath. I can go back to the ball in peace now, and thankfully my dress is still immaculate. No one will notice anything amiss.
She was murmuring sweet nothings into the ears of a large bay steed when she heard the sounds of someone dismounting outside and leading another horse into the stable. I should not be here! she thought in a panic, looking around her in vain for a place to hide. She would not resort to dirtying her clothes by hiding in the hay, so there was no option for her. It is too late to do anything now anyway, she thought, and stood there like a truant schoolboy while rider and horse approached the stalls nearby.
It was him. In a heavily caped overcoat with his fair hair adorably mussed up by the wind, Colonel Andrew Fairfax stood before Rachel at long last. They both stared at each other for a long moment in the incongruous surroundings as the horses fidgeted in the stalls around them. There was a healthy glow on his tanned cheeks, Rachel noted absently - must be the result of riding hard in the night wind. He was tougher now somehow, and even under his beaver hat and greatcoat he seemed leaner than he had been during their cross-country travel. I suppose that active duty is tougher than merely walking for days in harsh conditions; after all, even I could do that acceptably.
Will you snap out of it and attempt to speak like a normal acquaintance rather than a speech-deprived moron? Her inner voice jolted her out of the daze she had fallen into. She wasn't the only one. Andrew seemed to have been rendered incapable of enunciating anything. He kept on staring at her like at some vision. Of course, he could not have expected to see her here at all, and especially in the stables…
While Rachel was still trying valiantly to undo the tangle in her vocal cords, Andrew's stallion snorted in irritation at being ignored, causing his master to remember his surroundings and recover some degree of composure. A dimple showing in one cheek and an incredulous smile sweeping over his face, he came forward with hands automatically outstretched that fell to his side as he recalled himself. The stable boy was still standing there, an avid spectator to the doings of his betters. All things considered, Andrew settled for a dignified bow instead.
"Miss Warren? Is that…is that really you? This is … I am extremely pleased to have met you again. What are you doing here? I mean," he became flustered at the ungracious way the words had come out, "I suppose you are one of the guests to Mira's party; but why are you in the stables at this hour?"
She tried a tremulous smile and half-curtsey. "Good evening Colonel Fairfax. It was getting rather close in the ball-room, so I came for a stroll outside to get some fresh air and - somehow found myself desiring to look at the horses." A self-deprecating tone entered her voice. "It may be unorthodox, but horses have always calmed me down if I was feeling disturbed."
He whispered, "Yes, I remember - from Carillon Hall."
"Miranda has some extremely fine animals, doesn't she, sir?" she interrupted nervously lest he said something irreclaimable before the boy, whose ears were almost flapping in eagerness to absorb everything going on. "I have not seen such noble horses in my life - not that that is anything much to go by. And the stalls are so clean and nicely ventilated! It must be a nice life for them under Miranda's care; she likes riding and animals so much." She was babbling now, God help her. Horses? Really?
"Yes, yes…she is most fond of them. Have you met her personal pet Twilight? She is a delightful filly. I have helped Mira with selecting most of the horses stalled here, but Twilight was a gift from a close friend of hers who is even more knowledgeable about horseflesh than me."
Oh Lord, here we are meeting finally after all these months, and all we can talk about is horses? Something is extremely wrong with this picture, Andrew decided.
The demands of his mount manifested themselves once again, but he was in no mood to minister to Hercules now. He called the stable-boy and gave over his beloved horse to his care, before turning back towards Rachel. She stood there silently watching him interact with the boy while she distractedly swung her blue fan open and closed, almost in a reflex motion. Was she as nervous as him about this meeting? He was certainly not prepared to meet her so suddenly, especially when he was dusty and sweaty from an arduous seven-hour ride. He had hoped to sneak up to some guest chambers and get properly cleaned up before facing any company, but it looked as if all his plans needed to be rearranged in the face of unforeseen circumstances.
He sighed. Never let it be said that Colonel Fairfax turned tail in an unprecedented situation and ran. Extending an arm, he politely asked permission to escort Miss Warren back to the ball, hoping that she would understand that he wanted to talk to her without anyone overhearing their conversation.
Refusal was certainly not in Rachel's power, not when this was what she had wanted from the moment Miranda had mentioned that Colonel Fairfax would be attending the ball. Now, her dream scenario had certainly not included her making a fool of herself before Andrew by chattering about horses, but otherwise the evening seemed to be looking up immensely. With what she hoped was a composed smile, she accepted the proffered arm and they silently exited from the place.
They had much to catch up on.
"Should I open the conversation, or should I wait for her to start?" Andrew wondered as they walked back sedately on the softly-lighted path leading back to the gardens, appearing for the entire world as just one more couple taking a break from the stifling ballroom. Rachel was either in the same dilemma or she didn't have anything to say, since she was as resolutely silent as him. Just when the situation seemed about to become unbearable, they both started speaking at the same time.
"Miss Warren, I can't tell you how…"
"I am extremely glad Colonel, to…"
They stared at each other abashedly for a moment before bursting into laughter together.
"Oh dear, it was not this awkward even that night we spent in Marsham-in-the-Vale, was it?" Rachel grinned, before sobering down hurriedly. Perhaps he did not want to be reminded of those times?
Andrew, who had been intensely aware of her body language since the first moment of their fortuitous meeting, also stiffened slightly. It seemed like those memories were not very pleasant ones for Rachel, if she was so quick in stifling down every smile which arose in relation with them. Obviously - she had been dragged into the affair and had never been used to the rigors she was forced to endure during those times; it was no wonder if she wanted to forget that experience as a bad memory and get on with her life. But still, he had been foolishly hoping that the time they had shared had been as precious for her as they had been for him…
Rachel, unaware of the wrong signals she had just given the man at her side, started talking again. "What I wanted to say earlier Sir was that I am extremely glad that you came back in sound body and mind from overseas. I…believe many had been worried for your safety the whole while." She blushed in memory of all the night-time prayers she had uttered in his name the past six months, and also hoped that he would not notice the slip she had almost made while talking about her individual worry for his safety.
Why has it suddenly become so difficult to talk with him? I have known my feelings for him since ages and yet managed to hold a decent conversation with him most of the time. Had I not decided to make the most of tonight's meeting with him? Then why am I wasting my time in feeling, horror of horrors, shy at this point?
Andrew was undergoing a similar turmoil, though outwardly he appeared serene. He had indeed caught on to her slip of tongue - he would be a poor veteran of the interrogation room if he were not adept at such a basic thing - but the high stakes for his personal happiness made him question his interpretation. Does she mean to imply that she had been worried for my sake in my absence? Dare I hope… Drat, I am standing here mute like an ungracious fool even after she has opened the conversation. What do I say? Should I start with the matter closest to my heart? No, I suppose that would scare her away even if she, please the Lord, reciprocates my feelings. So keep it light for the moment, Andrew Reginald, keep it light.
He smiled lightly at her, "With so many people intercepting on my behalf with the Almighty, how can I be anything but safe?" Then he changed his voice to a deep-throated mysterious tone. "When we have some time to ourselves I will tell you tales of the Orient which will fire your imagination and curdle your blood, make your mind soar to the bazaars scented with sandal and turmeric and shy away in horror from the mysterious cults being practiced there. I will bring alive for you the shining arc of a deadly scimitar and the delicate beauty of a young girl's henna-painted feet; yes Ma'am, I will bring the Orient alive for you." Dropping into his normal tone, he grinned at the hysterically giggling girl at his side. "If you want I can also talk about the dust and the heat, the idiotic bovines lumbering on the streets, the milky tea we had to drink and the utter boredom between battles - though they are much less interesting to hear about."
Thank God, I hope everything is going to be normal from now on.
"I believe I would like to hear about everything at leisure, Colonel," she smiled up at him while thinking, I do not know if we will ever have the time for that talk, but it feels nice that he wants to share that experience with me.
Andrew started to articulate what he had wanted to say at the outset of their conversation. The time for prevarication was over, and he had nothing preventing him from making his intentions clear any more. But he still needed to ease into the topic gently instead of springing it to Rachel like his heart urged him to do. Keeping his eyes on the distant house rather than on his lovely companion (I am not that strong), he said,
"All through the month of October I had been troubled by thoughts of you. I can't express properly how thankful I am to find that you did not have to face any further persecution in Headley Down, or on your return to Carillon Hall. The entire time I was hiding in Denbries I had been haunted with all sorts of ideas about how the plan could go wrong and how I should not have left you without any real protection; and when I had to leave abruptly for duty without exchanging a single word with you, my fear for your continued employment was great. It will always be one of my greatest regrets that I had to take advantage of your goodness, and one of my greatest blessings that God selected someone as excellent as you for this task. Miss Warren, I must tell you…"
"Oh there you are, lovely Miss Warren - have you forgotten that our second dance is coming up? I must inform you that I have no intention of losing it; after all it is the last we will be sharing, thanks to your hardheartedness." A cheerful voice assailed them from ahead.
Drat, drat, a thousand times drat.
Did he have to come now? How could I have ever considered him to be a friend? He is a destroyer of enchanted moments, the hateful man.
Oblivious to all the dislike he was creating in the bosoms of the interrupted couple in front of him, Lord Harbury casually sauntered up before coming to a halt directly in front of them. His eyes narrowed a little at the sight of Rachel's hand resting on Colonel Fairfax's arm.
"So you did gather an escort on your visit to the gardens, Miss Warren," he drawled. "I hope it was not a personal dislike of me that made you refuse my company?"
"Oh no, Lord Harbury," Rachel felt flustered and totally out of her depth in the swirl of emotions she was undergoing. What was she supposed to do, exactly? Ah yes, not let His Lordship feel slighted - it was not his fault that all this was happening. "Colonel Fairfax is a very good friend, and had just arrived from duty overseas. We…we met while he was coming to the house and fell into conversation about the old times." She trailed away ineffectually with a blush, to her mortification. Now it just seemed like she and Andrew had arranged for a clandestine meet, thanks to her dumb tendency to let the blood rush to her head at inopportune moments.
The two men were eyeing each other warily, sizing the other one up in a move as old as mankind itself. Lord Harbury extended a hand to the Colonel, forcing him in the process to relinquish the fair fingers still resting on the crook of his arm. "So we meet again, Lieutenant Fairfax. I had no inkling that you were expected at this gathering, and so late at that; but then, nothing comes before the call of duty, right? How's the soldiering?"
"It is Colonel Fairfax now, as Miss Warren informed you a moment ago," Andrew informed him with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. He could see clearly what this man was doing - denigrating his position in the eyes of Rachel by bringing up his profession and lack of private life in an innocent speech. Well, he must not let this insolent man's attempts at fazing him work, that was all. "And yes, I just got here though I had been relieved of active work a couple of days back. I had some personal work to attend to that kept me back, but I came as soon as possible."
"Ah yes, that seems...evident." Harbury's eyes roved insolently over Andrew's travel-stained raiment making the latter clench his teeth in irritation. "Be that as it may," he turned towards Rachel without sparing another thought to the dusty man standing by her, "like I had mentioned at the outset Miss Warren, I believe this is our dance so," he extended his arm in a courtly motion, "Shall we?"
Rachel had no option but to move away from Andrew and his tantalizing words. The mood seemed to be lost for the moment by Lord Harbury's entrance, anyhow. But while she was being led away, she was refrained by a call from behind.
"Miss Warren!" Andrew cried, with a hand partly outstretched towards her. This was not supposed to happen, no, no, it can't end like this…dash it, they are turning back. What can I say to make her stop? I can't - the rules of etiquette say that she must honor each dance promised to a gentleman. Dance…of course, that's it - a dance!
"Miss Warren, can you honor me with a dance sometime later tonight?" he flashed his dimples at her, hiding the trepidation in his heart. Please say yes, please say yes…
"I don't believe we have time to talk about this now, we need to get going," Harbury pulled her away without giving her a chance to respond. But Rachel was no meek chit to be manipulated so easily. Who did he think he was, deciding whom she would dance with or not? She turned back even while she was being towed away and gave Andrew a dazzling smile. "My last dance has not been promised to anyone as of yet, sir."
He bowed to the retreating figure even as she got further away from him. "Then the last dance it is, my lady," he called before making his way to the guest chambers of the house. He needed to look his best tonight.
Lord Harbury was evidently angry, as could be evidenced by his behaviour on their way back to the room filled with couples already aligned for the next dance. Is this silly antagonism over me? Rachel wondered even as she took her place and bowed to him. Surely not. There must be some long enmity between them, as could be seen in the way Harbury addressed Andrew as Lieutenant rather than by his designated rank; it implied that they had known each other at a time when they were younger. But she could not call him out on his behavior since it was just veiled enough to escape censure. It seemed to be one mystery which may never be unraveled for her. She must indulge in desultory conversation and pass the time in a normal way until Andrew could come and claim her.
Adrian Harbury was, on his part, not angry as much as seething. The Fairfax men had not been content with separating him from his beloved Clara; oh no, the one time he finally made an effort to get to know another woman in years with an intention to set up his house, the younger Fairfax must butt in and steal her away as well. What was wrong with him and the Fairfax clan? First one brother separates him from the one love of his life, and then the other takes away a woman who might have done admirably in Clara Fairfax's place. What was Clara doing now? he wondered. She could not have gotten married yet; there had been no announcement in the papers. Was she still at that great prison of a house, Silvermead Hall, laboring under the misconception that he had abandoned her four years back? Had her adored brother Stephen ever confessed his role in separating them because of her youth, of all the flimsy reasons? She had been seventeen, after all…hang it, several women settle down into matrimony at that age! Has she changed in looks over time or was she still as alluring as ever?
When you are immersed in thoughts of one woman, it is rather difficult to devote yourself to another, even when she has captivating eyes and is dancing in your arms. Add the fact that your partner seems to be distracted as well, and you have got a recipe for a most forgettable dance indeed.
They both released each other with a masked sigh of relief, though while taking Rachel to her next partner lord Harbury bent down and whispered seductively in her ear, "I look forward to continuing the pleasure of knowing you sometime in the near future Miss Warren. You can always count on me to be a staunch friend. Your glittering presence made this ball a memorable event for me."
Rachel halted in her steps for a second and frowned at his withdrawing form. It was a blameless remark to make. Why was he making it appear like it was something extremely momentous and almost scandalous? Looking around her on a hunch, she found her worst suspicions to be right; Andrew was standing in a corner glowering in their direction, though on catching her eye he attempted a half-hearted wave and went away somewhere out of sight. Had he been standing there for a long time, watching them dance? But that had been irreproachable in the extreme, bordering on the dreary at times. Or…did he come in time to only catch that silly whispered farewell? And deduce all kinds of wrong conclusions from it?
Rachel huffed to herself in anger and disappointment. That is all I need…our last night together to be marred by ridiculous male posturing. Before she could search some more for Andrew in order to ease the tension between them, she was found by her next partner and had to graciously succumb to the temptations of a cotillion.
Andrew glared sullenly at the ballroom from his hidden corner on the balcony. Rachel appeared to be in great demand tonight indeed. Why had Mira invited all these fops to her ball in the first place? They only lessened the tone of the gathering, polluting it with their rambunctious laughter and imbecilic comments, not to mention sweeping every pretty girl in sight into endless dances. He could not remember a minuet or a quadrille taking so long to end. Thank goodness there were no waltzes happening tonight; though it would have been perfect if the last dance could have been one.
When will the last dance start?
It was in this gloomy condition that his cousin found him. Miranda glided up to him and gave him a most unladylike poke in the ribs that successfully returned his full consciousness to the surroundings. After emitting a startled yelp that he would have done anything to recall, Andrew switched his glare to the impish beauty grinning unrepentantly at him.
"And what was that in favour of, coz? Is this the way to treat someone you are seeing after all these months?"
"Oh, but I have been seeing you everyday for the past week," she caroled gaily. At his nonplussed expression, she added in a syrupy voice, "That was why you did not come directly to meet me after arriving, wasn't it?"
"'A hit, a very palpable hit!'1 Sorry, sorry Mira," Andrew raised his hands in a gesture of surrender as she advanced menacingly upon him. I promise not to quote Hamlet at you again when you are in a bad mood. I am truly repentant of my omission in meeting you, however." He took her satin-covered fingers and bestowed a chivalrous kiss on them, before chucking her under the chin tenderly. "How have you been, my dear?"
"The most obvious answer would be - anxious for the past four months about a particular person's safety and angry for the last fifteen minutes since I was made aware of his presence in my house by his valet. Can you imagine the ignominy?" she squared her shoulders and tapped a dainty foot, watching him squirm. She was not really all that angry, but the occasion to catch Colonel Fairfax on the wrong foot occurred so rarely that she could not help making the most of it. After a few minutes of this entertainment, she relented and graced him with an ear-to-ear grin.
"Fine, that is enough for tonight. Now you will have to undergo the punishment of dancing with me, Rachel, Gertrude, Angela, Sophia, Nancy - in short all my friends - till the ball lasts! I can only describe my divine Richmond Acres properly over the course of a long dance. Besides, I can't wait to see the expression on Nancy's face when she realizes that you are here; the poor girl almost swooned the last time you danced with her!"
"Err, Mira," Andrew gave her a sheepish grin as he rubbed the back of his neck, "I am fine with dancing, but I have already promised the last dance…to Miss Warren, actually. So keep that in mind while planning my schedule for tonight, will you?"
Miranda pulled back and observed him with her head to one side, subjecting the self-conscious Colonel to a disconcerting perusal for what felt like endless hours before pulling her lips back into a sly smirk.
"So that's the way the wind blows? I can't believe I have been so blind all this while. Well dear cousin mine, you may have my blessing, but this will not stop me from getting the next dance with you, you know. So let's march out into the world once again and forego our scowls for now!"
Rachel got to see Andrew again in a few minutes, but with Miranda as his partner. She was followed by others in rapid succession. Like herself, he was always dancing with some partner or the other now; and though Rachel knew logically that she had no right to be jealous of someone dancing at a ball, she could not remove the barbs which stuck in her soul every time a girl fluttered her eyelashes in his direction or twirled closer to him than the dance required. He was certainly an excellent matrimonial catch with his good looks, social connections and solid income, and apparently others were also aware of the fact. All those fairy tales about poor Cinderellas finding their Prince Charmings and living happily ever after, she though cynically as she bowed to her latest partner, should never have been told. They let girls like me commit the heinous crime of dreaming about what could never be.
But love has always been resilient to reason, as she knew from experience. Rachel and Andrew could not stop themselves from exchanging smiles whenever the steps of the dance brought them into temporary proximity before separating to attend to their partners. Each was looking forward to their single dance with a vehemence that would have removed every trepidation from the other's heart if they had but known it.
And finally, the last dance was announced.
1-Hamlet, Act V sc. ii
Andrew strode towards Rachel as she stood demurely near Miranda and her friends as they were eagerly discussing their dance partners and exchanging gossip in general. The time he had been awaiting so eagerly was finally at hand.
"I believe this is our dance, Miss Warren," he bowed gallantly before her, inadvertently causing a couple of girls in the group to burst out into incontrollable giggles. What did I do wrong? he thought distractedly before shrugging it off as inconsequential. So long as Rachel did not laugh in his face, he really did not care about what some faceless female thought of him.
Rachel, on her part, knew exactly why the girls were acting thusly. Just before Andrew made his entrance, he had been the subject of a good deal of sighing and speculation among their group. Apparently his upright carriage, fair features and honest yet chivalrous attitude made him a great favorite with the ladies and most of them had been vying among themselves all night to attach his affections. When he himself came to claim one of their number with such aplomb, apparently it became more than poor Marie and Nancy could stand.
She herself could barely keep her giddiness down as Andrew took her hand and led her to the dance space. Suddenly it seemed as if the entire evening was washed out of her memory and she was waiting for the first dance of her life. It was only a quadrille and thus not entirely private; but then, perhaps it was better that way. She was nervous enough as it were to be dancing with the man she loved on equal footing. The other couples with them took their positions and they all smiled at each other as the music began. The next moment she was twirling under Andrew's leading.
You must converse about something Madam Star-struck, her inner voice reminded her helpfully after a few minutes. However comfortable it might be to simply be in his company, some general conversation was in order; especially since they were currently standing on the side while anther couple danced in the central formation. So Rachel plunged in with the first thing which entered her head.
"You had been pretty late in coming to the ball, Colonel. Was it some urgent work that you attended to immediately on touching English soil?" She blushed the moment the words were out of her mouth. Speaking did not mean blabbing like a fool. Why, he must think that she was snooping into his affairs! Therefore she quickly amended her words, "I hope that you won't consider it to be prying, but I did wonder if it was connected to Miss de Manley's…Brighton trip in some way."
"It is no big secret, Miss Warren," he assured her immediately. He himself had become tongue-tied like a greenhorn from the start of the dance, and he welcomed the opportunity to talk about something, anything. "I had been to see my family. The last time I had been with my parents and siblings had been the day we received Mira's letter, and though I had written to them occasionally from Denbries and later from India, they had been extremely worried about our safety the entire time. I thought that I owed it to them to visit Silvermead Hall in person as soon as possible so as to set all their qualms at rest. I had full intentions of attending Mira's party, though; and that was why I rode for seven hours straight from the corners of Hertfordshire to London."
"Oh," Rachel suddenly did not have anything to say. How could she have forgotten his attachment to his cousin? That was why he came here so hurriedly of course. "Your parents must have been very happy to see you," she said softly at last. "How is your new nephew? Or is it a niece?"
"It is a squalling and boisterous nephew, named Anthony Stephen Fairfax after my father and his own," Andrew grinned down at her. "He has a pair of strong lungs on him, I can tell you - my father already claims that the heir shows signs of becoming a general in the Army in the near future. We are a family of fighters on the whole and while my father retired as a Brigadier in his time, both I and Stephen have seen active service as well. My sister Cecily also cherishes dreams of serving her country and trained as a hospital nurse in expectation of a major war looming ahead with France. We are all hoping that her present engagement with a local man will let her forego her dreams and settle down finally to a domestic life. Little Tony will fit right in with us all."
Rachel laughed as they performed a complex step and his palm slid across hers. She always loved the ease with which Andrew could communicate with her about every kind of topic. They continued to talk on about Andrew's and Rachel's family, and she disclosed to him her twin brothers' ambition of joining the Navy once they attained the hoary age of thirteen years. She even told him about the small and big happenings at Carillon Hall in a guarded manner. They flowed together seamlessly as they danced, laughed and talked about everything and nothing.
The dance was almost over when Andrew made an unprecedented move. His mood had intensified as the dance proceeded, and suddenly he took Rachel's hand pulled her a little so that they were almost out of the dance, even though they were still following the steps. The next moment he had inched a bit closer to her than required and bent down, his breath almost brushing a stray chocolate ringlet caressing her bare shoulder.
"Actually, I had an ulterior motive in going home as well," he whispered in her ear, sending an involuntary shiver coursing down her spine. "The events of that month of hiding made me realize what I had been trying to avoid for a long time, and my time abroad only made me more fixed upon my decision. I went home to tell my people that I have finally decided to settle down into matrimony. I am in love Miss Warren, and I rushed here because I could not stay away from the woman I love an instant more than required. I still need her assent, though. After all, she is a queen among women and is coveted by every man having an iota of sense. Do you think she'll agree to marry me?"
What was she supposed to say? Do not do this to me? Can't you see that my heart is breaking? How can you marry Miranda when I love you so much? Of course she did not utter any of these things.
"She will never refuse you, Colonel," she smiled in a strained manner as the dance came to an end. That was one relief, at least. The set was not over yet, but that couldn't be helped. She curtsied deeply to hide her face. "You are making the right decision. Please let me know when everything becomes official between you and Miss de Manley so that I can wish her happy as well. Now if you would excuse me, I feel a migraine coming on. Pardon me for leaving you so soon, but…I can't take any more.
"And sir, thank you for the dance. I wish you a good night. Fare…farewell."
She turned around and all but fled, in the process missing the look of utter bewilderment that had crossed Andrew's features on hearing her words. So shocked was he indeed, that he did not even think of stopping her from escaping until it was too late and she had melted into the crowds.
What just happened? Andrew wondered to himself as he scanned the hordes of guests swarming all over the room. I thought that all was going well. She…felt so right with me. He threw his mind back to their dance. She was utterly divine, and yet so approachable. He had lost his head as the time flew and their unique connection got re-established. He had never felt more hopeful about her reception of his proposal and threw caution to the winds, acting like a fool and proposing in the midst of a crowded ball room; during a dance, no less. And everything went downhill from there onwards.
Where did that bit about me and Mira come from? She couldn't have misunderstood me…could she? I have been pretty clear about my intentions from the start. How could she…Mira and me? Andrew almost laughed to himself as he kept on searching fruitlessly for an elusive brunette. A preposterous idea if ever there was one!
But apparently it wasn't all that preposterous for her, if she believed that he was talking about wishing to marry Miranda.
And Rachel was still nowhere to be found…
Rachel had expected in the back of her mind that an 'interesting' announcement might be made shortly, but somehow hearing it confirmed from Andrew in person made the whole situation intolerable. Reading about it from a letter penned by Miranda would not have hurt so badly - at least then she could have indulged herself and let her tears flow unabated in the privacy of her room. Being told about it here, in the middle of a ball, during her only dance with Andrew for goodness' sake, was too much for her to handle. She needed to leave now; before the rest of the party decided to make a move resulting in a crush and making her stop back longer than desired. With this idea in mind, Rachel wove her way to where her hostess was sitting with a glass of lemonade in her hand, and made her apologies for leaving.
"You can't go now!" Miranda exclaimed. She looked around for her cousin. Surely the set was not over yet? Why was he not with his partner? Something was decidedly not right about the situation. "Your set could not have ended already. Are you not feeling well, Rachel?" On receiving a negative, she tried to cajole her guest into waiting in a private room with smelling salts or something till she felt better. Rachel was adamant about leaving as soon as possible, however. "Nothing perks me up like Lucy's special chamomile tea at such times." She tried to smile reassuringly at her distraught friend. "I will be fine as soon as I reach her house, Miranda. Do not worry on my account - it is a little headache after all, possibly brought on by all this dancing I have been doing."
"But how will you go, Rachel? Your post-chaise will not be here for another hour at least! Please wait for that long; you can lie down in one of the guest chambers if you wish. I would send you off in my own carriage, but I have already promised it to another friend of mine. Just…just let me make some arrangements for you, at any rate? I can't let you go off on your own when you have a headache!"
"Oh, don't take on so, Miranda!" Rachel gave a genuine smile at the other girl's concern for her. Whatever happened, Miranda would always be one of the best people she had the honour of calling friend. She must take care not to lose their connection over an impractical infatuation with Andrew. "Rosemary Haven is in London where vehicles could always be found for hire instead of any deserted corner of Dartmoor, you know. I would appreciate it if you send a footman to call a hackney for me, if you insist."
And that was how twenty minutes later Rachel was standing at the front door getting her shawl back from the butler and promising Miranda that she would be meeting her before she left London; a promise which she doubted that she would be able to keep if by tomorrow Miranda had become a happily engaged woman.
The plaintive strains of violins from the house seemed to follow her as she made her way down the drive, fleeing from a love that could never be anything but a mockery. It felt like they were crying for her sake.
A carriage was standing in a shadowy corner of the street. As there was no other vehicle in sight, Rachel made her way to it. "Is this coach for hire?" she questioned a bit doubtfully. Even in the dark the carriage seemed to be of a better quality than the hackneys she was used to seeing around London. But the driver nodded in the affirmative and finding no reason to disbelieve him, Rachel gave her sister's address and made to enter - when the coachman came to her aid and assisted her inside.
At the touch of his hand, something sparked inside Rachel. Spinning around, she fixed the man with an indignant glare. He had been averting his face all the while; but on realizing that he had been unmasked, Andrew raised his cap and gave her a guilty look before straightening his back resolutely, ready to hold his own whatever ensued. On her part, Rachel was too far gone in her indignation to take much of his stance into account. She was, indeed, almost trembling with anger. It was really too cruel of destiny to play with her emotions thus; the one man whom she wanted to avoid at all costs seemed to be following her around! This made her somewhat harsh in her words.
"What is the meaning of this, Colonel? Aren't you finished with playing games and acting yet, that you felt the need to dupe me in this juvenile manner?"
He flinched momentarily before squaring his shoulders. "Well, I thought that since you give the impression of preferring the coachman to the army man, we will be able to understand each other better if I were in that incarnation. Do you agree, madam?"
"I do not know what you are playing at Sir, but I am in no mood to be trifled with thus. Now if you would kindly make way, I'd like to get out of this carriage and search around for the cab that is waiting to take me home." He was blocking her way out by standing on the lower step, and she had already sat back in order not to stand hunched over in the luxurious coach in an immodest posture. Was it on purpose to lull her into complacency? Well, she was decided upon exiting, and he couldn't stop her.
"I beg your pardon Miss Warren, but there is no other vehicle waiting around. I intercepted the footman who was trying to hail a cab for you, and told him that I would take care of the matter. I couldn't find any, and to tell the truth I didn't attempt to search for one overmuch either. This is a friend's private carriage which he kindly lent me for the night, acquiescing to go home with others for the sake of a lady's convenience. I hope that you will not let his sacrifice be in vain?" Andrew smiled teasingly at her, hiding the spasms of nervousness he was undergoing at the moment. He was prepared to fight till he could clear her misapprehensions, but that didn't stop him from feeling a bit unsure about the outcome of this situation. Rachel was being strangely curt with him.
As if to back up his argument, it started raining.
Rachel felt like crying. Why is even nature against me? Her eager eyes had already confirmed what Andrew had stated, that there was no other cab in sight. There was no alternative, it seemed. She took a deep breath.
"I believe I should be going back inside to wait for the arrival of the coach I had ordered, after all. I would appreciate it if you made way for me," she repeated insistently. The only thing worse than being driven by him to her sister's house would have been sitting with him in the carriage itself…
"I think not, Miss Warren," he drawled before nodding to someone standing in the shadows. Before Rachel could comprehend exactly what was happening, another man had come to sit on the driver's box and taken the reins of the horses, and Andrew had swung himself into the carriage with her. She remained speechless even as the vehicle started moving. With her and Andrew inside. Alone.
"Wh…what is the meaning of this behavior, Colonel Fairfax?" she managed to stammer as the streets of London flashed by their speeding vehicle. Andrew could see that she was on the verge of a panic attack, and made to immediately clarify the situation.
"I beg you; do not agitate yourself, Miss Warren. I have no ulterior motives. It is just that I could see that you were about to be difficult, and there was no need for you to travel in a hired carriage at night if this fine one was available. I am here to provide you with an escort, and I couldn't find it in my heart to let you …push me away… on no grounds but an unreasonable fear for propriety, I am guessing." Could she sense his desperation?
"Do you realize that what you have done is tantamount to kidnapping? That if anyone ever got to know about our travelling like this…without a chaperone…then it will create a scandal? Even if I go away from London tomorrow morning, this incident will haunt my family here for a long time; not to mention besmirching your reputation." Rachel's voice was wavering. Why was he doing this? She took a deep breath before continuing evenly, "Surely you see the folly of your actions?"
"What folly, Miss Warren?" he counter-questioned. "My conscience informs me that it is folly in a gentleman to let a young lady travel unescorted at night, when anything might befall her. And as you know perfectly well, I for one have never let society's rules of correctness dictate my actions when my conscience directs me otherwise."
Rachel flushed at this indirect reference to their escapade. She had nothing more to say with regard to their present situation, and contented herself with turning away and staring out of the window at the ubiquitous rain drenching London, trying to show her discomfort with the situation by ignoring him. It didn't seem to intimidate Andrew in the least; he kept on studying her face as the carriage clattered on the cobbled streets. Refusing to show him how her heart was simultaneously soaring and sinking, she resolutely kept her face averted. After almost ten minutes had passed in this mutual silence, he finally asked the question she had been dreading.
"Why did you run away like that from our dance?" On seeing her open her mouth, he added warningly, "And do not repeat the paltry excuse of a migraine - I am acquainted with you long enough to know that you are never bothered by those dastardly things. It was something I said, wasn't it? What was it?" He decided not to clear her false impression about him and Mira for the time being; he wanted to confirm Rachel's feelings for him first. It might be cowardly, but he was a scared young man in love for the first time in his life and unsure of how to proceed under the circumstances.
"No, certainly not," Rachel was decidedly flustered. When will this journey be over? "What could you have said to affect me? We were not talking about us at all. You were talking about your forthcoming nuptials, and I had congratulated you about it. You have said nothing wrong."
"Forthcoming nuptials? Miss Warren, I have not even got the young lady's acceptance of my proposal as of yet. And you are trying to avoid my question. You were perfectly fine until I mentioned that I was thinking of marrying. Why should that bother you?"
"Why indeed? That in itself ought to answer your question; I was not bothered by your admission at all," she replied coolly. I will not let him know, I will not let him know…
"I am also curious to know why you immediately leapt to the conclusion that the one I am hoping to marry is Mira. Have I, or she for that matter, ever given you any indications to support your assumption?"
Now Rachel was completely confused. "Indications? I thought that it was pretty obvious from the way you two spoke about each other that you had strong emotions on the subject. And didn't you mention that the month we spent incognito made you realize that what you were feeling for her was love?"
"So many misunderstandings," Andrew muttered under his breath. Aloud he veered off onto a different track, deciding to use surprise tactics on his stubborn companion.
"How did you know that it was me back there in the dark?"
She almost squeaked in astonishment. Where did that question come from? The true answer would skirt dangerously close to her real feelings for him, and thus must be avoided. But this was not so easy to carry out; Colonel Andrew Fairfax was an expert in the art of interrogation and would take nothing less than a direct reply from her, and she could not declaim a gross falsehood - not to him. Finally she replied exasperatedly, "You know the answer, Colonel. It was your hand. I…I recognized your touch."
His look concentrated in intensity. "You recognize my touch? Ah yes, from all those days we had spent together, no doubt. After all, I had held your hand while running, when we were the only solace for each other, and I had even picked you up in Headley Down. But I have a question. Do you remember every person's touch for months afterwards, Miss Warren?" When she refused to answer, he persisted. The time for evasion was over, and the moment of truth was here.
"What else do you remember about me? Do you remember the light which comes into my eyes whenever I see you? And do you remember how difficult it was for me to remember my role around you because you always tear down any walls I build around myself? Not to forget how it felt when I held you in my arms twice, once in that stupid old beech and once when you sprained your foot?
"Because I certainly do. I remember how your hair felt when it was pressed against my cheek in the tree, how soft and comforting your hand felt in mine while we were on the run, how your warm breath on my neck sent shivers down my body when I picked you up. I remember the mind-numbing fear I had felt when you were unconscious in that locked room and I thought that you might never wake up again. I can never forget the terror of thinking that you would get shot in front of my eyes. Oh, I remember a lot of things, Miss Warren. I remember how your nose crinkles when you tease someone, how your smiles light up your entire form, how your hair escapes from its constraints when you ride in the woods and scatters hairpins along the way, how you effortlessly combine practicality with innocence. And your eyes … I'll always remember how your eyes look like all the oceans of the world converge in them. I cannot stop thinking about you, it seems," he ended ruefully.
By this time Rachel was feeling strangely breathless, even though the open window was billowing wind in her face.
"Have I ever told you what I felt the night when I came to receive you at the coaching inn? The street lanterns were lit just as I approached you, and it felt like you appeared out of the air in front of me. Hair, eyes and figure just like the girl I was trying desperately to protect, and whom I believed to be safe back at the house; could you blame me for thinking that you were a figment of my imagination and forgetting my role? I kept on hoping the entire ride that you would not notice my lapse of speech.
"Because of that I was wary of you, and decided to keep my distance. The next morning, as I was collecting pears from the old tree in the garden, I heard a window open which had been closed ever since I had come to Carillon Hall. You leaned out in a white dress, your breath-taking curls spilling over your shoulder in a cascade. And then you laughed with joy. Can I describe the feelings that were coursing through me in that moment? I don't think so. All that I knew then was that I could not keep away from you in spite of all my earlier resolves.
"You became entrenched in my heart, Rachel. A glimpse of you in the morning would make me smile the whole day. Yes, I used to spy on you even on the mornings we did not ride together. Was it presumptuous of me? I don't know, and can't honestly say that I care. How could I think that you were like Mira? You were different from everyone I knew. Your bravery, intelligence, patience and sweetness are unparalleled in my experience. Our cross-country exodus could only increase my admiration and adoration of you. Every moment we spent together I was burning for you, to call you mine.
"I could not express my feelings when circumstances had put you so completely under my protection, and the call of duty took me away before I could bare my heart to you after Mira got back her rightful inheritance. But I can keep quiet no longer. I rode for seven hours without stopping to get here when Mira told me that she had invited you to the party as well, blessing her all the way for enabling me to get another glimpse of you." He took a deep breath before taking her trembling hand in his larger ones. "I love you, mon coeur*. Can I dare to hope that you also return my feelings, at least a little?"
Rachel felt like time had crawled to a stop. She could only go on looking at those passionate green eyes boring into hers. This is a dream - this must be a dream. Her life's deepest desires could not be falling into her lap like this; such happiness was unnatural. The whole situation was unnatural.
Could it really be so? Had she tortured herself needlessly all this while?
"What about Miss de Manley…don't you love her? All this while I thought…she's your cousin, you did everything to protect her; and she is so beautiful and suitable for you. Not to mention all that you had talked about at the dance, regarding how the woman you wanted to marry was coveted by every man with a bit of sense. That applied to her, didn't it? Why do you want me all of a sudden?"
Andrew laughed. "Mira? I certainly love her, but only as a sister that I have played with since childhood. Of course I would do anything to protect her, but wouldn't you do that for your sisters as well? It was you I was talking about at the dance; you who made the green monster of jealousy rear its head in my bosom as I watched every Tom, Dick and Harry dance and flirt with you while I stood around with no right to stop them. It had always been you, my dear.
"As it is, Mira is already in love with someone else - Lord Roger Allencourt - and has been for over a year now, but that fool could never see her friendliness for what it was. Her vivacity and self-sufficiency had always been her armor against rejection, but I suppose it also pushed Roger off to some extent by making her out to be some sort of an invulnerable goddess. Her recent distress made him see the insecure girl behind the smiles, and I know from her letters that he has been looking at her with different eyes recently. I believe we might hear a happy announcement any day.
"Now," he said patiently, as he turned the small hand still encased in his own and dropped a searing kiss on her palm, "will you put me out of my misery, Miss Warren? My words have exhausted themselves. Just tell me… will you do me the honour of being my wife?"
"Yes, yes, a hundred times yes!" Rachel ejaculated in a voice as clear as a bell, all misgivings overcome at last. Her smile blossomed and her heart was visible in her eyes for Andrew to see, eyes which were filling up with tears of overwhelming joy at the moment. Could she indeed be so blessed as to get the love of this incredible man?
Andrew felt like his own heart would burst; there was no expressing happiness like this. "My darling Rachel!" was all that could escape his lips. Finally he had the right to use her given name aloud. Raising a hand to her tresses, he stroked a perfect white rosebud perched behind the shell of her ear. He could stop himself no longer. He leaned in slowly and almost fearfully towards her, giving her time to draw back if she wanted. She didn't; her only reaction was to let her long lashes flutter shut in silent consent. Taking a deep breath, Andrew closed the distance between them and touched his lips to hers in a chaste kiss, as gentle and sweet as its recipient. It was…all that he could have dreamt of.
How did I make this angel love me? he wondered as he sat back in his seat with a totally infatuated smile adorning his face, one hand still caressing Rachel's flushed cheek. He was unaware of that sappy grin's existence, and it didn't matter either way since the only other person in the carriage was in a trance over her first real kiss and was lost to the world for the moment. Her beauty lights up every room she enters, and yet her internal loveliness eclipses her physical attributes. She is so different from the false women in my circle. What did I do to deserve this?
And to think that if we had not selected Denbries as our refuge, but gone on to Headley Down directly as I had originally planned…he suddenly gave an internal shudder.
But Colonel Andrew Fairfax had never been one to question the gifts of fate. Life was a capricious goddess, but she had been kind to them and that was why they were finally together breaching all barriers. Tonight had been as unconventional as their entire acquaintance had been, but ultimately it had been a success and a night they would remember for the rest of their lives. The carriage rolled on towards Cresswell Street as they collected themselves and had their first talk as lovers. They discussed so many things - the Colonel's secret habit of collecting Rachel's hairpins (which incidentally had saved them during their kidnapping as he had used one of those hairpins to open his door and escape), his impotent rage on hearing about the incident with Edgerton, his fear for Rachel's safety throughout their convoluted escape plan, his family's thrilled reaction on hearing about the loyal girl who had captured his heart, Rachel's own experiences in Headley Down and her parting gift to the Trevelyan sisters, her feelings of desolation on her return to Carillon Hall, Brian's bratty behavior and Ashley's love-struck advances, her worries about Diana's new suitor - all that they had kept from each other beforehand was now laid out with raw honesty. The rain had stopped and London was awash in clear moonlight by the time the horses pulled up before the Moreland home. It was an accurate portent of events to come; the clouds had parted at last from the firmament of the couple's lives.
*mon couer - my heart
"…and that was how your dear Papa proposed to your Mama, beloved Bells of mine," Rachel said tenderly to two wide-eyed girls as she ended their favourite bedtime story. Isabel Juliana and Annabel Rose were at the significant age of eight and four years respectively, when Isabel deemed herself to be too mature for bedtime stories and Annabel steadfastly followed her sister in everything she did - and yet they demanded one each night without fail because, in Isabel's words, "Alex can't ask for a goodnight story himself, you see, so we do it for him." Alexander Paul Fairfax indeed could not ask for a story by himself as he lacked certain essentials like teeth and familiarity with the English language. His solemn elder sisters claimed that he would feel scared if he had to listen to 'thrilling' tales by himself, and proffered their company every night for the ritual of story hour. They loved the account of 'How Papa met and married Mama' since it was not only romantic and exciting but, most importantly, it included people they both knew.
"And Mama, tell Alex 'bout how Papa an' you got married in the little church here at Langton which was full of flowers 'cos it was springtime, and how Uncle Neil lost the ring and the cerem'ny was d'layed, and then Papa found the ring stuck in the bookwet and eb'rything went on again, and how he was such a brave…warrier that the King hisself asked for my papa to fight for him, but then he missed us and gave up his shiny uniform to live with us for ever and ever…" Annabel rattled on serenely.
Isabel turned to her little brother and solemnly informed him in a whisper, "Remember not to learn to speak from Anna, OK? It is wrong to say 'hisself', and 'bookwet' is…pronounced…as bouquet," she wagged her finger in Alex's serious face. He was more interested in following the trajectory of that finger than listening to what his sister was saying, but he was a broadminded young man and so long as he had a moving finger to watch, he was ready to let his sister prattle on about correct enunciation to a six-month old baby.
Rachel looked at her children fondly, before turning towards her voluble younger daughter and putting on a mock-frown for her benefit. "Yes, yes, my little songbird, I was about to tell him all that slowly and with all the details, before someone decided that they can tell the story better and in a single sentence!" Saying this, she lunged at Annabel and tickled her mercilessly. Isabel clapped from the sidelines and loudly cheered her mother on, and Alex bounced delightedly in his crib at the sight of his mother systematically attacking his giggling sister.
Indeed, the years had been benevolent to Andrew and Rachel, though life was not peaches and roses at all times. Their marriage took place within a year of their engagement on the night of Miranda's ball, giving Rachel ample time to prepare her students for losing her and letting Andrew arrange his affairs to provide for a new wife. The bliss of newly wedded life was naturally overshadowed by the clouds of Andrew's profession, which was a source of constant trepidation and stress for those who cared for him. He had to go back to his regiment only weeks after his wedding, and the critical conditions called for him to fight in the thick of the war raging in Portugal. At Miranda's insistence and professions of loneliness, Rachel stayed with her at Richmond Acres rather than set up home all by herself while waiting for her husband to return. They kept each other company during trying times and helped to stave off secret worries about a man both loved dearly.
When Lord Allencourt finally managed to ask Miranda the question dearest to his heart and gained her consent to a union with him, Rachel decided to give them some privacy and stated her firm intention to move out. Before she could look around for accommodations in earnest, she was claimed by the Misses Trevelyan and got to return to the society of Headley Down once more. It was doubtful who was the happiest at Rachel's return and new marital status - Miss Maud, Miss Millicent, Miss Agnes, or old Mrs. Hayter across the street who declaimed triumphantly to anyone who would care to hear, "I told ye that it was a young man who bugged the gel back then!" Miss Millicent Trevelyan finally informed her sisters with a complacent smile that this was what she had been implying when she had said that they were sure to meet Rachel again within the year, though she had underestimated the lovers' capacity to stay away from each other and had banked upon Andrew immediately swooping Rachel off rather than delaying for so long. Miss Maud and Miss Agnes were too pleased with the situation to be annoyed with their self-satisfied sister.
Rachel lived there for a few weeks before going to stay with her in-laws who expressed a wish to know the new addition to their family, and invited her over to live with them indefinitely. If she saw through their attempts at distracting the lonely new bride, she never gave any indication. Rachel wove her quiet magic around their hearts instantly and soon every inhabitant of the house, from the bed-ridden Sir Anthony to the maids in the kitchen, was reluctant to relinquish her to a lonesome life while she waited for her husband's safe return. Cecily, Clara and Stephen's wife Mathilda became her constant companions while Master Tony was like a ray of bouncing sunshine that lighted up every dark cranny he touched. Arranging Cecily's marriage, riding in the Hertfordshire landscape with Clara, scolding Gavin for his escapades at university, looking after the household and Tony with Mathilda, helping Mrs. Fairfax in her gardens and talking with Sir Anthony kept her busy enough to only worry about Andrew in the solitude of night. There she resided until her knight could come back to her after slaying all the dragons in his path. And they were many indeed.
Andrew fought bravely for two more years in the service of his country, until a serious shrapnel wound to his leg incapacitated him from further action on the battlefield and forced him to retire from active service - though not before he fulfilled his father's dream and had become the second Brigadier of the family. The overseas journey exacerbated his condition, and when his ship touched land his life was despaired of. By dint of sheer determination, familiar surroundings, a loving family and his wife's diligent nursing, Andrew managed to recuperate and get his life back on track, both physically and emotionally; but his injury had frightened Rachel so much that when he was offered the relatively safe job of training new recruits, he gave it up to be with his wife unreservedly. Too long had they been separated, after all - and almost losing his life made him realize how he had been neglecting his blessings.
The reunited couple took a house in Brighton for a year or so to tend to his injuries, and Rachel gave birth to their first child there. It was an easy confinement, and soon she was hearty enough to tease her disgruntled spouse about their past associations with the city through mentions of a desire to hide away from the neighbors "for some strange reason". Rachel finally got to bathe in the sea to her heart's content and explore the parks that she could not see during their last 'visit'; with her baby daughter in her arms, no less. She re-established her friendship with Juliana Coleslaw after convincing her that she was mistaken in her notions of having met Rachel before. The unsuspecting older woman, who had only met Miss de Manley for one afternoon years ago, dismissed her vague feelings of déjà-vu and accepted Brigadier (now a simple Mr.) Fairfax's wife at face value, providing her with much-needed companionship in a new place. She was the godmother for Andrew and Rachel's first child, and the camaraderie between the two families only grew stronger with time.
Brighton proved to be lucky for the Fairfaxes, as there Andrew was able to receive the attentions of Dr. Neale, one of the most reputed doctors in the land who happened to be in the sea-side city for his annual holiday and got intrigued by the erstwhile Brigadier's case. His leg benefited a lot from the radical treatment offered by the good doctor, and he was able to hobble around with the help of a stick by the end of the year. Though his leg would never be as it was before his injury, Dr. Neale's cure enabled Andrew to lead a relatively normal life instead of being crippled, with only a limp to show for his past sufferings. That was miracle enough for the Fairfax family, considering the condition Andrew had been in a few months ago. They were a sensible lot which thanked God for His blessings and make the most of them, rather than desiring what was out of reach.
"Mama, can we go to meet Tony and Cathy tomorrow? I promise we will be back in time for me to do my homework," Isabel put in beguilingly as Rachel caught her breath and finally gave up tickling Annabel for changing Alex's clothes. Their house was relatively new, and was situated close enough to Silvermead Hall to enable the children to go over there and meet their cousins on a regular basis. Andrew was a prudent man and had taken steps to ensure that his family was not left destitute by the sudden cessation of his military revenue, and Stephen was ever ready to provide his family with a roof over their heads. Even then Andrew Reginald Fairfax, lately Brigadier in His Majesty's cavalry, was too vigorous a person to lie around doing nothing once his wounds healed and he was able to lead a fairly normal life. He had just started talking about starting some kind of business to provide for his family's future when a wonderful event occurred, one of those coincidences which seem to be nothing short of a boon from the gods. He was left an unforeseen legacy from a distant great-uncle, who had taken a fancy to him in his childhood and remembered the well-mannered second son of Anthony while making his will on his deathbed. The portion was not extensive in itself but, coupled with his previous investments, it provided Rachel and Andrew with enough money to buy property of their own and lead the lives of gentry, albeit in a small way.
After some debate, they purchased an estate situated just five miles from Silvermead Hall called Laburnum Park. It was the perfect place for housing a family in Rachel and Andrew's opinion - an ochre-hued modern bungalow complete with flower and kitchen gardens, an immense yard for children to play in and an apple orchard. It was not very large and yet of comfortable dimensions, near enough to enable easy communication with his family yet detached sufficiently to ensure their privacy on a day-to-day basis. It was even a comfortable distance from London, and only a couple of days' journey from Little Hanstead and Grace's family. Laburnum Park was the young couple's dream home. Andrew started breeding horses on his estate as a hobby and before he could absorb the fact fully, he had a lucrative establishment literally at his doorstep - one which both he and his wife loved to manage in the bargain.
They were blessed with another healthy baby girl within a year of finding their permanent home in Langton and, with the arrival of Alex as the much awaited son, their family was finally complete. Their connection with the family seat remained as strong as ever, and Stephen's five-year old daughter Catherine was Annabel's bosom friend by now. Cecily did not go out as a nurse after all (much to the relief of her husband and parents), and her children Noelle, Adam and Elizabeth completed the ever-increasing clique of the Fairfax cousins in the Langton society. When Clara stated her decision of marrying Lord Harbury - whom she had apparently loved in the past and had been separated from due to some misconception - it was Rachel who stood by her side and managed to sway the men of the family who seemed to harbor some kind of unstated grievance against the gentleman who had befriended her on the night of the ball. The sisters-in-law prevailed at last and after a lot of dramatic situations, Clara married her Adrian and they both moved to live in Derbyshire. Though their meetings were now curtailed due to the great distance between the Harbury and Fairfax family estates, Rachel and Andrew occasionally made it a point to go and visit the happy couple. Needless to say, Andrew's jealousy of Lord Harbury decreased to a remarkable extent after his marriage and he had been one of his wife's staunchest supporters while forwarding the match.
Sir Anthony moved on to the other Realm within four years of Andrew and Rachel's marriage; but he was able to see his children settle down into happy lives and thus, his departure from the mortal world was a contented one. Lady Fairfax proved to be sturdier than her family feared, and instead of snapping under this blow from Fate she was still managing to hold on tenaciously to her love of life and flowers. She also got on famously with Mrs. Warren. As soon as they had settled in properly, Rachel got her mother to live with them at Laburnum Park so as to reduce the burden on the Morelands. The boys remained at London at the insistence of their nieces Minnie and Dolly, who had got very fond of 'Unc'l Neil and Unc'l Shtan' in the meantime and would not dream of being parted from them. Neil and Stanley kept up a steady correspondence with their favourite sister even when they were all grown up and attending boarding school - and later, university. Looking after her little grand-children, taking care of the servants' problems and conversing with her new friend Lady Fairfax kept Mrs. Warren busy and happy all day long, and she was almost back to her old active incarnation as she waited to be reunited with her husband.
"No darling, tomorrow Aunty Mira is coming to visit you, and she is also going to bring Michael and Peter. You would not want to miss their visit, would you?" Rachel slyly questioned. "Oh no, not at all, not for the world," Isabel flushed as she realized that she was stuttering in her excitement. Her mother smirked to herself. It was an open secret that serious Miss Isabel had a tiny crush on Miranda's eldest son Michael. The Allencourts was regular visitors at Laburnum Park, and Aunty Mira and her sons Michael and Peter were constantly sought after by her two favourite nieces. She always claimed that while naming her boys, she had thought that the first one was an angel, and after staying with him for two years she had hoped that her second child would be a saint. Both hopes were naturally dashed and Lady Allencourt could not be happier about the results, even though she would never let such a damning admission pass through her lips. She was Annabel Rose's godmother, and was always tickled by the fact that the chatterbox of a girl resembled her to such an extent and yet, her middle name commemorated Mira's Rosie disguise during those secretive months of silent hiding. Miranda's brothers had never shown their faces again in England, and Andrew's elder brother Stephen ferreted out the news that they had cut their losses and permanently settled in the comparatively inexpensive environs of Spanish civilization where the monumental debts they had left behind in England could not reach them. Miranda hoped that their evil shadows would never touch her or her family again.
"Mama, I have finished the picture I was coloring yesterday. Will you post it to Aunt Ally so that she can cri-ty-critically look at it?" Isabel asked from the corner of the room where she was currently fiddling with some brushes and painting supplies, keeping them away carefully for use on another occasion. Rachel looked towards her and replied with a smile, "Certainly Isa, I will make sure that it goes with my letter tomorrow to Denbries." Annabel piped up, "Me too, I be writin' to Aunty now. Take my letter Mama," she ordered imperiously, pointing to a great sheet of paper on which she had painstakingly written the alphabet with her sister's lump of charcoal.
Diana and Alicia had bemoaned the loss of their wonderful Miss Warren for a long time, and always felt that the governess who followed her could not compete with Rachel for the ease with which she guided them in all aspects of their lives. But they were rational enough to wish for her happiness above everything, and young enough to be thrilled by the romance of all that had happened under their noses. Rachel had sworn them to secrecy and confided everything after gaining Miranda's permission, reluctant about the separation that would have been essential if they were not to learn about the identity of Rachel's husband. She was certain that they would keep the story to themselves; and in any case, the truth was so fantastic that no one would have believed the girls even if they had tried to narrate it anywhere. Alicia and Diana proved Rachel and Miranda's trust to be well-placed, and never told another soul about the romance their former governess, maid and coachman had been party to. This led to a long and fond correspondence between them and Mrs. Andrew Fairfax, until they came of age and could visit the Fairfax house without fearing that their parents would get to hear of it.
Diana and Justin Ashton continued to interact and meet till the last day of his stay in Denbries. Justin confessed his love for Diana the day before he had to leave, even though she had taken Rachel's words to heart and never let matters escalate to an irredeemable point with Mr. Ashton. She tried to remain detached; she really tried. She did not give up her resolve even when the first love of her life spoke words of passion and persuaded her to run away with him, and instead forbade Justin from writing to her as it would be unseemly until she had become an adult and he could pay her his addresses formally. It was tough, and she remained in fear of losing him altogether if he misunderstood her scruples; but in the end she managed to convince him that those years of separation would test their love and prove the strength of their feelings for each other, which now people might jeer at as a sign of their temperamental youth.
The years that followed were dark for Diana, as she had no way of ensuring that her spring beau would remain faithful to her memory or not; she did not even have the consolation of Miss Warren at her side to ease the pain. But the spark that existed between her and Justin was too fierce to die down so easily. He sought her out the day after her eighteenth birthday, and got her parents' permission to call on her in the role of a suitor. He had completed his studies in the last two-and-half years and was at that point of time an apprentice in his father's law firm with the prospect of a junior membership on the horizon, even though he was still continuing his forage into the world of music. Their joy on finding the other as unwavering in their affections as themselves can be imagined by every person who has ever loved another and been in trepidation about that emotion's reception by the one on whom it was bestowed.
The course of true love never did run smooth, though, as the Bard had demonstrated so intelligently. Mr. Herringford refused to let them marry without a long engagement so that they could know each other thoroughly before takings such an important step, and circumstances beyond anyone's control provided several upheavals. At one point they even considered separating and searching consolation in other people. But their love proved true and, at the age of twenty-one, Diana Herringford became Mrs. Justin Ashton to the joy of perhaps everyone around them. Today she and her husband continued to create music for each other and their little daughter Vanessa, even though his profession and her gender never let them follow their inclinations professionally. Over the years she had been an occasional visitor at Laburnum Park, though her second confinement had recently stopped all such interactions and reduced her and Mrs. Fairfax to keeping in touch through long letters.
Alicia was still unmarried out of choice and divided her time between living at Carillon Hall and with Diana, not to mention the month-long visits she often made to Hertfordshire to be with the Fairfax family. Rachel had her own suspicions about the reason behind the young woman's single status, though Alicia's natural reticence forbade Rachel from prompting her to disclose anything before she was ready to do so. Her habit of expressing herself in images did not dim with years, and Rachel's silhouette on the window-seat was now joined by two others in the couple's bedroom - one depicting Andrew and Rachel as they held hands in the rose gardens of Silvermead Hall a week after their marriage, and the other of Isabel sleeping peacefully in the nursery with her arms around a baby Anna. Aunt Ally was a great favourite at Laburnum Park, and her artistic tendencies had branched out into spinning marvelous yarns which kept the Fairfax kids wonderstruck for hours. Now she had become the guide for little Isa who was showing interest in art, critiquing the child's output honestly and giving her tips on improving her technique. Rachel hoped that Alicia's spinster status was only temporary and when the time came, she would be as lucky in marriage as Diana. Mrs. Rachel Fairfax was still a romantic at heart, after all.
Brian was put in boarding school three years after Rachel's marriage, leaving many smiling faces behind him at home. He tried to lord it at the school as he had done at home all his life, but discovered that it was not appreciated by either the teachers or the other students. To his dismay, pretty soon he had to learn the necessary lesson that without the protection of an indulgent mother he was really not as invulnerable as he had been led to believe. After a case of near drowning in the school pond for answering insolently to a bunch of seniors, being stranded outside in the cold for hours by a caretaker whom incidentally he had been ridiculing lately, a series of canings from the professors for not submitting schoolwork on time and a week of being sent to Coventry for his supercilious attitude by his classmates, Brian had to perforce incorporate more pliancy of temper and sweetness of temperament into his nature. The tough message was instilled in him so firmly that he did not change his behavior even when he returned home for his break. Needless to say, the domestics of Carillon Hall and his sisters wept tears of joy on beholding him. They had sent off a monster, and they got back a near-human boy. Though his innate nature could not change completely and he would always remain a young man of vicious mentality - anything else was too much to hope for apparently - Brian Herringford grew up the landmark year he was sent to public school.
The serving members of Carillon Hall kept on receiving punctual letters from their Miss Warren even after she married some colonel she met at a grand party, incidentally sharing a last name with the missing coachman all those months ago. They also wrote back whenever possible, giving her news of their world. Sally married her Edward a few years later and they both set up a tiny hosiery shop of their own in Denbries, which was still flourishing at a modest rate. Mr. Garner, Mrs. Talcott and Mrs. Hutchens retired a couple of years ago, but everyone else was still serving at the Hall. Life had changed a bit after Ashley Herringford's marriage and the arrival of a new mistress a year ago, but young Mrs. Herringford was a nice lady who treated her domestic staff affably and handled her parents- and siblings-in-law diplomatically. Good times had come for the people serving at Carillon Hall, and Rachel was privy to all the gossip thanks to the deep impression she had left behind her in only a year or so.
The three Trevelyan sisters were still well and active in their little village, though age was starting to dim some of their earlier vigor. Headley Down was always the Fairfax children's preferred holiday spot during the balmy autumn months since they knew that they would be prodigiously spoilt by the doting women, and Andrew and Rachel always made it a point to go there at least once a year since they never knew if they would get another chance to be with the gallant ladies or not. Rachel managed every time to cover their expanses in some way or the other while never letting their hostesses feel slighted by their lack of ready funds. Tact came naturally to our heroine, after all.
Rachel remained sitting by her children's beds until they had fallen asleep, musing on everything that had happened within the last few years to her and the people important to her. Telling the story of one's life every night often does that to people, her ever-present inner voice smirked at her. Yes indeed, she shot back at that sniggering voice with feigned asperity - she still talked to herself in her mind even after becoming a staid matron - Did I ever claim it was because my life was unusually interesting or something? I know that I am an ordinary person, with a perfectly ordinary family however much I might feel to the contrary. There have been ups as well as downs in my life, as happens with practically everyone. And yet, I must admit that it has been the best life which a benevolent Power could have chalked out for me. Right now things are going perfectly, and I have my own fairy-tale life which I would not change for the world. I just hope it continues to be so for as long as my heart continues to beat.
And amen to that, replied her inner voice with unusual gravity.
She was in a dreamy state when a warm hand fell on her shoulder. Rachel smiled. She could not stop smiling whenever she was around him, it seemed; but really, even after eleven years of marriage, her husband's touch still managed to make her shiver in response. Turning around, she only paused a second to drink in the sight of his beautiful eyes crinkling down adoringly at her in the moonlight before enfolding him in a passionate embrace. Rachel had not seen Andrew for the whole day as he had gone to another town to sell some horses, and she was unrepentant about her response to his presence. She was married to him, after all (the realization sent her mind into dizzying heights of delight even now). He seemed to agree with her entirely.
"Shall we return to our room then, Mrs. Fairfax?" he whispered into her ears. Without waiting for a reply, he swept her up in his arms like he had done all those years ago on a gilded evening when neither of them were sure of the other's feelings, and again when he had carried her over the threshold of their very own house. His limp hardly noticeable now, Mr. Fairfax carried his beloved wife into their bedroom with a flourish and amidst tender kisses, gently deposited her on the bed. As he leaned down to kiss her lips once again with all the thoroughness of his ardent nature, Rachel gave a sigh of pure pleasure.
Yes, dreams and fairy-tales do come true sometimes, after all.
© 2011 Copyright held by the author.