Never had Admiral Henson met a lovelier lady than the Dowager Duchess of Muncester. Her amazement upon being mistaken for Lenton's elder sister suggested that perhaps she was not as young as she appeared, but the admiral, with a daughter married, did not discriminate against ladies past their first bloom of youth. He was inclined to think the duchess in her second bloom and a very fine one it was.
He reflected on this as he sat in the bath that had been prepared to warm him up after the adventures by the river. She had lost a son, a husband perhaps not long before that, but gained three family members, even a natural grandchild she was not afraid to acknowledge. She was a grandmother. Perhaps that explained her astonishment at his words.
She was quite a character, with the little parasol she was not loath to use. He would not mind provoking her another time to see what would occur, if he could accomplish that before he left.
It was interesting, that desire, when he had always tried his hardest not to provoke his wife. Her peevish complaints had always made that undesirable. Not long after her death she had already become someone he rarely thought about. In fact, he had had that happen every time he sailed, for she had never wanted to sail with him. She had been set up in a comfortable house and seemed to perceive his visits and periods ashore as dreadful impositions, always complaining he was never there, but never convincing him that she enjoyed his company whenever he was home.
He was sorry that he did not have a strong bond with the daughter that had sprung from this union. A yearly visit out of duty, starting tomorrow, seemed to suffice for both of them.
It could be different. The people in this house were all very fond of others who were not even their own children. He had seen that very quickly. Lenton's aunt behaved like his mother and Lenton himself appeared to be quite fond of that little girl and very willing to make her his daughter, if he had not already done so. They were all related in some sense, but still. He had observed it with some envious curiosity.
It was inevitable that he should meet the elder duchess first after he had dressed. She was hanging about in the drawing room, looking very pretty. Well, perhaps not pretty in the sense that young girls were, but a very handsome and distinguished lady she was. This called for some conversation. "My man spotted that I am bruised, Your Grace," he informed her most civilly. "I could only surmise that your parasol was the culprit."
She gave him an odd look. She had not pressed hard enough to leave a mark. "You are making that up, I am sure."
"Duchess, you do not know your own strength. I excuse you -- you were afraid for the little girl," the admiral said with a gentlemanly bow. "I would gladly take some bruises for that."
"How generous," she said, still with an odd look.
"Yes, you are a woman of strong feeling, I observed."
Some astonishment passed over her face. She was not. Her feelings were not strong enough for this. "Would you please discuss the weather, Admiral?"
"It is very fine for taking the family out on boating trips."
"It is fine indeed," she agreed, wondering what would come next.
"And so is the family you have assembled here."
"Assembled?" she inquired. They all lived here now, but it had not been her doing. Julian, as the new Duke of Muncester, had to reside here.
"It is a creation, is it not? But a fine one. Finer than some that have not been created. And you command your fleet like an admiral."
"Are you rambling, Admiral?" It was a creation in some sense, but she was not commanding anything. Comparing her to an admiral was probably a compliment of sorts, but one she did not understand.
"I suppose," he said thoughtfully.
"I did not know admirals rambled. That must be inconvenient in times of war. I had thought they were decisive and to the point," she remarked, to provoke him into saying something she understood.
"Now you have me wondering about something, Duchess. Must the guns be fired the moment it is decided that they should be fired, or must we ramble until we find the best point from which to fire them?" he asked, pacing the room with his hands on his back. "Knowing we shall waste a perfectly good cannon ball if we make the wrong choice?"
She followed him with her eyes. "So you would only need to figure out from where to take aim?"
"I already know what to shoot, but when and where ... that is indeed the question. So, now you know. Admirals ramble indeed, because not every matter can be settled with a single, direct shot."
"Perhaps you could settle it with several shots."
"Several?" He stopped pacing for a second to look at her. "Duchess, there is so little conviction behind a series of random shots, whether something gets hit or not. The more shots, the greater the chance of a hit, I daresay, but it does not reflect well on the intentions of the gunner."
"So you prefer to deliberate at length on the position of your ship or your cannon to be sure of success?"
"Well observed, Your Grace," Admiral Henson said with a nod. "But the target -- there cannot be any doubt as to the target."
The duchess was fascinated by the conversation in spite of herself. Although he spoke of doubts, he sounded reflective and determined. "Why not?"
"If there were any doubts about the target, one would not seek a good position to fire at it."
Here she got up to do some pacing of her own. Sitting down in one place made one such a target. "I thought you gentlemen of the Navy preferred to capture prizes rather than sink them." She knew a little about it, although she had never discussed anything of the sort with anybody.
His eyes brightened at this interest. "We must first impress the prize with our firepower, or it will never surrender."
"I suppose so. And you will not sink it?" They both circled the room now, never coming close.
"What a waste that would be. Sinking." He seemed to consider it as he spoke. "What a waste of such a fine prize."
"Your watchers may have deceived you. It might be old, decrepit and not contain what you expect. How could you know?"
"I have an experienced eye, Duchess. Trust me. The behaviour of the vessel is indication enough."
"What if the vessel does not trust your eye? What if it flees despite being worthless, simply to remain in one piece, to retain its integrity?" She raised her eyebrows. A surrender would not be easy to achieve.
"We always allow captured vessels to retain their integrity, Duchess. We tow them to port -- very companionably."
She wanted to ask something, but did not immediately know how to put it into suitable words. They were speaking in some kind of code, after all. She was glad for the delay, because Julian entered.
He had overheard the admiral's last words. "Very companionably? Have things changed in the last few months?"
"They have," the admiral remarked. "I have not fancied taking a shot at a vessel for ages."
"Admiral!" Julia said in shock. "You are far too obsessed with..." She shook her head and fanned herself. The man's nerve was unbelievable. All these naval terms did not disguise of what he was really speaking and he would do so under Julian's nose.
"Why would you fancy shooting anything at the moment, Admiral?" Julian asked with a befuddled look, but he was not heard.
"Fancy that, Lenton," spoke the admiral as if he had just noted something peculiar. "A man speaks in a civilised manner revealing his peaceful tendencies and still the ladies are shocked."
"Indeed I am!" the elder Julia threw her fan on the sofa. "You speak so lightly of capturing and shooting prize vessels! What if the roles were reversed and one shot you?" Perhaps that was a stupid question. He would say they had no guns.
"Duchess, they have no guns," he said patiently. "On the whole."
"Guns," she answered in a derisive voice. "All men are obsessed with guns and they think this gives them some advantage over women."
Her nephew felt he might be intruding, so he quietly left the room. He had no idea of what they were speaking anyway, except that it might be something he did not want to understand. On no account did he want to spoil anybody's fun.
"Over a parasol, it does," said the admiral.
"Well, Admiral," she said, pacing again. "I confess you have lost me by bringing parasols into the matter." There was no way she could connect parasols to anything naval or anything indecent.
"That proves my point. One must not shoot too soon or one misses one's target." He seated himself at the writing desk. "Come and sit by me, Duchess. I shall not shoot you, but I will show you a little game we sometimes play on board."
She was curious and had nothing better to do, so she did as he asked and sat by him, though not too closely. He tore a sheet of paper into small rectangles and placed them on the desk, writing a set of numbers on some of them.
"Arithmetics?" she asked.
"Guns versus parasols?"
"Guns versus guns, really, but I have not marked your ships with your firepower because you do not believe in guns. Perhaps you believe in evasion and cunning."
"Oh, let me guess -- I am the fleet under attack?" she asked sarcastically.
"If you do not use your guns, you will be. I am approaching from here." He positioned his ships and began to roll cannon balls from another sheet of paper.
"Where is the coveted prize vessel? I thought it did not have guns." Perhaps it was the middle one and all the others were for protection.
"What?" the admiral asked in a distracted manner. "It is not in this game."
"Change the game. I should like to see you convince the coveted vessel to be towed companionably." She would like to see which arguments would be used. In her opinion there was not much that was companionable about being impressed and threatened with firepower and guns.
"That is no game, Duchess."
"No game?" She was slightly unsettled by his serious tone. She was not certain she was up for anything more than a game at the moment.
"No game," he assured her, but she pushed her chair back and left the room. He shrugged and continued to roll more cannon balls.
Julia the elder decided she needed a good, long walk to make sense of the admiral's strange talk, despite the fact that she had earlier already been outside with the others. Nobody was around to question her. She trusted that her nephew would soon remember that he had a guest. She could not suffer entertaining him all on her own, yet leaving him to his own devices such as now was a last resort option that violated every standard of hospitality.
There was something more important at the moment. Gentlemen, in her opinion, very rarely had nothing in mind when they conversed with her alone. The smallest lapse in watchfulness and they struck. She knew that and she thought she knew how, but perhaps there were tricks with which she was not yet acquainted.
Perhaps a widowed duchess was a prize vessel, but she certainly did not like being captured. And firepower -- "phoo!" was her reaction to that. Was firepower supposed to impress her?
Julia had never thought of remarrying. She was not so fond of male attention as to need to have it provided at all times. She had grown accustomed to life alone. Her husband and her son had been self-centred, although affectionate enough to make her life bearable.
She was a contented widow who had not really considered herself lonely before. Her cousin Lavinia had come to live with her after the duke had died and now Julian, Clementine and Julia had come to live with her as well. But that proved to be different. Lavinia, a friend and companion, could never be to her what Julian and Julia were becoming. Perhaps she had indeed been a little lonely. She had had so few people to love. But this recent change was enough, enough for the time being.
The admiral was a strange man. He seemed perceptive. Too much so? But his indecent talk! She wished Lavinia was not visiting her children, for then he would not have managed to be alone with her. Perhaps he would have been alone with Lavinia then. But, no. She was better looking than Lavinia, not to mention wealthier.
The man was a friend of Julian's, so unless he really misbehaved she would have to stay silent about it.
He had started out strangely, mistaking her for Julian's sister. She would have liked to question Clementine a little more about that, but asking too many questions about another person was suspicious. It was even worse that she could not ask anybody about this conversation now either. Why did she even want to? She was supposed to be middle-aged and wise and calm.
When she returned, Admiral Henson was still occupied shooting paper cannon balls at paper ships, although he had transferred the entire battle to the aquarium. He stood on a chair in front of it, commanding his fleet.
"Not in my aquarium!" Julia cried, very unsettled by this spectacle.
"Why not? It is perfect," he said without looking at her.
This was a different perspective on him, quite literally. "Admiral, you are standing on a chair, flaunting -- floating pieces of paper in my aquarium. How old are you?"
"I am an old man, but I do still take pleasure in my little games," he answered, still without looking. "What am I flaunting?"
"Would you please remove the naval battle from my aquarium?" She was certain she saw his mouth twitch. He was being vexing on purpose, asking about that slip of the tongue.
"I am not shooting at your fish and they know it. They are looking on very interestedly. By the way, I think you misinterpreted me earlier," he said conversationally. "I came to suspect it when you lost me over the parasols. I was having civilised and decent thoughts."
She blushed at having been discovered and even more so at having been wrong. "I do not believe it!"
"I could not believe you at first either. After much reflection I concluded you must have allowed your thoughts to wander in some improper direction and reviewing my words I could indeed see how you could think I was not talking of real guns. But I was." He stepped down from the chair. "But considering how improper you are -- which will remain our secret -- I shall stop flaunting."
She gaped at him. She was improper? How dare he say such a thing?
He looked her in the eyes now, all innocence. "The young duchess is an amiable girl, do you not think? I should like to have such a daughter."
"But you have one." He was on his way to visit her. That was what Julian had said. He should not distract her with this information and lead her away from her subject.
"In name, not in feeling," he answered, studiously replacing the chair from where he had taken it.
"Admiral." Julia placed an imperative hand on his arm. His words had barely registered, for she wanted her will to be done first. "There are still cannon balls and ships floating in my aquarium."
"Choices, choices," he said, looking at her searchingly. "Do you want to see an old admiral flaunting his admirable figure standing upon a chair, or do you want your aquarium to be clean?"
"I care nothing for your figure," she lied. "I want the battle out of my aquarium."
"Why not please us both," he said with a wicked smile, "and you stand on the chair?"
She found it very difficult to speak. He would care for her figure, he implied. He thought she was young enough to be Julian's sister and he would like to see her stand on a chair. "You make a mess in my aquarium and you want me to clean it up?"
"It was not a mess; it was a highly organised and well-coordinated naval battle." He gave the aquarium a sad glance. "No longer. It may be a mess now."
"Paper ships. How old are you?" She studied his face. It was difficult to see how old he was. Sailors grew older more quickly, they always said. The elements left their marks on their faces, colouring them, wrinkling them. His face was neither particularly coloured, nor particularly wrinkled, yet his eyes stood out. He could be anything between forty and sixty and his hair made her none the wiser either. Her eyes travelled downwards and then quickly back up.
She was not very honest if she thought sixty, was she? She would like to be sixty herself, old, dignified, but beyond being coveted.
"My actions must speak for themselves." He took the chair again and jumped onto it with a sure movement. All boys did such things to impress girls. Unfortunately they never saw it for what it was. "Well?"
"My furniture!" she cried, expecting a cracking sound any moment. He was not sane.
"Would that not be your nephew's furniture?" He fished a few pieces of paper out of the aquarium. "Where do I dock the ships?"
"In the fireplace." She was a little subdued by the realisation that he was correct -- everything was indeed Julian's now. She had lost her power.
He jumped off and onto the chair a few times as he deposited the fleet into the fireplace. "Do you think yourself much younger than I am?"
Julia had stood watching with her arms crossed. "Older."
"And you look so young," he said in surprise. "Though you cannot be. Grandmother. Did you know, just because you have a grandchild does not mean you have to behave like an old woman. I had thought you were in your second bloom only, not your twentieth."
This mixed message left her confused more than anything. Second bloom? Behaving like an old woman? "You are very..."
"Honest, Your Grace." He gave her another bow.
"I was but sixteen," she said, looking away. She did not know why she said this, of all the things she could possibly say.
"Ah, the truth comes out..." he responded shrewdly. "You are not really an old woman. I fear we may be the same age. He was not yet thirty, was he? And you are not yet forty-six."
"It is improper to speculate on a lady's age."
"What is a little impropriety between old people?" he asked cheerfully. "The young ones are not here. Where are they? It is very unkind of them to let me bother you all by myself. I can be bothersome."
"Oh, you must be joking," Julia remarked with a condescending turn of her head. She should remember to be a good hostess and moved towards the table. "Would you care for a drink?"
"Some lemonade, please."
She handed him the glass and did not move away. "Admiral, I have been spoken to by many gentlemen, but you have a unique approach to women." And she had a unique approach to gentlemen who vexed her -- ineffective and stupid, to the point of being encouraging. Someone else was speaking through her mouth.
"I never approach women at all. What did these gentlemen speak to you about?" He was inclined to distrust their intentions. There was a certain look of disdain in her eyes as she spoke of them.
"Me," she said after a few seconds. She wondered if she could believe him.
"They had approaches?" he asked with an intelligent look. "Approaches that were not unique. And that perhaps contained references or euphemisms other than guns."
"They had approaches," she said with a nod. That was as much as she wanted to reveal.
"Which you did not like." That was fairly easy to conclude.
"Did I say that?" She thought she had been objective and detached. She had not meant to complain or to boast of having received such attention.
"You did not have to," he said kindly. Nobody could enjoy being approached in the same manner many times. "And that what you consider to be my approach is unique?"
"I have never seen anything like it." The distance between them became a little smaller.
"I have never seen anything like you either, Duchess, which must account for it. But do you like it?" He supposed she did, a little.
"Er..." she said, mesmerised. He tasted of lemonade, she thought when she could think again, but just when she was tracing back how she could have come so close as to taste that, something rudely pulled at her skirts.
"Gramma," little Julia said insistently.
Fearing that Julian and Clementine would follow closely upon the little girl's heels, Julia lifted her up quickly and went to look out of the window. There, at least, nobody would be able to see her face. She was sure it must look intriguing, clearly mirroring her confused feelings.
Admiral Henson emptied the rest of his glass of lemonade in one movement and went to refill it. A clumsy movement with the decanter knocked his glass off the table just when Julian entered the room. The glass was saved by the thick carpet, but he muttered something under his breath anyway.
Julia took little Julia out of the room without looking at anybody, not even at Clementine despite passing her very closely. She could not risk the little girl telling anyone what she had seen. Little Julia was all too likely to do that and she was all too fond of kissing to have mistaken it for anything else.
Clementine was baffled, but she was not yet familiar enough with her new aunt to call anything after her. "Where is she taking Julia?"
Julian had no time to wonder, since he was already wondering at something else. He was watching the admiral downing three glasses of lemonade in rapid succession. "Thirsty, Admiral?"
"Had you wanted any?" he asked, sheepishly regarding the now empty decanter. It was good that it was merely lemonade.
"No, no. It is there for those who need it. Obviously you needed it."
"Yes, I was a bit thirsty. All this waiting for other people to appear."
"Well, I did not know what you were talking about earlier anyway. The animated discussion did not seem to admit a third." An animated discussion could well lead to thirst, even more so when there were only two participants.
"Oh, the guns," the admiral said thoughtfully. "Yes, animated discussions make one thirsty, especially when they run on and on because no thirds appear. I should not have been so thirsty if you had stayed." He wondered what he preferred. Perhaps he preferred thirst indeed. It had been a new experience.
"I am sorry. I had to fetch my ladies."
Admiral Henson raised his eyebrows. "It took you a while. Had they hidden themselves away? Your aunt even took a long walk in between. I had begun a little naval battle she had no interest in. Indeed, when she came back she made me throw it into the fireplace."
"Oh, that game!" Julian brightened. "If you are still up for it, I will play."
It had not been part of his plan, the admiral thought as he collected the pieces of paper from the fireplace. He was not certain how it had happened. What did he even know about her? Her name was Julia, she was in her early forties or thereabouts and incredibly handsome. Of course that was not enough to entice him, considering that such a thing had never happened before. He was also impressed with her acceptance of her grandchild. She had a heart. That was a dangerous characteristic in a woman.
And actions spoke louder than words. Perhaps they shared that characteristic. What she said was not what she did and the same applied to him.
He thought about all of that as he played his game. It required too much of his attention and he had better concentrate if he did not want to be found out. He could not be found out yet. What would Lenton say if he discovered that within hours of meeting his aunt, he had already done this? It was completely unacceptable, naturally.
He wondered if Her Grace was going to tell anybody. She had not hit him; she had only looked amazed, as far as he could tell. That she needed some time alone was understandable, but he did not know what would come of it. He had best focus on the game, instead of wondering whether one of the two Julias might speak up and have him sent out of the house.
The Julias had hidden themselves so well that Clementine could not find them. She did not yet dare to go to Aunt Julia's private apartments, so she had to return to the gentlemen and watch their incomprehensible game.
The elder Julia had indeed taken the younger to her private rooms, where she had sat her down and asked "what now?" She had to ask someone and only little Julia was available.
The little girl knew what to do. "Play with me, Gramma."
She remembered that little Julia favoured the wilder sort of games and she bounced her on her knee while she sat thinking. She could not forget what had happened downstairs. If she closed her eyes she could again feel it and taste it.
What could be his intentions? He had arrived only today. He did not know her. She did not know him either. What could be her intentions? She was as much to blame, for at least half of the action. They had met somewhere in the middle, after all. It was incomprehensible, given her dislike of all too forward gentlemen and her just having informed him of that.
Perhaps he had not meant to let it happen -- she had not meant to either. He had looked rather surprised. Well, not as if he was completely confident or conscious in any case. She did not know what to think of that. Gentlemen were usually more calculating in matters such as these.
What would happen now? He was leaving tomorrow. She might never see him again. He might never do it again. Since it had been surprisingly pleasant, that would be a pity.
This feeling was almost instantly succeeded by another. What was she doing, enjoying this kind of behaviour? She had always been the first to condemn it -- but that was before she had experienced it, a wicked voice said within her. Still, experiencing it herself ought not to make any difference. What a hypocrite she would be otherwise, always having condemned and avoided it, with regard to herself and to others, only to succumb to the smallest temptation because it was pleasant. That was precisely its evil! Temptation was always pleasant.
Then Julia wondered what precisely she had risked, as a widow. He was a widower and had nobody to think of either. Only if someone found out might her reputation suffer to some degree. It was quite possible that it would remain their secret alone, however. He would hardly be telling Julian about it now.
How did other widowed people come to any sort of understanding, with all their experience? Nobody would deny that they had some. Did that mean widowed people ought to be wiser? They had no curiosity anymore. Or would their knowledge make them more inclined?
Widowers would not even need an understanding to engage in these activities. They could separate it from love and affection. She was proof enough that someone could participate in a kiss with another she did not love.
She had no reason to love Admiral Henson, save for the fact that he considered her young-looking. And he had rescued Clementine -- who had perhaps not even been in need of such a rescue. And he had allowed little Julia to choke him by pulling at his collar -- but it would be difficult for anyone to deny Julia anything. In short, any argument in his favour could be countered.
He, furthermore, had absolutely no reason to love her. One did not love a woman simply because she looked young, unless one was a fool.
He might not have anything devious in mind -- she did not either -- but she would have to watch her step.
"I must dress for dinner, Julia. Would you like to help?" Of course little Julia was very willing to help and she ran towards the closets, knowing what dressing was all about. Big Julia followed. "Pick me a pretty one."
The little girl pointed at one at random. It was bright red, the brightest one in the closet.
"No, another pretty one," Julia said automatically. She had become accustomed to the blacks and greys of the past few months and it would never have occurred to her to pick that one. Perhaps enough time had passed now to give another colour a try. Still, she wondered about the suitability of a bright red gown.
"This," little Julia insisted.
"Well, it was your father and if you think the time is right..." she sighed, feeling some excitement. "Shall I look pretty in it, do you think?" As she spoke, she wondered why she needed to be pretty. If she had been kissed without having paid attention to her appearance, what would happen if she took special care?
Little Julia nodded. "Yes, Gramma is pretty."
"Thank you, dear. I knew I could count on you," she said dryly, knowing her granddaughter had no sense of fashion or prettiness. She was good at pleasing and teasing, that was all, and she loved brightness.
"Gramma is kissy."
"No, dear. Gramma is most definitely not kissy," Julia said emphatically. It was as she had feared: little Julia had not forgotten what she had seen. "You must forget that. Do you know what a secret is?"
Little Julia looked back blankly.
"A secret is when you may not tell Mama and you may not tell Papa. You may not tell Mama that Gramma is kissy. That is a secret. Julia and Gramma have a secret." She hoped the message was making some impression.
The look that the little one gave her now was more worrisome. She was undoubtedly planning mischief, such as when would be the best opportunity to repeat these words. Julia refrained from running after her when little Julia skipped out of the room. She had to get dressed in that pretty bright red gown.
Admiral Henson, seated in front of his mirror, was surprised to see a little girl follow his valet into his room. "Beckett, you have a tail."
"Female, about this tall." He held his hand some distance above the floor.
Beckett turned. "Why, I do not know where she came from. Should I send her away? Where do you come from, Miss?"
"Papa says Ammiral is here." She glanced past his legs and cried as if she perceived a long lost friend. "Ammiral!"
"What have you come to do, Julia?" the admiral asked as he felt himself be climbed. He was amazed at her skill. In merely a few seconds she was standing in his lap again, much as she had done in the boat.
"Go rowing with me," she ordered with bright enthusiastic eyes.
He would like to please her, but he could not. "Julia, I cannot. I must dress for dinner."
"I pick you a pretty dress?" she offered, sliding to the floor.
"I do not wear dresses," he said in amusement. "Pick me a pretty coat then. Beckett, show her some."
Beckett grudgingly showed her two.
"Gramma is pretty too," Julia said to nobody in particular. "I make Ammiral pretty too. Ammiral, pick this." She pulled at a sleeve to indicate he should wear that coat.
"But --" Beckett had thought of another one, one more suitable for dining with a duke. He did not suppose he was allowed to say so.
"Has pretty buttum," Julia said dreamily.
"Ammiral?" the admiral inquired against his better judgement.
"Here, pretty buttum on the coat," Julia said, lovingly touching a frightfully large and shiny button.
"Actually, I have always wanted that horrible button replaced," he said, seizing this wonderful chance to get rid of it. "Would you like to have it, Julia?"
"Yes!" She pulled at the button, but of course it would not yet come off. "Yes!"
The matter was settled then. "Beckett, give the young lady the button. I shall wear the other coat."
"But Admiral!" Beckett protested. He was all in favour of the other coat, but he did have some objections to removing buttons simply because some infant had her heart set on them.
"The cut of the coat is excellent, but that button is awful. Make the young lady and me happy by removing it. I am sure you could find something nicer."
The advantage of living with two newly-married people was that they were not yet very observant, Julia mused. Since they were too busy glancing at each other, they would not notice the admiral's glances at her. She did. To be honest, she had been looking at him rather a lot to see whether he gave any signs as to how she should interpret his earlier behaviour. Save for some guarded interest, she could not discern anything.
"In red, Aunt Julia?" Clementine asked, quite a long time after she had come downstairs.
Julia almost blushed. "Julia insisted that I wear it. I am sorry."
Clementine seemed to know what she meant. "It has been long enough."
"Are you in a special mood, Aunt Julia?" asked Julian a few moments later. He had not heard his wife ask about the gown.
"It is only a red gown!" Julia answered a little snappily. "If one more person mentions it, I shall take it off!"
"So much red, all of a sudden," Julian remarked, looking at the admiral's red coat.
"Julia picked it!" his aunt cried. She had not even noticed that he was in red too. That was too awful.
"Lenton, you sent the little pirate to my room, she told me," said the admiral, who was by now very amused by both Julias. He was also relieved that she had apparently not told anyone anything. "And then she offered to pick me a pretty dress. I told her to pick me a pretty coat instead."
"She only asked me where you were. I did not send her."
"I see. Do you have any objections to the colour I shall not mention for fear that Her Grace will take off her gown?" He did not say he was only in red because little Julia's first choice had been the coat with the huge button. That would make it all less amusing.
"No, no!" Julian hastened to say. He lowered his voice so the ladies would not be able to hear him anymore. "It was merely surprising, considering that I have not seen her in anything but black or grey because of my cousin. I did not even know she owned any red gowns. Perhaps she will be in colours again from now on."
"Well," said the admiral. "If she had not wanted to wear it yet, she would have dissuaded the girl. One follows the little girl's orders only as far as one wants to follow them. I said no to the first coat she chose for me -- on a certain condition, true -- but she accepted my no."
"She understands no when it suits her," Julian remarked.
Julian had walked her in, while Admiral Henson had escorted Clementine. She had heard them talk behind her, but she had not been able to hear what they had been saying. It had been amusing, apparently. Yes, the man was good at being charming, she thought with an eye-roll.
There was one extra place at the table. It was inevitable that the admiral would sit across from her. She had always forced Julian and Clementine to sit at opposite ends so she would not be excluded from any conversation. It had never happened, but perhaps that was because she had always been preventing it. Now she had to take care that she did not stare across the table too much herself.
"I forgot to ask how long you will be staying with your daughter," said Julian.
"Hmm," said the admiral. A frown passed over his face. "I must do my duty and show up, but my departure is never too soon to anybody's tastes."
Julia raised her eyes. "But why?" she asked, knowing he was serious and not merely self-deprecating. She remembered the earlier comment about his daughter that she had let pass. In name, not in feeling. Apparently he felt nothing for his daughter. In that case it was not so surprising that both sides considered it a duty.
"They never went to sea with me," he replied. "And consequently learnt to live quite well without me. Probably even better. As did I," he ended with a smile that did not reach his eyes.
A lonely man posed a grave danger; she might feel sorry for him. "Is your daughter your only child?" she asked, hoping he would say he had half a dozen other children with whom he had better relationships.
"Yes," he answered.
That was a fatal affirmation. Julia lowered her eyes.
The admiral continued speaking. "But perhaps I shall do like Lenton and pick some more that I like. I would pick him if he was not a bit too old to be my son."
"Too old?" Julian asked.
"Perhaps you are simply too young, Admiral," Clementine laughed.
"Men never grow up, but they do grow old," he answered.
"They reserve the right to behave as if they do not," he told her, leaning towards her in confidence. "But they do grow up a little. Let me tell you what to expect."
"You are always welcome to stay with us on your way back," Julian said when the ladies had retired from the dining room. "We are not going anywhere and being surprised at the last moment is not something I mind. We were going to live quietly, but not in complete isolation."
"Thank you. I had no definite plans, only a half-hearted intention to call on a friend on the way back. Actually, I had thought of using him as a sort of excuse in case I felt like leaving very soon. I was going to say I had promised to visit him, although he does not even know about this. But he will not mind being surprised at the last moment either."
"You may use us as excuse as well. I am sorry to hear it may not be an agreeable visit. By all means come to be cheered afterwards. If we can -- we were not good hosts this afternoon, were we? But at least we are not disagreeable, as far as I know." Julian frowned. "Not that I mean to imply your daughter is disagreeable."
"My late wife and I were not well suited," the admiral answered slowly. "Which was not a good subject for the dinner table. I am afraid our daughter takes wholly after her and consequently we are not well suited either. This is why I might follow your good example and pick some relatives of my own."
"Well," Julian said generously. "You may have both Clementine and me, if we are not too old for you."
"Oh, that!" He waved it off. "That was a comment with another aim. Your aunt thought I should behave like an old man."
His eyes twinkled. "Because I was most definitely not doing so."
"I have begun to think that my aunt's bark is worse than her bite, but if she barks too loudly, just bark back," Julian advised.
"No!" Julian looked as if that was not possible. "To my aunt? After all her guidance?"
"Guidance? In good behaviour?"
"Yes. I think I considered the news that I had become a duke worse news than the death of my cousin, whom I had not seen for years. I needed some training. There are many people who want something from you, I discovered. And then there was the fortune-hunting crowd, most of whom were dealt with by my aunt. Recently we had a sort of cousin staying here who was but nineteen, yet all set on becoming the Duchess of Muncester!"
"I can imagine it would be even worse for dukes, although I consider admirals to be in unreasonable demand as well. Last year I had one such chit thrust at me whose mother was younger than I am," said the admiral with a shudder. "Charming girl."
Those last two words were surprising. "The mother or the girl?"
"Oh, the girl. I introduced her to a handful of midshipmen and let nature take its course. But it is such a nuisance. I am -- was -- am not very interested in doing it all again, you see. The complaining wife, the child who does not know you, being wished away because you interrupt their daily routine..." He shook his head. No, never again.
"Let us interrupt the routine of the ladies here," Julian suggested. He was sure the admiral had thought about the matter often enough not to need any useless advice, which he could not give anyway. "They will be good about it."
Little Julia stayed with them for a while. She had eaten her dinner separately and was entitled to half an hour of company before going to bed. She was allowed to run about wildly and the admiral's presence was encouragement enough. He was a guest and guests had to be impressed.
"Excellent," Clementine said in satisfaction when they ran about the room. "Do tire her, Admiral."
Julia the elder sat stitching quietly, occasionally raising her head at another high-pitched chuckle coming from behind the sofa. "When she is old enough to understand, you must discourage that kind of behaviour, Clementine," she observed. "Frolicking with older men behind the sofa."
"Yes, Aunt Julia."
The admiral raised his head and peered over the back of the sofa. "It is quite safe to frolic with this older man, Your Grace."
She had intended for him to hear her, but she had not thought he would react in a manner that only she would understand. It took all of her willpower to glance back evenly without saying anything. She did not know whether she could believe him.
Little Julia suddenly gave a wail. "Ammiral's pretty buttum is in the sofa."
"Under the sofa," he corrected, as if he understood everything else perfectly.
"Get it! I want it."
"What do you want, Julia?" called her grandmother, who was highly suspicious of this conversation. It was unbelievable that Clementine stayed silent upon hearing those words. Little Julia wanted something pretty that belonged to the admiral, a buttum.
"Ammiral's pretty buttum," said the admiral, coming around the sofa to look under it from that side. "We do not have the same taste, so she was welcome to it. Here it is." He threw it at Julia, who could only just catch it on her stitching. "Imagine that on a coat. I was happy to have it cut off."
Julia and Clementine studied it and Clementine giggled. She gave it back to her daughter.
Little Julia, her face warm from the excitement, ran towards Julian. "Put me on the pot, Papa!"
"And that too," Julia said with a nod. "It is not quite what one expects a well-bred young lady to say." First chasing after the admiral's pretty button and then wanting to be put on the pot.
"And not quite what one expects a well-bred gentleman to concern himself with," the admiral commented, seeing the pair leave the room. He was surprised, although upon reflection he might do the same if she asked him.
"I blame the Navy," Julia said, carefully pulling her needle through the fabric.
"The guidance he received after quitting it must not have been enough then," he responded with a good-natured smile. "But I think it is commendable. Gentlemen of the Navy are not above getting their hands dirty. Better some dirty hands than dirty thoughts, I say."
Julia gasped in astonishment.
Even Clementine did, a little. She tried to think of a gracious way of leading them to other topics, since if it led to gasping, it was obviously not a safe subject. She was not quick enough.
"I am in complete agreement, Admiral," said Julia with the utmost dignity. "About gentlemen of the Navy." Gentlemen did not accuse her of having dirty thoughts, especially when she had not had any.
"But at least the Navy has some, you admit. You are being carried off by a dangerous current, Your Grace," he said, observing her as if she was indeed being carried off and he was in doubt as to whether any action was required.
"You might need to jump in again, Admiral!" Clementine chuckled, a half frightened look at her aunt.
"I think Her Grace may have to paddle back, since only gentlemen of the Navy perform rescues. Perhaps she should just see where that current takes her. It could be to somewhere pleasant." He turned completely towards Clementine. "Take a turn about the room with me while I make you a proposition."
"Admiral!" Julia interrupted in a sharp voice. "You cannot proposition Clementine."
Clementine had already half risen and she now finished the movement slowly, glancing from one to the other. Admiral Henson, however, did not look the least bit guilty, so she was inclined to trust his intentions.
"While I discuss something with you," he changed his words. "Something Lenton suggested to me." He bowed towards Julia. "And, Madam Duchess, do not fear. You will be completely left out of the matter, since you are still paddling along on that current."
He and Clementine walked away a little and then he spoke in a low voice. "Your husband told me you had planned to live quietly, which I understand, but he said he would not mind if I surprised him with a visit after staying with my daughter."
"Oh! I should not mind either," she assured him. "Since you know the truth. That is really the problem -- the truth -- and of course our tastes are not fashionable enough to enjoy grand entertainment."
"He also offered himself as relative -- and you."
She smiled. "I shall trust his judgement, Admiral. But I thought you did not think yourself old enough."
"Let us say that when Lenton was born, I would have had several years to go until I came of age, Your Grace. Although, when one hits middle age, a few years here or there stop making a difference."
"You must call me Clementine, if my aunt allows it. I have not been one long enough to be sure of what duchesses are allowed to allow."
"She is not sure either," he commented. "But indeed, it would be easier if you were Clementine and she the duchess, rather than the young duchess and the old duchess, which sounds --"
"Oh yes!" she agreed. "That would sound unkind. I must say -- do I not have a good husband for making you such a kind suggestion? He has a very good heart."
"I knew him before, Clementine," Admiral Henson replied with a smile at the pride and affection in her countenance. "And he was always a young man of very good character."
"Though not manners!" she giggled.
"His manners are not calculated to please ladies, you mean, but I have never found anything wrong with them. Mind you, I may be a bad judge of manners. I am better at judging a steady character and good principles -- the essentials, not the expression. The former cannot be acquired. One must see what a person is like without the benefit of the latter."
He wondered if he was rambling again, or perhaps defending himself to the wrong person. Young Clementine here could not know he needed to defend himself on any account, which was good, for even she would not be susceptible. One did not judge the essence of another person's character with one's lips.
Clementine looked as if she wanted to ask him a question, but Julian returned to the room without Julia.
"I sent her to bed," he said with a glance at his aunt. "So that we might have some well-bred talk."
Julian and Clementine were the first to retire for the night, after Clementine had surreptitiously asked Aunt Julia if she minded being responsible for Admiral Henson until he wanted to go to bed.
Julia, who had continuously been occupied with some stitching on another sofa, had calmly answered that she did not mind, without raising her eyes from her work. When she looked up again after they were gone, the admiral was studying her intently.
"They think we are very obliging," he said.
"They probably do," she replied coolly, wondering if he thought something else.
He considered asking her about their earlier encounter, but perhaps he would prefer to have some more certainty before he asked anything. Chances were that she could not give him a reliable answer any more than he could. She would not have given him so many confused glances otherwise. He picked up a book and sat down beside her.
She had to ask. "Admiral, what is your intention?"
"Still the same," he said with a reassuring smile. He had discerned some fear in her tone. "Do not let me distract you from your work."
"But why do you come to sit by me?" she asked, her fingers seemingly continuing to do their work with the same ease as before, as if her heart was not beating more rapidly.
"Because I thought I might like that."
"Companionably..." she remembered. She supposed it all came of being lonely. People wanted company when they were lonely.
"Precisely. Why are you in red?" He knew the little girl had chosen it, but not why Julia had chosen to go along with the advice.
"Do I look awful in it?" She cursed herself for setting herself up for a compliment. It had not been her intention at all to say something a person with good manners could only contradict. She had not meant to test his manners either.
"On the contrary. It suits you very well. But I understand you have not worn it for a long time. Will your colourful period now return or have you never had one at all?"
"I --" Julia's fingers began to find their work more difficult now. She gave him a quick glance, but he appeared to be waiting for an answer. Why should he care? He was leaving tomorrow. He might not ever see her again. It could not matter to him which colours she would wear after he was gone.
"I have seen plenty of older ladies in colours," he said.
"Older ladies," she repeated. He complimented her one second and undid it the next.
The admiral had the nerve to look slightly amused. "You called me an older man, Duchess, and I believe we had established that we did not differ too much in age."
"When I spoke I meant men older than Julia," she corrected herself weakly.
"Really," he said, unconvinced. "So in fact you meant a little thing like Julia was far too young for me? I am in complete agreement."
She did not want to hear what he considered a suitable age for him instead. "I do not recall that we had established anything about our ages."
"They dated the dukes in those portraits on the staircase," the admiral said with a smile. "I suppose it was done to show who followed upon whom, but if one knows that one of their duchesses was but sixteen..."
Julia had overlooked that. "I could have been married at sixteen and had my son at thirty."
"Sixteen would have been a pointless revelation in that case, Duchess, do you not agree? I read when he was born and consequently I dated you as well, Your Grace." Admiral Henson chuckled at his own cleverness.
"I hope the discovery gave you much pleasure," she snapped.
"Oh yes. From now on I will not accept any silliness about being too old for this or that."
"Accept!" she muttered. "You have no right to --" It was best not to argue with the man. He would talk himself out of it.
He did not even feign any interest in the book he had carried over. He left it unopened on his knees. Instead, he was displaying a great interest in her stitching.
"I could work better if you read," she said softly after a few minutes during which she was certain that the quality of her work had gone down considerably. She would have to redo it.
"The book is merely a decoy," he admitted candidly. "I promise I will sit here quietly until you give up for the night."
She lowered her work. "I was only working on until you gave up. Clementine went to bed because I would take over."
"But you would really like to go to bed yourself?" He studied her features for signs of fatigue.
"No, no. You must not think so."
"Duchess, I can stay up by myself -- or even go to bed because everyone else does. I shall not start a pointless discussion with you out of politeness." He stood up and held out his hand.
After some pointless talk on their way upstairs, which Julia supposed had all been uttered for the benefit of the servants, they were surprised to see little Julia roam the corridor with two dolls as if she had not been taken to bed an hour before.
"You should be in bed," said her grandmother in concern. Perhaps she was now past sleep, having been put to bed late.
The little girl looked pleased to see them and instantly changed the plans she had apparently had. "I sleep with you and Grace and Dolly and Ammiral."
"Ammiral?" asked the admiral. He was loath to part from the duchess already, so he seized this chance to linger. The little one was saying some intriguing things. He had every right to investigate the matter, since she was mentioning him too.
"We sleep with Gramma," she informed him with a determined nod.
"Gramma may not want us there," he remarked, giving her a glance.
"Come, let me put you in your own bed, Julia," said Julia briskly, making as if to lift her up. Sleep with Grandma! Little Julia, her dolls and the admiral! It was impossible. If only the admiral had not been included. Little Julia had come to her before, but that had always been in the morning and she had usually brought a book, not a live admiral.
Little Julia threw herself on the floor, kicking. "No, no, no!" Her voice rose already and it would soon turn into a scream.
Her grandmother pulled her up. "Behave yourself!" The last thing anyone wanted was Julian and Clementine appearing and being told that everybody was going to sleep in Grandma's bed. Or even the servants -- it might spread all over the village.
"I want to sleep with you and Ammiral," little Julia whined.
"Choose." She could have one of the two -- or perhaps sending her with Admiral Henson was out of the question. But he had a daughter. He ought to be safe.
Little Julia did not know or did not want to know what choosing was. "I want! Come Ammiral," she ordered, grasping his trousers with a strong little fist.
He stepped closer to whisper in the elder Julia's ears. "If you see no way to dissuade her, we could at least try until she falls asleep and then carry her to her room. It may take all of five minutes." The little one seemed bent on having her way. She was not yet susceptible to reason. Telling her that it would not do to order two relative strangers to share a bed, even with her in the middle, was not going to work. That expression on her face was one of determination and he could not really fault the duchess for feeling herself too weak to fight it.
The only thing that convinced Julia to give that plan a serious thought was his kind whisper. He could sell her anything. "You are as unmanageable as she is."
"Duchess, I shall not throw myself on the floor and scream if you say no. She will. You will too."
Little Julia was delighted that they both accompanied her to her grandmother's room. She did not care what they were thinking, no matter how visible their thoughts might have been to anyone who had been able to watch their faces.
"Please tell the admiral's valet that he is here," Julia told her maid. She awaited their return in silence and then she took her maid into the next room.
"Well," the admiral coughed to his man. "The young lady here -- the youngest one -- will be very upset if I go to my own room. I do not know how long it will take to appease her. Go to bed."
"I took the liberty of bringing your things, since I did not know what you were here for," the valet said with the utmost discretion.
"This is not what you had guessed, is it?" he asked dryly, looking down at the little girl who had attached herself to his leg. "But go to bed. I can handle it." He gave his man a nod and concentrated on the girl. That was better than thinking too much of what Beckett had been assuming. "Let me go so I can change."
"Come sleep," she said as she pulled him in the direction of what he presumed to be the bedroom.
Somehow he did not think he was welcome there yet. "I must change." He glanced at her tiny bare feet and thought she might understand those words. "You change too before you go to sleep."
"Brush your teeth!" she cried, seizing the toothbrush.
"Give that back or there will be no sleeping," he warned. He changed quickly for fear of being surprised by their hostess -- and unreasonably run the risk of being called a cad -- and then he brushed his teeth.
"You are ready!" young Julia cried and enthusiastically opened the door to the bedroom to run straight in. "We are ready!"
The maid came out with a pile of clothes that she laid down and then she left the room. Admiral Henson waited. In the room next door he could hear voices.
"I want to jump on the bed!"
"No, get down! Julia! Down, I say. Down. No jumping. Julia?" The voice turned to a plea. "Come down. Down. Julia?"
A thud. "Where is Ammiral? Ammiral?"
He sighed and picked up the two dolls. He blew out the candles, telling himself he should not forget to pick up his clothes when he left, and entered the bedroom. The room was almost dark and the two Julias were already half reclined in the bed, one a little more ladylike than the other. As he had expected, the little girl was in the middle.
"Ammiral!" Little Julia clapped her hands. "And Grace and Dolly! Come!"
"Which side do I take, Duchess?" he inquired, not being capable of asking anything more intelligent. She wore her hair up at night; that was interesting. He wondered if she always did or if she was doing it on purpose today.
"Which one do you think? Is that your night dress?"
He glanced at his attire and wondered why it deserved such a critical look. "No, I am going to take it off in a second," he shot back untruthfully.
"I think this was a really disastrous idea," she answered with a frown.
"It was not my idea," he defended himself as he advanced towards the bed. "This is very odd, but I find it intriguing enough to give it a try."
Little Julia stood up and began to jump up and down as he slid into the bed. Her smile was so happy that it was difficult not to smile back at her.
"Julia," said her grandmother. "Lie down, my dear. We are going to sleep."
The little girl wriggled herself under the covers and stretched out her little arms. "Good night kiss, Gramma. And Dolly. And Grace." She held out the two dolls for them to be kissed by her grandmother. "And Ammiral."
"Er..." Julia gave him a despairing look.
"We already did that earlier," he said to help her. She was in enough trouble already.
"Ammiral cannot sleep," said little Julia. "He must have a kiss. He is my friend."
"Then you give him one. Will you?" Julia suggested in a soothing voice. She was not going to do it again.
Little Julia turned and kissed him on the cheek. "Sleep well, Ammiral! Ammiral, now you kiss me and Grace and Dolly and Gramma."
"What! You little --" He checked himself just in time. She was a little something indeed, arranging everything to her liking in such a conniving manner, even after she had been thwarted.
"You are a kissy little minx, Julia," said Julia with rather more indulgence than the girl deserved. "But he is not."
"I am not kissy," he agreed very seriously. "What does a kissy person do?"
"Kiss!" the little girl said. "Everybody!"
"I certainly do not kiss everybody." He gave the other Julia a quick glance. Really, he did not.
"No?" The girl looked surprised.
"Beh!" He stuck out his tongue in disgust.
She laughed at him, clutching her belly.
"I did not know I was so amusing," he said in wonder. It was flattering.
"Beh!" She stuck out her tongue too and giggled some more. "Beh! Beh! Beh!"
"This is going to take hours," said the elder Julia as she slowly slid further under the covers. The man was only encouraging mischief. "Why do you not take her to your room and continue the fun and games there?"
"Grandma wants to sleep -- Julia, you must not call her Gramma. It is not right. She is not old." He could not think of her as a grandmother. She was young and pretty.
"She is Gramma. I am Julia. You are Ammiral. This is Grace. This is Dolly."
"I am Julia," Julia sighed. "When she was named nobody could foresee that we would both share a bed with you at some point." Nobody could have foreseen that even later, as late as fifteen minutes ago.
"I shall rename you Dearest to put an end to all this confusion," he declared boldly.
"Ammiral! I mean, Admiral! Listen to me. I am already taking over child speech," she rambled in embarrassment. He should not call her dearest. Why did he want to? It unsettled her very much.
"You can use my name in bed," he said generously. "John is much easier to say too."
"I should really prefer Duchess over Dearest." While there was something preposterous in being so formal in bed, there was something far more frightening about informality. Being formal kept some distance between them. She might better be able to keep an admiral at arm's length.
"Adjust your behaviour," he said simply. She was being a dear, agreeing to all of this.
Julia wanted to run away as far as possible, but this was her bed, so she could not. She had to settle for being imperturbable. "Please do not woo me over the head of a parrot."
"The little pirate is a parrot?" he said interestedly, tickling the little pirate so she giggled again. "Will you repeat everything we say, little one?"
"Beh!" she giggled, sticking out her tongue.
"Yes, can you imagine hearing these lines over breakfast? You can use my name in bed?" Julia said, hiding her face under the blanket. "That would be awful."
"People will be delicate enough to let it pass," he said without believing it. He could not see Lenton letting it pass and even if he or Clementine happened to approve, they would be too interested to ignore it.
"Gramma is hiding!" Little Julia was thrilled that someone was finally playing a game she understood and liked.
"Oh!" he cried. "Let us go and look for her! Where could she be?" He looked under his pillow. "No. Not there."
"Here!" Little Julia thumped her fist onto her grandmother's form under the blankets. She seemed delighted that he could not find her.
"I see nothing. Under the bed?" He hung out of the bed and checked. "No. Not there."
"Here!" Little Julia thumped more insistently.
"Where?" Either his stretching out a leg sideways under the covers or little Julia's thumping elicited a muffled groan from under the blankets. He laughed at it.
"Here!" She clutched at the blanket, but that was of course held up very tightly. Then she grasped Admiral Henson's hand and made him touch the shape. "Feel! It is Gramma!"
"It feels like a blanket, Julia," he answered, despite receiving something that was evidently intended to be a vicious kick in the shins. It did not hurt at all.
"Gramma is in the blanket. Scissors!"
"Scissors?" the admiral repeated. "No! We shall not have you attack your pretty grandmother with scissors."
Suddenly Julia lowered the blanket and said "boo!"
Little Julia was both scared and thrilled and flung herself into the admiral's arms. She pointed a finger. "There!"
"Oh! That was a scary lady!" he said to little Julia. He was thrilled too. Big Julia played along, although she did look a little aggravated, possibly because he had called her a pretty grandmother. "Protect me!"
"Ammiral -- Admiral, are you enjoying yourself?" Julia inquired, suspecting that he was enjoying himself very much indeed. He was grinning widely.
"I am rather, Dearest. You are extremely good to allow this, to allow me to leave with a happy impression of a family situation. Come, Pirate. We are going to sleep."
When Julia awoke in the middle of the night, she could hear there was at least one other person still in bed with her. She realised with a start that she had not stayed awake long enough to see little Julia fall asleep. As she stretched out a hand gingerly she felt a soft little arm -- little Julia was still here. Either the admiral had not removed her, or he was also still here.
She had no way of finding out unless she listened or felt and she did so when she slid back into the bed, having postponed it until then, not knowing what to do if he was still there. When she reached past little Julia, she could feel something else under the blankets. She groaned. He was there. That required some thought.
She could pretend she had not woken and checked, which would only work if the sounds she had made had not woken him. If she had not noticed him, she could never have sent him away. Ignorance was bliss. However, ignorance was also a potential source of trouble. Little Julia could for instance desert them towards dawn, the way she often left her bed to come here. She woke early. If the little girl was gone, so was every explanation and excuse. It would only be the two of them left.
Perhaps she should wake him and confer. No, she should wake him and send him away.
Something touched her back when she had sagged back onto her pillow to think. It was a very soft touch, less than a gentle nudge. "I fell asleep before she did," he whispered.
"So did I." She groaned again. She could hear him leave the bed and she supposed he would now go back to his own room. That would be for the best, she supposed, although she did not suppose it gladly. It had been very agreeable to have a companion with whom she could share her reactions to little Julia's antics. In the morning everything would undoubtedly continue.
"Ammiral!" came the sleepy voice from the middle. "Come!"
"Yes, perhaps," he said, now quite close to Julia's side of the bed. He had walked around and dropped to his knees. "I am sorry, Julia," he whispered. "I should go."
"Ammiral!" little Julia complained.
"She is cold now. Hold her close and she will forget. Tell her I am going to do what you just did," he whispered, not wanting to start a game of questions and answers about the proper terms. "And tell her I shall be back instantly."
Julia turned over and whispered something to little Julia, who was apparently satisfied with this answer, because there was no reply, only some shuffling as the little girl moved closer to her side. She turned back. "Well ... good night," she said hesitantly.
He felt his way up from her hand to her shoulder all the way to her cheek, then he leant in to kiss her. "You only said not over the head of the parrot," he whispered. "Good night."
Julia half fainted, but he never knew.
In the morning, little Julia had apparently already forgotten that Ammiral was supposed to be in bed with them. She happily babbled to Grace and Dolly until her grandmother woke up.
"Your Mama will be looking for you -- I hope," she said to the little girl. "Shall I take you back to your room?"
The sooner the girl was made to forget, the better. It was fortunate that she had never noticed her grandmother's loss of consciousness. It had worried Julia a little, but on the other hand she had known precisely what had been the cause of it, or who. He had kissed her -- again -- and she was not strong enough to be indifferent.
Julia thought about it. Until he had stopped she had been fine. Then he had moved away and she had swooned. Swooned! Why? She was supposed to be too old for this nonsense.
Clementine was pacing the corridor, apparently debating whether she could check Aunt Julia's room or not. She looked immensely relieved to see the pair. "Julia!" she cried.
Before little Julia could reveal she had slept with Gramma and Ammiral, Julia spoke. Her voice sounded unsteady to her own ears. One could not go from thinking about that reason for swooning straight to a reassuring explanation. "She wanted to stay with me. I found her here in the corridor last night. I am sorry. I wanted to take her to her room as soon as she fell asleep, but I fell asleep first."
"I could not imagine she would be anywhere else," Clementine said in relief. "But I was not certain and I dared not disturb you."
"Please. Do check my room next time. What you find --" Julia swallowed upon thinking of the possibilities. "-- cannot be worse than if you were too late to prevent an accident." As she was speaking, the admiral came out of his room fully dressed and she blushed for everything and for the state she was in, in her nightgown and her hair threatening to slide out of its knot. The knot was not even on the top of her head anymore, she felt. "I -- say good morning on my behalf, Clementine." She ran into her room.
"Good morning, ladies," the admiral said with a bow.
"Good morning, Admiral. Also from Aunt Julia," Clementine answered. "I suppose she was not yet dressed enough to meet you. She only stepped out to give Julia back to me. I had lost her, but she was with my aunt."
"Beh!" said little Julia with a giggle. She stuck out her tongue at the admiral. "That was a scary lady! Protect me!"
"Where do you always get those intriguing expressions?" Clementine asked with a laugh. "Why do you call your grandmother a scary lady? She is not. I thought she was, at first, but she is not."
Little Julia had got herself lifted up by the admiral. "Ammiral," she began. "I want a kiss."
He gave Clementine a questioning glance, not wanting to comply instantly in front of her. This was no longer a goodnight kiss. "I am beginning to see why your aunt was concerned about her. I am safe, but other gentlemen may not be."
"Safe?" She laughed. "I do not think you are."
"Why not?" he asked, a little afraid that she had discovered something somehow. Around most ladies he was very safe, despite his recent behaviour. But she would hardly laugh if she knew something.
"Ammiral!" Little Julia tried to kiss him.
"If you were safe..." Clementine began, raising a finger to her mouth reflectively. "She would not be kissing you if that were the case."
"What did I do?" he asked in some despair. He had thought that nobody else knew about his recent actions. "What must you be thinking of me?"
"Oh, do not fret," she reassured him. "I was merely amused by your saying you were safe. It probably means you are. She is only particularly fond of Julian and you. Where is the danger if you are equally particular?"
"I am." He was extremely glad she did not ask him for names of ladies.
Admiral Henson took his leave of them shortly after breakfast. He had not had much time to say goodbye to Julia and a completely private chat had been entirely out of the question. A hand kiss and a smile, that was all. Although it was not satisfactory, it would have embarrassed her to receive more.
She took a long walk after he was gone, hoping in spite of everything that was reasonable that he would return and say he had decided against visiting his daughter altogether. But he would not do that. He might make it a very brief visit, but he would go.
He had not said whether he would be back, but as she had reasons to think he had enjoyed himself, she thought there was a chance that he might. Did he also not have some unfinished business here? They had never spoken about those kisses. She would agree that it was much more agreeable to kiss than to speak about them, but after the feeling had faded one did like to know where one stood.
It was incredible that she had participated -- and liked it. She could hardly believe it of herself, but it was true. How well did one know oneself? Was it merely a matter of resisting advances until the right man came along? There was no denying that she had liked him and that she would have regretted it if he had left her bed without giving her something to dwell upon.
If he did not come back she might have to write to him. She began to compose this letter in her mind, but she did not make it past the introduction. Dear Admiral.
The admiral was a good man. He had not trifled with little Julia. He had played with her so considerately. This did not mean he would treat the grandmother with the same consideration, however. Dear Admiral. Had you planned to return? If he was considerate, he would return to finish his business with her, or at least talk about it.
When could she send her letter? When would enough time have passed to make inquiries?
She wondered if she had been discouraging. If he had reasons to think she disapproved of him, he might not come back at all. That was where her letter came in. Compared to little Julia she had not been encouraging at all, but the little girl was beyond scandalous. Such behaviour would not do for a grown woman. Her own behaviour had been bad enough.
The Pritchards still thought the elder duchess was everything that was refined and fashionable. She had considerable trouble thinking that of herself now, however. Lady Pritchard would die if she heard her respectable friend had kissed a traveller who had stopped for one night only.
Julia was quiet and distracted, even during her visit to her friend. As long as she told herself he would come back she was fine. Whenever she thought there was no reason for him to come back, she sunk away in despair. This cycle did not stop and even continued as Lady Pritchard rattled away.
Lavinia had written. Her grandchild was born far too soon and both mother and child required special attention, so she was not yet returning. This left Julia rather alone. She could not confide in anyone, least of all in her neighbour who had never understood the concept of discretion.
Lady Pritchard was very interested in what had happened to George Lenton, who was a friend of her son's. "Has he written?"
"He has only written to inform us when and where he got a commission, but not how he liked it," Julia answered. "He did not leave voluntarily, you see. We forced him on account of his behaviour." If she applied those same standards to herself, she ought to send herself away as well.
"I know." Lady Pritchard could not decide who deserved her sympathy most. "But I do think you and His Grace were completely in the right about this. It is no good for a young man to hang about with nothing to do. And William, I do not know what we shall do with him next year when he finishes university!"
"Perhaps you could send him to sea," Julia murmured. Perhaps she ought to send herself to sea.
On her way back from the Pritchards, Julia stopped by the Newmans' house to deliver a parcel. It contained some magazines with patterns for children's clothing. "If you do not mind, I have taken out the pages for girls that I liked," she said. "But it would be a waste to throw away the rest."
"Thank you, Your Grace," Mrs. Newman said shyly. She studied what she considered to be a large pile. "You bought many."
Julia was too conscious of herself. She could not hide behind distant condescension now that she was yearning to confide in someone. The duchess had paid visits to villagers before, but always in a position of authority. Now she was lost. Something of this uncertainty must be showing in her face, for Mrs. Newman seemed more inclined to talk.
Julia had known all about the steward's family situation ever since Mr. Newman had come to inquire whether he would lose his position if he hired a young woman to take care of his son. That had been an interesting period and although Mrs. Newman spoke twice as much as she did then, it was still very little. If she volunteered a comment, it most certainly deserved an answer.
"Er, yes," answered Julia, who did not enjoy conversation much more than Mrs. Newman did at times, although it very much depended on the topic. "We have Julia now." She realised that not everybody would see why she would suddenly have to make clothes when little Julia still had a mother, but if someone really wanted to be enlightened, that person would ask.
"Yes." Mrs. Newman smiled in understanding.
"Yes," Julia agreed. She found it very difficult to speak, yet she felt she must speak to somebody. There was too much weighing on her mind.
Mrs. Newman might know her less well than Lady Pritchard, but she would not talk and she seemed to understand without having been told explicitly why having a little girl in the house could motivate someone to make clothes for her. In fact, the only things that had ever been said against Mrs. Newman had to do with her shyness and of course her position in Mr. Newman's household. Everything else had been in her favour.
"It is a very fortunate arrangement for everyone."
"Mrs. Newman..." Julia cast down her eyes and she began to blush. "Did anything ever --" She broke off when it proved impossible to ask outright.
Mrs. Newman looked more confused than understanding now, although still expectant and willing to hear. She did not always look like that.
"You must think I am extremely proper," Julia revealed in an embarrassed hurry. "But I am wicked beyond belief." That was overdoing it a little, she supposed, but it was difficult to phrase it accurately.
Mrs. Newman looked astonished and rather lost for words. "No," she managed.
"I must speak with someone." There was some disparity in their situations and ages, but that did not signify. There could still be similarities on other points. Mrs. Newman was clever and she did not talk. Besides, she had looked truly astonished to hear the duchess was wicked, not as if she had always known and she was pleased to hear her admit it finally.
"No, not Clementine." It might be unfair, but she could not be certain that Clementine was familiar with feeling serious moral qualms about a little excess affection. Her practicality would push propriety aside soon enough, especially in a case where nobody could care except the two people involved. It was a different case indeed. There was absolutely no need for Clementine to caution her in return and the girl would know that.
"Not me," Mrs. Newman said with an anxious frown, evidently afraid that she might be required to speak back more than she liked.
Julia ignored that wish. "Did anything ever occur between you and Mr. Newman?"
Despite the fact that she was afraid to speak, she was not slow and she could guess the nature of such an occurrence. "Before we were married, Your Grace?"
"It is too late to do anything about it now."
"I would not have done anything then." Julia clasped her hands and looked at them. She had not said anything then and she would not say anything now. "I only want to know."
"I am interested in ... matters ... like that. To be specific, certain matters that might arise between people who are spending some time under the same roof." There, she was much more comfortable with speaking in general.
Mrs. Newman looked intrigued. "Why?"
"I wish to evaluate my reactions and conduct," Julia answered very seriously. "Mine. Not yours. You can answer me. I am not frightening. I shall only evaluate them with regard to myself."
"Did anything happen?"
"Perhaps," she said with an evasiveness that would probably not fool anybody. "Something happened to someone, or I would not be thinking of this. Did anything happen to you, Mrs. Newman?"
"Probably, but --" The steward's wife gave a shrug as if it had not been significant.
"Of course. A man would not tell you anything that was to his disadvantage," Julia remarked cynically. "And a young woman depends wholly on what he tells her about these matters."
"Wrong, Your Grace. Honesty is the best policy, he said." She spoke with the utmost confidence in her husband's sincerity and honesty. She was even confident enough to contradict the duchess. "I could only trust him then, but I now know that he was absolutely honest with me."
"Yes," Julia said with a reflective and wistful look. "Honesty is indeed the best situation. In an ideal situation. Then one knows where one stands." She did not. She did not even know whether he would come back.
"Indeed. I always trusted him."
Julia looked at the good-natured and sweet face of Mrs. Newman. Although she said very little, her amiability was evident and Mr. Newman had mentioned it as one of the reasons for hiring her. "Yes, but -- well! It is no wonder. You are not the sort a man would deliberately keep in the dark." Few men would be so cruel and Mr. Newman least of all.
"Your character is evident." Hers was not, she would say, and perhaps that explained it. If someone did not know what to make of her, how could he let her know what to make of him?
"Really, it is not," said Mrs. Newman with an apologetic smile. "That is my happiness with my situation. That is what you see. Your own character, Your Grace, is not as unsteady as your expressions, is it?"
Julia looked unhappy. "My character is lost!"
"I --" Mrs. Newman turned her head and listened. "We shall be interrupted."
Mr. Newman had come home for something to eat. He was surprised to see the elder duchess, since it was the younger who had the habit of calling on them. He sat down with them, having brought a plate from the kitchen. " I am only home for a few moments. How was the visitor, Your Grace?"
She managed to remain composed. Her opinion of him should be neutral. Anything else would invite questions. "An ordinary admiral, I suppose."
"I saw him on his way to the village. He stopped to ask if he could buy some buttons for his coat there."
"Yes, Julia relieved him of one."
"I did not receive the impression that he regretted parting with it," said Mr. Newman, who had apparently been told about the button incident by Admiral Henson himself. "Not with his button, at any rate." He smiled.
Julia deliberately refrained from reacting to that. She picked up one of the magazines she had brought for Mrs. Newman and studied a pattern without seeing it.
"Well, I must be off again," said Mr. Newman, who stuffed the piece of bread in his pocket after exchanging some silent messages with his wife. "Talk on, ladies."
Mrs. Newman had done some thinking in the meantime. She waited until her husband was gone and then she spoke. "I heard that the admiral was a very friendly and respectable gentleman. Was my husband's assessment wrong?"
Julia tensed and she subjected the pattern to another scrutiny. "I hope not."
"Could I ask what happened?"
She looked away. "Something he needs to explain. It is not easy for me to talk about these matters. It was easier to caution my nephew, because there I knew exactly what I ought to think."
"I see." Mrs. Newman gently smiled as if she did indeed. "But -- this is very difficult."
"Yes, it is," answered Julia, who had tried to start explanations more than once, but they had never been coherent enough to be voiced.
"Why does everyone think my husband behaved scandalously towards me before we were married?" Mrs. Newman wondered good-naturedly.
The duchess coloured deeply. That was indeed the implication of her words, but she had not intended it. "But if you loved him before then ... perhaps."
"It would not be in my nature to approach him and he had too many people -- the entire village -- watching him to give such a thing any serious consideration."
"I thought it was not in my nature either!" she cried in distress. "But it can happen, Mrs. Newman. It can!"
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.