An Inevitable Conclusion
Even the mildest critic could find fault with Lady Honoria Irving's appearance. Rather than soft and feminine, everything about her was sharp and thin. Her mother Lady Millbrook was forever pressing her to eat more because her figure was far from what one would call comfortable. Her dark eyes could look piercingly out of her thin and angular face, usually making her expression forbidding. She was thin, but far from frail and she moved with alacrity. Her mind was sharp and her words were rarely delivered in a sweet tone.
She did not much care what other people thought, for she was a healthy and clever girl and she enjoyed herself at assemblies and balls quite as much as the next girl. She had that easy way of talking to young men that did not recommend her much to other girls, but she did not care, for the ones who were most jealous were also the most unworthy of her friendship.
That she was setting her cap at one or more of the young men was untrue, despite the gossip. Frequently being in the young men's company had taught Lady Honoria that they were good fun, but several years behind her in their development. She would never consider to marry such a childish boy, and if she must, not within the next few years.
She had been thinking that for a while, but as the years passed, the young men turned out to be in no hurry whatsoever to grow up. The composition of the group changed -- some married silly girls and were forever lost, and some new ones joined, but they were invariably childish. The acquaintance was good for assemblies, but not for anything else.
"I wish you would not always hang about with those young men, Nolly," her mother complained. "What will people think of you if you speak to so many men at assemblies?" People sometimes asked her, directly or indirectly, what Honoria's purpose was.
"People see what I do. Whatever they choose to think is something I cannot influence," Honoria replied with a shrug. They thought what they liked, even if there was nothing to be seen.
"A well-bred girl does not conduct herself with such..." Lady Millbrook searched for a good word that was not too harsh. "... masculinity."
"I only speak to them and I do it in plain sight. Perhaps I should be as feminine as Mary Cartwright, who pretended to have a fainting spell and who let Hugo take her out on the terrace where she kissed him?"
Lady Millbrook gasped.
"It is true. We looked," said Honoria, revelling in the shock she was inflicting upon her mother. "At least you may be sure that if I am out with a young man, I shall not be kissed, but we shall likely be catching a frog to deposit in one of Lady Inglewood's feathery hats. They always let me catch the frogs, Mama! Do you think I would condescend to kiss such a man? Really?" No, it took a little more courage and indeed masculinity to impress her.
There were days that Lady Millbrook truly despaired of her eldest daughter's chances on the marriage market. A little more flesh on her bones would improve her appearance greatly, although a miracle would have to happen for her to have a soft, womanly figure. This could all be rendered unimportant if the girl was at least sweet-tempered and modest in company, but she was none of that either.
Her mother was aware of Honoria's good qualities, but they were relatively unimportant to an unmarried girl. Which young man was looking for a wife who could catch frogs? Her father being Lord Millbrook, she might stand a chance of receiving an offer some day, but she had already announced that she would not accept it if she was asked for such a reason. Lady Millbrook feared her daughter would only accept a man who dared to catch his own frogs.
"What are we to do? Maria cannot marry before you and yet she has a suitor."
"If he is nothing but that, a suitor, she had best not marry him," was Honoria's opinion. "But Maria should not wait for me. I have no plans for the immediate future, but Maria is getting on in age as well. Twenty-four! She should be married as soon as possible if the suitor is suitable. But which suitor is not, if a lady is already twenty-four?"
"But what about you?"
"Maria's suitor was promising, but not more than that, so I am happy he fixed on Maria." A smile lit up Honoria's face and softened it. "I do try to please you sometimes, Mama."
"If you remain so particular you will be on the shelf," her mother scolded. If the girl smiled more she might not even have to gain more weight, but she ought to be less particular about whom she treated to her smiles.
"Then I will always be there to take care of you, Mama, and I will spend my days schooling little nieces and nephews in the art of mischief."
Lady Millbrook shook her head. The girl was impossible.
"Lady Inglewood's nephew is visiting her," Lady Millbrook announced at breakfast. She had received a short note informing her of that. "She invites us to come to dinner for the young fellow's amusement."
"Is he looking for a wife then?" Honoria inquired. She could not imagine any other reason why he needed to be subjected to the company of four girls of marriageable age. In order not to bewilder people, they at least left the younger ones at home, but that still left four of them.
"Honoria!" Lord Millbrook reprimanded her.
"But Papa, why else would anyone invite an Earl with far too many daughters? If we are invited, the table is full!" There were some snickers among her younger sisters, but they never dared to be as bold. Their appreciation gave her some more courage. "Is Lady Inglewood's nephew worthy of us?"
"He is a Viscount," said Lady Millbrook, as if that made it all right. She had once married a Viscount herself.
"Not worthy then!" Honoria said, glancing at her brother across the table, only barely managing to keep her tongue in. Her father might forbid her to come to Lady Inglewood's dinner party if he caught her engaging in childish behaviour at breakfast. She did not know whether he could actually carry out such a threat, but she did not care to put him to the test.
"I shall judge his worth," her brother said pompously, for he was already twenty-one and capable of judging characters.
"Of course he will seek refuge in your company if he is sensible."
"Nolly, will you stay away from him?" her mother asked, fearing that her eldest daughter was planning something less sensible.
Honoria was heartily amused. "We are invited with the sole purpose of exposing him to marriageable young ladies in the neighbourhood and we are visiting because he is a Viscount and then you tell your eldest and unmarried daughter to stay away from him!"
She cast her eyes up to heaven. "You know exactly what I mean, Honoria."
"I do, I do. I will stay away from him. If he seeks me out, though, what do I do?" A mocking smile played around her lips. She did not think she would be the sister he singled out. The younger ones, with their cheeks that dimpled and their gracefully rounded figures, were usually more of an attraction. Men were silly like that.
"You behave appropriately. It is a wonder that Lady Inglewood still invites us after the frog incident."
"But you know we are invited because of our names and not because of our characters. An Earl and his family can get away with anything, Mama."
"We must be an example," Lady Millbrook chided. She had six daughters to marry off, but she had not been good at it so far.
Whenever Lady Honoria was resolved to be exemplary, she failed and so she had given up on such resolutions. She sat in one of the two carriages with her hands folded, silently contemplating their outing, but it only made her chuckle when she thought of how pious she must be looking.
She wondered if Lady Inglewood's nephew had any clue about his aunt's idea that he would be a perfect candidate for an Irving girl. Not many young men would object to dining in the company of so many girls, yet some might feel rather awkward about the obvious plans that were made for him.
Maria, who already had a suitor, was disposed to feel bored by engagements that did not bring her into his company. "Will there be other people, Papa?"
Lord Millbrook could safely answer that he did not know. He was reluctant to repeat Honoria's opinion that the table would be full if they all came, for it would feel like condoning her impertinence. Being the eldest child had given her the right to be impertinent, she probably thought, and he did not control her as much as she ought to because she had a habit of coming up with sensible remarks.
"Are there any other people in the neighbourhood who are worthy of one of Lady Inglewood's nephews?" Honoria asked. "Did you know they are all Viscounts?" She had never known it was possible for someone to have only similarly titled nephews.
"Is that possible?" asked Maria doubtfully.
Honoria did not think so. "They are the only ones who deserve a mention..."
"You must not be so derogatory about a valuable neighbour," said Lord Millbrook. But as usual, Honoria's assessment was probably correct. He sighed and wished he knew what to do about such comments. "May I ask you not to quiz Lady Inglewood about any possible other nephews who are untitled, Nolly?"
"Bah," said Honoria, who had just conceived of exactly such a plan. "But since you ask so nicely, Papa, I will not."
Lady Inglewood's nephew was called Lord Button and he was rather pleasant, but on account of his name Honoria had decided to stay as far away from him as possible. She had sat with her father and brother all the time, thinking she was being very good. She would surely be tempted to giggle or mention buttons if she spoke to the man.
"You shunned Lord Button!" said Lady Millbrook, however, when they arrived back home. "You, my eldest child, left him to speak with your younger sisters!"
The criticism took Honoria by surprise. She had never considered that she might be shunning him. She had thought she was being exceptionally good by not referring to his name and not speaking to him at all. Her look of surprise was quickly replaced with one of rebellion. What else could be done against unjust accusations? "It is very likely that he would prefer them anyway and if they wish to become Lady Button --" she spoke the name mockingly, "-- they have my blessing."
Her sisters were quite taken with Lord Button, but if he never returned to his aunt, nothing would occur. They had only met him once and one meeting was not enough to accomplish anything. Honoria listened to them in silence, still smarting from her mother's words. She followed in apprehension when her father beckoned her into his study, assuming she was to receive a more severe set-down. "Please, Papa," she began before he could speak. "I know I can never do right. Will you not start as well?"
He offered her a glass of brandy, a special favour not even bestowed yet on his son. He had done this a few times before and his daughter had courteously attempted to drink it each time, but she still did not like it. The liquid always made her grimace. She knew, however, that drinking with her father was an indication of being a confidante and therefore she always accepted the glass. It was very nice sitting here just holding it, too.
"Nolly," he said with a sigh and then stared at a painting. After a few moments he spoke again. "I thought your behaviour was rather exemplary tonight." It could have been worse. While not flighty, Honoria could indulge too much in amusements of her own.
"Thank you, Papa," she said softly.
"Your mother despairs of you."
"Of my chances," she protested. Her mother and she got along very well when it came to everything else and even the subject of marriage had not yet caused any feelings of frustration on either side, she thought.
"Quite right, of your chances. I must say I do not despair of your chances in the same manner, but I do sometimes despair of your tendency to rebel against despair." He looked at her meaningfully. It was too much to expect that Honoria would converse politely with a promising young man. She would either have fun at his expense or not speak to him at all, only because of the pressure and the expectations.
She frowned. "You do not despair of my chances?" That was new to her and oddly uplifting. Sometimes even she wondered if she was unsuited to courtships.
Lord Millbrook shook his head. "But it is inconvenient that you have younger sisters who are expected to wait until you have made your choice. May I know your opinion on being married? Not the house, not the children, but the man?"
"My opinion?" Honoria took a sip of the brandy in shock and she grimaced. "Well...I find most young men uncommonly ... unmarriageable."
"And old men?"
She looked horrified. "No! Unless they are widowers, one wonders. Papa, I hope you do not have someone in mind."
"No, I am merely trying to determine where your preferences lie."
"That is academic if nobody's preferences lie with me." She took another sip of the brandy so she could contort her face. "I am one of the boys. Even you think so."
"Tsk," said her father. He could not defend himself well on that score, for he often treated his eldest child as if she were his eldest son. "I do not mean to turn you into a boy, Honoria. I believe one is perfectly capable of involving one's daughter in one's business without her reneging anything. I believe this prepares you much better for when you have a house of your own and undoubtedly someone will think this a valuable quality." He did too.
"But I really do not want someone too stupid to run his own affairs."
He suppressed a smile. "Of course not."
It was not long before Lady Inglewood had another nephew to stay with her. Despite her father's warning, Honoria had already wriggled out of Her Ladyship how many nephews there were and for the benefit of herself and her sisters, she had drawn a family tree.
"This one," she lectured in the privacy of her bedroom, where the girls were wont to assemble if they had secrets to discuss, "is Lord Fernham, the son of her sister Claire. Lord Button was the son of Lord Inglewood's sister Evelina. One of the next visits -- on which I am counting -- might be from Lord Fernley -- do not confuse him with Fernham -- the son of her sister Cecily. Or it might be from Lord Brisselford, the son of Lord Inglewood's sister Mary. Or even from one of the untitled sons, of which there are several as well. All of our Viscounts have at least one brother."
"How do you know they are all coming?" wondered her sister Sarah.
"I do not, but I know Lady Inglewood will invite them all. Such is her ambition." Lady Inglewood was not subtle enough about her plans. She was apparently quite keen on connecting at least one of her nephews to the Irvings. "They might not all come, but she will certainly try. Perhaps one of them is already engaged without her knowledge."
Honoria supposed it was bad luck for her sisters that she was not the prettiest, so that none of these young men would choose her first. Her sisters would be thrilled to have suitors, but they really could not do much about them until she was married. It was customary for the eldest to be taken care of first, unless she were absolutely hopeless.
Her father said she was not, though, and Lady Inglewood's scheme had caused her to reflect on the matter with a less dismissive attitude than before. She was already twenty-six, after all, and she would do well to take up a well-founded position on the subject.
On the other hand, a too fixed perspective was blinding. She might yet be surprised, by herself or by one of the nephews, or even someone completely different.
The next nephew was indeed Lord Fernham. After her mother's censure of the previous time, Honoria made sure not to avoid Lord Fernham. She did not give him any more consideration than he deserved, however, although she conversed with him normally. Maria, Sarah and Valeria liked him better than Lord Button, she could tell, although she thought the latter was decidedly his superior in understanding. She had to explain herself a few times and although she had barely spoken to Lord Button, he had seemed to have a quicker mind.
Lord Fernham was a handsome young man, though, in his early twenties and he needed no strong understanding to be pleasant. Honoria's opinion of her sisters' cleverness was influenced by both her attachment to them and by their ages, so she had some trouble deciding whether Lord Fernham was worthy of one of them.
If he never came back, that problem would solve itself. Undoubtedly Lady Inglewood meant to carry on with her nephew scheme and they might soon be presented to the next one. Perhaps Lord Fernham would be quite a catch compared to what was yet to come, or he would be instantly forgotten.
It was odd how both nephews had not stayed long enough to be invited back. A return visit would have helped matters along, but Lady Inglewood seemed to have other plans. Perhaps the young men themselves had not seen any ladies worth pursuing -- although both of them had appeared to be amusing themselves very well.
Lord Fernley, the third nephew, unfortunately came at a time when Honoria was too unwell to accompany her family to the dinner party. She had to rely on her sisters' reports of the evening, but those were not favourable. They had never before excelled in character sketches, but there was always the hope they might succeed this time and tell her something more important and useful than their opinion of the nephew's appearance and fashion sense.
"He was a great favourite with Papa," Valeria commented in dissatisfaction. "They talked and talked and he barely gave us a glance."
"Lady Inglewood must have been quite put out," Honoria croaked in her hoarse voice. She would laugh heartily if her cold did not prevent it. Here was the third nephew and he shunned the girls! It was too ironic.
"He was not at all handsome," said Maria. "I wonder at Lady Inglewood's nerve in exposing us to him."
"What did Vic think?" Honoria asked. Surely Victor, who would not have chosen to sit with his sisters if he had had the choice, must have been privy to the gentlemen's conversation. He would be able to give her an impression.
"Vic spoke with them, but he does not know we analyse the fellows in secret. He would mock us if he knew and then tell all his friends. You know how discreet he is! He thinks it great fun to be indiscreet. Besides, Vic does not know what we like in gentlemen," Maria said with some contempt. "He cannot imagine any better fellows than those stupid friends of his."
Some of those were actually also acquaintances of Honoria's, although she would say she had them first, especially the older ones. She chose not to answer on the subject of their stupidity, for how would it reflect on her if she admitted that some were indeed occasionally stupid?
"Victor!" Honoria called hoarsely when she was able to leave her room again. "What was this Viscount like? I heard he spoke too much with Papa to be likeable."
Victor, straightening his coat unconsciously because he felt proud that his opinion was solicited by his eldest sister, looked studiously reflective. "Well ... he did indeed speak with Papa a great deal."
Honoria suppressed her impatience. "Was the conversation sensible?"
"No, it was boring."
"To some that is the same thing!"
"I suppose it was sensible then," he relented, not wanting to be thought of as someone who could not recognise sensible conversation. He was already twenty-one, after all, and despite Honoria's opinion he was no longer a child. "The girls did not think too much of him, but he did not think too much of the girls either. I told him he was third Viscount sprung upon us in the space of a month, so that quite frankly I was beginning to be bored of my sisters."
Honoria pressed her hand to her mouth. "Vic!" Maria's comment about his indiscretion had been right on the mark.
"I told him he was lucky because you were ill and you were the worst when it came to discussing them afterwards, so that he was lucky to escape your censure."
"Vic! I never censure them!" Well, at least she did not dismiss people indifferently because they were not handsome.
"You do not praise," he said accusingly. "You are always severe on young men."
"I cannot believe you told him that! I cannot believe you spoke ill of your own sisters in such a manner!" She was appalled. He was such a child.
"I do not think he minded. He said it was very natural of ladies to discuss others. Lady Inglewood had discussed all of you with him beforehand."
"That Lady Inglewood!" she exclaimed, starting to cough in her agitation. "What did she tell him?"
Victor shrugged. "He did not tell me, but I suppose she sang everybody's praises."
"How could she sing mine?" Honoria wondered. "After the incident with the frog?"
Lord Brisselford, the fourth nephew, was the handsomest and most charming of them all, if that was at all possible. Lord Millbrook regarded him most warily and even Lady Inglewood herself seemed a little surprised at how charming this nephew could be when there were young ladies to entertain.
Honoria thought he was delightful -- because he thought so himself. He had just returned from his Grand Tour and he had much to relate. Honoria forgave him for the few factual errors she caught -- it must indeed be difficult to remember which sight belonged to which city after one had seen so much in so short a time.
Maria was almost ready to forget her suitor, whose tastes could not compare to Lord Brisselford's and whose mind was significantly less informed. Sarah and Valeria were hanging on to his every word as well and even Victor felt like asking his father when he might be sent on such a Grand Tour to experience the wonders of the world. Honoria thought that Lady Inglewood had much luck in her nephews, but it was not enough luck to persuade her to admire him to the same extent.
Lady Millbrook liked him well enough to hope that he would return some day to pay his addresses to one of her daughters. All of the Viscounts had been good catches, to be sure, but she preferred one who could tell amusing anecdotes.
Lord Millbrook was uncertain about the anecdotes about the beauties of Venice and he was even more uncertain about his eldest daughter having the same opinion. "What do you know of Venice?" he inquired because he had perceived a certain twist around her mouth.
"He mixed up his landmarks. One wonders," she said tactfully. "As a sheltered girl." She ought to be the last one to catch such mistakes, not the first.
"It would do you good not to wonder."
"Do not worry; I have already taken his measure. I will depend on books rather than on tales, as I have always been doing."
"He was so handsome!" sighed Valeria when they had arrived home. "I declare he was the handsomest man I ever saw! Tell me you do not like him, Nolly."
"Why should I tell you that?"
"You have first rights."
"You can have him," Honoria said generously. She was usually generous, but in the case of this man even more so. "I will reserve my first rights for someone else."
"But ... why do you not like him?" Valeria would like to have her sister's approval nonetheless. She trusted Honoria's judgement more than her own.
Because he did not appear to have reserved his first rights for her, but she refrained from saying so. It would be pure speculation. "I may not be beautiful enough. He has a taste for beauty and excellence -- as well as admiration. You correspond more to that image than I do."
Valeria, with her youthful beauty and her well-formed figure was easily the most attractive of them all, and her innocence made her apt to admire any handsome gentleman that crossed her path, assuming he was as good as he was handsome. Honoria knew it could not be so. He might be a nice boy, she thought, but perhaps not very resistant to temptation. He might never be or he might be cured, but if there was someone who did not have to learn, she would prefer him.
Valeria looked a little puzzled. "But if you undervalue yourself you will never be married."
"Very well. I shall overvalue myself and say I am too good for him."
Valeria stared. Too good for Lord Brisselford! "Do not tease me so!"
"He is a paragon, to be sure, but you know I am too undisciplined to be a paragon's wife. Besides, I am twenty-six and I have never seen any of Lady Inglewood's nephews before. It is not for my sake that they are suddenly brought forward. If I had been such an attractive catch they would have been introduced to me years ago." She could be hurt by this observation, but she was not. She told herself to watch out for any such feeling, however. It crept up on one stealthily. She had seen too much to be jealous of people's looks alone. There was so much else that mattered. Besides, she was merely thin and not malformed.
"I suppose so," Valeria said reluctantly. "But I still think you should not undervalue yourself. Mama always says you would be quite pretty if you were not so thin."
"Nothing like a few children to put some flesh on those bones," Honoria declared with a smile, happy to hear her own opinion reinforced. "I shall trust Mama's prediction."
At the same time she knew that while each of her sisters had narrowed her choice down from four Viscounts to two at the very most, assisted by the interest the various gentlemen had displayed, not one had seemed to have a preference for her. Whatever her mother had predicted, it was not very relevant yet.
A few weeks passed during which Lady Inglewood was seemingly too busy to invite any nephews. Honoria, who had half expected to be introduced to the untitled ones now, realised some of those were probably too young, as younger brothers. She went about her business as usual without lamenting this loss and took up her habitual position at the next assembly, surrounding herself with a few youngsters.
"We heard," said one of the young fellows, "that your family were introduced to some of Lady Inglewood's nephews. How did your sisters like them?"
Honoria thought this was a typical question. Her own opinion did not matter much; the local young men were more interested in hearing whether her sisters' hearts had been captured. She was too familiar to be pursued, but in this case that only amused her. "They were precisely what one would expect Lady Inglewood's nephews to be like," she said to vex him.
"Dashing gentlemen who have been about the town?" he asked, sounding as hopeless as a young man would who did not consider himself very dashing.
"They are more refined than, let us say, Hugo," she said, referring to the young man who came closest to being a local rake and who was always eager for a dance.
"So they were well-liked?" His hopes were well and truly sunk.
"I only met three of them, but yes, those were well-liked. Cheer yourself, William!" she said, taking pity on him for his dejected face. "They will likely never come back. I had not seen them in the past twenty-six years and I might not see them in the next twenty-six years. Which one of my sisters do you like?"
"I heard differently," William said, evading the question. "Lady Inglewood is bringing all of them tonight."
"Such an infusion of eligible young men as we shall never recover from! Where did you hear this?" It was splendid news for her sisters and even she might take some time to compare their virtues -- all for her sisters' sakes, naturally. There was something very amusing about Lady Inglewood's bringing them all at once.
"At our dinner party two days ago, where she brought all of them as well."
It was odd that Lady Inglewood had taken them first to the Kirbys, who were in fact nobodies and who did not have any eligible daughters, but perhaps the Kirbys had not met them the first time they were here. It did not signify much. The present mattered more and in the present she would be expected to take her pick. "Bah. I hope someone told them I do not dance."
"But you do." William looked confused. "And Lady Inglewood only called you unsuitable. She did not say whether you danced."
"I hope Lady Inglewood at least specified why I am not suitable," Honoria commented, her eyes sparkling. "Was it the frog?"
"No, it was your association with us."
That made her snort. There was nothing more harmless than an association that had lasted for over twenty years. It was not the most proper circle of friends for a young lady to belong to, but it was amusing. What else was one supposed to do at assemblies and balls? "You are not up for catching another frog then?"
William nudged another young man, who turned around. "Show her, Robert."
"How do you like this piece of fur on a string?" Robert asked in a low voice, showing Honoria something that he dropped behind her so it was hidden by her skirts.
She almost clapped her hands when she saw it looked just like a small animal. "I take it you can make it move?"
"Naturally!" He pulled the string to show her. From a distance it would look as if it scurried across the floor and it would certainly frighten half the ladies present.
Honoria could not wait for their reaction. "When, when, when?"
"Not yet; we must wait for a good opportunity. Not when the room is buzzing. We must wait for a duller moment, so that as many people as possible will see."
The eldest of the Irving girls did not draw any eyes to herself among the dancing couples. She stayed in her corner, dressed in an unremarkable brown gown that made her mother cringe at its simplicity, and spoke to her friends, who tonight were all males in their twenties. She did not have much patience for female conversation at a ball, which was either gossip or a lengthy analysis of people's clothes, but which invariably settled on queries about gentlemen. People could never imagine that she had other interests and that her world did not revolve around getting married.
Lady Inglewood and her nephews had arrived at some point, she supposed, but she had not paid attention. It was not until she saw Lady Inglewood sitting with her mother that this thought occurred to her. She looked around for the nephews, curious to see if any of her sisters were being sought out, but she did not immediately see any of them.
It was rather negligent of her that she had not been paying attention. Her mother would be able to say many things about that. Perhaps a good lady of six and twenty ought to remedy the oversight instantly. But how? She could hardly walk up to Lady Inglewood and ask to be presented to all of the nephews in turn, especially not after she had been the least interested sister, yet if she failed to show any interest in them at all, she would be accused of being a proud spinster. People so easily fancied themselves shunned.
Perhaps she could walk across the room and give polite acknowledgements here and there to whom she might encounter. This course of action included the danger that the locals might stare, for they were not used to such regal condescension from Lady Honoria, who would undoubtedly be accused of putting on airs to impress Lady Inglewood's nephews.
There was no escaping everyone's expectations and censure, whatever she did.
She walked around and first passed Lord Button, who apparently remembered her, for he bowed most politely. To shun him again by giving him no attention whatsoever was unthinkable. She was forced to exchange some social niceties. This was not very painful, as he was a pleasant man.
She would like to ask him about his aunt's sudden fondness for her nephews, but she thought she had best not. "Did you like the neighbourhood enough to return?" she asked instead.
"My aunt invited me again," Lord Button answered. Quite according to the expectation, he would never mention the neighbourhood and the ladies therein.
"Ah! I see. You had to and you had nothing better to do."
"If my cousin was here as well, it could not be very tedious, I thought, and two other relatives are here too." The company of three other young men must needs make any aunt's house an agreeable place to stay.
"Which had you met before?" Considering that Lady Inglewood was the connecting factor and Honoria had never seen the nephews there before, she could not imagine they were all previously acquainted.
"Only my cousin."
Honoria thought of the family tree she had drawn and of which she should perhaps not reveal too intimate a knowledge. Nevertheless, lucky guesses were allowed. "Lord Brisselford?"
"The very one."
It would not do to ask about that young man's character, regardless of whether she would receive a truthful or dependable reply. Lord Button asked her to dance, presumably because he misinterpreted her glance at the dancefloor, which had solely had the intention to locate Lord Brisselford.
She was fairly certain she was going to be turned out of the house if she did not dance with Lord Button, although she would prefer being turned out of the house over becoming Lady Button. This consideration shot through her mind in the instant before she answered. She accepted.
Eventually she spotted Maria dancing with her suitor of old and Sarah was dancing with an officer. That left Valeria and she had to be on the other side of the room somewhere, but try as she might while dancing, she could see neither Valeria nor Lord Brisselford. She did not see Lord Fernham either, but he was not the nephew Valeria liked best. This gave him leave to be as absent as he liked. After the beauties of Venice Lord Brisselford was more dangerous.
Her sister's absence was slightly alarming and she walked over to her mother after the dance, declining Lord Button's polite offer of a refreshment and leaving him with the suggestion of approaching Maria or Sarah.
She gave Lady Inglewood a brief curtsey and a greeting and then began. "Mama, where is Valeria?"
"My sister. I do not see her." It occurred to her that it was significant that she had not been concentrating on Lord Button if she had been trying to look for her sisters. It had not been a dance that allowed for any conversation and all she could have done was look at her partner, but apparently he had not captured her fancy enough for her to forget about everything else. That was good. She would never be a Lady Button.
"My dear, you were dancing. Why are you suddenly interested in Valeria's whereabouts?" Lady Millbrook hoped Honoria would make herself available for another dance.
"I do not see Lord Brisselford either," Honoria said, not caring that the young man's aunt was listening to her every word. "Surely all the attractions are within this room and not outside it? There are plenty of opportunities for a private chat within this room and the next. I have been speaking to my friends about a secret and nobody overheard us."
A young man, who had been sitting concealed behind one of Lady Inglewood's feathery hair creations, now stood up and bowed. "Lord Brisselford was in the cloakroom, My Lady. With a young lady."
The man he had been speaking to also got to his feet to bow. Honoria had been certain that the first man was Lord Fernham, but now that this second one had stood up she was no longer sure. They looked very much alike and she stared from one to the other. She recovered herself, remembering she ought to take action. "Thank you, Lord Fernham and ... brother," she said, looking at both of them, since she did not know which of the two answered to that title. "I shall have a look forthwith."
"Nolly!" said her mother as if to stop her.
"Yes, Mama?" Honoria gave her her darkest frown. She was not to be stopped.
"You were dancing with Lord Button."
"The dance is over, Mama." She clutched her fists at her side. Finally she was doing something that deserved approval and she had to cut it short. That would indeed be painful to her mother. "I did not leave him without a partner in the middle of a dance."
"But you could dance again with someone else." Lady Millbrook thought Honoria ought to take more steps along this path of goodness.
"I could," Honoria agreed, audibly with no intention of doing so. "However, since you have no intentions of retrieving your lost daughter, I must."
Before she could be called insolent, Honoria set off for the cloakroom. She searched it, but the couple could not be found. As she emerged from the room, she ran into Lord Fernham and his brother. She forgot which one had told her Lord Brisselford was here. "I do not see them," she therefore said to both. "Where would you take an innocent young lady? My friends and I have been guarding the terrace doors all the while, so that is not where they went."
"You assume we would take an innocent young lady from the room," said Lord Fernham the first. He gave her a grave look.
"Indeed," said Lord Fernham the second.
"Where do they take you?" Lord Fernham the first inquired, still grave.
"I am not such a goose as to fall for such nonsense," she replied with a glare, which was mostly directed at men luring such ladies away. She was distracted when her sister came in through the front door, escorted by Lord Brisselford. "Valeria, a word, please."
Valeria looked concerned. "Yes, Nolly?"
Honoria took her aside. "What were you doing outside? You cannot step outside with a man you barely know and of whose intentions you know even less. What happened?"
"We were looking at the stars." As always, Valeria looked supremely innocent and guileless.
"Did he kiss you?" Honoria asked bluntly. She had no patience for euphemisms. Who would want to look at the stars this evening, when there was so much more to do? The stars were up there every night, contrary to dancing.
Valeria blushed. "No! Nolly!"
It was a blush of innocence and perceiving it was some relief to her elder sister. "Say no to him next time. He should not be taking you outside and that is something he knows very well." And if he had not known, he would be aware of it now.
"Lord Brisselford did not do anything."
"Next time he will," Honoria predicted. "You trust him enough now, so next time he will strike." She looked as if she might strike too, next time.
Valeria left her coat in the cloakroom with an embarrassed blush and fled back into the assembly rooms, not daring to look at Lord Brisselford.
Honoria knew Lord Brisselford could feel she was not impressed with him. There was a certain look in his eyes as he glanced at her. No, she was not falling over in admiration and he did not know what to do about that. She supposed he rarely met with such cool indifference in a young lady.
"I have heard worse things about you, Lady Honoria," he snapped at her, apparently not liking to have his plans thwarted.
"Thank you for letting me know my concern was justified," she replied calmly. An innocent man would have no reason to become malicious. He would apologise and say he had not been thinking. That was something she could well understand, given her acquaintance with some fellows, and she might even be sympathetic to such an excuse. She waited until he had gone back into the common rooms and then turned to her companions. "Are you acquainted with that man?"
"I met him two days ago," said Lord Fernham the second, understanding that it would do him no good to confess any sort of friendship. "And you...?" he asked his look-alike.
"So did I. We merely have the same aunt. Perhaps it would please you to hear we have not heard worse things about you," Lord Fernham the first reassured her.
That was idle flattering, if they had also been to the Kirby dinner party. "Hmph," she said uncertainly, seeing her father approach them from the common rooms. She waited. Perhaps he had been sent by her mother, but she would be able to reassure him that all was well now. Valeria and Lord Brisselford had been warned.
"You had best stay here for a bit, Honoria. Young Robert is about to set free his dead rat and Lady Inglewood is already uncommonly displeased with the aspersions you cast on her nephew's character," he informed her.
"Papa, how do you know about the dead rat?" Her eyes flew open in surprise, making them even larger and more striking.
"You smiled too much. Was it indeed a dead rat?"
She began to smile because he had been guessing and because he was not reprimanding her for anything. "Some fur on a string."
"Close enough, but you had best stay here until it has been caught. I must keep a closer eye on you. I hope you were not planning on dropping a frog onto these gentlemen here?" he asked sternly.
"I have not been outside to catch any, Papa," she said earnestly, but still with a smile transforming her face. "You will make them afraid of me."
"We certainly are afraid to take any of your sisters outside, My Lady," said Lord Fernham the first.
"But we had not planned to," added Lord Fernham the second.
There was some commotion from the ballroom -- ladies shrieked, but the music drowned out what was called. "That will be the dead rat," Lord Millbrook predicted. Then he looked relieved. "And my daughter had nothing to do with it for once."
"You are very keen on giving these gentlemen the correct image of me, Papa." She could not guess his purpose in being so frank about her.
"But of course. One of them has not had the pleasure of meeting you previously."
"I do not know which one. They look very much alike. One of them is Lord Fernham." She looked from one to the other again, but she could not remember which was the one she had met before.
"Indeed. One of us is," said Lord Fernham the first, without feeling compelled to enlighten her.
"Is that how we will play it?" asked the second, who seemed content to take his lead from his relative. "But Lord Millbrook knows who we are."
"Indeed I do, but I do not feel disposed to reveal anybody's identity. I am only here to defend my daughter's character, because that is seemingly the last thing she thinks about." He looked resigned.
She gave her father a dubious look. "You know I care very little for people who think ill of me. Frogs on them!"
"May I ask whether you subjected my aunt to a rana temporaria?" Lord Fernham the first asked. "Or a bufo bufo?"
"I can see this will be a boring conversation," said Lord Fernham the second. "Frederick knows all the crawling creatures by their Latin names. Enjoy yourselves." Lord Millbrook looked equally uninterested, or perhaps he had observed enough interest in one young man's eyes to make himself scarce, and the pair wandered off, but then Lord Fernham the second ran back. "Did I give it away by calling him Frederick?"
"No, I did not know your names beforehand," Honoria assured him. She had just been about to ask Lord Fernham the first how he knew all the Latin names. It was not a common accomplishment.
When he was gone, Honoria looked at Lord Fernham the first, alias Frederick. "Rana temporaria. Do you ... er ... take an interest in these things?" He behaved so gravely that he had to be mocking. She would be disappointed if he did not mock.
He inclined his head slightly. "The other Lord Fernham thinks I do."
"Perhaps I do indeed. Do you?"
"I know enough," she said guardedly. He was not a simpleton and he enjoyed keeping her guessing. "He is the real Lord Fernham, is he not?"
"Why do you think so?"
"You might be offended if I told you." It was obvious that the men were closely related and hearing something that was perhaps disparaging to his relative might offend, even if it could be taken as a compliment to himself.
"I promise not to be offended."
She weighed her options and decided to say it. "When we met him, I remember thinking that for many people he needed not be clever, because he was handsome and pleasant."
"So, what am I?" he asked. "Clever? Or simply not handsome and pleasant?"
"Sharp, sharp," she said. That had to be the only answer he was going to receive. It would tell him enough. "What do you think?"
He merely smiled.
"And what is he to you? I first thought you might be his brother, but you seem to be older." Now that the other Lord Fernham had left them, she could no longer compare the two in looks, but there was something in this man's manner that caused the other to follow his lead. Age was the most logical explanation for that, yet this could not be the elder brother. Could cousins be so similar?
"Does it matter?"
"It is only fair to be equally informed. You know who I am."
"Yes, you are Lord Millbrook's eldest daughter, on whom everyone has an opinion," he teased.
Honoria had never considered herself to be interesting to everyone. It startled her. "Everyone? Who? What?"
He gave her a grin. "You might be offended if I told you."
"As if no one ever does! Unsuitable, or so I heard from William Kirby that was what Lady Inglewood told all of you at the Kirby dinner party. It cannot be worse than that. Suitable would be worse, but nobody would say so!"
"You father speaks highly of you; my aunt does not."
"It is odd how she treats me like her best friend regardless," Honoria remarked sarcastically. "I had no problems wriggling out of her how many nephews she had and if there were more than just the Viscounts she kept mentioning."
"I think she would misunderstand that sort of interest," he said gravely.
"You do not?"
"No, I do not think so. She focuses too much on the Viscounts, does she not?"
"Have you ever been to Venice?" she asked suddenly.
Lord Fernham the first was no fool, even if the sudden change of topic ought to be taking him a little by surprise. "I must connect that to the tales of Lord Brisselford and your opinion of him."
"How do you know?" she asked, feeling impressed.
"He is rather full of the joys of Venice," he said tactfully. "And he has not known me long enough to have exhausted the topic already. I wish he were a poet, but alas -- he is a talker."
She decided to be very impertinent. This character trait of hers had to have been mentioned by someone, considering that everyone seemed to have an opinion on her. "Might the joys of Venice be women? Something seems to have distracted him so much that he can no longer keep track of which landmark was in which city."
If he was shocked by her boldness, he did not betray it. He gave her a very calm answer. "I have not been to Venice. It could be wine or women, or whatever young men indulge in when they are far from home with no one to keep an eye on them."
"Sending young boys out on their own is asking for trouble," Honoria commented. She wished she could ask him some personal questions, such as how he knew what young men indulged in. Still, if even she knew and she was not even a young man, he might also have come by the knowledge passively.
"Oh indeed," Lord Fernham the first agreed readily. "And keeping an eye on one's sister is therefore very justified, unless she happens to be with someone who has not been to Venice."
"Do you mean I could easily allow you to take her outside?" asked Honoria, who was not in the habit of imagining herself into any such situation. It was something that happened to other girls.
"If that was what I wished," he replied. "But that is not what I was saying. I am talking to you and I was saying there is no need for any of your sisters to keep an eye on us."
She looked surprised. "Well, I suppose that is because nobody could ever imagine I should be talking to young men for purposes other than planning some more mischief."
"Mischief is such a broad concept," Lord Fernham the first said with a reflective look. "My mischief is of the sort that inspired my schoolmasters to set me the task of writing Latin essays on small animals, but another person's idea of mischief might well come close to my idea of vice."
"Small animals that you caught, no doubt!" She looked delighted with it. "But I still do not know your name." Honoria felt that it might be important to know, now that their acquaintance was proving to be so agreeable. His grave tone was such an act.
He gave her a shrewd look. "You do. The other Lord Fernham said it was Frederick. He was correct."
"But I cannot call you Frederick."
"Why not? If you are very curious I am sure Lady Inglewood will be happy to enlighten you further."
She looked dismayed. "She would think all sorts of things if I came to ask her who Frederick was, not to mention that I am sure she would be highly displeased if I referred to a real Viscount by his given name."
He chuckled at that. "Really? You assume she does not know me. Perhaps I am the only one she would allow to be with you without thinking much of it. Perhaps my character is so fixed in her mind as excellent that it would not occur to her to think anything at all. Perhaps I am too boring to inspire any thoughts."
For a moment Honoria considered that he might be Lord Fernley, who had been boring according to her sisters and even to Victor, but then again, he had also been described as not at all handsome. She looked at him uncertainly. "There is someone you might be -- I was ill when I could have met him -- but I do not see how, for the reports do not tally."
He laughed at that. "If it is any help, the reports of you also did not tally."
In the carriage home, Honoria rested her cheek against the window pane, staring at nothing. She did not feel inclined to join her sisters' discussion of the evening and even the anecdote of the dead rat only managed to make her turn her head very slightly before she resumed her prior position. She was content to be alone with her feelings and recollections. Quite possibly she had never had such a pleasant evening.
There was something very agreeable about being able to talk to someone who understood so well and who did not seek to correct her behaviour. Her father, she believed, understood her too, but there was always the fear or expectation that he would act like a father and berate her. This was so different.
At home, her father beckoned her into his study. She acquiesced reluctantly, for she would have preferred to go straight to bed to continue her daydreaming. He poured her a glass of brandy and she choked on a thoughtless sip. She should have remembered it was brandy.
"A bit absentminded, are you?" Lord Millbrook asked. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"I think so," she said cautiously, wondering how obvious it was. Nobody had been with her -- how could they see? She had furthermore not even mentioned her conversation.
He observed her for a few moments. "I think so too. There is a fine blush on your cheeks that your mother would have been pleased to note, had you been in the ballroom."
Honoria bent her head to hide the deepening blush. She remembered how Frederick had said her father spoke highly of her -- also on the subject of her looks? He appeared to have spoken to her father at some point and they appeared to have received a favourable opinion of each other. She also realised acutely that she still did not know his family name or title, something he seemed to consider unimportant.
"Should I have been in the ballroom?" she asked, in case her father thought so. She had never returned to it, no matter what her intention had been. When her family had come out to the cloakroom to leave, it had been too late.
"No, no, I am sure young ... er ... did he ever tell you his name?"
"Frederick, that is all I know," she said quietly. Her father had been there when the name was revealed, so he could never accuse her of any improper behaviour.
"Well, I did not want to spoil his fun, but I am sure young Frederick can be trusted."
Honoria twirled her glass between her fingers. She now understood some of her sisters' excitement after meeting some particularly deserving young man, but contrary to them she did not feel the need to talk about the young man all the time. Her father seemed intent on discerning her feelings on the matter, however, and she would rather not be questioned before she had made up her mind. "May I go to bed, Papa?"
"Want to be alone, do you?" he said shrewdly. "You had best go then."
In bed, Honoria replayed the conversations at the assembly and imagined places where she could have given more sparkling or clever answers. She was sorry that she had not looked about the room before, although it remained to be seen how she could have become acquainted with Lord Fernham the first if she had. She could not have approached him without knowing who he was and she would not even have wanted to. What a pure stroke of luck that she had come to speak with him by accident!
She wondered if she was ever going to discover who he was. He was not yet leaving the neighbourhood, she supposed, and she must contrive to have their paths cross again one of these days. She was not Lady Inglewood's greatest friend and calling on the woman might be suspicious, yet something had to be done, for she absolutely had to speak to him again.
Asking her father to invite the Viscounts to dinner would be revealing too much of herself, even though she suspected that her father would comply. It might only be to tease her, but he would do it.
Maria was thankfully too tired to ask too much. "How long had you been talking to that man?"
Honoria supposed she meant Frederick. "Not long. He had just come by." She would be forgiven for this lie.
"Did you do it to please Mama? I hope he did not bore you."
"I did not suffer," she said, happy she could now be truthful, but she would certainly suffer if she never saw him again. She could hardly define her feelings and knew only that he had not said anything that could make her wish unreasonable. He knew some biology, Latin, some facts of life and people and, more importantly, he was quick-witted and curious. Furthermore, he had implied that he shared her disapproval of certain types of behaviour, although for a quick-witted man such a thing would not be difficult to feign if he wished to appear to advantage.
At breakfast, last night's assembly was still the main topic. The younger children wanted to know all about it, especially about Valeria's look at the stars together with Lord Brisselford, whom the younger girls had not met. They had heard about this in the bedrooms, but they had not heard enough details to be satisfied.
"Why are all of you asking me?" Valeria asked a little peevishly. "Nolly was hanging about the cloakroom with two gentlemen when I came inside."
"Indeed she was, Valeria," said Lord Millbrook. "And I made sure to intervene as soon as possible by taking one of them away."
That was the last thing anyone had expected to hear and there were some tentative snickers around the table. Honoria turned bright red and had no suitable rejoinder. She would have been able to defend herself in any other circumstance.
"What are you saying?" Lady Millbrook asked finally, after having tried to imagine what had happened. It had to be someone she did not know, or else his name would have been given. This had possibilities. "Did you take care to leave Nolly alone with a gentleman? Who? Was it Lord Button? She danced with him."
Honoria pushed her chair back determinedly, grabbing two rolls from the breadbasket -- for on no account must she become even thinner -- and she left the room. She was not going to stay for such a discussion. It could only embarrass her. Dancing with Lord Button -- could there be anything less significant? She had been asked and there had been no possibility to decline. All it meant was that she had adhered to some standard of politeness.
She went out into the park.
Naturally she had to be disappointed upon her return at hearing Lord Fernley had called on her father while she was out. It was not logical for him to be anyone other than Frederick, but if she kept missing him she could never be certain. She did not ask her sisters any questions lest they suspect something, but she treated the news of his brief visit as though she was completely indifferent.
It was fortunate for her that Lord Brisselford and Lord Button had just been seen coming up the drive, so that any other topic or person was quite naturally and immediately rendered unimportant. She did not care for either Viscount and went upstairs to be miserable. If she sat with them, her mother would assume Lord Button had come for her, but apart from that one dance she had seen nothing of Lord Button at all last night.
She had sent him towards Maria and Sarah and he might even have danced with them, but nobody was ever going to mention that at all if it had happened. There would not be any significance in that. Maria and Sarah danced with everybody.
Of course, her deserting the breakfast table had not helped matters along in that regard. If she now stayed, she might be tempted to say things about him he did not deserve. It was not Lord Button's fault that he was not Frederick. She was annoyed at her own silliness.
"Get your riding gear, Nolly," her father called after her.
"But..." She could not go out again, in case Lord Fernley returned. It was terribly vexing to be so curious about someone and it was even more vexing that she could not imagine why he should return. "I cannot go..."
"I have an important meeting with my steward. I need you to do some estate business for me."
Honoria was involved in more estate matters than her brother, but this distinction could not come at a worse moment. "Right now?" she cried as if that was unheard of.
Lord Millbrook did not seem to notice her distress. "Estate business is always more important than whatever you had planned, dear child. Get your riding clothes on and present yourself at the cow gate at twelve o'clock."
It was south of the house, where the pastures and fields were beginning. She surmised she would have to ride over the land with someone. That would take her a while and she would be away from home all that time, unable to meet any visitors. She felt very rebellious. "I do not want to."
"Do it." Her father's tone brooked no opposition.
Half-heartedly she changed her hopes to possibly running into a certain somebody on horseback. There was no arguing with her father and the chances of someone visiting the house twice in one day were slim anyway. "What am I to do?"
"You are to show someone the new bridge over the brook."
"Who? Why can he not go on his own?" It could easily be found and she had nothing intelligent to say about it. Her company would contribute nothing substantial and not many people would be encountered on the way.
"That is not important. A business acquaintance, but he will be satisfied with another representative of my family. You will go."
"You are being very odd," she complained. "As if a business acquaintance would accept the substitute. The only people who would are people who are able to find the bridge on their own, because --"
Lord Millbrook cut her short. "Go, child. You have ten minutes."
Honoria cursed her bad luck as her horse slowly trotted towards the cow gate. She could not even get herself to look ahead to see whom she might be meeting. The person would already be there; she was late and she was not making any effort to hurry.
This was a very unfortunate occurrence. Why did her father have to assert his paternal authority at precisely this moment? His interests always took precedence over hers. It was unfair. It was also very unfair that she could not tell him why she ought to stay home. It was something fanciful, silly and girlish for which he would have no patience. She was not even certain she had patience for it herself.
Someone was already waiting, but she deliberately did not spoil her day any second too early by checking who it was. She advanced slowly, exuding reluctance.
She coloured when she could no longer avoid seeing whom she was to escort. She softly bade Lord Fernham the first, alias Frederick, a good day, but then fell silent, feeling all too acutely that her father must have some purpose in bringing this about. It was too much of a coincidence. That her father should know precisely what -- or who -- had been on her mind was very unsettling and she needed a little time.
"I am sure it was not your father's objective that you remain silent when he sent you in his stead," he said gently when she seemed more intent on brushing some dirt out of her horse's manes than on broaching any conversation.
"I suppose not." She raised her eyes, wondering how clear the scheme was to him. It would be very embarrassing if he saw through it as well. He might be uncomfortable with such a blatant attempt, yet there was no evidence of discomfort in his gaze.
"Are you really to show me the bridge or are we to wait for your father?" He sounded a little curious about the switch that had been made.
"The bridge," she repeated. "Do you really want to see the bridge?" She was ready to believe anything, now that her father was plotting.
"I do. That was why I was going to meet your father. But if you can show me the way as well, that is fine, especially if your father sent you."
Honoria waited for him to elaborate on his father's reasons for sending her, but he did not. "I am his honorary Viscount. He said he had something to talk about with his steward..." She looked doubtful. Her father was not the type to have double engagements. He would have sent her on purpose. "Why are you his business acquaintance?"
"Am I? That is better than that boring fellow who wishes to know about the bridge, I suppose," he said in his customary grave tone, but with a smile in his eyes.
"I hope you do not think he thinks that anyway because he sent me."
"His honorary Viscount. Who could be displeased at the honour? Certainly not an equal. Why are you that, anyway?"
"There was much to do about Viscounts lately," she said, finally smiling. "And I have always thought I got my name because I was not a boy."
"But at the time of your birth your father could not know he would need an honorary Viscount later in life," Frederick remarked. "He might still have hoped that his next child would be a boy, or he would have hoped that the boy would be more capable than you."
"You make it sound as if my brother is not."
"Well," he said, not thinking that needed elaboration. "Which way to the bridge?"
She pointed and they set off. "You think not!"
"You have not been privy to my conversation with your brother," he said tactfully.
"But I asked him about you, after my sisters said you had not given them any attention at all. I deduced you must have been speaking with my father and my brother, but one does not ask one's father about these things."
"Excellent! What did he say?"
"He is so indiscreet. He seems to have spoken ill of his sisters. He did not say so because it would never occur to him to view it in that light, but that is what I deduced. He implied we were silly, did he not? And he told you I was severe on young men."
"The worst, he said. Do you now see why the reports did not tally?" Frederick inquired. "My aunt -- such pretty girls and so polite, except the eldest. She only has male friends. Your brother -- my sisters all discuss the Viscounts, but my eldest sister is disposed to hate young men. Your father -- my eldest daughter is..." He paused deliberately.
"Is what?" Honoria cried.
He laughed at her. "Was the combination of my aunt's and your brother's recommendations not enough to convince you that reports did not tally? How could someone disposed to hate young men only have male friends?"
"I wish to know what my father said."
"My eldest daughter is ill. She will be sorry to miss the circus."
Frederick set to work drawing the bridge, while Honoria stepped onto one of the age-old stepping stones that had served as a crossing before the bridge. She needed to be active to think.
She was accompanying a man whose plan was to draw the bridge. Her father would have known about this plan. Had he expected her to sit by Frederick's side, handing him his pencils, or had he expected her to leave Frederick here? To be honest, she might have left any other man here, but it might be interesting to stay here now. Something was not right, though. Why should a business acquaintance want to draw a bridge for fun? He had said it was for fun and she had to believe him. Her father was playing some game here. He would probably also expect her to stay. Very well, she would do as her father wished.
She had jumped here before, many times, and felt perfectly comfortable jumping from one stone to the other. Too comfortable, for there was a sudden splash when she bent over to catch a glimpse of a large fish. She came up spluttering and laughing, hoisting herself back onto the stone with ease.
Frederick, who had dropped his sketchbook as he jumped up, looked bewildered.
"I lost my footing," she called. "I am sorry to have scared you." She jumped back in and paddled to the shore, her wet clothes making it impossible to jump from stone to stone.
He was still bewildered.
"This happens to me," Honoria said with a shrug when she guessed he had perhaps never seen such a thing before. "I am sorry I frightened you."
He held out his hand and pulled her onto the bank. "That is all fine, but you must tell your father I had nothing to do with it."
She wrung her skirts, looking completely unconcerned. "He will know. I am sorry, I am not well-bred and elegant -- and I saw a fish."
"I must hold myself responsible," he said, trying to convince himself
Honoria paused her wringing and gave him an amused smile. His tone did not quite convince her. "For the fish?"
"For not having tied you to a tree. This is a fine way of abusing your father's trust," he observed.
She knew he was merely saying what he ought to be saying, not what he was actually thinking. "He would not have liked for me to be tied to a tree."
"What am I to say if I bring you back wet?"
"How do I explain your dryness?" she countered. She was escorting him. "A gallant gentleman -- such as I do not need, by the way -- may wish to be wet as well as a token of his gallantry."
Frederick did not care for gallantry. "I think I may have to explain more than you. Your father --"
"My father knows me. Perhaps he wished to see --" She had best not make any reference to testing in any sense, in case her father's plotting was not as apparent to him as it was to her. "Go back to your drawing and let me play. I promise not to fall anymore, but I love to..." She was going to say play, but that could be misconstrued.
"Jump in?" he asked, casting his eyes on her figure. "I should take you home. You are too thin to be wet."
With a guffaw, Honoria turned her back on him for those words. She took off her outer garments and hung them onto branches in the sun.
"Lady Honoria," he said rather helplessly. Even less remained of Lady Honoria if she took off her riding habit, yet some would say it was still too much to be seen.
She did not bother to turn around. He could not know nearly as much about falling into the Millbrook as she did and he ought to trust her experience. These actions ensured her clothes would be dry very soon. It was all very sensible of her, more sensible than keeping so many wet layers on. "Would you be so boring if I had no father who had apparently inspired the fear of death in you?"
"I would let you carry on in that case -- to some extent -- but in this case I have no doubt who will be blamed." He still spoke cautiously.
"My father deliberately sent me with you." That meant her father would have to accept all the consequences of that action.
"That is why I should bring you back in one piece."
"I am whole. Merely wet. I am escorting you, remember? As long as you return dry and whole, there is no need to worry about me. I have fallen in before. Will you stop seeing me as a girl? Nobody else does."
Any comments about her age and general suitability to marriage would be as painful as they were superfluous, so Honoria refrained from voicing any speculations on whether this was a desperate attempt of her father's to get her married. She would rather not have an unwilling gentleman forced to do the honourable thing, especially since she had fallen in completely by accident and nobody was to blame for anything. She understood his fears nevertheless. Perhaps he should indeed have tied her to a tree so nothing could befall her, but to be honest she would rather fall in on a sunny day, than be tied to a tree like some sort of animal.
He bit back a comment and turned away with a shake of his head.
Honoria sat on one of the stones in the middle of the brook and let the cool water flow through her hands. It was always soothing and she soon forgot to care about anything. She sat there for a long time, simply glancing at the ever-changing sparkling of the sunlight on the water and the ducks that came nearer if she sat very still. Sometimes a fish came to the surface, but she was not afraid that one would nibble at her toes.
Frederick had returned to his drawing and she did not look in his direction. Not yet. She should let him finish.
"Are you dry?" Frederick called, disturbing her peace.
Honoria glanced towards the bank. Reluctantly she stood up and she jumped across the stones. Her skirt was still a bit wet, but she hoisted it up a little. "Almost. Do you want to leave? Have you finished?"
"I am nearly done. I thought you might try to get the trim of your undergown dry while I finish my last drawing. And I have hung your clothes onto another tree because the shadows moved."
She had not noticed that at all and she looked a little surprised. "That is very kind of you. Does that mean you now agree that it was sensible of me to hang them there?"
"I may always have agreed."
She rolled her eyes and followed him towards where he had been sitting. There she lay down on the grass to watch the progress of his drawing.
"Thank you, Honoria," said Lord Millbrook, taking in her flushed cheeks and healthy colour. "It was most kind of you to see to that business."
"You are welcome, Papa." She quickly slipped away to change into completely dry clothes, but before she did so, she halted just around the corner to eavesdrop.
"Did you find what you were looking for, Lord Fernley?"
For a moment the younger man hesitated, wondering if Lord Millbrook was speaking on two different levels. Then he decided not to care. "I did." He rolled out a piece of paper. "I made a drawing of the bridge."
"Most excellent," said Lord Millbrook as he studied it. "You draw well. Where was my daughter when you did this? I cannot imagine she sat by you patiently, but she is also not part of the drawing."
"Falling into the brook."
This did not surprise Honoria's father in the least. "I hope this did not shock you too much."
"She ... thought it quite normal. If you do too ... it cannot have been your intention to bring about such a situation."
"She will fall in or do something similar, unless I lock her up. I did not give her any instructions to fall in, but I did not think you would mind very much if something happened, Lord Fernley."
There was a brief silence. "I do not. If I had not been on serious business there I might have jumped in myself."
Honoria ran upstairs. Frederick, Lord Fernley's calm words echoed in her head. He might have jumped in himself. He implied he would do so next time if he did not have any serious business -- or was she reading too much into his words? Which next time?
The thought that he and her father were coming to some secret arrangement to get rid of her was rather distressing, though, no matter how much she might like the gentleman. She did not want to be discussed in such a manner. Yet he was Lord Fernley, the one she had missed meeting and who had been a favourite with her father. What had they planned on that occasion?
She hurried with her dress, but despite her efforts she found he had already left when she came back downstairs.
"Papa..." Honoria said when she had located her father. "You must not force me upon unwilling and unsuspecting gentlemen by setting it up so you can count on me to fall into the Millbrook, from where I cannot emerge but wet, so that you actually put the poor gentleman in quite a fix because he feared you would be angry with him for not having tied me to a tree."
He observed the fierceness of her eyes. Seemingly there was quite a problem somewhere. "I do not think I would have thought too highly of him if he had indeed tied you to a tree."
"Neither would I."
"Do you think highly of him now then?"
"Does he have a secret arrangement with you to take me off your hands? I would not think highly of such an arrangement," she said with a proud blush. It was as humiliating as it was secretly exciting.
"No, you would want to be consulted." He did not sound as if he found fault with that.
"I was consulting you by asking you if you think highly of him and you chose not to answer. Should I conclude that you do not?" Her father looked to be teasing.
"You spoke to him before you spoke to me," she complained.
"No, Honoria. I spoke to you first. You may think I cannot read you if you remain silent, but you are quite wrong."
She looked away. If she was so transparent it might be more significant if she denied everything, so she might as well confess one small thing. "I think more highly of him than of Lady Inglewood's other nephews -- but that does not mean I would like to be the object of some business deal!"
"You are not the object of any sort of deal. I have merely agreed with the young fellow that there is no need to worry about any scrapes you get yourself into. He will not be held responsible, nor will he be forced to marry you because you fall into the brook."
That would have been a relief to Frederick, she was sure. "But of course if there are ever any intentional scrapes..." she said.
Surprisingly, Honoria could not muster up any interest in finding out which of her sisters was favoured by Lord Button and which by Lord Brisselford. Should the latter take all her sisters out onto the terrace in turn, she might care, but at the moment it was very difficult.
It was also difficult to ignore her sisters' chatter. She was thankful for sharing a bedroom with Maria and not with Sarah and Valeria, since Maria was supposed to be immune to the charms of both Viscounts. Whether Maria was immune or not, she at least had the grace to keep that to herself.
Honoria was usually the one who spent the least time in front of the mirror, but she was now for some strange reason tempted to give her appearance a little more attention, even if they were not entertaining guests for dinner. She was clever enough to know that changes ought to be worked in slowly and not at the last moment when the chance of their being noticed was so much greater. Someone might wonder in astonishment at her earrings, for example, but it was wiser to elicit that reaction on an innocent evening.
Maria seemed not to notice, so that was good.
It was Eleonora who noticed it at the dinner table. "You are wearing ostentatious jewellery, Honoria!" Aged sixteen herself, she was subjected to strict rules on what she was allowed to wear. Her eldest sister's freedom made her jealous and Honoria's strictures on ostentation and impracticality were always tedious.
Honoria coloured in annoyance, for the jewellery was anything but ostentatious.
Lady Millbrook inspected the earrings. "They are mine, Eleonora. Do not insult me."
Her eldest daughter wondered if both parents were now conspiring to see her wed. Her father could not possibly have informed her mother, could he? She looked at him with narrowed eyes, but he looked blank.
"As some -- or all -- of you already know, Lady Inglewood has issued another invitation," said Lord Millbrook. "By way of the Lord B's, who delivered this here on her behalf today. Apparently some of you made yourselves very agreeable to the young Lordships and they pressed their aunt to invite all of us for tomorrow."
"But not us," said Eleonora and Deborah simultaneously. They were always left out, barely allowed to eat breakfast with their own family, but afterwards they would be locked away into the schoolroom and no evening entertainment for them until they were nineteen.
"There will not be an exception for you this time either, no. I have, however, arranged for an outing for you two young ones, chaperoned by Nolly."
"Where?" they cried and Honoria was equally surprised. This was the first she heard of it. Why was the girls' governess not taking them?
"You will see that tomorrow." No matter how much he was questioned, Lord Millbrook refused to reveal his plan for them.
The House of Horrors
There was some squealing when Eleonora and Deborah were informed of their destination the next day. They had wanted to go to the House of Horrors, a superbly spectacular attraction, ever since they had heard of it and they were thrilled to find out they were finally allowed to go.
For her part, Honoria was thrilled to hear who was taking them. Her father was really intent on throwing her in the man's way. That her mother wanted to come was a surprise, but perhaps she would be useful in keeping an eye on the girls when she was distracted.
She had taken some care with regard to her appearance, although she had not dared to be adventurous with earrings again. Younger sisters had no tact and they would not hesitate to point out everything that was unusual about her looks, not realising that it might have been deliberate. Or perhaps they would simply not care about her feelings. After all, it had only been two days ago that Honoria herself would have looked in contempt at such measures. She was still not entirely sure that she ought to give in to such desires. It was foolish.
Eleonora and Deborah were not at all interested in Lord Fernley or any possible connection to Honoria, even though he was a new acquaintance and a gentleman. However, with so many years that separated them from matrimony and because of their general self-absorption, matchmaking for elder sisters was not yet one of their interests, especially not if something much more exciting was on their minds. They babbled incessantly about the Horrors and how their friends had not been allowed to go. This was truly a wonderful opportunity to impress everybody. Papa was the best father on earth.
Honoria did not ask herself how her father had come to know about the Horrors -- he tended to read the letters the youngest girls received to make sure some young fool was not sending them self-written poetry and the girls appeared to have corresponded at length about this novelty. Their friends did not live far away, but they had discovered letter-writing for the exchange of the absolutely earth-shattering news that could not wait until they met again.
Lady Millbrook did not wonder openly why Lord Fernley was accompanying them, which made Honoria suspect even more that her father had been talking to her mother. The gentleman had been met without surprise, as if Lady Millbrook had known everything about the how and why of the situation, and she had merely conveyed her gratitude at his generosity.
His Lordship himself seemed to do as he was bid, or perhaps he had ulterior motives that Honoria was a little afraid to explore. He had been very kind and polite, without raising any suspicions. He had not even expressed any wish to sit next to her in the carriage. On the contrary, he had suggested that the three girls sit on the same side opposite him. It had been tactfully done, Honoria thought, since he had obviously meant that the three girls were very thin and her mother was not, but saying that the girls were thin would imply that Lady Millbrook was considerably larger than she was and one never knew who might be offended by such an implication.
Lady Millbrook said she would wait outside when they arrived at the House, but she urged the young people to go in together. There were more parents and grandparents who preferred to wait and the tavern across the street was faring well. She had not made her decision until now, but the presence of so many older people outside was not much of an incentive to go in. Presumably these people were wise and refrained from subjecting their weaker hearts to the Horrors. She should do as they did.
"Lady Eleonora and Lady Deborah are so young that they may count as halves," said Frederick when they approached the ticket booth.
"I think you may find that it is impolitic to refer to them as halves within their hearing," Honoria said dryly. Her sisters were very keen on no longer being seen as children, especially Eleonora.
"Indeed! Do you also think we are half-witted?" Eleonora cried.
"Not yet," he assured her. "But my opinions are never as fixed as that." He studied the admission fees that were listed. "Unfortunately you pay the full price."
"Of course! We are very grown up." She might not yet be allowed to come to formal gatherings with her family, but she was most definitely already sixteen and in her opinion the only reason why she was not allowed to come was that there was not enough space in the two carriages.
"Really? Will you promise to be a big girl and not scream inside?" Frederick inquired.
"I am sixteen," Eleonora said with a roll of her eyes and a ladylike shake of the head. "What do you take me for? You are not speaking to a small child. Promise to be a big girl? Perhaps you should ask Debbie not to scream."
"I am not a small child either!" said thirteen-year old Deborah indignantly. "I know what you are doing! You are afraid and you hope we will now decide we do not want to go in, so you do not have to either."
"You found me out," he said with a sigh and fumbled in his pockets for money. "But I see you are not to be dissuaded, so I shall buy tickets immediately."
Honoria stopped his search by putting her hand on his arm imperatively. "My sisters, my expense." He would already have to suffer all of their follies. It would not be fair.
One did not argue with a determined woman, so he took his hand out of his pocket. "But I am not your sister, so should I pay my own ticket?"
That was an absurd question and she stared. "If I am paying the rest, I might as well pay yours, if you do not have any great objections."
"Not great, but..." Frederick teased.
He looked at her gravely. "You must promise me one thing."
"That I will be a big girl and that I will not scream?" she asked in a sarcastic voice.
"That, in case I do not get to spend the sum of money I was given to spend, you will take it at the end of the day and give it back?"
Honoria was amazed. "He gave you money?"
The corners of his eyes wrinkled as he laughed. "He is your father. He thinks like you. My daughters, my expense."
"When did he do that?"
Although she did not see when else the transaction could have taken place, she was surprised at the speed with which it had all been arranged. She had not taken awfully long to pull on a dry gown yesterday, but by the time she had come down it had all been agreed upon, including details such as money.
"Nolly!" Eleonora interrupted them with a look of impatient irritation. "Will you stop arguing over whose money it is? There is no queue at the moment. If you get the tickets now we can go straight in!"
It was not odd that in the utter darkness of the House, urged by the eerie sounds of plaintive whistling and sinister rustling, Honoria should seek Frederick's proximity. It was even less odd that she should grab his arm when a particularly frightening scream pierced their ears, followed by the delighted giggles of her fearless sisters, who were leading the way. He steadied her comfortingly. Honoria quite liked it and gravitated towards him at the smallest sound.
She was infinitely glad her mother had chosen to remain outside. All this would not have been possible with her mother nearby. She would be too afraid someone would suddenly light a candle and expose her for the scandalous woman that she was. Although it did not feel scandalous at all to be doing this, she knew it would not have happened in daylight.
A scary voice informing them that it was going to steal one of the party because it was hungry sent even the two young girls scrambling back towards them with nervous giggles and cries of distress. They did not care that they did not really know the young man to whom they meant to attach themselves, but he had been chosen to protect them and protect them he would.
"Nolly, move aside! We want him," said Deborah when she found her eldest sister already most firmly attached to their protector. "The ghost cannot want to eat you."
"Do not tell me you are scared, Deborah!" said Frederick, who felt his arms being seized by the two girls and Honoria unceremoniously pushed out of the way. "And you cannot want your sister to be eaten!"
"Rather my sister than me! Someone is preying on us."
"Boo," said Honoria in her ear and Deborah screamed.
The girls kept holding on to Frederick until they reached the end of the route -- Honoria did too, but her sisters would never know. As the girls fumbled to open the door, he felt around for their sister who had released him, pulling her towards him. "We must not leave you behind," he said, briefly touching her cheek.
The door opened and the girls ran out, screaming excitedly as if they were being pursued by all manner of frightening things. Lady Millbrook was happy to see they were apparently unscathed, but she was not sure about allowing them a second go. "Nolly looks as if she will not go again," she said with a look at her eldest's face.
"Allow me to recover," she said in an unsteady voice.
"Some refreshments?" Lord Fernley suggested after a tender look at Honoria that went unnoticed by the others.
"You are a bore," Deborah decided. "I knew you were frightened."
"Deborah!" her mother chided. "Mind your manners."
"We want to go again!"
"You may, but I am not going another time," he replied. "It is less fun."
"They will never believe you," said Honoria. She took a few coins from her pocket. "Here, buy another ticket. We shall be across the street in the tavern." The gift of money was accepted with cheers from her sisters, who would indeed never believe that the second time was less fun.
Lord Fernley looked at Honoria uncertainly when the two girls had run off to the booth on their own. "Do you mean I should go too?"
"Not unless you want to." She held out her hand, offering him the rest of her coins.
Gently he folded her fingers over them. "I do not want to. Lady Millbrook, you will want to sit down with something to drink."
"Very kindly observed, Lord Fernley," the older woman said gratefully. "And Nolly might like to sit down as well. She looks a bit out of sorts. Was it very scary in there?" she asked as she ushered them across the road.
"Only for young girls," he answered.
"Thank you for the compliment," Honoria said dryly.
"You appeared less frightened than your sisters, especially when you said boo and Deborah screamed." He sounded amused.
"I had no choice but to be less frightened. You already had two young ladies to protect. I had to fend for myself."
"Oh dear, oh dear," said Lady Millbrook. "What is this about protecting young ladies?"
"They grabbed my arms, My Lady," said Lord Fernley. "I have but two arms and there were three ladies. There was one I could not see to."
"You deserve a drink, my boy. I cannot believe you subjected yourself willingly to such wild girls. Is my husband paying you or is he demanding Herculean feats of you before you are allowed to ... er ... ?" She raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
Honoria was glad they were at that moment just entering the tavern, so that she did not have to show her expression. The thought of her father setting Frederick some tasks was distressing and that could be read plainly in her face. And what could be the reason for such an assignment?
"This was no Herculean feat, I assure you," said Lord Fernley.
"I demand no feats of you, Herculean or otherwise," Lady Millbrook assured him. "Only that you find us a table at the window."
That was easily accomplished and they sat down. Lord Fernley ordered drinks for them. "I wonder how frightened they will be," he commented. "Now they cannot sacrifice their sister to the cannibal ghost."
"Surely they must derive some comfort from the fact that none of us were eaten the first round?" Honoria asked.
"Because I was there to protect you..." He smiled with the kind of male superiority that usually made her laugh.
This time she felt inclined to take it more seriously. "Of course, but you did not feel protective enough to accompany them a second time."
"No, indeed," he answered. "Not of them. There is a time for everything."
She recalled how pleasant it had been to hide herself against Frederick for comfort and how he had touched her face just before they had left the House of Horrors. He might have found it pleasant as well. He had given her such a look a little later. She would have been bolder had they gone in a second time, which was why she had not. She imagined it now. Yes, she would have sought him out a little sooner and she would not have let go until they came to the exit. That was definitely not something to be attempted in the presence of two wild girls like Ellie and Debbie.
Despite their youth they were quite astute. If Honoria did not now behave as if she was completely indifferent to Lord Fernley, they would remember how they had to detach her from him, something they might forget if nothing inspired them.
"Well," said Lady Millbrook. "They are young enough to be fearless and old enough to affect fear. If the other girls ever found out about the darkness and the opportunity to hang onto gentlemen, they would demand to be sent here as well, with protectors of their choice. Unfortunately not all gentlemen can be trusted and such an excursion would be a very bad idea indeed."
This was quite frank, coming from her mother, and Honoria stared.
"This novelty," Lady Millbrook spoke with some sarcasm, gesturing at the building across the street. "Already existed in my youth, but pray do not tell Ellie and Debbie, for they think it extremely modern and fashionable, and they would be devastated to discover that when it comes to entertainment, nothing is new."
"Er ... and you have been?" Honoria asked, dumbfounded. "With gentlemen?"
Her mother laid a finger across her lips. "With a fine young man by the name of Richard, whom I later married, but who was at the time posing as my brother. Please, Honoria. Do not look at me as if you cannot possibly be related to me. I was young once."
"Papa posed as your brother?" She was still gaping.
"We had very strict parents. They would never have approved. I thought them very annoying at the time, but with so many daughters of my own now I have more sympathy for their strictness."
"You are not very strict, Lady Millbrook," said Frederick.
"I cannot learn their lessons for them. Valeria is perhaps out a year too soon," she said reflectively. "But the other three were quite sensible at nineteen. Still, we are not going to send them here."
The girls returned. Surprisingly, they had had fun again the second time around, even though there had not been anybody to protect them. "We talked back to the ghost," Deborah announced. "And then it was frightened, because it did not dare to eat us!"
"It was nothing but a man in a sheet," Eleonora said with her nose in the air. "Nolly, you are such a coward to believe it was a ghost."
"Did I?" Honoria had no knowledge of that.
"You did not want to go in again." That was answer enough as far as Eleonora was concerned. "And you were afraid we would steal him again, of course," she said with a sly look at Frederick.
This was sooner than Honoria had expected. She had been steeling herself against such comments and she could look back in a composed manner. "Would it not be fair not to?"
"Fair?" Her sister spoke as if she had never heard of that word.
"I would not have gone in again, so it is a moot point," said Frederick.
"Not even alone with Honoria?"
"We have already been once. Why should we go again?"
"Ellie, you had best not ask stupid questions," said Lady Millbrook. "Would you like something to drink?"
"It is not stupid, Mama. If Nolly gets married, there is room for me in the carriage and I can come to assemblies," Eleonora said earnestly.
Deborah was indignant and the others were astonished. "It is not a matter of the carriages being full," lectured Lady Millbrook. "If you turn nineteen and we should still have Nolly or even one of the girls' husbands living with us, we would just get another carriage. Until you are nineteen, you should not concern yourself with carriage space, because you will simply not be allowed to come."
Honoria was embarrassed for Frederick's sake. He might not have any intentions and to have a girl forced on him by just about everyone in that girl's family might be a trifle unsettling. Perhaps he would take Eleonora's comments in the spirit they were offered, that of sixteen-year old simplicity. He was not betraying anything, though, neither enthusiasm nor disgust. He was simply looking out of the window absentmindedly.
She would like to know what he was thinking nevertheless. There was always a chance that he merely liked all of her relatives, even the ones he had never met before, but she was tempted to think that nobody would take them on a trip if there was no other consideration playing a role. Perhaps this was the only way he could see her again -- but he was looking out of the window. Suddenly her spirits were low.
It might all be her father's plan and Frederick might simply be incapable of saying no. Surely he would not trifle with her feelings in such a manner? He had to know that he was raising certain expectations by going along with these plans of her father's.
Perhaps he was only seeing where they would take him. None of them really committed him to anything, she supposed. If nothing ever came of these plans only her father was truly to blame.
Honoria could not really decide what she thought. There was too much uncertainty about Frederick's feelings. Apparently her father was not at all uncertain about hers. This was a bit unsettling, as she was not as confident about any of this as her father. Perhaps she should also settle for seeing where these schemes would take her. Why did people summarise these situations with the phrase coming to an agreement? All that uncertainty reduced to four words!
She had been looking out of the window as well and she now found Frederick looking at her. Her mother and sisters were busy ordering drinks, so she could look back without anybody noticing. He did not look like someone bullied into accompanying them. "How good are you at saying no?" she asked before she could check herself.
"It depends on who is asking," he said gravely.
She uttered a soft groan. "I think you know what I mean."
"I think I do, but did you know there are several ways of looking at the issue? Depending on the angle, I may be either strong or weak...but I am not doing anything against my will. To be led by one's will is not always laudable, unless it coincides with the other person's, naturally." He smiled at her. "Does it?"
"So far," she said cautiously.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.