The Wager

Ormelia Houndsworth put down her book and sighed. There was nothing more she wanted to do that evening but read Cowper, and yet her mother insisted she accompany her to Lady Ashburton's rout. It was bound to be an insipid affair, and moreover full of giggling beautiful females all doing their best to attract the available gentlemen. Not that Ormelia was interested in the gentlemen herself, and she knew there was little chance any of them would show much of an interest in her either. Which meant that she would sit undisturbed in the shadows, bored to tears. It was not the thing to bring a book to a social gathering - more's the pity.

If it wasn't her very ordinary looks that kept the men away, it was her conversation. The moment Ormelia opened her mouth she showed herself for the bluestocking that she was. Her interest in literature and politics was more than any well bred gentleman could suffer. The most hardened fortune hunters were easily put off by her unconventional attire and her waspish tongue.

Her mother looked her up and down when she emerged from the library into the well-lit foyer. "Don't tell me you mean to wear that fright of a gown!"

"What is the matter with it? It is of the finest silk and very elegantly cut."

"Nobody, but nobody, wears brown to an evening affair."

"I do," said Ormelia.

"At least please remove your spectacles," cried her stricken parent.

"Must I, mother?"

"How am I ever going to get you married off?"

"Is it my fault that gentlemen have no discernment; that all they desire is an ornament for their parlours?"

"No my dear, but at least If you cannot stun them with your beauty do not frighten them off with your intellect."

"I will do my best, mama," said Ormelia, "but I like to be able to see clearly and you know that without my spectacles I cannot see two feet in front of my nose."

It was true. Ormelia was very short sighted. Her mother had to give in and just hope that tonight there would be a gentleman who was not too fastidious to give her daughter a chance, and discover all her fine qualities. Though poor Mrs. Houndsworth was having trouble at that very moment bringing even one of those qualities to mind.


Lord Ambrose Englethorpe had recently returned to London from Scotland where one of his many family estates was to be found. He had spent the best part of a year setting it to rights and now he was quite ready for some light hearted frivolity in London society, so when his sister invited him to squire her to Lady Ashburton's rout he agreed to it with perfect amiability.

"You might even meet the woman of your dreams," she teased him. "Some truly beautiful ingénues have been unleashed on the Ton this year. All your cronies are reeling, not knowing which one to choose over the other, Miss Dappleton or Miss Harvey. Or possibly that sweet, birdlike Letitia Lintell."

"I promise to be suitably impressed, dearest, and to follow all three about just as lovelorn as the rest."

His sister laughed, but she wished that Ambrose would be serious for once. Every season he laughed and danced with all the young debutantes but his heart was never touched. For his sake she wanted him to marry and set up a household -- he deserved as much happiness as she herself had found in marriage.

No sooner were they ushered into Lady Ashburton's ballroom than Ambrose met Ralph Bennick, one of his general acquaintances.

"We have all stolen the march on you, I'm afraid, Brose. I think there is only one young lady as yet unspoken for this first dance, and small wonder that it is The Hound."

"The Hound?" asked Ambrose. "She could not be that bad, surely."

"Miss Houndsworth, actually. Always dresses in brown. Wears spectacles too, and says the most incomprehensible things. Pity -- she does have a tidy fortune."

Ambrose scanned the room and his eyes lit upon an unremarkable young lady sitting up straight in her chair beside a woman in puce satin. She would not have been his first pick as a dance partner, but the hurtful nickname she had been labelled with rankled.

"Then I suppose it is up to me to ask her," he said and nodded curtly to Ralph as he set off in search of Lady Ashburton, to gain an introduction.

Lady Ashburton would have preferred to introduce Lord Ambrose Englethorpe to any of the other young ladies at her party. She was very gratified by his presence. Not only was he rich and personable, but he was a most amusing young gentleman and a great favourite of the ladies, young and old alike.

"You should not be hanging out for a fortune, young man," she teased him as they wove their way through the thronging guests. "There are many other lovely girls I could set you up with."

"Thank you. I may ask again later, but for now it is Miss Houndsworth I would like to meet."

"Trust me," said Lady Ashburton. "You will be asking me soon enough. The Hound is not known for her charm."

At that moment there was a lull in the chatter and Lady Ashburton's voice had a carrying quality. Ambrose noticed the young lady stiffen, and then they were before her and Lady Ashburton was making the introductions. To his surprise, the eyes behind the spectacles were challenging rather than wounded. Ambrose quickly reworked his original estimation of the young lady. Here was not a meek girl needing his pity. She had an air of confidence that was unexpected. She accepted his invitation politely, but disinterestedly, and Lady Ashburton quickly melted back into the crowd, leaving Ambrose beside her chair, momentarily at a loss for words, something that happened none too often. He soon realised he was going to have to offer some topic of conversation as the music for the dance had yet to start up.

"Is this your first season, Miss Houndsworth?" he asked.

She gave him a candid gaze through the glass of her spectacles. "Did you see me last season?"

"I do not recall ever having seen you before."

"It is certainly possible that I could have passed two or three seasons in London without making your notice, but my point was that, yes, this is my first season."

"I don't think you could have escaped my notice. This is my first outing into London society this year and yet we have already met." He smiled at her in a most charming manner.

She was unmoved. "No doubt it was a wager of some sort."

"I beg your pardon?" said Ambrose, taken aback.

"Well, you do not look to me like a fortune hunter."

"No indeed." Ambrose had regained his composure, remembering what Ralph had said about her conversation. He chuckled and leaned down to her, whispering conspiratorially. "I am quite flush in the pocket."

"But still you couldn't pass up a chance to put one over on your friends. What odds were set? Do you just need to make me your object for the evening, or am I to fall madly in love with you and make a complete cake of myself for you to win?"

"Would you like me to win?" he asked, his eyes twinkling.

"I think I should prefer it if you lose."

"That is a greater challenge than any I have yet been offered tonight," said Ambrose as the first strains of the music began. He held out his hand. "Shall we dance, then, and keep everyone guessing?"

"If you will," she said. "It makes my mother happy if I dance, so do not think I am doing it to please you."

"The thought never entered my mind."


That evening when Ambrose came away from the rout his thoughts wandered back to all the young ladies he had met. His sister had been correct; Miss Dappleton, Miss Harvey, and Miss Lintell were beauties. And they were all interchangeable. Nothing unexpected came forth when they opened their mouths. They were demurely flirtatious. Everything they uttered was designed to please. Just like any other group of young hopefuls in any other of his seasons in London. But in all his twenty-six years he had never met a young lady so decidedly interesting as Miss Houndsworth.

His sister leaned back against the squabs of her carriage complacently. She had no idea which one of the young ladies had caught her brother's eye, but his very silence indicated that someone had entranced him.

"Which is it?" she asked languidly.

"I'll leave you to guess, Cassandra," he replied with a grin, "though I'm sure I'll give myself away soon enough."

"You are too cruel."

"So is she, and yet I am most willing to persevere."

"Stop your silly joking." Cassandra knew what he said could not possibly be true. No girl was ever cruel to a man with the address her brother had. They had all been throwing themselves at his feet for years.


As Ormelia laid her head upon her pillow she remembered again how Lord Ambrose Engelthorpe had admitted openly to dancing with her upon a wager and then parried every thrust she had made at him. She had talked of the House of Lords, quoted Shakespeare, and expounded upon the philosophies of Plato, and he hadn't even blanched. She admired his tenacity while at the same time she held him in repugnance for his shallow, frivolous nature. A gentleman who looked as he did ought to have more integrity, but she had discovered early in life that nothing about society was as it ought.

The next morning she decided that if he were intent on keeping to his wager, she would make it even more difficult for him. He had promised to make a morning call, and she was ready, seated in the parlour with her poor mother who wondered why she insisted on wearing such a faded and outmoded gown, and why her hair was knotted in such a tight little bun. Ormelia ignored her and read her history of Britain as the clock on the mantle slowly ticked off the minutes. She did not have long to wait.

When Lord Ambrose Englethorpe was ushered into the parlour, her first thought was that he was even more handsome than she had recalled, but she banished the thought immediately and looked back at her book. He sat down beside her mother and entered into conversation with her for the first ten minutes. Ormelia found her mind straying from her book as she surreptitiously attended to their conversation. Soon she put it down altogether. He was charming her mother completely, unsurprisingly. He was very adept at the art of conversation and of course her mother did not know just how devious the man really was.

As soon as he had finished explaining to her mother about his estates he had just been visiting, he turned to Ormelia and said, "Miss Houndsworth, I'm sorry to have disturbed your reading. Were you at an exciting part in your novel, or did I save you from the boredom of the author's moralizing?"

"I do not read novels, sir."

"Then we must remedy that at once! You are missing some of the best entertainment literature can afford."

"I am happy with books of my own choosing, I assure you."

"Do at least reassure me that you were not engrossed in Fordyce's sermons! If that were the case I might have to forfeit my silly wager here and now."

"I am sorry to have to disappoint both of us, for it was only a history that I was reading."

"Disappoint me? Miss Houdsworth you have set my heart to rest. I mean to win this thing, you know."

"I believe you are accustomed to captivating young ladies with your humour. It will not work with me. Above all I value sincerity."

"Thank you for the information! I can see that you are on my side after all. With your help I cannot lose."

"I do not understand why anyone should desire to win someone's love when they in no way return it."

"Nor do I," said Ambrose, smiling in such a way that she almost wished he were telling the truth.


Mrs. Houndsworth was pleased to see such a fine gentleman take an interest in her Ormelia, and wished the girl would at least give him some encouragement, but though he paid morning calls and danced and conversed with her at balls and soirées, she continued to keep him at arms' length and wear the most unflattering clothing imaginable. The girl was incorrigible. As for the gentleman, Mrs. Houndsworth discovered that he was universally charming, and that every season though he raised many a mother's hopes, nothing ever came of it.

Meanwhile Ormelia was battling her own heart. Was she truly so shallow that a knave whom she knew had no true interest in her could charm her? She wished that he were a man of character rather than a gamester because he had such a lively mind and entertaining wit that if she were not steadfastly sworn against him, she would assuredly come to love him. And that would be her undoing for if she did, not only would he win his callous wager, but he would stop paying his attentions to her. She looked forward to their conversations and though she hid it well, she derived most of her pleasure of the day from them. Since the morning she had bravely read Fordyce in front of him to entice him to leave off his bet, she realised that she could never endanger their bizarre relationship in such a manner again.

And strangely, he had widened her horizons. He brought her novels, which she had wished to disdain, but read in spite of herself, and enjoyed. He had engineered for his sister to invite her on outings to the Royal Botanical Gardens and Richmond Park, or join them in their box at the theatre. And yet, though he paid her all these attentions, he never singled her out in such a way that she became the talk of the town. She and her mother were always a part of a larger party, and he was the perfect host to all his guests, not giving one preference over the other. But when he talked with her he was always audacious, and when he visited her at her home and only her mother was present, he made himself even more endearing.

Because of Lady Cassandra Bridgewater's many invitations to Ormelia, it seemed that despite her eccentricities society was more willing to put up with her. She no longer heard herself referred to covertly as The Hound, and more gentlemen dared to dance and converse with her than beforehand even though her mode of conversation and style of dress had not altered in any way. And despite the fact that Lady Cassandra was Lord Ambrose Englethorpe's sister, Ormelia believed a bond of friendship was growing between them. She hoped it would survive the rupture when the lord finally gave up his futile chase.


 

"Shall I invite Ormelia Houndsworth to ride with me in the park today Ambrose?" asked Cassandra.

"By all means."

"And will you, perchance, join us?"

"It would be my pleasure."

Cassandra gave her brother a sly look. "It is too bad that she is so plain and dowdy, for she is quite intelligent and has a most delightful wit."

"I cannot be caught that easily, my dear."

"That very comment gives you away, brother dearest."

He shrugged ruefully and his sister ran up to him and hugged him. "I am glad that when you finally succumbed you chose someone with a mind."

As she walked from the room to write the note of invitation and change into her riding habit, he called after her, "I must beg you to take back those words."

"What? That I am glad that you have succumbed?"

"No, that she is plain and dowdy. Even in the simplest of hairstyles and the most outdated of gowns, with fewer adornments than any other young lady in town, she has a beauty that shines through it all, even those dratted spectacles."


The season was coming to a close and still Ambrose was unsure of where he stood with Ormelia. He had for some time tried to dissuade her of his early jest, that he paid her attentions for a wager. In the beginning it had seemed harmless enough, producing outrageous comments from her and the most remarkable conversations he had ever had at social gatherings. Later it had just been a good excuse for his attentions, but now it weighed him down because he had no idea if he had won her regard. And try as he might, whatever he said to her regarding the non-existence of the wager she only took as a trick intended to make her capitulate so that he would win. He had only one choice left to him. She would be returning to the country shortly so it was all or nothing now.

His aunt, Lady Marjorybanks, was throwing a ball and he meant to get Ormelia alone somehow and make his confession to her. He was nervous as he prepared for the evening, discarding five neck cloths before he had executed a knot with the degree of artistry the occasion called for. He finally allowed his valet to put a sapphire pin into its snowy folds and shrugged himself into his evening jacket.


Ormelia was in a state too. In two days they were going home. Her mother was bewailing the lack of success of a season that had brought no proposals, and had little hope of anything coming from his lordship whose reputation of friendship over romance was so renowned. But Ormelia looked upon it all quite differently than her mother. Ormelia knew that in two days she would have won because Lord Ambrose Englethorpe would have lost his wager, as far as he knew it. Only in actual fact she was the one who had completely and utterly lost -- her heart, that is. And he would never know.

She brushed back a tear and looked at the clothes that her dresser had laid out. Suddenly she made a decision. He would lose his wager and tonight she would rub his face in it.

"No Maisie, not that dress, the green one."

"But miss, you said . . ."

"I've changed my mind. My mother had the green dress made for me and I've never worn it. The least I can do is wear it to my last ball."

"Yes miss!" said Maisie as she happily put away the same brown ball gown Ormelia had worn countless times and brought the green one out of the wardrobe.

"And I'll wear the pearls."

"May I dress your hair more fancy, miss?" asked Maisie, her excitement rising.

"As fancy as you chose," said Ormelia determinedly.

Later, as Maisie stood back to behold her handiwork, tears came to her eyes. "You look beautiful, miss."

Ormelia regarded herself dispassionately in the mirror. Beautiful was stretching the imagination, but she was certainly dressed very stunningly, even if her face didn't live up to the expectations provided by her lovely dress and pretty hairstyle. "Thank you Maisie -- you've done wonders."

"If only you'll remove your spectacles, miss."

Ormelia took them off and looked into the mirror once again. She was rewarded with the sight of a blur and had to peer very close indeed in order to see herself at all clearly. She did not look so very bad. Maybe if Lord Ambrose . . . but no. She did not want him to suddenly fall for her because she was unexpectedly more attractive. If he could not love her as she was, then what good was he? She put her spectacles back on chiding herself for even imagining he could ever possibly really love her. Anyway -- if she wasn't wearing her spectacles she wouldn't be able to see him clearly, and she wanted to see him one last time more than anything else.


Ambrose was nearly knocked sideways when Ormelia entered the ballroom. He had long thought her beautiful but this was the first time she had ever played her beauty to advantage. She was lovelier than he had even imagined. In his ear, he heard his sister whisper.

"You were right. Why didn't she ever dress like this before?"

He was wondering the same and knew that tonight either he was in for the greatest happiness of his life, or the greatest disappointment. And he had a very sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was increasingly certain that Ormelia was playing the victory card. With all the appearance that he hadn't a care in the world, he walked over to her and requested the first dance. She accepted with the same careless attitude, but when they danced neither of them were able to keep up the witty banter that characterized their accustomed routine.

Ambrose stayed by Ormelia's side for most of the evening, rather than circulating sociably as was his wont. And with the proximity their conversation flourished once again, Ambrose strengthened by his resolve to finally declare himself and Ormelia by her resolution to show him that she was not to be trifled with.

In the middle of the evening the orchestra struck up a waltz and Ambrose held his hand out to her, a beseeching look in his eyes. She had never yet agreed to waltz with him. Wordlessly she placed her hand in his and he led her out to the floor. The feel of her hand on his arm, and her arm under his, and the closeness of their bodies as never before was almost overwhelming. She looked up into his face and her eyes seemed to hold that same challenge they did the first time that he met her. He wished that he could remove her darned glasses and see her eyes more clearly.

"I need to talk to you," he whispered.

"I see nothing preventing you."

"That careful look on your face is preventing me."

"Mustn't I take care?"

"Trust me."

Ormelia's glance seemed to waver, and then she said, "Trust a rogue who would wager about love?"

"The only wager I made was with you that night -- no one else."

"We made no wager."

"Or . . . Miss Houndsworth, please, listen to me. I can repeat what we said word for word. ‘Would you like me to win?' I asked you, and you responded, ‘I think I should prefer it if you lose.' And I answered you back with, ‘That is a greater challenge than any I have yet been offered tonight.' Can you not believe me that this was the only wager I ever made concerning you?" His expression was pleading.

"You are always ready with your wit."

"This is not wit, but sincerity."

Ormelia stared at him. "You are using my own words against me."

"No I am not, I am using them for us."

Ambrose stopped dancing and led Ormelia from the floor.

"Where are you taking me?"

"Out onto the terrace; what I need to say cannot be said in the middle of a ballroom."

Ormelia held back. "Do not say anything, please."

"I must," said Ambrose. "It is high time for all this foolishness to end, no matter the consequences."

They went through the curtained windows and Ormelia walked straight to the balustrade and looked out into the small city garden below. "What foolishness?" she asked in a very small voice.

"What kind of man do you think I am?" he asked.

"I want to believe you are not the kind of man who makes wagers about The Hound, but why would you ever look at me otherwise?"

He still held her hand, and took a tighter hold as, stepping closer, he brought it up to his chest. "I cannot bear to hear that name they called you. It was cruel and so very undeserving; even before I met you I found it repellent. And why would I not look at you? I delight in looking at you."

"So you sought me not for a wager but out of pity?" Ormelia tore her hand away and stood before him proud and defiant.

"The moment I first looked into your eyes I knew you didn't need my pity."

"But you do not deny that was why you begged the introduction?'

"Which sin is worse? A wager, or pity? Is it not enough that the moment I met you I was fascinated? That the fascination led to love in short order? That I am frightened out of my wits right now for fear of losing what little I have of you? Ormelia, I want nothing more than to have you for my wife and spend the rest of my days with you. Am I wrong to want that? Am I wrong to hope you could love me in return?"

Ormelia stared up at him in surprise. "Can that really be true?"

"Do you doubt me yet, my love?"

"I gave up the fight against loving you a very long time ago, but I never imagined . . ."

Ambrose took her into his arms. "Why should it be so difficult to imagine?"

"Because I am a bluestocking -- I scare gentlemen away the moment I open my mouth, and you . . . you are the answer to every woman's dreams. You could have anyone you wished for."

"And I wish for no one but you," he whispered, bringing his face very close to hers.

Ormelia took a deep breath. "No," she said.

"No?" The look of shock on Ambrose' face was priceless.

Ormelia smiled happily. "No, you are not wrong to want that. No, you are not wrong to hope I could love you in return. I do want to marry you and spend the rest of my days with you more than anything in this world. So in actual fact, when I say no I am really saying yes."

"I will remember that the next time you say no to me," said Ambrose, his look of shock changed to one of utter contentment. He leaned his face close in to hers and then drew back. "There is one small thing, though."

"What is that?" asked Ormelia, trembling ever so slightly.

"May I remove your blasted spectacles? I would like for once to see your eyes without that film of glass before them."

"But then I will not be able to see you," answered Ormelia, shaking her head.

"Did you just say no?" asked Ambrose.

Ormelia nodded.

"I thought so," said Ambrose, and he smiled as he brought one of his hands up and removed the offending spectacles. "There, that's better."

Their eyes held for quite some time. Ormelia realised that she could actually see him quite clearly when their faces were so very close. And then he brought his face closer and as their lips met she closed her eyes. The kiss was even better than looking at him.

When he finally ended the kiss, Ambrose nuzzled against her cheek and whispered, "I won."

And Ormelia didn't mind at all.

 

The End

 

© 2005 Copyright held by the author.

 

 

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