Miss Baines was not yet ready for any declaration from him, John thought as he dressed for dinner that evening. He recalled the confusion he had read in her face when Simon had alluded to ladies he admired being present; a remark for which John had taken him severely to task once Miss Baines had left them.
"But you do admire her," Simon had merely said, refusing to see any fault with the remark he'd made. "Why do you not want her to know?"
"There is such a thing as the right moment," John had replied. "Apart from that I'd prefer to make my own proposals if you do not mind."
"Did I propose to her on your behalf?" Simon had asked. "I had no idea that this was what I was doing it's no wonder you are put out! Listen, John. Miss Baines is an excellent woman; I believe you have shown much better taste in falling in love with her than you have shown when you developed that passion for Sally Yates. She'll make you an excellent wife, but, my dear brother, you must not allow her to slip through your fingers. It does not hurt to let her know what you are feeling; after all it is not as if you had all the time in the world at your disposal."
Reluctantly, John had been obliged to acknowledge the justice of his brother's assessment of the situation. It was true that Miss Baines, if he never showed any partiality for her, was not likely to believe that he had serious intentions regarding her. She was an intelligent woman, and not one who allowed herself to be ruled by notions that were not based on solid evidence. Therefore John went down to dinner with the fixed purpose of making himself as agreeable to her as he could. If he wanted her friendship for him to develop into something more passionate, he would have to show her that his feelings for her were far beyond friendship.
Spirits were somewhat subdued that evening. Morrison had announced his intention of leaving on Monday, at the same time thanking his hostess for her kind hospitality; and this announcement had done nothing to enliven the party. Eleanor was not the only one to regret his decision; John, too, would miss him, although he would meet him again before long when they returned to their respective companies.
Amanda spent some time pointing out to Morrison why he ought not to leave them, but if Eleanor had found it impossible to make him change his mind it was not likely that Amanda would do so with any considerable success. While Amanda had often shown signs of a youthful infatuation with his friend, John did not worry too much about her. Morrison had taken care not to give her the impression that he had the least interest in her, and she would recover soon, replacing Captain Morrison with some other object of admiration; probably her dancing master at Mrs Blackwell's or an equally ineligible gentleman. It would be some time yet before she'd develop a lasting attachment to anyone.
Eleanor was another matter. She looked pale and unhappy, and John's heart went out to her. He blamed himself for having invited Morrison in the first place if it had not been for him they would never have met, which considering the circumstances would have been the best that could have happened to them. Eleanor was worse off than Morrison, in a way. Morrison had a profession to return to; he'd be busy enough once he was back with the regiment, which would take his mind off his ill-fated love for John's cousin. Life held no such consolation in store for Eleanor. She would return to her parents' house shortly, and there she would resume her humdrum existence. While John did not doubt that his aunt was well able to keep her daughter occupied, he did doubt that the kind of work Eleanor had to do was enough to keep her from thinking of Morrison and what might have been. The only hope he had for her was that she, too, would find someone to replace Morrison in her affections, but knowing Eleanor the way he did John was afraid that this was an unlikely case. Both Eleanor and Morrison had much to forgive him, he felt, and he was uncertain whether they'd ever do so.
It was probably his guilty conscience that made him acquiesce to Amanda's suggestion that they all play billiards together, even though he knew that the formidable Mrs Blackwell would have a thing or two to say to the idea, and none of them favourable. It would be something to cheer everyone up, he felt, and they certainly stood in need of it. So he simply asked Amanda, grinning, whether she thought billiards a suitable pastime for well-bred young ladies, and then led the way to his father's study without waiting for her reply.
They drew lots as to who was to play with whom, and while John hoped that Miss Baines was going to be in his team this did not turn out to be the case. She was to play with his cousin Walter and Morrison, while Eleanor and Amanda were playing with him. However, playing on opposite sides did have its advantages; they soon ended up teasing each other and entertaining the others with their good-natured banter. Once or twice they even made Eleanor laugh.
Having spent an hour in this agreeable manner, they returned to the drawing room in time for tea. John sat down next to Miss Baines, and said, "This was fun, don't you agree?"
"Oh, absolutely! I have seldom enjoyed myself so much; and we certainly had a much more agreeable evening than we would have had if we'd stayed here and played whist."
"I am glad you enjoyed yourself; however I fear Mrs Blackwell would disapprove."
"If she ever found out, which she will not," Miss Baines laughed. "I am not going to tell her; nor will Amanda. If she ever does find out, due to an unfortunate slip of Amanda's tongue, I will be able to defend myself by telling Mrs Blackwell that I made this considerable sacrifice for a good cause. So did you, I believe," she added with a sidelong glance at Eleanor, who was listening with apparent interest to something Amanda was telling her.
"You are right, Miss Baines. Although I will have to admit that it was not much of a sacrifice on my part. The only thing I sincerely regret is the fact that you did not play in my team."
Miss Baines laughed. "Good heavens, and here I thought it was only thanks to Captain Morrison's superior skill that we managed to hold our own against you! It surely cannot have been mine!"
"Can you think of no other reason why I might have wanted you to play with me rather than Morrison?" John asked her, quietly.
She flushed to the roots of her hair, and made no reply. Instead, she took a sip of tea John noticed her trembling hand as she did so and only when she had sufficiently calmed herself, said, "No, sir. I can think of none."
John did not press her for an answer, although he knew that she had not told him the truth. She could imagine why he would have preferred her to play with him, but she was not yet ready to admit it not even to herself. He did wonder, however, whether she found the idea offensive or whether she was unwilling to admit to herself that she found it attractive. Whatever it was, at least she was not entirely indifferent. Her reaction to his remark would have been quite different if she had been. Taking her conduct during their billiard game into account, John felt he had reason enough to hope that it was the latter.
Can you think of no other reason?
This remark continued to haunt Clara all night, for the trouble was that she could. She could imagine all kinds of things involving him, and she was rather uncertain whether he could imagine them too. What were his intentions? Was he really in earnest, or just flirting with her because there was no one else to enjoy his gallantries?
Clara did not rate her own qualities very high; she knew she was sensible, but had yet to find gentlemen attracted by that particular virtue. She was not ill-looking; quite passable in fact, but even Mr Harding, the only admirer she'd ever had, had hardly ever complimented her on her looks. It was therefore not surprising that she treated Captain Gilbert's advances with a healthy dose of caution. She did not want to have her heart broken, but she feared that it was too late anyway. If she was to go back to Bath without some kind of declaration from Captain Gilbert, her heart would break. Maybe she had better leave soon, before further damage was done to her peace of mind. With every minute she spent in Captain Gilbert's company, she became more attached to him, so leaving him was the only sensible thing to do. For once, however, Clara had no intention of being sensible. In fact, she loathed the mere thought of it. Every girl did foolish things at one point of her life; why should she be an exception? Again she resolved to enjoy Captain Gilbert's attentions while they lasted, and not to think of what was going to happen when she was to return to Bath. There'd be plenty of time to think about that when the day arrived.
Considering that Clara had spent at least half the night pondering her feelings for Captain Gilbert it was hardly surprising that she was unable to pay much attention in church the next morning. It did not help that Mr Harwood, the vicar of Wolverton, had taken over Mr Gilbert's duties until other arrangements had been made. Mr Harwood, while no doubt a very learned gentleman, did not possess Mr Gilbert's rhetoric abilities, and Clara thought his sermon rather flat. She chided herself for thinking so; after all one did not go to church for entertainment, yet she felt that Mr Harwood could have made more of an effort. As they left the church, Mrs Norman swooped down on them and demanded to know whether the reports of Captain Morrison's imminent departure were true.
"It is quite true, ma'am," Captain Morrison said politely. "I am going to leave tomorrow."
"But how unfortunate! Now that we need not fear the Highwayman any more though who he was will always remain a mystery, at least this is what my husband says I was hoping to entertain my neighbours one of these days!"
"An excellent idea, ma'am," Captain Morrison said. "I do wish I could stay, but my mother has sent me an urgent letter demanding my visit. Family duty calls, I am afraid."
Mrs Norman, realising that she was not going to change Captain Morrison's mind about leaving, turned to Captain Gilbert. "You will be quite lonely once your friend is gone! How dull life must become!"
"I am quite looking forward to some dullness for a change," Captain Gilbert replied dryly. "I do not expect to be bored, however. There is much to do."
"What's this I hear?" Mr James Overton cried, and came towards them. "You're leaving, Captain?"
"I am afraid I must," Captain Morrison said.
"But what about our shooting contest? I had counted on you to take part in it!" Mr Overton's disappointment was evident.
"My friend Gilbert will have to defend the honour of our regiment on his own," Captain Morrison said with a smile.
"Unless the competition took place today, of course," Mr Overton said eagerly. "What do you say?"
This suggestion did not meet with Mrs Overton's approval, however. A shooting competition on a Sunday was something she was not going to tolerate in her home, and none of her sons would take part in such an outrageous scheme without incurring her displeasure. So Mr James Overton had to give up on his plan for a shooting contest on that day, and took leave of Captain Morrison with the air of a schoolboy cheated out of a promised treat.
The day being a fine one, the Gilberts and their guests had walked to church, and on their way back Clara found herself walking with Captain Gilbert again. Amanda was walking ahead with the Swinfords and Captain Morrison, and Sir Cecil and Lady Gilbert were bringing up the rear.
"I had no idea Captain Morrison was so popular among the people of Colby Green," Clara remarked. "Especially considering that his stay here did not last long."
"Morrison has the fortunate ability of making himself agreeable," Captain Gilbert told her. "He is popular wherever he goes. It is a talent I do not have, I am sorry to say."
"Is this really your opinion or do you merely wish me to contradict you?" Clara asked, smiling at him. "I think you are well able to make yourself agreeable if you choose, and you know it."
"I have my doubts, occasionally," he said earnestly.
"You want me to reassure you then? Very well; I believe you to be very popular among your neighbours," Clara said.
"I don't care about my neighbours," Captain Gilbert told her.
"You don't? How unkind of you! Is this how you are planning to achieve popularity?"
"Miss Baines, I have too high an opinion of your good sense to believe that you have mistaken my meaning."
Clara felt the colour rise to her cheeks and silently cursed at herself. Was there nothing a girl could do against blushing at the least provocation? Although coming to think of it the problem had never occurred until she had met Captain Gilbert.
"And I can see you have not," he continued, thereby adding to her mortification.
"I do not know what you are talking about," Clara said, in her most dignified manner although she feared her confusion was all too evident. "It is merely rather cold this morning."
"A decided nip in the air," Captain Gilbert agreed. "This was why we walked instead of going in the carriage, I presume. It puts colour in your cheeks by the way, it suits you."
Oddly enough, his compliment infuriated Clara. How was she to be angry with him if he took the wind out of her sails in such a shameless manner? She wondered what had made him talk to her about making himself agreeable had he been asking for hints as to in what way he could make her fall in love with him? She already was in love with him, but she could hardly tell him so. Was he in earnest? Did he have serious intentions regarding her? For until she knew what it was that he wanted she was not going to show him what she felt for him.
Captain Morrison took his leave early the next morning, and his absence was felt keenly not only by Miss Swinford, though she was most affected by it. Clara spent most of the day cheering her up, ably assisted by Amanda, but she was not particularly successful. While Miss Swinford was too polite to rebuff her efforts, it was evident that she only took part in their amusements because the rules of civility forbade her locking herself into her room and crying her eyes out. Clara, not one to force anyone's confidences, left her in peace and merely offered such consolation as could be derived from entertainment. Amanda would have been only too happy to assume the role of confidante, but her cousin did not appear to be willing to put her in that position. It was her brother, Mr Swinford, who received her confidences and helped her over the worst trials of the day. However, Amanda's cheerfulness did much to lift everyone's spirits. It was she who instigated an archery practice in the garden it was a sport she was very fond of, and had not had much opportunity of practising lately a suggestion that received wholehearted support from Clara and Captain Gilbert, even though Clara was not good at archery. It was Clara who suggested putting up the targets somewhere where Mr Gilbert could watch them from his window, for she felt he must be quite bored all alone in his room. The doctor had seen him, and had not permitted him to leave his bedchamber just yet, much to his disappointment.
"It's a pity he cannot join us," Captain Gilbert said to Clara as he assisted her in stringing her bow. "For he is Eleanor's favourite among her cousins, and would make an excellent job of cheering her up."
"Mr Gilbert's disposition is such as will cheer anyone up," Clara replied. "I am not well acquainted with him, but even I have often noticed that particular quality in him."
"It is a quality that will frequently come in useful to a man in his profession," Captain Gilbert said. "He will often be required to offer consolation. When did you last practise archery, Miss Baines?" he added, smilingly watching her attempts at hitting her target with disastrous results to the nearby trees.
Clara laughed. "I cannot remember. It must have been when I was still living in Surrey; and I was never really good at it. Amanda will have an easy victory."
"This is why she suggested this pastime, I suspect. But I am going to assist you; we must not make it too easy for her to win. A victory too easily gained is not worth anything, you know." Seen in that light, Clara agreed, it was her duty to make sure Amanda's victory was a triumph indeed.
After some initial awkwardness Clara became accustomed to Captain Gilbert's intervention, and did not mind the close contact that was sometimes necessary when he assisted her in drawing her bow. To be honest, she enjoyed it.
The only one who did have objections to this course of action was Amanda, who did not want her brother to help her friend and spoil her success. However, thanks to Clara's ineptitude which not even Captain Gilbert's gallant interference could eradicate, and Miss Swinford's lack of spirits which made her indifferent to the game, Amanda did win, and consequently was in high spirits when they returned to their rooms to dress for dinner.
She came into Clara's room when she had finished dressing and, after having complimented her on her good looks, said, "I believe it was an excellent idea of Mama's to invite you here."
"So the idea was your mama's then?" Clara asked. "I always thought she had invited me at your instigation."
"I showed you the letter, didn't I? It was Mama's notion entirely, and an excellent one at that. Only imagine what might have happened to Simon if you had not been there to rescue him! And John is himself again at last. Believe it or not, but he hasn't always been so so ill-tempered as he was when we arrived. Today when he helped you draw your bow he was the John I used to know, and I am very happy about it."
"I do not see why this change in his temper should have anything to do with me," Clara protested, blushing. "He has recovered from his illness, and maybe his memories of Spain are not as strong as they were at first "
"I'll say no more if you don't like it," Amanda commented. "But I do think it was your doing. It did not look like it at first, but you are really getting along with each other, aren't you?"
"Why, yes, I do think your brother has come to accept me as one of the grown-ups after all," Clara said, picking up her shawl. "Shall we go downstairs?"
Amanda gave her a sharp look, but made no reply to her remark. Clara felt herself blush again. It really was an annoying habit.
"Certainly," Amanda finally said. "Dinner will be almost ready by now, and Papa does not like being kept waiting."
But as they walked down the stairs side by side, Clara noticed that Amanda was far from satisfied. She hoped her friend would refrain from asking awkward questions; she was not going to tell Amanda that she had fallen in love with her eldest brother; however she was aware that Amanda could tell that she was keeping something from her. Life was becoming so complicated that she almost wished herself back to her tranquil existence in Bath; except that Captain Gilbert was not going to be there when she returned to Mrs Blackwell's.
Lady Gilbert had indeed received a dinner invitation from Mrs Norman that afternoon, but was in doubt whether to accept it.
"It does seem wrong to go and dine out when poor Simon is locked up in his room," she remarked.
John laughed. "Simon would be the first to urge you to go," he said. "He does not consider himself locked up at all, Mama."
"Still, someone ought to keep him company," his mother insisted. "Since he cannot come with us; at least I cannot think the doctor will give his permission to such an outing."
"If it puts your mind at rest, ma'am, I'll stay at home with Simon," John offered. He was none too keen to dine in Mrs Norman's house and endure her blatant advances, especially with Clara sitting by and noticing what was going on. Heaven help him if she got a wrong impression of Mrs Norman's behaviour, and thought that he had actually given her encouragement! He thought Mrs Norman perfectly capable of giving Clara exactly that impression if she found out that John had a tendre for her.
However, when John repeated his offer to Simon the next morning, his brother protested vehemently.
"Does Mama think I cannot spend an evening by myself?" he asked indignantly. "If you send someone to the vicarage for my books, I'll be well able to keep myself busy until you return, and so I will tell her. I don't want any of you to forego a pleasant evening for my sake."
John laughed. "How pleasant is it going to be, Simon?" he asked. "With a hostess behaving like a cat in heat, a host who will be too drunk to rise from the table by the end of dinner, and a son who, although no highwayman, is as unpleasant a fellow as one could possibly wish to avoid?"
"Miss Baines will be there," Simon pointed out.
"And you think it will further my cause with her if she sees Mrs Norman sit down in my lap?"
Simon laughed. "I think your hostess will stop short of that."
"I'm not entirely sure that she will," John muttered darkly.
"Is the valiant Captain Gilbert losing his nerve?" Simon asked quizzically. "I had no idea it was that way with you. If you need an excuse for staying at home, very well, I give you permission to use that particular one. But let me remind you that young Mr Norman appeared to be much taken with Miss Baines at Lady Waldegrave's ball, and by now he will have discovered the exact size of her dowry. To the last penny, I'm sure."
"Damn him!" John cried. Although Simon lifted his eyebrows at this outburst of temper or, more likely, at the language John had employed in expressing himself he did not say anything but let the message sink in.
"If Mrs Norman did need any prompting for that dinner engagement, it has probably come from him," John said darkly.
"It must be most important to her that her son-in-law should be comfortably established," Simon said blandly. "One cannot blame her for having his interest at heart."
"Are you egging me on?" John asked, eyeing his brother suspiciously.
"Do you need any egging on? I am merely making you aware of some facts that may have escaped your notice. Norman is not a highwayman, but he may have every intention of recovering his fortunes by lawful means."
"You think I should go then?" John asked.
"I think you know best what to do," Simon replied. "At any rate you need not stay at home to entertain me; I wonder what my mother thought when she suggested I needed someone to stay with me. As if I did not spend most of my evenings by myself at the vicarage! A good book or two are the only companions I need."
John laughed. "You will learn to think differently one day," he told his brother, and got up. "And now I am going to take Miss Baines for a drive in my father's curricle."
"Good luck then," Simon told him, and picked up his book to go on with his reading.
Clara had been both pleased and surprised when Captain Gilbert had asked her to accompany him on a drive across the surrounding countryside. He argued that she had not seen much of Shropshire yet, having been more or less confined to the house thanks to Mr Summers' illegal activities, and that she ought to have an idea as to what the country around Colby Green looked like before she returned to Bath. Noticing her reluctance, he had added, "My father's groom will be with us, you know. Quite unexceptionable."
"I I did not think about the propriety of your suggestion," Clara told him. "I was simply asking myself why you should ask me to accompany you. Why not Amanda or Miss Swinford, who could surely do with some distraction or other?"
"They are both intimately acquainted with the Shropshire countryside," Captain Gilbert had replied dryly. "In fact, my sister has told me that she wished to take Eleanor to the shop in Colby Green today if you wish to accompany them on their shopping expedition all you need to do is tell me."
"Oh no I am not planning on making any purchases," Clara had replied, smiling at the notion. "Very well! Is there anything in particular that you wish to show me?"
It was a fine afternoon, and Clara thoroughly enjoyed their drive. Aware of the groom behind them they could only talk of commonplace subjects, yet Clara had the impression that Captain Gilbert was making an effort to become better acquainted with her. In turn, he also enabled her to become better acquainted with him. When she had first met him, she would never have thought it possible that this man would ever lose his reserve, and would speak with such frankness and eloquence about his opinions, or his hopes. Not to her, at any rate.
"When will you have to return to your regiment?" Clara asked him.
"Soon. From what I have read in the newspapers I will not be able to stay much longer than two weeks, or three at the utmost."
"Are you looking forward to it?"
"Yes and no," was his reply. "I am looking forward to meeting my friends again, naturally, and to being busy. I am not made for idleness, I am afraid. After a week or two it begins to grate on my nerves."
"You are fortunate then, in having a great deal to do. Imagine you were cursed with a life where all you have to do is look as beautiful as you can, and obtain accomplishments that may come in useful one day, although I personally think it unlikely that the ability to draw a good likeness of Mrs Blackwell's pug falls under that category."
"Surely there are some useful things you learned at Mrs Blackwell's seminary?"
"Not nearly enough; but unfortunately Mrs Blackwell's establishment is no different from others. It does not do for a young lady to be too accomplished, you must know."
"Indeed? Why not?"
"I suppose ignorance is a charming character trait; one a young lady does well to cultivate."
"Is my mother familiar with Mrs Blackwell's educational principles? I thought she'd sent my sister to Bath to learn something!"
"She has learnt a great deal already," Clara pointed out. "You said so yourself."
"So I did," Captain Gilbert admitted, and drew Clara's attention to a ruined castle. "If you wish to explore the ruins, Miss Baines, I will ask Richardson to walk the horses and show you around."
Clara was only too glad to accept his offer, and so Captain Gilbert drove the curricle to the castle gates.
"My family has their annual summer picnic here," he told Clara as he assisted her in alighting the carriage. "On Amanda's birthday, if the weather permits it; or on a date close to her birthday if it does not. It has become a family tradition over the years. Shall we go in?"
Clara nodded, taking in the reddish stone walls and magnificent arched windows. "It is a beautiful spot," she said. "Where does your family celebrate your birthday, Captain Gilbert?"
He laughed. "At home, usually, for it is in January," he said as he led her through the arch into what had probably been the courtyard of the castle.
"Not the most suitable time of the year for al fresco entertainments," Clara remarked.
"True. Not that I am in favour of excessive celebrations on that day. In fact I forgot all about it on my last birthday; it took Morrison to remind me of it. But then I was rather busy." He gave a wry smile. Clara, who was familiar with the Peninsular campaign thanks to her study of the newspapers and her uncle's occasional letters, could well imagine why he had been "rather busy" on his birthday and did not question him any further. It seemed to her as if he appreciated her forbearance. He gently took her arm and led her to a huge arched window. There he lifted her up until she could sit on the window ledge, and then climbed up after her.
"This is one of my favourite spots," he told her. "The window is like an ornate frame to a beautiful picture if you look out into the countryside. The view is marvellous, don't you think?"
"It is," Clara agreed. "Shropshire is very beautiful."
"I am glad to hear you say that. I'd feared that the highwayman affair had given you a disgust of the place, and I do not want that to happen. In part this is why I wanted to show you around today to atone for the bad experiences you may have had here; in the hope of creating a fond memory or two."
Clara smiled. "I do have a couple of fond memories of my stay here," she told him.
He looked at her earnestly, and for a moment Clara thought he meant to say something to her. Whatever it was he thought the better of it, however; instead he climbed back to the ground and lifted her down again. As they walked back to the carriage, he resumed the easy but commonplace conversation they had had on their drive here, and Clara suspected that this was in order to deceive the groom into thinking that they were nothing but a pair of friends enjoying an afternoon drive in each other's company.
Not too long ago she would have thought the same thing, but there had been something in Captain Gilbert's expression when she had told him about her fond memories which had made her reconsider. She was not certain, but she was beginning to suspect that Captain Gilbert did not regard her as a mere friend. There was more to it, and although she did her best to suppress that thought for fear of being disappointed, it took hold of her and gave rise to a warm, happy feeling.
Once Clara had permitted herself to accept Captain Gilbert's attentions as such, she became more aware of them every day. He lost no opportunity to spend some time with her, and although they were never alone with each other he became adept at creating moments of privacy for them both. His conduct only allowed one conclusion he was courting her. No gentleman certainly none with Captain Gilbert's strict principles would show such unmistakable signs of an attachment without being in earnest; without having honourable intentions. That he had not declared himself yet was not surprising, however Clara had taken good care that he should not notice her growing affection for him, and no man would go so far as to make an offer of marriage without having received some encouragement in advance. A man who, like Captain Gilbert, had previously suffered a severe disappointment was even more likely than others to keep his feelings to himself until he could be certain that the object of his affections returned them. Captain Gilbert was not going to take any chances; Clara knew him to be a cautious man. Unless she succeeded in giving him a hint that an offer from him would be most welcome, he would not ask her.
Yet she did not wish to appear fast; she did not want to lose his respect by making herself too easily available. She was relatively new to this game of courtship; none of her acquaintances with gentlemen had ever reached that stage, although with some encouragement on her part Mr Harding might have made the attempt. It was therefore no wonder that she was unsure as to how much encouragement she could give Captain Gilbert without conveying the impression that she was forward, which was the last thing she wanted. Unfortunately, there was no one she could ask for advice in the matter. Amanda was even more inexperienced than Clara when it came to dealing with the opposite sex, and Clara was not going to mention the matter to Lady Gilbert. Miss Swinford was another unlikely confidante. To ask her for advice in matters of the heart at a time when she was suffering from severe heartache was cruel; besides she might not feel inclined to listen to Clara's confidences. Even if she had not nursed a broken heart, Clara would have hesitated to ask her. They were not that well acquainted. So the only encouragement Clara allowed herself to give her suitor was the occasional smile or ready compliance whenever he suggested some entertainment for her. For, she felt, he was probably not going to appreciate such signs of encouragement as were contrary to her nature. He knew her well enough to be aware that she was a very modest girl, and excessive encouragement on her part might look like pretence and scare him off rather than attract him.
The outing to the castle had given John confidence as far as Miss Baines was concerned. He was not yet certain whether she would accept him, but he was fairly sure that if he asked her to marry him she would seriously consider doing so. He therefore began to settle matters with his family with his father, at any rate to see whether the match found his favour. It became instantly apparent that Sir Cecil had no objections to the match; on the contrary, he was delighted when John told him about his plans. He confessed that he had never thought Miss Yates a suitable wife for his son, but had refrained from saying so knowing that it would be no use to try and change John's mind. He had no doubt, however, that Miss Baines was just the sort of girl to make John happy and therefore gladly gave his consent, provided that Miss Baines' uncle gave his as well. Sir Cecil agreed with John that no announcement of any kind should be made to the family or anyone else until John had obtained General Baines' permission to address his niece and had reached an understanding with her. He assured John that the promises he'd previously made for John and his family's support were still valid, and that General Baines could therefore have no objection on financial grounds. Mrs John Gilbert and any children of hers would be well provided for.
Satisfied with the outcome of his conference with his father, John set about the difficult task of informing General Baines of his intentions regarding Clara. He was rather uncertain as to how best to approach the man; the most proper thing would be to post to London and call on the man, to give him an opportunity to get to know him in person before making his decision. But this course of action would take time, and right now John was reluctant to leave Colby Green. In the end he decided to write a letter to the General, promising him a visit as soon as the General felt it was convenient, but stating his affairs as clearly as he could to make sure the General did not think him a fortune hunter. The letter was difficult to write; it took him the better part of an evening and many half-written letters ended up in the library fire until John was satisfied with the wording of his missive and felt that it was likely to convince General Baines of his suitability as a marriage partner for Miss Baines. Apart from these arrangements, he continued his efforts to win Miss Baines' heart, for he knew that even with her uncle's consent to back him she was unlikely to accept his offer of marriage unless she was in love with him, and to say the truth John did not want to have it any other way. He wanted his marriage to be a love match on both sides; for he knew it would not work otherwise.
The signs Miss Baines gave him were highly encouraging; she seemed to enjoy his company as much as he enjoyed hers, and readily took part in whatever schemes he suggested. If things continued to be that way, he felt, he would propose to her as soon as he had word from her uncle. However, events turned out to be rather different from what John had planned.
The dinner at the Normans' was almost as bad as John had feared; although Mrs Norman did stop short of sitting down in his lap. But it was evident that she was intent on furthering the intimacy of their acquaintance, and equally evident that she was trying to give her stepson an opportunity to improve his familiarity with Miss Baines. At the dinner table she could not seat John next to her; his father had that doubtful honour, but Miss Baines, being the eldest of the young ladies present, found herself right next to young Mr Norman. John, placed on the opposite side of the table, had ample opportunity to watch Norman's attempts at ingratiating himself with Miss Baines, and his temper suffered severely.
There was nothing objectionable in Clara's conduct; she treated Norman with just the right amount of polite reserve, but that did not deter the man, it seemed. On the contrary, he doubled his efforts to make himself agreeable to her, and there was nothing John could do to stop him. Knowing Norman as he did, John knew that instead of leaving her alone, Norman would try if he could lure her away from John; he'd deliberately try to make mischief between them. It was better to hold his tongue, therefore, but it cost John considerable effort to do so, and he was almost certain that Norman had noticed his effort and derived some amusement from it.
Things got worse once they joined the ladies in the drawing room after dinner. Mrs Norman, no longer bound by convention to entertain Sir Cecil, immediately beckoned to John as he entered the room, and he was unable to shake her off all evening. He might have been able to do so, had he gone out of his way to offend her, but he was not lost to all sense of propriety yet. He did notice with some satisfaction, however, that Miss Baines appeared to be as hard put to keep her temper as he was; when Mrs Norman fawned over him he noticed her throwing a sidelong glance at the elder Mr Norman, as if to see how long he was going to tolerate his wife's conduct before intervening. However, Norman did not care or was too drunk to care, and Miss Baines' silent appeal was lost on him.
"And so you are about to return to your regiment, Lady Gilbert tells me," Mrs Norman pouted. "When your neighbours had only just got used to your company! I find it most inconvenient; especially with the Waldegraves being gone too."
"Next time I meet Bonaparte I will tell him to be more considerate of my neighbours, ma'am," John said, smiling sweetly in the hope of hiding his annoyance.
Either the barbs in his remark were lost on Mrs Norman or she simply chose to ignore them.
"At least it will give us the chance to see you in your regimentals," she said. "I'd dearly love to see them I am sure it must be a striking sight to behold."
"I'll make a point of calling on you then. But do tell me ma'am do you prefer my regimentals the way they looked when I went away, or would you rather see them the way they were when I returned? Each was a striking sight in its way, even if I say so myself."
"Oh dear, yes! I was almost struck dumb when the post-boys literally dumped him on our doorstep!" his mother said, feeling she ought to take part in the conversation before John flew into a temper. Over the years she had learned to read the signs. "Only when he spoke to me I realised it was my son he looked like a vagrant!"
"A particularly grimy one," John added. "My regimentals were nothing but filthy rags at that point, and as for my own appearance the less said about it the better it will be." He laughed. "I do not think this was what you had in mind when you said you wished to see me in my uniform, however."
"Good heavens, no! How unpleasant it would be! I do not like to think of unpleasant things let us talk of something else!"
John bowed, but if he had hoped for her to drop not only that particular topic but would also find some other conversation partner he was destined to be disappointed. Instead she tried to discover how he was planning to keep himself entertained until he was obliged to leave, no doubt wishing to find out how she could best arrange for chance meetings with him. He did his best to remain polite but to convey to her the message that his actions during that time were none of her business, and had never been so glad to see the tea tray arrive. Luckily, as soon as tea had been drunk, his mother gave the signal for their departure, and so he simply had to thank his hostess for a pleasant evening.
They had gone in two carriages, and John found himself in the same carriage with Clara and his cousin Walter on their return journey. He tried to start a conversation with Clara, but became immediately aware of some coldness in her demeanour. Her replies were monosyllabic at best, and her demeanour was forbidding. John suspected that young Norman had done his best to cut him out, and had probably dropped a falsehood or two into her ear. He could hardly ask her outright while Walter was present the poor fellow was very much in the way, John thought but whatever it was the matter had to be settled at once. So when the carriage stopped at the gate of Antigua Lodge, John turned to Clara and said, "Are you very tired, Miss Baines?"
"I am, rather," was her discouraging reply.
"Too tired to walk up to the house with me?" John asked. "After the oppressive air in Mrs Norman's drawing room, I have a craving for fresh air. What do you say? Will you keep me company?"
"Are you afraid to walk by yourself? Maybe you should ask Mr Swinford to accompany you?" There was a waspish tone in her voice now; and John was certain that something was wrong. He simply opened the door of the carriage, and pulled her out with him.
"Walter is not the one treating me like a leper," he merely said, slamming the carriage door shut and signing to the coachman to continue the journey. "Whatever has happened to put you out of temper, Miss Baines?"
"I am not out of temper," she protested.
"Yes, you are, and it is a novel sight," John told her. "So far, whenever I have put you out of temper you were still able to behave with quiet dignity and did not try to bite my head off."
"I am not " she began, and then broke off. "This is becoming a trifle repetitive, isn't it?" she said.
"Only a little," John said, and took her arm. "Come now. Tell me what is wrong."
"It is only well Mr Norman somehow implied that Mrs Norman " She broke off again, but John did not need her to complete the sentence.
"I see," he said. "And you believed him?"
"I have frequently seen Mrs Norman attempt to to draw your attention," she said tonelessly.
"So have I. Very frequently, in fact. Have you ever seen me give her the attention she craves?"
"No," she confessed, and added, quietly, "At first I did not believe it, because I did not want to, but well, it is none of my business anyway."
"We both know that this is not true. It is very much your business," John said, pulling her into his arms. "Listen. I will not say that you are worth a dozen of Mrs Norman's kind, for it would be an insult to you. She cannot even try to compare to you and she knows it. My guess is she has realised that you have come in her way, and knowing she cannot win by fair means she tries to win by foul ones. Let me tell you once and for all that you have no reason to be jealous."
"Jealous? Me?" Clara cried indignantly, but her protest ended when John kissed her.
"No reason at all," John said, once he had regained enough breath to speak.
A couple of minutes later, Clara sighed, leaned on his shoulder and said, "I should not be doing this. I should not kiss you."
"Yes, you should," John told her. "What you should not do is stop kissing me."
"We will have to stop at one point whatever will your family think of us?"
"They'll think we're going to be married, which is quite true," John said confidently.
"Who says so?" she asked sharply.
"Well, I assumed that since we kissed ."
"You did not even ask me if I wanted to marry you! I will not let you decide my future for me without even consulting me!" She was furious now, and John tried to calm her.
"Clara, surely everything's settled between us? It must be clear to you that this is what I want, and when you responded to my kisses the way you did I thought "
"A kiss means nothing," Clara hissed. "If I'd married every man I kissed I'd "
Her unfairness infuriated John. He was pretty certain that she'd never kissed anyone but him, and he did not quite understand what difference it made whether he'd asked her to marry him or not when they were certain of each other's feelings.
"Yes? How many husbands would you have by now?" he asked, unable to keep his annoyance out of his tone of voice.
At that moment she must have become aware of the enormity of her suggestion.
"Oh!" she cried and paused for a moment. "You're a horrid man," she then said and ran away. He watched her run to the house, and listened to her rapid steps on the gravel drive. It was better not to follow her, John decided. They'd better discuss this when they had both had had a night's rest, and were in a suitable frame of mind to behave like rational grown-ups rather than a pair of children. But there was no denying that his proposal had not quite had the desired effect on Clara.
After a sleepless night Clara went down to breakfast, dreading a meeting with Captain Gilbert. It was not that she did not want to marry him, for she did. What had upset her was the way he had taken for granted that she had no other plans for her future, his way of deciding they'd be married without even asking her what she wanted; as if she were desperate to seize any opportunity for marriage, as if she had no other options and he had not even seen what he'd done wrong. She did want to marry him, but first he had to learn his lesson Clara might be a quiet and demure young lady, but she did have a will of her own, and her husband would have to respect her opinions and not make important decisions without asking her what she thought of them.
She therefore gave him the cold shoulder treatment during breakfast, and quickly returned to her room afterwards, knowing that this was the one place where he could not follow her. A headache had been her excuse for doing so, but if she had thought it would deter Amanda from coming after her she realised her mistake soon. No five minutes after Clara had retired to her bedchamber and given way to another bout of tears, Amanda came in without knocking, carrying a bottle of lavender-oil and a glass of harts-horn and water. She set her tray down on Clara's dressing table and came to her side immediately, asking her what the matter was.
"Has anything happened to your uncle?" she wanted to know.
Clara shook her head, and grabbed her handkerchief to restore her tearstained face to its usual appearance.
"Then what is it?" Amanda insisted. "You can tell me, you know! This is what friends are for!"
At first Clara hesitated Captain Gilbert was Amanda's brother, after all. On the other hand, it would do Clara good to confide in someone, and so she decided to unburden herself. She told Amanda what had happened between her and Captain Gilbert the evening before, and Amanda's indignation was great. She agreed with Clara that he deserved being taught a lesson, and only her delight at the possibility of having Clara as her sister-in-law kept her from immediately running off and giving him a piece of her mind.
"I never thought John could be so stupid," she said when Clara's tale came to an end. "He always means well, of course. But the problem is sometimes the things he wants to say don't come out the way he meant them. I do not doubt that he meant to ask you only then he kissed you and forgot all about not having done so yet."
In spite of herself Clara had to laugh. Amanda's theory had some merit, she felt. Those kisses had made her forget a couple of things, too.
"But you are right," Amanda went on. "A girl must have a proper marriage proposal, and he had no right to deny you yours. I suggest you go back to sleep for a while. I'll leave the lavender oil here for you and the harts-horn as well. You'll feel better after a nap."
Gratefully, Clara nodded and, once Amanda had left her room, followed her advice. At least one member of Captain Gilbert's family was on her side.
John was sitting with Simon playing chess when the door burst open and Amanda came in.
"Aha! So here you are," she cried, as if she'd found him in an ill-reputed tavern doing Heaven only knew what rather than in his invalid brother's room entertaining the patient. "What have you been thinking?"
Puzzled, John asked, "And what have I done to put you in a temper?"
"You know that well enough."
"But I do not," Simon said, his eyes glinting with amusement. "Won't you tell me, Amanda?"
"Ask John what he did to Clara last night," Amanda said.
"Yes, I daresay the answer to that question might be quite interesting," Simon replied. "So what did you do, John?"
"I don't see what business of yours it is! Or Amanda's, coming to think of it." John said defensively. "But if you must know I asked her to marry me."
"That's exactly what you did not do! You merely told her that you were going to be married!" Amanda ranted.
"And that was when she became angry with me and refused me."
"And rightly so! Don't you know that women want a real proposal? And I thought you were clever!"
"We are often mistaken in our notions, it seems," Simon remarked. "Really John; I am afraid Amanda has a point. Nobody likes being taken for granted."
John sighed. "I assumed that since Miss Baines was a sensible girl "
"Do you think sensible girls have no heart? Did you have to be so matter-of-fact about marrying her? What is wrong with telling her that you love her and asking her to be your wife? That was what she wanted, not some nonsense about `when we are married΄, as if she had no choice but to do your bidding! It's no wonder she became angry; in fact I admire her restraint! If I'd been in her place I'd have slapped you! Oh, you do give me a headache!"
With these words, Amanda stormed out of the room and slammed the door shut.
"Amanda appears to feel strongly about this," Simon mused.
"Do you think I do not?" John asked him. "I do, but how am I going to get myself out of this mess? If Amanda is right, what can I do? Even if I ask Miss Baines to marry me now it will not be the same thing as if I'd asked her last night. It seems I cannot win."
"I cannot call myself an expert in these matters," Simon told him. "But I think an apology would be a good start. After that I think she will let you know exactly what she wants you to do."
John nodded. Simon's suggestion sounded reasonable; and it did not look as if there was anything else he could do but wait for Clara to forgive him, and in the meantime do his best to make her do so.
When Amanda did not make her appearance for dinner that evening, Lady Gilbert sent a servant to inquire what had kept her. The reply was alarming Miss Amanda had gone to bed in the afternoon with a headache, and was in a high fever now.
"Mrs Carter thinks it may be the measles, my lady," the maid who'd conveyed the nurse's message to the family said. Lady Gilbert saw no reason to doubt the word of a woman who had reared each of her children and knew a thing or two about the ailments likely to befall the young.
"Good heavens! First it is one thing, and then another!" she cried. "Simon, John, have you had the measles?"
"We both had them when we were in school," Captain Gilbert assured his mother. Mr Swinford, when applied to, admitted that he'd had the measles too, and so had his sister.
"Miss Baines?" Lady Gilbert asked. "What about you?"
"I do not really know," Clara told her. "I cannot remember having had them, but I may have when I was very little. I could write to my nurse and ask her; surely she will know."
"That will take too long, I am afraid," Lady Gilbert said. "By the time you receive her reply you may have caught the measles already. There is nothing for it; we will have to send you back to Mrs Blackwell's, although I am very sorry that your visit must come to such a sudden end."
"But surely this is not necessary!" Clara cried. "I I could make myself useful, and if I do not come near Amanda I will be in no danger of infection."
However, Lady Gilbert would not hear of such a thing. How was she to face Clara's uncle, she asked her, if Clara caught a dangerous illness in her house and she had made no attempt to prevent it?
"My husband will take you back to Bath tomorrow morning," Lady Gilbert decided. "It is for your own good, Miss Baines and I will be happy to receive you in my house again when there no longer is any danger to your health."
Clara said what was proper, and retired early to pack her trunks. It was not Sir Cecil, however, who was to travel to Bath with her. When she came downstairs the following morning, dressed in her travelling clothes, she found Captain Gilbert there. He told her that his father, too, appeared to have caught the measles, and was unable to convey Clara to Bath.
"I hope you do not mind me going with you," he said with a rueful grin. "My mother's maid will travel with us for propriety's sake, so you need not fear "
"You do not think I am afraid of you?" Clara asked him.
"No. Merely angry with me, and you have every right to that. I owe you many apologies, Miss Baines, but I did not have any opportunity to make them yesterday. Today, it seems, there will be plenty."
While they were travelling in the post-chaise, however, Captain Gilbert kept talking about non-committal topics. Clara was glad about that; she did not want Lady Gilbert's maid to witness what Captain Gilbert wanted to say to her. In the evening, however, when they were having dinner in a private parlour at an inn and the servants had left them, he did speak.
"I am truly sorry, Clara," he said. "It was not until I'd thought about the matter and Amanda told me how you might feel about this that I realised I was in the wrong. I have cheated you out of something that was important to you, and whatever I do I cannot make up for that. Can you forgive me? I love you, and would never hurt you intentionally; I hope there can be no question about that. I can think of nothing better than being married to you, that is, if you will have me." When Clara did not reply immediately, he added, "Will you marry me?" His pleading look was something Clara could not resist.
"I think I will, for I love you too," she said quietly. "If you promise never to ride rough-shod over me again."
"I promise," John said, got up and pulled her into his arms. "Believe it or not, but I do learn from my mistakes."
Some time later, Clara asked him, "What would you have done if I'd said no?"
"I'd have stayed in Bath," he told her, "and come to serenade under your window every night until you changed your mind."
Clara laughed. "It is a good thing I did not refuse you then," she told him. "I do not want the good people of Bath to suffer for my folly!"
"I did taken into account that I'd be court-martialled for excessive cruelty to civilians, but I was willing to brave that," John told her, and kissed her again. "One kiss from you and I'd have been amply compensated for any inconvenience I might have suffered."
From Bath, John travelled on to London to meet Clara's uncle and settle matters with him. General Baines had not been idle he'd used his connections to discover more about the man who'd applied to him for his permission to marry his niece, and had been pleased with the outcome of his inquiries. He had no objection to their marriage, and even went so far as to support John and Clara's wish to marry before John had to return to Spain, although he opposed Clara's wish to follow her husband to the Peninsula. In this, he could be sure of John's cooperation. He had seen too many war widows stranded in Spain, left to the mercy of the locals or, worse, the French soldiers, to consider taking his wife with him. Clara would be safe and comfortable in Colby Green with his family or in her own home in Surrey if she preferred to go there. But he was not going to allow her to go with him.
Unfortunately, no member of John's family was able to attend his wedding in St Swithin's church in Bath. His father and sister were still bedridden; Simon too was too weak to make the journey, and his mother felt it was her duty to remain with her family and assist Nurse in her care of them. Ben was preparing for a particularly difficult exam and unable to come to Bath for a mere wedding. So the only support John had at the altar was that of his friend, Morrison, who'd come immediately when he'd had news of the event. If the occasion made him feel melancholy he did not say so; indeed he was the life and soul of the wedding breakfast the General hosted at the York House Hotel, and many a young lady in Mrs Blackwell's Seminary pined for the dashing Captain Morrison for several weeks, until their new drawing master arrived.
John and Clara went to her father's house in Surrey for their honeymoon. It was not only because John wanted to become acquainted with her home; he also told her that he did not want to have his entire family watching their every step when he only had three weeks with his wife before he had to leave her. The General had extended his leave of absence by a week, but there was a limit to what even he could do. Clara would go with John to Hythe, where he would remain for another two or three weeks of recruit training. Once John had left, she was to travel back to Colby Green and stay with her new family.
"Do you really want me to stay behind?" Clara asked her husband as they were in the chaise travelling towards the coast. "I could still go with you."
John sighed. "Believe me, my love, if there was a way to keep you safe I'd be all for it. But as it is no, you'll be better off here."
"What if I went to Lisbon with you, and waited for you there?"
"What if? You'd be in a strange country, knowing no one, not knowing the language, and without a husband to look after you. Does that sound appealing?"
"Not really," Clara had to admit.
"There you are. You'll be happy in Colby Green, I know you will. My mother is looking forward to spoiling you, you'll have Amanda for company, and Simon too. Who knows, there might even be another mystery or two for you to solve!"
Clara laughed. "Such as who will end up in Mrs Norman's clutches!"
"Or what happened to Mr Norman's purse. We never found that one, if you remember."
"True. I will make an effort to discover it. There is also the theft of three hens in Mrs Travers' poultry, although personally I think it was only a fox."
"But I am sure you will be able to identify the fox that did it," John told her, and kissed her. "And by the time you get bored I will be back," he whispered.
© 2009, 2010 Copyright held by the author.