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Laura Evans 4-7

March 30, 2018 01:09PM
yes, it is a long short story/novelette. It was as long as it wanted to be. I'm working on Lucilla Peterson and Lord Braxstrode at the moment and then I'll do Beau Popham. If I don't have enough length for a book, I may very well turn my attention to other secondary characters; I'm thinking of people like George Coate's older nieces, and the Steggalls boys [not necessarily in combination] but I don't think I can face Cora Redmayne. If anyone has a favourite secondary they would like to see romanced, please let me know! I thought this particularly appropriate to post at Easter, as our couple go to listen to Handel's 'Messiah' at Covent Garden.

Chapter 4

The tragedy was heavy, but the language of the poetry in which it was couched was at times like music. Laura had to admit to herself, however, that she could find little in the role of the eponymous Evadne to care overly much for her fate.
The pantomime was based very loosely on the tale which Laura had read in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, with a lot of chase scenes, dancing and songs. The musical merit was dubious, and the lyrics not always appropriate for those children present, but it was amusing, and Laura found that she had almost as much enjoyment in watching her fellow theatre-goers. Cora was enjoying herself as much as any child, after having disliked the tragedy, and Mr. Brasenose was watching Cora watching the entertainment.
“Do you enjoy the theatre, Miss Brasenose?” asked Laura, in an interval.
Anne Brasenose laughed. She was a merry girl who punctuated most comments with a laugh, but as it was a genuine chuckle of pleasure or amusement, it did not grate the way some studied laughs could do.
“Oh, I like pantomime fine well, Miss Evans, and farce, but I am not keen on tragedy or anything heavy like Shakespeare. I am fond enough of music to enjoy opera, and I like to watch the skilled dancing of the ballet.”
“Ah,” said Laura, uncertain what more might be said. She suspected that she and Miss Brasenose had little in common.
She was not expecting to walk right into Marquess Falkrington when she had been in search of a ladies’ cloakroom to make herself comfortable.
“Good grief, it’s Miss Reads-Shakespeare,” said the marquess. “I wouldn’t expect to see you here.”
“I’m with a party,” said Laura. “I have to return the compliment and say I would not have expected to see you here, either.”
“I have a friend who is an uncle and rashly agreed to bring his nephew,” said Falkrington. “You’ve done something to your hair; much improved.”
Laura blushed; it was most rude of him to make a personal comment, even though it was a compliment.
“Almond milk and rosewater,” she said, timidly. “It combats the fuller’s earth.”
“Ah, yes, long hair must be a nuisance in winter,” he nodded.
“My great aunt says I will grow out of having greasy hair and skin, but it is an affliction,” sighed Laura. “Oh my, I can’t believe I just admitted such a thing to a gentleman!”
He laughed.
“I ain’t a gentleman, my girl, I’m an aristocrat. What is your real name, by the way?”
“Miss Evans,” said Laura. “We were introduced.”
“Dammit, girl, I’ve been introduced to every female between the ages of fifteen and five-and twenty, you can’t expect me to remember them all unless they manage to be at least marginally interesting,” he said.
“No, of course not, only a gentleman of impeccable good manners would do so,” retorted Laura.
He laughed again.
“Well done,” he said. “‘A very palpable hit’.”
“Hamlet,” said Laura. “I have to ‘take up arms against a sea of troubles’; I am incapable of lying down to be walked on.”
“Oh, I am warned then, that you ‘strain like a greyhound at the slips’ if I am my usual rude self; I look forward to crossing swords with you again, Miss Evans.” He nodded to her, and resumed his interrupted return to his own box.
“My goodness,” said Laura, to herself. She returned to her own box, glad that she had time to compose herself before she found herself with other people again. An encounter with the marquess seemed almost as bruising as falling literally at his feet.

It may be said that although Laura enjoyed herself at a number of soirées and informal dances, she could not help hoping that Falkrington would be at Almack’s. Lady Jersey had been the patroness to come through with the vouchers, and Laura hoped that she would not be looked at too askance for any means which Aunt Agnes had brought to bear in order to facilitate this feat.
It had been exciting preparing for the great day, and Laura knew her gown suited her very well. Half-mourning for Queen Charlotte was now essentially at an end, nicely timed for the resumption of the Almack’s subscription balls in Willis’ Rooms, and although an unwed girl newly out must wear white, she might have some colour to her costume. Laura wore a silver tissue slip, which was permitted, which would shine through her over gown with a muted gleam, the overgown being very full, made of a satin-striped gauze, the fine amber satin stripes being edged with a silver thread each side. The same fabric was used, tightly gathered and set in two rows of waves to give weight to the gown, and the bottom also lightly weighted in the hem with lead shot. Apart from the decoration around the bottom, the dress was plain, letting the fabrics speak for themselves. Laura wore a plain amber cross set in silver, and submitted to wearing a frivolous little confection of a cap covered in knots of silver and amber ribbon, with three feathers in it. There were many ladies who looked finer, but Laura was satisfied to know that she looked as good as it was possible for her to look, with unwontedly shiny hair, the colour of a horse chestnut conker, and, she fondly believed, an improvement to her skin.
Sir Caleb Armitage was the first person to solicit Laura for a dance.
“Oh, please, sir, you do not have to dance with me because you are sorry for me,” said Laura.
“Now why should I be sorry for a girl my wife considers worth looking on as a protégé?” said Sir Caleb. “I want to dance my first dance here with someone I know, before I am thrown to the wolves by Lady Lieven to dance with whomsoever she considers needs a safe gentleman to dance with. Feeling my way, so to speak.”
Laura had to laugh.
“You are very droll, Sir Caleb.”
“It hides the terror in my heart at the ordeal before me,” said Sir Caleb. “The evening, that is, not dancing with you.”
“I am glad dancing with me is not an ordeal.”
“Not at all. I can converse with you without worrying about whether you will understand me, for I am finding the intellectual attainments of many ladies in society to be very poor.”
“Bluestockings are generally distained, so it is not considered proper for girls to seem too well read,” said Laura. “You may find that some of the sillier sounding ones are dissembling.”
“Sounds a deuced queer way to go on if you ask me,” said Sir Caleb. “I’ll be glad to get back to learning how to be a farmer. Never met a horse, cow, goat or pig which wanted to dissemble.”
“I don’t think the ball gowns would suit them either,” said Laura, gravely.
Sir Caleb laughed.
“Never suggest that to my son, Simon,” he said. “I can just imagine the scenes of havoc with Mistress Sow trotting down the street bedecked with muslin, lace and ribbon. I know we’re looking for a nice husband for her, she was born late in the season so she wasn’t old enough when we left Essex, but somehow I don’t think she’d find a good boar at Almack’s ... though having said that ... no, I think we won’t go there.”
“I fancy there are too many men who are b-o-o-r’s, b-o-r-e’s and b-o-a-r’s in society to be entirely comfortable with the comparison,” said Laura.
He gave a shout of laughter.
“I like that,” he said. “Jane will love it too. Please tell me you have your eye on an intelligent young man, not a purely decorative one.”
Laura flushed.
“I do not exactly have my eye on any young man,” she said.
“Now, a blush like that belies your statement.”
“Sir, it would be no use to consider the Marquess Falkrington even in my wildest dreams.”
Caleb whistled.
“He does have a reputation. But then, he’s also used to insipid girls with no conversation. You could go further and do worse.”

Laura had to admit that she was excited to see the Prince Regent arrive, just before the doors were shut and locked at eleven. There were no exceptions made for anyone who was late, even a royal prince. It was thrilling that he approached Lady Armitage, and bowed to her, inviting her to dance.
She turned to Cora, who was a vision in a silver slip under plain, sheer muslin with the simplest of flounces to weight the overgown.
“Is it not exciting that the Prince of Wales has come?” she said. “And it almost makes it seem as though he is a real person, speaking to someone we know.”
Cora considered.
“I see what you mean,” she said. “He has to be real, but it does seem as though some of these exalted people are like people out of a story. I am glad we are not permitted to waltz, though, it looks very intimate. I should not even like it, I think, with Mr. Brasenose, and he is the soul of delicacy.”
Laura raised an eyebrow; Mr. Brasenose had been particular in his attentions to her friend since the theatre party. He seemed to be a sensible young man but, like his sister, not unduly afflicted with the exigencies of deeper thought.
“They do say that the prince is a ladies’ man, but he has not gone beyond the bounds of propriety with Lady Armitage,” said Laura, watching critically. “I will go and procure us both a glass of lemonade.”
“You are kind, Laura,” said Cora.
By the time Laura returned, it having been rather a squeeze, the waltz had ended, and Cora was on the dance floor with Lord Falkrington. He looked bored. But then he wore that expression when dancing with each of the beauties he had picked to dance with. It was his duty to marry, of course, but a man who enjoyed the wit of Shakespeare, and liked word-play would find poor Cora tedious. There was relief on both their faces when the dance ended, and the marquess saw Cora back towards her mother, who was chatting with Lady Armitage.
“Miss Evans!” his lordship bowed. “Tell me, would you be content to sit a dance out if I procure you refreshments? I see you have lemonade.”
“This is Cora’s: I drank mine,” said Laura. “Is it true that the refreshments are poor?”
“Yes, but I was planning on bribing a footman to make toast, when it matters not that the bread is stale, and on beating sugar into some butter for a butter-icing to make the seed cake less dry for having a butter-icing sandwich of it,” said Falkrington.
“That sounds lovely,” said Laura.
“Then I shall go and procure you both more lemonade and find the footman who will take gelt for such favours,” he said, bowing.
In short order, Cora, Laura and his lordship were sitting in a card room, ignored by the card players, to conceal their illicit comestibles.
“Thank you, my lord, I didn’t think I liked you very much, but a man who can make sure there is good food at short notice is a good man,” said Cora.
“I am also most impressed,” said Laura. “I have heard stories of poor food at schools, is that what has given you the initiative to contrive so splendidly?”
“That had something to do with it, though I was not at school past the age of thirteen. My grandfather became increasingly senile, and I made the decision to leave school to run the estate. You may laugh at me when I tell you what gave me my abilities, though.”
“I somehow doubt that,” said Laura.
“I hero-worshipped my father,” said Falkrington. “He was in France when the Peace of Amiens ended; and instead of declaring himself a viscount, and asking to be ransomed, as most aristocrats were, he decided to fight. He ... died. But the Napoleonic administration sent home his effects once they knew who he was, and that included his diaries. He learned to forage, and make do, and listed many ways to make stale bread palatable. I was eight, and it made a great impact on me. I would rather have had my father than a viscounty, but I swore I would honour his memory by upholding his skills and making sure I would know what to do if I had to fight from undercover if Bonaparte invaded. Remember, I was very young.”
“I think it was very sensible to make such a plan,” said Laura. “After all, he tried to invade, there was a landing at Fishguard which were repelled by the red cloaks and high hats of the Welsh women. But if the invaders had been the Imperial Guard, not enlisted irregulars, you never know what might have happened. Or if terrorists had been sent with smuggler ships, to prepare a ... a place to land. Is that far fetched?”
“It is not, and I salute your understanding of the matter,” said Falkrington.
“Was there really a danger? I am glad I did not know,” said Cora, her blue eyes wide with alarm. “I thought it was all under control.”
“Our army and navy were brave and fought well,” said Falkrington, with a bit of a snap, “but had they not done so it would have been, as the Duke of Wellington said of the battle of Waterloo, ‘a damned close run thing’.”
“My lord, did you swear?” gasped Cora.
“No, he quoted the Duke of Wellington who swore,” said Laura. “Cora, I pray you not regard it; a man may say words a lady should not be expected to hear if he is quoting, and it’s not as if we hadn’t heard it from time to time, even though most of the young men change it to ‘dashed’ in a hurry if they notice there are ladies present. Why, Mr. Montgomery said it three times at the last musicale, when he was talking about the damage to his wretched Draisine.”
“I still do not understand how having wheels on a pole when you are walking can make you go faster, I would have thought it would make you slower,” said Cora, easily diverted.
“Permit me,” said Falkrington, giving Laura a grateful look. “If you have a ball and you roll it, it does not stop rolling, when it leaves your hand, does it?”
“No...” said Cora, uncertainly.
“And the hoops boys bowl with sticks, they roll between each strike of the stick, yes?”
“Yes,” said Cora. “It looks such fun,” she added, wistfully.
“It is,” said Falkrington. “At least when you are young. But the Draisine acts like the hoop; kicking against the ground acts like striking the hoop with the stick, it gives it impetus ...er, movement, and then you might lift your feet and let it run before kicking down again, or you might kick a lot to get it going fast even as boys keep striking to speed a hoop up.”
“Oh!” said Cora. “Now I understand; thank you, my lord!”
Courtesy dictated that Falkrington should dance with Laura, when they returned to the ballroom, and Laura thanked him for the simple but clever explanation of a Draisine to Cora.
“Your friend is as stupid as a stump, you know,” he said.
“Yes, and she is also good-natured, kindly and gentle, which is worth considerably more than brains, in a cruel world,” said Laura, severely. “It is not her fault that it was a difficult birth for her mother, and left her a trifle ... wanting. You could not ask for a kinder friend.”
“I am put in my place,” said Falkrington. “And to be honest, I like you the more for standing up for a friend, even at the risk of offending me.”
“If you took offence at me standing up to you for a friend, you’d not be worth knowing,” said Laura.

Chapter 5

It was several days before Laura saw the Marquess again. She and Cora were at a musicale, hosted by Lady Caroline Hale, who was something of a patroness for Cora and her mother. Cora said she was an in-law of some kind, but was vague as to what kind, so Laura had not bothered to ask further. Asking the formidable Mrs. Fielding did not seem like a good idea! However, Cora and Laura arrived early, to help with the final arrangements, as Mrs. Fielding had suggested that Cora should be as a daughter to Lady Caroline, and Laura always liked to help Cora.
Laura was ready to sink through the floor with shame for her friend, however, after they were introduced to a Lady Liddel, and Mrs. Fielding told them that she had been at school with Lady Armitage.
“Oh, you were one of her preceptresses, were you?”asked Cora, ingenuously.
“Certainly not, we were schoolgirls together,” snapped Lady Liddel.
“Oh!” said Cora, blankly. “But Lady Armitage is quite young ...”
“Run along and help Lady Caroline check the flowers, Cora,” said Mrs. Fielding. “Such an ingenuous child! I am sure you will forgive her, Lady Liddel, she means no cheek, and indeed, Lady Armitage looks scarcely out of the schoolroom, she has worn better than we have!”
There were two angry spots on Lady Liddel’s face.
“You need not compare me to yourself, Mrs. Fielding, for I am not old enough to have a daughter making a come-out,” said she.
“To be sure, and Lady Armitage’s eldest daughter is her stepdaughter, of course,” said Mrs. Fielding. “Motherhood suits her so very well.”
“I have not seen her for many years,” ground out Lady Liddel, nodding brusquely and striding off.
“Unpleasant creature, no wonder she looks twice the age of Lady Armitage,” said Mrs. Fielding to Laura. “I doubt she’s even one tenth as capable, either.”
“I wouldn’t have realised she was the same age either,” said Laura. “But poor Cora to blurt it out!”
“Oh, she’ll have forgotten about it by now, don’t feel embarrassed for her, she won’t be,” said Mrs. Fielding. “And once I’ve brought young Brasenose up to the point of popping the question, she won’t have to worry again. A nice boy, isn’t he?”
“He’s a pleasant young man, but he has as much imagination as a garden snail,” said Laura, candidly. She had danced with him a few times and found it a tedious business.
“True, but then a man with much more imagination would find Cora boring, don’t you think?” said Mrs. Fielding. Laura considered, and nodded.
“I think he is very well suited to her, and Anne is a nice and merry sister for her,” she said.
Mrs. Fielding nodded.
“I am glad to have your opinion; Cora will need their support. You see, I am dying.” She held up a hand as Laura gasped. “I have known for a while, but there is no need to worry Cora about it. I have the strength to see her respectably married, and then I can give way to it, with a nurse, while she is on her honeymoon. And before you tell me Cora ought to be told, why should I spoil her pleasure, only to have her mope and fuss around me making both of us miserable? I am perfectly content, seeing her happy, and I will die happier for not being fagged to death with her ministrations.”
Laura gave a rather rueful chuckle.
“She was like a mother hen when I had a megrim the day after Almack’s,” she said.
“Precisely and it would drive me insane. I only tell you, my dear, because you have been such a staunch and kind friend to her, despite being clever and well read, and I want you to know I appreciate you. I’ve put in my will that you are to have your pick of one of my pieces of jewellery, which will, I hope, help you to remember me kindly.”
Tears flooded to Laura’s eyes.
“Of course I will always remember you kindly; you are such a good mother to Cora, and you have been kind to me!”
Mrs. Fielding gave her a rather awkward embrace.
“I’ve done things in life I ... regret ... and I hope, if they come out, you will be strong for Cora, and remember that above all things, I love her.”
“I will, Mrs. Fielding,” said Laura, staunchly. “And I am sure Lady Armitage will be there for her too.”
“Oddly enough, although she knows all about me, I think she will,” said Mrs. Fielding. “She will prove a good friend to you, my child. Always trust her and tell her everything if you need help,”
Laura reflected that it was sound advice to end a rather odd conversation.

Guests were arriving thick and fast now, and Laura was surprised, and ridiculously pleased to see the Marquess of Falkrington as one of them. His eyes flicked round the room, noticed her, and came over.
“You look very well this evening,” he said. “The fuller style of gowns suit you; I’m glad you’re not clinging to the desire to look like a stick with well-tamed lumps.”
Laura was wearing a full gossamer overgown of silver-grey, embroidered in self-colour with silver threads as well, over a slip of dark amber paduasoy.
“How you manage to turn a compliment with an insult must be an art form in itself, my lord,” said Laura. “I do like the fuller skirts that are coming in, but I am dismayed that it is said that waists are to drop, for the current style hides that I am dismally short-waisted and plump.”
“Oh, you’ve lost weight over the season, all that dancing, I suspect,” said Falkrington, eyeing her critically. “You’ll be sadly plump after a couple of babies though.”
“Well, sir, assuming I attain a husband, he will have to put up with that if he wants an heir, and marry me for my wit and bookishness rather than my looks,” said Laura, waspishly.
“A man of sense who loved you well enough would continue to do so,” said Falkrington. “But a man wants to know that a woman makes an effort, even as he should also make an effort for her. The almond milk and rosewater have done a good job. Don’t go throwing yourself away on that Clarke fellow, I hear he’s to offer for you.”
“Good grief!” said Laura, horrified. “I must avoid being alone with him. How could he think I would suit him? His only interest is in farces and pantomime, which is frankly less to my liking even than Draisine riding. At least a Draisine enthusiast does not expect a woman to participate.”
He laughed.
“I should think you would be better to consider a scholar, or at least a man who reads,” he said.
“Yes, but I don’t want to be stuck with a vicar or a curate, I have no interest in being a vicar’s wife at the beck and call of the parish,” said Laura.
“Oh, you’d be wasted as a parson’s goody,” said Falkrington.
“That’s what I said,” said Laura. “What on earth are you doing here? I thought you despised musicales.”
“In general? Yes, I do. I’m too fond of music. But a little bird told me that Lady Armitage would be playing, and I’ll sit through the weedy warbling of watery wenches for that.”
“You have no manners.”
“You already knew that.”
“I did, and so I cannot complain. I think I do not warble weedily, however.”
“I will listen. I will also critique your singing without mercy.”
“Then I will be able to improve. It would be polite to say ‘you could improve by...’ rather than ‘you did a terrible job of ...’ in case you do not know the tactful way to critique.”
He gave a shout of laughter.
“Oh, I will be merciless gently,” he said.
Lady Armitage approached them, smiling at Laura.
“Oh, Lady Armitage,” the girl said, “Oh, please excuse me, sir, but I will be expected to sing, and I wished to ask Lady Armitage if I might presume on her good nature to play for me.”
“I’d be delighted, Miss Evans,” said Jane.
“Oh, my manners, Lady Armitage, this is Lord Falkrington, Lord Falkrington, Lady Armitage.”
“Delighted, I’m sure,” said the marquess.
“What lovely manners when you wish me to perdition for interrupting the only sensible girl in the room,” said Jane. “Her voice is worth listening to when she sings, I assure you, if you have not heard it. Pure gold.”
“I have not, and I shall look forward to it,” said the marquess.
“L ... Lady Armitage, you flatter me,” said Laura.
“I doubt it,” said Lady Armitage. “I never thought to say so, but it really is an insipid squeeze. And Cora is nice enough but not a conversationalist.”
“And the rest are sufficiently identical to look as though they may be bought by the gross in Bond Street,” said the marquess.
“I would have used a more tactful word than ‘gross’, myself,” said Lady Armitage. “Excuse me; I will ask our hostess if she needs incidental music.” She moved away.
“She is right, gross is an abominable word,” said Laura, severely.
“Score then, which becomes a musical pun,” said Falkrington, equably.
“Much better,” said Laura.
As Lady Armitage had received a nod from Lady Caroline to play, Falkrington took Laura’s arm and led her to the seats, where they might better enjoy listening to her play, and conversation was forgotten in the enjoyment of beautifully rendered Bach. Laura frowned as the classical music gave way beneath the pianist’s fingers to ‘Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’, a piece she had a feeling that Lady Armitage disliked, and then into some Irish ballad she could not put her finger on. Lady Armitage, however was staring at Sir Caleb.
“It’s a message, isn’t it?” said Laura, to Falkrington.
He frowned.
“I do believe you are right. Friend of mine believes that Armitage is looking into some unexplained deaths, and they say his lady helps him; a lucky man to have met a woman who is his match in all ways. I doubt many would have realised though.”
“She doesn’t like the song,” said Laura, simply.
They stopped speaking out of politeness as a Mr. Radcliffe came forward to play the trumpet, asking for accompaniement from Lady Armitage. His skills were limited, but Laura sighed in delight at the clever pianoforte work which concealed some of his deficiencies.
It was Laura’s turn next, and she rose to sing. She was slightly disheartened by Falkrington’s posture, sat ready to try to be pleased but plainly not sure that he would be. However, Laura decided to ignore him, and just lose herself in the music. She opened with ‘Greensleeves’, and was almost shocked to see the marquess suddenly sit up as she began to sing. He was amongst those calling for an encore, and Laura dared to try the more technically demanding aria, ‘A lindoro mio tesoro’, from ‘The Barber of Seville’, her contralto voice suited perfectly to Rosina’s part.
She returned to her seat.
“Dammit, girl, you really can sing, why didn’t you tell me to go to hell when I said I would be merciless?”
“Because there is always room for improvement, and I warbled a bit on the Rossini opening.”
“Yes, but you quickly got your nerves under control. I have rarely heard a better voice, and only ever at the opera with a trained professional singer. You may officially consider me impressed.”
Laura blushed, and laughed.
“Then I am glad to have pleased.”
“I’m more than pleased. Marry me!”
“My lord, to make such a suggestion on a whim because of my voice is foolish. You do not know me, and you would not be happy if I said yes,” said Laura.
He stared.
“You are turning me down?”
“Have you any idea how much any of these little fools would jump at a proposal from me?”
“I’m not any of these little fools. If you wish to court me, the answer is ‘yes’; but I will not accept a proposal without more chance to get to know each other.”
He scowled.
“I wasn’t expecting to be turned down.”
“You look like a thwarted schoolboy, my lord, and if you think about it, you will realise that it is only that I ....” she blushed, “Hold you in rather high regard that I have refused. I ... I would not want to cause misery by anything too hasty.”
“Laura! You see, I have made an effort to learn your name! You are fearless, loyal, unimpressed by my title, have a golden voice, and a lively wit and intelligence! I know that about you!”
“But you do not know all my avocations, and I do not know yours, and I am scared that you have taken a whimsical joy in my singing, and ... and will learn to despise me if ... if I do not live up to your expectations in other respects and if I am a plump little apple after a couple of babies.” A tear trembled on her lashes.
“Then, dammit, I will get to know you. What about going to Covent Garden with me to hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’? It is playing until Easter.”
“I would like that above all things, Falkrington, though we should be in a party,” said Laura.
“Yes, don’t want to spoil your reputation. I ain’t taking Miss Fielding, though, or her swain, they’d talk through it,” he said, viciously.
“I believe you are right,” said Laura, sadly.
“I will make up a party,” he said.

Chapter 6

Great Aunt Agnes raised an eyebrow at the invitation from the Marquess of Falkrington to make up a party to the Theatre Royal.
“You know he’s a gazetted flirt?” she said, sternly.
“Yes, ma’am; it’s why I turned down an offer of marriage from him,” said Laura.
“An offer ... improper not to have approached me first, but seriously? You turned down an offer of marriage from the season’s most eligible bachelor?”
“Yes, ma’am; I would not like to be slighted if it turned out we were not suited on longer acquaintance.”
“Now that’s almost missish. But it won’t do any harm; Gerard Falk has had pretty much anything he could ever want all his life, so maybe it’ll make the heart grow fonder as you might say.”
“He hasn’t had everything he wants, Aunt Agnes,” Laura contradicted quietly. “He hasn’t had his father, whom he hero-worshipped, since he was eight.”
“He told you that?”
“He spoke of his father, yes.”
“I see. Well, then, it sounds as if he really does have a case; I withdraw the reservations I was feeling.”
“Cora was there, too.”
Aunt Agnes waved a hand airily.
“Yes, but your friend is not to be considered as a more serious listener than a maidservant would be; less, indeed, for she’s not a gossip as many maids are. Not enough brains to remember what to gossip about.”
“That’s a trifle harsh, ma’am,” protested Laura.
“But true,” snapped Great Aunt Agnes. “There’s something havey-cavey about the girl’s mother too, though I grant you, Cora is prettily-enough behaved, and a pleasant girl. And the Fielding woman has been good enough to take you about with her girl.”
“I like her,” said Laura.
“And you will continue, no doubt, to do so, even if I do not?”
“If I can tell off a marquess about disparaging comments about my friend, I can certainly stand up to my own family,” said Laura.
“Ha! It’s why I like you, girl, you ain’t milk-and-water like so many girls these days. Oh, I’ve a stubborn and independent streak myself, so I ain’t about to censure you for it; and if your marquess already knows about it, he has no call to complain about it if you don’t let him walk all over you when you are wed. I shall bend his ear about proprieties, however, when he does come to ask my permission to ask for your hand. I have very few pleasures left in life, so I think I may be permitted that of intimidating young men.”
Laura laughed.
“He doesn’t intimidate easily, I don’t think. And he is of practical turn of mind, and procured Cora and me something much tastier than stale bread and dry cake at Almack’s.”
“I might be beginning to like the boy.”

Cora came calling later in the afternoon.
“Oh Laura, guess what?” she said, breathlessly.
“Your Mr. Radcliffe popped the question?” asked Laura.
Cora looked crestfallen.
“How did you guess?”
“The ring on your finger rather gave it away,” said Laura, pointing to her friend’s left hand.
“Oh!” Cora looked bemused for a moment, then burst out laughing. “I should have held my hand behind me so I could surprise you,” she said. “I’m going to be married! Do you think that nice Mr. Clarke will propose to you?”
“I certainly hope not,” said Laura.
“Oh! But don’t you want to get married?”
“Yes, but not to an idiot like him,” said Laura.
“He is not an idiot, is he? He knows an awful lot about plays,” said Cora. “You like plays and things, don’t you?”
“Not the sort he likes,” said Laura. “He doesn’t care for Shakespeare, and he has no conversation apart from speaking of the silly farces he likes.”
“Oh,” said Cora, crestfallen. “And I thought he might be clever enough for you, and then you wouldn’t have to put up with the attentions of the grim marquess. Though I own, he was very civil in getting nice things to eat and in explaining Draisines.”
“I like him, and it is not a question of putting up with,” said Laura. “And he is taking me to listen to Handel’s Messiah tomorrow, with a party.”
“Oh dear, will I have to go? I was going to go to Astley’s with Anne and Andrew and Mr. Clarke, and I was going to ask if you were joining us. Only I’d rather go to Astley’s, than listen to dull music for hours.”
“Dull? This is Handel!” gasped Laura.
“You say that as though you consider it a good thing,” said Cora. “Music ought to be easy to sing, and ... and catchy. Like ‘Love’s Young Dream’, and ‘Lass of Richmond Hill’, and things like that, and not dreary stuff for the pianoforte without words, or all that recitative stuff Handel has, which is dull.”
“I think we must just agree to differ on what we like,” said Laura.
“Do you mean you really like all that, and the stuff Lady Armitage plays when she’s not playing for singers and aren’t just being polite?” gasped Cora.
“I prefer it infinitely to the nonsense most people sing at musicales,” said Laura. “I don’t have to be just polite when Lady Armitage plays, she transports me with her music.”
Cora was staring at her friend as if she had grown another head.
“Oh my!” she said.
Laura sighed. It appeared this was a greater difference between them than Cora’s lack of intellect, but she would try not to let it affect their friendship.

Laura wore a gown of jonqil yellow for her night at the theatre, fairly plain, with three flounces, but with a full skirt. The marquess came into the house to collect her, with a corsage of narcissi.
“Oh, how lovely!” said Laura. “How did you know how well they would suit?”
“I bribed a maid of your aunt’s to tell me what you would be wearing, of course,” said Falkrington.
“Do you think everyone can be bribed?”
“No, I know that most people can be bribed,” said Falkrington. “You little goose, why do you think I like you so well? You’re incorruptible.”
“No lady would take a bribe!”
He laughed harshly.
“Oh, Laura, that’s a hum! It just depends what the bribe is; it need not be in money, you know! A lot of ladies will do a favour in return for another favour, say an introduction, or putting in a word with the patronesses of Almack’s for their daughter, or themselves. A marquess is in a position to hand out a lot of favours.”
Laura blinked.
“I had not thought of exchanging favours as being bribery,” she said. “How very lowering!”
“Oh, not all exchanges of favours are bribery,” said Falkrington. “Favours to friends are never bribes, and wishing to return them as a matter of friendship is also not acceptance of a bribe. It’s favours to relative strangers, or those who look upon an acquaintance with one as a means to an end.”
Laura nodded.
“So if Mrs. Fielding agreed to chaperone a tedious relative of yours in return for ... for an invite to Cora to an exclusive supper party, it would be bribery, but if Cora asked ingenuously if she might come to a supper party and made you a pair of tapestry slippers it would be friendship?”
“I am not sure I count Miss Fielding as a friend, but since she plainly dances to a different piper’s tunes, I would take anything she said at face value because she has not the guile to understand a bribe, and yes, actually that makes me feel warmer towards her, however much she irritates me to talk to, because she is honest, saved by the armour of impenetrable stupidity.”
“That wandered from the frank exposition of her lack of acuity into the unkind.”
“It did. And it was unnecessary. I’m not sure I could face her as a house guest for more than a few days at a time, though, without saying something sharp to her, and hurting her and then making you cross with me. Please don’t invite her for long stays when we are married.”
“I believe I said ‘no’ to you.”
“But you said I might court you.”
“And we still might not suit. I should warn you, her mother is dying, though Cora doesn’t know; she may need me when her mother has died.”
He frowned.
“I can see that,” he said, abruptly. “Just keep her away from me other than at dinner if she stays with us.”
“Humour the poor madman who thinks ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and say ‘yes, my lord’ to the poor fool, oh bother, I’ve just thought of Feste in Twelfth Night making a mockery of Olivia’s mourning, and it made me want to giggle.”
“You have a nice giggle; more like the throaty gurgle of water running down a drain,” said Falkrington. “Anyway, the more I try to be masterful at you, the tarter you get, and I rather enjoy sparring with you. Speaking of sparring, one of my avocations is boxing, and I also like to ride and drive, and I prefer horses to Draisines which I think will be a passing fiddle-faddle.”
“I tend to agree with you on Draisines,” said Laura. “I like to ride, and I have driven in the country, but nothing sporting, for the grey mare is both placid and self-willed, and though she will consent to go to the village, nothing on earth would stop her returning to her stable when business there is concluded, for I have tried to persuade her to drive on, and she would not go.”
“Yes, and a creature of habit, and getting on in years,” said Laura. “I do not embroider, but I do garden. I take an unladylike interest in such things as vegetables from the kitchen garden and I know how to espalier fruit trees. I am an indifferent artist, but I can draw a map of Europe from memory, placing in the principle cities as well as the borders of the countries, now they have finally settled down. I have an interest in why people live where they do and how the late wars have changed the map.”
“I knew you would be a good conversationalist. I don’t know a lot about gardening, but I have, perforce, learned something of farming. Ah, we are here, and the rest of our party joining us; for that is their carriage.”
He handed her down, and was shortly making introductions to his friend, Thomas Levington, who was escorting his older sister and a pair of nieces. The girls were about ten and twelve, and Laura asked them gravely if they liked Handel in particular, or whether it was the solemn season which moved them.
“I like Handel, ma’am,” said the younger, whose name, Laura thought, had been given as Amelia. “And it wouldn’t do for me to come without Louisa.”
Louisa tossed her head.
“I like Handel well enough,” she said.
“If you talk at all through it, I expect Falkrington will have you turned into cutlets to feed to his dogs,” said Mr. Levington.
“Tom! Such a thing to say of the marquess, even in jest!” fluttered Mr. Levington’s sister.
“He wasn’t jesting,” said Falkrington.
The little girls followed up the stairs with big eyes and a subdued manner after this, while their mother was muttering that of course he couldn’t mean it.
Laura mentally shrugged. She had no doubt that Falkrington would put anyone who made a disturbance out of his box, which was unmannerly, but then, he was paying for the excursion, and might be expected to want to enjoy himself, and that meant listening to the music.
Apparently, Mr. Levington convinced his sister and nieces not to try the patience of his friend, for they behaved beautifully. Not that Laura noticed, being carried away by the music. After the oratorio, they repaired to a hotel for supper, which was already bespoken, and the grandeur of the occasion and the harsh features of their host kept Louisa and Amelia completely subdued. A chance comment led to a conversation on fly fishing, which Laura enjoyed as well as Falkrington and his friend, and if Mr. Levington’s sister thought it an odd subject for a lady to discuss, she kept it to herself. Laura found herself agreeing to go riding in the park with Lord Falkrington the next day, unless it was wet, so long as he found her a suitable mount, which wasn’t too frisky.

Falkrington arrived before Laura was expecting him, and she was all apologies when she came downstairs.
“I had a matter which I wished to discuss with your great aunt,” he said. “That russet looks well on you, you look like a well-polished conker.”
“That would be more of a compliment if I didn’t know just what boys do with conkers,” said Laura, tartly.
He laughed.
“I promise never to thread you on a string to assault other conkers,” he said. “I hope the horse I found is to your satisfaction.”
The sorrel mare which Falkrington brought for Laura to ride was well-behaved without being a slug.
“She is lovely,” said Laura. “Is she bred from your own stables?”
“No, she belonged to my mother,” he said, a shadow passing over his face.
“Oh, I am sorry, did she die?”
“No.” His face closed and he rode silently, frowning. Then he sighed.
“You need to know, and some of it is common enough knowledge,” he said. “My mother remarried when my father died; which was her right, of course. But her husband divorced her for having an affaire. She came back to Falkhale after the divorce, and my grandfather permitted her to stay. He was still the marquess, and technically master of the house, and to be honest, at first, I was happy enough with it, because after all, she was my mother, and I did not know why she might have had an affaire and I know there are men who are ... not good to their wives. However, when she started having male house guests, I began to suspect that all was not well. Especially as some of them were married to other women. I walked into her boudoir one day and caught her in flagrante delicto. And that was one of the married ones, so she could hardly claim it was someone she planned to marry. But grandpapa let her stay. I had to wait while she flaunted her lovers until grandpapa died last year, and then I told her to go and live with one of them. The estate bought her horses, carriages and gowns, so I kept the horses and carriages, burned her gowns, and went through her jewellery with my steward, in order to remove any family pieces. And people wonder why I dislike babbling society women and don’t trust easily,” he said in scorn.
“Oh Gerard! Your own mother – how could she betray you like that?” Laura was indignant.
He looked into her eyes.
“You darling,” he said. “Not an ounce of pity in your eyes, just righteous anger! You will grace the family jewels very well.”
“Yes, indeed, and I will wear them at any occasion where one might expect to see your mother,” said Laura.
He whooped.
“Did you just agree to marry me? You have used my first name, after all, and that is not done lightly.”
“Oh, Gerard! Yes, I will marry you.”
“Famous! And I brought a selection of family rings, and you may either choose one as a token, or we can go to a jeweller.”
“Gerard, pick one for me. I would rather have a surprise.”
“Then it will be the ruby; for the Good Book says that a good woman is above the price of rubies, and it will suit you. You have strong, capable hands which look good on reins. It does not suit a hand which tries for the ethereal,” he added.
“Ethereal is the last thing I am,” said Laura.
“And I know now that ethereal is the last thing I want,” said Gerard, realising it for himself. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to announce the betrothal by escorting you to Elizabeth Elliot’s ball as well as sending a notice to the ‘Gazette’.”
“Certainly, Gerard; why?”
“Because Mrs. Elliot looks at me the way a beagle looks at a fox,” said Gerard.
Laura laughed.
“And we cannot have that,” she said.

Chapter 7

Laura was walking on air as Gerard escorted her to Elizabeth Elliot’s ball. The house was certainly of itself an announcement that a ball was taking place there, for there were illuminations in every window, each one a complete scene, and plainly painted by professional artists on the thin, white silver-paper which was used for such things, fine enough for the lanterns behind them to shine through.
“How very uncomfortable for the servants to have their rooms usurped too for such things!” said Laura, in disapproval, noting that even the top floor had pictures of flowers in them, looking delicate from below, but doubtless flooding each room with light.
“Yes, the Elliot woman is as vulgar as an abbess,” said Gerard. “Uh, sorry, should not mention such women!”
“If, as I surmise, an abbess is not solely a religious term, I would expect nothing else from your unruly tongue,” said Laura, severely. “All those coloured lanterns are tawdry.”
“We could go home,” said Gerard.
“We were going to let people know we are engaged,” said Laura. “It was your idea.”
“So it was,” said Gerard. “I haven’t had a chance to kiss you yet,” he added, plaintively.
“Well, I am sure we can slip away later,” said Laura.
The interior shone with mirrors and candles.
“A veritable salle des glaces,” murmured Gerard, with distaste. “Ah, Mrs. Elliot! Miss Evans and I have a happy announcement to make,” he said, as their hostess approached with her daughter. Both Elliot women had been looking like cats that had got the cream at the Marquess of Falkrington’s arrival, entirely looking over Laura.
Mrs. Elliot’s face drained of colour. Elizabeth Elliot looked aghast. Plainly, thought Laura, she was tired of her poet if she was ready to follow her mother’s suggestion of pursuing Gerard. She fought the urge of her fingers to curl into claws.
“An ... an announcement?” Mrs. Elliot said, hollowly.
“Yes, indeed; with the blessing of Lady Agnes, the lovely Miss Evans has agreed to become my wife,” said Gerard.
“Yes, I’m sure she would,” said Mrs. Elliot.
“Well, I wasn’t too sure, she turned me down the first two times,” said Gerard. “But I am now the happiest man alive.”
“Indeed, how nice,” said Mrs. Elliot.
Gerard smiled blithely, hooked a couple of glasses of champagne from the tray of a passing footman, in order to pass Laura one, and steered her right across the ballroom and out onto a balcony.
“You wanted to advertise that I didn’t fall into your arms like an overripe medlar,” said Laura.
“Exactly; and it’s a rebuke to those who would have done so, without wanting to know what I am like, or even caring what my avocations are,” said Gerard. “Why did I grab champagne? Put your glass down somewhere.”
“Because I can’t kiss you with a glass of champagne in your hand, it will get spilled,” said Gerard. “And I doubt it will be an inferior vintage to which that would not be an affront, and moreover, I doubt you want to be covered in it.”
“Oh, a perfectly reasonable reason for your peremptory order, sir,” said Laura, putting her glass down.
Gerard pulled her into his arms and kissed her, thoroughly. His lips were hard and masterful on hers, and yet, Laura knew there was a question in that kiss, that he masked his fear that she would not respond in being almost rough. And she opened her mouth beneath his kiss and kissed him back.

There being no reason to remain in London, Gerard, Lord Falkrington repaired to his country estate, with his house guests, in the persons of Great Aunt Agnes, Miss Loring, and Laura. With an ordinary licence, he might marry his bride at any time, but Laura had decreed that they should wait the three weeks to prove her residency so that he might introduce her to his servants and tenants, and let his people get used to her.
Gerard approved.
So did his people, and Laura was accounted ‘a real lady, not like that lightskirt of a mother of his lordship’s.’
Stolen kisses were rare, as Miss Loring proved a strict chaperone, for the last of her duty to Laura before taking up a position as companion to Lady Agnes. Laura rather hoped that she would come to Falkhale as governess to her own children one day, for she was fond of her governess.
And then they were married, soon after Easter, one moderately fine morning. Lady Agnes and Miss Loring departed after the wedding breakfast, and Gerard wrapped his arms around his lady’s waist.
“Stop admiring the bridal gifts and take notice of me,” he growled.
“I was still wondering why so many people sent us things,” said Laura, perplexed.
“Bribery; I keep telling you,” said Gerard.
“Well, then, the jar full of tadpoles from the bailiff’s youngest boy is probably the most honest gift of them all, and you shall have a pond dug for me to keep them in,” said Laura.
“Anything, my lady, so long as you come along upstairs right now,” said Gerard.
Laura leaned against him, and let him pick her up and carry her to the master suite, and dump her on the bed.
“Gerard? I am a little nervous,” said Laura.
“So am I,” said Gerard.
“Then I suggest we each take turns to take off an item of clothing after having told something about ourselves the other doesn’t know,” said Laura.
“I suppose it’s as good a way as any, but I’m not sure I want to wait too long,” said Gerard.
“Well, I will go first and tell you that when I was six, I let all the mice out of the traps in the kitchen because I was sorry for them, and cook whipped me; and Miss Loring laid him out,” said Laura.
“I knew I liked Miss Loring,” said Gerard. “Do you need help with that?”
“Yes, I believe I do,” said Laura, turning for him to undo her gown. “Your turn.”
“When I was ten, I rode the hog down the street and ended up tossed into a pile of manure. You look much better without all that silk and lace hiding you.”
“I am looking forward to admiring your shoulders when that coat is off. Last year, I made an utter fool of myself by greeting what I thought was the new vicar’s wife, only it was the new vicar, who had rather long golden curls, and was very slender. He got a haircut. I can manage my stockings by myself.”
“I’d rather help with them,” said Gerard. Laura blushed, and found herself quite breathless as his hands touched her legs to relieve her of her stockings. “When I was at school, I really hated one of the teachers, and I put a dead rat up his chimney in high summer.”
“That must have been ripe.”
“It was; he had all the floorboards up looking for a dead animal, but never thought of the chimney. You may find things, er, embarrassing when I take down my kneebreeches,” he added, flushing slightly. His desire for her was apparent.
“Fortunately,” said Laura, blushing even more, “My great aunt gave me a very frank discussion about what goes on in the marriage chamber.”
“Well that’s a relief. I .... to Hades with this silly game!” he rolled over and kissed Laura again, and let his hands explore. The rest of their clothes disappeared without recourse to any shared incidents of their youth, but plenty of shared secrets.

Laura lay against her husband’s chest.
“Am I too plump now you have seen me unwrapped?” she worried.
“You’re just right,” said Gerard. “And you’ll be just right whatever happens. And it’s all mine, so perhaps I’d better show you again how just right it is.”
“I think perhaps you had better do so, Gerard,” said Laura.


Laura Evans 4-7

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