Patricia Wynn Ricks
Mistletoe and Mischief
Copyright ©1993 by Patricia Wynn Ricks
Charles, Lord Wroxton, stood alone in the inn yard and looked about him in the vain hope that his private coach would appear.
A headache seemed poised just beyond the edge of his consciousness. He was tired of travelling, tired of staying at inns, and if the wheel to his carriage had not perversely broken in just this spot, he might at least have begged lodging for one night at the home of his colleague, Lord Northridge. It was with this objective in mind that he had chosen to take the western road back to London. Nothing else, he thought with a fleeting annoyance, could have persuaded him to pass through such a disreputable village as Gretna Green.
Only a few days remained before Christmas, but Charles, in his capacity as adviser to the prime minister, had been given a special dispatch to deliver to a Scottish government official, who had preceded him to Edinburgh. The Regent's fear of Napoleon's spies had led him to request that a gentleman of Charles's standing and unquestionable loyalty serve as messenger in this delicate matter.
Naturally, Charles had complied; but now he wished for nothing more than his own bed and hearth, a warm bowl of punch and a sound vehicle to take him away from the scene of so much foolishness.
While he had been standing in the yard, a series of equipages of all sorts and varieties had come and gone. One young couple had emerged from a post-chaise looking tired, rumpled and harried, but with an underlying sense of excitement. Another couple, married at great haste, had taken to their carriage just as a light snow had begun to fall. Their hired vehicle had sped off back towards the English border.
Watching them, Charles pressed his lips together in distaste. He devoutly hoped that no acquaintance of his would discover him in this Scottish town. Travellers to Gretna Green could only be here for one reason-to contract an ineligible marriage. If he recognized any of them, he would be obliged to try to dissuade them from carrying out such an ill-conceived start.
For the moment the yard was empty, and it seemed strangely forlorn. Charles had a sense, a flickering sense of being alone in a cold and bleak void.
A hissing noise came from somewhere behind him. Charles turned his gaze towards the source of the intrusive sibilant.
A post-chaise and four stood at the ready near the stable, but no other carriages were in sight. As Charles looked about him, he thought he spied a young lady waving to him from behind the chaise. But before he could respond to her improper behaviour, a gentleman came quickly round the corner of the smithy across the lane, and the young lady-if so it was-vanished behind the carriage.
Confused by these sudden comings and goings, and half-blinded by the snow, Charles began to wonder if the whisper had issued from someone else.
He searched again, but heard nothing. Out the corner of his eye, Charles saw the young gentleman approaching, an anxious frown marring his rather florid features. The man threw a quick, nervous glance about the inn yard, and with a muttered curse hastened back to the smithy as if he had misplaced something important.
The curious display drew a reluctant chuckle from Charles. Apparently the young man had been kept waiting at the altar. The blacksmith who owned that shop was famous for the weddings he performed over his anvil. The business he derived from just such persons as this gentleman had turned him from his rightful profession-so much so that he had had the infernal impudence to keep Charles cooling his heels while he performed one ceremony after another. As Charles's coachman had reported it, the smith had said that there was more money to be made in weddin's than in mendin’ coaches, so his lordship'll just haf ta wait."
Only a few witnesses and a public declaration were needed for marriage to take place this side of the border-no announcements or banns and no parental consent to hamper the process. Consequently, many young couples who had been forbidden to wed flew to this village, the first one north of the River Sark, to plight their troth before their parents could be alerted to their disappearance and catch up with them. The blacksmith had found himself in a fine position to take advantage of such desperation. His fees were commensurate with the degree of haste required.
A gentleman who had been raised with the strictest of principles, as Charles had, could only be offended by such conduct. He stiffened as he watched the other man disappear behind the smithy. Charles had no intention of mixing with the sort of harum-scarum individuals so lost to propriety as to even contemplate a rash marriage. He glanced at his timepiece and wondered how much longer he would be made to wait while such goings-on took place.
“Pssst! Oh, sir! Pssst!”
The whisper again-and this time clearly from the young woman.
Certain now of the source of it, Charles decided to pretend he had not heard her. Since achieving his majority, he had often been accosted by women of dubious morals. A young man, regarded as handsome by most accepted standards could expect a certain amount of feminine attention. Even if his position were unknown, he knew that one sort of woman, at least, needed no more encouragement to approach him than the fact of his having a few shillings in his pocket. He would do better not to respond.
“Oh, sir, please!"
The clear tone of her voice made a different impression on him this time, and Charles wondered if he might not be mistaken in his first assessment. The unwelcome thought that he might actually know the lady crossed his mind.
It was just possible. Aristocratic girls were no more immune to foolishness than any other sort. Perhaps, having given way to the importunities of a fortune-hunter, this young woman now stood in need of temporary pecuniary assistance. If she had recognized him, naturally she would apply to him.
He decided to look behind him, all the while praying for this not to be the case, and cursing the wheel that had caused him to stop this side of the border.
A quick glance showed him that the confounded chit was waving at him again. But with a swell of relief, he saw that he did not know her. He did not know anyone, thank God, with such an alarming shade of hair.
He turned away again without so much as acknowledging that she had spoken. He judged he would do better to leave the yard, as unpleasant and exorbitant as the accommodations at the inn were likely to be, until such time as his carriage would be ready and he could escape.
But Charles had taken no more than two steps away from the girl, when he heard her say to his back, “Oh, pooh! If you mean to be so disagreeable, I suppose I'll have to try someone else!"
Charles Beckworth, Marquess of Wroxton, 4th Earl of Sandbach, and 12th Baron Beckworth, had been accosted by bold women many times. In Bath, where he kept a house, and in London, the story was the same. Women, dressed as ladies and primed for their trade by stern madams, did their utmost to attract the attentions of wealthy customers.
But in all his encounters with such persons, not one of them had ever said “Pooh!” to him.
Charles turned again and saw that the young woman was regarding him with reproach. She clutched her reticule before her, and she held her chin high in the air.
“Run along,” she said, tossing her red-gold curls as if the very sight of him offended her. “If you have no mind to assist a lady, then I do not want you about. Run along, then! Go!"
As a marquess, Charles was not accustomed to taking orders from anyone. And in peacetime, he had reflected more than once, he might seriously question orders from the Regent himself. Even so, only a few moments ago, he might have obeyed the young lady, and gladly. But by now he had taken the time to examine her more closely, and his temper had undergone a change.
She was clearly the daughter of a gentleman. Her gown, though rumpled by travel and plainly inadequate for the Scottish weather, was of the finest quality. She wore a blue silk spencer with a deep collar trimmed in fur and a pair of expensive kid gloves, both far beyond the purse of the sort of person he had nearly mistaken her for. Even her bright hair, which he had found so objectionable, was the result of nature, not alchemy. Its colour was a mixture of copper and gold-bold and to be regretted-but unavoidable.
A lady, then, and in distress if the quiver of her lips was anything to judge by. She was shivering from having stood in the snow in her slippers. Charles suppressed a sigh.
“My dear young lady, has no one told you that it is improper to wave and speak to strange gentlemen?"
She tossed her head again, and he caught the glimmer of a tear in her eye. “Of course I know that,” she said. “But if you plan to lecture me, then please move along! I have enough troubles as it is. And I would prefer not to have anyone's attention called to me just at the moment, so I would be obliged if you would simply go away!"
“May I remind you that it was you who called me?” Charles said, justifiably annoyed.
She pouted. Her lips were full and pink, verging on purple from the cold. She was trying to still them, but by now even her teeth were chattering.
“I hailed you,” she explained as if he were a slow-top, “because I find myself in a predicament, and I had hoped you would be kind enough to assist me. But if you are of no mind to do so, then I shall simply ask someone else. Go on now! Go!"
Charles found himself caught between a smile and a frown. Her air of command amused him, but he could not approve of her behaviour. “Do you mean to say you plan to accost every gentleman who passes by until one helps you? Then you shall, at the very least, catch your death of cold, and most likely will find yourself the victim of unwelcome advances.”
She looked offended, so he softened his tone. “Why don't you return to your guardian like a good girl and stop this imprudent behaviour?"
A look of hope flashed in her eyes. “That is precisely what I need to do, sir. Will you help me?"
Taken aback, Charles hesitated. He had no intention of embroiling himself in this girl's problems, but he could not very well leave someone who was clearly a lady to the mercy of unscrupulous men. Perhaps she had come to Gretna Green unexpectedly or on the wrong day. That would account for her carriage not having been met. Even though he found the notion unpleasant, he acknowledged that a few miles out of his way would not inconvenience him overmuch. His journey had already been delayed, and he had little hope of making it home before Christmas.
“I suppose I could escort you,” he said, trying not to sound too put out, “if your destination is not far. But my carriage is being mended just at the moment. You will have to wait."
A look of desperation crossed her features. “Shall it be many minutes?” She was turning blue now about the lips, and he wondered just how long she had been standing there.
“It could be any time. But here, why don't you step inside the inn until it's ready?"
“Oh, no,” she said in a near whisper. Her eyes filled with dread. “I cannot do that!” She took a step closer and leaned toward him in confidence. “Geoffrey might see me!"
Suspicion, like a slow leak, seeped into Charles's mind. “Who is Geoffrey?” he asked warily.
She answered with a look of surprise, “The gentleman I eloped with, of course.” Then, at the sight of his horrified expression, she added, “On the way here, I discovered that we would not suit, but he refused to turn back! Can you believe that, sir? He would force me to marry him against my will!” A flash of indignation crossed her face. “I have never been so deceived in anyone's character!"
“Good God!” Charles said. He drew one fine hand across his forehead. The incipient headache threatened him again. This was precisely the sort of mischief he had dreaded in stopping here-not that he had ever expected such an impossible situation as this!
Flabbergasted beyond response, he glanced at the girl again. Her lips were still trembling, but Charles could not know for certain whether this was inspired by the cold or by the onset of tears. He was in a quandary. If he left the girl, God only knew what fate might befall her. On the other hand-
Just then, Charles heard the sound of a coach approaching, and the girl retreated quickly to her hiding-place. He turned in time to see his own vehicle sweep through the gate to the inn yard, repaired much sooner than he had been led to expect. Charles was relieved to see it and eager to be gone from this nest of lunatics. But the girl's dilemma remained to be solved.
When his horses pulled to a stop with a brusque order from his coachman, Charles called up, “Good work, Timothy. How did you persuade the villain to mend it so soon?"
“Wasn't any of my doin's, yer lordship,” his servant answered, climbing down. “The couple as ‘e'd been waitin’ to marry never showed itself. Seems like the girl's up and runned off."
Charles smiled grimly. He thought he knew just where she had gone, too. He turned back with the intention of a questioning the young lady further, but she must have heard him talking to Timothy, for she reappeared round the back of the coach.
“Is this your carriage?” she said, beaming at the stately coach with his crest upon the door. “Then we can be off before he finds me!"
She flashed him a brilliant smile and held her hand out to Charles, as if she expected him to help her up with no more ado. In doing so, she completely missed the startled expression that had come over Timothy's face. Charles found himself growing warm under the surprised glance of his coachman.
Charles had always conducted himself with the greatest propriety. And his servants knew it. Everyone knew it. That was why the prime minister called on him when no one else could be trusted, least of all the Regent's friends. Charles's reputation as an upright fellow had earned him early respect. A successful political career was thought to be a certainty.
He remembered now that he had agreed to escort the girl to her guardian. However, that was before she had told him of her elopement, and now he was hopeful that some more proper solution could be found. He decided he must first try to persuade her to reconsider.
“My dear young lady,” he said again, this time as much for Timothy's ears as for his own, “you must think about the consequences of such an act. If you travel even for a short distance in a closed carriage with a gentleman, your reputation could easily be damaged."
She turned round eyes upon him-her eyes were remarkably blue, the same shade as her spencer-and laughed with an incredulous twinkle. “I should think that has already been done, shouldn't you?"
She put out her hand again. Stunned by such improper sentiments, Charles supported it quite unconsciously while she climbed into his carriage. He had never been quite so taken aback by anyone before.
Standing as if frozen, he suddenly became aware that Timothy was still gaping at him. Charles frowned until his worthy servant closed his mouth and offered him a hand into his carriage.
Angry, embarrassed and feeling generally ill-used, Charles ignored Timothy's hand and his inquisitive stare. He resented being made to look so foolish in front of his coachman and wondered just what Timothy would say to his fellow servants about this escapade. At the same time, Charles realized suddenly, the girl had made him feel unreasonably prudish for being so cautious.
Charles pulled himself into the coach and seated himself with his back to the box. Owing to the season and the haste of his journey, he had travelled without his valet, so he had ample opportunity to examine his young passenger.
She had placed herself in the forward-facing seat and now looked at him with chagrin. After a slight hesitation, she reached out and patted the bench beside her.
“Wouldn't you rather face forward?” she said. “I should not at all mind being crowded, and I would hate for my presence to render you uncomfortable in your own carriage."
Her heedless invitation astonished him. “My dear young lady,” he said, “you must take more care with what you say. After all, you don't even know me. To be quite frank, you can have no certain notion of my intentions!"
She opened her eyes wide, as if he had startled her. He was glad to see that his words had made some impression on her at last.
“Oh, dear!” she said, sighing. “Do you have any dishonourable intentions? I had somehow imagined you quite indifferent to me. Well, then-” She picked up her reticule, wrapped her arms tightly about her and prepared to step down.
“No, wait.” She turned. “You misunderstand me,” Charles said. Exasperation was now added to his list of reeling emotions. “My dear Miss-Confound it! What is your name, anyway?"
She arched her brows. “I am not certain, sir, that I should give you my name. You seem to be under the impression that I am not a proper person to know."
Charles swallowed his irritation. The truth was that he was abominably worn out, but that was no excuse for abusing this young lady in need of his help. He took a deep breath to calm himself.
He said, “Please. You must pardon me and make yourself comfortable.” He gestured towards the bench. “Please."
After hesitating a few moments, she seated herself again, and Charles reached for a lap rug to make her warm. She snuggled under it with a grateful sigh and thanked him, so he spread another over her for good measure.
“Now, then,” he said kindly, “you have no reason to fear my intentions. I shall be happy to return you to your guardian unharmed, if you will only tell me who you are, Miss-?"
“Louisa. My name is Louisa Davenport,” she said, smiling again. “And I am truly grateful, my lord. At least… I assume you are a lord from the crest on your carriage, but if you would prefer not to give me your real name, I shall understand perfectly."
A brief twinge of shame stung him. He had just been thinking that perhaps he should give her a false name in the event she did prove to be a fortune-hunter. But her astute perception, coupled with his realization that no one could have expected to waylay him or any other wealthy noble in such a spot, made him answer honestly, “Not at all. I am Charles Beckworth, Lord Wroxton, at your service."
His kindness made her blush when his arrogance had not.
“You must not think,” she said warmly, “that I do not know how shocking my behaviour must seem to you. And I am painfully aware of the inconvenience I have caused. I can only blame myself for my folly. If you return me to my guardian, I shall promise to be as little burden to you as possible.”
The tears he had seen before twinkled on her eyelashes before splashing onto the silk of her spencer. With an impatient gesture, she wiped them away and sat facing him, the healthy colour returning to her cheeks.
Charles bent forward, his resentment momentarily replaced by sympathy. He patted the hands folded in her lap.
“There, there,” he said, feeling chastened for his earlier ill feelings. “We shall have you home in a trice."
He lowered the window of the coach, just far enough to call to Timothy. “If I may just have your direction, Miss Davenport, I shall give it to my servant and we can be on our way."
Already recovered from her moment of sadness, she beamed at him again and said, “To be certain, I was fortunate you came along. In such a well made carriage, I am sure we shall get there in no time. Tell your coachman, if you please, that my aunt and uncle Davenport reside at number 57 Half-Moon Street, Mayfair."
Charles turned back to the window before the meaning of her words fully struck him. When they did, he gasped and had to swallow several times before he found his tongue.
“Mayfair!” he said, whirling to face her. “Dear God! Do you mean to say you came all the way from London at this time of year?"
Louisa's eyes, round with surprise, looked fearfully back at him.
“Why, of course, dear sir… didn't you?"
Charles blustered, “Yes-that is to say I am returning to London from Edinburgh, but-"
She sighed with relief. “Then, isn't it fortunate! For a moment, I thought you were about to say that London would be out of your way."
Charles opened his mouth and then closed it. He collected himself and started again. “My dear young-” He tried again. “Miss Davenport! It would be highly improper for a gentleman, such as myself, and a lady of your tender years to spend all of four days enclosed together in a carriage!"
She spoke as to a child. “Yes, you have already told me so and I agreed, but I thought we were also agreed that my reputation had suffered already?"
“But the implication-The rumours that are sure to result-"
She laughed. “I am in no position to reflect on that now. But I daresay,” she added comfortably, “that they will all blow over. I am not so green that I do not know that heiresses are forgiven much."
This information caught him off guard. “Are you an heiress?"
She nodded. “A considerable one.” Then she added regretfully, “I greatly fear that my fortune might have been Geoffrey's object in eloping with me. But perhaps, in my present circumstances, a large fortune might not be such a bad thing to have."
Charles reflected that at least he, as a marquess, would not be accused of trying to steal her fortune. But as he looked at her-her dazzling curls clustered about her pretty face, her attractive figure-he realized that other motives might quite likely be attributed to him.
He swallowed again. “Miss Davenport, I'm afraid that your innocence keeps you from recognizing your full peril. Why… my own purposes might even be called into question! Improper notions are certain to be roused."
“Lord Wroxton!” She fixed him with a look of assumed shock. “Do you mean to tell me you are getting improper notions?"
“No! Not at all! It is just that-"
She chuckled. “I thought not.” She shook her head, and her curls bounced with the motion. “If neither you nor I have an improper idea in our heads, my lord, then I do not see what there is to be concerned about."
Thinking of his own reputation, and his honour, which might be compromised by such an interlude, he stammered, “But Miss Davenport, how shall we explain such a compromising situation?"
The imperturbable Miss Davenport smiled carelessly at him. “I shall be happy to leave that up to you, Lord Wroxton. For myself, I shall just tell the truth-that you found me in great distress and saved me from my folly."
Then, as if the discussion were over, she settled back on her seat, raising the lap rugs to cover her shoulders.
“Hadn't we better get under way?” she suggested. “My aunt and uncle will gladly reimburse you for whatever expenses you incur on my behalf, so you need not worry on that score."
Her mention of this put Charles forcibly in mind of the accommodations they would need to seek on the road. The day was already quite advanced. Charles could not possibly make it to Lord Northridge's estate, nor would he dare show up on his lordship's doorstep with an unknown lady on his arm. Such conduct would surely ruin him. He would never have the government's confidence again.
But the journey to London was far too long to make without breaking, and if they did not hurry, they might find themselves without suitable lodging for the night.
Still suffering from the jolt Miss Davenport had dealt him, Charles did the only thing he could think to do at the moment. He called up to Timothy to make haste and not to spare the horses.
Timothy called down, “Where to, my lord?"
Charles gritted his teeth. “To London, you dolt!” he said unreasonably.
He slammed the window shut and felt his anger gradually fading. He was not accustomed to abusing his servants and already regretted his harsh tone. But, by Jove, this Miss Davenport had a talent for making him do things he had never done before. He glanced at her balefully, but discovered that she had already tucked her feet up under the rugs and had closed her eyes to rest.
The coach gave a lurch and a bump. Putting a hand over his brow, Charles gave in at last to the headache that had been dogging him.
The coach travelled as swiftly as it could over snow-covered hills; but to Charles, with his head splitting, the ride seemed interminable. He could not remember the last time he had been so overcome by a headache that every dip in the road caused him agony. His companion, however, appeared not to feel all the jerks that tortured him. She dozed snugly on her bench and remained quiet, even after the sun disappeared over the bleak horizon and the coach was plunged into darkness.
By this time, they had stopped twice for horses already, but on neither occasion had Charles stepped down for refreshment, nor had he offered Miss Davenport any. His anxiety to get to London had increased with each mile, and every stab in his head only served to strengthen his sense of urgency. The enormity of the scandal that would certainly follow this escapade burgeoned in his mind until he was convinced his whole career would be ruined by it. That Miss Davenport seemed blissfully unaware of the damage she had done to his prospects did not improve his temper.
Eventually, the call he had expected from Timothy floated down from the box. “Shall I stop at the next village, sir?"
Charles lowered his window and felt a blast of cold air that made him wince. “How bad is it?"
“It's that bad, sir. Even wif a lantern, I don't think I'll see me own nose much longer. I'd fear to cross the moors in the dark."
Charles sighed. “Push them as far as Brough, if you can."
“Pardon me, Lord Wroxton.” Miss Davenport spoke hesitantly across from him. “But are you particularly known in Appleby, sir?"
“No.” Charles realized that in the past four hours he had not given her one chance to step down. A lady might very well feel the need to stop more often, and if that were the case, she had been exceedingly stoic. The awareness of his own thoughtlessness made him feel guilty; but he was too annoyed with her to let guilt soften his tone.
“I had thought we should make as much haste to London as possible,” he said, trying not to clench his teeth. “But if you have needs that must be met sooner, I shall certainly give the order to stop.” Not a gracious way of putting it, he thought, but he trusted that would not stop such a forward chit from demanding what she wanted.
After a diffident pause, she surprised him by saying, “It is not that I require anything in particular, and I quite understand the need to hurry. It is simply that I am rather known in Brough."
“Good God!” Charles said, unable to help himself.
“Precisely, sir. Brough was one of the stops we were forced to make on our journey northward. And by then, you see, I was quite convinced that I wanted to return. It was only the knowledge of my own blame that kept me from making a fearful scene in the inn there. I could not very well expose Geoffrey to public insults.
“But if we stop there, too,” she continued in an apologetic voice, “and I appear with quite a different gentleman at my side, I'm afraid I shall acquire something of a bandbox reputation, indeed."
Charles swallowed the exclamations that rose to his lips. With his head pounding, he had not reflected on all the hazards likely to face him on this journey. He had never thought that they must avoid, at all costs, not only the inns where he habitually stayed, but also the ones in which Miss Davenport had stopped with her erstwhile fiancé. With little hope, he wondered what comfort would be left to them.
Without another word to her, he lowered the window again and called up to his coachman, “I have changed my mind, Timothy. I want you to stop in Appleby, after all!"
“Very good, yer lordship.” Timothy sounded so relieved that Charles was reminded of how disagreeable this trip must have been for his coachman, as well. At least he and Miss Davenport had four walls to shelter them from the north wind and furs to keep out the worst of the cold. But poor Timothy had nothing but his layered capes and rugs. He must be nearly frozen by now.
These thoughts reconciled Charles to the need to stop even more than the welcome prospect of getting treatment for the pain in his head.
Miss Davenport's voice came again from the dark. “Have you given any thought to how we should present ourselves, Lord Wroxton?"
Charles grimaced wryly. “I'm afraid I have not, Miss Davenport. But with my crest on my carriage, I can hardly present myself as anyone other than who I am."
“Precisely what I was thinking, my lord,” she said. And with rather excessive cheerfulness, Charles thought. “And if I might make a few suggestions, I think we may overcome any suspicion of our circumstances."
“Pray go ahead, Miss Davenport. I am all ears. I trust you shall inform me of any other villages we must avoid on our journey, as well."
Ignoring the irony in his tone, she said, “Willingly, my lord. Well, as I was saying, I think it would be best if we said I was your cousin, Louisa, and you were escorting me home for Christmas when our baggage coach broke down outside Carlisle.
“I considered being your niece,” she confided, “but I hardly think that would serve."
Charles gave a sardonic laugh. “Hardly,” he said, “when every rake-shame in England uses that feeble relationship to cover his liaisons."
“Do they?” She sounded most impressed with his knowledge. “I did not know. I was thinking merely that it would be possible for you to be my uncle, but highly unlikely. How old are you, in fact?"
“I am six and twenty. But what has that to say to anything?"
“If I am to be your cousin, Lord Wroxton, I shall have to know much more about you than your age! I shall have to address you by your Christian name, and you shall have to remember to call me Louisa. You mustn't think about offending me."
“I shall endeavour not to worry about offending you, Miss Davenport. And what else, in your opinion, must I do or not do?"
A pause told him that his rudeness had not escaped her. Charles started to apologize, but her next words cut him off.
“I know you are vexed, Lord Wroxton,” she said in a subdued tone. “If I seem too imperious, it is because I fear deception is not one of your virtues. I hate to admit that it is one of mine; but the truth is, on my way northward, I learned quite a bit about the sort of dissimulation required on such a journey. And this one might be even more complicated."
“0h?” Charles felt a sinking in his stomach. “And why is that?"
“Because I have no baggage with me. Perhaps you did not notice."
Charles leaned his forehead on one hand and emitted a sigh. “No, I did not. How stupid of me."
Her tone was very understanding. “I daresay you did not have time to notice. But I had to leave my boxes at the inn to slip past Geoffrey. If I had carried even one of them, I should certainly have been remarked. As it was, the owner's wife thought I had gone to meet him at the blacksmith's shop.
“But now,” she said, “I begin to regret not having smuggled at least one gown out of my room. It's a pity, but there's nothing that can be done about it. It serves no purpose to look back."
“I suppose not,” Charles agreed, shaking his head hopelessly.
“Well, then, how shall we explain my lack of baggage? I think I have reasoned out a story, if you will listen."
“Carry on,” Charles said, thinking he knew now why she had been silent for so long. She must have had quite a bit of scheming to do.
When she continued, she sounded quite cheerful again-almost as if she were enjoying herself. “We shall say, then, if it pleases you, that my maid was injured in the coaching accident. And I was so distraught over her condition, that I quite forgot my own bags when we resumed our trip. We expect your servants to catch up with us on the morrow, at least, which is why we have elected to push on. My abigail, alas, shall not be able to join us."
“Your powers of invention truly amaze me,” Charles said.
He could almost hear her blush.
“Yes, it is deplorable, is it not, that I should show such a talent for lying. However, you must not think I do so under normal circumstances. This time, I have your reputation to protect as well as my own. You would hardly expect me to place principle above my concerns for it."
“You have my heartfelt gratitude,” Charles said, and earnestly meant it, though he knew his response sounded pettish. This headache had robbed him of his usual cordiality. “Is there anything else I should know?"
“Not that I can think of, my lord. If anything occurs to me, I shall inform you of it immediately."
“And you will contrive to call me Louisa, I hope?"
“I shall do my best to fulfill whatever role I am assigned, but I warn you I am not accustomed to play-acting."
“What a pity,” she said, and this time he thought he detected a touch of irony in her voice. “Then we shall have to confine your part to as few lines as possible. Just let me play the lead and I am sure we shall come about."
Charles fell silent, fuming at the rebuke in her tone, but his pain was so intense that he had little mind to reflect on his lack of manners now. The few miles to Appleby, which should have passed quickly, seemed an eternity. Timothy was forced to walk the horses the last many yards.
When finally they arrived, Charles directed him to pull up at The Bull and Cock, instead of The George, where he had once stayed, however many years ago.
The sound of their wheels alerted the innkeeper, who was surprised to find anyone travelling so long after dark. The crest on Charles's coach impressed him forcibly, however, so he listened to Louisa's brief explanations without protest. His inn was empty this time of year, and he was not likely to turn away such rich travellers as a marquess and his cousin. If he wondered why the marquess had stopped at his house instead of at The George, which enjoyed almost all the aristocratic custom coming this way, he did not comment. He bustled about with the baggage, enquiring which rooms their bags should be carried to.
“Put them in my cousin's room,” Louisa said. “It is a long story-rather tedious-but I have none of my things with me just now. We hope our servants will catch up with us before tomorrow. Perhaps your wife would lend me something for the night."
“I-I'll see, miss,” he stammered at the strange request. “She'll be reet happy to help ye, I'll warrant."
“Very good,” Louisa said unconcernedly. “But I hope you will give your attention to my cousin first. He is suffering with the headache. A large bowl of punch will be just what he needs."
On his way upstairs at the moment, Charles paused in surprise at her words. He had not said anything about his headache. It shamed him to think that she had noticed, pointing out as nothing else could how abominable his manners had been. But, he reflected, perhaps she had only made up a headache to deflect the innkeeper's questions. With Miss Davenport, it was impossible to know.
Whatever her motives, her suggestion of a warm punch was just what he had longed for. By the time he descended to their private parlour, the bowl was waiting for him, with a warm fire and a comfortable chair pulled up to it. Looking freshened, Louisa was standing before the hearth, her hair matching the colour of the flames. She stepped aside and urged him into the chair, then served him the punch with her own hands.
“Thank you,” he said self-consciously.
Louisa flashed him a smile. “Remember not to be too polite to me,” she whispered. “You're supposed to be my cousin, remember?"
“Were I your cousin,” he responded, managing a slight smile himself, “I should have been more polite than I was. You must forgive me."
“Not at all,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I could tell you had the headache. It would have been something to wonder at, indeed, had you maintained your temper this long.” She retired to another chair and said, “For now, I suggest you close your eyes and forget that I am here. That is more likely to cure you than anything else."
A chuckle escaped him, but he did close his eyes. Privately, he doubted whether such a flighty young lady would be capable of staying silent for long, but Miss Davenport proved him wrong.
She sat in her chair without making a sound. The unaccustomed presence of another person should have made him tense, but instead he found her stillness vaguely comforting. The heat from the fire spread slowly through his clothing and warmed his frozen limbs, making them tingle. The innkeeper's excellent punch flowed through his veins and radiated a matching glow from inside. Warmed now, and relaxed, he managed to doze off and did not awake until the innkeeper had brought in their supper.
The man's wife helped him to serve it, and Louisa directed them as quietly as possible, only calling Charles when everything was set upon the table. If she had not been there to discourage him, the innkeeper would certainly have asked Charles to express his preferences for this or that meat or drink and driven him to distraction, when all he cared about was rest.
Louisa's selections appeared to be good ones: some local ham baked in a pasty, boiled potatoes and turnips, with cheese for their dessert. He complimented her on them as he joined her at table. The innkeeper and his wife had left them alone.
She looked up and smiled. “Telling faradiddles is not my only talent. I am quite accustomed to arranging meals, Cousin Charles."
Surprise at this form of address made him pause with his fork halfway to his mouth.
“There-I've said it,” she said with a self-conscious laugh. “The first jump is always the hardest. You might practise my name a time or two for when you will need it!"
He was recovered now. Still, it had seemed odd to hear his name on her lips. No one called him Charles, not even his mother.
“Louisa,” he ventured in kind, “I would be very much obliged if you would pass me the salt."
She reached for the cellar, her eyes twinkling. “I should think so indeed, Charles, if I were not under such heavy obligation to you.” She glanced at him teasingly. “As it is, however, I should think we could forget this one small favor!"
Charles grinned, embarrassed. He knew he must seem quite the prig to her. But then anyone must seem so to a girl who had recently eloped. He found it strange and unsettling to be sitting down to a private dinner with a young lady he hardly knew. The impropriety of it tied his tongue. Confound it! What was the proper way to talk to her?
Feeling his ill temper about to return, he changed the subject. “You said you were accustomed to arranging for meals?"
“Yes, and for crotchety people, too."
He glanced at her, wondering if she included him in this category. But she explained, “My aunt Davenport is an invalid, and the general is quite hard to please. He's gouty."
“General Davenport?” Charles nearly dropped his fork. “You mean, General Davenport is your uncle?"
“I'm afraid so. My great-uncle, to be precise."
Charles put his hand to his brow, but realized with surprise that his headache had gone. He looked up instead.
She smiled apologetically.
Charles concluded hopelessly, “He'll have my hide."
Louisa chuckled. “I shouldn't worry. He's mellowed considerably since his fighting days. The gout has had a beneficial effect upon his temper. He's not so daring anymore."
“Perhaps he's left that to you.” She had escaped from such a guardian, and yet she was returning to him without any particular sign of fear. Charles could not decide whether to be impressed by her courage or appalled by her foolhardiness. “How did you manage to run off without his knowing?"
“I used the drainpipe."
Louisa arched her brows. “They are sturdier than you think. And I did not do it in broad daylight, so you needn't look so shocked!"
“But-” Charles felt the questions, which had brewed inside him all day, threaten to burst out. “But why did you do it? Did the general disapprove of this Geoffrey fellow?"
“The general does not want me to marry at all. He says I am too young."
“And are you?"
“Not at all! I am eighteen! So you see how unreasonable he is. He wasn't willing to bring me out this year, and he refuses to let me marry until I've been properly brought out."
“What's wrong with that?"
Louisa raised her eyes impatiently. “Nothing. I daresay you would agree with him."
Charles frowned in confusion. “But what a strange girl you are! Don't you wish to attend balls and assemblies?"
“Of course! I would enjoy them. But one can go to balls and assemblies just as easily after one is married, and there are many things one absolutely cannot do until one is married!"
“Good-” Charles choked on another oath. He could not truly believe that Louisa meant to imply what she seemed to be implying.
She looked at him, her eyes wide with innocence. He decided he must have misunderstood her. All the same, he judged it time to steer the conversation down a different path.
“And this Geoffrey fellow-he proved to be a fortune-hunter, did he?"
Louisa bit her lower lip and peered down at her napkin. “I'm afraid that may have been the case. You will say I was foolish, and rightly so, but I was anxious to be married, and I overlooked too much. I thought he did love me and that I should come to love him, as well. But on the first day out of London, my suspicions were aroused."
She gazed at him again, the blue of her eyes made deeper by dismay.
“Would you credit it, sir? Not once during that day did he even try to kiss me!"
Charles drew up, startled. A grin teased the corners of his mouth, but he suppressed it out of a sense of decorum. “Did it not occur to you, Louisa, that he might be demonstrating his respect for you?"
“Piffle!” said Louisa. “What respect should he show to a girl who had just eloped with him?"
Then, when he looked disapprovingly at her, she gave a little shrug. “Well, to be truthful, I did consider that at first, but it became quite clear to me that he was more interested in the horses our post boys were riding than in me. On the second day I asked him to turn back, but he would not hear of it. He said I was compromised, and we had better go through with it."
“Precisely as he should have thought."
“Yes, but by then, you see, I had come to the dreadful realization that I did not love him and never could. And far, far worse,” she added quietly, “I had decided that I did not want to marry someone I could not love."
A queer feeling rose in Charles's throat. He cleared it, but did not know what to say. Many things came to him: homilies, platitudes, the “I told you so” variety of lecture. He kept them to himself.
“Then it is fortunate you discovered this before you were married,” he said instead.
Louisa sighed. “I suppose so. But I do think passion is a necessary part of marriage. Don't you?"
Charles felt a curious heat stealing up his neck. “Well, I suppose-of course-That is-"
“I am still as determined as ever to marry,” Louisa continued, as if she had not heard him. “But now I have the greatest fear that I shall not manage it any time soon."
“Because the general is likely to turn up rough?"
“No, not that. By now, he's probably thinking good riddance, and will marry me to the first gentleman he can get to accept me.” She shook her head with a wistful look, and her red curls shimmered about her face in the firelight. “I was thinking that it might take rather a long time to fall in love."
Charles coloured. This was not the sort of conversation he should be having with a young lady alone in an inn.
He cleared his throat and put down his napkin.
“Perhaps we should retire so we can get a brisk start in the morning,” he suggested. Then, purposely ignoring the last thing she had said, he offered, “I shall think about your dilemma and see what solution I can come up with to appease your guardians."
Louisa deserved whatever punishment they would choose to mete out, of course. Still, having heard her confession, Charles felt it would be a pity if she were made to suffer excessively. She seemed appropriately contrite, though why she was in such a hurry to marry he could not fathom.
Some foolish notion, no doubt, which he would do better not to examine too closely.
But her contrition, which had so recently moved him to sympathy, vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. She stood when he did and met him with a sunny face.
“Do not concern yourself about the general,” she said, shaking her head. “I am not at all afraid of him-he is quite impressed by rank, you see. That is one reason I approached you, in particular. I heard one of the ostlers pointing you out as a marquess, and I thought that if you took me back to London, he would be more likely to forgive me sooner than if I had lit upon someone else."
Charles pressed his lips into a stern line, but Louisa merely batted her lashes at him.
“I shall bid you good-night,” he said in an offended tone. “If you require anything to make yourself more comfortable, I hope you will avail yourself of it immediately."
“Why, thank you, Charles. That is most gracious of you. But of course I have already mentioned that I shall pay my debts on our return. As a matter of fact,” she continued, “I have made a few purchases from the innkeeper's wife. You will be pleased to know that I have acquired a toothbrush and some powder and a comb. I shall have to see what sort of nightdress she comes up with, but if it is neither too worn nor too outrageous, I just might beg it of her, also."
This catalogue of her comforts did nothing to soothe Charles's temper. He ushered her out the door with a curt good-night. Then he stayed a few minutes longer in the parlour just so they would not be seen ascending the staircase at the same time.
He fumed for a bit, then decided this would only bring back his headache, and he was too grateful to have it gone to risk bringing on another. He stepped over to the fire and looked down at it. But the burning embers only served to remind him of Louisa's hair. Irritably, he thought that he might never enjoy a fire again without recalling his intrusive companion.
Then, with his usual sense of justice, he remembered how miserable he had been all day with his headache, and how helpful Louisa had been in ridding him of it. He doubted whether a night at Lord Northridge's residence would have cured him quite so fast. He would have been obliged to stay up, drinking until all hours and playing cards out of courtesy to his host. Not the sort of quiet he needed after such a gruelling trip, but necessary for politeness’ sake.
Louisa, on the other hand, had exhorted him not to be too polite to her. A strange thing for a lady to say, but most welcome under the circumstances. Charles smiled when he thought that he was far more likely to strangle her before this trip was over. And with reason.
A curious vision suddenly came to him, in which his hands were wrapped about her slender neck. But before he could throttle her, Louisa turned her blue eyes up at him and gave him a mischievous smile, and all at once Charles imagined that he could feel the smoothness of her skin beneath his fingertips.
He found himself wondering what curves were concealed beneath the silk of her spencer. The muslin of her gown had not succeeded in hiding a pleasant roundness to her hips and a slim pair of legs underneath.
A pleasant languor stole over him as he started to conjure more alluring images…
Abruptly, Charles shook himself, recalled his earlier concerns and cursed himself for such foolish wanderings. These were precisely the kind of thoughts he must not have under the circumstances. Better to turn his mind to what would be his best course of action on the morrow.
Christmas was only four days away. They needed three of them, at least, to get back to London. He should not waste time in useless-and dangerous-distractions.
He climbed the stairs to his room, confident that with his headache gone, some good notion would come to him by morning.
A plan did suggest itself to Charles during the night, and he was so eager to execute the first part of it that he took care of it before breakfast.
On his return, he was glad to see that Louisa, too, had awakened before dawn and had come downstairs for an early start. Together they sat down to coffee and chocolate, thick slices of bacon, eggs and freshly made bread.
“I have sent off a letter to General Davenport,” he told her. “The post is certain to reach London before we do, and I thought it best to advise him of our arrival. Do you think he might have sent someone after you?"
Louisa shook her head. “I don't think so. I cannot think of anyone he could prevail upon to follow me-otherwise I shouldn't have left."
Charles gazed at her curiously over his coffee cup; she smiled sideways at him. “I may not have his daring,” she said, “but I have tried to learn something of his tactics."
Charles cleared his throat, determined not to return her smile. “Have you no wish to know what I wrote in my letter?"
“But of course, Charles! If you wish to tell me, I shall be enchanted to hear it."
He purposely ignored the teasing note in her voice. “I informed your guardian,” he said, “that I came upon you in distress, that you related to me the particulars of your alarming situation and that I failed to see any other course open to me than to escort you home myself. I also informed him that I intend to find a chaperone for you, if at all possible."
“Oh, that is clever of you, Charles. That will satisfy him fully."
Charles raised his eyebrows. “Do you think so? I hardly think it will. Nevertheless, I do have hopes that it will comfort him in part."
The truth was that during the night he had realized he had to do all he could to prepare the general. This was in part to soothe the general's worry; but mostly, Charles knew, he must explain to Louisa's guardian his own role in her affairs as soon as possible. The notion that the general might misinterpret this had kept Charles up half the night. But if the general had even part of a day to reflect upon his letter before they arrived, Charles might be spared the uncomfortable experience of explaining himself on the general's doorstep.
“I wish you had consulted with me before sending your letter,” Louisa said, refilling her cup with chocolate. “However, it cannot be helped."
Charles paused in the act of chewing his bacon. “And why is that?"
“Nothing serious. It's just that I have acquired the habit of dealing with my uncle, and I might have been able to give you a few suggestions. But you did nothing seriously amiss."
Charles rolled his eyes. “You flatter me, Miss Davenport."
“Hssst!” she said. “Remember-Louisa."
Charles looked about him at the empty room and then back at her. “I doubt if anyone heard me,” he said pointedly.
Louisa agreed, but with reservations. “We humans are creatures of habit, Charles. If you persist in being so formal, you are likely to slip up when it is most important. You won't object, I hope, if I caution you."
Her air of wisdom caused the corners of his lips to tug. “I shall take it under advisement. In the meantime, perhaps you will tell me honestly what I should have said to your uncle."
Louisa grimaced. “It is not,” she said delicately, “anything you left out so much as something you put in."
At his air of enquiry, she continued, “If I were you, I shouldn't have mentioned a chaperone I could not produce. When one does not follow through with a plan, the general tends to discount one's judgment."
Charles wiped his lips with his napkin, confident that what he was about to say would finally impress her. “Perhaps it is time I made my other plans known to you."
She leaned her elbows on the table. “Have you plans? How exciting!"
“Miss-Louisa! I fail to see how you can derive so much humour from this situation!"
“I know. It is wrong in me.” She sat back and folded her hands primly in her lap. “You must not regard it. Go on."
Charles looked at her without much hope that this contrite spirit would last. He endeavoured not to smile. “I hope you will find my plans acceptable to you…” he said. Then he went on before she could throw any doubt on the question.
“I have an acquaintance-an old school friend, Lord Conisbrough-whose estates are near Snaithby in Yorkshire. He is seldom there, but even he ought to be home this time of year. The village is hardly out of our way. I think it would be a good idea to pass by his house and consult him."
Louisa looked at him inquisitively. “Even he, you said. Why ‘even he?"
Charles avoided her eyes. “Because he is not the sort of person-not the sort who takes much care of his estates. But, in this instance, he might be thought to have more… shall we say… pertinent experience than I have."
Louisa looked confused for a moment. Then, light dawning, she said, “Ahhh. You mean he is a rake and is more accustomed to hiding plaguey females!"
“Not precisely,” Charles said, though he had meant something of the kind. “But he can hardly condemn me for such an innocent escapade when I daresay the world knows less than half of his own exploits. Perhaps he can find us a suitable female to accompany you from among his household. He has a mother and a sister, if I recollect."
* * * *
Louisa seemed to have no objections to their trying Lord Conisbrough, though later that morning she was disappointed to be told she would not get a glimpse of the rake.
“Your uncle would have just cause to reproach me if I exposed you to a man of Ned's morals,” Charles told her sternly.
Their breakfast was over, Charles's bags had been loaded and he had handed her up into the carriage and taken the seat across from her. “There are times when I almost prefer not to deal with him myself."
“If you fear doing so, you certainly must not on my account,” Louisa said.
Charles's temper had just been tried by the arch looks his coachman had thrown him; so this aspersion cast on his courage annoyed him more than it might have otherwise.
“I did not say I feared dealing with him,” he said irritably. “It is merely a matter of conscience. Ned and I were friends when we were younger, but somewhere along the way he became quite wild. If I hope to be effective in the House of Lords, I cannot be wasting my time with persons of questionable morals."
“Are you active in the government, Charles?” Louisa's ears pricked up at the news.
“Yes,” he said after a moment's pause. He reckoned it best that she know. Then, perhaps, she would conduct herself with his reputation in mind.
He was gratified by the respect he saw on her face.
“How wonderful!” she said. “I had not expected this good stroke of luck. Which only goes to show that my elopement was not for nothing!"
Charles looked at her warily. “Why does it matter to you that I am active in government?"
“Oh, I often have ideas that I wish someone would act upon,” she said, much to his surprise. “And now that I know you, I shall have someone to propose them to, shan't I?"
Her tone was so ingenuous that Charles had to smile.
“And what sort of ideas are these?” he said, trying to keep the condescension from his voice.
“They could be anything,” Louisa answered, gesturing airily. “I have a number of concerns. For instance-” she turned on him suddenly “-what does the government propose to do with all the men who will be returning from the war?"
Charles was taken aback, first by her look, which seemed to accuse him of something dishonourable, but also by the strange topic. “What do you mean ‘do with them'?” he said.
Louisa looked at him as if he had not much sense. “Hasn't it occurred to you, Charles, that a large number of men shall be returning to this country without any work to occupy them?"
He frowned. “Of course it has occurred to me. The government is fully aware of the problem, Louisa. We do not need a girl of eighteen years to bring such common problems to our attention."
“Then what do you propose to do about them?"
“You are not making yourself clear."
“Let me express myself differently, then. I hope you do not mean to turn them off at the shore without a feather to fly with?"
“Of course not,” he said, growing indignant. “They will be given all their back pay."
“Certainly not! That would break us! We've had to finance the allies for years as it is."
Louisa frowned at him. “But what about the wounded, the ones who will be too injured to work again?"
“They shall have their wound-pension-sixpence a day."
Louisa arched her brows. “And live off strawberries and cream, I daresay."
“Louisa,” Charles protested, feeling ruffled, “you must leave such things to the men charged with running this country. They are not matters you could easily understand."
Louisa looked at him wryly. “It takes very little experience or schooling to understand what it will be like to live off sixpence a day, Charles."
He blustered, “But magnify that cost several hundred times over and you will see what a heavy toll it makes on the government. You could not possibly understand the treasury's limits, Louisa! I refuse to discuss them with you."
She put her nose in the air and turned to look out her window.
After a moment, Charles addressed her profile stiffly, “Besides… their families will shelter them."
“And the ones without families?"
He did not respond to this unanswerable query. Instead, after a pause, he asked, “Why do you concern yourself with such things?"
She gave him a look as if to say the reason should be obvious. “Do not forget that I am an heiress,” she said. “I have been raised to understand my own finances-enough, at least, that I know how much a loaf of bread and a joint of beef cost. And how quickly your six pennies shall be spent on beer."
Charles folded his arms. “They are not my six pennies."
Louisa gave her attention to the outdoors, and after a short while began to make polite conversation about the countryside.
The low stone walls of Yorkshire seemed to delight her, running as they did in all directions, seemingly without end or reason. They varied from grey to black-sometimes both, depending on the rock available-criss-crossing the wild and otherwise empty moors.
As Louisa made comments, Charles maintained a sulky silence, responding only in single syllables to her remarks.
After a few minutes, however, he found himself thinking over what she had said. If the truth be told, he had not given much thought to the demobilization of the army. He and everyone in government had been concentrating on the war for so long that they had not had time to devote to the future. But now that Boney was on the run, defeated in Russia, and with the allies in France, the war would soon be concluded.
Louisa's chatter, undiminished by his sullenness, made a comfortable background to his thoughts-computations of how much money might be squeezed from the treasury for the wounded men. He might introduce a measure in the Lords, discuss it first with the PM. Something might be managed-ought to be managed, if he were honest.
A bit ashamed to have had his attention brought to the problem by a girl, however, Charles said nothing to her of his thoughts.
The shortness of the winter day made progress difficult, but they managed to draw into Snaithby soon after sunset. Fortunately, they discovered that neither of them had cause to avoid an inn in this village. Snaithby lay off the Great North Road to the west. Louisa had had no reason to stop there on her way north, and Charles hadn't had occasion to visit his friend Ned's estate in several years.
Charles stepped down from the carriage and gave Louisa his hand to assist her. Immediately they were greeted by the proprietors-Sammy and Nan Spadger-at The Crown and Pear.
This time, Louisa gave a rather glib performance of her story. Perhaps it had worked so successfully in Appleby that she had lost all concern for its credibility, but Charles had the impression that relating it a second time merely bored her. Whatever her reason for doing such a poor job, he ended up wishing she had imbued her tale with more conviction.
At Louisa's finish, Nan Spadger, the innkeeper's wife, eyed them both with hostility, and Charles found he was no more immune to her suspicion than he had been to his coachman's. As she hesitated over giving them rooms, he felt his face growing warmer and warmer.
“Ta be certain,” Mrs. Spadger said, “seein’ as how tha folks be o’ t’ nobility, I'd not like ta think owt was amiss. But we've no got t’ custom o’ givin’ rooms ta no ladies wit'owt bags."
“It is a bore, isn't it?” Louisa said, turning her charm on the woman at last. “But my bags are not expected to catch up with us until morning. Fortunately, for my comfort, I did manage to bring away my toothbrush and comb, and perhaps you would be kind enough to press my gown for me."
Mrs. Spadger seemed to consider this, her arms folded snugly over her apron, while her husband hovered indecisively over Charles's bags. The crest on his carriage impressed them, Charles could see, but they were respectable people and they did not like the notion of their hospitality being abused. He had a notion of how to appease them.
“I shall be calling on my friend Lord Conisbrough this evening,” he said, reasoning that all they needed was a reference. “I gave my servants instructions to stop at his estate, and it is possible they shall be there when I arrive. In that case, of course, I shall be bringing my cousin's bags back to her."
Mrs. Spadger placed her hand on her hips. The light of battle lit her features. With a sinking stomach, Charles recognized the flaw in his strategy.
“Lord Conisbrough, is't? An’ tha art friends wi’ him! Then, happen it wor better that tha stays wi’ him!"
Charles cursed his own carelessness and tried to find a diplomatic solution to this development. Ned's reputation as a rake was certain to be well known in his home village. He should have thought of that. Now that she knew them to be Ned's friends, Mrs. Spadger seemed more convinced than ever of their wickedness.
But having used Ned as an excuse, Charles could not see his way to backing out of their assumed friendship now.
He started to bluster, but Louisa, flashing him a brilliant smile, began to chuckle. Then her chuckle turned into a bubbling laugh. Nan Spadger and her husband turned surprised eyes upon her.
“That would be like asking my cousin to deliver me to the wolves, as I understand it,” she explained to them. “You must forgive him if he appears offended, but perhaps you are not aware of Lord Conisbrough's reputation. My cousin takes any injury to my good repute quite seriously, and he has refused quite firmly to introduce me to such a rake, even though we might reasonably have begged lodgings from Lord Conisbrough for the night."
Seeing that Louisa's words had raised a sympathetic look on the innkeeper's face, Charles reluctantly took her story up. “You should be more discreet, Louisa,” he said looking at her sternly. “It is not for us to be telling tales."
His comment tipped the balance. Nan Spadger relaxed her arms and said, “But, indeed, yor lordship. There's nowt abowt his lordship that don't be known hereabowts. T’ lady should stay here wi’ us, til tha comes back.” She picked up two bags at last. “I remember seein’ his lordship when he wor just a young lad, fallin’ o'er a wall one neet when he wor drunk.” She shook her head and preceded them into the inn. “He had ta wear his arm in a sling for eight weeks. An’ that's not all I could tell thee, if I'd a mind. It's a wonder he's not swallow'd his coat an’ hat."
Charles grimaced at the description of Ned, which he knew to be accurate. Louisa suppressed her dimples, but her eyes twinkled. Keeping his lips pressed in a straight line, Charles gave her a wink, for Mrs. Spadger's account, given in her broad Yorkshire dialect, had sparked his sense of humour, too.
The Spadgers agreed to hold two rooms for them, and a private parlour, and to make Louisa comfortable until his return. Charles refused all refreshment except a pint of beer, and only drank a few swallows in his hurry to set off for Lord Conisbrough's residence. He felt certain he could find the way with no more than a set of directions to refresh his memory, for as a younger man he had stayed with Ned on a hunting expedition.
Before he left, he managed a few words in private with Louisa.
“I hope you will be as discreet as possible,” he said with little tact. “These people are not so easily beguiled as our last hosts."
Louisa arched her brows at him. “Yes, I promise to be quite good, Charles. But you must admit I had something to do with getting us accepted."
Charles grinned reluctantly. “Yes, I am indebted to you again, it appears. But you mustn't let your successes go to your head. You must stay on guard."
“You have my word,” she promised, nearly pushing him out the door. “I shall not give us away. Now hurry off, and don't waste another thought on me."
Charles would have liked to take her up on this suggestion, but he knew, of course, that he would not be making this visit to Ned's if Louisa's welfare did not require it. Somehow, he could not rest easily with the thought of her remaining alone. He decided to leave Timothy and the coach behind him not only to give his coachman a rest from the cold, but also in case Louisa should find some way to disgrace herself and be in immediate need of leaving The Crown and Pear.
With these concerns in mind, he went outside and mounted the hack Sammy Spadger had lent him. Taking the reins from Timothy, Charles described for him the route he would take to Lord Conisbrough's manor, in case he should be needed, and then trotted off in the dark to seek Ned's help.
Ned's manor house lay only a few miles from Snaithby; Charles arrived there within the half hour. The butler, taking his card, informed him that the family was at dinner.
Charles refused to disturb Ned's mother, but informed the butler that his mission was urgent. He directed him to take in his card, but to ask for a word with Lord Conisbrough in private.
Knowing the proper treatment due a marquess and leader of government and not a little surprised for his master to be receiving such a sober visitor, the butler showed Charles into Lord Conisbrough's library and ordered the fire to be rebuilt.
The room was comfortable, but noticeably lacking in books. Charles was just deploring this fact while he warmed his booted feet over the coals, when the door swung open and Ned appeared.
Ned paused in the doorway for a few seconds, his eyes, already blurred by drink, coming to focus slowly on Charles.
Charles was relieved to see that though Ned's vision was not what it should have been, he was not so far gone that his clothes were out of order. His neckcloth was still impeccably tied, and his boots held their shine. Even his black locks retained the style they had been given by his valet.
“Good Lord,” he said dryly. “It is you, Wroxton. Have you come to serve me a warrant?"
Charles laughed. “I am not a magistrate, Ned. I am adviser to His Royal Highness. Or don't you know the difference?"
Ned shrugged and strolled negligently through the door. “I perceive there might be a difference; but what it is doesn't interest me so long as you promise you have not come to curtail my freedoms. I cannot, otherwise, conceive of a single mission that would overcome your repugnance to visit this most unhallowed ground."
Charles shifted uncomfortably. “Don't be an idiot, Ned."
Ned raised his brows. “Ah-but have you called here and been refused? Then I must give notice to my butler this instant. I had no idea he was turning my friends away."
A flush spread across Charles's face. This was going even worse than he had expected.
“No, I haven't come to visit, and I'm sorry. But-confound it, Ned! You know I don't have time for your sort of foolishness! What if we all indulged ourselves the way you do?"
“Then Boney would be in Brighton by now and installed in the Pavilion. Yes, you're quite right.” An idea seemed to strike Ned. “Do you mean to say you've caught him? Is that why you're here?"
Charles began to fume beneath his politeness. “No, I regret to say we have not. I was on business to that effect, however, and on my way home, when something occurred to occasion this visit."
“Good Lord,” Ned said flatly again. “The call has finally come. Prinny has come to his senses and needs me. Whom am I to replace? Wellington?"
Charles had to snort at this. “Will you shut up, Ned,” he said tiredly, “and offer me a glass of brandy? I could use something to warm me up."
“I'll do better than that, my boy. I'll invite you to dinner. You should love it. My mother and her companion, Miss Wadsdale-the merriment flows in abundance. I shall give you the pleasure of entertaining them."
He reached for the bell, but Charles stopped him in time. “No dinner, Ned. Thank you. But I would have a drink. And if your own dinner calls, I can wait until you've finished."
Ned smiled wryly. “And return to Miss Wadsdale? No, thank you, Wroxton. You may be a bit of a sourpuss, but I had rather an hour of your company any day to a few seconds of that female's."
Charles screwed up his mouth. “You are too kind."
The butler was sent for, and he soon brought back a tray with two glasses and a decanter of brandy. While he was setting it down, Ned brought Charles up to date on some of their friends from Eton. The ones he tended to know about were of the same heedless group he ran with, and their fates ranged from total bankruptcy through extravagant gambling to the occasional scandalous marriage to an opera singer.
In turn, Charles informed him of their friends who had died or been wounded in Europe, which topic cast a pall over their conversation. When the butler left, however, Ned roused himself and said, “Very well, then, out with it. You might have come to see me, but you wouldn't be arriving at this hour and interrupting my dinner if you didn't have something to say. What's adrift?"
Charles was grateful for Ned's directness, but still found it hard to explain his difficulty.
He started badly. “Well… you see… I have met a young lady under rather curious circumstances-"
“Oho, Charlie boy!” Ned's face lit with a speculative glimmer, and he leaned back in his chair, its front legs raised at a tilt. “And you've come to me for instruction, is that it?” He crossed his arms behind his head.
“Not at all, you scoundrel! I-"
“You've got more experience than I think? All the better! Though where you boys up at Whitehall find the time-"
“It is nothing of the sort, and you know it!"
“Don't despair, Charlie boy. The ladies may seem to favour a dark type like me, but do you know, I've noticed they have a soft spot for you fair men, too. Especially if they have your strained, overworked look. They can tell your mind's not on them, see? Gives them a challenge."
Charles stood and took a step towards his friend. “Ned, I need your help, if you will listen. But so help me, if you go on much longer, I shall strangle you instead and go to the gallows happily! It would be worth it!"
Ned smiled lazily. “Go ahead, then, Charlie. Don't let me interrupt. That's only my best smuggled cognac you're drinking."
Charles halted in his tracks. He had been wary of the brandy from the first, but under the circumstances had not liked to air his suspicions. To have Ned's lawlessness-nay, his treachery, considering the war-thrown at him like that was nearly the last straw. He choked on an oath.
After a long silence, during which many expressions came to his mind and were rejected, he prepared to leave. There was only so much taunting to which he would submit himself in order to spare Louisa's honour. He put down his glass and took up his gloves.
Ned stopped him before he reached the door. “Only a joke, dear boy. It's not really Boney's cognac. My father laid it by ages ago. How may I serve you?"
The repentant note in Ned's voice persuaded him to turn back. Charles took his chair again, picked up his brandy and downed it with one gulp.
Ned's brows rose. “You must be in trouble,” he said, impressed. “This stuff's too good to waste like that. Remind me to serve you the cheaper poison next time."
Charles collected himself. Then, with a deep sigh, he related his meeting with Louisa-leaving out her name, of course, and abbreviating most of his thoughts. He told Ned about the letter he had sent to her guardian.
Ned listened, most surprisingly, without interrupting, and only laughed when told of the reception they had got at The Crown and Pear when they used his name.
“Good people, the Spadgers,” he said, “but they haven't got any love for me. I put up a lady friend there once, the prettiest little ladybird you ever saw, and that put them out. Took it out on you, did they?"
“And on Miss-the young lady I am escorting,” Charles said, catching himself. “But I must say she charmed them into keeping her for the moment. What we need is-"
“Pretty is she?"
“This friend of yours. Is she pretty?"
Charles felt himself colouring, a touch of anger mixed with his embarrassment. “I would say she is quite attractive, if you must know, though I find the colour of her hair somewhat objectionable. But what has that to say to anything? You must not have been listening to me if you think it has."
“Why, dear boy, it has everything to say! If you need a place to stay, you must bring her here and at once!"
Charles frowned at him. “Not on your life, Ned. And I will thank you to keep away from her. That is not why I've come to you for assistance."
Ned shrugged philosophically. “No harm in trying. Very well, why have you come?"
“I need a female, that's why."
“Another one, Charlie? My, you have turned wild."
Charles sighed with little control. “Someone to act as companion, Ned. Don't be so crass."
Ned rose and came over to fill his glass again. “If it were me, I'd say you had all the company you need, dear boy. But if it's respectability you want, I can provide it for you.” He raised his own cup in a toast. “I'll give you Miss Wadsdale for a Christmas present-with a ribbon round her, if you wish."
“Is she your mother's companion?"
Ned nodded, raising his eyes to the ceiling expressively, “She is,” he said. “And I'd be grateful to you if you'd take her off my hands for the holidays. It's boring enough around here with m’ mother and sister, without having to suffer from her gibble-gabble.” He lifted his glass again. “Argle-bargle, if you prefer."
Charles ignored his impudence and began to relax with relief. “Thank goodness,” he said, and allowed himself for once to enjoy his cognac. The golden liquid burned his throat and soothed him simultaneously. “I'll take her gladly. Can I have her tonight?"
Ned smiled again, but kept the joke to himself. “You could if it were up to me,” he said. “But I'll have to do some talking to wean her away from m’ mother. You're a marquess-she'll like that. But she's not very amenable to change, so I won't be able to bring her to the mark that fast."
“Tomorrow, then. At dawn."
“Hold on there, boy! You could probably have her tomorrow, but what will you do with her if she comes?"
Charles drew his brows together. “As soon as she's comfortable, we'll set out immediately for London, of course."
Ned shook his head. “Tomorrow's Sunday have you forgotten? And you in the government."
Charles closed his eyes. He had forgotten the day. Of course they could not travel on Sunday. Not unless they could do so without being caught.
He looked questioningly at his host. Ned shook his head again. “Not on your life, Charles boy. Miss Wadsdale's pious. And if the Spadgers didn't inform on you, she would do so herself. Turn herself in to the magistrate, she would, rather than break the Sabbath."
“Oh, damn,” Charles said. He leaned his elbows on his knees and sighed. “Well, it can't be helped, I suppose. I'll have to come for her on Monday."
“Right,” Ned said, downing the contents of his glass in celebration.
Charles said anxiously, “You won't forget, will you? I need you to come through for me on this."
Ned eyed him mockingly. “Don't worry, Charlie boy. I'm just drunk, not weak in the head. My memory serves me well enough.” His grin turned mischievous. “For instance, I haven't forgotten the time you had the nude portrait delivered to the English master during class. I'll never forget his face."
Taken aback for a moment, Charles realized he had almost forgotten those days. He grinned, too, and then grimaced ruefully. “That wasn't me. That was just me under your influence."
“At least you had some friends then."
Charles pursed his lips. “I have friends now, thank you. Just not much time to see them in, that's all. I'd best be going."
He put down his glass and stood. Then he remembered something. “Lou-the young lady left her baggage in Gretna Green. How should I go about finding her some clothes?"
Ned cocked an eye. “If it were me, Charlie boy, I-''
Charles nodded and sighed. “You should do better without the clothes, I know. But listen, Ned, will you stop playing these stupid games! And will you leave off with that abominable nickname!"
“Sorry, Wroxton. Old habit.” His smile was unrepentant.
Charles's lips curved. “0h-go drown yourself! What about the clothes?"
Ned put down his glass. “As it happens, you've come to the right place. Has she a good figure, this Miss Lou-?” He waited unsuccessfully for more.
Charles's cheeks grew warm. “I suppose this question is pertinent?"
“But of course it is, Charles!” Ned widened his eyes in innocence. “Can you doubt me? I need to know if my sister's clothes will fit her."
“Your sister's? But won't Miss Conisbrough mind?"
“She's not here,” Ned said. “And not due back for three days, at least."
Charles still looked doubtful, so Ned added, “I'll explain it to her myself when she gets here."
“Without embellishment, I hope. And you might leave my name out of it."
“Of course, dear boy. Soul of discretion. You can count on me. Meanwhile, I need a description of the young lady, please. From what you said about her hair, I deduce it is red."
“Quite. But what has that got to do with her size?"
“We're getting there. Be patient. But you wouldn't want the colour of her gowns to clash, would you? What about eye colour?"
“Blue.” Charles could not believe that Louisa would be too particular about the colour of her clothes under these circumstances. But Ned knew women better than he did.
Ned smiled appreciatively. “I'm getting a picture. Now about the figure. Slender or plump?"
Charles began to squirm. “Slender, I should say. Medium stature."
“Good. That sounds a bit like my sister. Unless the bosom-what would you say about her dairy?"
Charles exploded. “Really, Ned! This is a lady we're discussing!"
Ned raised both hands in defense. “Remember the clothes, dear boy. You want them to fit.” He lowered them then and said in a reasonable tone, “But I can understand your reluctance to be specific… especially if the young lady's form is better left undescribed. You always were the gentleman. I'll simply take it, then, that she's rather unwieldy, shall we say-"
“Damn it, Ned! There is nothing about Miss Davenport's figure that is in the least unwieldy! In fact, I would put her up against any of those ladybirds you're so fond of talking about!"
A satisfied smile broke over Ned's countenance. When he saw it, Charles gave a groan.
“Miss Davenport,” said Ned, rolling the name on his tongue. “Miss Louisa Davenport, I believe you said."
Charles buried his face in his hands. “So help me, Ned -''
“Can't say that I know her. But that's neither here nor there, I suppose."
Charles took a deep breath. Then he managed to continue, “So help me, Ned, if I hear one word of rumour in connection with her name, I shall come after you. Career or not, I'll run you through before I'll let you start the slightest scandal about her."
“Very proper, Charles. I should feel the same way in your shoes.” Ned's tone sobered slightly. “But I'm only a bit of a rake, you know. Not a blackguard. The lady's name is safe with me.
“But-” the teasing note was back “-I'm glad you've noticed all you have noticed, though. It tells me you're not quite the dry stick I thought you'd become. My advice is, take advantage of the situation. Nothing illegal, mind, but do enjoy yourself. “Now-” Ned sprang to his feet before Charles could lodge another protest. “I'll go tell my sister's maid to pack those clothes."
He left Charles alone in the library feeling wrung out by the shifts his emotions had undergone during the past half hour. More than a moment passed before Charles could decide whether he had been wise to come. But after he reflected, he determined that Ned's intentions were basically good. It would have been remarkable indeed if he had not taken the chance to avenge himself for Charles's past snubs, and the small bit of teasing to which Charles had been subjected was as nothing compared to the assistance Ned was giving him.
He would have to remember Ned, Charles decided. Rake or not, Ned had proved to be a true friend when he needed one.
When Ned came back, he was accompanied by a maid carrying two portmanteaus. The contents would be far more than Miss Davenport could possibly need, Charles reflected. At least, he thought so. But Ned seemed to take particular joy in supplying him with the clothes. And there was little Charles could say about them in front of the maid.
“Now,” Ned said, putting his arm about her. “You've heard what I said, Mary. Not a word to anyone about this-even to my sister. We must protect Lord Wroxton's reputation."
As the maid giggled, Charles swelled with suppressed indignation.
“Yessir, your lordship. I'll not breathe a word,” she said, giving Charles a roguish look.
After this, Charles escaped as soon as he could. He was relieved to be away from Ned and his mocking laughter.
But on the way back to the inn, he reflected that the visit had not been so bad, after all. He chuckled a bit when he remembered that episode at school with the portrait. Funny that he had forgotten.
The fire from Ned's cognac, and an occasional laugh over one of Ned's outrageous remarks, warmed him as he made his way back to The Crown and Pear.
Louisa had every intention of staying out of mischief while Charles was gone.
She knew how dreadfully she had imposed on his kindness, and she meant to see that his reputation came to no harm because of her. The truth was that the notion of forcing herself on a stranger was as distasteful to her as it was to Charles. But she was not one to shrink from what was necessary.
When she had seen Charles standing alone in the falling snow, an impatient frown on his lean, sensitive face, she knew her chance had come. Then she overheard the ostlers talking behind her in the stables. It needed only for one to mention that Charles was a marquess for her to be certain she could do no better in her choice of saviour.
And indeed, she thought as she sat in the Spadgers’ parlour, she had done very well. Aside from his tendency to be a little stiff with her at first-for which she could not, in justice, blame him-Charles had proven to be all concern for her comfort. Just the thought of his riding out on this cold night to obtain a chaperone for her made her heart swell with gratitude. She was sorry he had to venture out in such dismal weather. But Louisa was not one to exaggerate the dangers of such a mission. She simply hoped his headache would not recur.
In an endeavour not to be the cause of such an affliction, she determined she would sit quietly without entertainment, ready to order a punch for him on his return. She had no sewing to occupy her hands, and she preferred to wait to dine with Charles. The Spadgers, quite naturally, had nothing on hand for her to read.
The clock outside in the hall ticked monotonously. After a good half hour of sitting with her hands in her lap, Louisa began to fidget. She decided it would do no harm for her to draw a chair up to the window. That way she could look out on the snow, if nothing else; she might even see Charles returning before the Spadgers did, so she could alert them to his arrival.
She found she was most anxious for Charles's comfort. Even she, with her little knowledge of men, could tell how strained he had been when she first met him. She suspected he had a regrettable tendency to overwork.
She crossed the room and pulled a different chair to a spot before the window. Heavy curtains shrouded the glass to block draughts. Louisa parted them just enough to peer out. The snow had started to fall again, but not so heavily that she had any fears for their departure on the morrow. By the light from the inn's lanterns, she could see that the coating on the ground was much too thin and the snow much too fine for there to be any danger of their bogging down on the road.
Just then, a wrenching howl cut into the silence, followed by a canine whimper and a yip. Louisa jumped, then wiped the fog off the glass with her glove and strained to see farther into the yard.
This corner of the parlour faced the road. Dim light shone from the Spadgers’ lamp, casting a beam in the shape of a wedge out onto the pavement.
At first, Louisa saw nothing. She was about to wipe the pane again when something in the shadows caught her eye. She pressed her face to the window just as another howl of pain echoed down the street. Some creature was evidently in torment.
Louisa spat on her fingers this time and wiped the pane again to keep it clear. Then she saw a figure move into the lantern light-a man with a dog, small like a puppy, that he was holding by the ears.
Before the next wail of pain reached her, Louisa had bolted from her seat and flown to the door. She threw it open to find Sammy Spadger on the point of knocking.
Her demeanour frightened him. “What is't, lass?"
“Oh, Mr. Spadger, come quickly! I've no time to explain, but you are needed!"
Louisa did not wait to see if he followed. Without so much as her spencer-which she had removed so Mrs. Spadger could press it-she headed out the main inn door and into the street beyond.
“Miss! But, miss-!"
Sammy Spadger grabbed a lantern and came running after her, the words “catch thy death” and “dampen thy slippers” tripping off his tongue.
But Louisa was so heated by what she had just seen that no amount of snow could chill her. She stalked up to the man still standing on the pavement-a heavyset man with a stale smell of alcohol about him-and snatched the dog from his arms.
“0h, how could you! You scoundrel!"
When he saw who had accosted him, the man's first startled glance quickly changed to one of furtive belligerence.
“'Ere now! Wot you doin'?"
Louisa ignored him. She hugged the puppy close to her while the frightened creature huddled in her arms and whimpered. Seeming to sense a sympathetic spirit, it snuggled closer to her for warmth until Louisa felt a cold, wet nose planted between her breasts. A shock of long silky fur tickled her on the chin.
“Miss?” Sammy Spadger was hovering anxiously at her elbow. “What would tha be needing me for?"
Louisa turned to him, surprised. “I need you to call for the bailiff, of course! This man ought to be arrested for what he's done! Did you hear this creature's cries? What he did was brutal!"
“Arrested!” The man was taken aback. “You can't have no one arrested fer that! This ‘ere's my dog, ‘e is! I've a right to do wot I want wif ‘im!"
“T’ fellow's reet, miss,” Sammy said apologetically. “Tha's no reet ta take away a man's dog."
Louisa stared at him incredulously. “But I refuse to give him back! How could you suggest such a thing to me? Have you no pity?"
Sammy winced. “I don't say that it's good, miss. I hate ta see a dog treated that way. But there's nowt I can do abowt it-” he cast a suspicious glance at the man “-not unless he's made off wi’ t’ dog."
The fellow started to protest his innocence, but Louisa cut across his speech. “Do you know this man, Mr. Spadger?"
“Nay, he's a foreigner."
Louisa quite rightly took this to mean that the man was simply not from the village.
“I've seen ‘m abowt a bit, though.” Sammy sounded displeased.
“Well,” Louisa said, “I'm certain that a man who is capable of tormenting a dog is quite capable of stealing one. Until this matter can be decided, I shall take the dog myself to keep it safe!"
“But, miss-” Much as he disliked the fellow, Sammy would not support her.
“I'll call for the bailiff meself, I will-” the burly fellow's tone grew uglier by the minute “-and we'll see wot the law says about it. A body can't take a man's dog, ‘specially no girl!"
Louisa drew herself up and spoke with dignity. “You shall not intimidate me nor deter me from doing what I know to be right."
Then she spoiled the effect of her statement by sneezing. The burly man peered closer and snorted with laughter. Louisa tried to maintain her firm pose, but the dog's hair had tickled her nose and made it quite red. Even her eyes had begun to itch and water.
Desperate to make a sterner impression on the two men-for she could see that even Sammy had begun to lose patience with her-she said, “And, for your information, you shall not be dealing with me. My cousin will attend to you as soon as he returns from his errand. He is a marquess and travelling on the Regent's business."
She had not meant to drag Charles into the affair, but the claims of the puppy were surely more important than Charles's discretion. Besides, she felt confident that Charles would feel exactly as she did.
She sneezed again and tried to hold the puppy away from her, but when she did, it started to whimper. She realized, too, that such a gesture might suggest a willingness to give the dog up, and that Louisa was earnestly determined not to do, so she hugged the creature tighter.
By this time, Mrs. Spadger and a big lad who looked as if he might be her son had heard the commotion and come outside to investigate. While the stranger expostulated, Sammy explained the situation to his wife, who expressed her indignation at the bully but could not bring herself to take Louisa's side. Both she and her husband seemed to have too great a respect for the laws of ownership to overlook them.
Louisa was too overcome by another fit of sneezing to argue just then, but she found an unexpected champion in the Spadgers’ son. For when the burly man reached for the puppy and would have wrenched it from her, he was confronted by a huge pair of fists.
Sammy put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
“Leave off now, Jim-hold on, son."
“If you will only wait for my cousin… achoo!… he will take care of all… achoo! Oh, damn!” Louisa was driven to profanity by her sneezes, which seemed to have become uncontrollable. Her throat was thickening and throbbing, and minute by minute she found it more difficult to breathe. But she refused to relinquish the trusting puppy, which had begun to plaster sticky, wet kisses on her face.
Louisa prayed that Charles would come soon.
Though she considered entrusting the dog to one of the Spadgers, at least for the moment, any one of them might decide to give the creature back to its tormentor. She could not risk it.
The burly man had raised his fists when confronted by Jim's, and now pushed past him to make a grab for the puppy. A shoving match followed, which Louisa would have stopped if only she could stop sneezing.
It was with desperate relief that she heard Charles's cool voice carrying over the snow. “What in the devil's name is going on?"
Charles had approached the inn in a warm haze, caused in large part by Ned's brandy. But the cold of the night air had just started to seep through his overcoat, and he had begun to look forward to a dinner with Louisa.
He remembered the punch she had told the innkeeper to prepare for him the night before, and he wondered whether she would do so again. Somehow the thought that she might not think of it was more disturbing than the thought of actually missing the punch.
He was just about to ponder the meaning of this when the scene in front of the inn caught his eye: a crowd of people it seemed, and in its centre, Louisa, holding what looked like a fur muff to her exposed bosom.
A feeling of dread stole over him, even as he questioned her choice of attire.
He spurred his horse and called out in as cool a voice as he could muster. He had no doubt Louisa had done something foolish and that he would have to pay for it. A feeling of betrayal ran through him-couldn't she keep out of trouble for one hour? But as he dismounted, his anger was mollified by the sight of tears in her eyes as she turned to him with a rapturous smile.
“Charles! Thank heaven, you've come!"
She hurried to him and thrust her muff into his hands. Charles caught the bundle, fresh from the warmth of her bosom, and stared down at her. Even in the lantern's dim light, he could see the rosy imprint it had left on her flesh, from the bottom of her chin down to the neckline of her gown. His eyes were then drawn to its thin material, through which evidence of the chill she was suffering was prominently visible. The sight brought heat to Charles's face as he remembered Ned's advice.
He stared and swallowed. But then the bundle he had taken for a muff began to squirm, and he realized it had claws. Instinctively, he grabbed for it before it could topple from his arms. Then he held it to the light.
“A puppy! Louisa, what is this about?"
The dog whined, so he brought it close to his chest again and stroked it. This treatment seemed to work, so while Louisa explained herself between sneezes, Charles absently ran his fingers through the dog's hair. After a few moments, the creature stopped squirming and settled happily against his coat.
By this time, the rest of the crowd had surrounded them. Sammy and Nan hovered in the background, while a heavy, low sort of fellow shouted that Louisa had taken his dog.
“Nonsense!” Charles said, though he realized in saying it that he had no basis for sounding so certain. He did not know Louisa, after all, though he could hardly admit that in front of the Spadgers. He had better sound as if he believed what he said, and in any event he had taken an instant dislike to the burly fellow.
“If this is your dog,” he said coolly, “it can be returned to you promptly. There is no cause to shout."
He held out the dog to the man, but Louisa, still sneezing, threw herself between them. She caught the dog and pressed it back into Charles's arms, then clasped him by the shoulders.
“You mustn't do that, Charles!” She turned her head and made explosive noises. “Oh, excuse me! I am so sorry! But you mustn't-"
“Here.” Charles transferred the puppy to one hand and reached inside his coat for his handkerchief. “What are you doing outside, anyway, without your wrap?"
Louisa took the handkerchief from him and said, “That doesn't matter now. What matters is that this-” she gestured towards the man with contempt “-this monster will abuse the dog if you give it back. I think he stole it!"
“Now, sir-” Sammy Spadger finally came forward. “T’ lass is upset, an’ reetly so, but there's nowt ta say t’ dog wor pinched. What I can say, an’ will say, is that t’ man did harm t’ dog."
Charles had grasped the situation now. He sighed with impatience. “Louisa, you cannot take a man's belongings no matter how vilely he treats them. I understand your outrage, but-"
Louisa stepped back from him, looking as if he had struck her. Her reddened eyes filled with tears. “Charles-” her voice trembled with disappointment “-I was so certain you would save it."
Charles had frozen in mid-sentence; the weight of her dismay had fallen like a stone into the pit of his stomach. Louisa's eyes were rimmed in red. Her bosom was flushed with pink, and it heaved with a most painful breathing. The burden of her disillusion threatened to sink him into the ground.
The heavyset stranger stepped forward to jerk the dog out of his arms. Charles withheld it and gave him a withering glance.
“This matter has not been resolved."
A gasp of pleasure burst from Louisa's lips.
He could not resist casting a look in her direction. The weight on his chest began to lift rapidly when he saw the sparkle in her eyes.
“How much do you want for the dog?"
The fellow started, surprised, but not displeased.
“ ‘Ow much?” he said. Charles could see the calculation going on behind his furtive eyes. “Well, ‘ers a good ‘untin’ dog. I figures-"
“I'll give you ten shillings.” Charles reached inside his pocket and threw some coins at the man, who started to protest. “Ten shillings, and no enquiry into where the dog came from."
This silenced the stranger immediately. He tried to slink off into the dark, but Louisa had cause of her own to protest. She grabbed for his sleeve.
“Pay the man? Charles, how can you pay such a scoundrel when it's plain he's a criminal? Why only the most debased sort of-"
“Louisa…” Charles took her hand off the man's sleeve and forced the puppy back into her arms. Then be removed his overcoat and spread it about her shoulders.
“You've been outside much too long,” he told her, guiding her to the door. “It's time for this business to be concluded and for you to come inside by the fire before you come down with a serious chill. Your nose is already red."
“It's not the cold,” Louisa said, allowing him to shepherd her inside, “it's the dog.” She thrust the puppy back into his arms again. “I shall be quite all right if you hold it from now on."
Halfway down the corridor, Charles halted and gaped at her. “The dog?"
“Yes, Charles,” Louisa said lightly. “I do not know what it is, for I love animals. But every time I come too close to a dog or a cat I begin to sneeze."
On this surprising note, in which he detected no irony, Louisa hurried him into the private parlour and excused herself on the grounds that she must go up to her room to repair the damage the dog had done.
Stunned by this revelation, and by Louisa's obstinacy in rescuing the dog in spite of her affliction, Charles fell into a chair by the fire. Sammy Spadger came into the room to heap the grate with coals, for it was plain to see that both its occupants would need a thorough drying out.
Emerging from his reverie, Charles instructed him to have the bags he had brought from Lord Conisbrough's house taken up to Louisa.
“Then yor lordship's servants wor there as tha said?"
“ Huh? What? Oh, yes!"
Since this latest episode, Charles had forgotten the story they had told the Spadgers. But Sammy sounded so relieved that his faith in the marquess and his cousin had not been misplaced that Charles turned to the matter once more. “My cousin's bags had been delivered,” he said. “She might prefer to change before coming down to dinner."
“Mrs. Spadger'll see to it reet away, sir. Would tha like me ta take t’ dog?"
Charles glanced down at the puppy in his lap.
It had fallen asleep along the open palm of his hand, as if the past half hour's struggle had been far too much for its young body. It lay in an attitude of complete abandon, sprawled on its back as only a young animal can lie, its front paws flopped over his thumb, its hind paws splayed outwards exposing its pink underbelly. Charles noticed the creature was a female, though he might have suspected so by the length of its eyelashes-some sort of black-and-white spaniel with remarkably long lashes.
Something stirred inside him, and he did not answer until Sammy repeated his question.
“You may leave her here,” Charles said. He cleared his throat and said in a firmer voice, “I shall have to see what my cousin intends to do with it. The dog is hers, after all."
“Aye, yor lordship. And reetly so, t’ way she stood up ta that bully. If tha'll excuse me, I will say this. T’ lass has got a good heart, that she has."
Sammy bowed himself out of the room, leaving Charles to reflect on how Louisa had managed to charm the last suspicions from the Spadgers’ minds.
He was determined, however, to show no more weakness, so he resisted the impulse to gaze at the dog. Of all things for Louisa to saddle him with, he fumed in order to rally himself. He had dogs, of course. Every gentleman had hunting dogs, but they were of his own choosing, carefully bred for the purpose. Charles had no need for a dog who could not pull its own weight.
And this one, draped over his wrist like a lady's shawl, would undoubtedly prove to be a mixture of breeds, completely untrainable-as flighty, in fact, as Louisa herself.
* * * *
By the time Louisa arrived back downstairs, Charles had worked himself into a state of mild resentment, tempered by the cramp the puppy's weight had started in his wrist. He did not shift it, however. Looked at logically, his discomfort was due not to the puppy at all, but to Louisa, who had caused it to be there in the first place. No reason to take his temper out on a helpless creature when one so capable stood readily by.
He looked up at her entry, planning to start the scold he had prepared for her, but he was stopped by the sight of her new dress. A low-cut gown of yellow silk, as bright as a canary, enhanced her figure. It rustled in a pleasant way as Louisa moved forward and crooned, “Oh, isn't it precious, sleeping there? Charles, I had no idea you were so good with dogs! This one might have known you all its life."
“It's a she,” Charles found himself saying. He had never cared for the colour yellow, but somehow on Louisa it looked quite well. Because of her red hair, he presumed, noting that Ned certainly knew his business.
“Oh, it's a girl,” Louisa whispered reverently, bending over his lap to pet the dog lightly. She might have been talking about a human baby.
Her breasts hovered within inches of his face, causing a lump to rise in his throat. Charles felt something stirring in his lap. He looked down to see if the dog were waking, but realized with dismay that it was not the dog that had stirred.
He cleared his throat and tried to recall his annoyance.
“Louisa-” He sat up suddenly and placed the dog on the floor near the hearth. “What precisely do you mean to do with a creature you cannot even hold?"
The puppy sat up and yawned, then looked about for something softer to sleep on. It spied Charles's legs, crossed at the ankle, and curled up beside them to rest its chin on the toe of his boot.
Louisa looked down at it fondly. “Why, Charles, since you are so good with her, I see I shall have to give her to you."
“But I don't need a dog! Besides, you have never explained to me why you did such a rash thing!"
Louisa looked up at him, surprised. “Oh, but there was nothing rash about it, Charles! I have sworn to myself that I shall not let such crimes go unnoticed! It was a major revelation to me-and a sad one-that anyone could mistreat an animal. As soon as I heard the poor dog's cries, there was only one right thing to do, as I am sure you will agree!"
“Yes, but-'’ Charles could not bring himself now to say she was entirely wrong. “But you might have been hurt! Any man capable of abusing a dog might just as easily have turned on you! You should not expose yourself to such danger!"
“But I had no choice, as you saw! Why, even Mr. Spadger, as kind a man as he is-and I do think he is kind-even he was inclined to let the man have the dog! And he certainly would not have rescued it. That became most immediately and painfully clear."
Louisa gazed at him earnestly. “It is the most curious thing, Charles, that many good people will not bestir themselves for the benefit of others. And yet now, as I was descending the stairs, Mr. Spadger could not have been more cordial. I think both he and his wife were quite happy things turned out as they did. Mrs. Spadger said as much to me."
She changed the subject suddenly. “0h, by the way, I did not get a chance to thank you for fetching these clothes. They are all delightful, and in the latest fashion. I am very grateful to Lord Conisbrough and his sister. Do you think I should write her a note of thanks?"
Louisa looked at him quite innocently, but Charles hastened to say, “No, that would not be a good idea. Let Ned thank his sister for us."
“As you wish, Charles."
Louisa seemed perfectly willing to be ruled by him on this, but the other matter was one of conscience, and she would not be swayed. Sammy and his son brought in their dinner, and Charles waited for them to leave before mentioning the dog again. Jim had a tendency to linger, the better to gape at Louisa, Charles divined. Though respectful, the lad seemed besotted with her, and it was with the utmost reluctance that he finally left the parlour, half dragged by his bemused father.
Charles and Louisa moved to the table, but first Charles was obliged to slip his boot gently out from under the puppy's chin. It moaned when he did so, but agreed to stay put once he had draped his handkerchief over it.
Over dinner, the conversation became quite heated when Louisa suggested Charles ought to have had the man arrested.
“But on what grounds?"
She waved a fork vaguely in the air. “Why, how should I know, Charles? But there must be something. And you, being in the government, must have a much better notion of the laws than I."
She ended with her fork pointed directly at his chest, a gesture which could only make Charles feel defensive.
“You are correct, Louisa. I do have a much better notion of the law, and I can tell you there is no law in existence which prohibits a man from doing what he did!"
“Well, there ought to be!” She was seated with her back to the fire; the combination of yellow gown, red coals and vibrant hair conspired to build a glow around her. Her indignation was magnificent.
Charles imagined he could feel heat emanating from her, which warmed him, even as her next words tried his patience.
“I am sure you will want to introduce a bill to that effect."
The puppy had awakened while they talked and now came to beg for food from the table. Louisa cut a piece of ham into tidbits and started to place it before the dog.
“Louisa, if that dog is to be mine, I would be grateful if you would refrain from teaching her bad habits!"
She went on as if he had not spoken. “Nonsense, Charles. Since when does one occasion constitute a habit?"
“Are you quite recovered now, little one?” she said, addressing the puppy. “We should think of a name for her, don't you think?"
Charles groaned. “Have the good grace, please, to let me name her, Louisa. I will not have a dog with some foolish name chosen by a sentimental female."
Louisa glanced up, surprised. “Do you think me sentimental, Charles? I assure you I am nothing if not practical. The name Eliza had struck me as a possibility, but if you prefer another, by all means, go ahead and choose one."
Charles had not given a moment's thought to naming the dog; but now it became a matter of honour to choose one. He groped for a name a man could call his dog without being laughed at for it.
“Juno is a good name."
Louisa glanced at the dog and hid a smile. “Why, of course. Juno-how forceful! Why, just looking at this creature brings to mind the wife of Jupiter! I am struck by the similarity!"
Then she giggled, for the puppy in its efforts to sit up and beg had fallen over on its back. It was still so young that it sat with its legs splayed off to one side-a distinctly ungoddesslike pose.
Charles swallowed the retort he had begun to make, and then swallowed his pride, as well.
“Oh, very well, then. She will be Eliza. But from now on, Louisa, the dog is mine, and I shall be the one to govern her conduct!"
Louisa dimpled at him and returned to her meal. He thought the subject had been dropped, but then she said, “Perhaps this whole incident can be regarded as fortunate, for now you will have Eliza to remind you of those measures you plan to introduce before the Lords."
Charles refused to be baited into a lengthier discussion-one that he was bound to lose, in any case. He knew better by now than to try to explain to Louisa how the introduction of any such bill would make him a laughing-stock before his colleagues. She never stopped to think about how others would regard her actions.
Charles took that back-she knew perfectly well what others thought and disregarded it all the same. But when cruelty to other humans was so rampant, how could she expect the government to legislate the protection of animals?
He changed the subject and told her they must stay another day with the Spadgers because of the Sabbath. Louisa seemed not at all distressed by the news, though she did have the grace to express her concern for his inconvenience.
As she was bidding him good-night, however, she added in a tone filled with wisdom, “Though I daresay, Charles, you will benefit from another day of rest."
She held out her hand to him and her voice took on a delicate note. “You will remember to take Eliza outdoors, will you not? And if she sleeps in your chamber, you'll be certain to hear if she needs any such attention during the night."
With these tactful suggestions, she left Charles standing at the bottom of the stairs, once again wishing he could throttle her.
The night was cold and clear, promising a fine day on the morrow. If it were not for the chill, it might have been peaceful to look out upon the deserted village. As it was, Charles could only think of the warmth inside, and of Louisa, who was undoubtedly settled in bed with a warming pan and a mound of down-filled covers to make her cosy.
He shivered resentfully and looked up at a display of stars, then down at Eliza seated in the snow at his feet.
The puppy was trembling, too, and looking up as if to ask him why he was subjecting her to this horrid cold. She seemed perfectly willing to oblige him, if only he could explain just what was required of her.
Charles sighed. Then, saving his anger for Louisa, he gave Eliza a friendly word of encouragement. He found himself praising her beyond what was warranted, but it wouldn't hurt, he reasoned, to let her know how to please him.
The dog seemed willing to obey him, quite unlike her rescuer. It almost seemed, at times, to be poor strategy to let Louisa know what he wanted from her. Once she knew, she was almost bound to do the opposite. And if it were not for that contrariness, Charles reminded himself, he would not be outside, suffering from the cold this very minute.
Louisa somehow contrived to elicit whatever performance she wished out of Charles, something which made him question his sanity. Would anyone else he knew presume to instruct him-even with such delicacy as Louisa had displayed-to walk the dog before he retired to bed? His mother had made it a practice to discourage him from entering into any pursuit she deemed unworthy of him. He had become so accustomed to being spared such tasks that he had almost forgotten they existed. And yet, here he was, running the risk of contracting a chill, and performing a task so menial as to be insulting.
Charles had often prided himself on the fact that he did not stand upon his dignity as a marquess. Now he realized it seldom happened that anyone dared to trespass on that dignity. Perhaps that was the reason for his bizarre behaviour now.
Shock had robbed him of good sense. But he could not, he told himself firmly, let himself be continuously inveigled by a girl who had so little notion of propriety.
He resolved that, henceforth, Jim Spadger would be put in charge of taking the puppy out.
In the meantime, however, something had to come of this mission. For the tenth time in as many minutes, Charles bent to raise Eliza upon her feet and to give her a friendly pat upon the bottom. “Off you go, then,” he said, “down to business."
The puppy stumbled, then took a few tentative steps, lifting and shaking each paw as if the damp were offensive to her. Then, with something like a sigh of forlorn hope, she finally lowered her haunches and produced what was wanted.
“Good girl! Good girl!” Charles scooped her up as quickly as possible and headed back into the inn at a fast pace.
Eliza, who could not have been more surprised at her success, licked him all over the face.
Charles was highly gratified by this evidence of the dog's intelligence and of her good intentions. He muttered a wish that Louisa could be so easily governed.
It was the wound to his dignity then, provoked by Louisa, and not a lack of charity with the puppy, that caused Charles to retire in a resentful state of mind. He allowed the dog to sleep on one of his boots near the hearth, which would have scandalized his valet if he had known; but Charles had seen the wistful look she had given the bed.
“My apologies, Eliza,” he said, reaching down to give her a pat. “But the floor will be quite good enough for you!"
* * * *
He awakened in the night, freezing from a lack of covers. Somehow in his sleep, the thick down quilt that covered his bed had slipped and fallen to the floor.
Charles groped for it in the dark, then as he reached it and pulled it upward, heard a small thump and a yelp.
“Sorry, girl,” he said, only now remembering Eliza. Evidently, she had taken advantage of his loss to make herself a bed. Charles reckoned he must have tossed in his sleep more than usual to cause the coverlet to fall, for as a rule he was a quiet sleeper. He settled it over him again and laid his head back on his pillow.
After a few moments, he felt a tug. Then another… and another… until the quilt began to slip off him again.
Charles sat up and reached for the flint beside his bed. After lighting the lantern, he saw just who had been responsible for his discomfort.
With the corner of the quilt gripped firmly between her teeth, Eliza was pulling on it with all her might, her tail held high in the air.
Charles watched in amazement until she had pulled the cover completely off the bed, climbed upon it and turned one… two… three circles, before curling into a ball on the nest she had made.
He knew he ought to be angry with her, but found instead that he was unaccountably proud to discover his dog's genius. At her present size-she could not weigh much over four pounds-she had conceived her plan and executed it against the physical odds.
He scooped her up in one hand and held her hanging so that her nose faced his.
“You're a prodigy,” he told her. She wagged her tail and tried to lick him in the face again, but he held her off.
“No, no more of that.” Charles reached down for the coverlet again, spread it over himself and placed Eliza on top of it near the foot of the bed.
“We'll share just this once,” he told her. “You seem to have earned the privilege."
He settled back down. Then he paused to marvel at his own behaviour, and gave a reluctant laugh. Louisa, he conceded, would have the last word even when absent. He had no doubt that this had been her wish all along.
* * * *
In the morning, Charles had a strong desire to tell Louisa about Eliza's cleverness; but to do so would expose his own weakness, something he vowed he would not do.
At breakfast, however, Louisa persisted in feeding the dog from the table, and he was forced to say, “Louisa, if you must disoblige me in spoiling Eliza, please have the goodness to make her work for her food."
Louisa gave him a disparaging look.
“Charles, Eliza is far too young to train. Why, I suppose you would have me teach her to sit and beg! She couldn't begin to learn that at her age."
“Of course she could. She's quite intelligent-aren't you, Eliza? Come here, please."
At the sound of his voice, the dog turned and, seeing bacon in his hand, came running.
“Now, tell her to sit, Charles,” said Louisa, still sceptical. “I'm sure she will understand you."
He ignored her. “Eliza,” he said in a voice of authority. “Sit.” At the same time, with his hand, he cupped Eliza's chin and forced it up.
Eliza landed on her tail with a small thump.
Charles petted her, told her she was a good girl and gave her some bacon. He repeated this action several times. Then he tried it without using his hand.
At the sound of the word “Sit” Eliza hesitated only a moment before plopping her bottom down on the floor.
Charles rewarded her, and with only a glance at Louisa to see how she was taking his triumph, went back to his own meal. The sight of her eyes, round with amazement, gave him a surge of pleasure which was not diminished by the realization that the dog had taken the better portion of his breakfast.
Finally, Louisa spoke. “Why, Charles, I'm completely mortified! I thought you called the dog intelligent because she gazes at you with those adoring eyes. But she really is, isn't she?"
“Something of a genius, I'd say,” Charles replied, unable to keep the pride from his voice. “I had ample evidence last night."
Louisa eyed him curiously. “What happened last night to make you-''
Realizing he had led her towards the fact he did not mean to divulge, he interrupted with, “Suffice it to say that we made a start on her training. She's perfectly biddable, as it turns out. Now, Louisa,” he said, hastening to change the subject, “how do you mean to spend the day?"
Louisa brightened. “I had thought I might decorate Mrs. Spadger's parlour for Christmas. She and her husband will be busy decking the house outside, and it would be nice if the parlour looked festive, too."
Charles frowned. “I'm not at all certain that's appropriate. Have you nothing else you can do?"
“I had thought we might attend the service this morning."
He puzzled over that for a moment. “I don't know if it would be wise for us to be seen together outside the inn."
Louisa rolled her eyes, as if she despaired of him. “Come now, Charles! Surely, if I were your light o’ love, you would not take me to church!"
Charles choked on his coffee. “Louisa, I beg you will watch your tongue!"
With the puppy there as something neutral to focus his attention on, Charles had managed to keep other images out of his mind-images, he was resolved, that had no business invading his thoughts while Louisa was in his care. Now, with one phrase, she had managed to conjure them back.
Even now he found it hard to meet her eyes when she gazed at him so innocently. The pale green sprigged muslin gown she wore had caught his attention as soon as she had curtsied to him that morning. Miss Conisbrough, he decided, like her brother, had quite immodest notions of dress. The way the gown had been cut to hug the figure had even made him wonder if she might not be one of those ladies who dampened her petticoats.
But thoughts about Ned's sister could only be fleeting when Louisa's bright hair and fair skin confronted him over the breakfast table. When he thought of her smooth white décolletage, he reflected that whoever had first likened whiteness to purity had had a strange view of nature-not that he questioned Louisa's innocence, but this strong hint of what lay beneath her gown set his own thoughts to wandering.
When his choking had subsided, and Louisa had modified her statement in a way that made his embarrassment only worse, he conceded that she was, at least, correct in her assumption. Going to church would be the best occupation for them. It would certainly go further toward convincing the Spadgers that their claims had been true. And Charles's first thought, that Ned might somehow see them at service and cause him some embarrassment, was patently ridiculous.
After breakfast, then, the two of them strolled down the village to the church, leaving Eliza in Jim's care. The boy made it plain that he would be happy to do anything to serve Louisa. Charles found such puppy-like devotion in such a hulking boy mildly annoying.
Before they entered the church, Charles cautioned Louisa to keep her spencer on throughout the service, giving the chill of the building as his reason. With Louisa better covered, he was able to keep his mind on the sermon, and, later, could leave the church convinced he had put any unsuitable notions out of his mind.
* * * *
On their return, they found Nan Spadger and her son in the midst of preparations for Christmas. The Spadgers were “chapel” and had seen to their own devotions earlier that morning.
No work was allowed on Sunday, so the cooking for Christmas could not be started. However, Nan had taken the attitude that decorating the parlour for their guests and their own quarters for themselves was neither work nor a form of recreation expressly forbidden by the Sunday laws. The inn smelled of freshly cut evergreens.
When Charles came downstairs to the parlour after freshening himself, he found a pile of greenery on the floor in the doorway. Louisa was perched on a stool above it with Jim, both silent and adoring, rooted by its side to give her assistance.
Charles strode up to them. “Louisa, I thought I said-"
“Oh, there you are, Charles! Isn't this delightful? And so much better than just sitting with nothing to busy my hands!” She ignored his stare. “Of course, if we had not had our accident, I should be at home doing precisely this sort of thing right now."
Charles knew her comments were designed to forestall any criticism he might have about Louisa's working at any task inside a public inn. But there was nothing he could say in front of Jim Spadger, who was looking sheepishly at him now, that would discourage her from amusing herself in whatever way she wanted.
Charles decided he would have to send Jim from the room before he remonstrated with her.
Louisa bent toward Charles and pointed with one finger. “Would you be so obliging as to hand me that branch of holly, just past you there?"
Her smile dazzled Charles. He turned and searched the boards at his feet for the desired branch. Finding a likely candidate, he turned again, thinking, as he extended it to her, how beautifully her colouring went with this Christmas greenery.
The berries on the holly were a truer red than her hair, but not nearly so vibrant as the gold-and-copper highlights of her curls. The sprigs on her gown closely matched the forest shades of the boughs. Charles found himself stepping back to admire the picture Louisa made as she stood on tiptoe to attach the piece he had given her above the door. A glimpse of trim ankles, showing above her slippers, caused him to cast an uneasy glance Jim Spadger's way.
Louisa's voice cut into his thoughts. “Mrs. Spadger said she has several of these branches and that I might use them in any way we choose. What do you think of this arrangement?"
Charles, who had meant to be disapproving, could only mumble that the cluster above the entry should be enough.
“Nonsense,” Louisa said, smiling. “I mean to deck the whole room before the day is over. You may help if you like."
“No, thank you,” Charles said firmly. He bent to pet Eliza, who had bounded out from the kitchen to find him. She leapt in circles at his feet as if this reunion were more touching than she could quite bear, and she whimpered as if she had despaired of ever seeing him again.
“That will do. Down, girl! Down!"
“Isn't it wonderful, Charles, how much she loves you!” Louisa said. Then her tone turned wistful. “I'm afraid Geoffrey proved not to be fond of dogs."
Charles swallowed an oath and made a furious gesture behind Jim's back, begging her to show a little more discretion. Louisa just winked at him, amused and unconcerned.
She stepped down from the stool and, with Jim's assistance, moved to decorate another corner of the room.
“Jim-” Charles heard the ominous note in his own voice “-I find myself in need of a pint of your father's best. Would you fetch it for me?"
“Aye, yor lordship."
Charles waited until Jim was gone before crossing to Louisa's side.
“How could you think of mentioning Geoffrey in front of that boy?” he demanded.
She looked up, startled. “But, Charles, Jim knows nothing about my elopement. How could he? He must presume we were just talking about a friend."
“But what if he… What if you said something even less discreet? He might tumble to it somehow!"
Louisa tilted her head incredulously. “Now, Charles, you're being unreasonable.” She extended her hand to him, and he supported it without thinking while she climbed upon the stool. “Why don't you hand me another bough while we're conversing?"
“Louisa-” Charles fumed at her back for a moment before bending to pick up a branch. “It's not so much what you said just now,” he allowed as she took it from him. “It's the fact that you will mention that man at all! I should think you would be eager to forget the whole incident!"
“Of course I am, Charles. But all the same…” She sighed. “I find it hard to put the episode entirely behind me. When I think of how marriage would have changed my life-indeed, how it would change any girl's life! I can only regret that it all came to nothing."
Charles found himself colouring again. At this proximity, and with Louisa's waist at his eye level, there was only one fact about marriage he could recall at present. The thin muslin of Miss Conisbrough's dress hugged Louisa's trim waist and revealed the way her hips sloped outward in an inviting line. He might so easily stretch out his hands and pull her towards him.
His urge was almost overwhelming, and all of a sudden, he suspected Ned's hand in this. Who else but Ned could have chosen such bewitching gowns? It must be the clothes, Charles decided, the clothes and Ned's lewd suggestions.
But it did not help when Louisa provoked him with statements about Geoffrey and her own shocking reflections upon marriage.
“Louisa,” he said in a strangled voice, “I must beg you not to talk in that way. If we are to go on… that is, if I am to behave in a proper manner toward you, you must not speak in such a remarkable fashion!"
Louisa's eyes grew round. Charles could see he had managed to shock her and regretted his frank words, even before she said, “Whatever do you mean?"
But then, just as suddenly, her expression relaxed. “Now, Charles, I know you are only trying to startle me. Of course you would always behave properly towards me."
Perversely, Charles found he did not care for this assumption. “What makes you so certain?” he asked, surprising himself.
“I am certain you would never force your attentions on an unwilling female, would you?"
Charles struggled with the answer and then told the truth, “No. Not if she were unwilling."
“And it is the unwillingness that makes certain behaviours improper. Do you not agree?"
He nodded, confused as to where this reasoning was taking them.
But Louisa only smiled and said, “There, you see."
She held out her hand for another branch.
Charles reached for one to avoid meeting her gaze. He found himself wondering if Louisa was willing or not. She had not said.
But then, it was just this sort of thinking he was trying to avoid. He retreated to the safety of their original topic.
“All the same, Louisa, I would prefer you not to mention Geoffrey in front of Jim again."
“As you wish, Charles."
Louisa continued with her decorating, humming a little tune as she did. After a moment, she added, “I only mentioned Geoffrey because I thought I should tell you about an idea I had and about which he was so disobliging."
“What idea?” Charles asked warily.
Louisa ignored his cautious tone and went on, “As soon as I saw how fond you are of dogs, I was certain you would wish to hear about it. On our way north, I saw a number of dogs without masters-miserably thin-one could see they were starving. And I would have stopped to pick them up, only Geoffrey forbade it. Considering the haste he wished to make, I could almost forgive him for it, but it was his reaction to my idea that first awoke me to his true character."
Charles smiled at the picture her words conjured up: an eloping couple, their carriage weighed down by a pack of starving curs; a harried bridegroom, struggling to make time; and Louisa, turning red and sneezing into the bargain.
He could almost sympathize with Geoffrey. Charles knew he should stop Louisa's confidences before she suggested another bill he should put before the Lords; but a sudden curiosity about Geoffrey and his faults prevented him.
She continued, “I had the notion of a private society which could succour homeless animals. What do you think about that, Charles?"
Charles's jaw dropped open. He stammered, “And you say this Geoffrey fellow disapproved of your notion?"
She nodded, indignant at the memory.
Charles drew a deep breath. “Then I begin to discover a common feeling with the fellow at last. Louisa, you cannot imagine how much such a thing would cost!"
“Oh, yes, I can, Charles. It would cost a great deal. That is why I think we should raise funds for it."
“But-Louisa, would you plan to go on feeding these useless animals forever? What would that serve?"
“I would hope to find homes for them. Do not forget how easily you were persuaded to take Eliza.” She gazed at him hopefully.
Charles took a breath that swelled his chest. He shook his head once, and then again more forcefully. At times like these, he found Louisa's logic astounding.
“No,” he said aloud. “Louisa, I'm afraid I must side with Geoffrey. That is an impossible notion."
Disappointment clouded her eyes. She began to finger the branch in her hands.
“I was so certain you would understand…"
Charles began stammering, “I do-of course I do understand your impulse. You are kind and generous! But it simply cannot be done!"
Louisa had perked up at his compliment. But at his final words, her face turned wistful. “If you are very certain, Charles…"
She turned her back on him and tried rather listlessly to fix the branch above a window. Charles found himself staring at her shoulders, at the gown stretched tightly across her back, at the high waist which shifted with each of her movements to cup her breasts. She stood on tiptoe and her arms rose above her head to loop a piece of rope across the curtain, the skin as smooth and white as satin.
He felt a deep desire to make her turn around and smile at him.
“Of course…” he ventured, searching his mind frantically for something to cheer her, “the other thing you mentioned about a piece of legislation to restrict cruelty to animals-I rather see the sense in that."
He spoke the truth. Now that he had taken the time to think about her proposal, he could see nothing wrong with it precisely. Good stewardship was a basic principle of good government. No reason it should not extend to animals, after all.
Louisa whirled to face him. “Charles! Do you really think so?"
The smile he had longed to see beamed down at him.
“Now, I only said that I see the sense in it,” he responded cautiously. “I cannot speak for my colleagues. Chances are, they will require time to get used to the idea, but I see no harm in mentioning it."
“Charles!” In her delight, Louisa gave him both her hands, and he held them to his lips for a moment. Her eyes shone down at him like a sunlit sky.
Then, recovering his senses, he released her hands and waved off the praise she seemed so eager to shower on him.
As she turned to her task again, Louisa concluded, “And Charles, you must never again liken yourself to Geoffrey, even in jest! I will not allow it!"
Charles felt a cloud moving to block the glow of her approval. Truth to tell, he almost felt guilty for raising her hopes. His colleagues would laugh at the idea. But Charles was a man of his word, and no matter what it cost him, he resolved to raise the issue as soon as Boney was caught.
From time to time, Louisa held her hand out for another sprig of holly, and Charles found himself in the role of first assistant. By the time Jim returned with his pint, he had decided he might as well keep it up. It would be impossible to read undisturbed with two people climbing about the room in any case, and he did not mean to be driven from the parlour. Besides, he was certain Jim had other chores to do and should not linger.
Charles dismissed him.
Louisa seemed pleased that Charles had given up his own plans in order to help her. Together they strung garlands and looped them over the doors and windows. The amount of greenery seemed excessive; it was more the custom to use it outdoors for the conduits and street standards. But when they had finished, Charles had to admit that the effect of their work was beautiful. The hanging holly and bay turned the common parlour into a wooded bower. The scent of fir perfumed the air, mingling with the smoke of the fire.
When the windows and doors were all finished, Louisa sat by the fire and got to work fashioning a “kissing bough” for the ceiling. Charles stood beside her, silently staring at the crown of green in her hands.
She had fashioned a circle, and now she was adding to it the things Mrs. Spadger had donated: rosettes and ribbons in long streamers from which to suspend gifts; red apples for more colour; and candles, which would be lighted on Christmas Day. A sprig of mistletoe lay off to one side, the last to be attached.
“I haven't done anything like this since I was a boy and got in the servants’ way at Wroxton Hall,” Charles said, almost to himself.
Louisa turned her full attention on him. “Is that where you spend Christmas?"
“No. It's been years since I went home for Christmas.” The intense look from her blue eyes made him shift. “My mother does not care for such flummery."
“It is not flummery!” Louisa asserted. Then she said with a twinkle, “But even if it is, I enjoy it. Confess now, you have been amused, have you not?"
Charles grinned in acknowledgement. The truth was he had even caught himself humming a time or two, tunes he thought he had long ago forgotten.
He hesitated, but something prompted him to admit, “But I seldom enjoy Christmas."
“And why is that?"
He wished he had not begun, but since he had, he had to answer. “London seems deserted. Whitehall empties, as if there were no war on. Just a few of us stay on until the season's over, with nothing to do. No work can be accomplished."
“Then you ought to go home."
Charles grimaced. “I doubt that would change my feelings for the holiday."
Louisa had the sensitivity not to probe any further. She said instead, “I must confess there are times, when the general is crabby and my aunt seems listless, that I find my own spirits flagging. But I refuse to let them. I double my efforts and can usually think of enough… flummery, if you will, that I can coax at least one chuckle from the general."
Charles laughed. “I imagine you do. You have certainly coaxed more than one from me."
Louisa coloured and looked away. He was surprised to see how strongly his words had affected her. A pulse began to race in his throat.
Louisa recovered and said pertly, “But you are not half so crabby as the general!” She rose quickly to her feet and picked up the bough. “Will you hand me upon the stool, please?"
Her arms were both taken with the “kissing bough."
Charles took her elbow and put one hand upon her waist to help her up. He kept it there to steady her while she reached for the ceiling and fumbled with the heavy bough. With every passing moment he became more and more conscious of her waist beneath his hands…
All at once, Louisa seemed to wobble. Her fingers struggled with the rope she had fixed to attach the bough. A warm blush suffused her face and breast. She cast a look at Charles from beneath her lashes.
“I believe this ceiling is too high for me,” she said breathlessly. “Perhaps you would be willing to affix it?"
Charles swallowed hard and took a step backwards, releasing her carefully. “Certainly,” he said.
He put out a hand to help her, and Louisa climbed down. Without meeting her gaze, Charles took the bough from her and stepped up to reach the beam.
In a minute, he had fastened it securely. He jumped down again, careful not to land beneath the mistletoe.
Hanging a “kissing bough” was certainly a common enough custom, though under the circumstances he found himself questioning Louisa's wisdom in hanging one. While they ate dinner tonight, it would be just there, hovering between them. A less honourable man might take its presence for an invitation.
But, Charles thought with a grimace, if it were not for Ned and his scheme to plant wayward thoughts in his mind, they might have hung the damned thing without embarrassment.
Striving to keep Ned and his conspiracy in mind, Charles took a step backwards to admire his work.
“There,” he said, avoiding Louisa's gaze. “You must think this is enough at last. Besides, we shall be leaving tomorrow. It is a pity all our work will go for someone else."
He had not meant to say anything that Louisa could misinterpret. But somehow the words had come of their own volition, and he realized he meant them.
Louisa seemed quite affected.
“I cannot regret making anything so beautiful. And it has helped to pass the day so charmingly. “Goodness!” she exclaimed, looking away. “It is almost time for dinner. You will have to excuse me while I change."
She fled from the room, and Charles was left to wonder whether her cheeks were truly flushed or whether he had just imagined it.
* * * *
That evening, Charles's determination not to be tempted was strong, so strong that he avoided casting any looks in Louisa's direction. She was wearing another of Miss Conisbrough's dresses, a wispy confection of white crepe, in which she appeared as tempting as a ripe strawberry nestled in clotted cream.
Their conversation was strained and limited quite purposely to the condition of the roads Charles expected to find on the morrow. He made a mental note to discuss their time of departure with Timothy before going to bed. He would fetch Miss Wadsdale first thing in the morning and then this improper situation would come to an end.
Louisa seemed no more inclined for conversation than Charles was. Even Eliza's antics got a lukewarm response from them both.
A knock sounded on the door, and Sammy Spadger stepped in.
“Pardon, yor lordship and miss, but t’ folks is paradin’ wi’ t'Advent Image. Would tha’ care ta see it?"
“No, thank you-” Charles began.
But Louisa said simultaneously, “Yes, of course!” She looked at Charles questioningly. “Have you some objection, Cousin?"
This form of address startled Charles anew. Staring at her, he realized how completely he had forgotten their masquerade. He stammered to cover his thoughts. “No, no objection. Let them come in."
He decided that he had begun to exaggerate the need for caution. No possible harm could come of their witnessing this custom together. Miss Wadsdale would be between them as of tomorrow, and Charles could only hope this interlude would hasten the end of an uncomfortable evening.
He and Louisa rose from their chairs and stepped to the parlour door.
A mixed crowd of villagers had assembled in the corridor, Jim Spadger among them. Several of them beamed upon seeing their interest; the shy ones bowed to hide their faces. Sammy and Nan stood off to one side, gazing proudly on their son.
In the doorway stood two men bearing a panel decked with greenery on which two dolls were perched. One doll was wrapped in swaddling like the Saviour, the other dressed to appear as Mary.
“How charming!” Louisa said, smiling at the crowd.
The leaders returned her smile and then glanced at each other nervously. A woman standing behind one of the men poked him firmly and said, “Just get on wi't’ singing, Dick! Do!"
Charles had no doubt that Jim Spadger had informed his companions of the marquess staying in his father's house, and it appeared that such an illustrious audience had tied the singers’ tongues.
He was about to suggest that they withdraw when Louisa smiled again and said, “Please do sing for us. My cousin and I were just saying how much we wished for entertainment."
This tactful falsehood prompted enormous smiles from the performers. Together, the two men in front started to sing, and the others joined in to harmonize:
“God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round the table go."
Jim Spadger had burst forth in a hearty baritone quite unlike his common speaking voice but commensurate with his bulk. Charles realized the boy had seldom spoken above a mutter, and he now put this down to shyness. Nan and Sammy were overcome by the sound of their son's golden tones.
Louisa had listened with her hands clasped together, and when the song had ended, she applauded enthusiastically. Charles thought she deserved an accolade herself for the way she had handled the villagers’ timidity.
One of the women passed the Vessel Cup, and Charles, feeling suddenly expansive, dipped deeply into his pocket for a coin. Since this was far larger than the halfpenny requested, the singers’ eyes opened wide and a few said, “0-o-oh!” Louisa flashed him a sunny look.
Nan Spadger said, “And now, tha’ must take a leaf from t’ Saviour, yor lordship and miss.” When Louisa hesitated, she plucked one for her and added, “It's good for t’ toothache."
Charles accepted his solemnly and, with a brief bow, dismissed them with thanks. Louisa added hers, and then they retreated inside the parlour so the door could close.
As soon as Sammy pulled it to behind them, they glanced at each other and Louisa started to giggle. Charles gave in to laughter, as well.
He held up his leaf. “I hope you mean to keep yours, in case the toothache should befall you. For myself, I intend to hide mine under my pillow."
Louisa held hers up and twisted it this way and that to examine it.
“What do you think, Charles? Is one supposed to eat it or rub it on the affected tooth? Or perhaps it is to be drunk in an infusion like tea. I would hate to waste such a useful remedy by using it improperly!"
She gave a final chuckle and then said, “But we should not laugh. What a charming custom! And not one we have in London, I believe. I particularly enjoyed the part about the children ‘that round the table go.’ I could just see a large family with a dozen or so cheerful faces clustered about their dinner."
Charles could see the table, too. And the strange thing was that he saw Louisa sitting at its head.
But before he could ponder this, Louisa chattered on. “I shall have to ask Mrs. Spadger about it tomorrow and get her to tell me how to use the leaf. I would have asked the singers, but I was afraid to frighten them."
“You were marvellous with them, Louisa. With such tact, you have the makings of a good political hostess."
Louisa grimaced. “I suppose by that you mean that I am an accomplished liar."
Charles was taken aback. “Not at all. It is a useful talent to prevaricate in harmless ways to make others feel at ease. I thought you handled them magnificently."
A warm glow spread over her countenance. “Why, thank you, Charles. And I will add that you were quite generous, too."
He felt himself redden and shifted from one foot to the other. “Oh, that. It was nothing. You must know how insignificant that was to me."
“Yes, I daresay it was,” Louisa said, moving back to the table. He followed her and held her chair for her. “But it shows a willingness to give, and I am certain you must find many worthy things to do with your wealth."
On the way to his own chair, Charles halted guiltily as he realized how completely she was mistaken. He searched his mind frantically for an instance of his own charity and, aside from the vicar's needs at Wroxton, came up short. Of course, he was terribly busy, but the truth was he took his own wealth so much for granted that he seldom thought of sharing it. If he ever felt compelled to do so, more often than not he forgot the impulse before he acted upon it.
Taking his chair and avoiding her eyes, he resolved to do better in future, and for the rest of the evening, steered the conversation back to safer ground.
In the morning, Charles tried to take a brisk approach to their departure, but he found that Louisa, though up, was far from ready.
“I'm afraid the packing is taking longer than I expected,” she explained at breakfast. “I want to take good care of Miss Conisbrough's gowns, but without my maid it is rather difficult. To do them justice, I should pack them myself, but if you wish, I shall ask Mrs. Spadger to help."
“Please do so,” Charles said. “If I had thought of it, we could have asked her to pack them yesterday. I don't think keeping the Sabbath would have prevented her from assisting her guests. If you had only mentioned this before, we could have been off by now. We have two long days of travel still ahead of us."
Louisa responded calmly, “I shall not keep you much longer. Why don't you fetch Miss Wadsdale and then come back for me. I am certain to be ready by then."
Charles looked at her with a warning in his eyes. “The last time I left, I came back and found myself saddled with a dog. I hope this time I shall not find any surprises when I return."
“Now, Charles…” Louisa had a way of addressing him as if he were an unreasonable child. “One would think you were not happy to have Eliza! And, yet, just look at you."
Charles started, realizing that he had automatically cut a piece of his breakfast ham and handed it down to the dog. And what was worse, Louisa did not know that the dog still slept on his coverlet.
“That is neither here nor there, Louisa,” he retorted. “One small dog of this calibre I can stand. But I will not travel with a coachload of smelly curs, half of them without a brain in their heads! Besides, how do we know Miss Wadsdale will tolerate a dog?"
This thought had been bothering him. If Lady Conisbrough's companion did complain about the dog, he might face a delicate situation. Not that Eliza could be abandoned now, that would not be fair. Charles was inclined, if she objected, to make the suggestion that she ride on the box with the coachman, instead, and see how quickly she came about.
But Louisa seemed unconcerned. “I am certain your friend Ned would not foist anyone so disagreeable upon us.” She put down her napkin and stood.
“Now, if you will excuse me, I shall go up and resume packing. Do you wish me to keep Eliza for you?"
Charles knew he ought to leave the dog, but he answered perversely, “No, I shall take her with me to get her used to the carriage. If the motion makes her ill, I'd as lief find out about it now as later. Besides-” he smiled “-she will make you sneeze."
Louisa pouted delightfully. Then she laughed, and he felt a peculiar flipping sensation inside.
It occurred to him that he no longer minded Louisa's shade of hair. He could not imagine her with any other. Besides, she showed no signs of having the fearsome temper that was thought to go with it. By and large, she had a sunny disposition.
Of course, she could be obstinate, but…
She left him to do her packing, and he set out for Ned's, contemplating the more pleasing aspects of her character.
* * * *
Later on, her packing done, Louisa sat in the parlour, dressed in her own travelling gown, the one she had been wearing when Charles first found her. She had slipped on her spencer, as well.
It had not occurred to Charles, she knew, that Miss Wadsdale might recognize Miss Conisbrough's clothing and ask impertinent questions. But it had occurred to Louisa. She was determined to conceal that lady's garments from her chaperone and return them to Lord Conisbrough's residence in London as soon as possible.
And she was equally determined to do nothing to undermine Charles's new confidence in her.
To that end, she sat without even gazing out the window so that no repeat of that previous episode could occur. And when the commotion started in the kitchen, she tried her best to ignore it. But then Mrs. Spadger uttered several shrieks of outrage that ended in sobs, and Sammy's voice, raised in accusation, floated to her from down the hall. And she could not, in good conscience, fail to investigate the cause.
The scene in the kitchen was one that would have alarmed all but the most dauntless of young ladies. First Louisa spied Nan Spadger, who appeared to have been struck with a fit of madness. Her apron held up to her face, she was rocking back and forth on her heels and moaning about some pudding which had been destroyed.
In the centre of the room, Sammy Spadger struggled with a ragged boy who, Louisa deduced, had been caught in the act of theft. Yet the boy, with arms and legs flailing, was still trying to get the pudding into his mouth. Bits of it flew about the room as he wriggled and squirmed. Sammy had him by the collar and was reaching for the pudding, but his attempts to recapture what remained of it only resulted in a greater mess.
Jim stood posted at the door, apparently to keep another man from leaving. The stranger, some low tradesman by the look of him, was protesting loudly. As Louisa entered the room, Jim raised his fists and stuck out his chin in bravado.
Louisa walked into the thick of the fray.
“What is happening here? May I do anything to help?"
Sammy turned to her, and the boy managed in that second to wolf down the remaining pudding.
“It's t’ lad, here, miss. He's taken t’ missus's pudding, an’ he won't give it back."
Louisa replied calmly, “In its present state, I doubt that you would wish to have it back.” She looked down at the boy who was chewing miserably. “Why don't you release him, Mr. Spadger, and let us hear his explanation. I daresay the poor boy was starving."
When Sammy seemed reluctant to do so, she added, “With Jim at the door, I am quite certain he could not escape."
That reminder served to calm Sammy, though she could tell he was still upset that a theft had been committed in his house. Reluctantly, he let go of the boy, who cowered near the table.
Louisa stooped to bring her face closer to his. He stepped back in alarm, and she smiled at him.
“You mustn't think that anyone is going to hurt you, child. What is your name?"
In a quiet voice he answered, “Bob."
“Is that all? Is there nothing more?"
The question drew a look of confusion, so Louisa said gently, “You must tell us why you stole the pudding, Bob."
The boy sniffed and rubbed his nose on a torn and filthy sleeve. He stared at the ground and refused to meet her eye.
Nan ceased her moaning, took her face out of her apron and peered closely at the boy.
Louisa looked to the Spadgers for assistance, but she could see that they had not forgiven the child yet. Then she noticed the man who had confronted Jim; he had the same sort of hangdog look as the boy.
“Is this your father?” she asked him.
The boy's glance darted to the man's with fear, and the man snorted, “Father! The whelp ‘asn't got a father! ‘E's my property, ‘e is."
Louisa looked down her nose at him. She addressed her words to the boy, “You need to answer me yourself, child. I will try to help you, if you let me. No one will beat you, I promise."
“'E will,” the boy said simply, pointing a thumb at the strange man. “'E'll beat me wif a barrel stave, ‘e will."
Cries of outrage rose from the Spadgers, and Louisa felt heat rising to her face. “He will not! I will not let him!"
“And ‘oo ‘re you to stop me?” the tradesman said. “The brat's mine, an’ I'll do wit ‘im wot I please!"
“Mr. Spadger-"Louisa turned to him “-I refuse to engage in conversation with this unpleasant person. Will you tell me, please, who he is, and what he is doing here?"
Sammy glanced at the fellow angrily. “He's a carter, miss, making deliveries here in town. T’ lad works for him, so he does, but t’ fellow says he won't pay t’ missus for pudding."
“The boy's a thief an’ deserves a bad thrashin', that's all. An’ the sooner this lout lets us pass, the sooner ‘e'll ‘ave it,” declared the man.
Bob shrank against Louisa, lending credence to the man's threats. Louisa placed her hand on his shoulder for comfort.
“Don't cry, Bob,” she said as he began to whimper. “He'll do no such thing. Why,” she offered, when his cries did not abate, “how could he, when you shall not be seeing him again?"
At that, all eyes in the room turned to look at her: the carter was outraged, Jim and his mother flummoxed, the boy hopeful. Sammy Spadger, remembering the dog, seemed to be the first to guess where she was heading.
“Does tha mean ta take t’ boy wi’ thee, miss?” he asked.
“Of course I do. I cannot return him to such a cruel master. And I am certain my cousin will agree with me."
Louisa was certain that Charles would support her in her decision, though she acknowledged to herself that he might not like the notion at first. But Charles was merely unused to thinking the way she did; he always saw the sense in her ideas in the end.
“You can't take my boy! I've paid good money for ‘im-the jackanapes!"
“Is he your apprentice?"
“'E is! An’ I've got papers to prove it!"
“Then you shall be reimbursed for all the expenses you have incurred on his behalf. Let's ask Bob, shall we, just how well you have fulfilled your trust as his master.
“Bob-” she knelt in front of the boy “-how well has this man fed you? Does he give you at least two meals a day?"
Bob shook his head in awe. “Ne'er two, miss. Not even one. ‘E says I got to go fishin’ for me meat an’ bread."
Louisa ignored the carter's sharp protests. “And is this your notion of fishing? The way you took Mrs. Spadger's pudding?"
Bob nodded. “That's the way ‘e tol’ me t’ do it.” He tipped his head towards the carter, then cringed at the man's backhand gesture.
Louisa straightened and faced the man. Under her direct, scornful glare, his eyes shifted.
“There are laws designed to protect young apprentices from men like you. Perhaps you are unaware of the terms of your contract."
The carter made no defence, but started to bluster.
“ I think we have heard enough. If you had taken any care of this boy, I should have seen that my cousin reimbursed you for your costs. But in this case, perhaps, we should send you to a magistrate for encouraging this boy to steal."
“It's a shame the penalties for stealing are so harsh in this country, but perhaps in your case the gallows is warranted. I can feel little sympathy for a man who would starve a child."
By this time, the carter himself was cringing. Every blow from Louisa's tongue served to make him shrink a little smaller. And when she said the word “gallows,” he blanched and started to back towards the door.
Jim stood firmly in his way until Louisa said, “I think we should all be better off if this person leaves. My cousin will be happy to reimburse Mrs. Spadger for her delicious pudding and for anything else the boy requires."
Jim looked to his father for permission, and Sammy nodded.
As the carter disappeared, Nan Spadger asked, “Does tha’ really mean ta take t’ boy? What will his lordship say?"
“I am certain my cousin will be delighted-once he has time to get used to the idea."
But looking at the boy, Louisa felt less certain. Bob's eyes were wide with fear about what would happen to him now.
Louisa wished she knew just what to do with him. Unwilling to back out of her promises, however, and hoping that Charles would think of something, she said, “But I daresay he would prefer the boy to be washed. I cannot quite see him riding in my cousin's carriage in his present state.
“Do you think you could find me some better clothes for him?” she asked Nan. “And at the very least, I shall require a large tub of hot water and some soap."
Nan was scandalized. “Does tha’ mean ta say tha'll wash t’ lad thysel'? What'll his lordship say?"
Louisa answered with pure bravado, “There's no sense in wondering what my cousin will say. We shall have enough to do to clean this boy. Jim, could you fetch a tub into the kitchen here? And Mrs. Spadger, do you think you could find him those clothes?"
Jim gave her a bright look and said, “Aye!” and then hastened to do her bidding. Nan said she would see what she could find amongst her son's old garments in the attic.
Each set about his or her task, and Louisa knelt once again to speak to the boy. He had not lost his frightened look. Even with the carter gone, he was not convinced he would not be thrashed.
“I promise that no one will hurt you and that you shall have good food to eat and some warmer clothes to wear,” Louisa told him. “Would you like that, Bob?"
The boy, whose eyes had lit up at the mention of food, nodded, but then asked, “An’ where'll I sleep?"
Louisa paused, and then answered, “We shall find you a proper place-somewhere where you shall be much happier, I assure you. I shall have to consult my cousin when he returns.” Then she added in a cheery voice, “But he is a very clever man, so I am certain he will know what's best. And you will have a bath like a real gentleman and ride in a carriage, if you like."
To her dismay, Bob's face crumpled, “But I doesn’ like ‘orses! I be frightened of ’em! They's got such big teef an’ all! That ‘un-” he indicated the departed carter with a jerk of his head towards the door “-'e made me ‘arness ‘is pair, an’ they boaf bit me!"
Louisa had thought to give the child a treat and had even cherished hopes that he would make a good stable-boy for Charles. But she hastened to calm him. “No one will make you ride in a carriage if you don't wish to. But,” she suggested, still hoping he might be coaxed, “the horses cannot very well bite you if you are inside the coach now, can they?"
But it would not do. Bob was too alarmed at the prospect to be calmed by reason. He began to sniff again, and to stop him, Louisa repeated her promise that he would not have to ride. How she was to care for him, though, if he refused to enter Charles's carriage, she did not know.
Jim returned with the tub and proceeded to fill it with hot water from the stove. Louisa removed her spencer and put on one of Nan's aprons to spare her dress.
Bob watched these preparations with fascination, as if he had never seen such activities, focusing most of his attention on Jim, to whom he appeared to have taken a shine.
When he noticed he was an object of some awe, Jim smiled at the boy, ruffled his hair in a friendly fashion, and then reached into Nan's cupboard to get him a piece of ham pie. Bob gobbled it down in short order and gazed on the older boy as if he were a god.
“Tha's still hungry, I'll warrant,” Jim said to him.
The boy nodded.
Jim moved closer to Louisa and ventured in a low voice, “It wouldna do ta feed him too much reet yet. Better ta promise him more when tha's done wi’ t’ bath.” He raised his brows in an ominous gesture.
“You think so?” Jim's expression was meant as a warning, and Louisa felt a sinking inside. Why?"
“It's plain ta see t’ lad's ne'er had no bath. T’ way he's been watching, I can see he's no seen one before!"
Louisa glanced at Bob, who had begun to look trustingly on Jim. He was seated on a low workbench, happily swinging his feet.
She turned back to Jim. “And why should that worry us?"
Jim grinned. “I think tha's abowt ta get a soaking. T’ lad's bound ta put up a fight."
Louisa took a deep breath. “Well, if he does, he does, but I don't see that we have any choice. I shall promise him another pudding."
But, in the end, Jim was right. As soon as Bob discovered the purpose of the tub, he stopped swinging his legs and began to use them another way.
Jim caught him before he reached the door, and it was due entirely to his strength that the boy was brought to the bath at all. No matter how much coaxing and promising Louisa tried, she could not get him to submit peacefully to such a dreadful ordeal as being scrubbed all over with soap.
* * * *
As a result, on his return to the inn, Charles again discovered the place in an uproar.
His morning had begun in a manner one could only call trying. When he arrived at Ned's manor, he discovered that Ned had quite unexpectedly gone back to London, apparently suffering from more family togetherness than he could handle.
Consequently, Charles was obliged to deal with Miss Wadsdale without the coercive presence of the man who paid her room and board. It became obvious, almost immediately, that Ned had shamelessly bullied his mother's companion into making the journey in the first place.
On Charles's arrival, she informed him that she never travelled in the depth of winter, unless, of course, her dear Lady Conisbrough required it of her. Then she examined him upon the degree of comfort likely to be found inside his carriage: the number of lap rugs, the quality of his carriage springs; whether there were warming pans into which Ned's servants might add coals.
Charles assured her of all these, keeping Eliza's presence a secret. Then, when she appeared at least somewhat satisfied that she would not be required to sacrifice herself to extreme discomfort, he set himself to the task of weaning her from the household.
First, there were her numerous boxes and portmanteaus to find space for. When Charles expressed surprise that she should choose to encumber herself to such a degree for what would prove to be only a moderately long journey, she took offence. She made him privy to the information that Lady Conisbrough would not think of asking her to undertake a trip at such a dreadful season unless she could provide her with ample room for her baggage.
“Be assured, my lord, that her ladyship would stint herself before she would ask me to go without.” Miss Wadsdale folded her hands in front of her. “Not that I would ever do anything to discommode her, as devoted to her as I am. But I am certain Lord Conisbrough was under the impression that my comforts on this unseasonable journey would be well seen to, else he would never have asked me to leave his mother. Indeed, when I think of Lady Conisbrough's sadness on this occasion, it is enough to make me weep, and I assure you I am not a female easily given to tears!"
Charles hastily withdrew his objection and prepared for the next ordeal. That was to get Miss Wadsdale to depart. She seemed convinced that her presence would be sorely missed, that none of the servants could be trusted to see to her patroness's wants in her absence, and that Lady Conisbrough would pine without her enlivening presence.
To ward off this last calamity, she spent an absurd amount of time bidding a touching farewell to her ladyship-Lady Conisbrough, by contrast, appeared to be totally unaffected by the parting-issuing commands to the various servants with regard to her normal duties, sniffing into her handkerchief and, in general, making a scene that was intended to impress Charles with her usefulness in the household.
Her efforts had quite the reverse effect, however. Charles formed a deeper understanding of Ned's desire to be rid of the woman and a suspicion that Miss Wadsdale's tears were due more to a fear of being dismissed than of being missed. He could scarcely tolerate her himself, and he dreaded the thought of being shut up in a carriage with her for even two days. He flirted briefly with the idea of leaving her and setting out for London with Louisa alone.
The thought of how pleasant the journey would be tempted him greatly; but Charles knew what was due to the proprieties, and to Louisa's consequence, so his good sense eventually won out. He resigned himself to a frustrating two days, with the promise of another blistering headache at their end.
Finally, Miss Wadsdale and her baggage were loaded aboard, but as the result of so much delay, Charles found they could not hope to leave the inn before noon. Once in Snaithby, they would be obliged to load Louisa's baggage, which might take some time, now that all available space had been appropriated. But it could not be helped. Charles spent a few moments marshalling the reasons he would use later for not breaking their journey too often.
On the way back to the village, he had a solitary preview of the hours ahead of him. Miss Wadsdale took immediate exception to Eliza. And, although she did not demand that the dog be expelled-Charles divined she had already come to blows with Ned on this issue and lost-she did treat Charles to her opinion that it was against basic Christian precepts to treat “beasts” as if they were humans.
Charles listened politely, suppressing a growl. He only hoped Louisa would contrive to charm this woman and shield him from the worst of her character. Upon reflection, he thought that she just might manage it.
Still, in spite of this more hopeful outlook, he arrived back at the inn in an almost desperate state.
It did not help his humour to discover that the private parlour was empty and that neither Louisa nor the Spadgers were anywhere in sight. Charles ushered Miss Wadsdale into the hallway, for it was not to be hoped that she would wait outside in the carriage for them. As soon as they entered they were welcomed by a hideous cacophony issuing from the direction of the kitchen.
Charles called for Sammy repeatedly, but to no avail. Understanding that his voice could not be heard over the noise, he determined to go in search of anyone who could explain Louisa's absence, at the same time dreading to find that she was the cause of the hubbub. In vain, he tried to dissuade Miss Wadsdale from following him, but she refused to be left alone in a house which, she said, echoed with the very cries of Bedlam.
A shrill wail greeted them as they passed the threshold to the kitchen-a noise Charles might have mistaken for a cat in the throes of love if he had not seen its instrument. A small boy struggled to escape from a brimming tub of water, in which, it appeared, a drenched Jim Spadger and an equally soaked Louisa were trying to drown him. Sammy stood close at hand with buckets of more water and, even as they entered, poured a fresh one over the boy's head to renewed cries. Nan tried helplessly to cope with the puddles of water and mud on her floor.
“Louisa!” Charles called, his temper flying to the surface at the sight of her on her knees in a pool of sudsy water. “What in heaven's name-?"
Behind him Miss Wadsdale shrieked, “God in Heaven! Oh, I never…! And to think…!"
As her outcries pierced the level of noise already prevailing in the room, Nan and Sammy turned around. Their dismay upon seeing both his lordship and the companion of their local doyenne showed in the roundness of their eyes.
Mrs. Spadger curtsied, albeit with a sopping mop in her hand. Sammy put the bucket down before he bowed.
“Yor lordship-Tha mus'na think-"
Charles ignored Sammy's protests. The sight of Louisa's back still turned to him aroused his deepest ire.
He strode to the tub and grasped the boy's chin in one hand, even as Louisa first perceived him.
Her happy cry of “Charles!” he ignored as well, until he could plug the sound of this wailing. Mingled with the boy's sobs, he realized, had been efforts to calm him, both affectionate condolences from Louisa and promises of treats on Jim's part. Neither, he reasoned, would have any effect.
With the child's chin gripped firmly between his fingers, Charles forced his gaze up to meet his own and said, “If you do not stop this infernal caterwauling, I shall drown you myself. You will stop it now."
“Charles!” Louisa's shocked exclamation fell into a blessed silence. The boy's mouth hung open, but it made no further noise. With a quick pinch to show he meant what he said, Charles released the child and turned his full attention on Louisa.
“Perhaps you will have the goodness to tell me what it is you are doing?” he said with biting cordiality.
“I'm bathing Bob,” Louisa answered matter-of-factly. “But, Charles, do you think it charitable to threaten him so?"
“Charitable or not, it appears to have been effective. But that is beside the point! I can see you are bathing this child, though who he is, and why you should be doing something so outrageous, I cannot imagine!"
Louisa rose to her feet in front of him. Charles automatically put out a hand to help her, and found that his sleeve was made wet just by this slight contact. Her arms up to her elbow still had soap bubbles clinging to them. In deference to his clothes, she held them up and away.
She seemed oblivious to the fact that in spite of her apron, her gown was drenched and clung to her most improperly. Her red hair had been loosened from its ribbons and fell in dampened ringlets about her flushed face.
Charles tried not to stare at these signs of dishevelment, but a quick heat, caused by embarrassment-nothing more, he told himself-invaded him merely at the sight.
Louisa faced him calmly. “I was washing Bob because he's mine-in a manner of speaking-and I thought it would be wrong to ask the Spadgers to undertake the task alone."
“Good God!” Charles uttered, clapping a hand to his forehead.
“Oh, Lord preserve us…!"
Charles had forgotten Miss Wadsdale was behind him. But, at these words, he turned in time to see her swoon and barely managed to catch her before she reached the floor.
“Oh, marvellous!” he said, feeling helpless. “This was all that was needed! Louisa, help me here!"
At the sound of Louisa's name, Miss Wadsdale made a quick recovery. “I shall not be touched by that creature!” she shrieked, and struggled to free herself.
“That is pure nonsense!” Charles released her gladly. “This young lady is to be your charge, and you shall not address her in such a manner. Louisa, come make your curtsy to Miss Wadsdale."
Louisa smiled at him and curtsied obediently, suds and all. Then she said to Miss Wadsdale, “I am certain you were discomfited by this scene, but I assure you there is no reason. This child is to join us on our journey, and I was persuaded my cousin would wish him to have a bath first. Unfortunately, as you saw, he did not take kindly to the notion, but I daresay it was because it was his first and he shall grow accustomed to them over time."
She beamed at Bob now. Jim had extracted him from the bath and given him another slice of pie.
Charles's mouth had fallen open during her explanation, which still had done nothing to explain the presence of the boy. He could only assume Louisa had lost her senses.
He was about to deny what she had said when Miss Wadsdale burst forth with a loud invective. “My lord, I refuse to travel with such a hoyden! You brought me here-and against my better judgement-with the understanding that I was to tend your cousin, which, I see, was nothing but a ruse to get me to lend this person a measure of respectability! I refuse to be used in such a manner!"
Louisa's smile was wiped from her face. She turned pale, and Charles felt his temper flaring, but he controlled his tongue. “I assure you, Miss Wadsdale, that this young lady is indeed my cousin. If the circumstances seem a bit odd, I am certain she will explain them to my satisfaction. That is all that is required, after all. You are merely to bear her company-not lend her countenance!"
“A bit odd!” Charles's assurances had had no effect. “For a young lady to be employed in such a manner! And engaged in bathing a child she has said is her own-” Miss Wadsdale's sense of outrage increased with every passing moment. “-when it is plain to see the boy is quite common, certainly too common to ride in a coach with his betters!"
Louisa drew herself up. Charles's heart sank at the sight of fury brightening her blue eyes, but at the same time, he thought she looked magnificent. “Cousin, I think the matter is quite settled!” She spoke with her teeth clenched. “No more than Miss Wadsdale do I intend to pass two days in a carriage with a person whose very presence offends me. And I find this woman most offensive! Anyone who would be so cruel to a mere child could not possibly be a fit companion for me!"
Charles emitted a groan to go along with Miss Wadsdale's cry of outrage.
“Mr. Spadger!” she commanded. “I insist that you take me back to Lady Conisbrough! When her ladyship hears the indignities to which I have been subjected…!” Miss Wadsdale turned on her heel and stormed from the room.
Sammy gave Charles a frightened glance, and then, with his permission wearily given, followed the woman in haste.
Charles knew he should try to stop her, but somehow the effort seemed too great. And the diplomat inside him suggested that she should be given time to cool down. He would let her go back to Lady Conisbrough, who he doubted would listen to her tale with any interest. Miss Wadsdale's baggage remained in his coach, and with any luck, he would be able to pursue her and re-engage her once this matter of the boy was settled.
Charles turned to find Louisa still standing in an irate pose. Jim Spadger was drying the boy with a large towel. Bob seemed fascinated by all he had witnessed and gaped at Charles with his mouth open. When Charles met his stare, however, he closed it and shrank back, closer to Jim.
“Dear Charles,” Louisa said in gentle reproof, “I'm afraid you have frightened the boy, which will make it harder for him to accept the carriage ride. He is afraid of horses, you see, and I had hoped to overcome his mistaken notions, but now I fear that will be more difficult. Perhaps you should wait for us in the parlour and I will try to mend the breach."
Mindful of the witnesses in the room-Nan still eyeing him with dismay; Jim with something more akin to wariness, as if daring him to harm Louisa-Charles expelled a sigh and bowed to her.
“I think you and I should both retire to the parlour,” he said. “I am sure Mrs. Spadger and her son can cope with the boy for the moment."
Louisa showed no signs of alarm, but turned to verify this. Nan Spadger nodded.
“I shall be happy to converse with you, Cousin, but if you please, I think I should like to change my garments directly. I fear a chill."
And, indeed, Charles saw at once that Louisa's arms were covered in goose-flesh. His gaze roved up her sleeve, at which point the goose bumps vanished to reappear quite decidedly through the bodice of her gown.
“Certainly,” Charles said with difficulty. “You have my permission, but I beg you not to tarry. We had a journey to accomplish today, if you recollect."
Louisa coloured at this reminder of her promise to behave. Then she curtsied and hurried from the room.
Charles strode to the parlour, calling to Nan Spadger over his shoulder that he would like something strong to drink.
Louisa changed her gown and repaired her hair as quickly as she could, though unfortunately this took a great while, since all her clothes had been packed and brought downstairs. With Sammy on his errand, Nan busy fetching Charles a drink, and Jim occupied with Bob, it was quite some time before anyone thought to take them up to her. In the meantime, Charles endeavoured to bring his temper under control and his more wayward thoughts to heel, so that by the time Louisa joined him, he could listen to her with some degree of calm.
With prompting, she related to him the events of the morning. In those matters regarding the carter and the boy's starvation, he could not fault her for her courage or her principles.
“And so,” he said, when she had finished, “you intend for this Bob to ride back to London with us. And what then, pray?"
Louisa smiled uncertainly at him. “I had hoped you might engage him in some capacity in one of your households.” And before he could protest, she added, “I would do it myself, Charles, but the general would never allow it. He is inclined to characterize all my charitable actions as foolish starts, and though I can often win him over to smaller things, I am certain this particular notion would not fly."
Charles buried his face in his hands and groaned. Then, unable to help himself, he chuckled and looked up at her. “Louisa… if we were to prolong our journey a few more days, I daresay you would saddle me with enough unfortunate creatures to fill an orphanage! Is life with you always like this?"
“Like what, Charles?"
Seeing her bemused gaze, he groaned again and sobered. “Louisa-” he took her hands in his “-dearest Louisa. Has no one ever told you that you cannot cure all the world's ills?"
There was a pause. Then she answered him quietly, “No, of course I cannot do it alone, Charles… dear Charles… but I can try."
For one moment, Charles thought she must have been teasing him. Then he looked into her eyes and saw her deep sincerity, a firm conviction that she should indeed try to resolve the miseries of others.
Such commitment took his breath away. Louisa's tone, gentle as it had been, had conveyed a reproach-not for his own lack of charity, but for doubting the extent of hers.
Impressed, and deeply touched, nevertheless Charles felt a twinge of pity for the man who would one day take such a lady on as his wife. His life would never be his own, never peaceful. Louisa would force him to take in every stray or waif within sight. His house would turn into an asylum for orphans and pets, if not for unwed mothers and the indigent…
There would be compensations, of course. As he gazed on her face, still unable to find a response to her comment, he let himself wander in those blue eyes that promised such passion… until a responsive thrill warned him away.
He straightened in his chair and released her hands. “Well then, we must see what can be done for this Bob of yours, but I hope the solution will lie somewhere other than in one of my own households. Perhaps the Spadgers will be able to help."
Charles went to the door and called for Sammy, whom he had heard returning a few minutes earlier. Charles had no plan of his own other than to see whether some tradesman in town might be willing to accept the boy as a new apprentice. He decided it would be easier, and far more pleasant, to pay for the boy's apprenticeship than to take him with them to London.
But when asked, Sammy said he could think of no one likely to take the boy on. Charles explained his wishes, and the innkeeper agreed to send Jim to enquire in the village. There seemed nothing left to do but wait for the results, and since it was past noon already, Charles ordered up a luncheon for Louisa and himself.
Over their meal, Louisa entertained him with her views on apprenticeships, child labour and orphanages, and her intentions of reforming them all.
Considering she had cost him one day of travel, not to mention whatever expense he would bear for Bob, Charles thought he bore this with considerable good humour.
It was past two before Jim returned with bad news. None of the tradesmen in the village had need of a new apprentice, even one who would be fed and clothed at Charles's expense.
Disheartened, but knowing that his duty to return Louisa to her guardian as quickly as possible had to come before any other consideration, Charles resigned himself to guardianship of the boy. He told the Spadgers to bring Bob into the parlour. Bob was brought forth and told what delights were in store for him.
The more Louisa described these-a ride in the carriage, a place in one of his lordship's grand houses-the bigger the boy's eyes got, until his lips began to tremble and his nose started to drip.
“Why can't I stay ‘ere?” he asked in a pitiful tone.
Jim, looking equally sad, knelt down by the boy and tried to explain. But Nan, also moved by the boy's tears, exchanged a pleading look with her husband.
Sammy's eyes moved from his son to the boy and back again.
A look of understanding passed between father and mother.
“Pardon, yor lordship-” Nan came forward and curtsied. “But seeing as our Jim has taken a liking to t’ lad, if yor lordship don't mind…"
She paused, uncertain, so Sammy finished for her, “What t’ missus is trying ta say, yor lordship, is that t’ missus and I ‘ud be willing ta take t’ lad on-so long as yor lordship does what tha’ promised about his keep."
Charles looked from one to the other, then at Jim, whose face had taken on a big smile. He breathed a sigh of relief. “I cannot think of a better solution. Louisa?"
He saw that she was already beaming. She clasped her hands in front of her and said, “Oh, what good people you are! I know Bob will be happy with you. Did you hear that, Bob? The Spadgers said you may live with them!"
The boy was so overcome that he could do nothing but bury his face in Jim's shoulder. The Spadgers laughed and ushered both boys from the room.
* * * *
“That was very fortunate,” Charles said later as he dined with Louisa. Eliza snored under the table at their feet.
Dark had fallen, and Charles had given up on their journey for the day. He would have liked to see some sign of contrition on Louisa's face for causing the delay, but knew that any such hope was doomed to disappointment.
From across the table, she regarded him with an air of total complacency and said, “It just goes to show you, Charles, the good you can do when you put your mind to it."
Charles lowered his knife to avoid stabbing her with it. “In case you have forgotten, my first duty is to return you to your guardian-and without being hanged for it! I'm afraid by now, after this much time, General Davenport will have good cause to question my conduct. We shall leave tomorrow, with or without Miss Wadsdale, but I'm afraid we have greater need for her now than ever before. I cringe to think what the general would make of it if we appeared on his doorstep with no chaperone!"
Louisa shook her head blithely. “Do not give the general another thought, Charles. I am certain I shall not! You may simply tell him the snows were too thick for travel. That should pacify him.
“But,” she offered in a generous tone, “if you truly wish for Miss Wadsdale to accompany us-considering all you have done for Bob and Eliza-I shall not object."
“Thank you,” he said drily. “In the morning, I shall set out before dawn to see if I can persuade her to ride with us. I would go tonight, but I suspect she will need one night, at least, to overcome the shock of today.
“But I want your promise, Louisa, that you will not attempt to save anyone else from their circumstances here in Yorkshire! You may leave that for London-I am certain you will find enough causes there to occupy you. In fact, they must be waiting for you now, so the sooner we get there, the better."
Louisa dimpled, so he added, “If anyone shows up here needing help, you may set Mr. Spadger onto the problem and tell him to put it on our bill."
“Yes, Charles,” she agreed meekly. But, seeing her smile, Charles was not deceived.
* * * *
In the morning, he found Louisa dressed and ready before he was, but a gathering of people in the public room proclaimed that something unusual was going on.
As Charles entered, having sought out Louisa and recognized her voice amongst the others, he saw that Jim and Bob and a host of villagers had bundled themselves into overcoats and were ready to go out.
“What's this?” he asked.
“Oh, Charles!” Louisa cried, overjoyed to share her news with him. “You will never guess what Jim is about!” She turned and indicated the whole crowd with a sweep of her hand. “These are his friends, and they are planning to go house to house singing special Christmas songs! It's Christmas Eve, you know. Doesn't that sound delightful?"
“Perfectly delightful, I'm sure. But you shouldn't be in the public room, Louisa,” he said in a low voice.
“Normally, you would be right, Charles,” she agreed in a confidential whisper, “but these are Jim's friends, not strangers. And as soon as I heard them singing, I had to discover what they were about.” She gestured to them to move closer and said, “You must listen to one of their songs!"
Before Charles could say anything to stop them, Jim's company burst out in crude harmony, the young man's voice leading them all with his hearty baritone.
“Good day, good day,
My Lord Sir Christemas, good day!
Good day, Sir Christemas our King,
For every man, both old and ying,
Is glad of your coming. Good day!"
The song continued; its pleasing notes, joyous words and bubbling spirit made Charles want to linger to hear more. But, determined on his errand for the morning, he drew Louisa aside to speak to her.
“Are they not marvellous?” she whispered before he could speak. “Jim calls it carolling. They visit all the houses in the village. He says it is quite a custom with the people here."
“I have heard of this custom before,” Charles informed her. “It's very quaint, and no longer practised much. Louisa, this is all very well and good, but we must be going."
Her face fell. She looked at the singers wistfully. “Jim did say I might accompany them-"
Charles swallowed an oath, and she added hastily, “But only until you come back with Miss Wadsdale! We shan't go out of sight of the inn. There should be no complication. I have given you my promise, Charles!"
“But, Louisa, this is not an acceptable pastime for young ladies! Only the poorer classes engage in it."
“But very seldom, as you said. And I cannot help thinking, Charles, that these songs should be recorded before they disappear entirely. It is plain, if you listen, that some of them are quite old. If I went along, it should be merely with the intention of marking them down later as I recall them. I don't see what harm it would do."
She looked at him pleadingly. The song over, Jim approached them and stood at her elbow to await Charles's verdict.
Uncomfortable under their gazes, Charles ran his eyes over the carollers and could find nothing objectionable about them or their manners. They stood a respectful distance behind Jim-a dozen or more shining faces, ready to engage in an ancient and perfectly harmless pursuit-these people of England, the backbone of his country.
Louisa watched him anxiously.
It was true, he had not planned to take her to Ned's with him, thinking that perhaps he, alone, might be better suited to dealing with a person of Miss Wadsdale's temperament. The only evidence he had seen, so far, of a temper in Louisa had been directed at the chaperone's ungenerous comments. It would not serve to bring them together too soon.
He recalled that it was Christmas Eve. They would have to spend Christmas Day on the road somewhere, for they were too far away to arrive in London in time. He should have pressed harder, he realized, and even now could not comprehend why he had not. Surely these queer starts of Louisa's could have been fixed or dealt with in a shorter time. But perhaps he had allowed the incident to delay them, knowing a lonely hearth awaited him in Town.
But it was too late, at any rate, to undo the damage he had done. They would be off this morning, with or without Miss Wadsdale, but only if Louisa could be made to stay out of trouble. Charles reflected that he should be relieved that this time the object of her crusading spirit was only songs. Perhaps she would keep out of mischief if she had something to occupy her mind.
He looked at dependable Jim Spadger and decided Louisa would be better off in his care than if left to her own devices.
“Very well,” Charles said. Louisa rewarded him with a melting smile that caused a curious pull at his stomach. “But Jim, I must trust you to stay with Miss Davenport at all times. If anything happens to delay our departure again-even if it involves the most miserable of animals-I will hold you responsible. Is that understood?"
“Aye, yor lordship!"
He doubted whether Jim fully understood his reservations, but that the boy was prepared to deliver her back to the inn on time, he would believe. Louisa had blushed at his strictures, but now she dimpled at him. He fought the urge to smile back at her, but lost the battle.
Charles started out for Ned's with little hope that Miss Wadsdale would come with him this time, but honour bound to try his best diplomacy on her. He vowed to give her half an hour, no more, before he would give up and start again for London.
But the prospect of two more days alone in Louisa's company stirred a dangerous feeling deep inside him. It made him more determined than ever to put some safe presence between them.
* * * *
As soon as he left, Louisa ran up to her room and donned Miss Conisbrough's fur-trimmed pelisse, the cold outside being far too severe for her spencer alone. Then she rushed out to join Jim and his friends in the inn yard.
They strolled from house to house, singing a variety of songs that Louisa had never encountered, with a lilting, playful nature, designed more for dancing in a ring than for spiritual nourishment. She tried very hard to remember the words as they went along, but had to give up after the first two or three verses.
In deference to Charles's wishes, Louisa did not join in the singing, but held back, maintaining the role of listener. Charles would not have believed her, she knew, but she, too, was becoming anxious about their delay. She knew her guardian's temper, and wonderful as their sojourn in Snaithby had been, realized that one day more and they were sure to be treated to a show of it.
She was eager to face the general and have done with the punishment he was sure to mete out. Only claims on her conscience could have taken precedence over her duty to hasten home. But as long as Charles insisted on trying Miss Wadsdale again, she reasoned, she might as well take this chance to enjoy herself. If she knew her guardian, it would be some time before any amusement would be granted her.
The carollers came to another door and began a song which demanded sport from each and every person who crossed the threshold.
Listening to their cheerful music, Louisa tried not to think too wistfully of her future, or of how unlikely it would be that she would ever see Charles again. Her chosen escort had proved to be far more to her than a mere protector. She could not think of Charles without admiration and-she confessed-excitement. She even appreciated the caution with which he greeted her ideas. No sensible man would go off half-cocked, and Charles was far more sensible than most.
Intelligent, too, and thoughtful. As an image of his lean, sensitive face rose before her, she recalled how skillfully he had dealt with Bob and Eliza, even though she had not believed him capable of such tender handling. She should have known that a man so high in the government would have superior skills to recommend him, something besides a handsome face and a charming manner… which he certainly had, whenever he chose to use it.
What she could not have guessed was how attractive all these things would make him to her, how much she would come to rely on his judgement, or… how deeply she would enjoy seeing him smile. Now, all she could think of was the way he made her feel when he touched her inadvertently or looked on her with his brown eyes, of the thrill that shot through her when he clasped her hands and smiled, of the melting need she felt every time she hoped he wanted her… Oh, how much she would dread to tell him goodbye…
“Now thrice welcome, Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minc'd pies and plum porridge,
Good ale and strong beer;
With pig, goose and capon…"
The carollers intruded on her thoughts with a song so merry that Louisa had to smile. As she followed them to the next door, wistfully, she resolved to listen intently to the music to ward off all thoughts of her leave-taking from Charles. And for his sake, she even tried to think more charitably of Miss Wadsdale.
After a few more stops, the singers left the last house in the village and circled back with a hopeful chorus of “let's eat and drink freely, here's nothing to pay!’ Then they came to the road and paused to sing for a carriage which had stopped to hear them.
The window of the elegant travelling coach had been lowered. A fashionable young lady peered outside, and she smiled to encourage the singers. But, while they sang for her, her attention seemed drawn more and more towards Louisa; after she had studiously glanced up and down Louisa's figure, the young lady's smile grew stiff.
Feeling strange under such scrutiny, Louisa tried harder to seem one with the singers. She moved closer behind Jim Spadger and attempted to shield herself with his bulk. She even pretended to sing the words she did not know, but the lady in the carriage soon called a halt to the performance.
She beckoned imperiously to Louisa to move closer to the carriage.
With bemused glances, the carollers parted to let her come forward. Louisa took a few hesitant steps toward the carriage and curtsied politely.
The lady stared at her and then said, “That is an attractive pelisse you are wearing."
Louisa flushed at what seemed an impertinent remark. “Why, thank you."
“You will pardon me, I hope,” the young lady said with an arrogant tilt to her chin, “but I do not know you. Are you staying hereabouts?"
Louisa puzzled over her interest; then she reasoned that her newness must be the cause of this lady's questions. A stranger in a village this small must certainly arouse curiosity.
She curtsied again, and decided not to take offence at the lady's impertinence. She should ignore it rather than bring attention on herself and risk involving Charles.
“Yes, miss,” she said, intending to sound more humble than she was. “I am staying with the Spadgers here in Snaithby.” Better, she thought, to let the lady assume she was some distant kinswoman of theirs. A cousin, perhaps, of a higher class than they-even a cit. It would not matter as long as her answer quelled further questions.
But she had reckoned without considering Jim, and her heart jerked in anticipation when the young lady turned to him with an angry look and asked, “Is this true, Jim?"
His answer put an end to her strange interrogation, for the lady merely stared at Louisa once again, and then, pulling back into her carriage suddenly, called to the driver to go on. The carollers backed away from the horses’ path, and the coach soon disappeared down the road.
The mood of revelry, which the lady had interrupted, soon took hold of them again. Rather pleased with her performance, and her handling of a situation which might have led to some embarrassrnent, Louisa joined them in the next verse. The group made slow progress down the opposite side of the road, until, some time later, they once again found themselves outside the inn.
Louisa looked for evidence that Charles had returned, but seeing none, she turned back to bid her companions goodbye. She had given her hand and made her adieux to three of the women when she suddenly sensed a large, wheezing presence behind her.
Louisa turned to be confronted by a heavyset, red-faced officer of the Crown.
He looked her over and nodded. Then he cocked a brow and said, “Jim, tha’ says this ‘ere lass be staying wi’ thy folks at T’ Crown and Pear?"
Jim frowned and came forward. “I say it do be so."
“Wull, lad, I doesn't know what tha's been up to, no I don't. But this lady ‘ere be under arrest."
“Arrest!” Louisa stared hard at the man, not believing her ears. “Whatever do you mean? What for?"
“For thieving-so Miss Conisbrough says,” the bailiff answered.
“Miss Conisbrough!” Both Louisa and Jim cried out the name.
“Aye. Drove ta my house just now, she did. And made ‘er complaint."
Louisa's mind darted about, until she recalled the incident not a half hour before. So that's who the young lady in the carriage was! She had never thought of asking Jim the lady's name. She had been so certain her assumptions were correct, and so satisfied with her own conduct, that Miss Conisbrough had been sitting across from her, believing her to have stolen her pelisse, and Louisa none the wiser.
“There's some mistake,” Louisa told the bailiff. “I've taken nothing. If I could simply speak to Miss Conisbrough, I'm certain this could be cleared up immediately.” She was conscious of the villagers’ eyes turned upon her. All those people, who had appeared so friendly and eager to have her with them, now looked at her with shocked suspicion.
Only Jim still believed her, but even he looked shaken.
No matter, though, what his loyalties were-whether to the Conisbroughs or to the law-he took her part. He formed two fists and started to circle around the bailiff.
“Now, lad-” the man put up both hands and spoke in an avuncular tone “-tha’ doesn't mean ta start a wrangle. Tha’ can't ignore what his lordship's sister says now, can tha? Leave off, now-do! Or tha'll find thysel’ in gaol alongside o’ t’ lady."
“Yes, Jim,” Louisa said hurriedly, not wishing to cause trouble for him, as well. “We must do what the bailiff says. But you mustn't worry. It's all a misunderstanding, and I'm certain it can be set right."
Then she thought of Charles, of the inconvenience this would cause him and of the wound his dignity would suffer if anyone were to hear of the scandal.
She swallowed unhappily and said, “You must tell my cousin that he must not delay his journey on my account. You will give him that message for me when he returns… won't you, Jim?"
She saw immediately that her last words had been a mistake. Jim put down his fists and stared at her with the first hint of suspicion. What kind of cousin, he must be reasoning, would abandon her to the law?
With Jim's hurtful look burning a hole in her back, Louisa accompanied the bailiff down the road to his gig. The band of carollers had grown silent. Shame and a guilty conscience persecuted her as she rode away from them.
Oh, that she had listened to Charles when he warned her! But no, she was too headstrong, too intent upon what she wanted to do. Charles's only concern had been to spare her reputation, yet she had repeatedly embroiled him in one scrape after another. And now look what she'd done! She'd made a pig's breakfast out of everything!
To extract her from this bumblebroth, Charles would have to make public all the details of their entanglement and risk compromising himself, as well. She would be well served if he left her to suffer on her own.
But whatever he did, Louisa resolved, she would neither do nor say anything to implicate Charles in this affair.
* * * *
Unaware of these noble sentiments, Charles returned to the inn in a hurry-and without Miss Wadsdale. He would have been back much sooner if that troublesome lady had not played him along for so long.
At first she gave the impression of one who wished to be persuaded; and to that end, he had done his utmost to overcome all her tiresome objections. But, gradually, Charles came to realize that it was attention she wanted and that she had no real thought of accompanying him to London.
The importunities of a marquess could only enhance her sense of worthiness and give her a degree of consequence she had hitherto lacked in Lady Conisbrough's household. As soon as Charles detected that the object of her play-acting was her ladyship and not himself, he calmly bowed, politely excused himself with tightened lips and, gratefully turning his back on the whole Conisbrough ménage, left the estate.
At the inn door he was greeted by all the Spadger family.
Nan had the look of someone who had been gulled and did not care for it. Echoes of her feelings were reflected in Sammy's eyes.
Jim held Eliza and scowled as if he might throw her in Charles's face. Either that, Charles reflected with a sigh, or plant him a facer. It seemed obvious that Louisa had done something to disgrace them again.
Charles pressed his fingers to his eyes.
“Very well,” he said, letting his frustration show in his voice, “precisely what has my cousin done now?"
“She's been arrested, that's what!” Nan Spadger replied. “And what we're ta make of it, I do not know!"
“Arrested-good God!” Charles's heart almost stopped beating. His throat narrowed, and he forced himself to speak. “What do you mean?” His eyes darted towards Jim. “How did you let this happen?"
“Now, yor lordship-” Of them all, only Sammy seemed to feel that, perhaps, there was room for discussion. “Tha’ mustn't go blaming t’ lad. He did what tha’ said, but tha’ wouldn't expect him ta go against law, I hope?"
Charles bit back his anger, but his heart was still beating queerly. He could only think of Louisa in trouble-serious trouble this time, it seemed-and he wanted to bash someone.
“No, of course not,” he said, gaining control of himself. “It couldn't be Jim's fault. But you must tell me quickly what happened and where I can find her!"
“She wor took for thieving!” Nan cried, dismay in every word.
Jim said sullenly, “She did say as how tha’ might want to go along ta London wi'out her."
Suspicion hung in the air. Charles could feel it and see it in their eyes, even as a million thoughts flitted inside his head. How well did he know her? Just because she had told him she was General Davenport's niece, did he know it to be true? What if…?
A warm passion took hold of him, and he spoke sharply, “That's ridiculous! To say anything of the kind, she must have been quite upset. Louisa is heedless at times and… a little impulsive. But you all know very well she is no common criminal!"
The relief in his heart as he said this was like a spring bursting from beneath a rock. Of course he knew Louisa. She was a beautiful, infuriating nitwit, and it would give him great pleasure to strangle her. But she was no thief.
The thought of her sitting in a gaol somewhere tore at his chest; but he would see her out of this scandal if it was the last thing he did-before he resigned from the government.
Charles said more calmly, “There has been a mistake. Jim, you must tell me at once what the bailiff said."
Jim shrugged and scratched his head; but it was plain Charles's calmness had lightened his sense of ill use. “I can't say that I knows, yor lordship. Sommat abowt her bein’ a thief. But I wor that flummoxed-"
“Did he say what she had taken?"
Jim shook his head. Charles could see the episode had rattled the boy. But he was rattled now himself.
“Think, lad. He must have said something about it-he couldn't have just taken her without more reason than that."
A memory flickered across Jim's face, but he remained silent. Charles thought he must know something, but for whatever reason was hesitant to say.
“It's all right, lad. We've nothing to hide."
Embarrassed, Jim rubbed a hand on the back of his neck and said, “Bailiff Hoggins did say sommat abowt Miss Conisbrough an’ how her-"
“Miss Conisbrough!” Charles's hope soared. “But my cousin has never met Miss Conisbrough."
But Jim was nodding. “Aye, she did that, sir. Out in t’ road, wi’ t’ carolling, she did. Miss Conisbrough stopped her carriage."
“Did my cousin present herself?"
“No, sir. It wor his lordship's sister what talked to her. Sommat about her pelisse."
Jim blushed when he spoke of the lady's garment, and Nan interjected, “For all that his lordship's no better than he should be, his sister's no a liar then, i’ she?"
But Charles knew the answer now, and with relief washing through him, he broke into a smile.
“Damn Ned!” he said through his teeth, surprising all the Spadgers. But the patent ease of his anxiety cheered them and was quickly reflected in their faces.
“This is all his lordship's fault,” he said, and then improvised slightly, “He lent my cousin his sister's pelisse and sent it along with her baggage. Then he clearly left home without informing Miss Conisbrough. She must have seen it on a stranger and jumped to a faulty conclusion.
“But, enough of that. Where is my cousin, Jim? Where have they taken her?"
The Spadgers’ relief was evident. The report that they had harboured a criminal had overset them. But now that they knew it to be false, they were eager to help.
“Bailiff Hoggins'll have her o'er at t’ gaol in Selby, sir,” Nan volunteered.
“I did say as how I couldn't believe it of her, sir,” Sammy added. “T’ lass has a good heart."
Charles felt a deep warmth spreading inside him, but his urgency to be off overcame all other feelings.
“Jim, tell my coachman I shall need him at once. And give him directions to Selby, will you?"
“Yessir. Does tha’ want ta take t’ dog, yor lordship?"
Charles noticed Eliza for the first time in many minutes. Louisa's plight had driven her from his mind. But now she was struggling in Jim's arms to reach him, and he patted her head absently.
“No, keep her here for us, please. I'm not certain how long it will take to clear this mess up.
“And, Mrs. Spadger, prepare something special for our dinner, will you? I'm afraid that if I succeed, my cousin will be in need of a little sustenance."
An hour's drive brought him to Selby, and after a few inquiries, Charles found himself at the door of the gaol.
The warden, he found, was a man who took his calling seriously. None of Charles's representations could persuade him to free Louisa immediately. It appeared that unless Miss Conisbrough could be brought to drop her charges, and the magistrate's approval could be obtained, Louisa would spend Christmas in gaol.
The warden would, however, permit Charles to see her; so, after a futile and heated argument, Charles followed him through the heavy portal to the cell where she had been placed.
When the door opened, he saw her-sitting primly on the edge of a bed.
Two other women shared her quarters: a dark, filthy room with no more furniture than the cot on which she sat. A foul odour testified to the fact that no consideration had been given to the conveniences.
The sight of Louisa amidst such squalour brought a lump to Charles's throat.
She glanced up, and in that moment, their eyes met. Charles was almost certain he saw a flash of deep relief. She rose slowly and came to greet him.
“Hello, Charles,” she said contritely.
For one minute, he was robbed of speech. He wanted to take her hand in his and kiss it, apologize to her for letting this terrible thing happen. But the presence of the warden and the other prisoners made words impossible. He clasped her hand and pressed it.
Then his pent-up feelings found relief in rage.
“Warden-” he felt like punching the fellow “-this is intolerable! What do you mean by placing a lady in here?"
“Do not blame him, Charles,” Louisa said gently. “When he brought me here, I had no money and could not promise to pay my room and board. He had no choice but to place me with these women."
“You should have told him-"
Louisa's smile cut him off. “Yes, I should have known you would come as soon as possible.” Her eyes filled with grateful tears that wrung his heart. But she blinked them away, saying determinedly, “But this unfortunate experience has been quite educational! I shall have much to say about the condition of our prisons!"
“Yes, I am certain you will. But that can wait. Warden, you will show us to a private cell! And please arrange to have refreshment brought to my cousin."
He took Louisa by the arm and started to lead her from the cell, but she stopped him. “But, Charles, what about my companions?"
“What about them?"
“Should we not invite them to join us?"
Charles gave a startled laugh and then smothered it. Her two companions were more than likely women of the night. But he was glad to see that Louisa had not been grievously altered by her experience.
“No, Louisa, we cannot ask them to join us, but I shall be happy to have tea sent in to them."
She spoke softly into his ear, “And cannot they each have a bed? If you had not come today, I should have had to share one with the two women. And now that I am to be gone, they will still have but one between them."
Charles smiled and lightly touched her cheek. “As you wish."
Then he was obliged to cut short her leave-taking from the other women, doing so with the information that she was not to be released yet.
“I am afraid,” he said, when they were alone, “that I shall have to ride back to Snaithby and make Miss Conisbrough drop her charges, then find the magistrate and get him to sign for your release."
Louisa took the news with great composure. “That is quite all right, Charles. If it takes no more than today, I cannot really complain.” She smiled, but he fancied it was somewhat forced. “That is much less than I might have waited. The warden informed me that the next assizes will not take place for six months."
Charles took her hands and held them to his chest. Louisa's eyes fell.
“Did you think I would not come to get you out?"
She looked up, startled. “Oh, no, it wasn't you! It was just that I was so ashamed for having caused you more trouble! You told me I should wait inside and you were right! Can you forgive me?"
“But this wasn't your fault, after all, now was it?"
Her expression turned hopeful. “Don't you think so?"
Charles felt a surge of remorse. “Damn Ned!” he said again, and then, “And damn myself! No, this time, Louisa, you will not take the blame! I should have known not to rely on Ned. He left his manor without ever confiding in his sister-probably meant to serve her some trick and did not think of all the possible consequences."
Louisa smiled, and Charles felt her hand tremble in his. He released it slowly and reluctantly.
“Why didn't you send a message for me?” he said when he had found his voice.
“But I did! I told Jim to tell you, you must go on!"
“That-” Charles frowned at her. “I disregarded that, of course. But why didn't you send for me, or give the bailiff my name? Something to delay his taking you until I arrived?"
Louisa coloured. He could see he had injured her pride.
“Did you think I would use your name and risk embarrassing you?"
Charles was touched. That she should consider both him and his name so much as to endure imprisonment alone made him admire her beyond belief. Her selfless actions made him begin to question his own worth-and not for the first time since he had met her. He was relieved, at least, that his suspicions about her had resolved themselves before he knew the whole story. In doubting her at all, even for a moment, he had grotesquely wronged her. He felt ashamed.
“You place too high a value upon my reputation,” he said, “and not enough on your own safety."
But Louisa's spirits had lifted. The knowledge that she was not to pass six months, or even one night, in this gaol seemed to have cleared them, and she no longer needed his comfort. Charles had found her subdued, but now she was ready to take advantage of her experience to further her knowledge.
He prepared to start the long drive back to Snaithby to make his explanations to Miss Conisbrough. By the time he had left, lost in his own sober reflections, Louisa, with pen and paper borrowed from the warden, had started writing down her ideas for reform of prison life.
* * * *
Because of the season, it took all day for Charles to complete his mission. Miss Conisbrough was at home, and after listening to his carefully edited story, was eager to be of assistance. She thought the whole episode a great joke, however, and delayed Charles needlessly with all her teasing. Knowing Ned and his propensity for inappropriate hilarity, Charles could not have been surprised. But he chafed inwardly throughout what seemed an interminable time for Ned's sister to write a letter to the magistrate withdrawing her charges.
Next, he was obliged to wait for the magistrate, a local squire, to return from his round of afternoon calls. After Charles explained the misunderstanding, however, the man still hesitated. He seemed to think some impropriety must have been attached to the affair, and he questioned Charles in an uncomfortable manner. Only Charles's rank, and the indisputable evidence of Miss Conisbrough's letter, finally persuaded him to issue a release.
Charles hastened from there to the gaol in Selby and presented the warden with the signed papers. But, by now, it was far past dinnertime and growing dark.
Somehow, after he had handed Louisa into the carriage, he so far forgot himself that he sat beside her on the bench.
Louisa regaled him with all her observations on prison life, and Charles listened, conscious all the while of her presence next to him, of her delicate scent, and of her leg brushing lightly against his.
As she chatted on, stopping only to yawn, he smiled to himself in the dark, thinking that only Louisa would come away from such an experience eager to challenge the world. But even she eventually felt the toll of such an emotional day. When he said little in response to her ideas, she soon fell silent, as well. After a while, her head began to bob, and Charles gently put one arm about her and drew her nearer to rest against his shoulder.
They came to the inn, and after all the bustle and confusion of their arrival, he did not see her again. Nan and Sammy seemed to have erased all memory of the suspicions they had harboured. Nan swept Louisa up to her room with promises of warming pans and a hot dinner sent up if she wished.
Knowing she was tired, feeling wrung out himself, and perhaps seeing the wisdom of these arrangements after their recent intimacy, Charles made no attempt to change them. He ate a lonely meal beside the fire in his room with only Eliza for company. But in spite of his dog's most hearty efforts, she could draw little from him other than a few absent-minded strokes.
He went to bed to the sound of the Old Lad's Passing Bell, the tenor bell in the parish church, tolling once for every year since Christ was born. Its final knell was timed to ring in Christmas Day, to keep Satan away from the Snaithby fold for one more year.
Charles fell asleep, relaxed and comforted by the knowledge that Louisa was safe.
* * * *
The next day, Charles slept late and then came down the stairs with an anticipation he had not known in years. It was Christmas morning. Nothing for him to do today, when all travel was forbidden, except to enjoy the warmth of the inn, the embellishments he and Louisa had made to their own parlour, Mrs. Spadger's good food and her family's high spirits, and… Louisa.
Eliza tumbled head over heels down the steps in front of him. Charles reached the ground floor, then he peered into their private parlour and received a shock.
Louisa was standing on her tiptoes, fully square under the mistletoe, her hand in Jim Spadger's, his eyes open and eager.
An angry “Louisa!” escaped Charles's lips.
She jerked her hand from Jim's with a startled glance. The boy, too, looked anxious. Jim bowed himself quickly from the room.
Charles closed the door after him, his blood churning heatedly, and to a degree he had never known.
“Whatever's the matter, Charles?"
He whirled on her. “What's the matter! I lecture you over and over again about propriety, and you ask me what's wrong? Louisa-how could you encourage that boy? Have you no proper feelings?"
She went pale. “I am afraid,” she said quietly, “I do not know your meaning."
Charles took a hasty turn about the room and then stopped in front of her. “Louisa,” he said, taking her by the shoulders to shake her, “has it entirely missed your notice that that boy is nursing a tendre for you? You were standing here, right under the mistletoe! If that is not an open invitation, I do not know what is!"
Louisa flushed. Her fair skin was infused with a rosy colour, whether from anger or embarrassment, he did not know.
“Do you think that Jim-” She could hardly go on. Tears formed in her eyes, and disgusted with himself, Charles drew back his hands.
He stared at the floor and growled, “Heathen custom! Why it should be observed, I cannot imagine!"
Louisa was silent. Charles refused to look at her. As he stood there, not saying a word, his anger quickly ebbed.
When it had passed, he began to wonder at himself. What could have possessed him to react so strongly? He attributed it to-he had to attribute it to-all the grief she had caused him. But still, that gave him no right to lay hands upon her.
With painful courage, he ventured one look at her face. Louisa appeared collected, but the red rims of her eyes belied her composure.
“You blame me,” she said quietly.
Charles started to open his mouth to apologize, but she surprised him and said, “Perhaps you should."
He stared at her intently. “Louisa, I didn't mean-"
“You thought that I was shamelessly encouraging Jim. Well, perhaps you should when you consider my elopement. After all, I certainly encouraged Geoffrey. If he had ever attempted to kiss me, I am certain I should not have shied away. But he did not, and so I discovered he did not love me. And how are you to know that I would not encourage anyone, when the truth of the matter is that it distresses me to think that perhaps I am incapable of inspiring affection in a gentleman."
Charles gaped at her. “Do you mean to say you think you are undesirable?"
She raised her chin. “It is possible, is it not?
“No, it's not possible."
They were still standing under the kissing bough, but Charles was completely unaware of that when he took her in his arms. He knew only a deep longing to prove her wrong, a desire that had built up inside him until it begged to be released.
He lowered his lips to hers. He could feel them respond beneath his gentle touch. Louisa wrapped her arms about his neck and clung to him.
Lost and floating… yet somehow vividly conscious of every inch of her… Charles discovered the curve of her waist beneath his hands, the taste of her sweet mouth-like berries with sugar-the satisfying warmth of soft breasts pressed to his chest.
He gave in to temptation and explored deeply inside her mouth. Louisa gasped, and they fell apart.
They stared at each other for a split second, and then Charles said huskily, “You are damnably desirable, if that answers you!"
Louisa nodded, open-mouthed, her eyes as round as pools. “Damn!” Charles said. He had fought the attraction as hard as he could, but he blamed himself for giving in. And still-he had to fight it. It would be harder now, he knew, to keep his hands off her.
Louisa had blushed, appearing to understand at least some of his frustration. He had left her trembling, and the knowledge exhilarated him.
“Charles,” she said shyly, casting her eyelashes down in a most provocative way, “you shouldn't swear on Christmas."
“No, I shouldn't, but you make it damnably hard not to!"
He might have reached for her again, but for Eliza, who jumped against his trouser leg and raked him with her claws.
Thankful for the reminder, he bent to pet her and collected himself with difficulty. “Louisa-” he straightened “-Miss Davenport, you have placed yourself under my protection. It would be the height of dishonour for me to abuse your trust in me… to give in to the temptation which is certain to exist between a man and such a beautiful woman…"
While he stammered, she had been watching him with a questioning look. Now, a glint lit her eyes, and she said with false brightness, “Was that what it was? How kind of you to explain."
She pointed to the kissing bough above her head. “I merely thought you were observing that heathen custom you referred to."
Charles felt a flush of shame sweep through him, but he did not apologize. It would be wiser to forget their kiss, to make it a bone of contention between them. Much better that than let it lead to more liberties while she was in his charge.
At least, he thought, Louisa was willing to excuse him-even to provide him with an excuse, when she might have made claims upon him. The mistletoe would provide his reason, even though that had been no mistletoe kiss…
Louisa surprised him then, by standing on her tiptoes and reaching for a scroll which hung from one of the ribbons of the kissing bough. On entering the room, he had somehow missed it.
She handed it to him. It was a simple piece of paper, tied with red ribbon.
“A Christmas piece,” she said with emphasis. “I wrote it for you after we came in last night."
Charles looked up at her, and then stared at the paper in his hands. For a moment, he could not speak.
“This is what-"
Louisa nodded. Her lips were drawn in a tight smile. “Yes. That's what I was doing under the mistletoe. Jim was giving me a hand."
Charles took a deep breath. “Forgive me, Louisa, I should have known-I can't imagine what possessed me-"
She laughed. “Let us forget it, shall we? We must not let it spoil our day."
Charles answered her with a feeble smile. Perhaps, she could forget it, but how was he to forget he had made such a cake of himself? How could he forget he had kissed her, when she looked so beautiful this morning?
Among Miss Conisbrough's dresses, she had found one in a deep green velvet, low across the bosom, which set off the fairness of her skin and the flame of her hair to perfection. He remembered the feel of the velvet beneath his fingertips, the warmth of her body underneath. Her taste still lingered on his tongue. Even now, he had to swallow to drive the memory from his mind.
Louisa reached up again. “I could remove the mistletoe if you wish."
Charles caught her arm. “No need,” he said. “I promise to behave myself from now on."
She let it fall, then returned his sudden grin with a shy smile.
“Perhaps it is not such a heathen custom, after all,” he said quietly.
The remark seemed to please her; but true to their truce, she moved away and acted as if he had not made it.
Grateful, Charles sighed. They would never make it through the next two days if she continued to bat her eyelashes at him…
Charles tucked the Christmas piece she had written into his pocket. He had nothing to give her, so he judged it best to read it when he was alone.
Louisa, it seemed, had planned their day. She called to him from the doorway, “Come along, Charles. It is time to stir the Spadgers’ pudding."
“For luck, of course."
He followed her to the kitchen, where Nan stood working at her stove. Eliza, who had leapt and scurried at their heels the whole way, fell quickly upon the meal Jim had set out for her.
Charles said, “You must tie up her ears, Jim, before she dips them in."
It was too late. Both her ears were already a few inches deep in food scraps. But Charles's comment had caused a grin to replace Jim's anxious look, just as he had intended.
Bob was sitting on a stool near the hearth, eating steadily. Thanks to Louisa and to Nan Spadger's cooking, the boy seemed to have gained a few pounds already and had lost that pinched look. He promised to be a fair charge on the Spadgers’ larder.
“It's good tha's come,” Nan said. “I be about ta put pudding in oven."
She had already added the egg yolks, cream and brandy. A delicious smell rose from the pot.
She handed the spoon to Louisa first, who closed her eyes tightly to make a wish. Her lashes, like pale feathers, brushed the ridge of her cheekbones. Charles watched her appreciatively until she gave the pot a stir and opened them again.
“What did you wish?"
She tilted her head indignantly. “I'm astonished at you, Charles. You know I mustn't tell or it won't come true.” She held out the spoon. “Now, it's your turn."
Charles retreated. “No, let someone else."
“Everyone's already had a turn, and Nan is waiting for us, so you must hurry!"
She forced the spoon into his hands, and he stepped forward. Of all the foolish customs-
Charles tried to think of a wish, but the aroma from the pudding and Louisa's warmth right next to him assailed his senses. All he could think of was how much he would love to kiss her again-and he mustn't wish for that.
He closed his eyes to her, to try to concentrate, but still was aware of some great yearning he had yet to define. His feelings were in confusion: the delicious smells in the kitchen, the heat from the fire, the tension from knowing their eyes were upon him. And underlying all, the fearsome aftermath of kissing Louisa.
In the end, he did the responsible thing and wished for Boney to be captured, which left him feeling deeply unsatisfied. To wish at all was childish and foolish, but as the day wore on Charles never lost the feeling that he had wasted a precious chance.
From stirring the pudding, they went to church for Morning Prayer. Then, before their dinner was ready, they took a stroll to see the garlands in the village. The day was clear and beautiful and not so cold that he needed to hold her hand to warm it. But even bundled in his greatcoat, Charles felt a glow from Louisa at his side.
Her cheerfulness drew him into her schemes for the day and made him smile. She entertained him through their dinner, suspending all her good works and projects during the meal so he could experience some leisure before returning to work. For the first time ever, the thought of going back to Whitehall made him sigh, but he was warmly grateful he had been spared Christmas Day there.
Dinner was a feast. Nearly as sumptuous as he would have got at Wroxton Hall, though much more intimate. He and Louisa alone shared the goose, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the Christmas pudding and mincemeat in pastry coffins. They no sooner finished with one delight than Sammy brought them another, until they could hold no more. There seemed nothing to do after that but sit by the fire, fold their hands over their stomachs and groan about how much they had eaten.
Louisa's groaning, unladylike though it was, tickled Charles's funny-bone and made him want to tease her. He questioned her again about her wish, and when she was not forthcoming said, “I know what you wished for-to be married soon."
“Not necessarily,” she said. “I may have decided not ever to be married. You don't know."
He was strangely disappointed. And surprised.
“But I thought you wished to be married above all things."
Louisa's chin was in the air. “Perhaps-but I shall not tell you. I might have wished for something quite different entirely. I might have wished, for instance, for a life sufficiently long to see all my projects brought to fruition!"
“That would be impossible,” Charles told her, grinning. “You would no sooner finish one than think of another, so you could never reach the end."
She smiled wistfully. “True. But are they so terrible?"
He stared back at her, and felt warmth invading his outstretched limbs. “No. Not so terrible at all."
* * * *
The evening passed, and they stayed together in the parlour, talking in this languid fashion. Charles felt drugged by the heavy meal, the Spadgers’ brandy and the heat from the fire. He sensed a tingling in his limbs that would not go away-not while they sat like this together. A movement from Louisa, a smile or a pout, and the tingle surged to a pulse and the pulse to a throb.
Only the languor brought on by Sammy's brandy kept him firmly in his chair, and for this reason, he indulged himself far more than usual. When the time came for Louisa to withdraw, he struggled to his feet, made her a careful bow and subsided into his chair once again.
He hardly knew whether he had touched her hand to his lips, as he had intended, or whether the taste of her still lingered from their kiss.
The day they were finally to set out for London saw a return of Charles's ill humour. The brandy he had imbibed contributed to his irritability, and not even the Spadgers’ offer of meals free of charge on the day after Christmas, according to their Yorkshire custom, could lift the clouds from his head.
Louisa was the one who saw to it that all their boxes and bags were packed before breakfast and that the horses were set to the carriage before dawn. Having expended very little effort himself, Charles found that they were soon on their way, with Eliza curled up on the seat beside him.
Nan, Sammy and Jim turned out in the yard to wish them a safe and speedy journey, and even Bob was persuaded to overcome his fear of the horses to wave them farewell. The carriage window framed them all as Timothy whipped the horses out of the yard.
As soon as their faces vanished, Charles felt a curious melancholy steal upon him. For the sake of Louisa's entertainment, he tried his best to conceal it, but this morning he discovered a certain constraint between them, whether because of the events of the previous days or the ordeal to come, he did not know.
Louisa confined her rather slight conversation to the weather and the sights they passed along the road. Charles had feared that she might try to take up other strays along their way, but instead, she hardly seemed to notice them. Finally, he concluded that she must be dreading the confrontation with her guardian and did his best to divert her thoughts from what lay ahead.
That night, they stopped in another inn. Fearing their proximity to London would increase the likelihood of their being recognized, Louisa suggested that they eat alone in their separate rooms. Charles concurred, though he realized how much he had looked forward to their last dinner together, hoping for a resumption of their easy discourse.
But it was not to be. Their adventure was nearly over. Time for Charles to think of getting back to the Regent's demands on his time. Unintentional though the delay had been, he had dallied long enough.
The next morning found them both in a subdued humour. The closer they got to London, the quieter Louisa became. As they reached the outskirts of the city, evening fell, and with it the last of her conversation.
It was dark outside, and dark all around them; but occasionally the light from a passing lantern cast its beam between them, lighting their faces for a moment. Each beam captured the highlights of Louisa's hair, leaving it burning in Charles's imagination like the glow from live coals. In spite of the chill outside, it was impossible to feel cold when Louisa sat across from him. Her presence warmed him better than a hearth.
As they drew toward her uncle's house, Charles could stand no more of her reserve. He reached across the space between them and took her cold hands in his.
“You are frightened of the general?"
“No,” she said, “not at all.” Gently she withdrew her hands, surprising him. Louisa had never repulsed him before. Hurt, he was unsure how to interpret her reluctance.
“I can face the general readily enough,” she said with no sign of fear. Charles was relieved to see that she was not entirely cast down, after all. “It is the thought of his plans for me that makes me contemplative."
Charles ventured in a lighter tone, “Marriage or seclusion?"
“Precisely. He will either forbid me to leave the house or marry me to someone out of hand."
“You will not let him, I hope.” Charles frowned until he heard her chuckle.
“You know me far too well to believe that I would!” He started to relax, to release the breath he had caught and held for some reason. Then she said, “I've a mind to tell him that I shall not marry at all."
He was taken aback. “Not marry? But why?"
By the light of a passing lantern, he saw her shrug. “I shall come in possession of my fortune at the age of twenty-five whether I marry or not. It is a long time to wait, but when I think of the things I could do with my fortune if I had no husband to hamper me, it does not seem so long."
“What things?” Charles's mind was in confusion. For a young lady who not long ago had been so passionately-even improperly-determined on marriage, she certainly seemed indifferent to it now.
For one mad moment, he was sure it was his own kiss that had put her off. Clearly, before it, she had experienced no other male advances. He had deceived himself that she'd enjoyed it. What else could it be?
“My projects, Charles,” she said impatiently, breaking in on these dismal thoughts. “Have you forgotten them?"
“Your projects… Oh! Of course!” Her discharged soldiers and orphans and stray dogs… and now her prisoners, too. Suddenly Charles understood.
“Is that why you wished to marry? So you could begin your charitable work?"
“Why, of course. Why else? What have you been thinking?"
Charles felt blood rushing to his face. He couldn't possibly tell her that he had believed that she, an innocent girl, had been eager for sensual fulfilment.
He stammered, “Some… foolish nonsense. My fault entirely. Not important at all."
“Sometimes you think my causes are foolish nonsense."
Charles paused before answering. With this new puzzle piece to her character, everything she had said before must be re-examined. How could he brand as foolish all her generosity? Look at the good she had done in just three days: Bob was happily lodged with the Spadgers; Eliza had found a new master; and he had been persuaded to introduce her measures to the Lords.
“No,” he said, reaching out a hand to stroke Eliza. He would rather be stroking Louisa's hand, but she had withdrawn from him already and he did not dare. “I don't think they are foolish. I did once, but that has changed."
She made no reply. Charles found himself tongue-tied for the first time in his life. In silence, they rode the last few blocks to her uncle's house in Half-Moon Street.
A grizzled servant with a military bearing opened the door to them and said, “The gen'ral's waitin’ up for you, miss, just like he's done ev'ry night this week."
There was no warmth in his greeting, and Charles couldn't fail to hear the censure in his tone. He put on his most aristocratic air.
“You may tell General Davenport that the Marquess of Wroxton is here to wait upon him."
The man would have shown him into a small library to wait, but Charles announced that he preferred to stand in the entryway. The servant left him to do his duty. Louisa stayed back with Charles and gave him her hand.
“I must thank you, Lord Wroxton,” she said, pale but composed. “But I cannot adequately express all the gratitude I feel."
“The pleasure was all mine,” he said earnestly, holding on to her hand longer than was necessary.
This drew a teasing smile from her. “Pleasure, Charles? When I was such a shocking charge? Do not tell me you have learned to tell faradiddles from me?"
He started to protest, to tell her how much he had enjoyed his Christmas with her, undoubtedly the happiest of his life. But her uncle's butler interrupted him.
“The gen'ral will see you both now, sir."
Reluctantly, Charles released her and followed her into the drawing-room. General Davenport was seated in an armchair by the fire, both feet swathed in bandages and propped up on an ottoman.
“So there you are, minx!"
“Do not get up, sir,” Charles said, when the general started to struggle. “I shall not be staying long."
“You shall stay, sir, until I understand the nature of this escapade!"
Charles stiffened, but Louisa quickly interceded. She moved forward with a brisk step and dropped a kiss on her uncle's forehead.
“You will leave that kind of talk for later,” she said firmly, “when you and I are alone. We shall have none of it in his lordship's presence."
The general subsided into his chair, but his temper was still roused.
Charles said, “You had my letter, certainly, sir."
“I did. But that was days ago! What has taken so long, sir, I ask you? And where is this chaperone you wrote of?"
Charles hesitated just long enough to catch his breath. He bowed most urbanely, and spoke in the reasoning voice he used with the Prince Regent when the Prince was at his most tiresome. “Miss Plunkett, sir. She asked to be let down first, due to her age and the lateness of the hour. I am afraid the journey tired her excessively, since she is given to dropsy and assorted other ailments. But I shall get her to call on you within the next day or two if you like."
He left the offer hanging. But, as he had gambled, the general appeared alarmed at the prospect and muttered a hasty “No need, no need, sir. I shall take your word for it. Gentleman, and all that."
Charles gave a cool bow to signify his acknowledgement. The general turned his frown on Louisa and said, “So, minx, you imposed on his lordship here! Got anything to say for yourself?"
“Nothing at the moment, Uncle, although I am sure you will have more to say yourself. I shall retire now, if you have no objection, to spare my blushes."
Louisa's hair was flaming in the firelight. She looked anything but abashed or contrite and even winked at Charles as she spoke.
The wink provoked a smile from him. A mistake, as the general's next comment proved.
“You'd best get along! Time for his lordship and me to have a chat."
Louisa had started for the door, but at that, she whirled round and said forcefully, “You will say nothing to shame his lordship into offering for me, please! There is no need!
“And besides-” she turned and curtsied to Charles with impeccable dignity, as if she had said nothing to startle him “-I have discovered that I have no wish to marry. Good night, and thank you again, Lord Wroxton. We shall disturb you no further."
Her exit, which sounded like a dismissal, left Charles standing speechless. The general, however, was not so struck.
“Hoyden!” he called after her. Charles was convinced the man would have launched his cane after her in a fit of temper if he had not been present.
He could see by the general's heightened colour that Louisa had stolen a march on him. She had wrecked her uncle's battle plan and exploded his charges. He could do nothing now but sit and stare uneasily at his guest.
If Louisa's last words had not so unsettled Charles, he might have found it hard to keep from smiling at the way she had pulled the rug out from under her uncle. But her tone had sounded so final-as if she never wanted to see him again.
The general's eyes were upon him. Charles felt an urgent need to get away, but he rallied enough to say, “I agree with Miss Davenport, sir. I see nothing to discuss. The weather prevented us from making as good time as I had originally hoped. That… and the holidays."
The memory of those days filled him with longing as he continued, “As to Miss Davenport's elopement, she has explained to me some of her circumstances. I think if you will listen to her reasons for it, you will find they were not of the usual variety. In spite of her present manner, I assure you that she heartily regrets her hasty action. And you can rest assured that nothing of the kind will ever happen again."
The general thumped his cane upon the floor. “Humph! Are you suggesting I do not know how to govern my niece? She shall live on bread and water, sir! Bread and water!"
Charles could recognize the impotent fury of an old man. Still, he felt his anger mounting.
“If I hear,” he said with terrible emphasis, “that Miss Davenport has been submitted to unjust punishment of any kind, I shall be most displeased."
He pulled his gloves from his hat and gave a curt bow. “I shall take my leave of you, General, for the time being."
He did not wait for the general's goodbye, or for any word of gratitude. Louisa's exit from the room had left him cold. A curious rage had taken hold of him, and he gave full vent to it once the carriage door had closed behind him.
Eliza leapt upon him as soon as he sat down, but that did nothing to soothe his temper. He cursed General Davenport roundly for a fool and a scoundrel, while holding the puppy off. After making several ineffectual swipes at his face with her tongue, Eliza settled down and listened glumly to his tirade.
Charles had given Timothy the order to set him down at Wroxton House, where he had left his valet. But not even the sight of that talented servant could do anything to lift his spirits. He was oblivious to the startled look the man gave him when Charles thrust Eliza into his arms and instructed him to walk her before leaving her in his room for the night-just as he failed to notice the footman's enquiring gaze and Timothy's raised eyebrows.
Neither a coal fire nor a bowl of Lamb's Wool punch, skillfully concocted from hot ale, could cure Charles's malaise. Its sugar and spices turned sour on his tongue; the roasted apples and thick cream sat heavily on his stomach. Nothing could compare to the fare he had enjoyed in the Spadgers’ house.
It was plain, besides, that he had not been expected. His rooms at Wroxton House still held a chill even though the grates had been heaped high upon his arrival.
As he sat slumped in his chair, surrounded by splendour, the flames in the hearth leapt and danced before his eyes, but the circle of heat did not reach him.
He retired to bed, wondering what the devil was wrong with him, and more specifically, why he should feel so angry with himself.
London was almost empty. Whitehall was deserted, just as Charles had told Louisa it would be.
Charles tried hard to carry on, but found there was not much reason for being in a place where there was no minister to report to and no underlings to receive reports from. He tried to write, but whenever he sat down, he found his mind wandering.
The bleakness of Whitehall, the chill of its corridors, the darkness of the chambers contrasted sharply with the warmth of the past few days-days of frustration, it was true, but with troubles more happily resolved. And always a cozy fire, Eliza's antics to amuse him, and Louisa to stimulate him with her crazy ideas and charming laughter, her courageous stunts and her lovely face. He found that the colour of her hair, that to which he had formerly objected so strongly, was now the only shade he admired.
Charles wondered what the general had chosen for her punishment. He wanted to call, but then decided she might not like to be reminded of his part in her disgrace. Her final words to him had been clear. She had no desire to see him again.
He could not forget that in the privacy of his carriage, she had withdrawn her hands from his. Even had she not told him of her wish not to marry, it was inevitable that a distance should grow between them. Certainly they could not keep up the easy camaraderie they had come to know while travelling together. Louisa had not been presented yet; she was not to go out in Society. It would appear strange if he were to call upon her.
Charles applied himself to his work and found that Louisa's notions for reform kept intruding, to the extent that he found it more productive to make notes on how they might be accomplished than to do his own tasks. He could not fool himself that he seriously regretted Lord Liverpool's absence. Charles had a burden on his conscience which would have weighed heavily when faced with the prime minister's complacency.
* * * *
As the new year approached, a heavy fog settled on London, chilling everyone. The streets were dark and inhospitable. Charles moved through the fog to and from his home as if, though in Town, he were alone.
By New Year's Eve, his frustration and lack of spirit had grown to the point that he decided to abandon London to make a duty visit to his mother. Anything, he determined, would be preferable to being in a London so lifeless.
He gave instructions to his valet to pack for a week's stay and to precede him in the coach. He would follow in the chaise with Timothy.
Late that night, however, to put off his unpleasant task, he looked in on his club, something he had not done in months. Caught up in the management of the war on the Continent, he had not needed other stimuli. Now, with this curiously empty feeling upon him, for the first time in many years he missed the company of other men.
He had no sooner walked through the door at White's than a fellow member clapped him on the back.
“ Wroxton! I wish you joy!"
Surprised, Charles thanked him and returned the compliments of the season.
The fellow laughed.
“Cautious, eh? Can't say as I wouldn't be myself in this place. Have it your own way, my boy."
A few steps later, another acquaintance wished him a joyous Noël, tipped his hat and winked. Charles began to be glad he had come to White's. He had not enjoyed such warm feeling from his friends in years and reckoned they had missed him in his club, after all.
“What news do you have for us, Wroxton? Eh?” Portly Lord Hamsdale, who was usually in his cups, greeted him by resting an arm about his shoulder.
Since this particular gentleman had shown little, if any, interest in the war until now, preferring to make bets with his friends about the inclinations of this or that ladybird instead, Charles was taken aback. He tried to hide his irritation and began to give a brief account of Wellington's position.
Lord Hamsdale looked blank, then gave a bark of coarse laughter. “Not about that, m'boy. What about this affair of yours?"
Charles groped blindly for a moment. He personally had been working on troop dispersals in America, but he could not believe Lord Hamsdale would have any interest in that.
Lord Hamsdale did not leave him in the dark for long. “This red-haired chit, m’ boy-do you mean to marry the gel or not?"
A cold dread spread through Charles's limbs, followed by anger. He ignored his lordship's question and asked with outward calm, “Have you seen Ned Conisbrough, perhaps?"
“O’ course, m’ boy. In the other room. He's the one who's tipped the books. Laid down a cool five hundred that you'd be leg-shackled before Easter!”
Charles shook Lord Hamsdale's arm off his shoulder and strode furiously into the next room. He saw Ned there, playing at billiards.
“By God, Ned-!"
“Wroxton, my boy!” Ned raised his cue in the air and greeted him with all the appearance of delight. “What news do you have for us, eh? I could use a boost just now."
“Ned, this is the outside of enough! I warned you not to mention this-"
“Now, Charlie, don't take a pet.” Ned came round the table and drew him aside. “No name given,” he whispered. “Soul of discretion, just as I promised. So where's the harm?"
“The harm-! Ned, so help me God, I'm calling you out!"
Ned gave him a wide-eyed stare. “But, Charlie-” At Charles's look, he corrected himself. “Very well, Wroxton. Surely you don't take offence at this! I helped you… didn't I?"
“And landed Miss Davenport in gaol! That's how much you helped us!"
Ned sobered. To see him nonplussed was almost worth all the trouble he had caused.
“Gaol! Look, Wroxton, I didn't mean-If there is anything-"
Charles relented enough to say, “It's quite all right now. Everything has been settled. But it don't mean that I want my affairs bandied about White's by a malicious pack of scoundrels!"
“Scoundrels! Charlie… these are your friends!"
Ned scoffed, “Hang Hamsdale! Think of the rest!"
Charles did allow himself for one brief moment to think of the other men who had greeted him. There had been no malice in their greetings, just sincere good wishes. He recalled the warm feeling they had given him.
“All right,” he admitted grudgingly. “But it doesn't matter, Ned. There's to be no wedding."
“What's the matter, man? Won't she have you?"
Charles started to shake his head, and then stammered, “I haven't proposed marriage to her."
Scandalized Ned raised his brows. Charles said hotly, “There was no need-and you know it!"
“Of course! No need, dear boy. But I had fancied there was something in the air. My imagination, I suppose. Though I'm often right in these matters. Have a nose for it, you might say. Around here I'm considered something of an oracle."
He shrugged disappointedly and said, “But if you insist, I shall have to say goodbye to five hundred pounds."
His hopeful glance only served to irritate Charles once again, though but a minute before he had been ready to forgive Ned. He wanted to curse him roundly, but such behaviour was so unlike his normal self as to give him pause. What the deuce was wrong with him?
Something Ned had said-no, something he had first said himself came back to him now. No need. He recalled that Louisa had used those words to the general. Of course there was no need, and yet, for some reason, Charles had been bothered about that phrase ever since.
There would never be, for him, a need to marry, other than to produce an heir. But that was not the problem. It was Louisa's rejection of him, as if the days they had passed together could be dismissed so easily. If he could not forget them, how could she?
He realized suddenly that Ned was still waiting for his response, had been regarding him for some minutes with a mixture of puzzlement and amusement.
“Wool-gathering, old boy?"
Charles coloured and then punched him lightly on the shoulder.
“Very well, Ned. You are off the hook this time. But let one syllable of her name be uttered and you will see my seconds on your doorstep."
Ned grinned. “Word of a gentleman. Now, since you're here, how about a game of cards?"
Charles frowned absently. He had the inexplicable feeling that he should go. The questions that had been raised in his mind had only served to increase his restlessness.
“No, thanks. Not tonight. I'm heading out to see my mother."
“All the more reason to tarry, my boy."
He shook his head, giving a brief smile. “No, thank you, Ned. Some other time."
He left Ned staring after him and grinning, and on the way out had to put up with other warm wishes.
* * * *
Handing Charles into his carriage, Timothy said, “Where to now, my lord? On to Wroxton Hall?"
Charles hesitated, and then gave in to an impulse. “Drive round to Half-Moon Street."
Alone inside the carriage, he wondered at himself. But a feeling was growing stronger and stronger within him that this unaccountable malaise could only be cured by a bewitching redhead.
The word “need” continued to trouble him. Louisa had used it, Ned had used it, even he and the general had used it. No, there was no need, but was there no wish?
They arrived in Half-Moon Street in a trice. Charles leapt down and found that Timothy had pulled up in front of Louisa's house without being told to.
The man's perception gave Charles pause. But he chose to ignore the implication and avoided his servant's eyes.
The general's house was dark and shuttered. Only when Charles saw its drawn curtains and snuffed-out lights did he realize the lateness of the hour. Midnight was fast approaching. Soon bells would be pealing and ships’ horns blowing in the New Year.
He could not very well present himself at this hour for a casual call, nor could he leave a message about his journey, yet he did not want to leave Town without first seeing Louisa.
The cold was bitter, but he could not bring himself to re-enter the carriage. He told Timothy to wait, and started on a walk.
The general's house stood on the corner. As Charles started to pass it, he heard singing, coming from somewhere down the alley. Male voices were raised in a cheerful ditty:
“Here we come a-whistling, through the fields so green;
Here we come a-singing, so fair to be seen.
God send you happy, God send you happy,
Pray God send you a happy New Year!"
Charles rounded the corner and spied a few men in tatters, gathered about a large bonfire. He stopped and stared at them, drawing heat from the flames that lit up their faces. He had forgotten the custom the watch used to have of playing music outside houses on New Year's Eve, but now it came back to him on a wave of nostalgia.
He found himself moving nearer and nearer to the flame. Its bright colours, red and gold and orange, called to mind Louisa's hair, no less warm, no less vibrant, no less tempting than the heat from the fire. He realized how desperately he wished to see her.
He thought of the wish he had failed to make over Mrs. Spadger's pudding on Christmas and saw clearly now what it ought to have been. Would Louisa have accepted him if he had known his own heart better then?
He thought of the things he'd said, and only now accepted. With a smile, Charles thought how she would stir up the Tories, and either charm them or send them running for cover. But if they ran, let them, he decided. With her at his side, prodding him, arguing with him, what justice might he not accomplish? And he indulged himself finally in an even more satisfying picture: Louisa in his home… in his bed and in his arms.
The cold bit into his hands. Charles thrust them into his pockets and encountered the rustle of paper and the smooth feel of ribbon. Remembering, he drew Louisa's Christmas piece from his pocket.
His heart pounding, he untied the ribbon and unrolled it, to read by the firelight. How could he have forgotten it? But in all his efforts not to give in to temptation, he had done his best to overlook her.
His fingers were numb, and he fumbled with the scroll. But at last he had it opened.
At first, the page appeared blank. Then he saw that two words had been started at the top.
That was all. Dear Charles. For a moment, he felt bitter disappointment, and then he read them again with a different emphasis-
It was a moment before he responded, thinking in his bemusement that he was imagining the voice. Then it came again, “Pssst! Charles!"
As he looked up, his heart leapt. Above him, her face and shoulders hanging out the open window, was Louisa.
“What are you doing here?” she called in a whisper.
Charles smiled up at her. “Listening to the singers. I think someone ought to take down their words and save them before the custom dies out, don't you?"
He could see her dimple in response. She stared back at him, and then said, “You'll catch your death of cold!"
“I haven't been here long. But should you be leaning out that window?"
“I saw you. At least, I thought it was you, and I had to see.” She sighed. “I thought I might be hallucinating. Bread and water will do that to one."
Charles drew his brows together. “Has the general mistreated you?"
“Oh, no.” He knew she was telling the truth from the sound of her voice. “But it pleases him to send me up before supper with a meal fit only for the nursery. But what about you, Charles? What are you doing?"
“Getting ready for a journey."
She paused, and his pulse raced as he heard the sadness in her voice. “Where are you going?"
Charles started to speak, and then had to clear his throat. Talking with his head thrown back was becoming difficult.
“To Gretna Green.” He paused, his heart hammering. “Will you come with me?"
There came a long silence. Even the singers’ voices had stopped.
Charles stood there, counting the seconds, and felt himself draining of colour.
“Are you sure?” Louisa finally asked.
He cleared his throat again and answered, “Quite, quite sure."
“But Charles, your reputation-"
“Hang my reputation! I love you!"
“I'll be down in a trice!"
Charles called up, fighting a smile so big that it hampered his speech, “You might bring some clothes with you this time."
“Get ready to catch them."
He waited impatiently. Then, as he watched, a gown and a petticoat appeared overhead. They floated down to him, and he caught them before they touched the ground.
“Louisa! Don't you have some sort of box?"
A portmanteau hit the dirt at his feet. Charles scooped it up and stuffed the garments in it, along with the toothbrush, hairbrush, hats and gloves that followed.
“That's enough! That's enough!"
He was quite impatient now. The men who had been singing were watching him with interest. They had gathered round, and now he shooed them off.
“Are you ready?” Louisa's voice called down from above.
“Yes, but please be careful!"
A slippered foot eased over the window-sill, followed by another. Charles caught a gratifying glimpse of bare leg, and more. His heart gave a lurch. He did not think of turning away, but what he saw made him quite glad he had chased the other men off.
He waited for her at the bottom of the drainpipe and insisted on catching her, as well. The little gasp she made on landing in his arms sent a quiver through him.
For a second, Charles kept her tightly nestled in his arms, relishing the feel of her. Then, ignoring the men's stares, he kissed her.
Louisa burrowed closer to him, sending his pulse on a tear, until he realized she was shivering from the cold. He bustled her round the corner and into his carriage.
“To Gretna Green, Timothy!"
“Aye, your lordship! On the quick?"
“No, there's no need to hurry. We'll break our journey on the way."
Once inside, Louisa huddled very close to him, until he put his arms around her and pulled her onto his lap.
“Do you object?"'
“No… not at all.” Her breathless response sent a thrill coursing through him. “I'll keep you warm,” he promised.
“Yes… I believe you will. Charles… are you absolutely certain you wish to marry me?"
He whispered in her ear, “Do you need convincing?"
She giggled. “Not really, but are you sure it's wise? What of your reputation when it's known you've eloped?"
“I've eloped with a beautiful heiress. It will probably be considered the wisest thing I've ever done."
He could feel her smile as her lips moved against his cheek, sending wave after wave of heat to his loins.
“There is one thing, though…"
He held her away for a moment. “Do you promise, when we get there, that you won't change your mind?"
Louisa threw herself back into his arms and hugged him tightly. “Only if you promise to make love to me the whole way!"
Charles enfolded her snugly and felt his heart fill, close to bursting.
“I give you my word as a gentleman…"
Patricia Wynn Ricks