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Authors: Anne Perry

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BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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He was sitting upright in the chair opposite Rathbone, his back straight, his hands strong and square, the nails very short, as if now and then he bit them. He clasped the chair arms as if he could not let them go.

“I tried to explain that that was not what I had meant,” he went on, biting his lips as he spoke. “But how do you do that
without appearing grossly hurtful, offensive? How do I say that I do not feel that kind of emotion for her without insulting her and wounding her feelings unforgivably?” His voice rose. “And yet I never said anything, so far as I can recall, that sounded like … that was intended to mean … I have racked my brain, Sir Oliver, until I now no longer have any clear recollection of what I did say. I only know that announcements have been made in the
Times,
and the date is set, and I had no say in the matter at all.” His face was pale, except for two spots of color in his cheeks. “It has all happened as if I were a prop in the center of some stage around whom the whole dance revolves, and yet I can do nothing at all to affect it. And suddenly the music is going to stop, and they are all going to wait for me to play my part and make everyone happy. I can’t do it!” He was filled with quiet despair, like a trapped creature who can no longer fight and has nowhere to run.

Rathbone found his sympathy touched in spite of his better judgment.

“Has Miss Lambert any idea of your feelings?” he asked.

Melville’s shoulders lifted slightly.

“I don’t know; I don’t think so. She is … she is caught up in the wedding plans. I sometimes look at her face and it seems to me as if it is quite unreal to her. It is the wedding itself which has occasioned such enormous preparation, the gown, the wedding breakfast, who will be invited and who will not, what society will think.”

Rathbone found himself smiling with the same half-ironic appreciation of frailty and fear that he had seen in Melville’s eyes. He had some slight experience of society matrons who had successfully married a daughter, to the envy and the chagrin of their friends. Appearance far outweighed substance at that point. They had long ago ceased to consider whether the bride was happy, confident, or even what she actually wished. They assumed it must be what they wished for her, and acted accordingly.

Then he was afraid Melville might think he was laughing at him, which was far from the case. He leaned forward.

“I sympathize, Mr. Melville. It is most unpleasant to feel manipulated and as if no one is listening to you or considering your wishes. But then, from those of my friends who are married, I believe it is a not uncommon experience at the time of the ceremony itself. The bridegroom can seem little more than a necessary part of the stage property and not a principal in the act. That will pass, immediately after the day itself is over.”

“I am not suffering from nervousness of the day, Sir Oliver,” Melville said levelly, although such self-control obviously cost him a great effort of will. “Nor do I feel any pique at being placed at the side of events rather than in the center. I simply cannot”—he seemed to have difficulty forming the words with his lips—“bear … to find myself married to Zillah … Miss Lambert. I have no desire to be married to anyone at all. If at some time I shall have, it will be of my own choosing, and of theirs, not something that has been assumed by others and organized around me. I …” Now at last there was a thread of real panic in him, and his knuckles were white where he gripped the ends of the chair arms. “I feel trapped!”

Rathbone could see that he spoke the truth.

“I assume you have done what you can to escape the contract—”

“There was no contract!” Melville cut across him. “Simply an assumption, which I did not realize soon enough to deny with any dignity or sensitivity. Now it is too late. My refusal, all my arguments, will be seen as a breach of promise.” His green-blue eyes were growing wilder, his words more rapid. “They forget what was actually said and remember the facts quite differently from the reality. I cannot stand there and argue ‘You said this’ and ‘I said that.’ “He jerked one hand up sharply. “It would be absurd and degrading, and achieve nothing but mutual blame and hurt. I assure you, Sir Oliver, Mrs. Lambert is never going to admit she presumed something which was not so and that I gave her daughter no proposal of marriage, literal or implicit. How could she, now that she has announced it to the world?”

Rathbone could see that that was indeed so unlikely as to be considered impossible.

“And Mr. Lambert?” He made a last attempt, more out of habit than a belief he would learn anything which would provide a defense.

Melville’s expression was difficult to read, a mixture of admiration and despair. He sank back in the chair. “Mr. Lambert is an honest man, straightforward in word and deed. He drives a hard bargain, which is how he made his fortune, but strictly fair.” The lines around his mouth softened. “But of course he loves his daughter, and he’s fiercely loyal. He’s sensitive about his northern roots and he sometimes fancies high society thinks the less of him because he earned his money in trade … and for that matter, so they do.” He winced a little. “I suppose it was unnecessary to say that. I apologize.”

Rathbone waved it aside. “So he would be quick to defend her from anything he saw as an insult,” he concluded.

“Yes. And there is hardly a greater insult than to break a contract of marriage.” The fear was sharp in Melville’s voice again. “He cannot afford to believe me that there was none. Mrs. Lambert is a formidable woman—” He stopped abruptly.

“I see.” Rathbone did see, extremely clearly, the nature of the predicament. He also felt increasingly certain that Melville was withholding something which he knew to be of importance. “Have you told me all the facts, Mr. Melville?”

“All that are relevant, yes.” Melville spoke so unhesitatingly that Rathbone was sure he was lying. He had been expecting the question and was prepared for it.

“You have not found your affections engaged elsewhere?” He looked at Melville closely and thought he saw a faint flush in his cheeks, although his eyes did not waver.

“I have no desire or intention of marrying anyone else,” Melville said with conviction. “You may search all you care to, you will find nothing to suggest I have paid the slightest court to any other lady. I work extremely hard, Sir Oliver. It is one of the most difficult things in the world to establish oneself as an architect.” There was a ring of bitterness in his voice, and something
which was almost certainly pride. His clear eyes were filled with light. “It requires time and skill in negotiation, patience, the art of diplomacy, as well as a vision of precisely what makes a building both beautiful and functional, strong enough to endure through generations of time and yet not so exorbitantly expensive that no one can afford to construct it. It requires a magnitude of ideas and yet note of the minutest detail. Perhaps the law is the same.” He raised his brows and stared questioningly, almost challengingly. For the first time Rathbone was conscious of the man’s remarkable mind, the breadth and the power of his intellect. He must indeed have an extraordinary strength of will. His present problem was not indicative of his character. He was certainly not a man of indecision.

“Yes,” Rathbone agreed ruefully, many of his own past romances, or near romances, fleeting through his mind. He had been too busy, too ambitious, to allow the time necessary to enlarge them into courtship. This he could understand with no effort at all. But he had not been unmindful enough of others, or of the way of the world, to allow himself to be so misunderstood that anyone, even a socially avaricious would-be mother-in-law, had missed his intentions.

“Yes, the law is a hard taskmistress, Mr. Melville,” he agreed. “And one requiring both imagination and exactitude if one is to succeed. And it also requires an ability to judge character. I confess that I do not think you are telling me the whole truth of this matter.”

He saw Melville’s face tighten and the skin around his lips turn pale.

“Many men are not particularly in love with the women they marry,” he continued, “but find the alliance quite tolerable. Even more young women accept marriages which are based upon financial or dynastic necessity. If the person is honorable, kind, and not physically repellent, they very frequently learn to love one another. At times such a union is happier than one entered into in the heat of a passion which is based upon dreams and fades when the first hunger is assuaged, and there is no friendship left to feed it or to tide them over the later
times.” As he said it he knew it was true, and yet he would not have entered such an arrangement himself.

Melville looked away. “I am aware of all that, Sir Oliver, and I do not deny it. I am not prepared to marry Zillah Lambert in order to satisfy her mother’s ambitions for her, or to try to be what she desires in a husband.” He rose to his feet rather awkwardly, as if he were too rigid to coordinate his limbs as he normally might. “And profoundly grateful as I am to Barton Lambert for his patronage of my art, my obligation does not extend to the ruin of my personal happiness or peace … of life.”

Rathbone drew in breath to ask him yet again what it was he was concealing, then saw in Melville’s face that he would not answer. Perhaps if the Lamberts did indeed sue him he would change his mind. Until then the matter was speculative anyway, and he felt increasingly that it was something in which he did not wish to become involved. Melville could not win. And frankly, Rathbone thought he was being melodramatic about something which was no more than the lot of a vast proportion of mankind, and not so very bad.

“Then perhaps you had better see what transpires, Mr. Melville,” he said aloud, “before presuming the worst. Perhaps if you were to explain the situation to Miss Lambert herself and give her the opportunity to break the engagement, for whatever reason you can agree upon that does her no dishonor, then such an ugly and expensive matter as a legal suit could be avoided. And your relationship with Mr. Lambert would suffer far less. I assume you have taken that into your considerations? If you break your promise to Miss Lambert, you can hardly expect his future patronage.”

“Of course I have taken it into consideration!” Melville said bitterly, standing now at the door. “I cannot win! It is only a question of how much I lose. But I am not prepared to marry in order to further my professional career.” He looked at Rathbone with contempt, as if he believed Rathbone would do such a thing himself, and yet beneath the anger and the disgust there was still the deep fear—and a flickering light of hope. “I am a
very good architect, Sir Oliver,” he added softly. “Some have even said brilliant. I should not need to prostitute myself in order to obtain work.”

Rathbone was stung by the words. He realized with a flush of shame that he had half intended to insult Melville, without having the slightest idea of his professional ability or anything other of his personal situation than the one problem of which he had spoken. There were numerous personal reasons why a man might not wish to marry, many often too delicate to explain to others, whatever the pressure.

“I will help you if I can, Mr. Melville,” he said more gently. “But I fear that from what you have told me, there would be very little I could do. Let us agree to leave the matter until you have done your best to persuade Miss Lambert to break the engagement herself.” He sounded more encouraging than he meant to. He did not intend to take the case. He had already given his best advice in the matter.

“Thank you,” Melville said with his hand on the door, his voice flat. “Thank you for your time, Sir Oliver.”

Rathbone put the subject from his mind and carried out his original intention of leaving his chambers in Vere Street early. It was still a lovely afternoon and he stopped the hansom cab and walked the last half mile with pleasure. He passed a couple of fashionable ladies of his acquaintance out taking the air, their crinolined skirts obliging him to step almost to the curb in order not to be in their way. He bowed to them, raising his hat, and they smiled charmingly and continued their excited conversation.

The slight breeze carried the sound of an organ grinder, and children shouting to one another, and the rapid clip of a horse’s hooves as it pulled a light carriage or gig.

He reached his home in plenty of time to eat supper, then sat and read the day’s newspapers before changing into his evening clothes and leaving for Lady Hardesty’s ball.

He arrived amid a crowd of other carriages and alighted, paid his driver, and went up the steps and into the blaze of
lights and the swirl and glitter of enormous skirts, white shoulders, jewels of every sort, the sound of music and laughter and endless talk. Footmen moved about with trays of champagne, or lemonade for the more abstemious and the young ladies who should not overindulge, and perhaps behave in a less than seemly manner, or forget for an instant why they were there. A girl who did not make a fortunate impression in her first season was in perilous shape, and if she had not found a husband by her second, could be written off as a disaster.

Rathbone had been told these facts of life often enough, but he took them with a smile. It was an intellectual rather than emotional knowledge. Whether a man married or not was immaterial, except to himself. Society thought neither more nor less of him. All around him he heard snatches of conversation.

“What happened to Louisa?” an elderly lady in burgundy silk asked rhetorically, her eyebrows raised. “Why, my dear, she left the country. Went to live in Italy, I think. What else could she do?”

“What else?” her companion asked, her thin face expressing bewilderment, then a sudden rush of understanding. “Oh, my goodness! You don’t mean she divorced him, do you? Whatever for?”

“He beat her,” the lady in burgundy replied tersely, leaning her head a trifle closer. “I thought you knew that.”

“I did … but really … I mean … Italy, did you say?” Her eyes widened. “I suppose it was worth it … but a terribly bad example. I don’t know what the world is coming to!”

“Quite,” the first matron agreed. “I shan’t let my daughters know of it. It is very unsettling, and it doesn’t do to allow girls to be unsettled.” She lowered her voice confidentially. “One is far happier if one knows precisely what to expect of life. Rose Blaine just had her ninth, you know. Another boy. They are going to call him Albert, after the Prince.”

BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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