Read A Breach of Promise Online

Authors: Anne Perry

A Breach of Promise (5 page)

BOOK: A Breach of Promise
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Why? There had to be far more to it than he had told Rathbone. Was Zillah really completely different from the way she seemed?

He looked at her again. She was certainly comely enough to please any man, and yet not so beautiful as to be vain or spoiled because of it. If she was extravagant, she would probably bring a dowry with her which would more than offset that. And her nature seemed most agreeable.

“You must meet Mr. Melville, Sir Oliver,” she was saying enthusiastically. “I am sure you would like him. Everybody does, or nearly everybody. I would not wish to give the impression he is so obliging as to be without character or opinion. He certainly is not.”

“You are very fond of him, aren’t you?” he said gently.

“Oh yes!” She seemed to radiate her happiness. “I think I am the most fortunate woman in England, if not the world. He is everything I could wish. I have never felt so extremely at ease in anyone’s company, and yet at the same time so invigorated in thought and so filled with the awareness of being on the brink of the greatest adventure life has to offer.” There was not a shadow of doubt in her. “We shall be the envy of everyone in London for the blessings of our lives together. I know he will make me a perfect husband, and I shall do everything I can think of to please him and make him proud of me. I wish that
never in all the years we shall live together should he even for an hour regret that he chose me.” She looked at him with wide, soft eyes filled with hope and trust.

Suddenly, like a hand clenching inside him, he understood Melville’s fear. It was unbearable to think of being responsible for so much in the life of another human being, one who sees you not as the fallible, sometimes self-conscious, sometimes weary and frightened creature that you are, just as frail as they, but as some kind of cross between a genius and a saint, whose every thought bears examination and whose every act will be both wise and kind. One could never relax, never admit to weakness or doubt, never simply lose one’s temper or confess terror, failure or despair. What intolerable loneliness! And yet a loneliness without privacy.

Was she aware of the intimate facts of life? Looking at her bright innocence, and knowing a little of the tragic lives of some of his clients, he thought very possibly not. And even if she was, could any man live up to her expectations?

His own skin broke out in a prickle of sweat as he placed himself in Melville’s situation for a moment. Now he understood only too sharply why the young architect could not bear it. With Delphine Lambert engineering everything, her clever, prying eyes seeing every fleeting expression of her daughter’s face, nothing he said or did would go unknown. He could not ever fail in decent privacy.

And it had been arrogant of Rathbone to imagine he could not have found himself in the same position. He was at least twelve or fifteen years older than Melville, if not more. And yet he had been neatly enough maneuvered by Mrs. Ballinger.

“I imagine you will be very happy, Miss Lambert,” he said awkwardly. “I certainly hope you will. But …”

She looked at him without the slightest comprehension. “But what, Sir Oliver? Can you doubt my good fortune? You would not, if you knew Killian, I promise you.”

What could he possibly say to be even barely honest? What should he say to her? Melville had asked Rathbone to defend
him in court, should the need arise, not to conduct any negotiations to break the engagement. He might change his mind. It might simply be the sort of nervousness many people experience before marriage.

“But nothing, Miss Lambert,” he said, shaking his head. “Perhaps I merely envy you. I wish you every joy. Good evening.” And before he could find himself any further embroiled, he took his leave and made his way towards Lady Hardesty.

The following day Rathbone sent Melville a message saying that on further consideration he had changed his mind, and if Melville should, after all, find himself sued for breach of promise, Rathbone would be willing to represent him. Although he feared it would be a most difficult case, and his change was not based upon any alteration in his belief that the chances of success were very small. Still, he would do his best.

2

W
HILE THE THOUGHT
of her had crossed Rathbone’s mind during Lady Hardesty’s ball, Hester Latterly herself was sitting quietly in the room she had been given for her accommodation during her stay in the elegant house at the northwest corner of Tavistock Square. It was the house of Lieutenant Gabriel Sheldon and his new young wife, Perdita. Lieutenant Sheldon had served honorably in the army in India. He had survived the hideous Mutiny, the siege of Cawnpore, and been one of the few survivors of that atrocity. He had remained in India afterwards, only to fall victim to appalling injuries just over two years later, in the winter of 1859–60. He had lost an arm, been severely disfigured, and at first was not expected to live.

By January his partial recovery was deemed sufficient for him to be shipped home to England and invalided out of the service. However, he was far from well enough to manage without skilled nursing, and the damage done to the skin and flesh of his face was such that it required a particular sensitivity, as well as medical knowledge of and experience with such wounds, to care for him. The stump of his arm was also far from satisfactory. The wound still was raw in places and not entirely free from infection. Even the danger of gangrene could not yet be disregarded.

Perdita Sheldon had been young and pretty and full of high spirits when her handsome husband of a few months had been obliged to return to his regiment and departed for India in the
late autumn of 1856. She had wanted to go with him, but she had been newly with child and not at all well. She had miscarried in the spring. And then in 1857 the unimaginable had happened. The native sepoys had mutinied, and the revolt had spread like wildfire. Men, women and children were massacred. The tales that reached England were almost too monstrous to be believed. Daily, almost hourly, people rushed to read the latest news of the besieged cities of Cawnpore and Lucknow, the battles that raged across the country. The names of Nena Sahib, Koer Singh, Tanteea Topee, and the Ranee of Jhansi became familiar to everyone’s lips. For two years the continent of India seethed with inconceivable violence. The question of whether Perdita Sheldon, or any other woman, should leave England to go there did not arise.

When it was over and calm had been restored once more, nothing could ever be the same again. The trust was shattered forever. Gabriel Sheldon was still on active service with his regiment, mostly in the rugged country of the northwest, near the borders of the Khyber Pass, leading through the Himalayas into Afghanistan. Perdita remained in England, dreaming of the day he would come back and she could once again have the life he had promised her, and which she had equally promised him.

The man who did return was unrecognizable to her either in body or in spirit. He was wounded too deeply, broken too far to pretend, and she had not the faintest idea even how to understand, let alone to help. She felt as abandoned as he did, confused and asked to bear a burden heavier than anything her life had designed her to face.

Hence Gabriel’s brother, Athol Sheldon, had engaged the best nurse he could find, through the agency of his excellent man of affairs, and Hester Latterly was installed in Tavistock Square to nurse Gabriel for as long as should prove necessary.

Now it was late in the evening for the household of an invalid, and they had already dined: Perdita downstairs with her brother-in-law, Athol; Gabriel in his room with Hester’s assistance. Hester herself had eaten only briefly, in the servants’
hall, and then left as soon as his tray was ready to bring upstairs.

This was a time of day when she had no specific duties, simply to be available should she be required. Gabriel would ring the bell beside his bed when he was ready to retire or if he felt in need of assistance. There was no mending to do and her other duties had long since been attended to. She had borrowed a book from the library but was finding it tedious.

It was just after ten when at last the bell rang, and she was delighted to close the book, without bothering to mark her place, and walk the short distance along the landing to Gabriel’s room. She knocked on the door.

“Come in!” he answered immediately.

It was the largest room on this floor, turned into a place where he could not only sleep at night but read or sleep during the day, and in time write letters, or receive visitors, and feel as much at ease as was possible in his circumstances.

She closed the door behind her. His bed was at the far end, a magnificent piece with elaborately carved mahogany headboard and footboard, and presently piled with pillows so he could sit up with some comfort. A special rest had been designed and made both to support his book or paper and to hold it open so he could read, or keep it from moving if he was writing. Fortunately he was right-handed, and it was his left arm he had lost.

But on first seeing him it was not the empty sleeve one noticed but the terrible disfigurement to his face, the left side of which was so deeply scarred from cheekbone to jaw that the flesh had not knitted and the features were distorted by the pull of the muscles and the healing skin. There was a raw red line which would never change, and white crisscross fine ridges where it had been stitched together hastily on the battlefield. After the initial shock it was possible to imagine quite easily how handsome he had been before the injury. It was a face almost beautiful in its simplicity of line, its balance between nose and cheek and jaw. The clear brow and hazel-gray eyes
were unblemished even now. The dark brown, wavy hair was thick. His mouth was pinched with pain.

“I’ve had enough of this book,” he said ruefully. “It’s not very interesting.”

“Neither was mine.” She smiled at him. “I didn’t even bother to mark my place. Would you like me to find you something else for tomorrow?”

“Yes, please, although I don’t know what.”

She took the book away and carefully removed the stand and folded it up. It was well designed and quite light to manage. His bed was rumpled where he had moved about restlessly. He was not only in physical distress from his amputation, the flesh not healing properly, the phantom pain of a limb which was not there; even more acute was the emotional distress of feeling both ugly and incomplete, powerless. He was without a role in a life which stretched interminably ahead of him containing nothing more than being dependent upon the help of others, an object of revulsion to the uninitiated in the horror of war, and one of pity to those familiar. Perhaps the greatest burden of all was the fact that he was unable to share his feelings with his wife. His existence shackled her to a man she was embarrassed even to look at, let alone touch. He had offered to release her from the marriage, as honor required. And as honor required, she had refused.

“Any subject in particular?” Hester asked, stretching out her hand to assist him in throwing back the covers and climbing from the bed so she could remake it. He was still quite often caught off balance by the alteration in his weight since the arm had gone.

He forced himself to smile, and she knew it was an effort, made for her sake, and perhaps from a lifetime of good manners.

“I can’t think of anything,” he admitted. “I’ve already read everything I knew I wanted to.”

“I’ll have to see if I can find you something quite different,” she said conversationally, leaving him to sit on the bedside chair and beginning to strip off the bedclothes to replace them
smoothly. She did not want to talk of trivialities to him, and yet it was so difficult to know what to say that would be honest and not hurtful, not intrusive into areas he was perhaps not yet ready to explore or to expose to anyone else. After all, she had been there only a few days and was in a position neither of family member and friend nor yet of servant. She already knew a great many of his intimate physical feelings and needs far better than anyone else, but could only guess at his history, his character or his emotions.

BOOK: A Breach of Promise
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Conveniently His Omnibus by Penny Jordan
Midnight for Morgana by Martin, Shirley
Lions by Bonnie Nadzam
The Season of Shay and Dane by Lacefield, Lucy
Someone Else's Son by Hayes, Sam
Savage Spirit by Cassie Edwards