Authors: Amanda Scott
For Terry with love
T WAS A SUMMER
day bright enough to set rainbows playing upon the breaking waters beneath Brighton’s chalky cliffs. The lace curtains in the cheerful, expensively appointed morning room stirred with the motion of a gentle, easterly breeze that drifted through the open first-floor windows of the tall, white-trimmed brick house at Number Twenty-seven Upper Rock Gardens.
Although the breeze carried with it the inevitable crisp tang of the sea, the architect who had assisted Brighton’s city fathers in their effort, some fifteen years earlier, to bring the popular little fishing village up to the standard expected by the steadily increasing summertime surge of royal and noble visitors had not been so lacking in good taste as to present the residents of Number Twenty-seven or those of its equally distinguished neighbors with a view of anything so mundane as the town’s crumbling chalk cliffs and broad, desolate expanse of blue sea. Therefore, the principal rooms of the homes in Upper Rock Gardens overlooked nothing more unusual than a tidy, cobbled street such as one might find in any fashionable, inland town.
Though the soft breeze stirred the delicate morning-room curtains and even fluttered the swordlike leaves and showy blossoms of the huge, yellow irises arranged in a stoneware bowl on the low table in front of the window bay, it was not strong enough to disturb either of the morning room’s two occupants. The elder of these, a fluffy-haired, pink-gowned lady with nearly fifty-five summers to her credit, was the Lady Agnes Lindale. At the moment, Lady Agnes sat upon a gray settee in the window bay, a piece of fancy work resting forgotten in her lap, as she watched with increasing impatience while the lovely young woman sitting opposite her at a parquetry writing table dealt with the morning post.
An errant ray of sunshine penetrated the space between two of the shifting lace panels and dust motes danced along its path as it set auburn highlights glistening in the young woman’s thick, high-piled chestnut hair. Silence reigned, broken only by the occasional screech of a gull outside, until Lady Agnes stirred restlessly.
“For pity’s sake, Nell! Do you mean to tell me what your sister has to say, or do you not?”
Miss Eleanor Lindale lowered the single-page missive that she had been scanning and looked up to reveal startlingly blue, heavily lashed eyes set deeply above well defined cheekbones in a charming, oval face. She smiled cheerfully at her mother.
“Forgive me, Mama. It must seem an age and more since I began,” she replied. “I have merely been attempting—and not at all successfully, I might add—to conjure a meaning out of what appears to be the devil’s own web of copperplate.”
Lady Agnes’s face was turned discreetly away from the morning light—so revealing of one’s all-too-rapidly advancing years—but Nell could discern her impatient frown well enough. “I cannot think why it should take you so long,” her ladyship said fretfully. “Your sister writes a very elegant hand.”
Nell chuckled but glanced doubtfully at the page of weblike lines which she had been attempting to decipher. As she did so, the furrow forming between the straight, narrow brows that gave such emphasis to every expression of her candid blue eyes cleared magically. “Ah ha!” she pronounced on a note of distinct triumph. “It is the
that were early. Do you know, Mama, I had stared and stared at that word before, but by merely glancing at it just now, it suddenly became quite clear. At first, all I could make of it was
, but one knew that could not be right. Though, to be sure,” she added musingly, “what on earth early rains have got to do with anything … Oh, I see. Something to do with the lower crop yield having put Crossways all out of frame. As if a few bushels more or less of whatever it is he grows on that monstrous estate would matter a cracked groat to a man with pockets lined as deeply as his are.”
Miss Lindale glanced up at her indignant parent just as Lady Agnes stretched a well tended hand toward the elegant silver-gilt vinaigrette placed conveniently upon the polished oak table at her right. Withdrawing the crystal stopper, she waved it gently beneath her straight little nose, a gesture that brought a rueful twinkle to Nell’s expressive, dark-rimmed eyes.
“I do beg your pardon, ma’am. I should not have said such a thing. At least,” she amended candidly, “I should not have said it so bluntly.” She flicked the letter. “But Clarissa puts me all out of patience. She does indeed write an elegant fist, but she has crossed and recrossed her lines till I cannot tell where one thought ends and another begins.”
“Well, it cannot matter, after all,” Lady Agnes replied vaguely as she replaced her vinaigrette on the table. “Clarissa always writes very much the same thing, does she not? If one of the children has not fallen out of a tree, another has thrown out a rash, and the expense of the doctor’s visit has all but reduced the family to bread and pig’s knuckles for supper. Let her but try to hold house here in Brighton,” she added with an air of weary but patient endurance, “and I daresay she would soon cease to cavil about the expense of keeping up an estate in Kent.”
Only half listening, Nell frowned again. “She does mention the expense of something. One moment, whilst I …” She broke off, turning the sheet more toward the light and peering at it through narrowed eyes. “Oh, of course. A
would be an outrageous expense. It looked like
, you know. No one, you will be relieved to hear, dearest ma’am, has fallen or gone ill. She concerns herself with Rory.”
“Rory, indeed,” Lady Agnes sighed, airing an old grievance. “The child is the Lady Aurora Crossways, and so she should be called. I cannot imagine what my poor papa would have had to say to
“Even Grandpapa must have agreed—had he ever had an opportunity to express himself on the subject—that to have called any child with Rory’s shaggy plaits and eternally muddied petticoats Aurora would have been outside of enough,” Nell said with an indulgent smile. “Perhaps, however, the little ragtag gypsy who last visited us will have outgrown her hoydenish ways. It is time for her come-out, you know. By heaven,” she added, her tone changing to one of exasperation as she returned to her task, “I do wish Clarissa might have seen her way clear to adding a second sheet to this letter, instead of crowding all this lot onto a single page!”
“She is merely being frugal,” Lady Agnes stated repressively.
But Nell could not be repressed so easily as that. “Clarissa is an unconscionable pinch-penny and nothing else,” she retorted. “There is no point whatsoever to this sort of economy. She cannot have feared you might be put to so much as a ha’penny’s expense for the extra sheet, because Crossways has not left Kent and, as you see, was there to frank this letter for her. So it is merely that Clarissa could not bear the pain of parting with a second sheet of her precious letter paper.”
“Well, perhaps she does carry her sense of economy a bit far sometimes,” Lady Agnes admitted reluctantly, “but—”
“At least she comes by such strong notions honestly enough,” Nell teased, hoping to stop the impending lecture before it began.
Lady Agnes stiffened, much like a raffled partridge. “If you mean by that impertinent remark to imply that your own mother is a nipfarthing, Eleanor Lindale, I’ll thank you to—”
“I would never say anything so improper, Mama,” Nell protested with a chuckle.
“Well, you certainly
not. Not that Kit has not said that very thing to me.”
“He never did! What a shocking bouncer, ma’am. To accuse your only son of such a thing. Kit would never speak so to you.”
“Well, it was by way of being the same thing, I’m sure. He said I had nip-farthing notions. You know he did,” Lady Agnes insisted indignantly. “And merely because dear Sir Henry and I do not choose to loosen the pursestrings at his every least whim.”
Nell remembered the incident in question clearly—her handsome young brother angry and frustrated; her mother indignant and full of righteous reason; her mother’s man of affairs volubly censorious. But although her eyes danced at the memory, she managed to preserve a tolerable gravity of countenance.
“To a gentleman of nineteen summers without a penny to bless himself, I daresay that the matter of a new shirt is something beyond a mere whim, dearest ma’am, and for you to suggest that your dressmaker might simply mend the lace and add new collars to his old shirts was hardly a notion destined to please him.”
“And why not, may I ask?” demanded her ladyship. “I daresay Millicent might even have added
lace—particularly if she was careful to use only goods unencumbered by that odious import duty—and the result would still have cost a deal less than it cost to allow that disgracefully expensive tailor of Kit’s to make an entire new shirt. I cannot approve of such extravagance.”
“No, ma’am, and how shocking that you should have been saddled with two such expensive offspring as Kit and myself, with nothing at hand to discharge the burden but that dreadful pittance Papa left for the purpose.” She said nothing about Lady Agnes’s reference to smuggled lace, of course, for smuggling had become so prevalent a fashion that most people felt they were losing some of the best opportunities that life had to offer if they did not acquire some duty-free goods. But Nell’s eyes were twinkling wickedly by now, and since they both knew to the farthing what a very comfortable independence Mr. Lindale had left to his widow, there was little Lady Agnes could say in reproof. She had recourse once again to her vinaigrette, instead.
“Kit did get his shirt, did he not?” she pointed out, albeit a trifle weakly. “Three of them, actually. I am persuaded I could not be so unnatural a parent as to wish to
my darling children the necessities of life.”
“No, indeed,” Nell agreed, adding irrepressibly, “Moreover, as I recall that particular incident, there was little else to be done once poor Kit showed you how his old shirts were quite bursting at the seams.”
“In a better world, one might expect one’s son to stop growing at a reasonable age,” Lady Agnes mused with a long sigh. Then she gave herself a small shake and added more firmly, “But there is nothing at all wrong in having a well ordered sense of economy, my dear. Though you may tease me and complain of dear Clarissa’s frugality, it would do you no harm to cultivate such careful habits yourself. No man wishes to take a spendthrift to wife.”
“Mama, for pity’s sake, I am no spendthrift. I am, however, five-and-twenty years old, so it is perfectly clear that no man wants me for his wife, spendthrift or not! I have been placed irretrievably upon the shelf, and well you know it.” She grinned again, easily stifling her annoyance that the subject had once again risen its head to plague her. “I shall spend my declining years being an expensive prop to my adorable, if overburdened, mama.”
“Fiddlesticks!” retorted Lady Agnes, ignoring provocation for once. “’Tis early days yet, my love, for well you know you’ve had little chance to find a suitable husband. I have forever been telling you these past two years that you should put yourself more in the way of meeting eligible gentlemen.”
Smiling, Nell shook her head. “I cannot think it would have done me the slightest good, ma’am. What self-respecting gentleman would give me a second glance in a roomful of blushing, seventeen-year-old debutantes?”
“Nonsense,” objected her ladyship stoutly. “’Tis not as if you are ill-favored, my dear. You were quite the prettiest girl in London or Brighton the year you made your come-out.”
“Ah, but shy and inarticulate in company, ma’am, so I didn’t take. And there was never a second chance.”