Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance) (10 page)

BOOK: Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance)
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The other man gave him a look of “have it your way” and changed the subject.
When he later attended a
conversazione
at the home of Lady Ellerton, a member of the London Literary League, he found a warm reception for himself, but a mixed reaction to his essay.
“Maria Edgeworth is here this evening,” his hostess told him with a sly look. Lady Ellerton, Thorne surmised, was one of those women who saw controversy among others as something of a spectator sport.
“Is she? I should like to meet her,” he said in an even tone and glanced around the room. He observed another of those London drawing rooms overly decorated in the Egyptian style. What is it with rich Englishmen and the craze for all things Egyptian, he wondered silently. Small groups of people stood or sat here and there conversing, some quietly, some more animatedly. Only when he spotted her talking with two scholarly-looking gentlemen, did he realize he had been searching for Annabelle. She caught him looking at her and gave him the barest little smile of recognition.
His request to meet Mrs. Edgeworth was no sooner made than fulfilled, and he found himself taking the hand offered by a woman who reminded him of his Aunt Dorothy. Mrs. Edgeworth was of an age with his aunt and her eyes twinkled with that same gleam of intelligent good humor as his aunt’s did.
Seeing that his meeting with Maria Edgeworth was attracting a good deal of attention in the rest of the room, Thorne thought merely to exchange polite formalities with her and move on. However, she detained him.
“You know, Rolsbury, there are those who would have us lady writers ignore you—give you the cut direct, as it were.”
“Ah. And are you of such a mind, madam?”
“Not at all. I came here this evening specifically because I thought you might be here.”
“Is that so?” He was surprised that this should be so—and that she would own up to it so frankly. He took the empty chair next to her when she gestured to it rather peremptorily. She had been talking previously with another lady on her other side. Two gentlemen who had been passing the time of day with Mrs. Edgeworth and her companion hovered nearby.
“Yes,” she answered. “I wanted to meet the young fellow who has set himself up as such an expert on women’s writing.” Her tone was challenging, but not aggressive.
“I laid no claim to expertise in the piece I wrote,” Thorne argued. “I merely made what I thought to be a scientific, though admittedly limited, study and then I wrote up my findings.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, is that all?”
“That is all I
intended.”
He noticed that several others had drifted over to listen to their discourse. Among these was Annabelle Richardson.
“Well, the truth of the matter, young man, is that you were quite right much of the time. A trifle offensive in the telling, mind you, but on the mark, mostly.”
“Thank you, madam. I appreciate your saying as much.”
She nodded and went on. “You were right in saying that Mrs. Radcliffe sometimes exaggerates her settings, but we get so caught up in the intrigues of her tales that we overlook her flaws.”
“I suppose we do,” he agreed.
“Perhaps you should have said as much.” It was a reprimand, albeit a gentle one.
“Well ...” He struggled for a polite response, but she did not wait for it.
“And you were quite right about my work. I freely acknowledge that plotting is the weakest aspect of my work. As you and my friend, Sir Walter Scott, have pointed out—I do concentrate most on presenting my Irish characters in a sympathetic light.”
He regained his voice. “How gracious of you to say so, madam.”
Others in their little group murmured, “Hear. Hear.”
“However,” Maria Edgeworth continued, “you were especially harsh on Miss Bennet, were you not?”
He looked up to see an enigmatic expression cross Annabelle’s pretty face. Then it was replaced with a bland look of polite interest.
“No. Not really,” he answered. “Her earlier works
are
better than her feeble foray into satire.”
He thought he heard someone gasp at this.
“Oh, I quite agree with you on that point,” Mrs. Edgeworth said. “Again, I think it more a matter of the
tone
you adopted in writing of her work. But, then, I gather you had particular reason to take that tone with her?”
Had
he allowed his personal antipathy to so color his own work? “I should like to think I was fair to all the works I reviewed.” He knew he sounded a bit stiff.
“I am sure you tried to be,” Mrs. Edgeworth responded, her tone kind. She looked up and caught sight of a newcomer. “Oh! Sir Walter, you must meet this young man.”
She introduced Thorne to Sir Walter Scott. Dressed adequately, though not in the first stare of fashion, Scott was of an age with Mrs. Edgeworth. It was readily apparent to Thorne that these two were, indeed, friends of long standing. He was somewhat amused at the way Scott focused the conversation on his own works. After awhile, Thorne excused himself and drifted from group to group. Then he saw that Annabelle seemed momentarily alone and he crossed the room to join her.
“Good evening, Annabelle.”
“Thorne.” She dipped her head to acknowledge his greeting.
She was dressed in a lavender creation with white lace trim. The gown had a wide neckline and elbow-length sleeves.
“You are looking very fetching this evening,” he said.
“Why, thank you.”
He liked the fact that she was not coy or self-effacing in response to his compliment. If it occurred to him that he often found things to like in Miss Richardson, he quickly thrust that idea aside.
“Did you agree with Mrs. Edgeworth?” he asked.
Annabelle gave him an inquiring look. “On what point? She made several, I think.”
“That I was too harsh in my assessment of Miss Bennet’s work.”
“I ... uh ... I am not sure.”
“Perhaps you have not read my review. ’Twas rather self-centered of me to assume you had done so.”
She gave a short little laugh. “I read it. I think all London has read it.”
“Well? What did
you
think?” He was not sure why, but her answer was very important to him.
“I ... I thought it was well-written.” She sounded hesitant. Surely, he thought, she was not afraid to be honest with him?
“But . . . ? You do not sound overly confident in that opinion.”
“I am
very
confident of that opinion,” she said decisively. “You have a clear, readable writing style.”
He snorted. “As do most of the nation’s schoolboys. But what of the
content?
What did you think of the substance of the review?”
“Well, as you probably know from our previous discussions, I found your views of Miss Austen’s work brilliantly
apropos.
They so precisely paralleled my own, you see.” Her smile caused a stirring sensation in his nether regions.
He returned her smile, his gaze holding hers. “Just so. And Miss Bennet’s work? You did not answer my question. Do you agree with Mrs. Egeworth that I was too severe with her?”
The smile left her eyes and she seemed to be groping for words. “I . . . I think your motivation may have been more . . . more personal with the Bennet works.”
“I
tried
to treat her in the same vein as all the others.”
“By referring to her as a
coward?”
There was an undertone of bitterness in her challenge that he did not understand.
“I did not say she was a coward—merely that she behaved in a cowardly fashion in launching invective from behind a barrier of anonymity.”
“Now you are splitting hairs, my lord.”
“Perhaps I am. I simply find it easier to respect people who are honest and straightforward.”
“And perhaps,” she replied in a rather caustic tone, a parody of his own tone with the word
perhaps,
“you have never bothered to consider what it demands of one to be known as a ‘lady scribbler’ as most men would describe women who choose to express themselves that way.”
Irritated by her condescending tone, he said, “Why do you defend her? She made you, too, an object of ridicule.”
“Only indirectly.”
“Still, her failure to own up to her work is not exactly what anyone could call an act of integrity.”
“Perhaps she has good reason to remain anonymous. Even your precious Miss Austen was not known as a writer until after her death.”
“That was different. She was a shy country woman. Emma Bennet is a sophisticated member of the ton. I would stake my life on it.”
“Let us hope you will not have to do so,” she said. “Now, if you will excuse me, Lord Rolsbury, I see that Harriet and Aunt Gertrude wish to leave.”
Thorne fumed all the way home. She had as much as accused him of insensitivity. He was certain now that she knew the Bennet woman.
And at what point had he suddenly become “Lord Rolsbury” again?
That
irritated him, too.
Nine
The encounter with Thorne at the meeting of the Literary League had Annabelle in a dither. His comments about Emma Bennet had unnerved her, unleashing impotent fury.
Rolsbury’s questioning Emma Bennet’s integrity—or lack of it—was especially galling. That dratted man knew nothing—nothing, mind you—of the struggles women faced as writers. His mere gender made it easier for him, and his title had automatically assured that his works would be accepted for publication. She remembered well her own struggle to get someone in the publishing world to
look
at her work. Even then, it had been at least partly through the intervention of Aunt Gertrude that Mr. Murray had agreed to consider it.
She often wondered what would have happened without Aunt Gertrude. But then she would answer that question herself—she would still write. For Annabelle, writing ranked right up there with breathing as a necessity of life. Having her work published and appreciated by others was mere frosting on her literary cake.
“I saw you talking with Lord Rolsbury,” Harriet said in the carriage after they had dropped Lady Hermiston at her own residence.
“Yes. He was reading me a lecture on cowardice and integrity.”
“He was
what?
” Harriet’s voice rose in surprised outrage.
“Not directly, you understand. He was merely explaining to me that Emma Bennet behaved in a very reprehensible manner.”
“He is
still
chafing over that story, is he?”
Annabelle answered slowly, thinking as she spoke. “I am not so sure. To some extent—yes. But I think it goes to a deeper aspect of his own character. Something in him deplores deceit and chicanery.”
“Is that so unusual? When was the last time you met someone who openly embraced those traits?”
Annabelle chuckled at this. “You have a point. But Th—Lord Rolsbury’s sense of integrity is rather rigid, I think.”
“He is stiff-necked, you mean.”
“Not exactly. He has quite a marvelous sense of humor. And he relates well to the plight of those who have not the advantages chance has bestowed on certain of us.”
Harriet sat silent for a moment, then spoke slowly. “Annabelle, my dear, are you developing a
tendre
for Thorne Wainwright?”
Annabelle’s response was quick. “No! Of course not. That would be the height of foolishness on my part.”
“Why? He seems a perfectly eligible
parti
to me. And quite a number of debutantes and their mamas seemed to agree this Season, for all that he could not literally dance attendance on them.”
Annabelle recalled her dance in the garden with him and a kiss that cast everything else into oblivion. No. It would never do. Aloud, she said, “It ... it would not be feasible. He ... he despises Emma Bennet. And my work is very important to me.”
“I am not sure he does despise Miss Bennet so much,” Harriet said.
“What do you mean?”
“I reread the piece in the
Review.”
“And . . . ?”
“He admired your earlier works. Mind you, he did so grudgingly. I think perhaps he
wanted
to hate them.”
“Oh, Harriet, you are too generous by half. The man simply cannot get beyond the fact that Emma Bennet held him up to ridicule.”
“He might be able to get beyond that—were he not frustrated by the fact that his adversary is such an unknown.”
“What are you suggesting? That I reveal myself as the infamous Miss Bennet?”
“I do not know . . . it might clear the air and allow you to start over with him if you were to do so.”
“Harriet!
You
were the one who insisted I write under a pseudonym. Remember?”
“Yes, but that was when you were still a schoolgirl. It would not have done to have you labeled a bluestocking—or worse—before you even had your first Season.”
Annabelle gave a ladylike snort. “Do you think it will ‘do’ now?”
“You are very nearly of age now. What would be frowned on in a young miss just making her come-out will be tolerated—it might even be celebrated—in a woman who is of age.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Annabelle mused. “All this secrecy and dissembling is not very comfortable.”
“Because it is not in your nature.”
“However,” Annabelle went on, “I cannot see Lord Rolsbury welcoming such a revelation.”
“Well, think on it, dear. You need do nothing immediately,” Harriet said as they arrived at their own doorstep.
Over the next few days, Annabelle did “think on it.” She drove herself mad deciding first one way, then the other. She fancied scenes in which Thorne was taking Miss Bennet to task yet again and she dramatically revealed that
she
was Miss Bennet. She longed to put him in his place on that score.
Then her imagination would conjure the disgust and disdain she would see in his eyes, and she could not bring herself to do it. Perhaps he had the right of it after all. Emma Bennet might not be such a coward, but Annabelle Richardson certainly was!
 
 
The Wyndham entourage set out for Rolsbury Manor in Lincolnshire during the last week of July. The Season had been prolonged because of the coronation and now the social elite were leaving the city—like the proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship, Annabelle thought. The festivities surrounding the coronation had been spectacular—and exhausting.
As women were not party to the actual coronation, Annabelle and Harriet had merely observed the grand spectacle of the procession going into Westminster Abbey. Later, Annabelle, along with Marcus and Harriet, attended two balls to celebrate the occasion.
“Our new king certainly spared no expense on this ritual,” Harriet observed the next morning at a late breakfast.
Marcus looked up from his newspaper. “He has ever been one to enjoy spending the nation’s money.”
“Careful, dear. You begin to sound like a radical Whig,” his wife teased.
“Much as I hate to agree with
some
of those fellows, they do occasionally have the right of it.”
“They object to a coronation ceremony?” Annabelle asked.
“No. Only to the exorbitant expense of this one,” Marcus said.
Harriet spread honey on a slice of toast. “The king might have been more prudent in the planning, but he seems to be enjoying greater popularity than he did a year ago.”
“The people’s collective memory is a short one,” Marcus said. “But—not all of them have forgiven him for his attempt to be rid of his wife and his denying her all royal privileges.”
“There is a certain hypocrisy in a husband charging his wife with adultery even as he publicly enjoys the attentions of a long-time mistress,” Harriet said dryly.
“Just so, my dear.”
“Still,” Annabelle interjected, “there was a certain lack of dignity in the queen’s going around to all the Abbey doors, demanding to be let in when he had denied her entrance. I think people were embarrassed for her.”
“Well,” Harriet said in a note of closing the topic, “he has been in limbo for ten years with the duties of king, but without the title. Now he has the title in a very official way. We must hope for the best.”
“And work to divert the worst,” her husband added.
“Later, dear,” Harriet responded. “For now, we prepare to remove to Lincolnshire and then to Timberly. I will be so very glad to get home to Timberly.”
Summer with its heat and stench had invaded London, sending those who could afford to do so in pursuit of cooler, less odiferous sites. The city at this time of year was a breeding ground for pestilence. Many of the children of the
ton,
including the Wyndham heir the day before, had already been sent to the country. Most of the guests attending Rolsbury’s house party would go on afterward to their own country estates—or make prolonged visits with friends and relatives elsewhere—any—where but the city in late summer.
The Wyndham party would journey on to Timberly, the earl’s main property, for the remainder of the summer. The Earl of Wyndham annually hosted a grand harvest festival at Timberly. Annabelle knew that Marcus accepted the harvest celebration as a sacred duty. This duty had been curtailed only when the family were mourning the two previous earls, who had died within months of each other.
She also knew that several of Rolsbury’s guests had been invited to Timberly’s harvest festival and Marcus had invited both of the Wainwright brothers as well. Marcus had explained that he, like Rolsbury, planned to use his entertainment as a means of also furthering certain political measures that both men held dear. However, the Timberly affair was a good two months off. Meanwhile, she must see herself through the Rolsbury party unscathed.
The Wyndham group included Lady Hermiston as well as Marcus, Harriet, and Annabelle. What with personal servants and luggage, they required three coaches and, of course, coachmen and footmen who would provide protection from dangers offered travelers. After a blessedly uneventful journey of three days, they arrived at Rolsbury Manor early one afternoon.
Annabelle had surmised that the Manor house would be fairly large to support the number of guests known to have been invited. However, she was not prepared for the sheer size of the estate and its primary building. A gatehouse guarded the entrance as they turned off the public thoroughfare. They rode for another quarter of an hour on a pleasant, tree-shaded lane before reaching the house itself.
Built of gray stones quarried locally, the house was a full three stories with an attic above. Annabelle thought it probably sported a sizable basement as well. At first she thought the house was built on a giant U-shape with a sweeping driveway leading to the entrance in the deep middle of the U. Massive wings stood guard on either side of the entrance. Later she found this impression was only half right, for the rear of the house mirrored the front, making its design that of a giant H with a charming courtyard between the extended wings in the rear.
Most country houses seemed rather austere when one approached them and one’s first impression was likely to be of stone and glass. But this one had a profusion of potted shrubs and flowers as well as a sparkling fountain around which the driveway circled.
“ ’This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses.’ ” Annabelle murmured the quotation as a liveried footman handed her and Harriet from the carriage. Aunt Gertrude’s carriage was just behind; Marcus had chosen to ride beside their carriages most of this day.
Harriet laughed aloud but spoke softly so the servants would not hear as she and Annabelle stood on a wide expanse of stone steps, waiting for Aunt Gertrude and Marcus to join them. “I hope your quoting the ill-fated King Duncan on his visit to Macbeth’s castle is not a portent of some sort.”
“No. Duncan found his surroundings most pleasant. And so do I.” She thought a moment. “Though I suppose it is possible our host will want to be rid of me before our visit is over.”
Just then, even as Aunt Gertrude and Marcus joined them, their host appeared in the doorway to bid them welcome. He was dressed casually in buff-colored pantaloons, a forest green jacket, and shiny black Hessians. Unlike many dandies of the day, Lord Rolsbury, Annabelle thought, probably needed little padding in his coats. His appearance quite took her breath away. She knew her reaction was not merely surprise at his apparent eagerness to welcome them to his home.
“You have a lovely property here,” Harriet said. “I am quite anxious to see more of it.”
“Thank you, my lady. It shows to great advantage in this season.”
“I would venture a guess that that tree-lined drive is fairly spectacular in autumn,” Annabelle said.
He gave her an appreciative smile. “Yes, it is. Mind you, it is lovely in spring, too, when the leaves are just turning from gold to green. And there is a kind of stark beauty to them in winter. I shall be ever grateful to my great-grandfather for planting those trees!”
He ushered them into a generous entrance hall. Rather than the cold marble one found in so many entranceways, this one welcomed arrivals warmly with carved wood paneling and a slate floor. As they were shown to their rooms, Annabelle noted—and thoroughly approved—a generous use of wood throughout.
“His lordship chose this chamber for you, miss.” The housekeeper, a Mrs. Petry, gave Annabelle a speculative look as she opened the door.
“How very nice,” Annabelle murmured, dismissing the woman’s comment as polite chitchat. He had to assign each guest
some
room, after all.
Hers was a charming bedchamber on the second floor, decorated in blues, greens, and a soft yellow. She was delighted to find a dressing room that connected to a very modern bath. A bouquet of yellow roses sat on a table near the window.
When she had freshened up, she found a maid posted in the hall to show her down to the main drawing room on the floor below. There she found Celia and Letty and their husbands as well as two other couples. Annabelle recognized the gentlemen as members of Parliament.
Luke approached. “Welcome to Rolsbury Manor, Annabelle. May I get you something to eat or drink?” He gestured to a table laden with what appeared to be an elaborate tea. “We shall have a proper supper later, but we did not want our guests starving on their arrival.”
“I see little danger of that.” She looked around, but no, Thorne was not in attendance. She surmised that he might be receiving other guests.
Celia and Letty gave her quick hugs in greeting. “Had you any idea this would be so very grand?” Celia bubbled.
“I knew,” Letty said airily. “I was here once as a child. Rolsbury’s father was one of my father’s friends.”
“Is it as you remembered?” Celia asked.
“Not really. Everything seems refurbished. But tastefully so.”
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