Read The American Heiress Online
Authors: Daisy Goodwin
In order to ensure that the habit had the requisite smooth line, Cora could not wear her usual corset and stays. She wore a specially cut undergarment of chamois leather which she had to be sewn into so that no hooks or bumps would disfigure the unforgiving tailoring. Cora almost thanked her mother for the hours spent in the spine straightener when she saw how fine and upright she looked in her habit. Her chestnut hair had been pulled back into a high chignon, exposing the tender nape of her neck. As she adjusted the brim of her hat so that it tilted at just the right angle over her left eye, she felt quite equal to the day ahead. It was only when she pulled the veil down over her face to see whether she should stain her lips red as Mrs Wyndham had advised, ‘Just a spot of colour, dear, for snap,’ that she thought of her mother and the way the left half of her face was now shrouded in a gauzy white veil to conceal the devastation beneath. Cora knew that her mother would expect her to go in and submit herself for approval, but she hated the sight of her mother’s naked, maimed face before she had put on her veil. Of course her mother’s accident had not been her fault precisely, but she felt responsible nonetheless.
Cora reached for the cochineal stain and dabbed a little on her lips. That woman was right again, the splash of colour made all the difference. Cora had not liked the way that Mrs Wyndham had looked her over as if pricing horseflesh. She had felt ashamed when her mother had brought her in, ‘to introduce us to the right people’. She was almost sure that her mother had paid Mrs Wyndham for her services. Still, Mrs Wyndham had been right about the Busvine. The leather felt warm and soft against her skin. She bent forward, intoxicated with the freedom the habit gave her to touch her toes. As she straightened up, she found the loop on the left side of her habit, which allowed her to lift it up out of the way as she walked. The left side of the skirt was about three feet longer than the right so that her legs would be covered at all times as she rode side-saddle. The trick was to hold the excess fabric across the body with the right hand so that it looked like Grecian drapery. Cora fiddled with the material until she had achieved the desired effect.
Bertha looked on with impatience; she wanted Miss Cora out of here so that she could have some breakfast. Her stomach was rumbling and breakfast for the upper servants was served promptly at seven thirty at Sutton Veney.
There was a knock at the door and one of the housemaids walked in shyly.
‘If you please, miss, the master says that your horse is being brought round from the stables.’
‘Tell Lord Bridport I will be down directly.’ Cora turned to Bertha. ‘Can you tell Mother that Lord Bridport insisted that we leave promptly, which means I didn’t have time to visit her this morning.’
‘She won’t be happy, Miss Cora. You know how she likes to make sure you look the part.’
‘I know, I know, but I don’t have time to stand there while she picks over me. It is bad enough being sneered at by all those English ladies with their red hands and their small blue eyes looking at me as if I was a savage. I don’t need Mother telling me how her whole happiness depends on seeing me splendidly married.’ Cora picked up her ivory-handled crop and brandished it at her maid. Bertha looked at her wearily.
‘I’ll pass on the message to the Madam. What do you want to wear tonight?’
‘The pink mousseline from Madame Fromont, I think. It will make all those English hags green with envy. Shame I can’t wear the bill around my neck. I would like to see their faces when they realise that I can spend more on one dress than they spend on their clothes in a year. They’re all so dowdy, and yet they dare to look down their long dripping noses at me, even though they’re all desperate for me to marry one of their nambypamby sons.’ Cora brought the crop down on the bed with a thwack.
She smiled when she saw Lincoln waiting for her in the stable yard, twitching his head impatiently. A sixteen-hand grey stallion, Lincoln was the finest product of her father’s stables. Cora was not ready to admit that she might find a British horse to suit her, so she had brought her favourite hunters with her, walking them every day on the deck of the SS
, her father’s steam yacht. Lincoln’s breath condensed in a white cloud in the chill January morning. There had been a frost and the ground was white and hazy with mist. But the sun was beginning to break through and for the first time since she had come to England, miserable and guilty about her mother’s accident, Cora felt excited at the thought of the day to come. To ride as hard as she could, with no conversation to make or customs to observe, was an irresistible prospect. She felt as if she had taken off more than her corset. She felt unbound.
The Myddleton considered itself the finest hunt in the southwest. Lord Bridport, the Master, was stingy when it came to his house and children but stinted nothing on his beloved hounds. His mother had been one of the first society ladies to ride to hounds and the Myddleton was now as famous for its ‘Dianas’ as for the quality of the sport. Mrs Wyndham had looked Cora over in her drawing room in Mayfair and had declared, ‘The Myddleton for you, my dear. I think you will keep up.’
At the time Cora had not been quite sure of the older lady’s meaning, but now, as she rode up after Lord Bridport, she understood that the competition had already begun. So far her exposure to smart British womanhood had been restricted; Cora and her mother had arrived in London at the end of the season when all the people of fashion had left for the country, or else were lying low so as not to draw attention to the fact that they had no estates to go to. Lord Bridport’s wife and daughter were not in Cora’s view ‘smart’ even if they could trace their lineage back to the Conqueror. But here were women whose Busvine habits fitted as closely as her own. Her appearance did not cause the ripple of anticipation that always heralded her arrival anywhere in her native country. Not a single shining head turned in her direction as she followed Lord Bridport into the throng. Cora was not sure how she felt about this, to be anonymous was an unfamiliar sensation.
‘Ah Charlotte, may I introduce you to Miss Cash. Miss Cash, my niece by marriage, Lady Beauchamp.’
A blond head turned fractionally in her direction and gave her the faintest of nods.
‘And here is my nephew Odo. Miss Cora Cash – Sir Odo Beauchamp.’
Odo Beauchamp put even his wife’s elegant habit to shame. His pink coat and white breeches were immaculately tailored. His hair was as blond as his wife’s but her chignon was tight, while a suggestion of a curl had been allowed to escape over his collar.
He turned his wide face with its limpid blue eyes and flushed cheeks to Cora. ‘How do you do, Miss Cash. Is this your first time riding to hounds? I suspect you have wilder sport in your country.’
His voice was surprisingly high and light for such a big man, but it had an unmistakable edge. Cora replied in her most American drawl.
‘Oh, we hunt foxes at home right enough, but we find them pretty tame after the bears and the rattlesnakes.’
Odo Beauchamp lifted an eyebrow. ‘You American girls are so spirited, let’s hope you feel as plucky after a day with the Myddleton. That’s a very large animal you have there, I hope you can remount without help.’
‘Where I come from, Sir Odo, a lady would be ashamed of herself if she rode out on a horse she couldn’t manage herself.’ Cora smiled.
‘An Amazon, no less. Charlotte my angel, you must come and admire Miss Cash. She is quite the thing.’ Odo waved a gloved hand at his wife. The blond head turned; Cora got the impression of wide-set blue eyes and a certain hardness to the mouth. Her voice was unexpectedly deep for a woman.
‘Come, Odo, you mustn’t tease Miss Cash. You don’t want to spoil her first impressions of the Myddleton. It must be quite unlike anything you are used to, Miss Cash, although I know that American girls like nothing better than to give chase.’
Cora heard the sneer and narrowed her eyes. ‘Only when there is something worth pursuing,’ she replied.
Further hostilities were halted by the yelping of the hounds picking up the scent.
The huntsman blew his horn and the riders followed Lord Bridport as he cantered up after the hounds. Cora dug her heels into Lincoln’s side. He took off at a smooth pace, pushing his way to the front. He cleared the first hedgerow without hesitation, and Lord Bridport gave her an encouraging wave.
The hunting country of Virginia where Cora had learnt to ride was flat and open, but here the landscape was thicketed with fences and coverts. The pace was hard and Cora was soon breathless. But Lincoln was enjoying himself, he took fence after fence without even breaking his stride. He, at least, had no reservations about this unfamiliar terrain. The field began to thin out. Cora found herself alone at the front, until a substantial young man in a pink coat came alongside her.
‘Pleasure to watch you taking those fences. Lovely, quite lovely.’
Cora smiled but spurred her horse on. It wasn’t altogether clear from the young man’s tone whether his pleasure was directed at her or Lincoln and she didn’t care to find out. But her admirer kept his horse abreast of hers.
‘I’ve been hunting with the Myddleton since I was a nipper. Best pack in the country.’
Cora nodded in her most dismissive manner. The man in the pink coat was not be rebuffed, though.
‘Saw you from the off. There’s a girl with spirit, I thought. A girl who could appreciate a sportsman like myself. A girl who would like nothing better than to see what I have to offer.’ He caught Lincoln by the bridle and slowed the animals down to a walk. Cora began to protest but he shushed her and, holding her bridle tightly, took off one glove and began to roll back his sleeve. To her astonishment she saw that his hand and arm were covered by a detailed tattoo of the huntsmen, the riders and hounds of the Myddleton. The portly figure of Lord Bridport was unmistakably cantering up the man’s forearm. Cora could not help but laugh.
‘Fine piece of work, eh? Took three days and a quart of brandy. The work is remarkably detailed. Can’t see all of it myself of course, covers my whole back. Take a closer look if you like. Don’t be shy.’
‘I can appreciate the detail quite well from here, Mr…?’
‘Cannadine’s the name. Won’t you at least have a look at the fox? People tell me it is remarkably true to life.’
Mr Cannadine put the reins in his other hand and started to pull off the other glove. Cora could see the red nose of the fox peering out from the man’s sleeve.
‘I’m sure it is, Mr Cannadine, but perhaps some other time, I don’t want to lose the scent.’
Cannadine looked downcast. ‘Giving me the brush-off, eh? People say the fox is worthy of Landseer. Don’t show it to everyone, of course. But don’t often see a gel who can ride like you.’ He let go of Lincoln’s reins to put his glove back on and Cora took the opportunity to pick them up and pull the horse’s head up.
‘So nice to have met you, Mr Cannadine.’ And she dug her heels into Lincoln’s side so that the horse went straight into a canter. Cora heard Mr Cannadine shouting as he set off after her.
The hunt was approaching a spinney. Mr Cannadine veered left after the rest of the pack, so Cora took her chance and turned right. She had no desire to see any more of Mr Cannadine’s fox. If she went round the wood from the other side she would lose him.
It was a handsome beech wood, the trees were mostly bare but the lower branches were hung with mistletoe and ivy. A pheasant suddenly shot up in front of Lincoln. He stumbled and slowed. Cora let him walk for a while to check that no harm was done. She steered the horse into the wood itself, thinking she would catch up with the others faster. The air was quiet apart from Lincoln’s heavy snorting and the strange rattle of the leaves still clinging to the branches. And then she heard it: a low exclamation, somewhere between pain and pleasure. Was it animal or human? she wondered. Cora rode on a few paces and then she heard it again, louder this time and somehow thrilling. It was coming from a dense piece of undergrowth towards the centre of the wood. She could see green fronds of bracken and the handsome smooth trunk of a great beech tree. Without quite understanding why, Cora turned her horse towards the sound. It was more urgent now, then there was a sharp cry that made her start. It was a sound she recognised even if she had never heard it before. She should not be here, this was a private place. She tugged Lincoln’s reins, pulling his head sharply to the right and dug her heels into his flanks, desperate now to get away. The horse responded to her urgency and took off so swiftly that Cora had no time to avoid the low-lying branches coming towards her. The first knocked her hat off and the second struck her on the forehead and she knew no more.
The first thing she saw were the branches arching over her like a ribcage. Stunned by her fall, she sensed every detail sharply but she could not put them together. Bones and the smell of leaves and a hot wind blowing in her ear.
Wind? Cora turned her head. She realised she was lying on the ground. The breath tickling her cheek was from a horse, her horse, she fancied, who was pawing the ground impatiently, and snorting. The sound reminded Cora of something else, another noise she had heard but she could not place it. Her head felt muzzy, why was she lying on the ground? She saw a dark shape lying next to her. A bucket, or a chimney pot – no, it was a hat. Cora tried to raise her head but the effort was too much. She lay back and closed her eyes but at once opened them again. She must not sleep, there was something she had to remember. The horse whinnied. Something about a play, how did she enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln. Lincoln was the name of the horse, her horse. But why was she lying on the ground? What was the sound that was pushing against her consciousness? She couldn’t grasp it, it kept slipping out of reach. Other things were crowding in now – a crown of flames, a face she couldn’t see behind a veil, a kiss that was not a kiss, a half-glimpsed fox. And then a voice.