Captain Philip Cole curious looked around himself in the ballroom. By sheer luck he had managed to get a ticket -- they were usually not available to people nobody knew. He had Admiral Crester to thank. The admiral liked him; saw him as a possible match for his daughter, perhaps. Miss Crester, however, was not entirely his type, but knowing no one else he would probably dance with her. He hoped he would not be the only one on her dance card.
A blonde angel came into view. He stared -- much like any other man near him.
"I can arrange an introduction," whispered a woman near him.
"Can you?" He hoped he did not sound too eager. He supposed she belonged to the angel's party, probably a mother or other female relative. She was not attractively dressed enough to be in search of dancing partners herself. "But why would you, Madam?"
"She knows no one. You will overlook my impertinence, I am sure."
"Certainly," he assured her, not believing his luck. He had been hoping Miss Crester had some pretty friends to whom he could be introduced, but this was much better.
The woman gave him a little push towards a quieter area. The blonde angel headed there too.
"Madam," said Philip. "I did not quite catch the name of my benefactress."
"Oh, of course. Who else?" he said, although he had never heard of her before. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but lots of names did. He followed Mrs Whitby-Ross to a niche.
"May I introduce you to my niece, Miss Serena Cavendish?"
Philip hoped he said and did what was expected of him, although he was rather tongue-tied. Sailors did not often meet such beautiful creatures. They usually had to make do with the likes of Miss Crester.
Mrs Whitby-Ross remained with them, as a good chaperone ought. She directed the conversation when it slowed down, asking Philip about himself. Some of her questions gave him the idea that she had known who he was before she addressed him. It was puzzling, but if she allowed him to speak to Miss Cavendish he would not complain.
He told them he was in the Navy and that he had always sailed, but that his uncle had died two years previously and left him an estate in the north. He had only recently returned to the country and he was still acquainting himself with the latest fashions and habits before returning north.
Miss Cavendish herself was a veritable paragon. She was beautiful and sweet and she was reasonably well-informed. She knew enough not to appear stupid, but she was by no means a bluestocking. And she enjoyed dancing. He engaged her for two dances. She might like more, but Mrs Whitby-Ross watched with shrewd eyes.
Naturally he also had to dance with Miss Crester, a young lady as tall as himself with a face that reminded him of a horse. It was the teeth. Or the laugh. He could not decide. She even galloped on the dance floor, yet he suffered two dances. There was no point in waiting for anybody else. Miss Crester's friends were all unattractive. At least if he was dancing he could sometimes lock eyes with Miss Cavendish and assess the competition.
He did not know what he was up against. As far as he could tell, she danced with two other men only. But Admiral Crester came to find him too and introduced him to several gentlemen. Some of them had seen him dance with the beautiful Miss Cavendish and asked him how he knew her.
"Oh," he said. He had only just got into town and they knew it. He could not possibly know her. "Through a mutual friend." He wondered if he should offer to introduce them. On the one hand it would be another opportunity to speak to her, but on the other she might like them better. In the end he decided it was unfair of him and he introduced them to her. They were equally impressed, of course, and not much of sense was said.
It did not take Philip long to become a true suitor. Serena Cavendish lived with her aunt while she was in town. She had told him that at the ball and he had sent flowers and his card the day after. That was what he was in town for, after all. He had come to find a wife, although one could not tell marriageable young women so directly.
She might not realise it -- although Mrs Whitby-Ross unmistakably did -- but their house was almost next to his hotel. Hearing the address had caused his eyebrows to shoot up, but his manners had forbidden him to ask the chaperone if everything was intentional. Perhaps Mrs Whitby-Ross always obtained names and plans from the hotel staff. It was a clever scheme, if that was the case, but he took it in stride because it was so much to his advantage. And he would never think of these things when he saw Miss Cavendish in any case, so he could not question her.
The next morning he saw her in the park across the street. "Thank you for the flowers," she said, which was a good sign: she remembered him. "It was very kind."
They strolled around and discussed the ball and balls in general. He had been to enough of them to be able to dance, but he was by no means a true proficient.
"Really?" asked Miss Cavendish. "I thought you danced very well."
"I know nothing of the newer dances."
"Ah, well..." She shot a glance over her shoulder, where her chaperone followed them, hiding behind her umbrella but undoubtedly listening. "I doubt I am allowed to dance any very modern dances. I heard there are some very scandalous ones among them. My papa and mama would not like it."
"Is that so?" Philip had no idea. "It is not something we keep up with on board. But how would your father know which dances you danced?"
"My aunt Whitby would tell him," she said in a low voice.
"Oh yes, I would," came the reply from behind them. "I write daily reports."
"Do you?" Miss Cavendish seemed shocked.
"I cannot tell one viscount from another otherwise."
"Do you often walk here?" asked Philip. He did not want to speak about viscounts.
"Yes, usually around ten. Later in the day we have too much to do."
Philip made a mental note to be there again the next morning.
He did not only stay in his hotel, but looked around town for a bit, never having been there for very long. He also bought a few useful books he was sure could not be got at home. At a club he spotted a few naval officers he knew, which was a pleasant surprise. They promised to call on him at his hotel, although they too were visitors to this town.
There were so many people here, yet so few that he knew. He had never felt this way abroad, but that had been abroad and this was supposed to be home.
When he had been to some sights and crossed through a large park, movements a few hundred yards away caught his attention. A woman was bent over a child while another child was pulling at her bonnet. It came loose and the child ran off. Immediately the other child set of in hot pursuit, squealing, all in Philip's direction. The woman did too, but her hairdo did not hold up and she had to pause to gather hairpins from the ground.
The first child now approached Philip and he caught the little hooligan, despite the fact that everyone else had let him pass. It was a well-dressed child, but obviously not well-mannered. "Your mama should box your ears," he said to the boy.
"My mama loves me. She never boxes my ears," said the hooligan confidently.
That explained it. "She should. It might make you behave."
"Or it might not. Will you please let go of me, sir? She is fast approaching."
She was indeed -- at a speed that made Philip think she did this at least once a day -- but she was after hooligan number two, who seemed to be poking in a pile of what looked like dog excrements. Number two appeared to be the smaller child and even less inclined to do as his mother liked. When he saw her, he ran off. She followed, her long hair flowing.
Philip wondered what to do with the other boy, so he released him. The woman did not seem distressed by what was very likely very ordinary behaviour for these boys. She had given him a nod of thanks in passing, but that was all. "Will you give your mother her bonnet?"
"Certainly," said the impertinent little devil. "It looks very silly on me." And he laughed.
The other child had been caught and it had not got his ears boxed either. But since it looked inclined to behave now, Philip walked on. After a few minutes he looked back and the three were walking sedately. The bonnet seemed to be back on.
He shook his head. He felt he had done a good deed, but perhaps it had not been necessary. It would be nice, however, to see Miss Cavendish run through a park with her hair like that. Very nice. He wondered if she was capable of disciplining her children. Probably not. She was rather sweet. But perhaps she was so sweet that her children would not want to cause her any distress. Yes.
Philip wondered if he was in love with her. Bewitched, certainly.
When he got to his room he reviewed the day. It had been tolerably well-spent. He could almost get about without a map and he had spoken to a few people. Would his mother consider this news? Probably, so he wrote her a letter. He mentioned Miss Cavendish, even if his mother might make more of it than there was to it. She would want to know if he had serious intentions. He had never bothered her with accounts of pretty women overseas. She would only have thought he had bedded every single one of them.
And he contemplated writing to his sister in Oxford that he was putting off his visit to her for a week or two. She might not like that; she had a handful of children, half of whom he had never seen. They might well be little hooligans like the ones in the park, with a worn-out mother -- although the mother he had seen had not been worn-out. She had been happy.
But if he ever wanted some of those little fellows for himself, he should devote some time to it. Yes, he wanted some, naughty boys chased by a happy mother -- perhaps fair-haired instead of dark -- who loved them.
At first he only saw Miss Cavendish in the park across the street. And after a few days Mrs Whitby-Ross allowed him to come to tea.
Serena's parents resided in Kent and this was her third season. It was amazing that she had not become engaged to anybody so far. She was twenty-one and her father owned a modest estate. As modest as his own, he imagined, or perhaps they were both very modest people.
Of course she had been sent to London to make a brilliant match. Philip did not know if he was one, nor if he was her only suitor. Serena did not tell him about any other admirers, but he did not trust the calculating Mrs Whitby-Ross very much in that regard. She had a knack for innocently mentioning their acquaintance to viscounts just when he felt comfortable.
And she would of course never leave them alone for more than a minute.
In the meantime he was regretting that he had only reserved a fortnight for his stay in town. It took him at least that time to come by invitations, let alone pursue girls. Even Admiral Crester had only invited him once.
Miss Crester, he had to admit, appeared less of a horse this time. A pony, perhaps. But at least she had replied somewhat intelligently. She never looked at him as adoringly -- or so he imagined -- as Miss Cavendish did with her large blue eyes.
It made him think Miss Cavendish liked him. And then it made him wonder what he was going to do about that other than call on her every day. Besides look adoringly she did very little. She was extremely proper and looked alarmed every time her aunt left them, as brief as that always was.
He did not have any previous experience in searching for a woman to marry; he had always been busy. Any business he had had ashore had always been conducted in a week or two. It was no wonder that he had thought that a fortnight was enough to find someone he liked, but he had not counted on the lack of speed in town. Most of the time people were unavailable. This was very frustrating to someone who had no other purpose in town.
He mentioned something in that vein to Mrs Crester when she asked if he had made a large acquaintance yet.
"That is true for those of us who live here, I suppose," she said. "We have our daily business to take care of. It all goes on."
"Yes, that makes sense." The running of his ship had never stopped if he took some leave, and the same was now true for his estate. "But it is nevertheless frustrating."
"Who do you know?"
"The admiral, of course, and some gentlemen to whom I was introduced at the ball..." He paused.
"No ladies? The most important thing of all?"
He smiled. "Very few. You and Miss Crester, naturally, and Mrs Whitby-Ross and her niece, Miss Cavendish. And then a Miss Johnson and Miss Galloway, but I hardly think they remember me. I certainly hardly remember them." They were Miss Crester's friends and he had not exchanged many words with them.
"Miss Cavendish is said to be a beauty."
Philip acknowledged it as indifferently as possible.
"Mrs Whitby-Ross I do not know personally. I think Mrs Taylor knows her. Do you not, Emma?" she called to an older woman.
"Do I? What are you asking?"
"You are acquainted with Mrs Whitby-Ross, I believe. The aunt of Miss Cavendish."
"Oh!" Mrs Taylor wandered over with a meaningful look. "Yes, a little. I saw her this morning. She is assisting her niece, which is very nice of her, even though she is one of those reading people. I always tell her she is too strict, but it is such a beauty."
"Is she very strict? If half the town has heard of the girl, she does get about."
"The girl could have had a viscount, but she did not like that he had a mistress. I do not know who told them. Well, it is one thing or the other, I said to Selena."
"A mistress," said Mrs Crester. "Now I should not like that much either. It is not as if Miss Cavendish will never have another offer if she refuses the viscount."
"It is her third season. I do not know." Mrs Taylor evidently believed it should not be taking that long to marry off a beauty.
"Beautiful girls can afford to be particular, I suppose," said Philip. At the same time he wondered what he had that could interest a beautiful girl who had already refused one titled gentleman. He had no title, a fortune that was not spectacular, and only slightly above average looks.
"Are you not particular, Captain?" asked Mrs Crester.
Perhaps she referred to her own daughter. He did not know what to reply. Miss Crester would not top his list, that was true. Her mother did not seem to mind. It was rather refreshing.
"Surely you can afford to be," she smiled.
"I have not yet been able to make a proper assessment of my attractions," he replied cautiously. "There are certainly a lot more titled fellows about than in Edinburgh, where I last attended balls. Captains were quite something there; here they are nothing."
"So you are particular," she deduced. "Because you did not find a wife there."
"Did I say I was looking?"
"Oh, you would not mind if you found one. That is nearly the same."
Something occurred to him. "If this is her third season, how could she possibly not know anybody by now?" That was what Mrs Whitby-Ross had said to him at the ball. She knows no one. Apparently that was not true.
"Does she not? Of course she does."
"Mrs Whitby-Ross said she knew no one."
"Odd," said Mrs Taylor. "But then, she is quite mysterious at times. Perhaps she did not count all the gentlemen Miss Cavendish has already dismissed?"
During his call on Miss Cavendish he tried to figure out if she was being kept on a tight leash. If many people knew her name, she was at least shown to many, even if she might not have talked to many.
"I met a Mrs Taylor last night. She was acquainted with you, she said."
"We saw her yesterday too," said Miss Cavendish. "What a coincidence."
"I feel I am finally beginning to know the town a little," Philip confessed. "Finding people who have at least heard of others I know."
"It must be quite lonely," Miss Cavendish said sympathetically, but she did not say she was lonely herself. Apparently she was not. "You do not even have an aunt or anything."
"Not in London, no. As far as I know," he added, in case they would prove him wrong. "I am not aware of where they are exactly at this moment. I must have at least fifteen aunts."
"Dear me. I wonder that not one of them took it upon herself to introduce you into the right circles in town upon your return," commented Mrs Whitby-Ross. "Aunts love these things."
"Perhaps --" But Miss Cavendish looked embarrassed and did not finish the thought.
Philip could -- if she meant that some of his aunts might need introductions into those circles themselves first. He did not blame her for the thought, considering he had just said he had fifteen aunts and quite logically not all of those could belong to the first circles. "Some could, some could not. However, they have not seen me for an age and I did not inform them of my intentions. Only my parents know. And my sister, for I just sent her a letter."
"And what are your intentions precisely?" asked Mrs Whitby-Ross. She sounded interested.
"Oh, my intention of going to London. I do not have specific intentions in London." He hoped he said that smoothly enough. Young men without intentions did not go calling on young ladies. They greeted them, stopped for a polite chat and left it at that. It did not really convince her, he saw, for she laughed.
"You must not always suspect people of having intentions, Aunt," said Miss Cavendish.
"My dear Serena, that is because in London everybody has intentions of some kind."
"I never quite know what to make of captains," Mrs Whitby-Ross said to him cheerfully as she personally escorted him towards the door after his first visit to their house.
"Would you like to make sure I really leave?" he inquired. Her cheerfulness was artificial. She was undoubtedly pleased he left, but she needed not make conversation.
"Of course. A captain once did not."
"He did not?" Philip wondered how and why. It was pretty difficult to be a stowaway in a house, what with servants and everything. They showed one to the door, usually, and then closed it behind one. And if there were no servants, there was the lady of the house doing it.
She shook her white-capped head. "He hid until night time. Then he tried for Serena's room and came into mine."
Philip looked rather horrified and he was more curious than he ought to be. This was absolutely scandalous and he should not be wondering or asking what had happened in a lady's bedroom. He was glad Serena had been safe, however. That was all he should think, but he could not resist. "And then..."
"I let him proceed somewhat. Full of himself, he was! He did not think it at all suspicious that she did not scream. He expected her to be excited and ready to go along with his plans."
From her contemptuous tone he deduced the captain had met with little success or approbation -- and that any other gentleman attempting the same would fail too. "Did you not reveal yourself instantly?"
"La!" She clicked her tongue. "Where is the fun in that? Not instantly."
Philip had too many questions. He realised he had never met Mr Whitby-Ross; he had never even devoted a second's thought to the man. Perhaps he was out all day or he had not come to town with his wife, but he might have been there at that moment. "Surely your husband did not allow any transgressions to take place?"
"Ha!" She was lost in some amusing thought. "That would have been something, but I am perfectly capable of solving such situations by myself. In this case it was very easy. He ran."
Philip ran too. He did not even want to ask why she had lied to him at the ball, because she must have lied for some reason. One would assume she knew enough people to help Serena to suitors without having to resort to this, but word of the aunt's peculiarity might spread as quickly as word of the niece's beauty.
He wondered if she had made up the anecdote for some reason. To test him, perhaps. It could not be true, because how could one stay and where would one hide? He wondered if he had passed the test by saying nothing. Suppose he had indignantly condemned the man and she had mocked him because it could never happen? Or suppose he had been indifferent and she had believed he would do the same?
As it was, he had no opinion on the matter. Knowing Miss Cavendish, he would not attempt it himself. She would not be excited by the action. He wondered if she would even understand its purpose.
Then he found he had left his pocketbook in their house. He had taken it from his pocket and apparently not put it back. That was really quite stupid of him, for now he would have to go back.
Reluctantly he rang the bell, fearing Mrs Whitby-Ross would assume he came to give a belated response to her anecdote, or perhaps hide himself in the house to see if it could be done. He only saw a manservant, fortunately, but the man did not know if his pocketbook had been found. He was let in to have a look.
Miss Cavendish was no longer in the room, but Mrs Whitby-Ross appeared in an instant. "To keep an eye on you," she said. "Serena is out in any case."
"My pocketbook," he said with a blush. He did not know if Serena was truly out; he had been gone for a minute or two only and she must have run in the other direction. Clearly he was not allowed to see her again, but that was not what he had come for. "I am sure I left it here." But it was nowhere to be seen.
"You could have left it deliberately." She walked to a cabinet and opened a drawer, taking out his pocketbook. "Not much surprises me. Are you in love with Serena?"
His blush deepened. "I cannot say. Thank you for hiding my pocketbook." He supposed he ought to be thankful, at any rate.
"Prying eyes in the household." She shrugged. "Why can you not say? You would be surprised at the number of gentlemen who can."
He shrugged too. He might have been able to say something of the sort at the ball, had he been with friends. Who knows why other men said the words and when they meant them?
"I have no objections to the match, if you are as simple as you appear."
Philip had never been called simple, as far as he remembered. He was slightly offended, although he was apparently approved. "Do I appear a simpleton?"
"No, simple. Easy to read. Innocent. Not devious."
"Unlike yourself, Madam," he shot back. He was not sure her assessment was correct, but his certainly was.
"Indeed. However, I am not sure of your simplicity."
"I have a great fascination for rakes, but I do not think they make very good husbands and I am not prepared to sacrifice my niece's happiness to see if she can reform one. Even though there are novels on the subject."
Philip had been studying a painting, feigning disinterest. On no account had he wanted to appear chastised -- or even simple. Men who looked away mysteriously were more complicated. He looked back now. "Novels?" He had no idea where this came into things.
She was a little insane. Clearly. "I do not read novels," he replied and then a thought occurred to him. "Was the other captain perhaps a character from a novel?"
She gave a nod, her eyes shining appreciatively. "A Rake Reformed."
He was not sure she approved of the reformed rake or of his insight. "Well, thank you for keeping my pocketbook safe."
"But that does not mean it never happened."
He did not want to ask.
Outside he ran into Mrs Taylor, who was carrying a huge parcel. She was not accompanied by a servant and seemed to be struggling. He did the gentlemanly thing and offered his assistance to an elderly lady.
"Thank you," she said gratefully. "It was my own fault, of course. They said in the shop that someone would carry it for me if I waited half an hour, but I was too impatient. You are a nice young man for helping me."
"Have you got far to go?" he asked, rather than acknowledge the fact that he was a nice young man indeed.
"Oh, just around the corner. Not very far. The shop is just behind us there, on that corner. Next time I shall take a servant, but I had no idea they would put it in such a big box!"
"At least it is not a heavy box." He had no idea what sort of shop was behind them. He had not noticed one there so far.
"No, no," she said struggling to keep up with his pace. "It is only a hat."
"A hat?" Involuntarily he stopped and looked at the box he was holding. "For a human being?"
"Indeed! You would think it could fit in a smaller box. One does not need to give the feathers so much room."
"Oh, a few."
Philip chuckled. He hoped he would be spared the sight of a woman of Mrs Taylor's age with a huge hat with tall feathers on it. They rounded the corner and came onto a very long street. He hoped she did not live at the very end of it, although he had little else to do.
"Had you been to see Miss Cavendish again?" she inquired with a knowing little chuckle.
"Yes, Madam. I had forgotten something and had to go back. I do not think Mrs Whitby-Ross was very pleased."
"Oh, I do not know. She seems generally very pleased with all manner of strange things. I should not worry about it very much."
"All manner of strange things!" Philip repeated. "Never a truer thing was said, I believe!"
"But do not worry. Miss Serena is a sweet girl."
The next day he tried bringing certain matters up with Miss Cavendish, but it was difficult if the chaperone was always there and it was also difficult when he had no idea if Miss Cavendish cared about him. "I am thinking I should perhaps prolong my stay," he remarked.
"Oh!" said Miss Cavendish.
That was not as encouraging as he would have liked, but of course she was very proper. "I was thinking I have not yet seen enough of London. I live rather far away. It is not convenient to come here very often." He hoped she would not think he only wanted to stay for the town itself, but he could hardly say he wanted to see more of her.
"Oh, yes. You mentioned. I looked it up, but I could not find it on the map."
He was gratified by that show of interest. She had thought of him while he was gone. "I do not suppose it is on any map. It is too small."
"It is," Mrs Whitby-Ross said disinterestedly, removing her ring and putting it back on again, "near the Scottish border."
"Yes, I mentioned that, I think?" Philip could not be sure. He also held imagined conversations with Miss Cavendish when he was alone. "But people in the south think everything up north is near the Scottish border."
"Indeed. Which is why maps tend to throw them for a loop."
He did not understand her. Perhaps she meant to imply that Miss Cavendish had been looking in the wrong place. Which could not be, because she was not stupid. "Can you find Edinburgh on the map?" he asked her.
"Certainly. It is in Scotland, is it not? I should just look all over Scotland till I found it. Scotland is not that far, is it? People go there to elope all the time."
"All the time," Philip agreed. "You have no idea how many I met on my journey south."
Her eyes were wide. "How many?"
He smiled. "How many do you know who go there?"
"None personally. I cannot imagine doing such a thing. I have only been told that people do such things."
"Yes, it is not a myth," he said. "If you take a wrong turn somewhere, you end up in my village. A surprising number actually manage to do so and then go to the local shop owners to see if they can be married."
Mrs Whitby-Ross left the room because she had a coughing fit. Philip seized his chance. He lowered his voice just to be safe. She might be listening at the door, despite being a lady. "Your aunt is a bit strange, is she not?"
This was news to her. "Is she?"
"Is she always speaking the truth?"
"Always," Miss Cavendish declared solemnly.
"She never, say, makes things up for fun?"
"Why should she?" She did not have the habit herself and she could not imagine another having it either.
"Never mind," said Philip. "Will you play a little for me?"
Miss Cavendish had played and he had enjoyed it very much. She played well and he had been particularly fascinated by the way her fingers flew over the keys. Her aunt had given them some time alone, so Philip had been able to stare as much as he liked. He had been wondering if Miss Cavendish was any different if her aunt was away, but that did not seem to be the case. She did not suddenly act flirtatious.
"You play very well," he said. "I enjoyed it."
She blushed. "Thank you. I practise often when my aunt is busy."
"Yesterday I had forgotten my pocketbook and you were out." He still assumed she had simply been unavailable. She had not been playing, at any rate. "Do you often go out?"
"I have to run a few errands now and then. Yesterday I went somewhere, to the circulating library, actually." She spoke as if it was something to be ashamed of. "I would buy books, but my father will not pay for sending them home."
"He thinks novels will corrupt the younger children."
"It seems to me that buying novels is about equal to borrowing them, so I should not be too embarrassed about the library," Philip said encouragingly. "Your father sounds quite strict."
"He is not too bad. He merely thinks novels are silly."
That was possible, of course, and her father was probably correct. There were ways around this problem, however. "And your aunt would not keep the novels for you until you marry?"
Miss Cavendish looked as if that idea had never occurred to her. "Oh!"
"I think she reads novels, too. She cannot think them silly."
"I suppose not," she said and brightened up a little.
"Is your father a clergyman?"
"How did you guess?" She was genuinely surprised.
"Well, he could not be a writer of novels and he is not a sailor, so he had to be something else and clergymen favour less frivolous reading material, on the whole."
"Right, very clever of you."
He did like how admiringly she gazed at him, but something was nagging at him. He put that feeling aside, however. "And how many brothers and sisters do you have?" He expected a dozen. Clergymen rarely settled for less.
"Oh, we are only eight."
"Only eight. We are only three. Are you the eldest, or have others been sent to town before you?"
"I have a brother in the army who is older. He is not married."
So for the past three seasons her aunt had only had to look after Serena, but if any of the younger children were girls she would have to hurry or she would have two on her hands. He asked her about their names and ages and in turn told her about his own sisters.
Philip did not know why he did it exactly, but after he had visited he strolled to the shopping streets and bought a copy of A Rake Reformed by Mrs Carlisle. It was the only title of a book recently mentioned to him and he needed something to while away the evening. He expected that it would, indeed, only take him an evening to get through it, perhaps not even that.
He was glad he had a bottle to fortify himself during his read, because when he paused halfway the beautiful heroine Cecilia had long been grating on his nerves. The rakish captain had tried to have his way with her at least five times, but Cecilia had only employed prayer and moralising lectures to thwart him. Surprisingly she had come away with her virtue intact every time so far.
Philip suspected the captain of playing a game, really, because nobody would manage to drag a girl to the cellar, attic or stables or wherever a few times and then not get beyond her chemise. Although there was progression: he leafed back and checked -- yes, the first time the captain had only managed to get a glove off and now he was down to tugging at her chemise.
And perhaps Cecilia too was playing a game, because she was most definitely in possession of a cricket bat. Philip did not understand why she did not use it.
Then, she switched rooms with a kind widow for some vague reason and the next morning the rakish captain appeared at breakfast with a black eye and a funny walk. Cecilia did not see the connection. Intelligence was not one of her major characteristics, it seemed, but instead her bosom heaved with concern for the rake.
Philip paused reading for a moment to refill his glass.
He wished for the rakish captain to meet with success next time, for he had had quite enough of the stupid Cecilia. And of her uncle, in whose house this was all taking place without anyone telling him so.
Yet somehow he wanted to see if Cecilia redeemed herself by showing some intelligence and therefore he read on. Unfortunately all she managed was to see the child of a maid respectably placed and not to dismiss another maid who was in an interesting condition -- the rakish captain had been hard at work during previous visits, Philip surmised, but again Cecilia never made the connection.
At eleven o'clock, just when Cecilia had been carried off to the pantry by a masked intruder, Philip blew out his candle. Enough was enough.
"I read A Rake Reformed last night at your recommendation, Madam," Philip said to Mrs Whitby-Ross when he encountered the ladies on their morning walk through the park. He had read another few pages, but he had not managed to finish the book yet. Cecilia was just on another of her moralistic diatribes.
"My recommendation? What did you think of it?"
"I should have liked to read more of the widow with the cricket bat."
"Why?" Mrs Whitby-Ross was intrigued.
"She was the only female with sense in the whole book. Well, I am not yet done, but I do not expect to meet any clever characters any more. I only expect more vapid insipidity and --"
"Vapid insipidity!" she cried. "I must remember that."
"I expect more of that and even more near-violations. Captain Drake has not yet carried her to the coach house and he will try any room in the house, because apparently he is not yet sick of Cecilia's moralising drivel."
"But you are."
"It was a little repetitive," he apologised. "I am sure she had a point, but none of it was at all effective. The captain was tearing off her gown --" There he stopped and shot a concerned look at Miss Cavendish. Should she be allowed to hear such details? She seemed to be listening attentively. "Have you read the book, Miss Cavendish?"
"It was terribly exciting."
"So I can speak of Drake tearing off gowns?"
Mrs Whitby-Ross nodded. "If you confine yourself to what is in the book."
"Right. The captain was tearing off her gown and she was praying for him to see the error of his ways! I cannot help but think there are more sensible things a girl could do in such a situation. Such as whack him with the cricket bat. The widow at least knew what to do."
"Do you think she took a swing at him with the bat?"
"I most certainly do and good for her. I should be sorry if she runs off with the captain in the end so Cecilia is saved." He was surprised at himself. He never would have thought he could become so animated about a mere novel.
"The title is A Rake Reformed. He should not be very reformed if he runs off with someone," Mrs Whitby-Ross pointed out. "Running off is considered to be quite bad."
"True, although making sense is not the primary quality of this novel, is it? The title could be thus in order to fool suspicious fathers. They would expect it to be a moralistic tale and leave their daughters to read."
"But it is a moralistic tale of sorts," said Miss Cavendish and she nodded earnestly. "Captain Drake is very sorry in the end and sees the error of his ways because of Cecilia's goodness. Oh!" she clasped her hands to her mouth in shock. "Did I spoil it for you?"
"No, no," Philip reassured her. "The outcome was quite fixed in my mind. The only question I really had was how many more near-violations she would have to suffer. And how many maids would have babies next year."
Miss Cavendish did not understand him. "Maids? Why?"
"Well, I -- I should confine myself to the book," he said after a glance at Mrs Whitby-Ross. She understood about the maids; that was clear. "Cecilia will like being able to do some good for them. It is very kind of a mysterious someone to get all those maids with child, is what I mean."
"Captain," came the rather sharp interruption by Mrs Whitby-Ross. "A private word, if you please. A private question, rather," she said when they had stepped aside. "You know altogether too much. Is it from personal experience?"
"A word here, a word there, you know how it goes," he said vaguely, but he saw that was too vague for her. "If a neighbour's maid was in a certain condition, my mother certainly got to hear of it and she would write about it to me, because she did not like boring letters."
"She was not very circumspect, then." She was clearly not sure if he was holding back more.
Philip shrugged. "I am not a girl. Besides, she could write everything to me without there being a risk of my revealing it to other people. I was far away."
She seemed satisfied with that answer -- for the time being.
He returned to Miss Cavendish, who was going through a rare spell of curiosity. "Captain, did you think Captain Drake very bad?" she asked.
"Did you not?"
"Well, I do not know," she said doubtingly. "He was very charming. There are things he should not have done, but it all came right in the end. He did not get Cecilia's virtue."
Somehow Philip did not think her aunt would allow him to discuss anyone's virtue with Miss Cavendish. She was still right behind them. He glanced over his shoulder and she shook her head indeed, as if she could read his mind.
"But what did you think of Captain Drake?"
"Captain Drake the rake. I thought he was particularly incompetent, but in that sense he was well-suited to his prey."
"Incompetent!" echoed Miss Cavendish in shock. "Why?"
"He proved himself rather good at tossing a lady over his shoulder, I will give you that," Philip relented. "But after that..."
"I cannot say. Your aunt has no cricket bat, but she does have an umbrella."
After he had walked with Miss Cavendish, Philip went to his hotel to have a bath. It was a strange order of things, perhaps, but there was only one bath in the hotel and it was not always available. Just when he was enjoying the warm water -- it could be warmer, but he would ask for that next time -- there were loud cries outside. Curiously enough they did not stop, but they became louder and closer.
Fire? He shot out of the bath and peered out of the door. People were running by, looking panicked. There was no fire outside his door, so he went back inside and pulled on his trousers. Just when he was about to don his shirt, there was more shouting.
"Fire! Fire! Everybody out! Hurry!"
It was pretty serious then. He left the shirt and made for the stairs where he faintly smelled smoke. The lower he came, the more he smelled it, but he saw no flames anywhere. Still, he did not suppose people would cry fire for fun.
It was crowded in the street outside. Guests, servants and residents mingled, staring at the house to the right of the hotel. Smoke was coming out of its windows. Since people were already taking water into the building, he did not see what he could add. He remained in the small park across the street where more people had assembled. Not only did it offer a good view of the upper storeys, but it was also out of the way.
Because he had been looking at the houses, he had not noticed that some maids were giggling at how he looked. When he finally did, they were downright impertinent.
A dignified butler approached him. "Captain, Mrs Whitby-Ross advises you to come into the house so as not to offend the delicate creatures out here."
"Delicate creatures?" Philip looked around himself and caught one of the maids leering at him again. There were respectable gentlewomen too, of course, but they were not looking at him. They would understand he had not come dressed like this to shock anybody. "I do not think I am offending anybody."
"All the same," Simkins said in his dignified manner. "Madam advises it."
He followed the butler to the Whitby house, where Mrs Whitby-Ross was waiting in the hall. "I thought it best to get you inside," she explained. "People do talk. That acquaintance of Mrs Whitby's, he was in the street, naked!"
He observed his trousers. Seemingly it did not matter that he was wearing any, when they were covering what he had always thought mattered most. "How is it any better that this acquaintance of yours went into your house, naked?"
"Why, now. Out there you might fall prey to any pretty maid, undressed like that, and then you will continue to court Serena. There would be talk. Simkins, please keep an eye on the fire. I do not want to be caught unawares."
"I shall take the captain upstairs to provide him with a shirt and coat."
"Thank you." He followed her up the stairs, wondering why she did not send him with a servant.
She took him to a small bedroom. The bed was made, but nobody was sleeping in this room. It was too bare and neat. There was a chest at the foot of the bed and Mrs Whitby-Ross opened it. It was full of clothes. "Here," she said. "Some of it may fit."
Someone came into the room. "Oh!" Miss Cavendish gasped when she saw him. "Why are you undressing Captain Cole?"
Neither Mrs Whitby-Ross nor the captain himself immediately knew what to say. "Serena, please leave the room," she said eventually.
"Oh," Serena said a little regretfully, but she left and closed the door.
"There is no need for her to see naked men."
Philip tried on a shirt. "That is the second time you have called me naked, but I am wearing trousers."
Mrs Whitby-Ross was not impressed. "Did those maids flirt with you when you were completely dressed?"
"Then you were naked."
Philip was bemused by Mrs Whitby-Ross' perception of reality. "I am trying to be respectable and decent, Madam, but if this is naked, what would I be if I took my trousers off?"
"Cold, I expect."
He groaned. All the same, her wit held something attractive. It was a pity she was not young and marriageable.
"Do I frustrate you?" She looked for a coat.
"No, you are quite amusing. Does Miss Cavendish have much wit?" He should not be asking this, he felt. It was unfair to the girl. He should be able to tell by now.
"None," said her aunt. "But she does not need any. She has beauty and an pleasing figure."
She had that indeed, but he had begun to find something lacking. It would be nice if she also had a sharp mind and a sense of humour. Perhaps she was perfect if one liked biddable girls who did not ask any questions, but he was not sure he did. It might become a little tedious.
Mrs Whitby-Ross seemed to sense something. "Is that not enough? A beautiful face and an ample bosom are enough for most men."
"I do not know. Have I raised too many expectations?" Perhaps he would be expected to propose soon. He had seen her almost every day, after all. In that case he supposed he would manage.
"Not yet. I daresay she will get over it if you leave soon." She handed him the coat from the chest that best matched his trousers.
Somehow he had not expected her to continue finding clothes for him. Perhaps he had feared she would undress him instantly if he withdrew his attentions to Miss Cavendish. But there was nothing, no sudden coldness or resignation. It relieved him, but he did feel this coldness in himself. "You do not seem angry with me."
"Thank you. Do you know any witty young ladies?"
"Captain, I am very sorry, but I cannot place you in the way of witty young ladies. I am trying to place my niece in the way of suitable gentlemen."
"May I keep this shirt on?"
"Please," Mrs Whitby-Ross said emphatically. She also found stockings and slippers. And, after some more rummaging, shoes.
"I am sorry I cannot be suitable. It was the novel that first alerted me to the possibility of there being young women without that extra bit of sense, I suppose."
"Yes, I am not surprised after hearing your opinion of the lovely heroine. She is not for everyone."
"Then you too thought..."
"My dear Captain, I wrote the novel," she said, walking past him to open the door. "Oh and that, Sir, is a secret that I would prefer you kept."
Philip stood gaping with one arm into the coat.
When he came downstairs -- on the slippers, for the shoes were too small -- he found aunt and niece at tea in the drawing room. Apparently the fire had not spread. He was feeling confused. Not only had he been surprised by his sudden reluctance to pursue Miss Cavendish any further, but he was also rather thrown off balance by Mrs Whitby-Ross' revelation.
She had written that novel! And he would almost say she had based Cecilia on Miss Cavendish. Not entirely, of course, but she had been mocking her nevertheless. Not that Serena would notice, but he understood why her aunt wanted it kept a secret.
He did not know what to say to either of them.
Luckily Mrs Whitby-Ross spoke first. "Well, that looks much better, Captain, even if it does not fit perfectly and it all went out of fashion ten years ago. But then, bare chests went out of fashion much longer ago."
"Really?" Miss Cavendish said, looking stunned at the idea that bare chests had once been all the rage.
"They say everything comes back into fashion at some point," said Philip.
"Until that time, cover up," Mrs Whitby-Ross said briskly.
"But Aunt, when was it that --"
"There are still tribes in Africa that walk around like that. And their women too," Philip said to Miss Cavendish, but then he realised he would probably not be allowed to describe them. "But of course it is much hotter there."
"My papa would be shocked by such people," said Miss Cavendish. "He was even shocked when my aunt nursed her baby in public."
He did not know how many aunts she had. She could be talking about another aunt, but he looked at Mrs Whitby-Ross all the same. "You have a baby, Madam?" That would be surprising. Aunts were too old for that sort of thing, were they not? He tried to guess her age, but he had no idea. She was younger than his own aunts; that was all he could say.
"Not any more."
That was what he would have thought. "But it is a child now?"
"Yes?" She nodded uncomprehendingly. "It is. Why?"
"Oh, it simply never occurred to me that you might have one." He had never wondered about it.
"But of course most people have them, so it is not very odd."
"Indeed," she agreed.
"And a husband?"
"Clearly there was once a husband," she agreed again. "While it is possible to have children with other people, I am not in favour of it."
"He is dead."
"I am sorry to hear that." Although he was not sure she was sorry herself. Or perhaps it was long ago. "That must be why we have not seen him."
So she was a widow, just like the character in the novel. Perhaps she had based one on herself. He could ask if she owned a cricket bat, but then Serena might ask why he wanted to know.
Miss Cavendish was thinking about something else entirely. "What did you mean, it is possible to have children with other people?"
After saying goodbye to Miss Cavendish and Mrs Whitby-Ross, which all went very amicably, Philip travelled to Oxford to visit his sister. There was no point in not sticking to his original itinerary now that he had decided Miss Cavendish was not for him and he would have to start over with someone new. This would take longer than two weeks and his sister would not accept his putting off a visit for months.
He mourned the loss of his infatuation, but that was all. He had had some purpose and now he had none. Perhaps it was best to find a girl in the north. It would save him a lot of travel time. The problem was that there were not many suitable girls there, or so his brother always said.
Miss Cavendish had seemed only mildly disappointed that he was leaving. It was of course exactly what he had said he would do in the beginning and her lack of selfishness was either to be commended or to be lamented. He was not sure.
Philip's sister lived in Oxford and was married to a man who sold books. One could say he was in trade, but he considered himself to be above that, selling only academic books to the scholars and students of the colleges. He would not dream of selling a novel and anyone entering his shop looking for such base reading material would meet with icily polite disapproval.
"So there you are," said Eleanor. "What were you up to in London? Is there no wife with you?"
"No wife? Of course not. I was there only a fortnight."
"Exactly. Who finds a wife in only a fortnight?"
He smiled. "You have a point." He could admit that easily. Denying that it was one of the reasons for which he had gone to London would be silly. He had told his mother -- or had she told him? -- and she would have written to his sister, for she was constantly writing everybody.
He had met his sister's children, or rather some of them, but they had only been allowed to greet him before they were taken away by a nursery maid. "Will I see your children at dinner?" He supposed he might see her husband too, unless he stayed at his shop for very long.
"Yes, since this is a special occasion even the little ones may eat with us. Not during your entire stay, of course. They usually eat earlier. But what is this Mama wrote about? You had met a girl in London?"
"Oh, several. None that I should be seeing longer, or else I shall find myself stuck on one of them."
"I am sorry to hear that in all of London there were none that could meet with your approval."
"I am sure there are. I simply did not stay long enough."
"Why did you not stay longer?"
"Well..." He sighed. "I discovered that it all takes so long. If you do not live next to a girl, you will never meet her in a large town, except by chance at some ball, and it is really difficult to meet people by chance at a ball if you do not know many people who would invite you."
"Then you had best head back home, for Mama cannot be unwilling to introduce you to everybody."
"She wrote that, did she?" Philip asked suspiciously. He could well imagine it. His mother had waited all these years for him to be home for a longer period of time. She would have a whole plan drawn up. Before he had gone to London she had dragged him to Edinburgh, which did not seem like such a coincidence anymore.
"She is sure you have forgotten half and you need proper introductions to everyone, having been at sea most of the time. They all know who you are, of course."
"I dread that. What have they been told?"
"More or less which ships you were on, which ranks you held..."
Philip found that his mother had written to him at his sister's house. That was where she knew him to be going and she did not know he had contemplated staying in London for longer, so she had replied the moment she received his letter. She was rather interested in Miss Cavendish, naturally, and hoped to read more in his next letter. It turned out she knew a little about Mrs Whitby-Ross already.
What a coincidence! You know of the Whitbys and the Rosses, do you not? The Whitbys' second son was the Rosses' heir and thus he changed his name. There cannot be any others with that combination of names. He was a politician. His first wife was Catherine Baxter and his second Selena Sutton. I believe she is your current Mrs Whitby-Ross. All these people lived, or still live, on the Carlisle road. You will have passed their houses numerous times. We did not have many mutual acquaintances. Hardly any, in fact, because they spent so much time in the south.
Miss Cavendish must be the daughter of the former Miss Ross, who I know moved south. Is she planning to travel up here with Mrs Whitby? The estate is run by a steward, but she does live there part of the year. (While she still can, because her stepson will inherit of course.)
It made him wonder even more just how devious Mrs Whitby-Ross had been in setting up an introduction. When she had obtained knowledge of him, she must also have found out he was from the same region. Perhaps he had been chosen for that reason exactly. He could imagine someone telling her there was a young man from near Carlisle -- her pseudonym made sudden sense -- staying at the hotel. For some reason she must have considered that trustworthy.
Perhaps she had heard of him in the same manner his mother had heard of her? If he had not been at sea he might have been more acquainted with people from his area too.
Mr Whitby-Ross of course thought he would marry a malleable girl from the north who would let him carry on in London, yet with enough education to make a proper hostess. He never condescended to make proper inquiries into Miss Sutton's character. She was known around here as rather radical, always protesting and collecting, and attending lectures on matters that ought not to be interesting to her.
He had not noticed that, but then he had not exactly been paying attention to the aunt.
I am therefore interested in her charge. Is she a similar sort of girl?
Not at all, he would say.
But his mother's description raised some questions. Firstly, what the politician had been up to in London that he did not want a wife to interfere with? Philip could not think his mother knew any details, unless she had had a correspondent in London. Considering that she was the Royal Mail's best customer, she probably had.
Secondly, what had the former Miss Sutton been protesting against? It could not have been anything of real importance, because his mother had never written about it. But then again, if she had been a radical fifteen years ago, his mother would not have written about that to him. He had been a child then.
He would have to write back to his mother as soon as possible and explain the situation before she ordered wedding clothes. She would undoubtedly write a letter a day and expand on the story.
He waved the letter at his sister when he came downstairs for dinner. "I should like this to be mailed. To Mama, of course. I have written that I found the girl was not what I was looking for after all."
"I do hope you did not describe what you would like instead -- although I am sure that if you did not she would write instantly to ask you about that."
"I think I may have hinted at it." He frowned and tried to think what his mother would do with those hints.
"Oh, do tell."
"She was a perfect sort of girl," he said gravely. "But perhaps she could have been more clever. Would Simon lock you up if you read a novel?" That idea was brilliant. If she read that book, she would understand better.
"Then you should read it on the sly when he is at the shop."
She laughed. "Really, do you think I have time for that with five children? What sort of novel do you want me to read?"
"The heroine is perfect. But not for me."
"All right. Fetch it then while I put your letter with the outgoing mail."
He ran upstairs and retrieved the novel from his room. He watched his sister's face as she read the title.
"This must not fall into the wrong hands," she said very evenly. "This sort of reading material is very bad for Simon's health."
"I struggled, I admit, but that was mostly because of the heroine. Promise me you will finish it."
"You know I cannot promise that with five children and a husband who works all day and who detests this type of writing besides. He wants some attention when he gets home. I cannot ignore him in favour of something he abhors. Besides, you are here and you want attention too."
"I can keep Simon busy." He hoped so, at least, but he had never had much in common with his bookish brother-in-law. They got along -- it was an agreeable fellow -- but he had no idea what they would do if they had to spend an entire day together. At some point Simon wanted back to his books and Philip wanted away from them.
"This is really important to you, is it?" Eleanor looked a little mystified.
"No, not really, but it does explain a bit."
Then the five children were let into the room. The youngest was but a baby, but the four other ones were lively enough and Philip was forced to give them all of his attention. Earlier they had received his gifts and the ones old enough to be aware now thanked him again.
"Philip, what did you get me into?" Eleanor hissed after fifteen minutes. She had been reading the novel behind a pillow while Philip amused the children. "How bad is this going to be? What if the children found this book?"
"Do they read?" He studied them. Surely they did not? But if the youngest was under a year, the eldest might be five or so. How long did it take for a new one to come along? A year or so? He had never take note of the time that had passed between the births of nieces and nephews. Sometimes he had not received the news until months later anyway.
"Two of them read."
"It is quite safe." He watched her suddenly stuff the book into the sofa. "Ah, Simon!"
Philip knew his sister was not taking special pains to introduce him to suitable females, but after a few he wished she would at least be a little more particular. It was unfair and impossible, he realised, because they were always young ladies who came with their parents and the parents were the ones who were invited.
He had been staying with his sister for a week when she informed him that she had finished the novel. Surprisingly she asked if he had any more of them. "More?" he exclaimed. "What for?"
"I rather liked it," she whispered. "Not Cecilia herself, but the rest of it."
"More of the same type?"
"Please. Do you think you could go to a book shop and ask for me? I cannot go myself; they know me. We are not really competitors, but they know what Simon refuses to sell and if I were to come in and buy one of those books..."
"They would talk?"
"Oh, certainly. They think we feel ourselves to be very much above them."
"I daresay they are right where Simon is concerned," Philip said dryly.
"Perhaps, but not quite. He is specialised. That is really something else. One cannot specialise in the gasping end of the market, because those novels are too cheap and one would never sell enough of them to make a decent living."
"So I am to disguise myself under a large hat and ask for more novels of this type?" He was actually amused and looking forward to the excursion. "Or by the same author?"
"Hmm. I --" He was going to say he knew the author, but then he remembered this must be kept a secret. "All right. But do you understand why I should like more intelligent heroines? Or wives? Or other females? She was quite silly."
"Oh, probably. But I do not read a book because of its heroine; I read because of its hero and he was a delightful tease."
Philip stayed with his sister and her family for two weeks. It was brief, but they were travelling to the north later in the year and he would then see them again. He had got another novel for Eleanor as she had requested, but she had not asked him too much about Miss Cavendish any more. She had accepted that it had come to nothing and she was too busy to place him in the way of other females. "But do tell me when you find one," she had said.
He then travelled back home. The last stretch was the slowest. He hoped he would be at his mother's house by the end of the day, but they might not make it in time. A fallen tree and some other obstacles had caused rather a delay. And it was raining, too.
Across from him were two elderly women of a considerable size. He had escaped sitting next to one of them by offering to ride backwards. It was only marginally better to be sitting next to the child, however. Presumably it was the grandchild of one of the women and it complained and wriggled constantly.
He was just looking out of the window and wondering how far it still was, but in the grey rainy weather it was difficult to tell one hedge from the other. Then, suddenly, there was a loud bang and they first sagged sideways and then the other side seemed to hit the ground as well. They were dragged over the bumpy road for another while until the horses stopped.
Philip had got stuck between the two ladies, which was soft enough but he still could not breathe properly. The child had begun to wail desperately and he could not even ask it if it was hurt. At last the coachman opened the door and rescued them.
Philip and the coachman tried to set the carriage straight, so the passengers could at least wait for help with a roof over their heads, but it was wet and muddy on the road. The two ladies complained they were getting wet and the child was still crying, although it had not got hurt.
"I shall get the horses," said the coachman. "If you could go for help, Sir?"
"We passed a house a short way back. I saw lights." He looked into the carriage, which was not entirely upright and therefore not an entirely comfortable place to be. Still, it was better than being out in the rain. "Madam, the coachman is nearby. He is not going anywhere. I am going to ask for another carriage at a house nearby. I hope it will not take long. You had best stay in here."
He then walked as quickly as possible to the opening in the hedge that led to the house. It nevertheless took him ten minutes and it was growing darker by the minute.
A footman answered the door, a disapproving frown on his face when he saw the dirty and wet person before him. Philip spoke quickly before the door would be shut in his face. "Carriage accident!"
"I beg your pardon?" But at least the door was not closed.
"The mail coach. The axle broke. Or the wheel broke off first. In any case, there are passengers there who need to be moved on and a carriage that needs to be pulled away. Can anyone in this house be of help?"
The footman was not as slow as he had first appeared. Presumably he had also seen that Philip, while wet and dirty, was a gentleman. He let him in and asked him to wait.
It did not take long for the footman to come back with his employer, a finely-dressed lady with sparkling jewellery who obviously had guests. "Captain?" she said in surprise.
Philip was embarrassed to find she sounded like Mrs Whitby-Ross, but she did not look like her. "Yes, Madam. You appear to know me," he said just to be safe.
"Quite intimately," she said a little irritably.
"Really?" He was astonished now. Perhaps they held different opinions on what constituted intimate knowledge.
She waved impatiently. "No matter. What happened? Is anybody injured?"
The footman was still standing by, looking blank. Philip supposed he was awaiting instructions. "No," he said. "Not seriously. I fell on top of a lady, which she did not much like, but she is only bruised, I expect."
Mrs Whitby-Ross turned towards the footman. "Adrian, Jessop must take the passengers to the inn. I am entertaining several gentlemen whose servants must help pull the carriage into our driveway. It is getting quite dark and it must be done as soon as possible. The driver must be given all assistance. A meal and a bed, if needs be. Put up his horses."
"Yes, Madam," said the footman and he disappeared.
"Do accidents happen here every week?" Philip wondered. She was remarkably quick and efficient, as if dealing with it was routine.
"Captain Cole, your luggage is going to be taken to the village soon. You do not appear to have it with you. I would offer you the opportunity to dry yourself by a fire, but perhaps you would not like to be separated from your belongings." She gave him a look of concern. "Are you sure you did not hit your head?"
"I did, as a matter of fact, but I feel it no longer."
Her frown deepened and she rang a bell. A butler appeared. "Would you please send someone to get this gentleman's suitcase from the carriage wreck in the road? The other passengers will know which case does not belong to them. And have a maid light a fire in the blue room."
"Yes, Madam," said the butler and disappeared.
"I fear for your head," Mrs Whitby-Ross said.
"I am fine."
"You must be hurt. There is blood on your head and you are a little..." She waved. "You did not even recognise me."
"That is not fair. You were in disguise in London!" he protested weakly, being more occupied in trying to find out where he was bleeding.
She clicked her tongue and beckoned him. "It is becoming quite a habit, taking you upstairs to get you into some clothes."
"I am wearing clothes."
"Yes, they are wet and dirty. I am sorry I do not have the time to help you undress, but I must return to my guests," she said in a business-like manner.
"I am happier undressing myself, really," Philip assured her, but he felt rather confused when that felt like a lie.
"Is anyone expecting you this evening?"
"If I do not arrive tonight, my mother will expect me tomorrow. One can never be sure with such a long journey." He did not know if she was inviting him to stay. Perhaps he should not be eager to accept an invitation.
They arrived at the blue room, where a maid was busy lighting the fire. "Molly," said Mrs Whitby-Ross. "Please get Captain Cole some warm water and towels. And anything else he may need. I am going back to my guests."
Philip fell into a chair when she was gone. Molly looked at him oddly. She stood up. "Shall I get you some water, Sir?"
He studied his hands. They were very dirty. "Please."
She ran away and he began to take off his shoes. When she returned, he was down to his trousers and shirt. The latter was still clean, at least, and only a little wet at the cuffs. There was no need to take it off. "Mrs Whitby said I must undress, but would you know if there is anything I could wear instead while I wait for my suitcase? I do not suppose she would want me to sit here without my clothes."
The maid giggled a bit. "There are clothes in this closet. She did not say you could not wear them and they do not belong to anybody."
"Thank you." When she had left he washed his hands and face. He could not discover if he had a head wound, only a scratch on his hand, so it was probably nothing serious. Then he looked into the closet. It held old, stuffy-smelling clothes. Perhaps Mrs Whitby-Ross had many guests who needed spare clothes at some point, or she had guests who kept leaving clothes behind. All he really needed was a pair of trousers if he was to stay indoors. Five of the six pairs were too wide, but the sixth one fit.
Now he had to decide if he wanted to travel on tonight or not. It was rather tempting to stay here for the night, but how was he to explain that to his mother? He could almost walk home. The village could not be far and she lived on the other side of it.
His wet clothes had made him rather cold, so he warmed himself by the fire for some time. That was wiser than going outside again, he felt as he slowly began to feel more comfortable. He dozed off. The night before he had slept in an awful bed with the rain clattering loudly against the window pane. He had not really got enough sleep and he had not been able to sleep in the carriage due to his companions, two chatty ladies and a child.
Someone was shaking his shoulder when he woke. "You have made your choice then," said Mrs Whitby-Ross. "It is too late now to drive you home. My guests went home an hour ago, but they only have one-way journeys. I would leave you asleep, but I rather think the bed is more comfortable if you plan to sleep through the night."
He stifled a yawn. "Yes, I suppose."
"How is your head?"
"It has not bothered me."
She did not look as if she believed him. "But you did not recognise me."
"You were in London."
"A month ago. I have been here for two days now."
"And you have already shed the disguise," Philip observed.
"What is this disguise you are speaking of?"
"You appeared an older lady in London."
"Captain, for some reason you were convinced that I, as an aunt, must be old. Or perhaps you were completely preoccupied. You never recognised me without Serena and you did see me once."
"Really?" He could not think when that had been.
"Yes, you did." She indicated his suitcase, which he had not yet noticed, and a tray. "You have some food and your case. I trust you will be all right until the morning?"
"What did you do with Miss Cavendish?"
"She went back to Kent."
"I hope she was not too disappointed."
"Would you be disappointed if I said she was not?"
He did not know. He ought to be relieved. "One does like to have left a good impression. Perhaps."
"Well, she was a little disappointed that she still did not get engaged. Apparently an engagement is the height of happiness. But she will get over that notion."
"Once she is engaged?"
"Or before then."
He could ask if she was a cynic, but he did not want to pry into private topics. "My sister wanted me to disguise myself to buy her more novels by Mrs Carlisle. She liked the hero." He said that with some incredulity.
"Well, he was not without his charms. The reader should be in a quandary, just like Cecilia. If he had been undeniably disagreeable, there would not have been any doubts. At least, I expect not."
"Women like rakes then. Which is odd, because you ought to see my sister's husband. He is as far from a rake as can be."
"Of course. If she was married to one she would be too exasperated to read about one! Well, I shall see you at breakfast. Have a good night."
Philip wanted to talk a little more, but he did not know about what. "Good night."
He made himself comfortable in the bed. It was a good one, but old. Like the clothes it had been waiting here for an accidental user.
How could he, of all places, have ended up in Mrs Whitby-Ross' house? But then, there were not really many places on the road apart from farms. It was amazing that his mother had never met Mrs Whitby. Perhaps the lady dined only with town folk. Some people were like that.
In nice gowns. He was still confused about that. How could he respond in this manner to somebody's aunt? And she had two children. His sister had five, he remembered, and she was hardly ancient. It was possible to be youngish and have so many.
But Mrs Whitby-Ross fascinated him now. She was reasonably attractive -- he was not ready to voice a definitive opinion on that subject -- intelligent, efficient and mysterious. For what did she do with all those gentlemen guests and their clothes?
In the morning he found tea and hot water on the table, and his trousers and coat cleaned and folded. They were exceptionally good at coming into his room unheard in this house. He shaved and dressed and then ventured out of the blue room, which was indeed rather blue by daylight.
Downstairs he had no idea where to go, but a maid with a silver tray pointed the way. He followed her to a room at the side of the house where she set her tray on the table. Philip thought he was the first one there, but then there were sounds coming from under the table.
"Good morning," said a child. "We are hiding."
"That is a very good hiding place," said Philip, bending over to have a look. He saw two boys. "But perhaps you should not tell people where you are."
"I did not say where I was."
"Right, you did not. I stand corrected."
"Ben stole a sausage," said the boy.
"No," said Ben. "My sausage."
Philip had no idea whose sausage it was and he did not want to get involved. "Where may I sit, do you know?"
"No, I am too big." He had had some practice with his sister's children, but that did not extend to sitting under tables for breakfast.
"Who are you?"
"You may sit with my mother," the boy said with a regal wave.
"Thank you. Where is her chair?"
"The head of the table."
He looked. "It is a square table. There are four heads." There were also four identical plates and cups.
"Four heads!" The still nameless boy shook with laughter.
Philip was gratified to hear he was entertaining, although he did not really see the joke. He sat down on the nearest chair and wondered if he should make conversation with his companions. "Where is your mother?"
"She will be back soon, but do not tell her where we are."
He looked at the dishes. Most were still covered, but one of the lids was not on properly. The sausages, he guessed. There was coffee, so he poured himself a cup. He trusted Mrs Whitby-Ross not to be the difficult sort. She would not mind if he had coffee before she appeared. Clearly, with children under tables things were not so strict here.
And she was not. "Ah, there you are. I was just checking your room to see if you were up." There was immediate shuffling and muted giggling under the table, which she could not fail to hear, but she paid no attention to it.
"I might have been dressing." It was astonishing how easily she simply went into her guests' rooms. But perhaps she had knocked.
"Yes, well," she said, looking a little perplexed. She sat down across from him. "Yes, you might have been. Why?"
"Dressing is not dressed," he explained.
"Oh, is that what you mean." She looked no less perplexed. Then she leant towards him and spoke in a low voice. "Captain, I have two sons and two stepsons. How often do you think I have seen half-naked males running through my house?"
"I do not think I want to know. What with the gentlemen guests you are entertaining and all the clothes they leave behind..." Philip said with a shake of his head.
She blinked and said, "really." Then she tapped the table. "Time to eat."
The boys appeared. "Ben had a sausage already," said the tallest of the boys.
"Then I hope Ben did not burn his fingers. Sit, Ben."
Philip noticed that his plate was filled along with that of the boys'. He wondered where the stepsons were. They had to be older than these two, so it was very likely they were at school somewhere.
"Why is Philip here?" asked the eldest boy. "He would not sit under the table."
"Tom, has he given you permission to call him Philip?"
"I do not know what else he is called. Why is that gentleman here?"
"His carriage broke down."
"Really?" Tom was astonished. "Just like that?"
"Yes, just like that," Philip answered.
"Are you now going to walk?"
"I do not know yet."
"Can I drive him in the pony cart?"
"Er..." said Mrs Whitby-Ross. "My dear, that is a bit too far for your pony."
When they had nearly finished breakfast -- well, Philip had, he could not say anything about the slow-eating children -- Mrs Whitby-Ross addressed him. "I could make use of you now that you are here. You know about my pastime."
Phlip wondered if she was alluding to writing novels or entertaining guests. He waited.
"I have a question to ask you later, if you are willing to postpone your departure for half an hour."
"Certainly," was all he could say.
After breakfast the boys were sent upstairs to their nanny for some lessons. Philip wondered if they were ever going to arrive upstairs, but presumably the nanny would come looking for them if they did not. Mrs Whitby-Ross took Philip to a door next to the breakfast room. There was a key on a hook out of reach of the boys. She took it and opened the door. Inside was only a dark staircase. She led him up. They passed several floors until they reached the top of what appeared to be a tower of sorts. There was a door at the top of the staircase.
"Here we are," she said, opening it. "Here is where my male character is currently locking the female character, but I am not sure of it."
"The view is magnificent," Philip remarked as he strolled towards one of the windows.
"Yes, this is my writing room when it is not too cold. But, I had envisaged a similar tower in my next novel and the male character did not lock the heroine in here so she could enjoy the view, but because he wants something from her. Now I am wondering if that is not altogether too silly."
"It is a book," Philip said with a shrug. He went to a window on the other side. The view was magnificent there as well.
"And books are silly by definition."
"I meant that you could take certain liberties with common sense. The sillier your readers, the sillier the story may be."
"Well, thank you," she said a little indignantly. "Now place yourself in the role of the male character, if you please. Would it make sense at all to lock a girl in this tower because you want her...er...you want all of her? If you force her to acquiesce you may as well not wait. She is weaker; you could easily take what you want without her permission."
"Oh." He forced himself to think. "If that is what you are after, yes, it makes little sense. However, the man could simply enjoy cruel games. Or is he supposed to redeem himself in the end? No matter why he waited, the fact that he waited is more important?"
"Something like that," she said vaguely. "The readers like that."
"They do. And another question, if you were such a man, how would you try to persuade the woman to give up her principles? You would come up here regularly, of course, and --"
"-- and change the chamber pot; that ought to endear him to her."
"Honestly, are you four years old?" she exclaimed.
"No, I am practical."
"We are ignoring practicalities as it is! There is no fire and I am certainly not writing about my heroine's basic needs."
"Only about the villain's basic needs."
Mrs Whitby-Ross rolled her eyes. "Captain, I do not think they are basic needs, or else I should have never dared to come up here with you. If I were of the opinion that no man can control himself when in the company of a woman..."
He smiled. "Your villain, however, has such trouble controlling himself that he needs to lock her into a tower where he will only go when he feels sufficiently in control of his basic needs."
"Oh, I like that." She walked to the table and scribbled it down.
Philip stared, bemused. The woman was absolutely serious about this. Very strange.
"However, what would he do when he is sufficiently in control?"
"But that would not convince her to give in. Well, actually, to all the moralists it would, but I am thinking more realistically."
He snorted at that. "Are you not a moralist, Madam?"
"I thought you knew I wrote parodies." There was some indignation again.
"I have never read the original sort. I am sorry."
"In my parodies a little badness will be more effective."
"Therefore he should force himself upon her, or threaten to do so."
She sat down on the chair. "Pretend you are the villain. Come through the door. How would you handle the situation?"
"I should first take out the chamber pot. It smells. I shall have brought a clean one." She was ready to throw the ink pot at his head, he saw, and he grinned. "Right, pots are changed. Then, I think -- is the heroine as silly as those maids in London?"
"Which maids in London? Of course she is a bit silly."
"Then I shall take off my coat and shirt."
"She would faint."
"Well, that is not very helpful. Is the villain not handsome and well-built?"
"Then she may only faint the first time, because she is shocked at finding him handsome. The second time she will be appreciative."
"Such an insight into the female mind and constitution."
"It is how males think," he apologised.
"So you advise me to let him undress a little bit."
"You are good at letting men undress."
"Again," she muttered. "But thank you. I shall try this and see if the characters react well to it."
Yes, she was strange. She spoke of them as living creatures. He shook his head at such nonsense.
"Well, thank you," she said. "You are free to go home. One thing," she remarked as they descended. "You keep implying I am running a brothel."
"You keep implying that you do." He did not want to accuse a lady of being a woman of easy virtue, but she brought up the subject herself.
"It is all in your imagination."
"But you entertain gentlemen."
"I had a few gentlemen over for dinner. Do you not think that if I were truly running a brothel I should have attempted to cheat you out of a little money?"
"You did leave me with a maid," he remembered.
"Yes, the fact that I employ maids at all is proof enough, is it not? Your mind must be on brothels a lot, if you keep imagining them everywhere."
Before Philip could defend himself, even if she did not sound accusing, she was speaking again.
"But it might be a good thing. I may consult you again about the mind of my villain. I am sure his mind is also full of those matters. Is it a consequence of coming ashore? The sudden abundance of opportunities?"
"Actually, Madam, the opportunities are predominantly abundant in ports."
"And in London."
"I should not know where to find them in London," Philip said in an attempt to defend his character. "I think I had best travel on now. My mother will be expecting me."
"A good boy must not keep his mother waiting, I agree. Perhaps I should give my villain a mother," she mused.
Philip was delivered to his mother's house by the Whitby carriage. He had an estate, but his aunt was still living in the house there. He had not wanted to evict her, nor had he wanted to live with his aunt and not with his mother. He had contemplated living with both, but that was a bit too much, he suspected. There was a house being built for the two of them on the estate, but it was not yet ready.
His brother, also unmarried, might be home too. He was a lieutenant in the Navy and more likely to go to sea again soon than Philip himself.
When he arrived home, only his mother was there. She looked happy to see him, but also curious. "Whose carriage brought you?" Evidently she had been looking out of the window.
Philip had not expected the question and he had not yet decided if it was wise to reveal too much. "We had an accident last night and I called at a house for help. It was raining, so I was offered to dry myself and then I was offered a bed." He thought it was clever of him not to name anybody.
"Before or after Carlisle?"
"Then I must know these people."
"I do not know if you do."
"Who were they?"
He sighed. She was impossibly curious. "Mrs Whitby-Ross."
His mother raised her eyebrows. "Why did she offer you a bed?"
"I had fallen asleep in front of the fire and it was too late to leave." The truth was pretty straightforward.
"Was the girl there too? You wrote it all came to nothing, but if you stayed with them..."
He could see the direction his mother's thoughts were taking. She thought he had stayed because of Miss Cavendish. "No, she was not there."
"What was the problem?"
"With the carriage?"
"No, with the girl. One week you are besotted and the next you are sober."
"But I wrote that to you."
"Oh, in one line! What am I to deduce from one line?"
He sighed and smiled at the same time. He could have known she would not think it sufficient. "She did not give any indication of possessing a sharp mind."
"What is a sharp mind?" Mrs Cole asked suspiciously. "A quick mind or a sharp tongue?"
"Some of both. I do not really know. I suppose I shall know when I see it." He did not want to explain himself too much. She would only point out inconsistencies later.
She sighed at not being told more. "Well, at least your brother is not as particular about women," she said ominously, as if something very bad was about to happen.
"Where is he?"
"He went out to see a few friends. They have something of great importance to discuss." Clearly she disagreed with them.
"What?" asked Philip. "Is he getting married?"
"No, he is thinking of going to Newcastle tomorrow, but that depends on whether anybody is willing to go with him."
"Why? What is in Newcastle?"
"Oh, there he comes. He can explain it much better than I can."
"There is a ship with a hundred Norwegian girls docked in Newcastle," Alexander explained enthusiastically.
His brother nodded. "Give or take a few."
The reason seemed unimportant to Alexander. He looked surprised that someone wanted to think about it. "They do not have enough men in Norway, I suppose."
"And they sent their ugly daughters to Newcastle?"
"No! I have heard they are all uncommonly beautiful, not ugly. Tall, fair, handsome. George Holden and I are thinking of going there. Will you join us?"
"Am I betting there is no such ship." He would not have to explain why to people of sense, but he was surprised at how his brother lacked that sense. Had he always been this gullible? A ship with a hundred young women! It was impossible. Was there a crew too?
"Suit yourself. All the more girls for us," his brother said cheerfully.
"Are they prostitutes?"
"No, they are looking for husbands," said Alexander with a shocked look at their mother. He did not understand how his brother dared to mention such a word in front of her.
"Well, actually, Alexander..." said she. "Although it is perhaps a little blunt of Philip, I must agree. Either there are no women there at all, or they are of the kind you should not be associating with. I am also a little concerned that you want to go there with George Holden."
"I am a grown man!"
"So is George Holden, but he is also not very clever and, I think, more eager than principled."
Philip did not remember much about George Holden, but it did sound as if he had put this idea in Alexander's head. In that case he was either stupid or devious. "How did he hear of this ship?"
"I do not know. Why should he go if it was only a rumour? Are you coming or not? Because I am going. Tomorrow."
Mrs Cole shared an exasperated look with Philip. He suddenly feared she would want him to go to keep an eye on his brother. "No!" he complained to her. "I have only just got back. I have no intention of going to Newcastle."
"Please, Philip?" asked his mother. "I do not trust this situation at all."
"Really, Mother," he replied. "Alexander is a lieutenant. He has been at sea for years without you or any other mother. We do not generally have concerned mothers with us on board. He may have been caught up in worse mischief than trying to find a non-existent ship full of women."
"Right," Alexander nodded. "I may have frequented places of ill repute every day."
"Really," said his mother.
"It is silly to say something about my going to Newcastle when you have no idea what else I do."
"Yes, I am sure you have done far worse, which would have been entirely acceptable in the Navy and mothers do not know what they are talking about, but while you are living under my roof I would rather you did not engage in any activities of which I disapprove and about which others may talk, especially the Holdens, because they are notorious for talking about people without any consideration for the truth."
"George Holden is my friend."
"That may be so, but you may depend on it that if you and George get up to something in Newcastle, the story the Holdens will tell will involve you alone and something far worse than you actually did."
"I do not like the way you speak about them, Mother," Alexander said stiffly.
"Go to Newcastle then," she said invitingly.
Philip gave in. "All right, I shall go."
His mother beamed. "Thank you."
Philip and Alexander travelled to Newcastle the next day. George Holden was with them. It was as Philip had known: nowhere in Newcastle did anybody know anything of a Norwegian ship with a hundred girls. In fact, there were no Norwegian ships at all in Newcastle that week. George and Alexander could not believe it and planned to search another day, because George was absolutely certain that he had heard it from a reliable source.
Philip could not stand another day of that nonsense -- his brother was tolerable company on his own, but with George he became rather stupid -- and he announced he would be riding back alone.
He reflected that as long as his brother was not married to some decent girl, he would remain in search of one. It was therefore advisable to help him along. Their mother would appreciate it, too. He did know one decent girl, as a matter of fact, but she was currently in Kent. But then, he knew someone who could invite her here. He could ask her to do so.
The rest of his journey he spent wondering if Alexander and Miss Cavendish would like each other.
His mother was out when he came home, so he took advantage of her absence by taking a nap. The servants told her he had come home, of course, because she woke him when he felt he had just fallen asleep.
"Where is Alexander?" she inquired.
"He is in Newcastle, still looking for that ship." Philip yawned and stretched. "He will be home tomorrow, no doubt, because he was beginning to have his doubts about George and his very reliable information."
"What did you do?"
"Ask around a bit, have a drink here and there, nothing scandalous. We followed a few girls who looked Norwegian -- whatever that looks like -- but they turned out to be local farm girls. It was fun for an hour or so, but the more it became apparent that we were not going to find what they were looking for, the more boring it became. That George, I agree, is a bit of a simpleton."
"His mother is too. You were in the carriage with her, as it turns out, only you did not acknowledge her."
"Should I have? I do not know the woman."
"Well, she probably thinks I write about her all the time, because she thinks of them as one of the principal families around here."
"And you do not?"
Mrs Cole looked undecided. "They never were a principal family, but then they came into money and you know what money does to people without abilities or taste. But you were in the carriage with her and you said nothing --"
"Why did she not speak to me?" he interrupted. He had spoken to the woman -- all the nice civilities one shared with strangers in a carriage.
"Well, that is what money does to her, as I said. But on top of that fault, it was the Whitby carriage that rescued her and Mrs Whitby-Ross is of course someone she dislikes immensely. It would have been more principled of her to refuse the ride, but then she would have been stuck in the rain, so she did not. She chose to gossip about it maliciously instead. There is little one can say about a lady offering assistance, but there is all the more she could say about your staying there for the night, which she deduced you did because your luggage was taken away."
"Oh," said Philip. "Why does she dislike Mrs Whitby-Ross immensely?"
"Mr Holden's workers revolted at some point and it was all Mrs Whitby's fault. When she was still Miss Sutton, of course. It was long ago and if you ask me, the revolt was completely justified, but Mrs Holden loves keeping an enemy."
"So what does she say about me?"
"There are potholes in the road on purpose so Mrs Whitby-Ross has her pick of male flesh. What else?"
Although it was rather similar to what he had first imagined Mrs Whitby-Ross to be doing, he had never really felt it plausible. So he stared. "But you never know what sort of flesh might fall into the trap."
"Mrs Holden does not care. The fact that you did proves her right."
The idea that Mrs Whitby-Ross might trap male flesh and then lock it into her tower was so ludicrous that Philip laughed heartily. He had to tell her that she was being suspected of doing exactly what she wrote about -- or did she write about what she did? This threw him for a second.
"You think it amusing to be the subject of silly gossip."
He did not think it amusing, exactly, but he was certainly not concerned. "Well, I do not know why you should be in any doubt, but you could ask the lady if any of it is the truth."
"Really? You take it far too seriously. But what do you mean, you did? You went to Mrs Whitby-Ross to ask her what she did with me?" She must have done that the moment he went to Newcastle, or perhaps she had just come back from Mrs Whitby right now. It was extremely sly and quite odd.
"Or to ask her what you did with her."
Nobody would do that. "You cannot be serious."
"No," she admitted. "I introduced myself to her and I asked her about that girl you were interested in."
"What is the point? I told you I did not want her. I think she is more suitable for Alexander than for me." Philip was determined to do something about living with his mother very soon. She was too interfering. If he did not live with her, she would ask him less and he would have to tell her less. It was highly undesirable to have her visit everyone he might meet and to ask them prying questions.
"And what did she think when you appeared with these questions?" Not everyone would appreciate it. He did not know whether Mrs Whitby-Ross would, but she was, he supposed, quite capable of dealing with nosy mothers.
"I do not know what she thought, only what she said."
He was, of course, curious. "What did she say?" His mother did not sound indignant, so she had probably not been snubbed. He was glad for that in a sense, but she did not deserve such kindness.
"She appreciated the fact that I came to ask and she gave me her opinion of her niece. And then her opinion of whether the girl would suit you."
"She seemed to agree with me in London." He doubted that she had expressed any regret now.
"That is good, then. I shall visit her tomorrow and ask if she can invite Miss Cavendish so Alexander can meet her." And he would apologise for his mother's visit.
"You are assuming he does not come back from Newcastle with a Norwegian prostitute in tow," remarked Mrs Cole.
"Do not mention those...women, Mother, you would shock Alexander. In fact, you shock me too. I had no idea you knew what they were. But there is no time to lose, because he might indeed get into such a scrape. At least if we see him safely married to a decent girl he will not."
"Really?" she asked reflectively. "I think, Philip, that in some ways you are as ignorant as your brother. There are plenty of decent girls with indecent husbands, for one."
"Ah! You and Mrs Whitby are of one mind then, when it comes to rakes."
"Are we? I am surprised you have been discussing these matters with a stranger. A female stranger, at that."
"She issued warnings, of course. It is what chaperones do, is it not? She would not sacrifice her niece to a rake to see if he could be reformed, or something like that. Not because I was being a rake, mind you. She called me simple."
"And I called you ignorant. We might indeed be of one mind. Well, get changed. I am hungry."
Thankfully at dinner and afterwards his mother had not brought up the subject again. In the morning, Philip saddled his horse and rode down the Carlisle road. He inspected the road outside the gates to the Whitby-Ross estate, but he saw no irregularities. There were no potholes to trap unsuspecting travellers.
He announced himself at the door and was let in. Apparently they remembered him here. It was always nice to be remembered.
"I know what you have come to do," said the lady of the house smugly when she met him.
"Really?" Philip had not thought he was so obvious. "You cannot possibly know."
She smiled. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."
He folded his hands and drew a deep breath. It was best to state his purpose immediately before she distracted him with confusing talk. "I should like to ask you to invite Miss Cavendish here. I think she would be good for my brother."
Her expression betrayed that this was something she could never have imagined, even though she had said she knew what he came for. "Your brother..." she said a little unsteadily. "Of whom your mother thinks he went to Newcastle to look for Norwegian prostitutes?"
Philip let out a small gasp. "She told you?"
"Of course she did. She explained why she came. Had the Norwegian prostitutes been any nearer I am sure she would have visited them too. I might do the same by the time my boys are grown up. It is very difficult to watch them be idiots, I am sure." She sounded and looked very understanding.
"Clearly my brother was being an idiot about this, but he might have been bored, or too much under the influence of that stupid friend of his. He is not always an idiot." He felt he must defend Alexander a little, because before this excursion had happened he had never thought of his brother as an idiot at all.
"I shall form an opinion on him when I see him," she promised, but for the time being she might not be without some idea. "What did you find in Newcastle?"
"Nothing, of course." He wanted to lead the conversation away from that. "Did my mother also tell you that there are people who think you cause carriage accidents in order to catch men?"
Her eyebrows shot up. "How do I do that?"
"You dig potholes. I looked, but there are none."
"You looked!" she exclaimed. "You looked, because it sounded as plausible as a ship full of Norwegian beauties. All these idiotic inventions must be investigated, because there is a chance they might be true."
"Madam, you write about men keeping women locked up in towers. Who knows if you are not a woman who keeps men locked up in towers?" Philip reasoned.
"Hence the closet full of clothes?"
"I had forgotten that, but that is a good point indeed. Perhaps you could write such a story next time."
"For what purpose would I keep those men?" she wondered. "Captain, did you realise we do not live in a very busy part of the country? At least if I lived on the road to Gretna I should have all the rakes travelling past, now I merely get the stupid rakes who took the wrong road -- as you once noted yourself."
"Do not ask me, ask Mrs Holden!" he exclaimed. He had not wanted to reveal anybody's name, but it simply slipped out.
"Ah, Mrs Holden." She gave the name a meaningful and contemptuous nod.
"Why does she dislike you? My mother said she did."
She looked away and shrugged. "When I was young, I wanted to do things, so I taught someone to read and write. That was all. Mr Holden did not like it."
Although she spoke as if that was all, Philip was not sure. She looked too innocent. "It was one of Mr Holden's workers, I assume, and he used his new abilities against his employer?"
"More or less. It was a deserving young man. It was such a waste that he was working for someone like Holden. He could not help it that nobody had ever taught him to read before." A little vehemence had slipped into her flat tone.
"You armed him."
"You could say that. What the Holdens do not realise is that they were treating their workers so abominably that something would have happened sooner or later, with or without me." Mrs Whitby-Ross shrugged. "But let us speak about Serena and your brother. Before I invite her, I should like to meet your brother to see if it is not a wasted effort."
"I understand. I shall ask my mother to invite you to dinner."
"I tend not to dine out," she said with an apologetic smile.
"You do not?" He was amazed. She was not a recluse; people dined here.
"My boys do not like me being away at night."
"Would they notice?"
"Of course they would." She hesitated. "We have very odd ways. Perhaps I shall tell you about them some time. I shall invite you to dine here instead."
"But how does -- do you never dine out?"
"Rarely. If people mind, they are not worth the trouble. But now that you are here, I may consult you again. Let us go to the tower."
"As long as you do not lock me up."
"Hmm," she said with a calculating look.
"Did you have the villain undress?" Philip asked when he remembered what they had discussed in the tower. "Did it work?"
"I have not tried it. I could not think of a reason why he would think it would work. She does not seem to be quite as weak as Cecilia. He felt he must do something more. Kiss her perhaps."
"Oh. What exactly are we going to do in the tower?"
"My notes are there." She opened the door to the staircase. "But would you not think it too scandalous?"
"Madam," Philip said politely. "You serve the gasping end of the market, as my sister put it, and a kiss in particular seems to fit perfectly. Although if you are worried you could always describe it as embrace -- with some nice adjective to puff it up -- and leave everyone free to imagine that lips were involved."
"Her husband has a shop that serves the scholarly end of the market and he would not be caught dead with your kind of books."
"That sort, is he? I am glad I read both kinds, although it is sometimes difficult to come by books of a certain type." She turned on the stairs and looked thoughtul. "If your sister's husband sells those books, it must be easy for you to buy them."
"Not you too!" he exclaimed. "I had to disguise myself to buy your books for my sister; now you want me to disguise myself to buy books for you too?" Everyone was using him.
"You need not disguise yourself, I think, if you are prepared to answer questions about why you want such a book. My brothers have looked in shops around here for me, but they could not find anything. People are not very scholarly here. There is probably more information on the subject in Oxford."
She lowered her voice. "It is quite embarrassing. I shall write it down for you upstairs."
Philip followed her with a bemused look. When they got upstairs she started to write something down that she crossed out multiple times. "You have brothers then," he said as he waited.
"Yes, they were dining here when you were here."
He was curious what she was writing down, but when she was done she folded the paper a few times so it became very small.
She gave it to him. "Do not unfold, please, until you are home. It is a subject that is best read about in private. Of course once you are used to it you may ask me if anything is unclear, which I am sure it is."
He pocketed the piece of paper. "I cannot begin to think what it is about."
"Good. It is for research purposes. Now we shall talk about the villain, because I have some research to do there as well. He intends to kiss the heroine, but how would he go about that?"
"He embraces her and aims for her mouth?" Philip suggested, feeling rather silly. "You have been kissed on occasion, I assume?"
"Not always with my consent," she agreed, although she did not seem very upset by it. "But I was at the time not aware of the best methods to ward off an attacker. I am not sure how to write something believable."
"I know of one very good method, but you are not going to practise that on me." Philip took a step back. "It hurts."
"I have heard of it, I think, but I do not see how I could kick you if you held me close. May we try with a soft kick?"
"Why can you not simply write that the heroine freed herself?"
"Because I do not know when that is possible, during or after. Could you hold me tight?" She stood motionless in anticipation. "No kiss, we should be able to talk."
"Madam," he said politely. "One, you are not going to kick me. Two, your heroine will not have stood waiting for him to grab her."
He stepped forward and drew her close.
"That is not tight enough," she said in dissatisfaction.
"Then you have never been kissed by a true proficient," he replied.
"There is no reason for the villain to be proficient. He needs to hold her in such a way that she cannot escape."
"He thinks of himself as proficient, or he would not try this. He is an arrogant...er...man. Therefore he must have a looser grip, she can kick him in the groin and flee down the stairs. Did he lock the door?"
"Oh!" said Mrs Whitby-Ross, looking up at him excitedly. "I think you have just solved my problem."
"And created mine," he muttered.
© 2011 Copyright held by the author.