"What do you mean?" Mrs Whitby-Ross asked, preoccupied by gauging the distance to the door. "Do you have a problem?"
"You will want to test how hard you need to kick me to give you enough time to escape. Simply write down that it was a hard kick and the villain fell to the ground, moaning and clutching his...wherever you kicked him."
"I have no intention to cause you pain."
Philip did not trust her yet. He released her and took a step back. "But you are sorry to say you are all for realistic research. Did you do this for A Rake Reformed?"
She laughed. "No. But Isabella cannot be put through anything, unlike Cecilia. She has more spirit."
"Anyone would. So you are not going to kick me?"
"I think I will be satisfied with your saying that it is indeed effective," she reassured him.
"Thank you. So now Isabella has fled down the stairs -- or did she secretly enjoy the kiss?"
"If she enjoyed it, she had best not let him know. Principle, you see. He should not kiss ladies without their consent. He must not be rewarded. Now, a looser grip so there is room to kick -- with my knee?"
Philip did not quite like the serious and thoughtful way she was studying him, as if she was still going to do something. He had best take charge. He stepped forward and embraced her lightly again. "It is not unpleasant to embrace a woman," he said, "as long as her unpredictable actions pertain to kissing and not to kicking. If you raised your knee -- gently -- you would manage."
"And how often do you embrace women?" Mrs Whitby-Ross inquired, raising her knee, but not nearly high enough. "We shall just have to assume that Isabella is an acrobat."
"I hope you have not made her very short."
"I do not know. We shall just have to assume that the hero -- I mean, the villain -- is suited to her in height."
"Why did I solve your problem?"
"They were at a standstill. I could not keep her here forever and he was thinking the same. Brilliant of you."
"Thank you. Do you think I could earn some money writing this nonsense too?" He would never try, though.
"Do not be so disparaging about it."
"I would never. It amazed me how well you were known in that bookshop. They knew your name and they knew exactly where to find your shelf, for you had an entire shelf to yourself." It really had surprised him and it had made him feel less embarrassed about his question.
"I am on the shelf," Mrs Whitby-Ross said in satisfaction. "I always knew."
They had gone downstairs again and there the lady of the house more formally invited Philip, his mother and his brother to dine with her the next evening. Because she had things to do, he rode home, although he had no idea what else he could have done there if she had not had anything to do. He had asked the question he had come to ask. Now he would have to wait until tomorrow to find out if she had the same thoughts about Alexander and Miss Cavendish. He hoped his brother would be home tomorrow, or else it would all be for nothing.
His mother had just come in from a walk when he arrived home. "I thought you did not want to go anywhere because you had just come home. Yet you went out to ride as if you were not sore."
"I had to settle some business," he replied vaguely. "We are invited to dine with Mrs Whitby-Ross tomorrow."
"All of us?"
"Yes, why not?"
"I thought she might invite me alone, without requiring you and Alexander to listen to the conversation of two middle-aged widows."
He did not doubt they could talk very agreeably, but that was not the point. "She needs to meet Alexander because of Miss Cavendish."
"It might have been wiser to let me arrange a dinner engagement. I was just in the village and heard all sorts of things."
"Oh, not again," Philip groaned.
"It was not really bad," she soothed. "But you must realise that as a family we are now going to be very much in demand. I have two unmarried sons with a tolerable income. I might have already accepted an invitation."
"I did not think so, because you did not tell us we absolutely had to be back from Newcastle to dine with anybody today."
"Still. I heard families with daughters are quite pleased."
"Well, if they had to make do with the likes of George Holden before we came back I am not surprised," Philip commented. "But I cannot say I am flattered until I have met any of these girls. They might simply be the female equivalent of Holden." If there was anyone worth knowing his mother would have told him long before. He had been home before he had gone to Edinburgh with her and he had again been home briefly before he had gone to London. In all that time he had not met any interesting girls here.
"Some of their parents are pleasant people," Mrs Cole tried. "What did you do at Mrs Whitby's house? Did you already have a biscuit?"
"Why, shall I not get one here if I already had one? In that case I did not. She did not offer me anything," he realised.
His mother was shocked.
He was not. "Only conversation. I do not need anything to drink if I am stopping by only briefly."
"What did you talk about?"
How could he tell his mother it had been about embraces and kicks? And that he had even embraced her? And that apart from the fear of being kicked in the groin it had been agreeable? He could not. It was too strange. He settled for something vague and ordinary. "She had to write something and she wanted to consult me about certain topics."
"Why you of all people?" Mrs Cole was suspicious.
"Because I was there?"
Alexander arrived home in the course of the day. He did not want to talk much to his mother about his trip, but to his brother he revealed that he was embarrassed that he had gone along. "We had some fun, but I really should have known there was no such ship."
"Yes," said his brother. "You should have known. But what did you do after I went home? You did not seem convinced yet then."
"Walk, drink, flirt a bit with the local lassies."
"The same as before I left then."
"Oh, George would have liked to do more, but he did not exactly have the funds and I was not exactly prepared to pay for him."
"I do not think Mother would have let you into the house if you had gone along with George's plans."
"Not that I would have told her. I do not know why she cares. She does not care what we do on board either."
"People in the village do not know that either, but if you do something here they can gossip about it." At least Philip assumed that that was the difference.
"Where are we going tonight? Does this woman have pretty daughters?"
"No, she has only sons, but she has a beautiful niece in Kent. I met her in London. You will like her, I think."
"How can I like her if she is in Kent?" Alexander wondered.
"Well, if her aunt likes you, she may invite Miss Cavendish for you."
Alexander showed some more interest now. "What does she look like?"
Philip spent the rest of the day by going to the estate that was now his, but that had previously been his uncle's. He had a steward until the end of the year, after which he was on his own. That gave him a few months to learn more.
He met Mr Prentiss in his aunt's study. The man worked at another, larger estate, but had not minded to help out here for a limited period of time and a nice sum of money.
"All is going well, except of course the builders," said Mr Prentiss.
"Is there any chance my mother's cottage might be ready before the new year?" He did not want to sound as if he was ready to live without her, but he was.
"I doubt it."
He sighed. "It is quite an adjustment after living alone on board. Well, in my own cabin. My mother seems to think we have not aged at all since she sent us away. And I cannot evict my aunt."
Mr Prentiss nodded understandingly. "Perhaps you could live with your aunt? The house is now yours, after all."
"I do not want to offend my mother either. I should either live with both or with neither. Who is to say my aunt is not fussy and interfering? Perhaps I could offer the builders some more money if they hurry?"
"No. You should offer them less money if they do not hurry. Shall I put the suggestion to them? You will subtract a percentage per day."
"Please do so if you think that will help."
Philip had completely forgotten to check the piece of paper in his pocket. He did so when he got home to change for dinner. He picked up his coat and got out the piece of paper. Unfolded, it turned out to be half a sheet. The writing on it was hurried, but legible.
Women's. When exactly.This is research. A book, or more books, that deal with: procreation. The woman's side of it. Not how. (Remember, I have children.) The timing. When and why. Please only reputable sources. I have plenty of the other kind.
He let out a long breath after reading. The woman's side of procreation. Not how, because she had children and presumably she knew how. But having children had not informed her about the when or why? He did not know what to make of it. The when was presumably when they came out. As for the why, he had no idea why, other than that it was because a man had been involved, which brought him back to the how. He would think they were the same.
He also did not know why he could not have read this in her presence. It was puzzling, but not embarrassing. This evening he would be able to ask her what she had meant -- discreetly, of course. It was none of his mother's business. He was not sure his mother was allowed to know that Mrs Whitby-Ross wrote novels and he assumed this was needed for a novel.
Alexander was almost reluctant to go and dine with an older woman of whom he knew nothing except that she had a stunning niece. Her description had intrigued him, but his brother's explanation that he simply did not like light-haired girls had not really satisfied him. If the girl was such a sweet beauty, it should not matter that her hair was fair.
Mrs Whitby-Ross was wearing jewellery again. "Where is the widow?" Alexander hissed into Philip's ear as they followed their mother in.
Philip could not reply anything without the ladies noticing, so he did not. He wondered what had prompted his brother's question.
Mrs Whitby-Ross received them very politely, with more warmth for Philip and his mother and more curiosity for Alexander. In spite of his misgivings beforehand, Alexander was all politeness. Philip did not have to worry about him, he found, so he became more anxious to catch Mrs Whitby alone. He had to ask her what she had meant and what sort of book she wanted.
Because he was still wondering, he did not contribute much to the conversation. When he finally decided he would not be able to conclude anything without asking her, he discovered that his brother was completely engrossed by their hostess, to the point of gazing at her in admiration and agreeing with every thing she said.
This did not sit well with Philip for some reason. They did not appear to have talked about Miss Cavendish at all.
"I agree!" Alexander was just saying with rather too much fervour.
"Not everyone does," said Mrs Whitby-Ross. "Some think differently. In fact, I have run into great trouble in the neighbourhood because I pay my servants more than the average."
"Why?" cried Alexander.
"They called it unfair. I made it impossible for them to hire good servants at no cost."
Mrs Whitby-Ross hesitated before she spoke. "Clearly I need ten butlers."
"I do not understand. Why do you need ten butlers?"
"I do not."
"Oh." Alexander was lost.
"Perhaps there will be another revolt," said Philip.
"All revolts can be traced back to me," she agreed. "But at least there will be none in my own home. None from the servants, at least. The boys, of course, regularly revolt."
It fell to Philip to escort their hostess into the dining room, but he could see Alexander would much rather have done it. He hoped his mother would be slow, so he could ask Mrs Whitby-Ross a few questions, and he was in luck. First her shawl got stuck in her necklace and then the necklace fell and Alexander had to retrieve it.
Philip pushed Mrs Whitby out of the door. Quite gentlemanly and unobtrusively, he thought, but she looked puzzled all the same. He quickly walked her towards the dining room. "I have no idea what you mean by the when and why. Is the why not the same as the how?"
She frowned for a moment. "The why and the how...no. The why and the when are the processes that lead up to the how."
He summarised the matter for her. "How did it happen? There was a man involved. Why did it happen? Because there was a man involved."
"Well then, does it always happen if there is a man involved?" she whispered. "That is what I should like to know. I mean, I know it does not, but why? Is there a rule?"
"And this can be found in a book?" Although there were books about all kinds of rules, he doubted that this particular one had been covered.
"I hope so. Old ladies may be a source, but I have no female relatives. None who would think it acceptable for me to approach them with such questions. My brothers' wives might secretly read novels, but they would jump to conclusions about writing them. Besides, I need the truth, not contradictory suppositions."
"It is called improving the mind. What else?" She glanced over her shoulder and saw the others were joining them. That put an end to the subject.
"There is no end to this foul weather," Mrs Whitby-Ross said when they had had dinner and coffee. "Are you prepared to stay? I did offer, but perhaps you had rather not."
"We heard the road is very treacherous out here," said Mrs Cole, who had been behaving herself until then.
"I only dig when I am expecting a shipment."
"A shipment?" Alexander was confused.
"Yes, a shipment of men. I trap them in potholes in the road and then I lock them into my tower."
He looked astonished. "Really? But that cannot be. Mother would never have agreed to visit if you were that sort."
"There is a sort who traps men in potholes?" Mrs Whitby-Ross was curiously amused.
Alexander did not know what to say to that.
"I thought I was singular," she continued.
Philip was more than vexed by it all. He would have liked more opportunities to speak with her privately, but he had got only one and he was none the wiser. On top of that Alexander was becoming besotted with her, which was rather an annoying sight. He was no match for her in any way. Once or twice he caught his mother's eye, but she looked innocent. He did not trust her at all and he knew she saw what he did. Why she allowed it to happen, he did not know, although to be fair he had no idea what she could do about it.
"I am sorry for disturbing your sleep," said a cool voice near his ear. "But it is your brother."
It was not his brother speaking to him, so Philip shook himself awake. "Is he ill?"
"Yes, in his mind."
"What do you mean?"
"He knocked on my door and when I opened, he told me he was madly in love with me." Her tone conveyed her disbelief and exasperation.
Philip gasped for his brother's actions, not for his brother's feelings. He was not surprised by those. "It cannot have escaped you at dinner that he was very interested."
"I noticed, but I did not expect him to come to my room!"
"Where is he? Did he come in?"
"I am sure he would have accepted an invitation, but I did not issue one. I sent him on his way, tactfully -- I hope. I cannot speak here. You must come to my room."
"Because I cannot be away from my room for long."
"What is there to talk about?" Philip was reluctant to leave his warm bed for anything, but in this case he really did not see what they should discuss. She had sent Alexander away. Surely that was the end of it? And if she took exception to his brother's behaviour, perhaps she should speak to his mother.
He groaned because she sounded insistent and followed her to her room. A single candle gave some light. He noticed a shape in the bed. "Surely he did not get into your bed?" he whispered, ready to drag his brother out.
"No, those are my boys."
He had a look to be certain, but the shape was indeed more like two small boys than one grown man.
"It is why I cannot be away for too long. Sit down."
He shivered, but sat down.
"This is quite a nuisance. I am not used to being pursued with so many family members of the man in question nearby. It rather forces me to be tactful so as not to offend anybody and I am not always good at being tactful because tact is not always understood. Last night I tried to be agreeable by explaining every obvious thing, but even that was difficult. I apologise in advance for being uncivil tomorrow."
"I see." He yawned. "I must know -- did you discourage him completely, or did you simply imply that tonight was not the right time?"
"I do not think implications would have been understood," Mrs Whitby-Ross said dryly. "I fear that boy is thinking so much about women that he can only be distracted from one woman by another. How long does it last, that phase?"
He did not know if he had ever had it. "I cannot say. Perhaps you ought to assume your London appearance again tomorrow."
"There was not much of a London appearance; you were simply not paying attention."
"But you opened the door in your nightgown, I assume."
"Nobody knocks on my door unless it is an emergency! Of course I opened the door in my nightgown. What of it?"
"He is young. I can imagine he went wild. How often does he see women in nightgowns?" He had no idea if it mattered. It might have.
"He is a lieutenant in the Navy. Surely in every port there are establishments in which scantily-clad women dance on tables? No man can reach the rank of lieutenant without ever having seen such a thing."
"Oh?" He did not know she was an authority on seaside entertainment.
"Do you disagree with me, Captain?"
"I may disagree with you with the dancing on tables. I do not disagree with scantily-clad women, in warmer climates especially. Still, they are not usually in the street, or not in the streets that you usually walk through. You do have to go looking for them, but yes, you can find them if you want."
"And I do not believe one could have reached the rank of lieutenant without ever having wanted to find them, for whatever reason. Therefore my nightgown is irrelevant and I am not to blame for his outpouring," she said sharply.
Philip yawned again. "I shall have a word with him tomorrow and talk him out of it."
Philip was even more annoyed with his brother now. Although he had thought he would easily fall asleep when he returned to his room, that did not prove to be so easy at all. He kept thinking about his brother and he had almost gone to Alexander's room to have a word. It was ridiculous! Scandalous! Impossible! To have gone to the room of an older woman to tell her he was in love with her.
But in the end he had little desire to leave his warm bed again. He would stay cold all night if he did and never fall asleep.
In the morning he first tried his brother's room, but no one was there any more.
Philip went down to breakfast. Coming closer to the room, he heard voices. His mother and Mrs Whitby-Ross were talking. He should not be eavesdropping, but if he simply slowed his pace he was not -- as long as he kept moving. Just so he would not be caught and suspected, he took out his pocket watch and studied it.
"-- is a pity," Mrs Whitby-Ross was saying. "He does not strike me as someone engaging in too many activities that would shock Serena."
"You will find," said Mrs Cole -- rather ominously, or so Philip thought. "That sons do not tell you everything as they grow older."
"However, Alexander in particular seems unable to keep secrets to himself," Mrs Whitby commented.
It occurred to Philip that his brother was not in the breakfast room with them. They would never speak about him in his presence. He wondered if Mrs Whitby-Ross was going to tell his mother about Alexander.
He had reached the door and could only go in. "Good morning." The ladies greeted him back. He was surprised to see the two children were there as well, on their chairs and not under the table.
They quickly dispelled any notion of perfection. "Philip is here again, Mama," said the eldest.
"Yes, he is," said Mrs Whitby. Apparently she was used to the obvious being stated, because she was not at all surprised.
"Can he come to the nursery later?"
Philip wondered why, given that the first time they had met he had suggested the boy needed to have his ears boxed. That could hardly have endeared himself to them.
"If his mother approves," said Mrs Whitby. "She might want to go home."
"Perhaps. Where is Alexander?" she asked Philip.
"He seems to have disappeared. He was not in his room. I wanted to have a word with him, but I could not find him." He sat down in an empty chair. It was easy today: most chairs were already occupied.
"Who is Alexander?" asked Tom.
"My other son."
"Who is your other son?" the boy inquired.
That surprising fact made him giggle. "You have a mother?"
"Worse: I live with my mother," Philip said dryly. "Wait, do you not think you could ask my mother about that subject you were wondering about?" he asked Mrs Whitby-Ross.
That lady was just touching her lips with her napkin and she kept it there for a good while before she lowered it to speak. "Clever."
He looked confused. He thought it was clever, but apparently it was not. He did not see why.
"Oh, I am curious now," Mrs Cole said brightly.
Mrs Whitby-Ross shot Philip a meaningful look across the table. "Brilliant. A word, if you please." She pushed her chair back and beckoned him. Philip followed meekly, avoiding his mother's eyes. Mrs Whitby ordered him into another room down the corridor. It was dark, but he could still see it was a water closet. She closed the door behind her, rendering it pitch dark, and hooked her fingers behind the waistband of his trousers.
"That gesture speaks of experience with keeping men in here," he commented. The hand very firmly kept him in place.
"Yes. Listen. What would your mother think of our discussing that subject?"
"What would she think of your taking me here?"
"You were wriggling in your chair. Boys wriggling in their chairs are taken here to prevent accidents from occurring. Think! Well, Mrs Cole," she hissed in another voice, "how could I -- no, Philip said you might know how a lady might have amorous liaisons with men without consequences and I thought this so plausible that here I am, asking you."
"Well, at least that implies that I have no clue." But the subject had just become a lot clearer to him. He wondered if she needed this knowledge for herself or for a book.
The fingers behind his waistband pinched him. "I rather think it implies something else."
"Lord, you really do not suffer fools well, do you?"
"Mama?" a confused little voice cried somewhere in the corridor. "Where did you go?"
"I am Cecilia; you are Captain Drake," said Philip, who felt anything might be done to him. Had the novel gone on any longer, they would have undoubtedly tried the water closet as well. "Perhaps I should scream."
"Stay here," she ordered and she left the water closet to walk back to the breakfast room.
"Where were you, Mama?" And then their voices moved away, presumably back to the table.
Philip did not suppose he was to remain in the water closet indefinitely. As soon as he believed no one was looking any more, he came out and walked back. He could hear his mother talking.
"I am not worried about your stepping out of the room with Philip. He can keep his trousers on, I am sure. It is Alexander's I am worried about."
Philip flattened himself against the wall in shock.
"Nobody ever worries about me," Mrs Whitby-Ross said with some disappointment. "Which does have its advantages most of the time, so I ought not to complain. But what you said about Alexander, is that really so? Would he, if I were to send for my niece, need to be closely monitored? Or would it be wiser to inform them how far they can go without there being consequences?"
There was a silence. Philip was forced to stay in the corridor until an answer had been given.
"Did you ask Philip that?" asked his mother eventually.
"It is difficult to broach such a subject with a man, especially if they do not know what you are talking about," Mrs Whitby-Ross revealed in a confidential tone.
"Why did you ask him then?"
"He is in the Navy. I heard they are as knowledgeable as politicians."
"Your husband was a politician, was he not?"
Philip supposed it was still safe to discuss these subjects in front of small children. Nevertheless he felt it was his duty to appear and to shield them from elaboration on what politicians knew exactly. To his amazement the children were no longer in the room. He looked under the table, but they were not there either.
The two ladies watched him with curiosity.
"I am surprised you would speak of such subjects in front of children," he said.
"I am surprised you would eavesdrop," said his mother.
"Really?" said Mrs Whitby-Ross. "I rather expected it. The children went outside. They saw a rabbit. But I agree with you that it is not a subject to be discussed in front of them. They remember more than you would think and repeat the most undesirable bits at the most embarrassing moments."
Philip sat down again and continued eating.
After a while the boys came back inside and they took Philip to the nursery. He was loath to leave the ladies and their scandalous subjects, but he could perhaps ask his mother later what they had said. He suspected she would then only tell him what amused her most.
"I can only have one cup of tea," he told Tom and Ben. "My mother is waiting." But he needed not have worried, for they only served imaginary tea. It was more important to admire all their toys.
They had a young woman overseeing their education, but she was sitting a little uselessly now. Philip extricated himself as soon as he could, wanting to leave them to their drawing or reading or whatever they were going to do.
When he arrived downstairs again, Alexander had returned. He was sulking in the hall.
"Where were you?" Philip inquired. "We thought you had started to walk home."
"I was not hungry." Clearly he had not slept much.
"Where is Mother?"
"Washing her hands."
"And our hostess?"
"I wish I knew," Alexander said glumly. "Or I should have kissed her."
"You cannot do that!" Philip exclaimed.
"How could you even ask? I have to assume you are not serious, but merely so tired that you do not know what you are saying."
"I do. I spent all night thinking about it."
Philip did not doubt that; he had himself spent half the night thinking about Alexander kissing Mrs Whitby-Ross. "It is wrong."
"Why is it wrong? Have you never kissed anyone?"
"Certainly I have," Philip replied because his mother was not there yet anyway. She could not ask him who and he would not have to say he remembered few names. "But I cannot remember kissing anyone who objected."
"She did not tell me I could not," Alexander persisted sulkily. "I bet you never spoke of love to anyone you kissed."
Philip could not recall that indeed and he said nothing.
"See," his brother said with a triumphant look. "They have nothing to do with each other. If I cannot love, I can still kiss."
"No! I mean -- no!"
Understanding dawned suddenly on Alexander's face. "You are jealous."
"Of your stupidity? I think not."
"You are jealous. You wish you could, because you have never kissed anyone."
"I have!" Philip felt provoked enough to protest. He knew he should not; it was childish. He should simply let Alexander labour under this misapprehension.
"You have not and you want to, but you lack the courage to do it. Coward. Captain Coward. I am not a coward. You will see."
Philip began to wonder if Alexander had hidden out somewhere with a stash of bottles. He certainly sounded rather strange. "All right. Do what you will. I do not care."
Alexander took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and entered the drawing room.
Philip sat down on the sofa in the hall and waited. Mrs Whitby-Ross would use her knee, he hoped.
When Mrs Whitby-Ross appeared -- from another door than the one that Alexander had gone into -- Philip studied her closely for signs of having been put through anything unpleasant. Clearly something had happened, but he would not say it was unpleasant. He frowned.
"Oh!" she exclaimed merrily.
He frowned some more.
"I need to talk to you in private," she said and dragging him by the arm led him to another door in the hall.
This time it was not a water closet, but a cloak room, and it was not dark due to a small window. He wondered what they were going to do there. Perhaps he should stop waiting for her to say or do something, but be the one to do something first. "Did you kick him?"
Although this room was a bit larger than the water closet and there was light, she nevertheless kept a hold on his arm. "I must say I am very glad you taught me that move."
"But did you have to use it?"
He turned away in disgust. "Bah. You liked it."
"Liked what? Oh, what he did? Yes, I sort of liked that."
Philip felt sick. "Bah."
"Oh, you think he did something?" she asked. "He only spoke of it. That was the amusing bit. He told me what he had thought of doing -- and then he did nothing!"
"Nothing." Philip could hardly believe it. "Why tell you if he had no intention of doing anything?"
"No intention? No courage is more like it," she said briskly. "So I told him he was mistaken. It might seem as if he wanted it, but he did not really, because he did nothing. We should not suit and I really do not have a use for a husband or even a lover. However, I have a niece who does."
"Hmph." He was still too astonished to be eloquent.
"I am going to send for her. Your brother seems innocent enough. I hope he will not be very mortified in the meantime. You look a little wan, Captain." She tapped his cheek.
"Well," he said, shaking his head incredulously as if everything still had to fall into place. "I was rather mortified myself at the idea of that fool imposing on you in such a manner. It was not very gentlemanly of me that I did not hold him back, but that I trusted you to kick him."
"Do not worry about it. He clearly said he had thought of stealing a kiss, not my virtue. Kisses are not very dangerous. They have no lasting consequences. They may be unwanted and unpleasant; that is all." She squeezed his arm. "Mind you, this is no reason for either of you to go kissing women at random."
"I can only be dragged into so many rooms until I am provoked," said Philip, leaning in. He straightened up when he was done and made for the door of the cloakroom. "You forgot to kick."
When he stepped out of the room, however, his mother was staring straight at him. She raised her eyebrows. Perhaps it was indeed a little odd for him to come out of there without a coat, or even to go in there himself. Servants would normally get his coat, would they not? It was best to act as if nothing had happened and he hoped his smugness did not show.
He must push from his mind that he had kissed Mrs Whitby-Ross and that she had not kicked him. It could therefore not have been unpleasant. He did not dare to look behind him, however. From the way his mother's eyes travelled he knew there was something to be seen there.
"Did you see Lieutenant Cole, Mrs Cole?" asked Mrs Whitby-Ross.
Philip thought she sounded remarkably unruffled, even if he had no idea why she was talking about Alexander.
"No, I cannot say I did. Why?"
Trust his mother to make that sound like why are you two coming out of that room? Philip casually moved towards the stairs and leant against them. He would not say anything about anything until he knew everyone's position.
He realised he had a rather high opinion of Mrs Whitby's fire power. She would sort it out.
"Were you looking for Alexander?" asked Mrs Cole.
"No," Mrs Whitby-Ross said with a smile. "I was having a private conversation with Captain Cole."
Philip did not understand why she could not invent something about mice. They could have gone in there to catch a mouse or something like that. There was a small chance his mother would actually believe that. Private conversations, on the other hand, could only mean one thing. Especially if they had taken place in obscure little rooms with hardly any light.
His mother was clearly struggling with her suspicions, whereas Mrs Whitby-Ross was standing there with a challengingly innocent smile.
At last she spoke. "Shall I have your carriage ordered, Madam? I am sure your other son will turn up."
"That would be lovely, if you and Philip have nothing more to...discuss."
"We have not," said the lady, albeit not unkindly. "We shall continue our conversation another time."
Philip was expecting the question, but he did not think his mother would ask it while they were in the carriage with Alexander. She certainly did not start out with it.
"Quite an agreeable young woman, for all her eccentricities," Mrs Cole began. "She goes very much her own way. No wonder people talk about her."
Perhaps he should take some action again, rather than wait for the question. He could ask a question of his own. "What did you discuss when I went to the nursery?"
"Oh, this and that. Where were you, Alexander?"
"I was reading in the library."
"Reading? Did you have permission to go there and read?"
"I suppose not," he yawned. "But I did not know what else to do."
"What were you reading?"
"I have no idea. I could not sleep. At least you had Philip there to be a good boy," Alexander said sharply. "I am sure Mrs Whitby prefers middle-aged men like him, too."
"As a matter of fact," Mrs Cole said brightly, "there is no point in fighting over her, given that she has told me she eschews men."
Philip looked out of the window. It had not felt like that, really, but did one even notice how the other person was feeling during a kiss? "Why?"
"Because she has no use for them, she said. However, I expect she enjoys the freedom of doing exactly as she likes. I have to say I understand her perfectly."
"I am curious what you and she were doing in the cloak room." The question came at home.
He had known it would, but he had only half a dozen answers ready and none truly worked. They could have chased mice, spiders and coats, but none of these things would satisfy his mother. It was best to stick as closely to the truth as possible. "She took me there."
"Yes, she seems to be doing a lot of that."
"Which is my business entirely."
"Oh, it is, but if you do not tell me you give me leave to think exactly what I like."
Philip shrugged. "As long as you keep in mind that it is no more than what you think. You still do not know."
Philip wrote to his sister, asking her to look for books for a friend of his. He hoped she would not ask what sort of friend, for she knew he had only returned a short time before and he could not be friends with many people in the area of whom she had never heard. She had grown up here too.
It took him some time to describe the subject in a way that would neither embarrass her nor make her wonder. She would have to pass the inquiry to Simon, he supposed, and he should keep that in mind.
He did not visit Mrs Whitby-Ross again and could only hope she had invited Miss Cavendish. It was not that he did not want to see the lady, but he had imposed some restrictions on himself when he had kept thinking favourably of the kiss. It was only natural for a young man to be smug about having succeeded in kissing a woman, but it might not have anything to do with the woman herself. Besides, the estate called his attention and he had responsibilities. He could not be distracted by pleasant or silly things all the time. And he also did not want his mother to keep asking him questions.
Alexander had moaned about the lady once or twice, but he had made no move to run into her accidentally. Mrs Cole probably saw her, because she once looked smug when she announced she was going to call on a friend, but Philip had not asked her anything. His mother had also not told him about the visit afterwards.
Philip's steward brought a lecture in Carlisle to his attention a few days later. It was called Innovations in Farming and it might give them some ideas for the farm. "And if not," said Prentiss, "you would get to know some other landowners and you might hear something useful that is completely unrelated to the lecture."
He had agreed to go with Prentiss and they presented themselves in Carlisle at the designated time. The hall was full of men talking to each other, a mixture of estate owners, gentlemen-farmers and stewards. Most were talking animatedly, but in one corner there was a more nervous discussion going on.
Because Prentiss wanted to introduce Philip to one of the men there, they walked in that direction and waited for the men to finish talking. He could not help but overhear what they were saying. It did not appear to be a very great secret either.
"But the subject!" said one flustered fellow. "We cannot let her in! It is not suitable."
Another man nodded. He agreed. A third man did not. "She has been here before. What if I had a word with her?"
"As if that would help?"
A figure appeared at Philip's side, much as it had done at the London ball. "I expect there is a brief passage about cattle breeding," she said in a low voice. Then she stepped forward and addressed the men. "Listen, I spoke to Mr Humphreys, who as you know is the expert on what he is going to tell us, and I informed him I was not likely to shriek in horror upon hearing what bulls are for. Why are you afraid I am?"
"It is highly unsuitable."
"You are simply afraid I might have better ideas than you," she shot back with a laugh.
"But you are a lady."
"No, I am a landowner. May I remind you that only the Baxter half of the estate will revert to David? If you do not want ladies to attend, you should not make these lectures public."
Prentiss leant towards Philip. "Do you know her, Captain?"
"Yes, I met her in London." He was still startled by her sudden appearance.
"She often attends. Corby, the new fellow, on the right, does not know it yet. Aye Corby," he called out to the man. "Conversation is a lot more civil if women attend. Or would you prefer to hear the indecent jokes some of the fellows like to tell?"
Prentiss turned back to Philip. "Don't be fooled. Her father is a regular visitor. They would not dare to aggravate him. I expects he donates quite a bit. But there's always, I think, a lingering fear that she might bring more women."
Philip understood. "It is the same in the Navy. I did not allow them on board. In serious situations one does not want the crew to be weakened because their women ate half their rations. And in my opinion, too, if you allow one, you will end up with a dozen. Of course these situations are not at all comparable," he hastened to add.
"I should hope not, Captain," Prentiss said in a lowered voice. "As she seems quite friendly with you, it might be in your best interest not to think these situations comparable -- if you don't mind my saying so."
"Why do I seem friendly with her? She hardly spoke to me."
"You are acquainted with her and you still look interested."
Philip wondered who Mrs Whitby-Ross' companion was. It was a man in his thirties, neatly but modestly dressed and a trifle uncomfortable about it. Philip did not take him for a landowner; a farmer was more likely. The man did not take notes, but Mrs Whitby-Ross did.
During the break Prentiss was fetching Philip a drink and Mrs Whitby-Ross sauntered over. Her companion had left her too.
"Whom are you with?" Philip inquired. It was none of his business, he knew, but he had kissed her and he supposed he therefore took some interest in other men she associated with.
"Henry Davies, my largest tenant."
"No wonder he is getting you a drink."
"He would do a lot for me," she agreed.
He did not know if he liked men who did a lot for her. They would make him think of Alexander and his foolish behaviour. He had best change the subject before he let his jealousy show, because he most definitely identified it as jealousy now. "They let you in eventually then?"
"They were always going to let me in. And why not? I behave myself. I only take notes." She lowered her voice. "You would be amused at the number of people who later ask me for details."
"Do you have such an interest in farming?"
"I have an interest in anything that improves the life of the common worker. Not every innovation does, however." She said that a little challengingly, as if it was usually considered odd.
"You do not care about profits?"
"I can afford not to make that my primary concern. For men like Henry, however, it is something absolutely necessary, so I must take an interest. He wants to give his children a good education."
"Does he have any children?" Or was he still admiring her?
"A baby." She smiled as if she could read his thoughts. "And a nice wife, too. No reason to stray. Though --" She grimaced. "-- even some with nice wives stray."
Philip supposed she was speaking of herself. "I am sorry." He did not know what else he could say.
"I am sorry too. I must ask that man there a question. He was late, I noticed, and I did not have the opportunity earlier. And before you get any more ideas," she said in a low voice again. "He is my cousin."
Philip bowed politely, although he was a little confused about why he had to be told it was her cousin. He wondered if he would have the time to speak to her later.
One of the men he had been introduced to in the beginning addressed him. "How do you enjoy being ashore, Captain?"
"I am still enjoying it, but I must give myself something to do. Of course my estate provides enough of interest at the moment. It is small, but the work is all new to me." He forced himself not to look in the lady's direction. He must not be too preoccupied.
"Quite right," nodded the man, a Sir William Crossley. "Hopefully you will find these meetings interesting. We have weekly gatherings -- not always on the same subject and not always with the same audience, but some people always come. Tonight we have farmers; other subjects draw a few more ladies."
"You are not against ladies attending."
"No. Are you? You spoke to Mrs Whitby." Sir William glanced towards where she was standing. She was just being given her drink.
"I met her in London at a ball."
"At a ball?" Sir William was astonished.
"She has a marriageable niece," Philip explained. "A beautiful girl."
"As she was a friend of my daughter's, I happen to know she once called balls insipid girl auctions."
Now it was Philip's turn to look astonished.
"Yes, quite outspoken she was then. These days one would hardly suspect a rebellious mind. You need not worry about the lectures."
He assured Sir William that he did not. Lectures were not battles. He had been on ships that had women on them. Some were useful and some were not, but the trouble was that you never knew in advance. When he became a captain he had preferred to sail without them altogether, which had been easier in theory than in practice.
After the lecture, the men got up from their seats and dispersed into the hall and the room with the refreshments. Mostly into the latter place, however, and apart from a few men who left directly, the hall was soon quiet. Philip had kept his eyes on Mrs Whitby-Ross, who did not seem to be headed towards a door marked Ladies until after he gave her a nudge in that direction. He glanced over his shoulder to see if no one was watching and then followed her in. She had the presence of mind to lock the door while he looked around. An elegant chest with drawers with a mirror on it was to the left, two comfortable chairs to the right. There were two lit candles next to the mirror. On the far end of the narrow room there was a screen.
"Why is there a lock?"
"When you are going about your business," she explained, "you generally do not want the world to barge in." She sat down.
"Going about your business sitting in these chairs?"
"I assume the chairs are for ladies who do not like solitary excursions, but who need someone to chat even as they go about their business."
"Very odd." He held out his hands and pulled her out of the chair. "You did not kick me that time. May I deduce that you did not find it unpleasant?"
"You may." She placed a hand against his chest. "However, it was never my intention to provoke you. It was rather confusing that you seemed to think so."
"I know it was not intentional. You were too single-minded about your novel. How do we go on?" he added in the same breath.
"Well, Philip...I do not object to being kissed, as long as you do not get me in a particular condition."
He had no idea what she meant. "Passionate? Nervous?"
"Oh. It does not happen that way." Which he was sure she knew, being a mother. He looked confused.
"No, but it certainly starts out that way. I do not want to lie in ever again. It is horrible. I nearly died."
Philip could see she was absolutely serious. Her eyes were wide and she had lost her composure, which was rather at odds with her usual behaviour. He sat down in one of the chairs and pulled her into the other.
"Perhaps it does not fit. I must not be built for it. I had all the accoucheurs and nurses I could need. I did not like it the first time, but then Ben came out the wrong way too."
"He came through your mouth?" Philip knew it could not be, but he did not know how else to interpret her words. These female topics were so confusing.
"Philip, are you ignorant or are you trying to be flippant? He came out feet first."
"Oh, is that wrong?" he asked stupidly and shuddered at the thought of anything coming out in any way.
"Yes, it is. So, there." She took a deep breath. "What do you want?"
"I have no idea," he said truthfully. He would not object to more kisses, he supposed, but he expected she knew that and it was no use stating the obvious. She meant the long term and he had no idea. "However, those books you have asked me to find, they might contain a solution. Is that why you asked me?"
"No. That was coincidental. It had been on my mind far longer. I cannot help that everything seems to make me think of it. It is rather important what you want. You see, in fifteen years or so I shall be happy to do everything with you that you may like, but not now."
"Why fifteen years?"
"I may be out of the childbearing years by then. So you must decide what you want. If you want me, you must exercise some restraint. If you want children, I have to disappoint you altogether."
"You were my best shot at an intelligent wife," he said with mock gloom. Her attitude was not a complete surprise to him. She had never behaved as if she wanted a husband and he could therefore not be disappointed.
"And what do you want?"
"I do not know. You have been improving on me. I do like a little spirit, too. Perhaps this is not the best place for this conversation. We cannot make it very long here. They might wonder where you went. The man you were with, for example."
"He might, but we are not leaving together. He does not live near me. If he does not see me he will assume I am fending for myself socially. Are you leaving alone?" he asked with a calculating look.
A few streets away at the edge of a small square, Philip had the carriage stopped. He opened the door and Mrs Whitby-Ross climbed in. "You schemer," she said. "You will have me home by the time my darlings go to bed, will you not? They sleep with me."
"Always." She took his hand. "I must say it feels a little exciting to be in someone else's carriage and not in my own house where I am in charge of where we go and what we do. Where are you going to take me?"
"To your house by some circuitous route, unless you want to come home with me and have my mother listen in?"
"Oh. No, thank you. I told her I had enough of men, which I do, really."
"At least for the next fifteen years."
"I know it is an impossible thing to ask of a man. My husband would have laughed at me and said it was not in a man's nature." She exhaled deeply. "And frankly it would be an impossible thing for me as well."
"It would?" Philip was surprised.
"Yes. It almost makes me wonder if I should risk it anyhow. Unless I lost interest I could not live without affection. It was so easy until now -- I knew beyond a doubt I did not want to go through that awfulness again." But now she looked doubtful and confused.
"Perhaps we should speak to my mother after all," said Philip helplessly. "She gave birth to children; I did not."
"Well, it is --" She laughed. "It is quite clear you did not, as well as that you have never wondered how it happened."
"I did, when I was little, but nobody told me."
"But when you thought the wrong way was up and not down, you really had me wondering."
"In my defence," Philip said with dignity, "I did not think it; I asked you what you meant." He waited for her to acknowledge this and then he continued. "Why is it a bad thing to come feet first?"
"Do you think they told me?" she asked bitterly. "Lord, no! I was merely the sufferer. No need to educate me."
"What do you mean?"
"They do not tell you anything. You are not allowed to know what is happening. It might upset a delicate female. I had a male midwife from London, recommended as the best, but to him I was nothing but a country lass. Perhaps I was no more than a cow. Just imagine you have been in great pain for a day already and they are getting slightly cross with you for not hurrying, and then you try your hardest before they leave you to die and out comes something that is apparently a foot and you only know because they exclaim in horror amongst themselves and not to you. You only see their panic and they are not telling you why, but they are behaving as if you might die any second and actually you would like to if that puts an end to the pain, but you remember little Tom, for whom you must stay alive." She paused, eyes closed.
"I can understand why you would not want that again," said Philip and embraced her.
He released her.
She chuckled. "I would have preferred you to close them, not to let me go."
"It sounds horrible," he said earnestly, closing the curtains and drawing her towards him again. "Perhaps it would all go better without such a man."
"It would all go better without a next time."
"I remember, when I was about eighteen, that the wife of the ship's carpenter went below decks one day and came up with a baby two hours later."
Mrs Whitby-Ross did not like that. "That cannot have been the same woman."
"Then it was not two hours."
"It was twenty-six hours and you were drunk in the meantime."
Philip laughed. "It is true that I remember nothing if I am drunk, but I assure you I was not drunk that time, Mrs -- do I know your name? May I use it?"
"What did you tell your tenant?" Philip asked when his carriage halted outside the Whitby-Ross house. She had been telling him about the births at his request, leaving out the gruesome details and focusing more on who had been there and how she had been feeling. Still, he felt he was in the dark as to how it all really transpired when some things were not mentioned.
"The truth. I needed to speak privately with a gentleman."
"What would he think of that?" And what would he think about the subject? It was good that he was never going to be told. Or was he? She seemed unusually honest.
She shrugged. "That I needed to speak to that gentleman, perhaps? You need not worry about him. We have been friends for a long time. I taught him to read. Not privately, by the way, before you get jealous again. I taught two boys at once. It greatly improved their station in life. They would never get me in any trouble."
"But he might disapprove of you."
"No, he has known me for too long. If I need to speak privately to a gentleman, then I really have a need to do so. I am not so empty-headed as to need private time only to kiss a gentleman."
"Would that be empty-headed?"
"If you can afford to do that with no talk at all, you are either empty-headed or you are so safely married that you have no need to make excuses to anybody. We are neither, so it follows that a great deal of our time will indeed be taken up by talking."
"If you say so, Madam," he said with a grin, relieved to be parting on this lighter note. "I am glad you do not think me empty-headed."
"No, not very. My writing has not gone well," she added. "Even though you helped me."
"I am sorry," said he and tried to think of something more helpful and clever to say. "Are the characters not cooperating?" That was how she thought of them, as real people. Then so should he.
Selena looked pleased with his insight. "Our being a few steps ahead of them is making them behave very oddly. When Isabella ran back and begged Julian to kiss her, I knew I had to burn a few pages."
"It is more proper to beg than to do."
"Yes, but a proper girl should not be thinking about it at all. She should not even know what it is. She only does because I do."
They parted with a kiss and Philip went home. He considered asking his mother about childbirth, but then very quickly decided against it when he played out in his mind how it would go. He would have to explain far too much and he would become far too exposed to censure and ridicule. Besides, he did not want to divulge anybody's secrets to a third party.
Nevertheless, he wanted to find a solution for Selena. Selena. It was in his own interests, perhaps. He was rather attracted to her, he admitted, and the attraction seemed to be mutual. She had kissed him back on two occasions, which she would not have done out of mere politeness. She was also not after his money or merely a good time. And she had told him things she had never told anybody else.
Philip had been fearing his sister's response, but a package was delivered in a very timely manner, containing three books. Her husband Simon, instead of shrinking from the request in disapproval, had gone wild with it. Philip suspected he felt rather superior to the uneducated northerners who had no idea how to come by such information.
Since the books arrived late in the day and he had no more opportunity to deliver them to Mrs Whitby-Ross, he sat down in the library to browse through them.
"What are you reading?" his mother asked, predictably, when she looked in.
"Some books I asked Eleanor to get -- for a friend."
"They look quite scholarly. What sort of friend?"
"A scholarly friend." Philip closed the book he was reading and wrapped it up again. Mothers were so tiresome. Fortunately, should she look, she would not know exactly what his friend wanted from this book. The material was in one of the many chapters. It had taken him a few minutes to locate it.
It was interesting, very much so.
Philip was shown in by the same manservant when he called on his scholarly friend the next day, but not into the same room as usual. Instead, he was taken to a small, stuffy room. This puzzled him, as did the cautious manner and furtive looks of the man. "Does Mrs Whitby-Ross already have visitors?" he asked.
"And they must not see me," Philip deduced.
"I don't know, Captain, but Mrs Whitby must be the judge of that."
"That is wise, I suppose, but I have only come to deliver a parcel. Would my mere presence make this visitor think I am about to do a wicked thing with the lady?"
"It might, Captain."
Philip sat down. "I thought I looked trustworthy. Well, I suppose I still do, for you let me in." He felt rather flattered that he had not been sent away.
"Yes, sir. It may take a while, but Mrs Whitby will be with you as soon as she can."
"Thank you." He leant back and studied the ceiling and then the walls. Whoever Selena's visitor was, it was someone who would have undesirable thoughts when he saw Philip. Who could that be and what could those thoughts be? Her father? One of her brothers?
Here he was now, waiting until the footman could discreetly inform Selena of her second visitor. Then she would have to make excuses and only then could she come here.
It took about five minutes before she appeared, breathlessly. "You will never guess what happened!"
Philip got to his feet. "You have a visitor who would disapprove of me?"
"Nine? And they all disapprove of me? What did I do to deserve that?"
"I invited Serena, but she brought her entire family. Her father would never shut up if he saw you."
Philip embraced her. "I suppose it would be even worse if he saw this?" he murmured into her ear.
"I am afraid he fears all women living alone do this all day."
"But then you could hardly say they lived alone."
"I never said he made sense. But I have got better things to do than defend myself from ludicrous accusations all day."
"Which makes it all the more interesting to him if they turn out not to be ludicrous, but in fact very close to the truth." Although he now felt as if he could do this all day, he knew he could not. There were always things to do.
"With no man in the house to guide them, women will fall prey to rakes."
"Rakes are also men who can guide women."
"I never said he made sense."
"But how did this man allow you to oversee Serena's stay in London? You, susceptible woman living alone?" Or perhaps that was exactly why the man had accompanied Serena here. He wanted to see for himself what they were up to.
"I never said he made sense. I have even had to hide the key to my tower. They are all over the house. I do not want anybody to go up and see my notes."
"And you do not want anybody to see me."
She smiled. "You were not taken here at my orders; that was the footman thinking for himself. But he did well. I thanked him."
"I brought something for you." He pointed at the books. "Some very interesting books. They arrived late yesterday, so I took the liberty of reading them."
"All of them?" Her eyes were wide. It was impossible to read three thick books in a few hours.
"No, the pertinent bits."
She brightened up immediately. "There were pertinent bits? Oh, how I wish you could tell me, but I have so little time."
"They can be summarised in very little time. Madam, you will never call me ignorant again."
"William, will you see Captain Cole out through the servants' entrance? If he ever presents himself there he is to be taken up to my room by the back stairs."
The footman did not look at all surprised by this order. "Yes, Mrs Whitby."
"Please tell Cook I have invited the Coles for tomorrow's dinner," she said although she had done no such thing.
"You have?" asked Philip. "By the way, my mother forbade me to make dinner appointments on my own, because they might cross hers."
"My dear, if your mother has not yet informed you of any appointment for tomorrow, you need not keep it."
He was let out through the back entrance. Other servants gazed upon him curiously, but the next time, he supposed, they would all have heard of Mrs Whitby's request. They would then all know he was to be smuggled up to her bedroom, but they might then all be wondering what he was to do there. He supposed Selena would either explain, or simply trust in their inability to think ill of her.
A carriage pulled up outside the house later, when he had just said goodbye to Prentiss. Out came Selena and her two boys. "I need a little support," she said.
She sounded calm, but there was an edge to her voice. Philip wondered if her nine guests were bothering her. He was glad his mother was out, but he supposed Selena would not have vented if he had not been alone. Thankfully Prentiss was just riding away and he could not hear, but he was nevertheless looking over his shoulder. And Prentiss knew Mrs Cole and Alexander were not at home.
"I have just found out that Mrs Cavendish is close to fifty and expecting her ninth child. I thought I might be safe in fifteen years, but apparently not." She swallowed. "She is old and she pops out babies between breakfast and the morning's lessons. It is simply too much to take."
"Boys, why do you not go to the kitchen?" Philip suggested when he felt the conversation was perhaps not very appropriate for small ears. "Mrs Bailey might have baked a cake. That way and please ask nicely."
"Thank you," said Selena when the boys had hurried off. "They are all too apt to repeat my words in company. Perhaps I already said too much. The Cavendishes already have eight and she is old, why does he have to go on?"
"Abstinence is a sin," Philip said devoutly. "But you wanted us to start at that age. Would you think me an old lecher then?"
"No. It is unfair of me, but it bothered me a great deal." Tears welled up. "It made me feel so useless. She can carelessly give Mr Cavendish his ninth child, when neither are probably extremely happy about it any more, and I cannot even give you a first."
"Would you like to?" Philip asked quietly. He did not yet want to think or say anything with regard to his own wishes.
"You deserve one."
"Do not worry about it. Your husband and I both came by our estates from childless men. Childless men have other ways to dispose of their money."
"That is practical. I do not feel practical." She bit her lip. "It will pass."
He shook his head. "No, it will not. You will keep thinking of it for fifteen years, or you will be foolishly noble and tell me to marry someone else so I can have children with her."
She was silent for a while. "Yes."
"Even though you have not said you would marry me in fifteen years."
Selena looked thoughtful. "No, I have not. I am not decided. I could also marry you now -- I think we should enjoy it -- but once we are married there is nothing to stop you from forcing me to -- you would have every right and being with me every day, you would also have every incentive."
"Ah." He was happy to hear she did want to marry him at some point. He would enjoy it too to spend more time with her. It was a little vexing that he had so little say in the matter, however. The last thing he wanted was to dismiss her concerns, but he wanted to relieve them and that was proving very difficult.
"It is quite presumptuous of me to think my presence provides an incentive, is it not? It is not that I think so highly of myself, but..." She grinned a little. "...I have been married. I can feel you would like to do more."
Philip blushed. "I do?"
"Of course you do. So that is one problem we need to solve. One way is by meeting under your mother's nose for fifteen years."
He opened his mouth to protest, but then he saw she had not been serious. "Have you read those books?"
"There is a way. It is not explained as such, but if you reverse the matter that is what you get."
There was uncertainty in her expression.
Yes, he was vague, but he did not think he could be more specific without blushing furiously. "Read it too to see if you draw the same conclusions."
"I will. Still, what if that method fails?"
He understood her concern, but it was of later care. "I have not read the chapter yet that deals with that."
"Let us see what the boys are doing. I do not want them to eat an entire cake and it might be offered to them, charming little gentlemen that they are."
"Do you feel any better?" Philip had no idea if he had been of any use.
"Tentatively. But thank you."
"You see an awful lot of Mrs Whitby-Ross these days," Mrs Cole observed casually. She had come home when Selena was just leaving and clearly the reason given for the visit -- inviting them to dinner -- did not satisfy her.
Alexander shot his brother a sharp look, but said nothing.
"Yes," Philip replied in the same casual tone. "Her niece has arrived. Alexander might like her."
"Or he might not," his brother shrugged.
"In that case George Holden will. She almost looks Norwegian, you know."
The idea of George Holden stealing away a pretty woman did not appeal to Alexander. He would have to get involved if George did. "Has she met him?"
On second thought it would not work at all, Philip realised. Mrs Holden would refuse to meet any relatives of Mrs Whitby's. George would never meet her. Still, Alexander might not realise that. "No, George has not met her yet, but it need not be George. She is beautiful enough to draw in any man."
"Except you, but we now know why. You prefer old women."
Philip had spent the day with his aunt and his mother arranging things for their new house. They were taking furniture and servants they liked with them, but they would end up with too much if someone sensible did not talk to them, and Philip would end up with too few servants. To him it was easy: the servants from the house that was going to be sold would go to the new house, and the servants in the large house would remain there. But his aunt did not think it was that simple. She was personally attached to some of the servants and she insisted on taking them with her.
"But if you are both personally attached to your butler, you have a problem," he had said. They had looked as if there was no problem at all. Clearly each thought they had more right to take their own butler than the other, or perhaps they would not mind having two butlers.
"Mother," he had eventually said in exasperation. "You are welcome to remain in the house you are now living in. There is no pressing need for you to move. If the two of you cannot sort this out like reasonable people, I suppose Aunt Cole will have to live alone."
This had not been to their liking either and with some huffing and sniffing they had come to a compromise.
Then, they had been able to dress and prepare for their dinner engagement.
Philip was probably the only one who was really looking forward to the outing. Alexander seemed reluctant and even their mother was a little reserved. Perhaps she was still miffed at having had to compromise about the servants.
They were shown into a room that was not full of people, which one would have expected with nine house guests. Philip did a quick count, but he did not come to nine by far. Since some of the room's occupants were young, he assumed that the even younger ones were not allowed to be present.
Introductions were performed and Philip noticed that Mrs Cavendish was indeed rather large. Whether that was due to being with child, he could not really tell, but he supposed Selena would know. Her hair was going grey and there were lines on her face. Other than that she seemed agreeable enough.
Mr Cavendish, on the other hand, did not look as if he ever smiled. Philip could imagine him being against frivolities such as novels.
Miss Cavendish was pleased to see him. She was still pretty. There were two brothers with her called Edward and Edmund -- and Philip was very glad of now knowing them well enough to say anything about that. There was no telling who was the elder of the two and there was no telling who was who in the first place. They looked wary of other young men, perhaps because they believed they had some role in protecting their sister from unwanted attention.
Philip noticed that Alexander was prepared to give Miss Cavendish some attention, but he did not know if it was because his brother was too embarrassed to look too much at Mrs Whitby-Ross.
As for himself, he did not know to which of the two groups, the old or the young, he belonged. He seated himself somewhere in the middle.
Selena came to sit beside him, but she looked as if she might get up any moment. "We are still expecting Mr Grumbell and his daughter. They complement the party perfectly -- he has much in common with Mr Cavendish and she only talks about old-lady things."
Miss Cavendish frowned. "What are old-lady things?"
"I do not know; I am not an old lady," said her aunt. "Edward and Edmund may think so, even Captain Cole thought so in London..."
"Really?" Miss Cavendish was surprised. "You never told me. I did not know you had looked at my aunt at all."
"I had not," Philip assured her. "Because I had assumed she was old. Aunts are old. Mine certainly are."
"You are growing old yourself and need spectacles," Alexander said a little brusquely.
He had a point, for Mrs Whitby-Ross in a purplish gown and with dazzling earrings could not be mistaken for an elderly woman. Philip tried not to give her too long a glance. "Yes, we all grow old. I wonder if anyone will say about me that I talk only about old-gentleman things."
"George did," his brother said with a snort. "George Holden, a friend of mine," he explained for the benefit of the others.
The footman announced Mr and Miss Grumbell. Philip did not know them, but they turned out to be the local clergyman and his daughter. He also turned out to know Mrs Cavendish from when she was young. The former Miss Whitby had grown up here too. Miss Grumbell, though not very old, was so accustomed to keeping her father's house and dealing with a stream of elderly visitors, that she had little use for the young.
Philip had little time to speak to Selena alone before dinner, although through clever seating arrangements he was seated beside her, across from Mr Grumbell. This at least allowed him to brush against her leg with his knee. There was one more person on his side than on the opposite side, after all, and it was normal that he should be a little closer to her.
While Miss Grumbell made exhausting inquiries of Mrs Cavendish, on Philip's other side, he had some time to speak to his hostess. "Where are the other children?"
"They all had dinner in the nursery."
"That is for the best, I suppose." Certain guests might not like them being under the table.
"Indeed. I had some time to read a few pages while I was dressing."
"Really? I thought ladies always needed all their attention when they dressed. But what did you think?"
"I did not yet draw any conclusions, but it was most enlightening."
It was a bit difficult to discuss that subject here, so Philip thought of something else. "How is Isabella? And...I forgot his name...Julian?" He could speak of them as long as they made everyone else think they were speaking of real people.
"Oh...Isabella and Julian...he has not located her yet. She is a clever girl, though, and did not leave the house."
"Was that clever?"
"Well, it was raining."
"I suppose so then," said Philip. "And then she stumbled on Julian's secret stash of moralistic tracts?"
"He does not have them yet or she has not found them yet?"
"He has not mentioned them to me yet, but he might. Such tokens of good character do, on the whole, satisfy weaker understandings," she said thoughtfully.
"And stronger understandings?"
"They have their flaws, but I should think they do not think that merely keeping a library renders them moral."
"You say a wise thing, Mrs Whitby-Ross," cut in Mr Grumbell.
Selena smiled. "Thank you, Mr Grumbell, but you are a reader too. However, I must not be unfair towards those who do not read -- as long they also do not buy books -- for they can know and understand a great deal."
This drew the conversation away from Julian and Isabella onto more general subjects in which everyone at their end of the table could participate.
After dinner the ladies withdrew and the gentlemen had a drink. Philip was surprised to see that Edward and Edmund stayed. He had drunk, he supposed, when he had been that age, but he had been less of a boy then, having just been made lieutenant around that time.
He declined a drink himself, which amazed all other men except Alexander, who did not care. It was impossible to say he planned to kiss the hostess and he did not want to smell badly.
He happened to be the last of the row as they walked back to join the ladies and someone pulled him into the breakfast room. "Not again!" he whispered. "You had better not be the housekeeper." But by the familiar way she hooked her finger behind his waistband he deduced she was not.
"Philip," she whispered after kissing him. "I think you need some time to make yourself presentable again. Do not follow me directly."
The older ladies and gentlemen sat down to a game of cards. Miss Grumbell chose to watch. The younger set were playing another game that allowed for six players. This was agreeable -- Philip was not really against interacting with the rest of the party -- and it gave him the opportunity to observe Alexander and Miss Cavendish.
His brother was enthralled, just like he had first been with Mrs Whitby-Ross, but now he was the older person of the two and he appeared less silly. Someone his own age was clearly more suited to him. Philip was glad the scheme seemed to be working so far. There was of course no telling how Alexander would feel next week.
There was one problem that occurred to him as he glanced at the clock, however. He leant towards their hostess. "Are you going to offer us a bed like last time, or are all your beds taken?"
"I leave it up to you. Or should I say, to your mother? You can only stay if she does, now that I have guests."
"Is that so?" Philip pondered it. "I do agree it might look a little odd if my mother went home without us. But you never know if it raises any eyebrows unless you try."
"I have a few sofas left."
"If that is all you have left I suppose the answer is clear. My mother does not sleep on sofas, I think."
"She will not have to. Young fellows are another matter."
"I never make a problem of sofas. I am concerned with sleepwalking." He hoped she would understand he meant Alexander, who might go in search of Miss Cavendish to declare himself. That might not be such a wise plan with her father in the house. It was possible that Alexander thought of this himself, but then again he had not cared that his mother was in the house either.
"I am not very concerned with that myself. I do not think anyone in this house sleeps alone. There are always roommates to wake up the sleepwalker," Selena said with a mischievous smile.
Philip disliked being at his mother's disposal. He was a captain, after all, and it was usually the other way around. In this case he would much rather stay, whatever Mr Cavendish would think of it. He was not courting Serena and he did not even think he was courting Selena very much; they already had some kind of understanding.
To his surprise his mother was not inclined to have her way at all. "I suppose you and Alexander would enjoy staying," she whispered.
"Would he?" answered Philip, who was suddenly reluctant to voice his own wishes.
"I have no doubt. I shall submit and stay. I heard a lot of walking about last time. Perhaps that would not be such a good idea this time."
Philip rolled his eyes. He could not think of a proper answer. He watched as his mother went to Selena and briefly spoke to her. A servant appeared fairly soon after that and was given instructions, presumably to have some more beds made up. Or sofas, Philip conceded.
Then, Mr and Miss Grumbell braved the darkness to go home. They did not live far away. Mrs Cavendish made her excuses shortly after; her condition very likely fatigued her. Mr Cavendish would not be outstayed by his children, so he sent them to bed and, after hearing that the Coles had been assigned to various sofas on other floors, he retired as well.
"Did you see that?" Alexander asked with some indignation. "He looked almost glad to hear I am sleeping on a sofa in the library. I do not doubt that it is comfortable, but the kind thing to do is to offer some sympathy."
"Perhaps he has tried out the sofa himself and knows you do not deserve any sympathy?" Philip suggested.
"It is a very comfortable sofa," Selena agreed. "Whether he has slept on it, I do not know. I do not think I gave him the opportunity. He was in danger of appropriating my library, so I made sure to mark my terrain."
Philip was fascinated. "How?"
"By spending a lot of time there. He is not used to females in his reading domains, I suppose, and he once or twice tried to get me out, but this is my house." She smiled. "He probably thought the library belonged to the man of the house and that in the absence of a permanent one he could claim it."
"But you have two."
"Do I need to keep an eye on the two of you?" Alexander inquired warily. "Because I would rather not."
"Oh, no need," Selena assured him. "I shall just point Philip to his sofa and then I am off to bed."
"Why can you not let a servant do that?"
"Because they do not have the key," she explained, drawing a chain out of her bosom. At the end dangled a key.
"You are going to lock him up?" Alexander's eyes bulged.
"No. It is a room I usually keep locked. There will be no need to lock it if he is there to guard my secrets."
"I...I am off to the library," Alexander said hastily. He clearly had no interest in her secrets. "Have a good night, Madam, Philip."
"You will let me sleep in the tower?" Philip asked. "I will only consent to that if you provide me with a chamberpot."
"Really," she said.
"I am serious."
"Perhaps you should not drink so much."
"I did not drink after dinner. The other gentlemen were rather surprised."
"Why did you not drink?"
"I did not want to taste or smell of spirits."
"Good reason," she acknowledged. "But you did not tell them that?"
"No, I did not feel obliged to give them a reason."
"Good." She led him to the door of the tower and opened it with her key. Surprisingly, she locked it behind them.
"Afraid we shall be followed?"
"No. You will have another exit. Into my dressing room." She climbed the stairs.
He was surprised by that unexpected information. "Nice."
"It is the only way to provide you with all the luxurious necessities you appear to require."
"Luxurious necessities?" he spluttered. "I am sure you require them too. By the way, is there no sofa in your dressing room?"
"Of course there is."
They did not go all the way up, but left the tower early. The room they came into was lit and much warmer than the cold staircase. There was a sofa and it had a blanket on it. On the small table beside it was a pile of books, the books he had given her, and the small bag with his necessities. Evidently the servants had known he would not be sleeping in the tower.
"Please get ready for bed. I shall be with you when you knock on the door."
He did so after ten minutes. He was ready after five, but he was not sure she would be. Women always took longer. But she answered almost immediately when he knocked.
"The boys are sound asleep again," she whispered and stepped into her dressing room. "One woke briefly. Let us discuss those books."
Their discussion was interrupted after a few minutes by a knock on the door of the adjoining room. "What?" Selena said with a disturbed look. "Who wants me at this hour? Stay here and do not make a sound."
Philip obediently sat still. He was glad they had been keeping their voices down for the sake of the boys, so whoever was knocking on the door had probably not heard them. There was some conversation in the other room, probably, because it took some time for Selena to return.
"You will not believe it," she said. "It was Serena."
"Was it anything important?"
"Not for me. I am not responsible for either of them."
"Serena and your brother. She asked me where he was sleeping. I told her he was in the library. I did not interrogate her further."
"Is she going --" He could hardly believe it. Such a thing would not occur to Miss Cavendish. And he could not believe either that she would follow a suggestion of Alexander's with her father in the house.
"I did not ask. Perhaps she was simply worried he was not comfortable. I assume she is clever enough not to spend the night in the library with him. She knows her father likes to go there in the morning."
"It would be a quick way out, though, being compromised," Philip remarked. "But I did not know she was capable of such manipulation."
Selena settled herself on the sofa again. "She was not named after me and she does not look like me at all. Why is she doing things I would do?"
"Where am I?"
"But we are discussing something serious. What do you think?"
"It might have some merit, this idea, but I am not sure. I am too afraid it will fail and then what do I do?"
"I do not know. To me it does not sound as if it could fail. It sounds astonishingly simple."
"Women are not simple creatures," she informed him. "Remember, this book was written by a man. He may have got it wrong or he may have simplified the matter because he could not write a hundred variations. To appear clever one must come up with a definitive theory that fits everything."
Philip suddenly felt a great desire to sleep. "We are not going to solve this. Not right now. You had best sleep on it for a few months."
He did not think he would be able to sleep at all, thinking about the matter. He did not know what Selena wanted. On the one hand she seemed to like him a lot and she was even going so far as to discuss very intimate subjects with him, but on the other hand it all seemed to lead to nothing. It was rather frustrating. Perhaps he should think of her as Mrs Whitby-Ross again.
In the morning, however, it turned out he had slept after all. There were sounds from the room next door. The little boys were up. He dressed himself before they could see him and tell everybody. When he had finished combing his hair, Selena appeared. She was still in her nightgown, which was, to make things worse, unbuttoned a bit.
"Good morning," she said briskly and she made no move to kiss him. "I want to ask you to descend through the tower. You will end up near the breakfast room, as you may recall."
"I should like to get dressed before I go downstairs."
"You had not noticed?"
"Of course I had noticed. Even that you have unbuttoned a bit," he gestured.
He did not understand that. "Have you thought about it? Will you be long?"
"No more than fifteen minutes. I do not think you will be the first. Some of my guests have rather annoying breakfast habits and I try to avoid those."
"Is being the first an annoying habit?"
"No, but reading aloud at the breakfast table is."
"I can bring..." Philip said with a mischievous glance at the books they had perused the night before.
"It would be a lot more interesting than religious fare. The first day he waited for me and called my children to order when they did not enjoy the sermon, so I...er...informed him that in my house my children eat breakfast in the breakfast room, but that he was welcome to having his breakfast brought up to his room."
"Poor Miss Cavendish. Someone needs to compromise her and fast."
Philip went down the staircase in the tower. He opened the door at the foot and locked it behind him. Sound emanated from the breakfast room, but it was only one voice: Mr Cavendish of course. Philip felt sorry for his mother and his brother, if they were already there. He did not want to look, in case someone saw him and he was forced to attend the sermon. He did not like them very much.
Luckily Mr Cavendish ceased speaking a few minutes later and then there was the sound of knives and forks against plates. Philip felt it was safe to go in. Just before he went, however, Selena hurried into view. She looked agitated and beckoned him.
Of course she took him into the water closet, the only door they could go into without passing by the breakfast room. He was no longer surprised.
"What did you say again upstairs?" she whispered.
"I do not remember."
"Someone needs to compromise Miss Cavendish?"
"Oh. Yes." He had said that, but he had not actually been serious. He certainly did not want Selena to take any action by prompting some man. She looked as if she might have that idea and then he was to blame.
"Well, someone did."
"Who do you think?"
"Alexander?" He was a little incredulous and ready to be cross with his brother.
"Do not be angry with him. It seems Serena decided to try a wilder approach to life."
"What do you mean? She had herself compromised? It was not Alexander's fault? She seduced him, you mean?" He whispered, because on no account was anyone supposed to overhear. With Mr Cavendish at the table, he doubted that anyone would dare to visit the water closet during the meal, but one never knew.
"I cannot be sure of what occurred. I have only her word for it and it was all blushes and stammers and vagueness -- you know how it goes."
"Actually, I do not," Philip said, a little insulted. "I am not in the habit of compromising young women --"
"-- old women then?"
He did not think that deserved a reaction. " And compromised women are not in the habit of confiding in me either."
"Good. Well, Serena told me she had been compromised. It may still end up being nothing, for her father's definition is probably a lot wider than mine and I do not know by whose definition she lives."
He did not know that either, but he could not think the girl was entirely uninformed. "Still, Mrs Carlisle was quite detailed about what Captain Drake did and all he ever did was nearly compromise the girl. She read those books, did she not?"
"We have no need to know precisely. What is important is that she may not travel home with her family. Good heavens, I may have to keep them under my roof for another month until she is married."
"It is all for a good cause," he consoled her, but he did not envy her. "Please join me for breakfast. We can have some sensible talk then -- but not about this."
"Oh, not in front of anybody," she agreed.
Everybody had been eating when they came in and only polite words were exchanged. Mr Cavendish no longer seemed insulted that his hostess did not appear until after his edifying words, but perhaps he had had some hopes of the young Cole gentlemen. There was a look that Philip could not interpret.
It occurred to him that Mr Cavendish might even have been thinking that one of them was detaining Serena, since she was not there either. The first thing one thought when one's daughter was late was of course that it must be a man's fault. In this case it might be rather near the truth, although the deed was probably long done.
"You look rested, Philip," observed his mother as if she had not expected this at all.
He was spared an answer because a nursery maid brought in the two little boys. They were well-behaved and wished everyone a good morning, but then they focused on eating.
"Has anyone seen Serena?" Mr Cavendish asked at last.
"Yes," Mrs Whitby-Ross said after a moment, probably deciding it could not do any harm to reveal she had spoken to Serena upstairs. "She was not ready yet."
"She is late."
"I do not make a problem of that," said the hostess graciously.
"And Lieutenant Cole?"
Nobody answered. Mrs Cole studied her breakfast, which made Philip wonder if his mother knew more, but she was never going to tell him here at the table -- if she was ever going to tell him at all if Alexander had confided in her. He would not enjoy it very much either if she divulged his secrets to his brother, so he would have to hope she was discreet.
Philip hoped Ben and Tom would be discreet too, but thankfully with Edmund and Edward present there was enough distraction, for apparently the four of them were to set out on some expedition out of doors.
At long last Alexander appeared, looking rather sleepy. Philip had expected triumph or guilt, but he saw neither. "Good morning," Alexander said, but evidently he was not planning to sit down. "Mother, I am walking home."
"Have a nice walk," she replied.
"I did not know you lived within walking distance," said Mr Cavendish sharply as soon as -- or perhaps even before -- Alexander had left the room.
"We do not."
"Then why is he walking?"
She shrugged, unconcerned. "Who knows? Mr Cavendish, he is a grown man and quite capable of finding his way home."
"Quite right, Mrs Cole," Selena cut in. "I imagine he did so every time he came ashore. I imagine you did not go to collect him from his ship."
She smiled. "It will sort itself out indeed."
Philip was not so sure of that. Well, Alexander would be picked up on the way, but the reason for his setting off on foot was less simple. If something had really happened between him and Miss Cavendish, it was imperative either to keep it quiet or to take appropriate action. Depending on what it was it might not be possible to keep quiet about it, but something like a simple kiss needed not lead to a life-long unhappy union.
He decided he did not want to be involved. Not really. In some dismay he realised he would not mind being involved in the covering up of anything untoward -- and in fact he already was -- but he would not be called upon to persuade Alexander to do the right thing by Miss Cavendish. Such tasks were better performed by people who knew about marriage and who were sensible enough to realise it was not always the best solution.
He gave Selena a glance.
She seemed to know he had his doubts about it sorting itself out, but she was not prepared to say more. Who could blame her? It was not her daughter. She was merely the mistress of the house in which this all occurred. She had not encouraged anyone, had she?
Philip was not sure, although encouraging was not the same as not discouraging. Nevertheless, he would not allow it to spoil his breakfast.
"We-e-ell," said his mother when they set off in their carriage. "Do you have any idea why Alexander wanted to walk home?"
"He did not tell me."
"But you can perhaps guess. Would it have anything to do with Miss Cavendish not coming to breakfast?" Because she had never appeared.
"It might. But then, I did not speak to either of them."
"And would your being late to the table have anything to do with Mrs Whitby-Ross' being late?"
Philip pondered an answer. He was not supposed to have slept in Selena's dressing room, but in the tower, and thus he was not supposed to have seen her before breakfast. He did not know what sort of explanation he could think up so quickly. "Well..."
"You did come in at the same time."
"Right. She had warned me about Mr Cavendish." He hoped she would not ask him where and when this warning had taken place.
"That is not a point in her favour," said Mrs Cole, pursing her lips.
"She could have warned me too."
"Oh." He smiled in relief. "I am glad I waited outside the room then if it was that bad."
An idea occurred to her. "Did she warn Alexander?"
"I do not think so."
"But other than that little oversight of not warning me I think I may like her. I had a little word with her just now, you know."
He had seen it and been curious. "What about?"
"Oh, this and that. She told me she was no longer as radical as when she was young."
"She has never struck me as radical in any way," said Philip.
"She did say odd things when she was young, such as that women ought to be able to vote. Or so I heard. I was not acquainted with her personally."
"I do not suppose many would be interested." Other than that he did not know what to think of it. He had never considered it before, not being a woman.
"She said the same. She abandoned the idea. It was easier to work directly on a politician in any case."
"Money works, I heard."
"Or marrying one, which she did. But she must have dropped the notion altogether, given how she seems to be friendly with you now and you do not have any plans to go into politics."
"I believe she may nowadays be in favour of accomplishing small changes rather than large ones. Helping her tenants and so forth."
"It may be more worthwhile," Mrs Cole agreed. "But I still need to adjust to the idea of your not bringing a girl home."
"Oh?" He was confused.
Philip did not know why he was not going to bring a girl home. "Do you think it will all come to nothing?" He considered confiding in his mother, but perhaps Selena had done just that.
"Oh, I do not know about that," his mother said vaguely. "But I doubt you will bring anyone home. Your current interests do not allow it."
"My current interests."
"Yes, I had not thought you would be interested in an older, settled woman."
"And one cannot bring those home?"
"Not that one. She may, perhaps, condescend to go home with you."
He laughed in relief. "Is that what you mean? But why do you think I am interested in her?"
"My observations told me so. I cannot make much sense of Alexander, however. He seemed rather interested in the girl, so I should have expected him to want to stay as long as possible. Just as the two of you wanted last night."
Philip said nothing. He simply was not informed well enough to speak, he believed. He might say something about what Selena had relayed about her conversation with Serena, but Serena might not have been entirely truthful. He realised he had once thought that Selena was the one who invented things when it suited her and that Serena could never do it. But now it might be the reverse. Indeed, it was best not to get involved at all.
"But so much the better if he does not like her after all," said Mrs Cole. "Serena, Selena, could it be any more confusing?"
"How do you know her name is Selena?"
"What a silly question," Mrs Cole decided after a few seconds. "Her name is Selena because she was Selena Sutton. She did not suddenly become Maria Whitby-Ross upon marrying. Although..." she added reflectively, "...if such a thing is possible we can do something about Selena and Serena, can we not?"
"I thought perhaps you two had become intimate acquaintances."
"Not as intimate as the two of you, I wager."
"Please, Mother, do not wink. You make me think of Aunt Penelope and I had rather not." He shuddered, as his aunt's winks had always made him shudder. Fortunately she had stopped pinching his cheeks after he joined the Navy.
A few minutes down the road they came upon Alexander. Philip and his mother would have missed him, but the coachman was attentive enough to spot him sitting behind a wooden fence. He did not appear to be tired or injured, but he did look very aggravated.
"I stepped in something," Alexander said angrily, standing up and balancing on one foot, his shoe in his hand. Apparently he had been trying to clean it.
"Really? Well, you may sit with Field then," said Mrs Cole. "Assuming you wish to go home?"
"Well --" He looked ready to protest, but then decided that Field would not question him and his mother would.
At home, Philip did not wait for any confessions. He first went to his room and then to the study. There might have been something in the post that required his immediate attention -- although he had not come across anything like that at home so far. Life went on whether he was home or not. It was rather disappointing.
There were invitations, however. One to a lecture and one to play cards with some gentlemen he had met at the previous lecture. That, at least, was something to look forward to. After he had written a reply, his mother came in.
"Mr Cavendish is here," she whispered, although the man was presumably not near enough to hear her. "He demanded a word with Alexander."
"Did you let him in?"
"He was not inclined to divulge his business to me, but I nevertheless let him in. I suppose it had something to do with Miss Cavendish. Strange. Alexander walks off and later Mr Cavendish comes around for a serious word. What do you think happened?"
"I was not with them."
"With them? So they were together, alone, at some point?" Mrs Cole asked shrewdly. "I thought Alexander was sleeping on a sofa. Does Mr Cavendish not lock his children's doors?"
"Do not put any ideas in his mind, Mother."
"But they were alone? Or did they meet up very early before breakfast?"
"I know nothing." And he really did not know when they had met up. It could have been any time between bedtime and breakfast.
"Well, what does your lady friend know?"
"Apparently Miss Cavendish told her something, but not much," Philip admitted when he did not think he could fool her. She knew he knew something.
"And Mrs Whitby-Ross told you something, but not much?"
"More or less."
"And you are still not intimately acquainted with her? Of course not."
He did not answer.
"This something, but not much, was apparently enough to enrage the father."
"Was he enraged?"
"To come here with such urgency, I believe so. Tell me, may we expect Mr Sutton as well?"
"I am not sure Mr Sutton knows I exist. Besides, I have hardly done anything with his daughter that warrants his coming here." He did not know if her father still took an interest. She behaved as if she was on her own and of course there was no pressing need to pay too much attention to what a widow did. "What do you know of him?"
"Hardly anything at all. I only know of the daughter because she used to be a little radical. Boring people are not talked about. I wonder what Mr Cavendish and Alexander have to discuss."
"You should have stayed with them," said Philip, who did not want to reveal any curiosity.
It took longer than they had expected for Mr Cavendish to leave. Not once did they hear raised voices or other disturbing sounds. It must be a tolerably civilised conversation. Perhaps Mr Cavendish was simply speechless in disbelief. But that did not explain why it took so long. Philip was especially annoyed by his mother's staying with him and speculating.
At long last they saw Mr Cavendish walk down the garden path. Mrs Cole gasped.
"What?" asked Philip. "Is he taking off with your silver spoons?"
"No, he is leaving!"
"So I see." He pushed himself off the windowsill. "Then we may now leave the study and see whether Alexander is still alive."
But Alexander found them. "Would you believe it?" he asked a little incredulously. "He came all the way here to ask me if his daughter had spoken the truth."
"And what had she told him?"
"That she was probably required to marry me."
"And this means...?" asked Mrs Cole.
"That he came to me to ask me what I had done."
"Wondering or asking you, it makes no difference all," commented his mother. "What did you do?"
"I am not telling. That is between Serena and me. If Serena, however, feels that it requires marriage, then I shall have to submit."
"You are very easily tricked."
"Tricked?" Alexander looked uncomprehending.
"She could say anything, whether you did anything or not."
"Well, I would rather she did not reveal anything because it is nobody's business. Her father would not believe it if she said nothing had happened, so she might as well make it as bad as possible."
"Most people think the opposite. And for what purpose? If the girl wants to leave home there are less drastic ways than marrying you."
Mrs Cole could not think of any very quickly.
Philip thought they deserved each other. They were silly. It was best not to question Alexander any more, lest he change his mind. If Alexander was married he would no longer do stupid things like go to Newcastle to look for Norwegian women who did not exist, although he might still fall for similarly strange schemes.
He could only hope that for them there was some lasting satisfaction in being married. It was a quick solution to their perceived problems, but he suspected that was the case for many people. Once it was done, there was no complaining any more.
Over the next few days Alexander often left the house. He claimed he was busy arranging things, but he never specified exactly what.
Over dinner one evening Mrs Cole decided to ask a question. "And what have you been doing all this time? Are you married yet? There was enough time for a trip to Gretna."
"I am not married yet."
"I do not suppose Mr Cavendish thinks a Gretna marriage is a good foundation."
"He frowns upon haste, I believe, yet he thinks haste is of the essence. Because who knows," Alexander lowered his voice, "she might already be with child."
Philip snorted, for he did not think so for a minute. "On a library sofa? Oh, but this is good. I expect he will never take naps there any more and Selena can have her library to herself now."
"Alexander," their mother said warningly, "please do not reveal what is, or what is not, possible on a library sofa. We have no need to know."
"I am sure Philip already knows," Alexander said with a shrewd sideways look.
"Well, please reserve such topics for when you are together. I have no need to know. Thank you."
They hardly saw Alexander during the next days. Apparently he was going through the preparations for marriage, but Philip and Mrs Cole were surprised at how much work appeared to be involved. "It was not that difficult in my days," she said doubtfully.
"Nor in my days."
She raised her eyebrows. "Is there something you have not told me?"
"In the days that I regularly saw people marry," Philip specified. True, he had not paid very much attention, but he was sure he would have noticed if it took so much time and trouble. He had, after all, always considered it as something he would once do. If it had noticeably taken off-puttingly long he would have had different ideas about it.
"Oh. You did not mean that you married some woman overseas, by any chance?"
"Not as far as I can remember." He wondered why she looked so suspicious. There was absolutely no reason to suspect him of such behaviour.
"Why do you no longer see people get married now?"
"There are hardly any people in this village, for one. Nobody got married since I came home."
"And some people regret the fact..." his mother muttered.
Philip did not miss it. "Who?"
"Girls around here, of course. They miss out on Alexander and may miss out on you too."
"Possibly." He had not seen Selena for some time. He had assumed her guests kept her busy and he had felt reluctant to visit her while they were there. He should not wait for a woman to call on him, he knew, and perhaps he should have gone there, but going in through the servants' entrance very secretly had not felt very good to him yet. He was a coward.
Of course he was not. He should go and see her.
But he knew what it was. Suppose he went through all this trouble and then she said she would rather stay alone? He would rather nobody else knew, in that case.
Still, he should do something to feel better about himself and he had his horse saddled -- after some vague excuses to his mother, naturally. He could not possibly say what he was going out to do.
First of all, he did not really know what he was going to do. He might ride as far as Selena's house and try to catch a glimpse, or he might dismount and use the back entrance. This was still to be decided. The thoughtful approach -- literally, too -- was always best.
He was so lost in thought, however, that he hardly noticed another rider, approaching from the opposite direction, slowing down. It was not until she was blocking the way that he saw who it was.
"I was just on my way to see you," he said, feeling quite pleased to see her.
"You were very preoccupied."
"Where are you going?"
"Now?" she asked, contemplating her options. Then she pointed with her riding crop at a small wood to the left of the road. "That small path there, I think."
"What are you going to do there?"
"Do not be silly," she said and rode off.
Philip supposed he must follow her. The path was very small indeed. They could not ride side by side. After a minute of riding on the edge of the wood, the path veered off and they were concealed by trees. He did not want to ask again what she was going to do here.
"Do you come here often?" he asked.
"Not often," she replied over her shoulder. "But it is one of my favourite adventurous paths."
So far it was not yet very adventurous. He wondered what was to come.
"The lanes are boring." She ducked for a low branch.
He did the same. "In spite of vehicles breaking down?"
"I never encounter anybody here. Apart from the odd poacher if one feels like showing himself."
She glanced back. "There are always poachers. I know who poaches on your lands. Would you like to know?"
"Not unless you think I am seriously disadvantaged by this poaching."
"I doubt it."
"Then I have no need to know."
"Good, for I was not going to tell you."
He supposed she had not said she was; she had only asked if he wanted to know. "I imagine the poacher is going to be seriously disadvantaged if he is made to stop."
"You could say that. But here we are."
"Where?" Philip looked around. He was not ready to stop yet, thinking as he was about poachers and their need to poach, as well as Selena's knowing them.
"A quiet spot. Much more quiet than the middle of the lane." She got off her horse and let it wander away.
Philip followed her example and immediately she approached him. He vaguely wondered if they had ever embraced in daylight. "You do not waste any time, Madam," he remarked afterwards.
"Because you do."
"I do? I am sorry."
There was a flash of something like anger in her eyes. Aggravation, perhaps. "I am suffering that oaf all for the sake of your brother and you do not even come to see me."
"I thought it was not wise."
"Wise? Oh, who cares if it is wise!"
"You are not always so careless," he reminded her.
"True," she said, subdued. "I know it might not be wise, but that does not mean I was not in need of someone to complain to!"
"I could promise to come tomorrow, but not enough may have happened by then for you to complain about."
"You may be mistaken there."
"You have my sympathies." He spread out his coat and invited her to sit.
She did so after some hesitation. "But I understand. You do not want to be strung along. I should make up my mind."
Philip leant back on his elbows and looked around. "This is a good place for it. It is a pity about those poachers."
"They are not here at this hour." She removed her gloves, hat and coat and carefully placed them beside her. "I can risk some degree of undress."
He watched curiously as she also kicked off her riding boots. "Mrs Whitby-Ross, how much are you planning to take off?"
"Enough to make me comfortable. Are any garments troubling you in particular, Captain?"
"How far from Gretna are we?" Philip asked. He had become rather interested in visiting it. Not alone, of course. There was no point in going alone.
"Not far," Selena replied lazily. She studied her stockinged toe. "Is there any reason in particular for you to mention that place?"
"It seems to take rather long to get married the ordinary way."
"Are you in a hurry to marry someone? You should have told me before I removed my boots. Your intended may not approve of your lying around with half-dressed women."
"There is no danger in half-dressed women."
She chuckled. "Really?"
"Oh, I am sure I could think of some very dangerous situations involving half-dressed women, but that is beside the point." He turned towards her. "You see only one danger and we stayed well clear of that."
"For which I thank you," she said quietly.
He pressed her hand briefly. "But I still think Gretna is very appealing."
"Yes..." She said up straight. "But...we must agree on some points first. First, we go by what that book said."
"Second, you will find out all there is to know about childbirth, so that you are able to assist me if that book turns out to be wrong."
Philip wrinkled his nose at that. It was surprising to say the least. "You would place your life in my hands?"
"I would rather do that," she said sharply, "than place it in the hands of a stranger."
"That makes sense. However, may I refrain from informing myself for as long as there is no need?"
"I shall have to consider that."
"Well, then. Off we go."
© 2011, 2012 Copyright held by the author.