The Wicked Widow and the Jinxed Jilter
It was a boring ball, very much like the usual affair that he always tried to avoid, but suddenly Viscount Allingham saw a tall beauty lingering near the curtains on the quiet side of the room, her dark red hair pinned up in an elegant and attractive fashion. She gazed at the merry crowd in distaste. "Er ... oh..." he uttered, falling prey to strong feelings of admiration that he had never had before.
He arranged his thoughts this way and that, tried to impose some order on them and failed in the face of such a delectable distraction. Finally he came up with a sensible question. "Who is that?"
His devoted companion during their school days, Lord Stanley, followed his eyes upon that exclamation. His answer was dismissive. "That is Hartley's idiot sister."
"Is she available?" was Allingham's second question when the woman slipped out of sight through the curtains.
Hartley was their host, a fairly recent acquaintance and thus one who would still feel slighted if his invitations were not accepted, no matter how little enthusiasm Allingham had been able to muster up to attend. He did not know how significant it was that Hartley's sister was apparently an idiot. She had not been introduced to them like Hartley's mother and younger sister. Perhaps this sister had temporarily escaped from her locked wing, although she had not seemed deranged, merely full of contempt.
It was a sentiment he shared to some extent. Allingham was no longer very young. Indeed, with three fruitless engagements to his name he could no longer make many claims to youth and innocence, nor to excitement and interest when it came to these types of evening entertainment. He had seen all variations of balls and girls -- or so he had been thinking until he laid eyes on this woman. She was different.
He was not so jaded as to refrain from dancing if the occasion arose, but he would not actively search for partners. Right now he was extremely glad not to have any dances lined up so he would not be dragged away by some young and enthusiastic simple goose who would chatter incessantly and make it unable for him to find out more about that woman. If his impression was not mistaken she had more chances of being Hartley's senior than his junior. That would make the chance of her being available very slim.
"She will not have you, Allingham. Lady Sophie always made it quite clear that she did not want to marry, thus when she was forced to get married, she disposed of her husband during their wedding night." For Stanley she was much too dangerous. A man could find easier girls to pursue, especially if one had a title. One did not need to chase a murderess. One might not come out of the affair unscathed, if one came out alive at all. Sir Oswald Burke had not been so fortunate.
"Seriously?" Allingham still had his eyes on the curtains, hoping she would come back. So Lady Sophie was a widow. That was good. That she had disposed of her husband was less good, but he could not really believe that it was true. It would simply be one of those rumours, of the kind that had circulated about him too. There was not always even a grain of truth in everything.
"He was old and very wealthy. They say it was his heart. Nobody believes that. Especially since she is now free and wealthy." Stanley gave him a significant look that implied the lady had had a compelling motive for murder, as far as he was concerned.
"How do you know all this? I have never seen her before." He had never heard the story either. There were plenty of young women who married older men, especially if they had a good fortune, but not many of those men died during the wedding night. It would certainly have started persistent rumours, even if it had not been murder at all. And who would have been present during the wedding night to spread those rumours? The lady would not be free to walk here if she had confessed herself.
"Oh, Hartley and I ran into her in town once when we were half in our cups, so he told me about her. She was quite vile when she saw our condition and we had not even drunk very much, so we did not deserve half of her censure. Good God, does that woman have a tongue!" He could still shudder at the memory.
That did not frighten Allingham. He stared at the curtains that were still swinging softly, inviting him to follow.
Allingham, after a lame excuse to Stanley and a slight detour to mask his purpose, followed the mysterious lady through the curtains. Through a narrow passage he came into a dimly lit room where excess furniture seemed to be stored. The woman stood in front of one of the windows, gazing out. "Lady Sophie?" he said hesitantly, wondering what on earth he was doing, chasing her here. He did not even know what he wanted to say to her.
"And you are ... ?" Lady Sophie inquired after she quickly lit a few extra candles to see her visitor better. "I have always had the pleasure of not meeting you before." She kept a sheet-covered chair between them, perhaps on purpose.
He bowed. "Viscount Allingham. I am usually at my estate and not often in town, which might explain why we never met." He was certain he would have remembered her. From the time he had been considered an adult, he had spent most of his time at his estate, sparing only a few weeks to come to town, mainly at his mother's insistence. Still, that he had never seen Lady Sophie in all those years was rather remarkable. Her hair would have stood out and his eyes would have been drawn to her the way they had been drawn to her several minutes ago, upon which he would have noticed, as he had noticed now, that she was uncommonly beautiful. That was something he would not have forgotten.
"My Lord, gentlemen are not let into the house if they do not own at least one estate. That does not impress me much. Nor does your title, I might add. The lesser titles also do not set foot in this house. My Mama is quite particular. She has to be, what with my brother Hartley." Her tone changed from mere haughtiness into something more derogatory.
"I heard his behaviour is not always to your liking," he said in a careful tone, wondering if it was safe to divulge that his acquaintance with her brother was responsible for his presence at the ball. Perhaps he should stress that it was a mere acquaintance if she disapproved of Hartley so much.
Lady Sophie gave a snort of contempt. "He is useless. Is he one of your friends?"
"We are acquainted," Allingham said cautiously. If he could not be sure it was a friend, it could never be more than an acquaintance. It was someone Stanley had befriended. Lady Sophie did not appear to find friends of Hartley's any worthier than her brother, so he ought to be careful. "But I am not often in town. I could not say we are good friends. A friend of a friend."
"There is not a sensible man among his acquaintance. I dare to say that without any consideration for your feelings. I know my brother. If you feel sensible in spite of my words, perhaps you should evaluate the acquaintance," Lady Sophie suggested.
"You are not very complimentary." He was a trifle puzzled by her manner. So far he had not done anything to inspire such insults. He had come here, but that was all.
"Should I be, when it is not deserved? I no longer have to play nice to snare a good husband. Friends are all I will consent to have, but there is nothing I abhor more than pretence in matters of friendship." She turned back to the window. "I speak from experience."
"I heard you are a widow, but you are no longer in mourning," Allingham noticed. She was not in black, but her dark brown was hardly a merry colour. It suited her well, nonetheless. It emphasised the colour of her eyes, which he could see again if she turned.
She did. "One does generally not keep that up for three years, unless one is especially devastated, I suppose. I am quite pleased with my situation. A widow does not need to bend to anybody's will. She is her own person." Her preferred tone was sarcastic, her expression smug.
Allingham was determined not to be scared away by her manner and all the things she was saying. He had no intention of making her bend to his will. He continued to speak politely to see if that effected a change. "I feel I can relate to you in some way, Lady Sophie. I was engaged three times, but I always returned to being a free man."
Lady Sophie grabbed the back of the chair and leant on it, feigning an interest in his life. "Goodness. You do sound like me, My Lord. Did you dispose of your fiancées the way I disposed of my husband? You must have heard about my wickedness, otherwise you could not relate to me." She let out a bitter chuckle.
"Twice they compromised themselves with other gentlemen," Allingham said airily, trying not to think of her cold-blooded disposal of her husband. It could not be true. He refused to believe such a thing. "The third time my fiancée, unfortunately for her, did not live till we could be wed." He did not sound regretful. He could not. It had been a relief, but contrary to this woman here, he had let nature run its course and he had not assisted.
Perhaps she had been passive too and she was merely referring to gossip and nasty rumours, but he did not see why she did not want to correct them in that case. One generally wanted to make a good impression.
"How convenient," she said sarcastically. "May I ask why you were engaged to all these women in the first place, since you sound so extremely glad for your timely escapes?"
That was indeed a good question and he winced. He could not defend himself well on that score, not as well as he wished. "For the engagements I must blame my mother. She announced them in company without having consulted me beforehand. To spare the ladies' feelings and reputations I could only keep silent." He had been enraged, nevertheless, although his mother had not listened.
Lady Sophie raised her eyebrows as if she did not understand how this could have happened. "Goodness. A grown gentleman whose mother still interferes in his life. But a real gentleman never blames his mother for his scrapes."
"No, he suffers the engagements with fortitude," he responded coolly, feeling her censure. "While wondering how to get rid of the burden in the manner least damaging to his own person." He would say he had succeeded better at that than she had -- people generally pitied his bad luck, but to his knowledge none had ever implied that he had resorted to murder.
Lady Sophie's eyes started to gleam at his calculating tone. "It must have cost you a tidy sum to have your fiancées compromised."
"Two bottles of my finest wine," Allingham shrugged, not betraying the surprise he felt at her correct guess. Nobody had ever guessed before. "Almost three, if she had lived." He sounded indifferent now, but he had in fact been desperate. He had come to think a little differently about protecting the ladies' reputations as well. There was not much he could do if they chose to risk them themselves.
"No dents in your heart, nor empty spots in your wine cellar, I am sure. Poor innocent man, treated so badly by all those fickle ladies. But your Mama must know what you really are. Not even a wicked gentleman can fool his Mama. Who is her next project? When is her next ball? I must attend and watch you squirm under her dictates." She gave him a gleeful look.
"After three failed engagements I am jinxed. I am not sure any ladies would go along with my mother's plans anymore, no matter how desperately she may wish to see me settled." He did not think his mother would try again. In spite of his requests, orders and pleas, she had tried it twice more after the first failure, but three times were enough to turn the least superstitious girls off, not to mention their matchmaking mothers -- he hoped.
"The jinxed jilter." Lady Sophie's laugh sounded through the room. "Tell me why you followed me hither."
Allingham was honest. "You intrigue me." Especially when she laughed. It was a lovely sound, even the mocking version of it.
She raised her eyebrows at that. "I will not be sold or bought for a bottle of wine, My Lord. Not even your finest."
He liked her attitude. He did not approve much of young ladies who could be corrupted easily and apparently almost all of them could. "What if I say you are the finest thing I ever laid eyes on?"
"Then I say that is unfortunately for you all that you will ever be able to lay on me," Lady Sophie smiled archly.
"I must have Lady Sophie, Stanley," Allingham told his friend two days later. He had not been able to get Lady Sophie out of his head, even if he had not seen her anymore that one night. He had not pursued her when she had slipped away and he regretted that now, for she had never come back to the ballroom.
"You will not have any competition from other suitors, only opposition from the lady herself. She is best left alone." Lord Stanley had not changed his mind, despite his friend's infatuation. He would grant Allingham that it was a beauty from afar, but from up close she was a grave danger.
"She is beautiful." Allingham gazed into the distance dreamily, conjuring up the image of Lady Sophie as she had stood in the candlelight, the way her eyes and her hair had shot little fiery sparkles.
"She is also dangerous. The first night you spend with her will also be your last. You will not live to see the dawn." Stanley always liked to place things in the right perspective again when people got carried away and Allingham was certainly losing it. "It will be your deathbed." He chuckled at his own joke.
Allingham emptied his glass with a determined movement. "Then it shall be during the day. You called her an idiot. I disagree." She was as far from being insane as he was. She had only been calculating, perhaps wicked.
Stanley knew there was no arguing with an infatuated man. They could never be made to see reason when it came to the object of their infatuation. "Perhaps the idiot is you." He could not recall ever seeing Allingham infatuated and perhaps this unusual occurrence required some more empathy. "It was actually Hartley who called his sister an idiot. I merely trusted his judgement, the way one tends to believe others when they speak about their siblings. Hartley said she had idiotic ideas about almost everything. Why should I not believe him?"
Allingham stood up and leant over the table to speak to his friend. "What can a lady do, Stanley? Really?" He was tempted to doubt the rumour about the wedding night. He could not imagine himself slain by a woman in a nightgown. As for her idiotic ideas, she had merely indicated that she wanted to be free. If that was idiotic, he suffered from the same affliction -- and perhaps he was more idiotic, wanting to chase someone when he preferred to be free.
"Against a determined man like you, very little, I deduce," Stanley quipped. "But perhaps you had best prepare your suit. Think. Why should Lady Sophie have you? Why should she trade her independence and grand house for a meagre existence on Allingham sheep farm?"
"It is not a sheep farm," Allingham said quietly. He did not even know what he wanted to do with Lady Sophie. Taking her to Allingham was not yet part of the plan.
"But if she is not fond of sheep, if she has a deep dislike of sheep..."
"I am heartily sorry that you found your way blocked by sheep one day, but there is more to do on my estate." It was a beautiful, well-tended and thriving place in the countryside. Sheep were a minor part of it, as Stanley well knew, but since Stanley had no estate of his own, he tended to treat estate management as a pastime one could joke about. Sheep were field decorations in the manner of paintings or statues. That sheep were an economic commodity would probably surprise Stanley very much. Allingham was not going to enlighten him yet. It would be pointless.
"How would you convince Lady Sophie to give herself to you, Allingham? Not that I as your friend do not support your cause, but admit it, it is as insane as the lady herself. You are hardly the decrepit old man she has shown herself to be fond of and you hardly have the fortune to make a girl's heart beat faster." Stanley waved his hand. "It is ironic. For years you have evaded the market in a skilful, extremely skilful, fashion, and now, on a whim, you want to go off in hot pursuit of a crazy widow."
While Allingham would have liked to go off in hot pursuit directly, without having thought precisely how, a mysterious illness among the sheep on his estate called him home. He was not often in town and it made perfect sense that things would happen at home the moment he wanted to stay in town.
He cursed his friend Stanley for calling his estate a sheep farm. To be honest, there were rather a lot of sheep there, but it was not the only thing. Yet, as soon as he saw the familiar green hills with the white dots on them, he felt as if he had returned to where he belonged.
He would be sorry if his father died and he would have to return to his former home, Mayfields. If he could but have a son to pass the estate to before his father died, but that required a wife, a woman, and that brought him back to the question of the delectable Lady Sophie.
Before he left town he had ordered for single roses to be delivered to her house every day, anonymously, but he supposed she would know where they came from nevertheless. It was the best he could do during his absence from town.
When he returned after establishing that, while considerably weakened, the sheep would live, he found his mother livid because of the bouquets of striped and yellow carnations that were delivered each day, but perhaps more furious at not knowing who had sent them. "What have you been up to?" she demanded. "It looks like she does not want you! Who is it? Which lady have you been courting?" She spoke as if he ought to have asked her permission.
Allingham glanced at the flowers. "What do they mean?" Roses were good, but for the rest the language of flowers was a mystery to him that he had never cared to unravel. He had not counted on receiving a response from her in floral form. His mother's words promised little good.
"I like difficult women," he replied and retired to his rooms. Obviously, if she was this vehement, the red roses had been a brilliant idea to let her know he was determined, but it was less brilliant to remain in his parents' house, for his mother would surely try to get him married -- to someone else. Only then would she know he made the right choice.
He was correct, because she followed him. "Henry dear..."
He winced at the address. It could only be introducing a very personal topic, one he had stopped wanting to discuss with her long ago. "Yes, Mama?" he asked politely, as if he did not know she was going to quiz him about the identity of the lady.
"Who is the young lady?"
"I am not telling you, Mama."
"I know you have your pride, but perhaps if we threw a ball..."
He glared at her. If there was anything to avoid it was a public occasion like a ball. She abused them for her own scheming purposes. "No more announcements behind my back, if you please. You saw how that worked out. Three times! It is unbelievable." It was also unbelievable that he had allowed it to happen.
"If you would but listen and do what is good for you..."
Allingham stood up and paced the room. "What is good for me or good for you? We differ in our opinions as to what would be a good wife for me. You fear for your position and you would like me to have a wife so young that you can still shape her to your liking, so that you will still rule when my father dies. I, on the other hand, have nothing in common with such a person. I do not want a girl half my age."
"Everyone else is already taken!" his mother cried.
"I still do not want a girl half my age, who, as we have seen, are also all too susceptible to attentions from other gentlemen." He did not want to consider she might have a small point. The older he became, the fewer ladies remained.
"You must think of the family!"
"Really, Mama. I could always settle for a girl a quarter of my age later in life. I think there might be plenty of girls who want to suffer the inconvenience of an old man and his wish for an heir for a short time if they can end up an independent woman afterwards," he spoke, thinking of Lady Sophie.
"Your arrangements for me were no less disgusting in their lack of love or consideration. I am off to my club." Perhaps he would meet more agreeable company. It was no wonder that his father spent so much time there.
Allingham ran into Hartley at the club. He would certainly not avoid the man anymore now that he was interested in the sister, even though Hartley himself bordered on the irresponsible and insipid. Stanley's taste in friends was deteriorating, as was presumably the reservoir of unmarried gentlemen from which to choose. Married men became boring.
"My sister Catherine was quite taken with you at the ball," Hartley told him with a smirk.
"Your sister Catherine?" Allingham remembered her only vaguely. She was perhaps not half his age, but certainly a decade younger than he was. The blonde curls and the large blue eyes did nothing for him. This was a disagreeable surprise, however. "Do not tell my mother."
"What will she do?"
"Announce our engagement?" He could not immediately think which objections his mother might have to Lady Catherine.
"I have no objections. Catherine could do a lot worse."
And he could do a lot better, Allingham thought with a wry smile, but he could not say so. "Do not encourage her. I have no wish to marry." Not Catherine, at any rate. He might consider marrying Sophie if she would have him.
"I would not either if a lady had rejected me so unequivocally," Hartley commented in sympathy. "I heard about the flowers, old fellow. I hope you get over it. Who was it?"
"You heard?" If that gossip had spread, it could mean that gossip of another nature had spread as well in the opposite direction and that his mother already knew about Lady Catherine.
Hartley confirmed that cheerfully. "Oh yes, my mother has been calling on your mother ever since Catherine expressed an interest in you."
Allingham rested his head in his hands in despair. "While I was away, your mother told my mother that your sister was interested, while my mother told your mother that someone had just rejected me?"
Hartley thought about it. "Yes."
"Do I have any say in the matter? What else? When am I to be wed?"
Hartley took the cynical question seriously. "Surely they should discuss that with you first?"
"You do not know my mother," Allingham said ominously. "She would not think that necessary at all. If you love your sister, Hartley, oppose the match. I am a cad."
Allingham was determined not to stay in town to hear his engagement being announced. He should not give his mother the opportunity to try that again, if he could not dissuade her, but he did not attempt to speak with her again. Although he had planned to stay another week or two to catch up with friends and relatives, it was more important to avoid that engagement scheme. He had gone back to his estate, without even claiming business.
It was Lord Stanley who ran into Lady Sophie at Hartley's house. "I understand that cad Lord Allingham left town because he did not want to marry my sister?" she asked him when he was about to leave. Nobody else was in the hall to overhear them and she had emerged from a dark corner. "His Mama was quite put out, I heard."
Stanley was wary of her and he took a step back involuntarily, wishing that he had not said there was no need to ring for someone to let him out. Now he could be murdered in the hall by the crazy widow.
The only person who had spoken favourably of her was Allingham, but he had been mainly bewitched by her beauty. She might still be an idiot, or even a murderess, so he hesitated a few seconds before he answered. "His Mama is always put out. It does not take much to disappoint her. She wants him to be more interested in expanding the family tree, but he only cares about his estate and expanding his flock of sheep. Lady Maye is unfortunately a bad listener, whatever he says. Allingham does not want a girl half his age whom his mother can indoctrinate, but of course that is precisely what Lady Maye wants."
"My Mama was also quite put out by his defection, as she had hoped to make a good match for Catherine. I say Lord Allingham is not old enough to make a good match." She looked at Stanley defiantly, daring him to contradict her on Allingham's suitability.
He did not want to be drawn into a discussion of Allingham's character, but since she had not pulled a weapon he was willing enough to give her a civil answer. "I do not see what he sees in you, Lady Sophie, and you do not see what I see in him. He is my oldest friend. I know him better than anyone. I shall not attempt to discuss with you whether he is too young or too anything to make a good match, for we will likely not agree. I will tell you this: if his mother is so foolish as to force a fourth engagement on him without informing him of her intentions, your sister will be ruined, just like the other young ladies were before her. Is that what you want for her?"
She did not answer directly. "I live, despite my reputation. Do you think I do not know what people say about me behind my back? I use it to my advantage."
"Do you? I am happy for you if you speak the truth." Stanley bowed. "Good day, Lady Sophie."
The poor condition of Lord Allingham's sheep kept him occupied for the first few days of his return. Only at night did he have the opportunity to spare a few thoughts to Lady Sophie. He did not know how to proceed.
If he set foot in town again, his mother might spring an engagement on him in her usual, unpredictable manner. He must appear the greatest fool in all of England for his ability to be tricked into these situations. Those who did not know the particulars must think him a great fool for always getting engaged to ladies who ran away with others. His mother was to blame for all this, yet she did not listen.
Lady Sophie had mocked him for it. He took her reproach seriously. He was a grown gentleman in charge of his own life. He should not allow others to make such decisions for him.
The mail from town was catching up with him now. He had a missive from Stanley about his wins at the gaming tables and a letter written in a female hand that he had to turn over to see who had signed it -- S. B. That could only be one person. Before he started to read her letter, he made sure he was comfortable. It might take him a while.
"Ally?" he spoke incredulously. "Weakling?" She dared to address him as such? This abbreviation was an insult rather than an endearment. He supposed the letter was not going to contain a change of heart on her side, then. That was, if not unexpected, a disappointment.
You may have fled town, but your Mama's ideas have not fled her head. If you have no idea, which you seemed to imply with regard to the previous occasions that you allowed her to meddle in your life, I shall outline the situation for you in a clear and simple manner that even you cannot fail to understand.
The colour rose into his cheeks upon reading these insulting words. He was not simple.
My sister Catherine mentioned your name to my Mama.
My Mama examined your family tree and found it lacking in Catherines.
My Mama visited your Mama.
They agreed upon the match, which was all the more prompted by the fact that another lady had rejected you.
You ruined their plans by leaving town.
"How awfully rotten of me," Allingham muttered in a deeply sarcastic voice. What else could he have done? He supposed Lady Sophie would have wanted him to confront his mother to talk her out of the scheme. She could not possibly want him to marry her sister.
This does not mean they have given up on their plans. The moment you return to town a ball will held in your honour and the announcement will be made without delay. You, weakling, have no say in the matter. Your absence will only lead to a better planning and execution of the scheme, and many details yet unconceived shall be woven into this irrational plot.
He actually did not need an impertinent bit of skirt to tell him what he already knew and he lowered the letter briefly to regain his composure. The message and the tone were equally distressing.
I was warned by another party that if I allowed you to be engaged to my sister, her reputation would be damaged, just like the other young ladies before her. Keeping in mind that it was you who told me you had sold those reputations for bottles of wine, I have no reason to assume that my sister will meet with another fate. Furthermore, my brother Hartley opposes the match without being able to give good reasons, other than that you are a cad. Although his opinions carry little weight with me in other cases, this time I believe he is correct.
Well, Allingham had told Hartley that himself so Hartley would spread the news. It was hardly surprising that it had actually happened.
You have the following options:
Stay out of town until you have found yourself a country girl willing to marry you.
Change your mother's mind.
He put the letter aside and paced the room. Why did she care? What did she want? There were no real solutions in the letter, nor a real problem that affected her personally. Her letter did not speak of a great love for her sister. All it really contained was a warning of what his mother was up to and he could and would have figured that out himself.
Perhaps she wished to insult him by implying he was not good enough for her sister, but they were equals. He was her brother's equal in birth, though his superior in sense and understanding. With another few years of Hartley's managing his own funds, Allingham would be the wealthier of the two. He was not beneath Lady Catherine at all. Lady Catherine was beneath him.
Perhaps Lady Sophie did not want him for her sister for personal reasons. She thought he was a cad. That still did not explain why she wished to insult him. He had given her a compliment and she had given her response. The matter seemed settled.
Allingham waited a night before he replied. He did not want to send off any nonsense in haste. Still, it took him the entire morning to come up with his response. He thought of prosaic words and wrote them down, decided they were not suitably arranged and rewrote the letter, but he could not get it done to his satisfaction.
When he finally sealed the letter, it was rather short and he had disposed of the polysyllabic effusion he had been swamped in earlier. Only the bare essence remained.
Dear Lady Sophie,
I shall treasure your letter forever.
Your Devoted Servant and Ally,
Henry Cavendish, Viscount Allingham
Perhaps that would still qualify as nonsense, but at least it was the truth. He could not put it more honestly than that. Flowers and pretty words were obviously wasted on the woman.
The young clergyman who held the living at Allingham was a particular friend of the Viscount's. Allingham had taken specific care to find a young man for the position when it became available, because there were already enough old people in the neighbourhood and not enough of around his own age. It had worked.
The Reverend Frederick Warden had impressed Lord Allingham from the start with his good-natured manner and common sense. A year after taking up the position he had married a young woman who had previously lived as companion to an old lady who resided in the area. Allingham thought they were well-suited and he respected his friend for making such an excellent choice. Mrs. Warden was a pleasant and practical woman who never hesitated to brave adverse weather conditions to lend assistance somewhere.
Like her husband, she had become a good friend. Allingham always visited them on Sundays after church and then stayed until dinner. On other days Allingham frequently ran into them in the neighbourhood on business as well.
It was on one such Sunday visit that he mentioned his mother's scheme, because it had been vexing him too much to keep silent about it and perhaps his friends would have a helpful opinion.
"We want a say in the matter. Do we not, Frederick?" said Louisa Warden. "Suppose we do not like her and Henry brings her here every Sunday. Or worse! She will not allow him to come!" Not all ladies suitable for marrying viscounts would appreciate their husbands visiting a mere parson and his wife, no matter how respectable a younger son and the daughter of a penniless gentleman were.
"That is why I am quite content all by myself, despite your good example," Allingham remarked. "But if you think your opinion carries any weight with my mother, Louisa, pray write to her."
Louisa had only experienced his last engagement, but she had not seen him happy until his fiancée succumbed to her illness. Frederick and she had often talked about that dilemma. Should they condemn Henry for rejoicing over a death or share his relief at escaping a life with someone he had not chosen? In such matters, they had decided, their friendship weighed more and above all they wished him happiness.
She had also heard that Lady Maye had set her son up for engagements twice before, although they had taken place in town and she had not been privy to details, so she was not surprised at his attitude. He had done things she should not approve of, but she could understand them. "What if you found a woman yourself? I do not think you would have any objections to the married state if you entered it by your own choice." As a happily married woman she could not think otherwise.
He gave her a sad look. "I think I have not had enough luck. If you wish I could tell you a secret in this regard, but you must promise to keep it."
"I am the soul of discretion," Louisa promised.
It would have required even less encouragement to start him off. "I saw a woman who was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, but she was rude to the point of being impossible to converse with on this matter, so I sent her a single rose every day and every day she sent me striped carnations, which according to my mother means rejection."
"I am sorry." Louisa bit her lip to keep her face inexpressive. She felt sorry for Henry, but his methods left something to be desired. Receiving a rose every day from an unwanted suitor could make even the sweetest of tempers strike back with carnations. Besides, how and why had he wanted to converse with her on the subject of her beauty?
"I was not surprised." Allingham shrugged with an air of indifference. "But I believed it could never hurt to let her know."
"I am sorry," Louisa said again. She thought she perceived some hurt nonetheless. He might have expected a rejection, but he would have hoped for something different in spite of that. She did not think he had ever made it a sport to pursue ladies.
"Until such beauty is combined with a lovely character, I will have none of women," he said decidedly, realising that his admiration of her beauty alone would not get him very far. He needed more. Perhaps he would try again some time, but he did not say so to prevent them from asking him questions.
Louisa did indeed not ask the questions she had, but she decided to bring up the topic again when she was alone with her husband.
"What did you think of Henry's story?" Louisa asked Frederick later.
"You were trying not to laugh, Louisa," he chided. "I saw it. The flowers." If she asked, he would probably admit that he had also been a little amused by the thought of Allingham continuing to send a woman flowers, regardless of her reaction.
"No!" she protested. "Well, yes, but I did feel sorry for him as well." He did not deserve to be rejected by some cruel woman.
"You may laugh at it, but you have no idea how difficult it is to approach a lady and that the fact alone deserves some sympathy and admiration," he remarked, trying to look very serious.
"My husband had no problems with it," she said in a sweet voice. It had not taken him very long to make up his mind.
"But as you are a lady of excellent insight and understanding, you saw my purpose," he shot back smoothly. "I do not think I ought to engage in gossip or speculations, but as it is with you and you will remain silent about it ... I do not know this lady Allingham approached, but surely she must have less insight than you, my dear..."
"Naturally, but since he referred to us as a good example, he must have some idea of what to aspire to! But, no matter. We shall have your cousin to occupy us soon and we shall have other things to talk about. When she has gone we can see how Henry has fared in the meantime."
She had never got so wet. The rainstorm had surprised her when she sat sketching. Stubbornly, Sophie had preferred to finish the whole picture rather than flee from the dark cloud, trusting that she had enough time to do so. That had been wrong.
The first drops had fallen gently but insistently and while she had wrapped her sketchbook and crayons up right away, she had only been halfway down the hill when she realised she would be soaked by the time she got home, the Wardens' cottage where she was staying.
She had ventured out too far, finding nice perspectives but always thinking there might be a prettier one a little bit further down the road. From this hill she had had a wonderful view of the valley and she had settled there, but now she realised that in a rainstorm it was awfully far from home.
Her drive for perfection was a burden sometimes. At least this time she remembered the way home because she had never gone far from the road. It had been different in the past. There had been times when she had lost her way, but since then she had learnt to keep an eye on her surroundings on her first day.
As she trod along the now muddy road, a horse and cart overtook her, splattering her cloak with mud, and its driver slowed down. "Get on," he called, gesturing at the cart where a farm girl already sat huddled. "Warm yourself at my fire. There will be thunder shortly!"
She hesitated at this odd order, but the farm girl was already holding out her hand to help her on board. The choice between labouring along in a thunder storm and warming herself at a stranger's fire was an easy one at this point. Fires were always warm, in whichever house. With another female present she was also not risking much. If she remembered the way they were taking, she could always run off.
The cart sped along the road as fast as it could, taking a turn to the right where Sophie should have gone left, shaking and bruising her. Just when she was thinking that she would rather have walked, they halted. The driver of the cart left it to some stable hands, who quickly pulled both horse and cart into the stables where it was dry.
"Get off," said the farm girl, pushing her. "Come." She broke into a run towards a door in what seemed to be a large building. Sophie followed. This was not a farm, but she did not stop to see what it was instead.
Inside a matronly woman was already waiting for them, as if she had known they were coming. "Goodness, he should take a bigger cart out next time," said the woman. After letting them take off their shoes at the door, she took the young women to a small sitting room where a fire was blazing. "Take off those dresses. Are you wanted back at the farm soon, Bess?"
"They would know I would seek shelter in this weather," Bess said with a shrug, taking off her wet dress with some difficulty.
"And you, Miss?" The woman looked at Sophie. "But you are a lady!" she exclaimed in shock, as if ladies required a different treatment.
Sophie's teeth clattered in response.
"But no problem," the woman decided. The lady would catch a cold for certain if she did not take those wet clothes off. "A fire is a fire and I cannot very well let you sit with His Lordship in your chemise. Here, let me assist you." She helpfully stripped Sophie of her cloak and gown.
Bess had rolled herself in a blanket and was comfortable to let everything dry in front of the fire. Sophie followed suit, despite feeling some degree of embarrassment. She wrapped herself and let the older woman hang out her clothes in front of the fire. "I hope his Lordship will not come in here," she remarked a little fearfully, deducing that this building was indeed something more important than a farm.
This did not have to be Allingham Hall, but how many Lords could there be in a village as small as Allingham? Surely he had to be its principal inhabitant?
When the Wardens had invited her, she had thought of declining when the address struck a familiar chord --and to think she was supposed to know where they lived and she ought to have pieced this together sooner -- but she had quickly realised that this might be construed as a slight if she could not give a good reason. Furthermore, why should she let one man dictate her social life in that manner? Neglecting friends and relatives was worse than perhaps meeting Lord Allingham -- unless of course he came in here just when she was wrapped only in a blanket.
She had asked the Wardens if she could be known as Miss Rutherford, because she was sick of society for a while and she feared that a Lady Sophie might garner too many invitations. It was a very plausible request, she had thought, and the Wardens had not objected, nor had they asked too many questions. Perhaps the Viscount would not care to meet his parson's guest if she was a mere Miss Rutherford.
She did not know what he wanted. He had seemed rather blunt and forward in his admiration, without demanding anything. Then he had sent all those roses, continuing even after she had sent carnations. It was not until a few days later that she had found out he must have some standing order at the florist's, because he was not even in town and he could not know her answer.
Even after he had responded to her letter -- with such a short and strange note -- she did not know whether he wanted anything at all. She was not going to seek out another meeting to find out.
"No, he will not, especially because he will know you two are here. He is not the type to forget. Do you know His Lordship?" asked the woman.
"I do not even know his name." Sophie did not mention her suspicions. How did he know they were here?
"You are in Lord Allingham's house, Miss. I am Mrs. Hope, his housekeeper. What is your name, Miss?"
"Rutherford. Sophie Rutherford." She supposed there were plenty of women named Sophie and that even if the housekeeper passed this on to her employer, he might not know who she was.
"Oh, you are staying with the Wardens, are you not? I heard from Mrs. Warden that you were expected. Rest assured, Miss Rutherford. He will not come in here. I expect he will be sitting by his own fire, for he was as wet as you!"
"Was he out as well?" Sophie asked politely. She was a bit surprised. The housekeeper at her own house was a stately woman, who would probably not even dream of helping farm girls to get warm and dry. She would very likely leave them in the kitchen to be assisted by one of the other servants.
"Miss Rutherford, he drove you hither!" Mrs. Hope was surprised that she did not know that.
Bess giggled. "Aye, Mrs. Hope! But His Lordship did not introduce himself! He only told her to get onto the cart!"
"No, he did not introduce himself." Sophie was flabbergasted. She had not recognised him at all and considering that he had not said anything to her, he must not have seen who she was. That they should meet in such circumstances was unexpected. "Do you mean to say that His Lordship tramples around the countryside with his boots six inches deep in mud, loading women onto his farm cart?"
"Pretty much," Bess decided after another giggle. "He knew I had a long way to go because I live down by the river on the other side, so he told me to hop onto the cart and then we could not very well let you walk, now could we? He would think you would no more deserve to fall ill than me!"
Sophie still had to get used to the idea of a respectable Viscount behaving like a common farmer. She could not devote any thoughts to what motivated him to behave so strangely and she could certainly not ask whether he displayed such kindness very often. Betraying too much interest would be suspicious.
"Sometimes," Mrs. Hope said indulgently as if she were talking about a son of hers. "Sometimes he forgets. He had been out to return a sheep to the flock. We had some trouble with the sheep recently."
No wonder His Lordship thought her the finest thing he had ever laid eyes on, Sophie thought, if he spent his days transporting sheep and farm girls. It was no fair contest. She shook her head uncomprehendingly.
"On Sundays Henry usually accompanies us home from church," Louisa said on Friday. "But if you had rather not meet people, I could send him a note."
She had been told that Sophie was sick of the rumours in town, but as those rumours had never reached her, she had been amazed to find out what they were. She had always believed that Sophie's husband had died shortly after their wedding, but now she had heard that he had in fact expired before the wedding night. When it came to wedding nights, one did not ask when, precisely, which explained why some people now chose to believe Sophie had killed him.
Louisa was inclined to believe Sophie's indifferent and rather scandalous comment that the anticipation had been his downfall, because it sounded altogether more believable than Sophie who had plotted a murder.
"Henry?" The name Henry Cavendish, Viscount Allingham rang in Sophie's ears. If she had known Louisa was so intimate with the Viscount as to refer to him as Henry, she would never have come here.
"Lord Allingham, my mistake." Now that Louisa mentioned Henry, she could not help but remark the similarities between their cases. He had not plotted a murder, but had had plotted something else.
Sophie rested her head in her hands and sighed. After her accidental meeting -- if one could call it that when neither party had recognised the other -- she had given him some thought. Eventually she had decided she had been extremely lucky to have avoided a direct confrontation.
There was absolutely no telling what Lord Allingham might have done if he had known his passenger was her. He might have dropped Bess off and not taken the cart to the stables at all. Sophie did not particularly trust gentlemen to do the proper thing at all times, certainly not when admiration and opportunity came into play.
He might even resume sending her roses, or another type of flower, whatever took his fancy -- or whatever he had been told would take hers.
All in all she was very glad to have escaped a further acquaintance. What indeed could she possibly like about such an unrefined character? Louisa was overturning all of this now. Sophie was torn between politeness towards her hostess and reluctance to meet the Viscount.
"Why does it take you so long to decide whether you want to meet Lord Allingham or not?" Louisa inquired after a few minutes of silence during which Sophie seemed to have forgotten her. She was beginning to think he was the reason for Sophie's desire for anonymity. Although she did not suppose they could know each other at all, her imagination would certainly like it.
"We have met. Once or twice." The second time he had not even recognised her. Chances were that he would not recognise her now. Sophie clung to that hope. He had really only seen her once, in a dimly lit room. "But we are not acquainted."
"Sophie, if you would rather not meet him, you should say so." And preferably she should also say why she did not want to meet him, because Louisa was curious now. Had something happened? Just what had Henry been up to in town?
"Louisa, do not tell him my real name. He may not recognise me. Leave it that way. Let me tell you something. Lord Allingham's mother is set on announcing his engagement to my sister Catherine. My mother is equally keen on this, but Lord Allingham himself is, I think, opposed to the match. I am not exactly sure." If he thought her the finest thing he had ever laid eyes on and this feeling was strong enough to inform her of it, he had no business wanting to marry another woman. Still, other people always thought differently in these matters.
"Your sister?" Louisa exclaimed. That was a great coincidence. If she remembered correctly, Lady Catherine was much younger than Sophie. "He told us his mother was at it again, but he never mentioned any names." She wondered if that had been because of Frederick's connection to the Rutherfords, but she was not even sure that Henry knew about it.
"I heard she has done this before." Sophie would like to hear this confirmed. She did not yet know if she could rely on his words.
"Yes, this would be the fourth time!" Louisa shook her head, completely dismayed. "I have never met Lady Maye. She would never set foot in here. She barely sets foot in Allingham Hall. Does she care about him at all? How could she try this again?"
"After all the scrapes he has got into to get his fiancées compromised, indeed," said Sophie. "I have let him know I do not want that for my sister. I sent him an insulting letter that hopefully inspired him to oppose his mother's schemes for once and thus save my sister from ruin."
Louisa's mouth fell open. "An insulting letter? You have corresponded with Lord Allingham?"
"I am afraid I have," Sophie said quietly. "Only once." That lessened the impropriety of the correspondence considerably.
"Dear Sophie. And you insulted him. I am beginning to see why you insisted on being Miss Rutherford here. This is a bit of a situation, is it not?" Louisa asked in sympathy. She had yet to piece it all together, but her first impression was that it was precarious.
Sophie smiled wanly. Louisa did not even know about the flowers. That would make it even worse, but it was bad enough already. She made up her mind. "I shall be indisposed on Sunday. Invite him all you like. I shall not leave my room. I shall not place myself in the way of your friendship."
Sunday came. Lord Allingham came too. He had not inquired about their absent guest, so after setting out on the walk home from church, Louisa decided to bring up the subject. "Our guest, Miss Rutherford, is indisposed. That was why she did not come to the service." She was curious to see whether he had refrained from inquiring after her for some reason, or whether he did not know or care she existed.
"Oh," he reacted without much interest. "She probably caught a cold after all in that case. I appear to have transported her in my cart the other day when it was raining so much. I had just picked up Bess of the farm by the river when we came across another wet person, so I stopped for her too. Mrs. Hope later told me it was your guest."
"Henry!" Louisa cried. The terrible thing was that she had no trouble believing that he was really uninterested, that he had merely seen her as a wet person. Sophie, on the other hand, had not told her about this incident at all. She had deliberately kept silent about it.
He felt he might have slighted a friend's guest and offered an apology. "I am sorry, Louisa. I did not speak with her. Mrs. Hope did."
Then obviously Mrs. Hope had known who she was and reported this to her master. "What did Mrs. Hope say about her?"
"That I should have noticed that I was picking up a lady and not a country girl." He smiled at his error. "But she was willing to concede that your Miss Rutherford had not noticed either that I was a gentleman and not a farmer. I am sorry that despite my effort to save her from drowning in the mud, she fell ill anyway."
Louisa did not correct him. She was trying to see where this piece fit into the puzzle. She had much puzzling to do these days. It was very intriguing that all the pieces seemed to be connected somehow in as yet mysterious ways. "Are you not interested in meeting Miss Rutherford properly?"
"I hope I am not offending anyone by saying that I am not," Allingham responded. "Another young lady. Please do not invite me for her sake when she is better. You will understand my reluctance, especially in this period."
"Yes, I do. I know you do not mean to slight a friend of ours," she soothed.
"I find it slightly uplifting to hear that she has not tried to overcome her illness in order to meet me." It was a virtue rarely seen.
Little did he know, Louisa thought, that the lady was feigning illness in order to avoid him. She wondered what Henry would do if he knew who she was. Would he avoid a confrontation too? After all, it was not Sophie from whom he was in danger, but her sister. If they agreed on the matter they could even plot together.
"He is gone, Sophie," Louisa came to say late Sunday evening. Sophie would probably want to come out of hiding now.
"He stayed long." It had been very boring in her room, despite the pile of books she had chosen in preparation. She had kept wondering what they were doing and if she was being mentioned. At some point she had even started hoping that someone would come upstairs to persuade her. She might have given in.
"Frederick and he are good friends. Will you come downstairs for a last cup?"
"I might as well." Sophie followed Louisa downstairs. It was safe now and perhaps they could tell her what had been discussed. Good friends tended to speak about other good friends.
Frederick gave her an inquisitive look. "I heard only now that you were not really indisposed." He was inclined to find it amusing that neither guest had been at all eager to meet the other. If ever he had brought their indisposed guest up, Allingham had contorted his face in such fear of unmarried young ladies that Frederick had almost wanted to be mischievous by setting up a confrontation -- but such behaviour would not be suitable on a Sunday.
"That man's name is enough to make me indisposed, but if he is truly gone, I will have recovered. I am sorry I had to miss church," Sophie apologised.
"I am sorry you will miss the service next week, for I have such good material for a sermon right now." He was certain he could find some material on the inevitability of marriage and procreation.
She could see why. "On the subject of lying to preserve one's sanity?"
"Is Henry a danger to your sanity?" Louisa cut in.
Sometimes Sophie cursed Louisa's quick understanding. "I scarcely know how to extract myself from this situation. I shall pray that we do not meet in the coming days. As Lord Allingham seems to have a habit of trampling through muddy fields like a common farmer, I shall perhaps have to give up my grand drawing ambitions and focus on scenes around the house."
"He does not know who you are," said Louisa. "He would not recognise you."
"And I could perhaps only recognise him by measuring how deep he has stood in the mud, or by his handsome equipage, the dung cart," she said sarcastically, not saying that with her hair colour she would almost certainly be recognised.
In spite of himself, Frederick had to laugh. It was not an entirely fair image of Allingham, but it was an amusing one. "Perhaps you would like to see how he behaves in town."
"Oh," Sophie said lightly, to hide that she knew that already. "Because of all those sheep and country girls, his head is far too easily turned by the first real lady he sees, I suppose."
"You are wrong, Sophie," said Frederick, who did not think his friend's head was easily turned. "If you suppose he has never attended a ball in his life, so he may even have seen real ladies."
"In that case he forgot," she said with a haughty look.
"But Sophie, you did not tell me about the common farmer and his dung cart before," Louisa said in a shrewd tone. She felt quite close to solving some more of the puzzle. "Although he so generously drove you."
"I did not think it necessary to make you worry about my conduct, for nothing untoward happened." Yet people would perhaps assume differently if she said he had taken her to his house, where her clothes had dried in front of a fire. That it had been in his housekeeper's rooms would certainly be overlooked when the story was passed on.
"Dung cart?" Frederick asked, his eyebrows raised in order to prompt an explanation from his wife.
"It seems Henry gave Sophie a ride on his cart when it was raining, but she thought he was a farmer and he did not say or think anything at all."
Frederick shook his head in amusement. He could well imagine how it had not at all been practical to go through extensive introductions in the rain. "Only he can do such things without thinking." He wondered what Sophie had been doing, accepting rides from farmers. Somehow the revelation that it had not really been a farmer did not seem to sit well with her.
"I am sure he does many things without thinking," Sophie sneered, thinking of the ball and the flowers. Obviously it had not crossed his mind at all that his attentions might be received less than positively.
"Be grateful for the charity you are shown," he said quietly, wanting to defend his friend, who had probably only meant to be kind to a wet walker. He did not deserve such a sneer, not even from someone who sneered so much that it was almost rendered meaningless.
Only he could say that without making it sound like too much of a reproach. Sophie lowered her eyes in shame nevertheless. Yes, perhaps she ought to feel some gratitude, but she did not want to feel that at all. Nobody could force her to think he had been gallant.
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.