An Inevitable Conclusion
When they arrived back at the house, Frederick said he would walk home. "But before I do so, I must return your husband's money to you, Lady Millbrook."
"Money?" Lady Millbrook said vaguely. "I should only forget to give it back to him and spend it and then he would be very cross with me. You had best settle that business with Honoria. I must get the girls inside." She ushered Eleonora and Deborah inside after making them say thank you for the nice day.
"Get the girls inside," Honoria repeated when they were out of earshot. It had apparently not been necessary to get her inside. "See that I am not a girl?"
He did not see. "There is probably no point in politely arguing that you are. Would you like to be one of the girls, really?"
She looked at him in dissatisfaction. "Perhaps not. Why is my mother acting stupidly by saying my father will be cross with her? He will not. She is as likely to spend that money as he is going to be cross. I do not see why she feigns to be an insipid wife wholly under her husband's influence, afraid of provoking his temper."
"That is not your ideal, I gather." He tried not to laugh.
"Nor the reverse. My mother is not insipid. I am not privy to their private conversations, but I know they must see eye to eye on some matters, because..." She did not know how to say that her mother had come along on this trip, so she had to be involved in the scheming to some extent.
"Because you would want that for yourself?"
She had not been thinking of that specifically, although he was correct. "Well ... yes."
Frederick looked at her approvingly. "Not everyone does. I have one sister who is quite happy being insipid and afraid to provoke another sister's temper. If someone were to insist on soliciting her opinion on every matter, I think she might become very distressed -- and my other sister might become very distressed if someone had an opinion she had not influenced."
Honoria was curious. "Does that sister influence your opinions?" Given the way he spoke of it, she did not think so. He sounded detached -- and older, yet amused.
He smiled. "In being two of the girls I know best, both of them most certainly influence my opinions in some way."
"Even the one who would die if you asked her opinion?" Perhaps the unresponsiveness influenced him. He might not like someone so silent. He seemed to like getting a response.
"Die!" Frederick repeated. "Yes, insofar as that I have decided it would be very tiresome to have to go through so much trouble to find out somebody's opinion."
She pressed her hands against her mouth to hide a smile. She could not explain precisely why she felt like smiling, so she had best hide it.
"You may smile openly," he said. "I have no objections to smiles."
She was always honest. "But then you might ask what caused me to smile and I do not know." It was not only the fact that he did not like insipid girls. That could not explain all of it.
"Those are the best. They come from within and they show in your eyes, whatever you do to your mouth. I must leave you now and make myself presentable for the visit of your family tonight." He sounded faintly regretful. "But here is your father's money first. I would like to know what you and he say about it, but tell me about that tonight."
She took the money, slowly, because the transaction naturally took some time and her hand was being held while the money was being deposited in it. "Perhaps we will say nothing. And what will your cousins say?"
At that question he looked a little uncomfortable. "They do not know where I went. My aunt will ask. I ... am not sure what to tell her, especially if she can verify the story tonight. I rarely lie."
"Can you faint dead away as a distraction when she starts asking? No, wait!" Honoria's eyes began to gleam and she ran into the stables.
Frederick followed her. "What are you going to catch?" he asked, perceiving her looking into a dusty corner.
"How do you know --" Her hand shot out and grabbed something. She turned to show him a large spider. "You can shake this out of your sleeve when she asks a difficult question." Lady Inglewood would certainly scream and forget all about her question. It was a perfect solution.
"How do you propose I keep it in my sleeve until it is required to make an appearance? I may forget about it and then have it crawl out at dinner." His eyes sparkled at the prospect of causing such mayhem.
"I know living spiders do not work, Lord Fernley. This one is quite dead," she said triumphantly. "It was still hanging in a web. You need not be afraid of losing it, if you store it well."
"You are..." Then he sighed without finishing his sentence. "Thank you. Let me roll it into my handkerchief." He did so very carefully. "Why do you call me Lord Fernley?"
"That gives the entire undertaking an air of good breeding," Honoria said, hesitant because of his apparent wish that she call him Frederick. "It is a compensation of sorts." If it had been dark, like earlier today, she might have stepped forward. Now, she only felt that it would be nice.
"I had better go before such a thing really becomes necessary," he said hastily after a tender shake of the head. "But I prefer Frederick and you are always a well-bred girl."
"Well-bred?" she said with a wry chuckle. "You do not know what I wanted to do."
"Would it have hurt me? Injured me? Caused me pain?" He sounded convinced that the answer to those questions would be negative.
"No, but I am not certain you would have considered it well-bred. Or even the fact that I speak of it!"
"If I had done it, it would not be," he said surprisingly. "I do not have such objections to you doing it, though, and I find I quite like not having to guess. If you were to tell everyone that you wanted to ... hmm ... Frederick in the stables, I might find that ill-bred, but as it is..."
"This is strictly between you and me," Honoria said with a blush. She wondered what hmm was.
"And the stable hands," he said matter-of-factly. "While they cannot hear, they can most definitely see. I shall take my leave for the third time. Suppose I were not seeing you tonight, we might need to say goodbye ten times. I think perhaps something ought to be done about that." He started walking away from her, backwards.
"No hand kiss?" Honoria inquired, feeling bolder than she ought because his words excited her. What was he going to do? The only thing that could be done was never saying goodbye. "Your manners, Lord Fernley."
"Do not tempt me to make them worse," he said with a grin.
Arriving inside, Honoria found that the other girls had been preparing themselves for the dinner engagement and that they had very little interest in what the rest of the family had been up to. She did not mind at all. Too much had happened that her younger sisters should not yet know about.
She was always a well-bred girl, he had said. It was nice to hear, even if she preferred people to make her honest compliments. Frederick had said he rarely lied, though, and he had emphasised the word girl. He seemed to think she was indeed a girl.
She was, of course, but perhaps compared to Maria she did not have all the proper attributes. Maria had the patience to be beautified. She had been sitting here for ages and still only her hair was done. Honoria observed it for a while and then skipped away to her father's dressing room to return his money to him.
"Had you not started on your toilette yet, Nolly?" asked Lord Millbrook, who was being dressed by his man. "Four Viscounts means four times as much time to get everyone ready, it seems."
"And then be laughed at for wearing different earrings?" Honoria said a little bitterly. "I am resolved not to do anything out of the ordinary."
"However, that is a difficult thing when one feels out of the ordinary," her father observed.
That had to be an indirect reference to Frederick. It made her remember what her mother had said. "Did you really pose as Mama's brother?" It was always clever to change the subject to someone else.
"I did. Those were exciting times. It took all of my cleverness to abduct her from her house and then all of my self-control to behave like a brother. How did young Frederick acquit himself of his brotherly duties, Nolly?" He had given up wondering if he ought to berate Honoria for impertinent comments and questions. He was too amused by the current situation.
"Papa, may I ask what sort of game you are playing? I heard Mama ask Lord Fernley if you had set him Herculean tasks."
"If I have set him any tasks he is quite equal to them, so there is no need for you to be indignant on his behalf, my child. May I ask why you took him into the stables?" He had seen that from a window and quite naturally he had remained at the window for a while.
"Papa!" Honoria coloured with a glance at her father's stoic valet. She had no idea whether he was prone to gossiping. "You are making it sound as if I went into the stables for dishonourable purposes." She was not that kind of girl and she hoped her father was aware of that. That certain things had crossed her mind towards the end of the conversation was a completely different thing.
"Well, dear child, you were not at all reluctantly followed by a very eligible young nobleman." It had not looked at all suspicious, but he enjoyed the advantage he had.
"I was catching a spider for him."
That was not very impressive, yet not very surprising either. "Can he not catch his own?"
"He would not know they could be found in the stables."
Lord Millbrook snorted. "You may underestimate him there."
Honoria shrugged, supposing that everybody might indeed think of the stables at some point. "We were talking about a way to distract Lady Inglewood if she asked him where he had been today and I thought of a spider, but I did not tell him until he asked. I am sure he could catch his own, though. He was not afraid of spiders. He took it home in his handkerchief."
"Is that all that went on in the stables?" he said with a smirk.
She blushed fiercely. "Yes, Papa, but I do not know why you think I would tell you if any other things had occurred." Anything was strictly between her and Frederick.
"Well, I can arrange things for you that you cannot, Honoria," he said teasingly. "Such as outings. Rather than have him steal you away and pose as your brother, you see. Now I at least retain a modicum of control."
"He would never do such a thing. I came to return your money," Honoria said with dignity, trying to change the topic. "He did not use it."
"He did not strike me as the kind who would take it and then proudly use his own money behind my back," Lord Millbrook said with a puzzled look.
"And he let you?"
"He did. He felt I took after you for wanting to pay. When I announced my intentions I did not know he had your money, you see." She laid the money on the table. "I will dress now."
Lady Inglewood had made the seating arrangements. Perhaps someone had assisted her, but at any rate they were very felicitous. Honoria realised there was a danger that she would end up speaking solely to her father or Frederick, given where she was seated. She was not wholly to blame, for her neighbour on her other side, Lord Fernham, proved to be more captivated by her sister Sarah than by herself and he rarely turned her way.
In order to avoid censure and suspicions, she had sat down with her mother and Lady Inglewood after dinner, listening to ladylike topics. This move also ensured they could not speak about her and eventually Lady Inglewood was forced to relate the carelessness of her nephew Frederick, who had spiders crawling out of his clothes.
"It was huge! I fainted dead away. It had legs this size --" Lady Inglewood indicated something with her fingers that would have made the spider as large as a mouse. "This size, I swear to you most solemnly. And very hairy! And its eyes! They were looking at me venomously. It was about to jump me."
Honoria listened in silence. She wondered how Lady Inglewood could have noticed all these remarkable details if she had fainted dead away.
"And it was in his clothes, you say?" asked Lady Millbrook, intrigued.
"I do not know where it came from! But he was the only one near me."
"How could he not mark the presence of something as large as a mouse in his clothing?" Her mother's innocent question made Honoria turn her head to hide a smile.
"He did not tell me! He was most solicitous in fetching my smelling salts and generally made up most admirably for this ... this ... thing. It was worse than the frog, I assure you." Lady Inglewood shot a reproachful glance at Honoria. She had not forgiven the girl. "At least the frog hopped out of sight so I did not faint."
Honoria thought Lady Inglewood had successfully been distracted from her questioning, for nothing was mentioned about an unhappily interrupted conversation. "But the spider must have appeared by accident."
"My servants would not allow a spider in," Lady Inglewood said. "It must have hidden himself on Frederick. He makes a study of small creatures, I believe."
Honoria could well imagine he had been able to provide the correct Latin name, but she did not ask for it.
"He said he was out all day looking at birds and other small things. At least James was with me, because Philip and Raymond were with you."
This made Honoria blink for a second, until she realised that Lady Inglewood did not know that she and her mother had not been at home. Philip and Raymond had to be the Lords Brisselford and Button. Her sisters would probably already have found out which was which.
"To deliver your invitation, indeed," Lady Millbrook murmured.
"Indeed! Some of your daughters have captured their fancies!" Lady Inglewood sounded excited at the prospect that their families might be united.
Some of the daughters, but not at all. Ergo, not the eldest. "A gentlemen had best not allow too many girls to capture his fancy," Honoria said sweetly. "One would suffice, or else trouble ensues, even among sisters."
When the gentlemen returned, Honoria was still with the older ladies, but then some of the party wanted to play a came of cards. Three of the Viscounts, three of the sisters and a brother made seven and thus they prevailed on Lord Millbrook to make an eighth because Honoria had taken up a book and declined, and Frederick had taken up a sketchbook and likewise declined.
Lord Millbrook was willing to play cards, but his reasons were unclear. It could be to keep an eye on his younger daughters, or equally well to give his eldest some freedom.
She was more interested in Frederick than in her book and she soon put that down to see what he was sketching, but he quickly turned the page when she came nearer. "Am I not allowed to see?" she asked, seeing only a blank page.
"No," he said amiably.
"Is it your aunt being swallowed by a giant toad?" she asked softly, sitting down to attract less attention from others in the room.
He laughed. "Not exactly."
"It cannot be me either. You would not dare. Not here." She could not tear her eyes away from the notebook. Nothing was more vexing than not being allowed to look.
"Nobody would dare to take my sketchbook from me," Frederick said confidently. "I can draw anything I like, even you, but I would not let you be swallowed by a giant toad." He lifted a corner of the page and allowed her a peek.
She swallowed. "A nymph."
"If you wish."
"You had best keep that page hidden," she said, pressing it down with her fingers. "Did it really cling like that? I never knew."
"It did not give me nightmares." He began to sketch on a blank page. The drawing quickly became a giant toad, its expression vaguely reminiscent of Lady Inglewood. Its tongue had come out to catch a spider.
Honoria pressed her hand against her mouth. "You are incorrigible. Put that away or you will make me laugh." And her laugh would be loud enough to make people turn their heads in her direction. Then they would wish to see the sketch and Frederick would get into double trouble, both for his disrespectful drawing of his aunt and for the scandalous sketch of the nymph in her shift who to anybody must bear a striking resemblance to Honoria.
"But you have such a nice smile," he said softly, continuing to draw.
She stared at him in amazement. "W-W-What did you say?"
He flicked back a few pages. There she was again, smiling absentmindedly as she sat on one of the stepping stones. "I know to whom I will show this one." He turned back another page. "And this one." The last one had her falling into the Millbrook, quite dramatically, a large fish slipping from her hand.
Honoria did not know what to say. She merely stared. It affected her much more to see he had taken care to draw her so flatteringly than to see her had apparently peeked at her. The girl did indeed have a nice smile. It looked like her, vaguely, but she could not really believe it.
"Some artistic licence was employed," he said, pointing at the fish. "But they will understand that."
"Who?" She could not believe he was going to show this to others.
It was in a very happy mood that Honoria went to bed that evening. Frederick had given enough hints for her to think he might be interested in her and not surprisingly such attentions were not unwelcome. He would go home and show his sketchbook to his parents. She had not dared to ask whether this was equivalent to asking for their approval or simply notifying them of his interest. It might mean he was returning home soon and she did not want him to.
"That Lord Fernley..." said Maria, who had some interest in Honoria's prospects, since her own were so dependent on them. "Do you think he might make you an offer?"
"I do not know that," her sister said modestly. "He would hardly announce that he is going to do so, because then he might as well do so right away. It is pointless to warn me in advance. I am capable of giving an answer the moment the subject is mentioned -- and I think he is very capable of mentioning the subject in the form of a direct question."
"But what else could happen but that he should ask you? You spent a lot of time in his company tonight and neither Papa nor Mama took you away." Maria viewed the business as quite settled. Her parents had not even bothered to interrupt any conversation.
"Why should they have?" Honoria yawned. Apart from the drawing of Lady Inglewood, everything else Frederick had drawn that evening had been safe. He had sketched his ancestral home for her and some other things he could do with ease.
"But nobody could check what you said. You might have made plans to elope for all we knew," her sister pouted. She had hoped to hear some favourable news.
"We did not," Honoria said irritably. "Just because two persons are talking in private does not mean they are planning to elope. Perhaps Papa and Mama trust me." She would prefer to think that, rather than that they were conspiring to see her married as soon as possible.
"They know it is vital not to throw up too many barriers at your age," Maria said with sisterly kindness. "I am sure I shall not meet with the same leniency."
"Do you wish for leniency?"
"Well," Maria said candidly, yet with some bitterness at not being able to progress. "I cannot keep holding hands with George forever, yet Papa would be livid if he saw even that."
Maria had known George for much longer than she had known Frederick. Honoria had not held hands with Frederick, but she had clung to him in the House of Horrors. That was even worse and yet so addictive. She understood her sister, but she was not going to do anything merely to help her sister out. "Why do I not say to Frederick tomorrow that we must be wed instantly so you can marry George?" she said sarcastically. "Why can you not marry George now? I thought you were not yet decided about him anyway, not that you were held back by my hesitation."
Maria was awed. "Frederick? Do you call him Frederick?"
"Did I hear you call your suitor George? Go to sleep." Honoria pulled the blanket over her head. Maria spoke some more, but she refused to listen or answer.
After breakfast Lord Fernley appeared. Before he could be shown to her father's study, Honoria, after taking him over from the servant, managed to get herself near enough to whisper to him. "What have you come to do?" There was not much he could want to speak about with her father. There might be some more business, but if this concerned her, she wanted to be notified immediately.
"Important business," he said with a wink.
"May I know?" Her question was voiced in the manner of an order. She would keep asking until he told her.
He looked at her appraisingly for a second and then drew her arm through his. "You may even come -- on one condition."
"Which is?" she was quick to ask.
"That you say yes."
"I will." She pulled him into the nearest room, only looking around herself to ascertain that nobody was there. She ought to take control. This would be her own doing. "You must know that I can push myself into your arms as well as anybody."
"Nolly," he said with a bright smile. "I think you will make me very happy."
"I think so too." She came closer, putting her arms around him. "Hmm?"
"Hmm," he agreed.
While that had been a most agreeable interlude, there was still Frederick's important business he had to handle.
"Now you have to," said his lady with all the satisfaction of a newly-betrothed woman. He could no longer turn back. This was an intentional scrape and those had to be punished.
"While it was sweet of you to make that decision for me, it had actually long been made," he assured her. "Before this moment, I mean."
"What of your parents? What will they say?" Honoria gave some thought to that only now. Frederick was obviously not afraid of their reaction, so she ought to trust that. He knew his parents.
"Fitzwilliams can be incredibly fast."
"Will that be their reaction?" she asked in confusion.
"No, but when I announce my news, they will nod appreciatively and say I am a true Fitzwilliam."
"That is odd. How can they know I am suitable?"
"No one more suitable than the child of an old school friend. The old generation thinks that recommendation enough," he said with a snort.
"Nobody informed me of that," Honoria said indignantly, although some things made more sense to her now. Her father would have known a Lord Fernley in his youth and it was not strange that he had spoken to someone who now carried that same title. If he had liked the father, the son might have an easier time being approved.
"Because it did not influence my decision to like you. It only influenced your father's decision to speak to me." He hesitated for a second. "Although mentioning to my father that I had met an old school fellow of his with six daughters -- no!" he said quickly in response to Honoria's look. "He asked me how many children he had and things like that. I did not volunteer. When Lady Inglewood sent me another invitation, my father did not oppose my going, however."
"Because of the six unmarried daughters?" She could see how it would have gone. His father would have thought it a most excellent opportunity for Frederick to choose a suitable wife -- an old and titled school friend with six unmarried daughters.
"Because I had only met three of them," Frederick said with a grave look.
"And now you can go home and say you have met all six because you were a good boy and you took the remaining three on a day trip." That coincidence was far too great. Someone had orchestrated it. She shook her head in disbelief.
"And then they will ask if you picked one of them, because quite obviously you are not becoming any younger."
"Only more discerning," he said with a look that made her blush.
He did not relinquish his hold on her and took her with him. Lord Millbrook raised his eyebrows at seeing both of them thus attached, but he was not overly surprised. He leant back in his chair and made a gesture that invited Frederick to speak.
"I do not like to waste time, Lord Millbrook," said the younger man. "Having made up my mind I see no reason to stall. I quite like your daughter and since she is accompanying me hither on the condition that she will say yes to whatever I say, I should like to think that we are of one mind. Therefore I would like to ask you for your daughter's hand in marriage."
Lord Millbrook looked at his daughter, on whose cheeks a becoming blush had appeared. "Nolly once said she wants to be consulted."
"Well, Papa," she said, staring at the floor. "I was indeed consulted." Or would that be convinced, if she had still required that?
"You do not think this young man unmarriageable then, Nolly?"
"I do not."
"Was such a short acquaintance enough for you?"
She straightened her back. "And for you, Papa? For me it was. How could I fail to see the worth of a son of an old school friend of yours, Papa?" She said that with the kind of sweetness that was not exactly calculated to fool her father. She would like to let him know that she was on to the many manipulations.
"You are a discerning young lady who knows there is more to me than that," said Frederick.
She turned towards him. "My father does not care if there is. I hope that when my times comes to marry off a child, I shall look beyond such considerations and judge their choice of spouse by his or her character and not by whether his or her parent went to school with either you or me."
"I have a better idea," said Frederick. "Why do we not produce offspring who are so discerning they do not need our help? I think we might be able to produce some clever ones."
Lord Millbrook tapped his desk with a paper weight when they even stopped looking at him and he was in danger of becoming superfluous. "Apparently you do not even care whether I voice my consent or not, because I should like to point out that I have not yet given an answer and you two are already discussing procreation."
"But the son of your old school friend...I thought that settled it," Honoria said, as sarcastically as she dared to be at this important moment.
"I am sorry I mentioned offspring, Lord Millbrook," Frederick said contritely. "But I do like small crawling creatures."
Lord Millbrook rested his face in his hands. "Call your mother, Nolly."
Honoria, not wanting to leave the room, simply rang the bell.
"You are so practical," said her betrothed in admiration.
Lord Millbrook continued to rest his face in his hands, even when a footman appeared and Honoria asked for Lady Millbrook. He did not look up until his wife entered the room. Then he beckoned her. "We must confer."
"She is not going to say no," Honoria whispered to Frederick. "This is an act to frighten us. My mother is absolutely intent on seeing me wed. According to my sister they could not afford to throw up too many barriers at my age."
He raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
"Are you nervous?" she asked.
"How would you like to go to Venice?"
"Venice?" Honoria stared at him. Was he thinking of taking her, or of something else?
"Neither of us has been there," Frederick answered. "I think we might enjoy it."
She began to smile. "I think we might indeed. When --"
"Honoria!" called her father. "Your mother and I have conferred." He paused for effect. "We give our consent."
Frederick and Honoria had travelled to Venice after their wedding. She had returned less thin; continental food had seemingly agreed with her. Lady Matlock and Lady Millbrook knew better and started knitting. Unfortunately it really seemed to have been the food, so the mothers had knitted and sewn quite a lot when it finally became necessary. More than a year after their return, a little boy was born.
More than thirty years later, they had five handsome children and twelve adorable grandchildren, but although clever, their offspring had still required some assistance in bringing all of that about.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.