The Ampleforth Girl

Part One

Eric D'Aubrey, Lord Clairmont, entered Lady Tervington's ballroom and almost immediately everyone's eyes were on him. The hostess, fully aware of the honour bestowed on her, hurried towards him and spent a good five minutes fawning over him. Bored, Lord Clairmont looked around to see whether there were any friends of his present so he could make his escape. The only one he was able to discern, however, was his brother-in-law, Mr. Hartwell, who was dancing with Miss Theodora Ampleforth. Lord Clairmont grinned. Hartwell had, very cautiously, explained to him that now, two years after his wife's demise, he meant to remarry, but he had not told him just how desperate he was to do so. He had to be pretty desperate; otherwise he would not have wasted his time on the likes of the Ampleforth girl.

It was not that Miss Ampleforth was ugly -- her figure was pleasing, and her face, though nothing out of the ordinary, was pretty enough. But Miss Ampleforth was a bluestocking if ever there had been one. If Dr Johnson had known Theodora Ampleforth, his explanation for the word "bluestocking" would have been a picture of her printed next to the word in his Dictionary. According to rumour, she had taught herself the Latin language when only seven years of age, and since her father had been a notable scholar he had encouraged her to learn Greek as well. She had a well-founded knowledge of all the Classics, and a razor-sharp intellect. At one occasion, when only twelve years old, she had informed her brother's tutor -- the local clergyman -- that she found his translation of a Latin text sadly inaccurate. Though her Latin might even have improved since then, her manners had not.

No one had any problems with clever women, Lord Clairmont thought. Well, he for one hadn't. The thing was that Theodora Ampleforth made every man feel like an idiot in her presence. She found fault with everything one said, and did not hesitate to give her decided opinion on a man's views, character, and intellect -- not a favourable one, usually. Her intelligence had made her insufferably conceited, and none but her own opinions had any value to her.

Clairmont was surprised to find her in London still. One would have thought that Lady Ampleforth, after four unsuccessful Seasons, would have brought out her younger girl and left her eldest at home to enjoy her father's library in solitude. But to all appearances Lady Ampleforth had not lost her hopes yet. Miss Theodora Ampleforth was embarking on her fifth Season in London, and it would be interesting to watch, Lord Clairmont thought.

As the dance ended, Clairmont excused himself and made his way through the crowd to meet his brother-in-law, who was taking Miss Ampleforth back to her mother. Lady Ampleforth greeted him affably, casting a quick look at the dowagers around her to see whether they had noticed who was coming to talk to her and whether they were suitably impressed. It was not very often that a leader of fashion took notice of her or her daughter.

Miss Ampleforth acknowledged his polite greeting with a nod. She had never been particularly fond of him -- early in her first Season, she had given him a blistering set-down and informed him that she did not approve of the dandy-set. Men who wasted their entire intellectual capacity on ridiculous fashions, she had said, were not worthy of her respect, and she did not understand why they seemed to have such infinite power over London society. Lord Clairmont, who would have been well able to ruin her chances in Society forever with a mere whisper, had taken this rebuke with unusual good humour and had from then on watched her progress with some amusement. He knew of three suitors whom she had scared away with her schoolmistress ways -- correcting half of what one said, and smiling disdainfully at the other half - , and was wondering who would be this year's victim. He did hope it would not be Hartwell, however. The poor man had suffered quite enough of late.

Tired of exchanging smalltalk with Lady Ampleforth, Clairmont finally asked her daughter for the next two dances. Miss Ampleforth accepted, though nothing in her countenance betrayed any wish to be in his company, and he led her to the set.

"So you are to enjoy another season in London, Miss Ampleforth?" he asked. It was not the most original conversational gambit, but he knew it was no more than what Theodora Ampleforth expected of him. He was a prominent member of the dandy -- set, and hardly anyone suspected him of being capable of deep thought or serious conversation. His Oxford acquaintances might have pointed out the mistake, but they had long ago decided that if Clairmont chose to behave like an empty-headed fop, so be it. Therefore his well-equipped library remained a secret to most members of the Ton, as did his academic achievements. He had not been on the Town for long when he had realised that his rank and fortune weighed more with people than his character or learning, and had acted accordingly. His only claim to fame now was his attire, which even the fastidious Mr. Brummell could find no fault with, and the fact that he was one of the wealthiest peers in England.

Miss Ampleforth turned her eyes heavenwards, as if to ask the Lord to grant her patience. She did try to humour him, however.

"Quite so, sir. I tried to convince my mother that I take no interest in society life, but she chose not to believe me. Maybe next year I will be allowed to stay at home, since at that time my sister will have reached a suitable age to be thrown onto the market."

"I thought she had already reached it," Clairmont said, ignoring the derisive tone of her answer. As it seemed, Miss Ampleforth wished to shock him, or to discuss the evils of the London marriage mart with him. He was not going to do her either favour.

"Melissa is seventeen," Miss Ampleforth said. "If my mother waits for much longer, she will turn out too old to make a respectable match -- or, even worse, she will have developed opinions of her own."

"A great fault, indeed," Clairmont said sweetly. "It should be avoided at all cost. I understand Lady Ampleforth is not aware of the risk she is taking?"

Miss Ampleforth gave him a disapproving glare. Apparently she was quite capable of recognising when someone was giving her a dose of her own medicine -- and did not like it when anyone did.

"You do not think females are capable of having opinions, I daresay," she said coldly.

"If they were not capable of having any, Miss Ampleforth, it would hardly be necessary to prevent them from getting any," he replied, pointing out a fault in her logic. "Besides how could I be so rude as to say so to your face, even if I believed that? I have often witnessed you expressing very strong opinions on various subjects -- they are your own, are they not?"

Miss Ampleforth reddened, but did not rise to the bait.

"So you are hoping you may be allowed to stay in the country next year, Miss Ampleforth?"

"My mother was very positive about that," Miss Ampleforth said. "This is my fifth Season -- and unless I am married by the end of it, it will also be my last."

"You must strive to be married by the end of it then," Lord Clairmont said with a smile. "What would London be without you? Mrs. Richardson's salons would be unbearable, and I know of several booksellers who will have to shut down their shops if they are to lose your patronage. Such evils as that must outweigh your own inclination, surely."

Miss Ampleforth gave him a surprised look -- she had probably never suspected him of knowing that such things as bookshops were in existence, or of an acquaintance with the famous Mrs. Richardson, whose circle of friends included many notable scholars and writers. She did not mention the matter, however.

"Are you going to stay in London during the entire season, sir?" she merely asked. Her tone indicated that she didn't much care where he was or how long he was going to stay. Her question had merely been a matter of form.

"I think so," he said. "It will be a dead bore, but better than staying in the country, I believe."

"It has always been my opinion that being bored is one's own fault, for being unable to think of rational employment," she said.

"You are not made for boredom, then?"

"I never allow myself to get bored," Miss Ampleforth said. "There is plenty for me to do."

Lord Clairmont did not allow himself to get bored either -- it just happened to him very often. Functions like this, where one was forced to talk meaningless nonsense at people who did not care about what he had to say, were among the things that bored him most. Closely followed by visits at his aunt's, and the homilies his mother sometimes read him. Miss Ampleforth's behaviour that evening closely resembled them. Her remarks, whenever they were not downright rude, sounded like the kind of thing one heard in church on Sundays. In short, she was not at her best that evening. He had seen her in a much better mood, and sometimes she had been most entertaining, even though she had never liked him very much.

Tonight, however, things were different, and he was quite relieved when the dance was over and he could get rid of her. Luckily, she did not ask him to procure a drink for her, and so he could seek out his brother-in-law, inform him that he was going to White's, take his leave of the hostess, and escape. That this course of action gave rise to gossip did not even enter his mind, until his brother-in-law called on him the next day.

Mr. Hartwell came to Lord Clairmont's house at noon -- they were planning to go to Tattersall's together. Hartwell wanted to buy a hunter, and his brother-in-law had promised his assistance in the venture. No one in their right mind disputed Lord Clairmont's judgement in matters of horseflesh.

Having accomplished the task to both Mr. Hartwell and Lord Clairmont's satisfaction, they were on their way to White's when Hartwell finally asked, "What are you up to with the Ampleforth girl, Clairmont?"

The matter had been weighing heavily on Mr. Hartwell's mind ever since he had heard some dowagers discuss it at the ball the evening before.

"I am not up to anything," Clairmont replied calmly. "Not with the Ampleforth girl, at any rate," he added with a grin.

"Then I think you made a mistake in coming to the Tervington ball, dancing with her, and leaving almost immediately afterwards."

"The mistake was coming to the Tervington ball," Clairmont said. "I should not have, and had it not been for my mother's sake I would not have bothered. She so wanted her bosom-bow to make a hit, there was nothing I could do."

Mr. Hartwell laughed. He knew his mother-in-law well -- it was just like her to send her son on such an errand of mercy. He should have known Clairmont had not come to Lady Tervington's ball because he had wished to. Still, Clairmont's unaccountable behaviour there puzzled him.

"But what have I done to Miss Ampleforth?" Clairmont asked. "How did I manage to get the tongues wagging?"

"As I said -- you came to the ball, you danced with her, and you left. That is all."

"Indeed. And we were flirting outrageously, weren't we? It was plain and for everyone to see," Lord Clairmont said caustically. "We are clearly an issue. Did someone write to the Gazette?"

Mr. Hartwell grinned. "Perhaps they thought you were having a lovers' tiff," he said.

"Naturally. Since we are so often seen in each other's company it could only be that," Lord Clairmont said. "They will see their mistake soon, never mind."

Fate would have it, though, that Lord Clairmont and Miss Ampleforth were thrown into each other's company very often in the following weeks, and so the rumours did not simply go away.



Part Two

The first occasion was at one of Mrs. Richardson's soirees. Mr. Richardson was a Member of Parliament, and his wife had established herself as London's great intellectual hostess. Her drawing-room had become the meeting point of writers, scientists and scholars, and her parties usually consisted of people who could be considered the intellectual elite of the country. Miss Ampleforth had soon recognised her as a lady after her own heart, and they had struck up a friendship. So Miss Ampleforth was a regular guest in Mrs. Richardson's house -- it was one of the few places in London where she felt entirely at home, as she had often pointed out.

Lord Clairmont had been invited to her house sometimes -- Mrs. Richardson had, unfortunately, got wind of his successful academic career -- but he had kept his visits to a tolerable minimum, not wishing to be recognised as a scholar. "Clever coves" were not the fashion among the young crowd of the Ton. He had received another invitation from Mrs. Richardson, however, informing him that Mr. Simms, Fellow of Magdalen College, was about to give a lecture on Aeschylus at one of her parties, and this piece of news made a visit at her house inevitable.

Simms had been Lord Clairmont's tutor in Oxford, and had done a great deal to support his academic efforts. Even after Clairmont had left university, they had been regular correspondents, even though they had not met for years. It was therefore hardly surprising when a letter from Mr. Simms arrived, in which Simms asked Clairmont to attend the soiree for "moral support", and Clairmont, feeling that he owed it to his friend, accepted Mrs. Richardson's invitation for his sake. He even had to admit that he was looking forward to the soiree -- it would do him good to stop playing the clown for one evening, he thought.

The expression in Miss Ampleforth's face when he made his appearance in Mrs. Richardson's drawing room was priceless. He was probably the last man in the world she would have expected to see there, and she took no pains to conceal her surprise. When she noticed the obvious friendship between him and the evening's guest of honour, she even seemed to regard him with some new-found though reluctant respect. But the dispute after Mr. Simms lecture was the final straw, as far as Miss Ampleforth was concerned.

It was Mr. Simms' fault. He was the one who, once he had finished his speech, suggested that anyone who wished to share their opinions with him was welcome to do so. Clairmont had noticed several things in Mr. Simms' lecture he wished discuss at length with him, and within five minutes they were conversing on the subject of Greek poets in general and Aeschylus in particular as had been their wont during the years Clairmont had spent at Magdalen College. The rest of the company was, more or less, restricted to being onlookers, only Miss Ampleforth was undaunted and managed to let fall some -- admittedly very clever -- remarks. But the sidelong glances she cast at Clairmont were illuminating. She had always despised him as a member of the fashionable set, and had never even suspected that there might be more to him than the foppish creature she sometimes met at society functions. A whole world was probably going to pieces that evening, Clairmont thought with a grin. Good. The Ampleforth girl could do with a set-down.

Later in the evening, Mr. Simms was busy being polite to his hostess and Lord Clairmont found himself sitting next to Miss Ampleforth.

"This was an amazing evening, don't you think, Lord Clairmont?" she asked.

"Oh, Mr. Simms is an extraordinary lecturer," Clairmont said.

"Mr. Simms said you made his acquaintance in Oxford," she said lightly.

"Quite so."

"He said you were the most brilliant student he ever had," she said, sounding almost indignant.

"He was exaggerating, Miss Ampleforth," Clairmont said. "As far as I know, there are many brilliant men in Oxford. I never felt I was in any way extraordinary, but Mr. Simms chooses to disagree. I say he is biased in my favour -- he is a good friend of mine."

"Why did you never mention that you were so..." She broke off.

"So...?" Lord Clairmont prompted.

"Well-read," she said, really indignant this time.

"I usually try to match my conversation to my company, Miss Ampleforth. Correct me if I am wrong, but the average debutante is not interested in the comparative merits of Aeschylus and Euripides."

Miss Ampleforth nodded. "Too true," she sighed.

"Nor does it please me to show off my learning at every opportunity," he continued. "What good would it do me?"

Miss Ampleforth blushed. "I feel such a fool," she said quietly.

"A novel experience, I daresay," Lord Clairmont said.

"After the way I treated you, and the things I said to you, you cannot wonder at my embarrassment," she said. It almost sounded like an apology, and her rueful smile made her look quite appealing, Clairmont thought.

"I never took offence at any of the things you said to me, Miss Ampleforth, rest assured," he replied.

"But why ... why does an intelligent man like you choose to make people believe he only cares for clothes?"

"Miss Ampleforth, I must protest," Clairmont said laughingly. "I do not care for clothes only. My interests include horses, and ... er ... modern drama."

Miss Ampleforth smiled. "Actresses, I have heard," she said. "But this adds weight to my argument, sir. Why do you choose to give people such an unfavourable impression? Why not impress people with your well-informed mind rather than with a new way of tying your neckcloth?"

"Well-informed minds are not the fashion, Miss Ampleforth. Neatly tied neckcloths are. I am more likely to impress people with these."

He saw Miss Ampleforth's disappointed look, and added, "It took me some time to learn this, and though I admit it is a pity that a man is not respected in this town for his intelligence and character rather than his appearance and his fortune, it is the way of the world and one must come to terms with the way things are. I am merely adopting the Ton's ways as long as it pleases me to do so. In private, I continue my studies because it would not do to stagnate."

"I am glad you do not let your potential go to waste then," Miss Ampleforth said.

"Oh no, there is hope for me yet. I need not tell you that this is a well-kept secret of mine, Miss Ampleforth," he said. "I'd rather not have anyone find out I have unsuspected depth. Apart from the people who do know, that is, but there are not many."

"But don't you think people will find out, once it becomes known that you were having a scholarly dispute with the famous Mr. Simms?" Miss Ampleforth pointed out. "There were enough people here to witness it."

There was that possibility, of course, and Clairmont admitted that he had taken the risk into account. Miss Ampleforth smiled.

"You make it sound as if this was a bad thing," she said.

"Oh, it is. Only think what you felt this evening when you realised I was not the man I'd appeared to be, and imagine it is not you but my friends making that startling discovery. I would not be able to show my face at White's for a fortnight."

"How unfortunate."

"Indeed. It would quite spoil my fun -- you must know that my main concern is finding out just how far I can push people to follow my example. I have not reached my limits yet, I suppose, though I might reach them if I tried to induce the young set to serious study."

"It would be worth a try, though," Miss Ampleforth said.

Lord Clairmont laughed. "No, it would not," he said. "It is much more amusing to see how many people are going to wear dandelions on their hats within twenty-four hours of me doing so."

"Dandelions on a gentleman's hat? How odd!"

"I am sure they will look striking," Lord Clairmont said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

"But surely people would not follow your example if you ... you wore such outrageous things as that."

"Believe me, Miss Ampleforth, they would. Even if I chose to wear my pantaloons on my head tomorrow, there would be someone declaring it was a capital idea and trying to copy the exact way I was doing it."

Miss Ampleforth laughed. "You had better not put that to the test, sir," she said. "You would end up in a lunatic asylum."

"Probably. But I would not be the only one."

"I suppose being a gentleman of fashion requires a great deal of profound thought," she said mockingly.

"It does. It is a science in itself," Clairmont said.

"A science beyond my comprehension, I am sorry to say. I still think it is a waste of time when one could be doing much more useful things."

"I know you think so," Lord Clairmont said. "A pity. You were showing promise when you came to London, you know? You have a good eye for colour, for a start."

"But it takes more to be fashionable?"

"It is much the same as with every science -- only hard work will see you through. Whether you think the effort worth your while is something you must decide for yourself. But it would be a real shame if you were to rot in the country, Miss Ampleforth."

"You think if I dressed more fashionably I'd be able to catch myself a husband? What if I told you that I do not wish to marry? Most men I have met do not want a wife who ... a wife like me. I would have to make things that do not interest me in the least my main concerns, and I'd have a husband who'd order me about as he pleases without thinking of me as a rational creature. I'd be dead within a year, I am sure. I am going to remain single, my lord. It is the only way I can imagine which would allow me to retain my self-respect as well as my sanity. Besides there is a very likely chance of me rotting in the country even if I married -- that would depend on my husband, of course."

"You have a strange idea of marriage, Miss Ampleforth," Lord Clairmont said. "I agree that there are some men who feel threatened by a clever woman -- and with them, I suppose, a woman would be well advised to hide her intelligence. But not all of us want silly wives. How could a man choose to be tied to a female who will make him cringe whenever she opens her mouth?"

"It does sound unreasonable, I admit," Miss Ampleforth said.

"The way I see it -- though it is no concern of mine, obviously," Lord Clairmont continued, "the problem does not lie with your intelligence and learning. If you will pardon my saying so, you are being very ... ostentatious about it, that is the trouble."

"In other words, a lady may be intelligent but she should not show it?"

"No, you misunderstand me, Miss Ampleforth. What I meant was that a lady, if she has the good fortune of being clever and well-read, should restrict her learned discourse to circles where being clever and well-read is prevalent. Almack's is the place for dancing and gossip. Mrs. Richardson's house is the place for learned discourse. What you need to do is learn the difference."

"I see," Miss Ampleforth said. "You think I put people off with my schoolmistress ways."

"The thought did enter my mind occasionally, I must admit."

Miss Ampleforth sagged visibly. "I never intended such a thing," she said quietly. "It is only -- my education is the only thing I ever had to be proud of. There is nothing remarkable about me otherwise."

"This is not true, Miss Ampleforth."

"Yes it is, and I know it. I have heard it said often enough. This was why I developed a disgust of London and most of the people I met here. Including you, my lord -- you seemed to represent everything I despised about Town. And now I realise that you are not the kind of man I thought you were, and ... and I do not know what to think."

"Even a genius can be wrong sometimes," Lord Clairmont said. Her frankness surprised him, but although the things she said were not exactly flattering it also pleased him. She might not like him, but at least she was taking him seriously. One could call it progress, in a way.

"You are very generous, sir," she said slowly. "I snubbed you so often -- you must be quite tired of me."

"To say the truth, Miss Ampleforth, being snubbed was a new experience. I quite enjoyed it." He grinned. "Besides I am not resentful as a rule."

"Thank you," Miss Ampleforth said. "You have ... you have given me something to think about tonight, for which I ought to be grateful, only ..." She broke off.

"Only it is too painful to contemplate the things I said," he finished the sentence for her. "I quite understand. I had no right to say them to you, and I apologise for having caused you distress."

"But I asked for them to be said," Miss Ampleforth pointed out. "Besides it seems I really needed to be informed about the picture people have of me. You have been very kind about it, too." She smiled. "At least now I know that whenever we meet at a society event I will have someone with whom I can talk about interesting things. That's a good start for my fifth season, isn't it?"

"Undoubtedly, Miss Ampleforth."

"Only I suppose I will not meet you very often, will I?" She sounded almost pleading -- as if she wanted to meet him more frequently but was too shy to say so.

"It is hard to say, Miss Ampleforth. One never can tell." He certainly would not make any promises, he decided. It might well give her ideas if he did.

She sighed. "I would not blame you if you never wanted to see me again, sir," she said. "But I will strive to follow your advice, I really will."

"Do not tell me that no one has given you that piece of advice before," Clairmont said.

"No one whose judgement I respected," she merely said. "I suppose I was so puffed up in my own conceit that I did not credit anyone but myself with a functioning brain. What an awful person I must have appeared to everyone!"

Lord Clairmont refrained from agreeing with her. She had been an awful person very often, but it seemed as if she had never even realised just how unpleasant she had been. Now that her eyes had been opened to the fact, there was a reasonable chance that she would mend her ways. If she did stick to his advice, and she was clever enough to do so, she might well be married before the end of the Season, and that would be a good thing. It would not do for someone like the Ampleforth girl to be locked up in some place in the country. There were simply not enough girls of the kind to allow such waste to happen.



Part Three

When it became known among the Ton that Lord Clairmont had been seen at Mrs. Richardson's soiree, there were many who attributed this fact to Miss Ampleforth's presence there. For what else could draw a man like his lordship into a set like Mrs. Richardson's?

"The man is clearly besotted," Lady Tervington declared, sipping her tea and taking a bite of a scone. The Dowager Viscountess Clairmont gave her friend a worried look. She did not go into society very often and therefore she did not know much about Miss Ampleforth. But she had heard on one occasion that she had a worrying tendency to shrewishness, and that kind of girl, Lady Clairmont thought, would not do for her son. But knowing him, she doubted he had gone to Mrs. Richardson's merely to meet Miss Ampleforth, and so she informed her friend. Lady Tervington did not believe her, however.

"You should have seen him at my ball. He came in, barely listened to a word I said, and the moment he saw where she was he set off to meet her. Then they danced, talking most animatedly, and when the dance had finished, he was off without even casting a glance in another girl's direction. So do not tell me he is not head over ears in love with her, for I will not believe it if you do." Lady Tervington scanned the plate of refreshments for another scone.

"Well, I did ask him to go to your ball, my dear," Lady Clairmont pointed out. "He did not look too happy about it, either."

"Perhaps he did not know he would meet her there," Lady Tervington insisted, daintily spreading jam on another scone.

"But then why did he leave in such a hurry?" Lady Clairmont asked. "Can you explain that? If he were indeed so fond of the Ampleforth girl, why did he not stay near her for as long as he could? This does not sound like a man in love to me."

Lady Tervington shrugged. "A quarrel, perhaps. I do not know -- but there is something going on between Clairmont and the Ampleforth girl, mark my words. I would not be surprised if he made her an offer before the Season is out."

This intelligence from her friend made Lady Clairmont seriously consider inviting the Ampleforths to her next dinner party. Even though she had not heard anything in Miss Ampleforth's favour, she was willing to give her a chance. Her son would not ask for her approval when he chose his bride, and she did not expect him to. But it would ease her mind considerably if she had an opportunity to get to know her, and form her own opinion of her. If her son wished to marry Miss Ampleforth, no one should be able to say that she, his mother, had not done her best to be on good terms with her future daughter-in-law.

Unaware of his mother's plans, Lord Clairmont was riding to Richmond with Mr. Hartwell, who wanted to look in on his daughters and try the paces of his new horse en route to doing so.

"I must see how this governess of theirs is doing," Hartwell said. "The last one didn't stay for longer than a fortnight. I do not know what to do with the girls; they have scared away each female I hired to look after them."

"How about employing a governess they will like?" Clairmont suggested.

"The thing is they do not like governesses, as a rule," Hartwell said and sighed. "What they need is a mother."

"And you think they would like a new mother better than a governess?"

"Perhaps not, but they would find it harder to get rid of her," Hartwell said grimly.

"I know you do not need my advice," Clairmont said, "but I do not think it is a good idea to marry just because you fail to control your daughters. It would not be fair on either of you."

"I do miss Harriet, you know," Hartwell said after a pause. "But life goes on, and I do need help with the girls. Desperately."

"Hire a good governess, then, if you think this one won't be able to handle them," Clairmont said. "Do not marry for their sake but for your own. You owe it to yourself -- and to whoever is going to be your wife."

"I was thinking about asking Miss Ampleforth," Hartwell said.

"I know you did," Clairmont said. "But, if you care to hear my opinion, I would not advise it. The Ampleforth girl is not for you."

"She is no longer a girl," Hartwell pointed out. "She must be five-and-twenty if she's a day. Old enough to be content with marrying a widower with three daughters like myself."

"What makes you think so?" Clairmont burst out. "What makes you assume that just because she is older than the average debutante she will be grateful for any offer?"

"I do not assume she will be grateful for any offer," Hartwell said calmly. "I think better of her than that. I know she has turned down several offers in her time. The only thing that makes me think she might accept me is that we seem to get along tolerably well, and she does not take the trouble to make me feel like a complete idiot. That in itself is encouraging, considering whom we are talking about, don't you think?"

Clairmont agreed. Miss Ampleforth would have made it quite clear to Hartwell, had she been averse to his company. Perhaps he stood a real chance to win her. But why did this upset him so much? He would have liked to think that it was because he did not wish to see his sister replaced, but he knew this was not so. No one could ever replace Harriet, and even Hartwell had openly confessed to him that he did not think that was possible. Nor was he worried about Hartwell being rejected. To be honest, this was what Clairmont wanted to happen.

As they rode on, Clairmont realised that there was something odd about the whole affair. He knew that there were three men who had been seriously interested in Theodora Ampleforth so far. Two of them had actually come up to scratch and offered for her, only to be rejected, while the third one had never been able to summon up the nerve to ask her. Clairmont had been greatly amused on these occasions -- but probably that had only been because he had never thought of any of those men as potential husbands for Miss Ampleforth. Neither of them had had the intellectual powers or determination to be able to stand up to her, and none of them had really appreciated her for what she was -- a beautiful, clever, educated woman, one who would be a very demanding wife but was also able to offer her husband a great deal in return. Being married to her would be a constant challenge, and none of these men had been equal to it. Miss Ampleforth had probably realised that, and had acted accordingly.

But Hartwell was different. He had been married to Clairmont's sister, who had also been a very clever and well-educated woman, and their marriage had been a very happy one. There was no doubt that, if Miss Ampleforth accepted him, they would deal very well together. Miss Ampleforth took pride in her own good sense, and she would see the advantages of the match. A husband who was willing to accept her for what she was, and who was going to treat her as an equal partner, was what she wanted -- Clairmont had realised that when he had talked to her at Mrs. Richardson's. In order to get that she might even overlook the lack of romance in Hartwell's offer. She had always trusted her head more than her heart, after all. In other words, Hartwell had become his rival for Miss Ampleforth's affection, a rival to be reckoned with ... What the hell was he thinking? When had he fallen in love with Theodora?

"What do you say, Clairmont?" Hartwell asked, and Lord Clairmont realised his brother-in-law had been talking to him all the time.

"I beg your pardon," he said, distractedly. "I am afraid I was wool-gathering. You were saying?"

Hartwell repeated his request, which included spending the evening in his house in Richmond before returning to London the next day, and Clairmont replied that he was looking forward to doing so. But Mr. Hartwell found his brother-in-law to be very dull company that evening. Something seemed to worry him, and though Hartwell would have dearly liked to help, Clairmont did not admit him to his confidence.

Back in London, Clairmont met Miss Ampleforth outside Hookham's Library. Aware that many pairs of eyes were on them, he accosted her, asking her whether he might take her home in his curricle.

"Thank you, sir, this is very kind of you," Miss Ampleforth replied, and Clairmont climbed down from his vehicle to hand her into the carriage. She dismissed the maid who had been walking with her, and with Clairmont's assistance got into the curricle. Clairmont got in next to her, casting a glance at the books she was carrying.

"Romance of the Forest, Miss Ampleforth?" he asked her with a laugh.

"And similar stories, I am told," Miss Ampleforth said. "My mother says I am not to read an improving book in a fortnight. So I am providing myself with ludicrous novels to pass the time until I can read something proper again."

"Poor Miss Ampleforth. To be forced to merely enjoy herself," Lord Clairmont said. "It is positively inhumane."

"So I informed my mother, but she told me not to be ridiculous," Miss Ampleforth said.

"She deserves having all those absurd novels read to her," Lord Clairmont said laughingly.

Miss Ampleforth laughed. "I might do that, you know," she said. "Though I daresay she will not mind, once I have shown her the bonnet I bought on the way here. She will think there is hope for me yet."

"You bought a bonnet, Miss Ampleforth? There is hope, indeed -- but I will only believe there is once you have bought a gown to go with it."

Miss Ampleforth laughed. "I bought three new gowns of late," she said. "Though none of them goes with the new bonnet, I am afraid."

"You will turn into a fashion plate if you are not careful, Miss Ampleforth," he said with a grin.

"It has been worrying me for quite some time," Miss Ampleforth replied. "There is nothing for it -- I will have to sneak the Iliad into my bedroom to prevent myself from turning myself into a fashion doll."

"Sometimes desperate measures are needed," Lord Clairmont agreed. By that time, they had reached Sir Peter Ampleforth's town house, and Clairmont had to stop the carriage.

"If you need any help with smuggling improving books into the house, Miss Ampleforth, just say the word," he said, getting down to help her alight from the curricle.

She laughed. "'Thank you, my lord, but I think my father is quite capable of flooding the house with improving literature," she said. "The best thing about it is that my mother cannot stop him."

She thanked him for having taken her home and Lord Clairmont, after escorting her to the door and asking her to give his respects to her mother and father, left. It occurred to him that he would have to make it his business to find out which society functions she would attend next, and to attend them too. She seemed to be better disposed towards him now than she had been before she had found out about his scholarly accomplishments -- that was a good start, but Clairmont did not delude himself as far as to believe that there was not a great deal of work before him if he did want to win her. The prize was worth the effort, however, and therefore he did not mind.

Lady Filmore was more than surprised to see that Lord Clairmont had not only favoured her invitation to a musicale at her house with a gracious reply, but had even taken the trouble to come. Her surprise diminished, however, when Sir Peter and Lady Ampleforth arrived with their daughter within ten minutes of Lord Clairmont making his appearance in her drawing room. There had to be something to those rumours regarding him and the Ampleforth girl after all. Lady Filmore decided to keep an eye on the two, and to regale her friends with a description of this evening as soon as she could.

It had not been an easy task to find out about Miss Ampleforth's social schedule without asking her direct questions, but Lord Clairmont had tackled it with the help of Stevens, his valet. It had been Stevens who had suggested striking up a friendship with Miss Ampleforth's maid -- not without ulterior motive, Lord Clairmont suspected -- and had used his considerable address in his master's service. Within a couple of days, enough confidence had been established between the estimable Stevens and Miss Pratt, and so Lord Clairmont had been informed that Miss Ampleforth was to attend Lady Filmore's musicale on Thursday, and the theatre on Friday.

Before Lord Clairmont could approach Miss Ampleforth and secure the seat next to her for himself, however, Mr. Hartwell arrived and engaged Miss Ampleforth in a conversation. Silently cursing his brother-in-law for this piece of impudence, Lord Clairmont talked to the host and hoped Hartwell would not choose this of all evenings to fix his interest with Miss Ampleforth. He could not prevent him sitting down next to her, however, and since there was nothing Clairmont could do to lure his brother-in-law away from her, he was forced to take a seat next to one of Lady Filmore's daughters. During the concert, he noticed Miss Ampleforth's eyes on him and gave her a smile. She blushed and turned away.

Lord Clairmont had to wait until the musical performance was over before he could approach Miss Ampleforth. She was looking stunning that evening, he noted. Her dress was of the first stare, and she seemed to have taken more pains than usual with her hair. When she saw him walk towards her, she gave him a smile that almost took his breath away. He wondered how he could have been so blind -- why had he not realised before that he was in love with her? For all he knew, he might already be happily married to her ... no, he would not. Miss Ampleforth had only just begun to see him in a different light. She herself had once told him that she abhorred the dandy set, and had made it quite clear that she had taken him for an empty-headed fribble. She would never have accepted an offer from him. He was not even certain she would do so now.

He greeted Sir Peter and Lady Ampleforth, and then sat down in the chair his brother-in-law had just vacated.

"How did you like the concert, Miss Ampleforth?" he asked.

"Oh, it was well enough," she said. "Though I have to admit that I am not overly fond of Handel and therefore could have done without the last two pieces."

"What kind of music do you prefer, then?" Clairmont asked.

"I quite like Haydn," Miss Ampleforth said. "But I confess I am not a very musical person. I enjoy listening to music, but I have always been a poor hand at playing an instrument. I was a great disappointment to my mother."

"I cannot believe that, Miss Ampleforth."

"It is true that she has always bemoaned my lack of musical talent," Miss Ampleforth said. "She feels that a harp or pianoforte is a vital accessory for a young lady of quality."

"Really? I never believed that fashion would catch on," Lord Clairmont said, grinning. "Too bulky by half."

"What fashion?" Lady Ampleforth demanded, having overheard Clairmont's statement. She was more than ready to accept his authority on anything related to style.

"The fashion of using musical instruments as accessories," Lord Clairmont said. "You must admit that a pianoforte is a somewhat unwieldy object."

Lady Ampleforth gave him a sharp look, and then turned away.

"I hope I have not offended your mother," Clairmont whispered in Miss Ampleforth's direction.

"Oh no, she is much too happy seeing you talk to me," Miss Ampleforth said. "When you took me home the other day, she could talk of little else all day."

"Poor Miss Ampleforth. Was it very bad?"

"Not really. I am used to that kind of thing." She gave him an uncertain smile. "But she did say there was talk about us. Can you imagine? Why should people talk about us?"

"Because their own business does not interest them half as much as other people's does," Clairmont said. "Does it bother you?"

Miss Ampleforth thought for a moment. "No," she finally said. "It does not. It just seems so absurd."

"That people should talk about us?"

"No, but that they would assume there is something between us worth talking about," she replied. "Don't you agree?"

"Absolutely," Lord Clairmont agreed. "Completely absurd."



Part Four

Even though Miss Ampleforth's words at Lady Filmore's musicale had not been overly encouraging, her behaviour had. In comparison to their former encounters, Lord Clairmont thought, she had even been uncommonly friendly. He had, therefore, some expectations regarding the evening at the theatre.

While getting dressed, he asked his valet what he had been able to discover, apart from Miss Ampleforth's plans for tonight. Not everything Stevens told him was to his taste, however.

Apparently, Hartwell had invited Miss Ampleforth and her mother to Vauxhall Gardens, and Clairmont, well-acquainted with the place, surmised that he had invited them there for a purpose. There was hardly a better place or time in London to "lose" an unwanted chaperone than Vauxhall Gardens in the evening, during the fireworks display. His brother-in-law was not going to lose any time it seemed. He wished to get riveted as quickly as possible, and he had determined upon Miss Ampleforth to be the new mother for his daughters. Something had to be done.

Another piece of news quite surprised him too, though it did not startle him as much as Hartwell's plans regarding Miss Ampleforth. His mother had invited the Ampleforths to dine with her on Tuesday. Since she was not acquainted with them, there could be only one explanation for this -- Hartwell had taken her into his confidence and Lady Clairmont wished to inspect the young lady who was about to take her daughter's place. It was strange, though, that she had not told him about it. Coming to think of it, it was not quite as strange as that -- Clairmont had not seen her in a while. He decided to call on her the next morning.

"Miss Ampleforth is to wear a new gown this evening," Stevens said. "Miss Pratt has been full of praise -- it appears that the young lady has discovered her taste for finery at last, and is in her best looks."

"That must be a great comfort to Miss Pratt." Clairmont could not but agree with Miss Ampleforth's maid. Theodora's looks had improved lately.

"Undoubtedly, my lord. It is a satisfactory feeling if one's employer is doing one credit, if I may be permitted to say so."

"Permission granted," Clairmont said with a grin. "Unless you mean to tell me that I am not doing you much credit."

"I am unlikely to say that, my lord," Stevens said with the blankest expression ever achieved by a gentleman's gentleman. "If I had ever had reason to doubt your lordship's ability to show off my work to the best advantage, I would have sought a position elsewhere."

"You would not desert me, Stevens," Clairmont said, matter-of-factly. "I pay you fantastic wages."

Without saying a word in reply to this, Stevens was able to convey to him that though money might be an incentive for some people, it did not weigh with him when his professional honour was at stake.

While Clairmont arranged his neckcloth, nothing more was said. The problem was too complicated to be disturbed with idle chatter. Stevens could usually tell his master's mood by the number of neckcloths needed until the effect met with his lordship's approval. Tonight, he seemed to be in an excellent mood -- his lordship leant back with a satisfied sigh after no more than three attempts.

When Lord Clairmont had found out that Miss Ampleforth was to see a play on Friday, he had quickly reviewed his list of friends to see which one of them would be the most likely to accept an invitation from him at such short notice. He had chosen Mr. Berkeley, one of the select set of friends who had known him in Oxford and would therefore not be surprised if Clairmont had something intelligent to say. Besides Berkeley was a married man, and his wife was fond of watching a play occasionally. So Clairmont would be able to do a friend a good turn and pursue his own interests at the same time. He felt almost saintly when contemplating the topic.

Mrs. Berkeley was in transports. During the entire journey from her home to the theatre she sang Lord Clairmont's praises -- he was the most generous friend imaginable, she said, and one on whom she could always depend. Her husband listened to her eulogies with a wry smile, sometimes giving Clairmont a wink. Mrs. Berkeley was very grateful for the treat Clairmont had offered her, and anxious to express her gratitude in a becoming way, unaware that her excessive thanks were likely to put Clairmont off her company in the future.

Luckily, the journey to the theatre did not take long, and once they had arrived there Mrs. Berkeley had something else to do. She took her seat in the box Clairmont had hired for the evening, declined her host's offer of refreshment, and took out her opera glass to give the ladies in the other boxes and their toilettes a thorough inspection.

Clairmont and Berkeley sat down too, and passed their time until the play commenced by discussing their respective exploits since they had last met.

"I heard you saw old Simms at Mrs. Richardson's," Mr. Berkeley remarked. "It caused some sensation, apparently. I wish I had been there."

"Why weren't you?" Clairmont asked.

"Because my wife had a prior engagement, that is why," Berkeley said, and added, in a murmur, "She usually has, when Mrs. Richardson is concerned."

"Doesn't she like her?"

"Not really. She finds the company there a trifle intimidating," Berkeley said. "She does not think she is clever enough for that set. Complete nonsense, of course."

"Of course," Clairmont politely agreed. He admitted that Mrs. Berkeley was not really a silly woman, but he had yet to find her intelligent.

"I would have dearly liked to see the Ampleforth girl routed, though," Mr. Berkeley said with a grin.

"You won't," Clairmont said. "It takes more to scare Miss Ampleforth than me turning out to be a scholar. She took it rather hard at first, but I believe she regards me with something approaching respect now." Clairmont tried to look unconcerned. This was hard to do, since Sir Peter Ampleforth and his family chose that moment to enter their box, which was quite coincidentally situated opposite his own.

His friend gave him a searching look but refrained from making any further remarks concerning Miss Ampleforth. He knew Clairmont well enough to know when further inquiry would turn out to be in vain. But he did note the looks Clairmont cast at his brother-in-law, who had just appeared in the opposite box with the Ampleforths, and decided that it might be interesting to keep one's eye on the further developments in the case.

Hartwell noticed his brother-in-law in the opposite box, and greeted him with a nod. Clairmont returned the greeting, and bowed to Lady and Miss Ampleforth, who were also looking into his direction. Lady Ampleforth gave him a polite nod, while her daughter greeted him with a shy smile that warmed his heart. He decided to visit Sir Peter's box during the intermission, and to steal a couple of minutes of conversation with Theodora.

It was difficult to concentrate on the play that evening. Clairmont could not help but watch the opposite box whenever he thought no one would notice. He tried to think of a suitable excuse for intruding on Sir Peter and his family, and decided he would simply go there and introduce his friends. So when the curtain closed after the first act, he turned to his friend and asked whether they would like to meet Mrs. Richardson's friend, Miss Ampleforth.

"I do not know," Mrs. Berkeley faltered. "She has always seemed so ... aloof. I never had the impression she wanted to be acquainted with anyone."

"Miss Ampleforth does improve on closer acquaintance, Mrs. Berkeley," Lord Clairmont said.

"Indeed? Well, in that case I daresay I would like to meet her," Mrs. Berkeley said, willing to humour the man to whom she felt greatly obliged for the treat she was enjoying that evening.

Unfortunately, at that moment a close friend of Mrs. Berkeley's arrived in Lord Clairmont's box and showed no intention of leaving in a hurry. Mrs. Berkeley was therefore unable to follow Clairmont to Sir Peter Ampleforth's box. She did make a most welcome suggestion, however -- if Miss Ampleforth agreed to the scheme, would it be very impertinent of her to ask her to come and see her during the next intermission?
Clairmont, realising that this would mean he'd get a couple of minutes of private talk with Miss Ampleforth, said that he would inquire, and immediately went to Sir Peter's box to ask Theodora what she thought about it.

She was talking to Hartwell when Clairmont arrived there, but greeted him with a brilliant, unaffected smile. Clairmont bowed, scowled at his brother-in-law, and turned to Miss Ampleforth.

"I had no idea you would be here this evening, Miss Ampleforth," he lied. "What a pleasant surprise!"

"Did you think I did not share your interest for modern drama?" she asked him teasingly.

"Do you, then?" he retorted.

"Perhaps not quite," she admitted. "But I love watching a play now and then."

"So does Mrs. Berkeley -- one of the friends who are giving me the pleasure of their company tonight," he said. "I have come here on a mission, in fact. Mrs. Berkeley said she would dearly like to make your acquaintance, and hopes you will come and see her during the next intermission."

"Certainly. I would very much like to meet your friends, my lord," Miss Ampleforth said.

"Excellent! I will come and pick you up at the end of the next act and convey you to Mrs. Berkeley, then."

He stayed for another couple of minutes to exchange pleasantries with Sir Peter and Lady Ampleforth, and then returned to his own box to endure another hour of indifferent acting before he could fix his interest with Theodora.

"How did you like the play so far, my lord?" she asked him, when he had finally come to pick her up.

"To say the truth, I hardly watched," Clairmont admitted.

"Oh, and why is that?" Miss Ampleforth asked. "Since you take such interest in ... er ... modern drama?"

"Apparently none of the fair Thespians on the stage managed to capture my interest, Miss Ampleforth," he said laughingly.

"And none of the dark ones either," Miss Ampleforth chuckled.

"Miss Ampleforth!" Clairmont stopped and looked at her, pretending to be shocked.

"I am sorry, sir. I know it is highly unbecoming for me to talk in such a way, but I could not resist."

"I hardly know what to say. -- I did come to see ... someone, Miss Ampleforth," Lord Clairmont said.

"A lady?" She gave him a curious look.

"It might be a lady," Clairmont said, delighting in the interest this announcement seemed to rouse in her.

"A lady in the audience?"

"She might be among the audience," Clairmont said.

"May I inquire into the lady's identity?" She was definitely interested, Clairmont thought.

"You may, Miss Ampleforth, as long as I may keep her identity to myself," he replied, deciding to stir the coals.

"You are not going to tell me?"

"You do not expect me to, do you?" he asked. "As a gentleman I am not supposed to bandy a lady's name about."

"Of course. I was being indiscreet. I am sorry. I will have to try and find out for myself then."
She gave him a challenging smile. "Or do you think this is beyond my rational faculties?"

"I do not think anything is beyond your intellectual powers. -- You know, Miss Ampleforth, I will be sporting. I will give you a hint."

Miss Ampleforth laughed. "Well?"

"She is extraordinary, Miss Ampleforth."

"Of course she is. What else? What does she look like?"

Clairmont laughed. "She has the finest eyes I have ever seen," he said. "They have robbed me of my sleep for the past week or so. Her eyes can sparkle with laughter, yet if the lady chooses to glare she can strike terror into the hearts of men. She is precious and beautiful -- God's gift to me, I hope."

"You sound almost like a romantic, my lord." Miss Ampleforth said, giving him a sidelong glance. "What is she wearing?"

Clairmont grinned and shook his head. "No more, Miss Ampleforth," he said. "That would make it too easy for you to find out. You like a challenge, don't you? I need to make the challenge worthy of your intelligence."

"Very well," she said. "I will give the matter some thought, certainly, though I do not intend to lose any sleep over it."

"Oh no, do not," Lord Clairmont said, opening the door to his box for her to enter. "I would not want you to."

While she was talking to Mrs. Berkeley, Clairmont had no chance to converse with Miss Ampleforth any more, and when he took her back to her father's box towards the end of the intermission she did not talk much. She did subject every woman he greeted to some scrutiny, however, and if he was not mistaken the identity of his unknown love did intrigue her.

He took his leave of her, wondering how long it would take her to figure out that "God's Gift" was the meaning of her own name.



Part Five

To all intents and purposes he had declared himself, Lord Clairmont was fully aware of that. Theodora might not have realised it yet, but it was only a question of time until she would. So it was about time he went to see Sir Peter Ampleforth, Clairmont decided. No one should be able to say that he had not acted with the utmost propriety while courting his future wife. But before going to see Sir Peter, Lord Clairmont had to call on his mother.

The Dowager Viscountess Clairmont was delighted to see her son. Having heard some new gossip about Clairmont being seen in the theatre, escorting Miss Ampleforth to her father's box, she had decided it was about time to broach the subject with him, and had been about to write him a note summoning him to her house. She was not going to put up with being the last one to know.

There were other visitors with her when Clairmont arrived, and so she had to restrain her curiosity until they had left. Only then she turned to him.

"Well, Eric? What brings you here?"

"Cannot I come and see my mother without having some hidden purpose?" Clairmont asked.

"You can, I grant you that, only it happens very rarely," Lady Clairmont said. "You have been up to some mischief, I have been told."

"Oh no, Mother, you wrong me. This time I am as far from mischief as one can get."

"How much truth, if any, is in those rumours about you and the Ampleforth girl?" Lady Clairmont demanded. She had never been one to beat about the bush when dealing with her son -- not in important matters, anyway.

"That depends on which rumour you are referring to," Clairmont said with a grin.

"There are some people who say you are showing uncommon interest in the lady."

Clairmont nodded. "This is true."

"Why? Is it because Hartwell wants to marry her?"

"No, it is because I want to marry her," Clairmont said calmly.

For a moment, his mother stared at him in surprise. This was clearly not the reply she had expected. Clairmont looked at her with an amused smile.

"Is it so hard for you to believe, mother?" he asked. "Did you think I would stay single forever?"

"No ... no, I knew you would marry one day -- it is just that I never thought you would marry a girl who..." She broke off. "It does make sense, though, when one thinks about it," she admitted.

"Perfect sense," Clairmont said. "You never believed I would marry a girl without a brain, did you? If I had wanted to do so, I could have married years ago."

Lady Clairmont laughed. "I would not have wanted you to," she said. "I have not heard much about Miss Ampleforth, and I am afraid the few things I have heard are not really in her favour. What made you fall in love with her? I assume you are in love."

"I am," Clairmont admitted, blushing a little. "Though I do not know how it happened. I only realised, when Hartwell told me he meant to marry her, that I could not allow him to do so because it would break my heart to see her married to a man who does not love her. Or anyone but myself, for that matter. She is one in a million, Mother, I cannot allow anyone to take her away from me."

"Hartwell does not love her?" Lady Clairmont asked, smiling at her son's last remark.

"I do not think so. He kept talking about the girls needing a new mother, and how he thinks Miss Ampleforth is the kind of woman who will be able to handle them, but there was not one word about his feelings for her."

"Perhaps he thought it would be indelicate to mention his feelings for Miss Ampleforth to you -- that it might hurt you to hear how easily he had found someone to replace Harriet."

"Good point, Mother, but I do not think this is it. He is trying to justify his wedding plans, true, but the way he spoke about his plans with Miss Ampleforth rather sounded like some business arrangement he was contemplating. It's my belief that such a marriage would not work. Seeing things that way, I am even doing him a favour by marrying Miss Ampleforth."

"Quite possibly," Lady Clairmont agreed. "Well, you had better ask her before Hartwell does, then."

Clairmont smiled. "I am not going to do anything behind Hartwell's back," he said. "I will talk to him before I propose to her -- I think that once he knows I am in love with her, he will give up his pretensions to Miss Ampleforth's hand. He is indifferent to her, after all -- it will be an easy thing for him to do."

Lady Clairmont agreed. "I am really looking forward to meeting Miss Ampleforth on Tuesday," she said. "Once I heard about the rumours concerning you and her, I thought it would be a good thing to invite her and her parents to dine with me. You must come, too. Maybe we will already be able to talk about your engagement?"

"No, I am afraid we will not be able to do so." Clairmont smiled. "You know, I thought you had invited the Ampleforths because you wished to see the future Mrs. Hartwell."

Lady Clairmont laughed. "How could you?" she asked. "Did you think I was frothing at the mouth to see my daughter so slighted?"

Clairmont shook his head. "No, I didn't. You are far too rational a creature to do so," he said. "I merely thought you might wish to meet your granddaughters' new mother, this is all."

Sir Peter Ampleforth made no objection when Lord Clairmont explained his intentions regarding his daughter to him. No man in his right mind would. Clairmont had been on the Town for long enough to know he was considered a highly advantageous match. They were seated in Sir Peter's study, a room which Clairmont would have dearly liked to explore -- in passing, he had noticed several promising volumes on the shelves.

After having silently listened to what Clairmont had had to say, Sir Peter said, "It really seems to me as if my girl had finally found her match. You know, I have always refused to believe that the same man who'd done so well in Oxford would turn out to have so shallow a mind as some people credited you with."

"Thank you, sir."

"As far as I am concerned, you are welcome to marry my daughter," Sir Peter continued. "But the final decision is hers, as you will agree."

"Absolutely," Lord Clairmont said.

"You have not told her about your intentions yet?" Sir Peter asked.

"I have given her a hint," Clairmont said. "But I am not certain whether she has understood it."

"When are you planning to give her more than just a hint?" Sir Peter asked.

"As soon as I have the opportunity to do so," Clairmont said. "Though there is one issue I must settle before that."

Sir Peter nodded. "I think I know what issue you are talking about," he said. "Very well, take your time -- but not too long, mind you. It won't do for my girl to be the talk of the town for much longer."

Lord Clairmont agreed to Sir Peter's terms and assured him that, by the end of the following week, he would have a word in private with Theodora to find out what she thought about the idea of marriage.

As Clairmont had foreseen, Hartwell did not make matters difficult for him. He merely reproached him for not having told him earlier that he had fallen in love with Miss Ampleforth.

"Well, I would have if I had known," Clairmont said. "I only realised how much I cared for her when you made your intentions clear to me. I did try to hint you away, if you will remember."

"You did," Hartwell agreed. "You said Miss Ampleforth was not for me. Now I know why you said that." He sighed. "I will have to look elsewhere for a wife then."

"I still think you should not marry unless you are in love with the lady in question," Clairmont said.

"Oh, but one cannot expect to be so lucky twice in one's life," Hartwell said calmly. "I am afraid I will have to settle for a female I like."

"As you wish," Clairmont said. "I am not one to meddle, but I hope I have made my opinion clear to you."

Hartwell nodded, pouring himself another drink and offering Clairmont to refill his glass as well.

"You know," he said, "Knowing what I do now I feel rather disinclined to take the Ampleforth ladies to Vauxhall gardens on Wednesday. How about switching places? I'll repair to Richmond, and you will take Lady Ampleforth and her daughter to Vauxhall instead of me. What do you say to that?"

"I should say this is an excellent idea," Clairmont said. "But you will need to tell the ladies what they are to expect."

"I certainly will. They will receive my abject apologies and be quite sorry to lose my company, but I daresay they will be well pleased my replacement." Hartwell grinned. "I will just tell them there has been some trouble with my daughters. It's not as if I was telling a lie -- there usually is some trouble with them."

"That Miss Ryder seemed to know what she was doing though." Miss Ryder was the girls' current governess.

"She does. For one, she said she had grown up with four younger sisters, and that there was no trick my girls could try on her that she did not know already."

Clairmont laughed. "This sounds as if the girls have found their master."

"It does, doesn't it? I have high hopes in that direction. Still, Miss Ryder could do with some assistance I suppose -- this will be my excuse for going to Richmond, at any rate."

"An acceptable one, certainly. The devoted father must check on his daughters. I have a horrifying vision of every female fawning over you by the time you return to London."

"Then it should not be too difficult for me to find another bride for myself," Hartwell said
with a grin.

"I never had any doubt regarding that," Clairmont said. "In my opinion, you should be a bit more fastidious though."

"What was wrong with my choice?" Hartwell asked.

"Nothing, apart from the fact that you wanted Miss Ampleforth for the wrong reasons," Clairmont said. "I know you believe you will never meet a woman whom you could love as much as Harriet. Maybe not; I do not pretend to be an expert in matters of the heart. But don't you think you might, one day, meet a woman whom you could love a little? So why not wait for her?"

"Perhaps you are right," Hartwell conceded, and changed the topic.

Clairmont looked forward to the dinner party at his mother's -- even though some of the guests were not exactly to his taste, Theodora would be there, and that was all he wanted. He hoped his mother would like her -- not that it would influence his decision to marry Theodora in any way if she did not, but he would prefer it that way.

The Ampleforths were among the first guests who arrived -- Sir Peter greeted Clairmont cordially, but with a significant look, Lady Ampleforth was full of praise for Lady Clairmont's house and its furnishings, and Theodora, though perfectly civil, seemed to be rather shy in comparison to their earlier encounters. Maybe she had already solved the puzzle, Clairmont thought -- that might justify some shyness on her part, or if not shyness at least some uncertainty of manner.

At the dinner table, she was not seated next to him -- his mother had preferred not to give rise to speculation by upsetting the usual rules of precedence. Clairmont therefore had to endure Lady Tervington's ceaseless chatter with as much patience as he could muster, and had to content himself with the fact that Theodora was not much better off than he.

Only when he joined the ladies in the drawing room later in the evening, he had a chance to talk to her. His mother, who had been sitting with her and laughing heartily at something Theodora had said when he entered, beckoned him to join them and, after a few minutes, left them alone, mentioning her duties as a hostess by way of an explanation. This was a clear sign of approval, Clairmont thought. She would have behaved differently, had she disliked Theodora.

"Lady Clairmont is a very amiable lady," Theodora said as he sat down next to her.

"I am quite fond of her, myself," Clairmont said lightly. "Even though she always refused to see reason whenever matters such as broken windows in the conservatory, dogs in the house or midnight bathing in the lake were concerned."

Theodora laughed. "It seems you were a very troublesome child," she said.

"My mother thinks I was, at any rate," Clairmont said. "I should say I was merely resourceful."

"When did you turn into a brilliant scholar then?" Theodora asked.

"Why do you think one thing excludes another?" he retorted. "I may have been naughty and a good scholar, how about that?"

"Were you?"

"Most certainly."

"In that case I must apologise," she said. "I did not wish to cast aspersions on your character."

"I am relieved to hear that."

"Was your sister as mischievous as you, sir?" She gave him a curious look.

"Harriet? Not really -- why do you ask?"

"I was wondering whether Mr. Hartwell's daughters were taking after their mama."

"Harriet was very well-behaved," Clairmont said. "Most of the time. So I am afraid my nieces' unruliness has nothing to do with their mother. I do not know what Hartwell was like when he was a boy," he added with a grin. "Perhaps they take after him?"

"Perhaps. He does take his duties as a father very seriously, though, does he not?"

Clairmont wondered why she insisted on talking about Hartwell. Was she in love with him? He had not seen any signs of love in her when she had been in Hartwell's company, but one never knew.

"He does," he said curtly.

"Is it very inconvenient for you to take us to Vauxhall Gardens tomorrow?" she asked. "I know Mr. Hartwell asked you to take his place when he was obliged to go to Richmond, but if I knew it was not your wish to take us I had rather stay at home for I would not be able to enjoy myself."

"No such thing, Miss Ampleforth. I am looking forward to the evening."

"Are you certain?" she asked, with an anxious expression.

"You may rest assured that I would not have consented to it if it had been against my wishes, Miss Ampleforth." He gave her a reassuring smile. "I will do my best to make tomorrow evening a memorable occasion."

She blushed slightly, but did not say anything in reply to this. This kind of behaviour was unlike her, certainly.

"Why were you thinking I had rather be doing something other than take you to Vauxhall?" he asked.

"Oh, I only had a suspicion ... but I am glad to hear I was wrong." She gave him an uncertain smile. "One does not wish to become a burden to one's friends, after all."

"Certainly not. I am flattered to be included into the circle of your friends, Miss Ampleforth."

"We did get along rather well of late," she said shyly. "Did we not?"

"We did," he said smilingly. "I hope things will continue to be this way. Your good opinion means a great deal to me."

At that moment, Sir Peter came to take his daughter with him -- Lady Ampleforth wished to leave.

"Until tomorrow, then," she said, smiling at Clairmont and curtseying.

"Until tomorrow, Miss Ampleforth," Clairmont said, bowing.

He was by no means certain what to expect of the following evening. Things had seemed rather easy at first, once he had got Hartwell out of the way. He was going to take Theodora to Vauxhall Gardens, and at one point during the evening he would be able to contrive an opportunity for them to be alone. He would propose to her, and she would accept him. Nothing could have been easier or more logical. Then why was he beginning to lose his nerve?

His lordship was in a very foul mood this evening, Stevens decided. At the moment he was working on his eighth neckcloth, and by the look of it, it was not going to be the last one. Something bothered him, and Stevens, acquainted with his lordship's affairs, was quite certain he knew what it was.

Finally, after his tenth attempt at tying his neckcloth, Lord Clairmont leant back and studied his reflection in the mirror.

"This should do," he said, sounding by no means certain. "I have not got any time for another try, at any rate."

"Quite so, my lord. I am afraid the time is getting on," Stevens said blandly, holding up his lordship's coat.

"I wish it were not," Clairmont said. A great deal depended on the outcome of the evening -- and he had rather put off the decision for as long as he could. Once Theodora had said no, there was no way back.

"Good luck, my lord," Stevens said when Clairmont left the room. Clairmont stopped short and gave his valet a glare.

"I beg your pardon," he said, at his haughtiest.

"I said good evening, my lord," Stevens said glibly. "I have been told your lordship's carriage is waiting outside."

With another frown at his valet, Clairmont left.

The journey to Vauxhall Gardens was uneventful -- Lady Ampleforth tried her best to keep him amused with some anecdotes or other, while her daughter was uncharacteristically silent. When Clairmont handed her into the boat which was to take them across the Thames, however, she gave him a shy smile and thanked him. Clairmont wondered why she seemed so subdued this evening. Had she solved the puzzle? If so, had she drawn the right conclusions?

He deliberately tried to draw her out during dinner, and she seemed to thaw. Having finished their repast, Clairmont asked her to dance with him, and after one questioning look in her mother's direction she consented.

Clairmont led her to the set, and said, "You are unusually silent tonight, Miss Ampleforth. I hope I have not offended you?"

"No, sir," Theodora said. "It is just..." She broke off, and there was a short pause while Clairmont waited for her to continue.

When she did not, he said, "You must know that I have always valued your frankness very highly. If there is anything you wish to tell me, please do so."

"I was wondering," she said. "About ... about the things you said at the theatre."

He smiled. She had just given him the perfect opportunity for proposing to her, and he was going to make use of it. "Would you like to go for a walk, Miss Ampleforth," he asked.

"I would love to, yes," she said and let him lead her away from the set. They walked along an illuminated avenue, until they reached a stone bench where they sat down.

"So what were you wondering about, Miss Ampleforth?" Clairmont asked.

"I was wondering whether you were trying to give me some kind of hint," she said.

"I admit I was," Clairmont said.

"Was the gift of God a clue?"

"It certainly was," Clairmont replied. "I knew you would understand it."

She sighed. "It is none of my business, of course," she said. "But do you really think Dorothy Mainwaring is the right woman for you?"

"Dorothy Mainwaring? Why should I think so?" Clairmont asked, taken aback.

"So it is not her? Strange -- she is the only debutante I could think of with striking eyes and a name that means Gift of God," Theodora said.

Clairmont laughed. "But I did not say Gift of God, did I?"

"Yes, you did. You said..."

"I know what I said," Clairmont said. "I said God's Gift. Not gift of God. God's Gift. You were right about the rest, but your translation is all wrong."

Theodora's lips moved silently while she solved the puzzle.

"But that's..." she began, and suddenly laughed. "That's me! Theodora! I so wished it would be, but I thought it was so ... so unlikely! And I was not really certain any more about what exactly you had said, and Dorothy Mainwaring seemed to fit the description, and..." She broke off as Clairmont took her into his arms.

"How can a bright lady such as you be so foolish?" he asked. "Dorothy Mainwaring, indeed! Have you ever seen me pay any marked attention to her?"

"No, I have not," Theodora admitted.

"Theodora, I love you with all my heart," Clairmont said. "So how could I have eyes for another -- no matter how fine her appearance may be? I want to share my life with you, and no one else. What do you say?"

"Is this a marriage proposal?" she asked, looking up at him.

Clairmont laughed. "What else, Theodora?"

"I was just trying to make certain I was not misunderstanding things again," she said with a playful smile. "I would love to spend my life with you, too."

The fireworks, which started at almost the same moment as Clairmont kissed his bride for the first time, went by unnoticed.


2007 Copyright held by the author.


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