The Misogynist Club
Somebody -- presumably her mother -- had revealed his identity to Miss Tremaine, Mr. Greene discovered when he claimed her for the last dance of the evening. She was no longer as bright and unaffected as she had been before, but looked rather embarrassed -- and wary. He did not blame her.
"I hope you can forgive me for the mortification you must have suffered on my behalf, sir," she said stiffly as they took their places in the set. Mr. Greene stared at her in disbelief.
"You are not going to apologise for Mrs. Ferrers' conduct, Miss Tremaine," he cried. "What happened was not your fault, so why should you be the one to beg my pardon?"
Miss Tremaine ignored the question, and merely said, "You have handled the situation like a true gentleman, sir -- and I feel I must thank you for coming to my rescue in such a chivalrous manner. There are not many men who would have acted in the same way as you have."
"Any true gentleman would have," Mr. Greene replied, smiling in spite of himself.
"Even considering the unfortunate connection between our families?"
He laughed. "Especially considering that. We are practically related, aren't we?" When he noticed the blush on Miss Tremaine's cheeks, he turned earnest again, and said, "Miss Tremaine, how old were you when ... your brother ... took this unwise step?" He did not say eloped with my mother - it was not necessary; she was as well acquainted with her family history as he.
"I was not even born," Miss Tremaine said gently. "The truth is I never knew my brother Charles."
"Exactly. So why should you be made to suffer for something your brother did? Even if you had been born then, you would hardly have been able to stop him -- or persuade him to run off ... do what he did. His actions have nothing to do with you; they aren't your responsibility. I have no reason to like your brother -- and a great deal of reasons to resent him, but both he and my mother have passed away, and I am willing to let bygones be bygones. Apart from that, I believe in punishing the offender, not his family."
"Still, you looked so furious when Mrs. Ferrers introduced us," Miss Tremaine pointed out, "that I was almost tempted to run away! For a few moments you looked as if you were going to strangle me -- I was quite afraid of you, even though at that moment I did not know who you were."
"If I was going to strangle someone, it would have been Mrs. Ferrers, not you, and I am sorry if I caused you a moment's discomfort, Miss Tremaine. It will not happen again, I promise."
The music started, and the movements of the dance separated them for most of the time. Only towards the end, Mr. Greene was once again able to say something of a private nature to Miss Tremaine.
"I am glad you did not run away from me," he told her as he directed her through the crowd towards her mother. "It was your presence that made this evening tolerable."
Miss Tremaine laughed. "Taking into account what I have heard of you, I daresay this was a compliment."
"Of no mean order," Mr. Greene agreed. "Miss Tremaine, I know that we have been watched very closely all evening, and people will continue to keep an eye on us, therefore ... would you mind very much if I called on you and your mother tomorrow morning?"
"I would be very grateful, in fact," Miss Tremaine confessed. "It would make things so much easier for us, I think. Your kindness is amazing."
Secretly, Mr. Greene was flattered to hear that she thought benevolence was the motive behind his actions, but it would not do to let the girl delude herself. He was not good at being nice, having practiced the art only rarely. She had better know that.
"I am not being kind, Miss Tremaine," he said lightly. "I would simply hate it if Mrs. Ferrers had things her way."
"Oh!" Miss Tremaine blushed, mortified. "I should have known -- your helpfulness tonight had nothing to do with me, then, after all. I do not know what made me think it had."
Mr. Greene became aware of a certain coldness radiating from Miss Tremaine's demeanour, and hurried to make amends.
"I simply felt it was unfair that Mrs. Ferrers would play such a nasty trick on a lovely girl like you merely to get even with her stepson."
The look Miss Tremaine gave him was a doubting one, but at least the aloofness in her manner was gone. She was not sure what to make of him, it seemed, but that was perfectly justified. Mr. Greene did not know what to make of himself either; not after this evening. What made him suddenly go out of his way just to make sure a young chit -- whose brother's conduct had caused his father as well as himself so much pain and humiliation -- was not disappointed?
He took punctilious leave of Miss Tremaine and her mother, and then went off to White's for some late-night gaming with his friends. At least there a man could be safe from conniving females -- as well as lovely ones.
Within two days, the story of Mr. Greene's encounter with Miss Tremaine was indeed all over London, and as Mr. Greene had predicted the general public did not appreciate Mrs. Ferrers' conduct in the matter at all. No one believed her assurances that the most unfortunate connection between the Greene and the Tremaine families had been unknown to her. Nor was she able to convince anyone that she had introduced those two young people with the intention of "helping Miss Tremaine along". Anyone who had seen Miss Tremaine could tell that no helping along of any kind was needed -- the young lady was very pretty, sweet-tempered and well-behaved, and despite her brother's misdeed she would make a respectable match. No, Mrs. Ferrers had been hoping for trouble, and the amusement was great that her efforts had not had the desired effect.
There were even people who had seen Mr. Greene enter the Tremaines' town house the morning after Mrs. Ferrers' ball, and it was agreed upon that his conduct in the whole affair had been all that was gentlemanly and correct. He might have been rude occasionally, people said, but it was obvious that he had had some proper upbringing even though his family circumstances had been unusual. Some people suggested that Mr. Greene's late father would have been proud of the way in which his son had behaved in this particular situation. Mr. Greene, upon hearing this particular piece of gossip, could not help but laugh.
His father would have been much more likely to give him a thundering scold for having missed a good chance for retaliation. He would not have cared how much pain he inflicted in the process -- his father had been full of resentment and, had it been in his power, would have gone out of his way to cause Charles Tremaine's relatives as much distress as he could. Even the most loyal of Mr. Greene senior's servants had been shocked to find that their master, upon hearing the news of his wife's death, had gone off to celebrate the event. It was taking resentment a bit too far, some people had thought. Therefore, Mr. Greene believed, his father would have been unlikely to condone his conduct in the Tremaine affair.
Meanwhile, Captain Ferrers was often absent from his friends' gatherings. When asked, he told them that he had promised to keep an eye on his sister during her first Season, but even his closest friends were surprised to witness the zeal with which he accomplished the business. It had little to do with Clarissa, of course. Even though he was fond of the girl, he would not have taken as much trouble with her as he did, had it not suited his own purpose -- that of furthering his acquaintance with Miss Margaret Iverbury.
He took great care to conceal his intentions in that quarter. Miss Iverbury was a most fascinating young woman -- not only was she attractive but also did she share many of his interests. There was none of the studied archness usually employed by damsels on the catch for a husband. Nor was she one to keep her opinions to herself, or to pretend stupidity just to set a man at ease. They had delightful conversations whenever they met, and he often caught himself thinking of how tempting it was to stop their arguments by merely taking her into his arms and kissing her soundly -- though knowing Margaret as he did, it would take more than that to keep her from arguing with him. But he liked that -- she was not the kind of milk-and-butter-miss he loathed.
His opinion of women in general had not changed much, but -- he did not know how he could have allowed this to happen -- there was one female of whom he was ready to believe everything good, and for whom he'd even give up his agreeable bachelor lifestyle if necessary. While he was able to admit to himself that he had lost his heart to a delightful hoyden, he was not yet ready to admit this to his friends. It was a good thing, therefore, that he had a young sister needful of a brother to protect her, and that this sister had taken a liking to Margaret, too.
There was one more thing that stopped him from declaring himself to Margaret, and that was the fact that, thanks to his dear stepmother, his income was not such as enabled him to support her in the style she was accustomed to. His father's entailed property was his -- but the income deriving from it was his stepmother's for as long as she lived, unless she remarried, which she would not do, if only out of spite. And she'd probably outlive him -- she was in her late thirties, and in the best of health. It was depressing.
His army pay, while it was enough to supply him with everything he needed, would not be enough to support a family. Which meant that his father had, quite effectively, put an end to several centuries of Ferrers holding his estate -- by making it impossible for his only son to marry and produce a legitimate heir. What a fool he'd been! Much as he loved Margaret, Captain Ferrers was quite certain he would never allow her to make such a fool of him as that woman had made of his father.
Not that she'd ever have the opportunity, he thought gloomily. That mother of hers would never allow them to marry. It was not a secret that Lady Iverbury was aiming high for her daughters. Julia, the eldest, was quite ready to oblige her mother, and never allowed any young man below the rank of Viscount to become better acquainted with her. She was pretty enough to get away with this kind of behaviour -- for the time being -- but as the Season wore on it became general knowledge that Miss Iverbury had no heart to lose. Her sister Margaret, however, became very popular among the young men. She was no less beautiful than her sister, it was said, but a great deal more amiable. She might occasionally shock the old tabbies at Almack's with the things she said or did, but she never meant any harm, and took the Ton by storm. The impossible happened -- Miss Margaret Iverbury became a general favourite, and though the mere thought caused him a great deal of heartache, Captain Ferrers was pretty certain she would soon be married. Not to him, though. The likeliest candidates so far were Lord Preston (only a Baron, alas, but from an old and distinguished family and -- which probably weighed even more with Lady Iverbury -- very rich), and Lord Rensfield (a Viscount, though not quite as wealthy as Preston and therefore at a disadvantage, in spite of his elevated rank). A mere Captain Ferrers was unlikely to be taken into consideration, especially since his stepmother had her hands on his fortune. If the lady was to remarry, however -- but she was not stupid enough to do that, Captain Ferrers knew. She was not going to give up an income of six or seven thousand a year just in order to burden herself with a husband who probably had less, and would want to keep an eye on her expenditure.
No, his situation was hopeless, and therefore Captain Ferrers took great care not to let anyone know just how much Margaret Iverbury meant to him. That way he would be able to keep his disappointment hidden once she marched down the aisle with Preston or Rensfield, and he would not have to endure the ridicule or, even worse, the sympathy of his friends. In the meantime, however, he was determined to enjoy the novel experience of being in love while it lasted. It would be over soon enough. He'd just have to make sure Margaret did not find out what he felt for her.
Margaret Iverbury had a great many reasons to feel displeased with her situation. She was popular among the Ton, it was true, and she was invited to a great many balls, assemblies and soirees. Her mother had more or less forgotten about the incident in Leicestershire, and was very pleased that Margaret had attracted two very eligible suitors who were doing their best to outdo each other.
Margaret cared for neither of them. Lord Preston was, in her opinion, nothing but an empty-headed fribble. His twenty thousand a year did nothing to tempt her into accepting any offer of Preston's -- not even double his income would have been sufficient to make up for being tied to an idiot. She had told her mother as much -- to the great amusement of her brother and father, who agreed with her point of view -- but Lady Iverbury had told her not to be silly. Once she had provided Lord Preston with the necessary heir, she had said, Margaret could do as she pleased, and twenty thousand a year was a very strong argument in Preston's favour. One only had to think of the pin money he would be able to give her. It was not enough, however, to make Margaret even consider doing what was necessary for conceiving an heir -- not with Preston, at any rate. If Preston were the last man on earth, she thought, and she the last woman, humankind would be doomed to become extinct. When Julia told her she was foolish to let such a big catch as Preston slip through her fingers, Margaret generously informed her that she was welcome to set her cap at him if she wanted to.
Rensfield was certainly the more amiable of her two suitors, Margaret thought, but he was still very young, and she was almost sure that what he felt for her was nothing but a youthful infatuation from which he would soon recover. While her mother felt no scruples against making use of his present state of mind, and letting him commit himself even though he might regret it later (she spoke of striking the iron while it was still hot), Margaret was strongly averse to such tactics. She liked Rensfield, and did not wish to hurt him, but while she treated him with the easy camaraderie she used with every male in her acquaintance, she ignored his romantic advances -- for his own good.
Among those men she had met in London, there was only one who truly interested her and who, had he put his mind to it and made some effort, would not have found it very hard to win her heart. But while she met him very often, and felt that they were on rather friendly terms with each other, he refused to move their friendship to a more intimate level.
She had been forewarned, naturally, that Captain Ferrers was a member of the infamous Misogynist Club, and that in all likelihood he had no heart to lose. But Margaret Iverbury had never shunned a challenge. It helped, of course, that her mother had pronounced him quite ineligible. He had no title to recommend him, nor was his fortune his own.
"I daresay," Lady Iverbury had remarked after Mrs. Ferrers' soiree, "he would be a respectable parti if it were not for his stepmother. But as long as she has her hands on his income, he only has his army pay to live on and that, I am sure, is not enough to support a family."
So, with the double recommendation of being quite ineligible as well as hard to get, it was no wonder that Captain Ferrers had taken Margaret's fancy. He liked her, Margaret was almost certain. The tricky bit was finding out how much. Captain Ferrers had been on the town for a long time, and had become impervious to the lures cast out at him. Not that there had been many, for his attitude to women as well as his financial situation were well-known facts. The task appealed to Margaret's sporting spirit. There was a man not to be won over with the usual methods. She would have to come up with something better than that.
So far, she had not been able to develop any useful ideas, and was rather impatient with herself for not having done so. It could not be that difficult; when all was said and done Captain Ferrers was just a man, like the rest of them. It would not do to be too obvious, naturally. There was nothing more certain to chase him off, and she'd certainly miss him if he left. Apart from that, she did have some self-respect after all. What she needed, though, was an opportunity to meet him regularly, away from the formalities of a ballroom or the Fashionable Hour in the Park.
Fate came to her rescue in the person of Clarissa Ferrers, Captain Ferrers' sister. After they had met repeatedly in the Park (sometimes with the Captain in attendance, sometimes not), Miss Ferrers had invited her to join her on a walk the next day, and Margaret had jumped at the chance to win a valuable ally in the Captain's household. It was not all self-interest, she told herself -- Miss Ferrers was a delightful girl, and Margaret quite liked her for her own sake as well as her brother's. But one could not deny that this unexpected friendship had its advantages.
Clarissa was a fount of useful information. It was not long before Margaret was well acquainted with the Captain's circumstances, and had formed her own opinion of why he kept his distance to females. Nor was she surprised that, considering the treatment he had received at his stepmother's hands, he had a poor opinion of women. Reforming him would be quite a piece of work, but worth the effort in the end.
One had to find a suitable husband for Mrs. Ferrers, naturally. Margaret was well aware that her father would never countenance a match between her and the Captain otherwise. Provided that the Captain was interested in making a match of it, Margaret thought -- a thought that effectively put her feet back on the ground where they belonged. He had given no sign of that so far. He was polite to her, but he was polite to every female, damn him. Only sometimes, when he smiled at her, she got the impression that there was something very special about his smiles -- or at least the ones he gave her. Wishful thinking, Margaret sternly told herself, and threw her pillows at her bedroom door out of sheer frustration.
While her friend Margaret Iverbury was busy devising a strategy to rid Captain Ferrers of his stepmother, Diana Rivers was in her family home in Yorkshire, pining for Margaret's cousin, Mr. Harris. She made an effort not to show her feelings -- the family had enough troubles as it was, and she was well aware that her yearning for Mr. Harris was foolish because it would not make any difference to her situation. It was not as if it would make him travel hot-foot to Yorkshire, for one. The only thing she could do was wait for her friend Margaret's letters to bring her some report of Mr. Harris. But as the Season wore on, Margaret's letters became more and more scarce. No doubt she was busy fighting off all those suitors, Diana thought bitterly, but did not blame her friend. If she had been the one enjoying her London Season in Margaret's place, she would probably have had as little time to spare for a friend confined to the country as Margaret had for her. Still, she would have liked to have some more frequent news from London. Too bad she could not write to Mr. Harris himself.
Her sister Charlotte was no better off than Diana, though she did not take Diana into her confidence. The only news Lady Ettiscombe had had of Sir Lionel Redgrave had been his civil reply to her father's letter of thanks, and that missive had not been all that forthcoming in terms of information. Sir Lionel had merely mentioned that he was going to leave Tisbury Hall and return to London, which, in view of the approaching Season, was hardly a surprise. In her leisure hours, Charlotte wondered what he was doing in Town, and imagined him in the middle of all kinds of gaieties; feeling a pang of jealousy whenever she pictured him in the company of ladies. It did not matter to her that he had never shown any interest in a woman; there was always a first time, wasn't there? And Sir Lionel was a very handsome gentleman, and had a great deal of good qualities. There'd be many women who'd recognise that, Lady Ettiscombe told herself, conveniently forgetting that she herself had not become aware of Sir Lionel's qualities until they had been shut up in the same house for weeks on end and had been more or less forced to deal with each other on a daily basis and become better acquainted -- a thing Sir Lionel usually avoided when he met a woman. He was the chief Misogynist, after all.
Thankfully, Lady Ettiscombe did not have many leisure hours to ponder Sir Lionel and his London activities. Mrs. Kimble, the local midwife, had confirmed her suspicion that she was pregnant, and now she was busy preparing for the birth of her second child. Her parents had not been too happy to hear the news at first -- another baby meant a great deal more trouble, her father had said, but he had warmed to the idea later on - under the influence of her mother, Charlotte suspected. Little Sam could only profit by having a brother or a sister, Lady Rivers had said and, Charlotte's father added with grim satisfaction, another son would successfully put Walter Nesbitt's nose out of joint. The baby was due in late July, which left Charlotte with almost six months to get everything ready for its arrival.
She was glad to have something to do, at least, something that concerned only her. When Sir Lionel had raised the question, she had not believed she would find it very difficult to leave someone else in charge. But so it was. She was itching to do something; she perceived some errors in her mother's ways -- household routines that she thought were inconvenient or outdated and could do with improvement -- and had to keep her mouth shut, mainly because her mother would take the least bit of criticism personally. She knew, of course, that her mother had been in charge of her father's household for almost thirty years, and that things had always worked. But it was hard to keep oneself from interfering nevertheless.
As a young girl, before her marriage, Charlotte had found no fault with her mother's housekeeping. But now, with the experience of running a household of her own behind her, she perceived some things that irked her, and it began to dawn on her that, perhaps, it would not be a good idea to remain in her father's house for the rest of her life. She tried to push the thought aside, for it was an ungrateful one; she owed her parents respect and gratitude for allowing her to come back home. But she was not really certain of how long her gratitude would last. It would not be a bad idea to have a look round for alternatives, she thought. Before she and her mother came to cuffs, preferably, and before the baby was born.
Sir Lionel Redgrave watched his friends' proceedings rather suspiciously. Greene had given him a plausible reason for his initial interest in the Tremaine girl, but that did not explain why he was still hankering after her. This was what he was doing, in Sir Lionel's opinion. And while Sir Lionel had nothing against a fellow who took his family duty seriously (it showed a most pleasing dependability in a man's character), he did feel his friend Ferrers was taking family duty too far, and he suspected Miss Margaret Iverbury had something to do with Ferrers's sudden devotion to the harpy Ferrers and her daughter.
That left him and Harris, on most evenings, and though he was sorry to say it, Sir Lionel did not find Harris' company very congenial either. One need not be a prophet to find out what was going on. The females had, almost successfully, broken up the Misogynist Club, and he was the only one left with his peace of mind intact. Most of the time, at any rate.
Unfortunately, his peace of mind was considerably shaken whenever he encountered the Honourable Walter Nesbitt, for that unsavoury character reminded him of Lady Ettiscombe and her predicament. To Sir Lionel's great indignation it was almost impossible to avoid the fellow, intolerable though he was. He often frequented the same clubs as Sir Lionel, although he also frequented many more which Sir Lionel did not honour with his membership; and while he was known to be one of the most spiteful creatures even by Ton standards, his social standing was such as provided him with an entree in every Society household.
For years, Mr. Nesbitt had fancied himself his brother's heir, claiming that Lord Ettiscombe was unlikely to marry, and if he did, to beget an heir. It was therefore no wonder that Nesbitt had greatly resented his brother's marriage -- he had gone so far as to accuse him of having married contrary to his own inclination, just to keep his brother out of his shoes (which, in Sir Lionel's opinion, was a valid point -- even he would consider marrying to keep his property out of reach for a man of Nesbitt's stamp).
It was little wonder that Mr. Nesbitt hated his sister-in-law with a passion, and he had never made an attempt to conceal these feelings. On the contrary -- when Lady Ettiscombe had failed to conceive an heir during the first year of her marriage, it had been Nesbitt who had informed all and sundry that his brother's "brood-mare" had turned out to be nothing but a "barren piece of flesh".
His fury had known no limits when, after two-and-a-half years of marriage, Lady Ettiscombe had given birth to a happy, healthy son. He had even gone so far as to hint at the possibility of Lord Ettiscombe having "called in some favours" in order to get his wife pregnant -- in consequence of which Ettiscombe had literally kicked Nesbitt out of his house, refused to settle any debts of his -- neither then nor at any point in the future - , and had forbidden his brother to ever come near his wife or son. It must have been then, Sir Lionel supposed, that Lord Ettiscombe had made the will which had barred his brother from the guardianship of his son, and though Sir Lionel's opinion of his lordship had never been very high he did give him credit for his foresight in that matter. It was exactly what he would have done in Ettiscombe's place.
Not that anyone in their right mind had believed Nesbitt's insinuations. Lady Ettiscombe was well known and liked in London society, and what was more she was also known to be a virtuous lady. She had plenty of admirers, but she had never given anyone a reason to suppose that she preferred any of them to her husband. As for Ettiscombe himself, everyone knew that he was not the kind of man to stoop to such methods as his brother had accused him of -- he'd been much too respectable to even think about presenting someone else's bastard as his own son. No, the child was his, as much was certain (and no one blamed Ettiscombe for his unwonted display of temper when he'd found out about the rumours his brother was spreading. There were even people who thought Nesbitt had been let off too lightly; Sir Lionel was one of them).
But now Ettiscombe was gone, and Walter Nesbitt was at work again. What reason did a respectable widow have to take herself off in such a hurry, with her husband barely cold in his grave, he publicly asked himself. What were she and her father up to? It was rather strange that the child should be left in charge of his mother and her relatives, with no one from his father's family to make sure everything was as it should be, wasn't it? Oh, it was well known that Ettiscombe had disliked and distrusted him, but bygones were bygones, and surely there were others who could have served as the boy's trustees -- there were Nesbitt uncles and cousins enough, in his opinion, who could have been depended on to take care of their family's interest as much as their own. As it was, Ettiscombe had handed over his entire fortune to those upstarts from the North, the Riverses, and Nesbitt could not help but wonder what would become of it. Would it last until the boy reached his majority?
He began to talk about his poor, deluded brother, who had thought of his wife as an angel when she had actually been -- well, not quite the opposite of an angel, perhaps, but certainly a scheming creature, bent on separating her husband from his true family and using this separation to her own advantage. And now she was trying to do the same to her son, and no one seemed to be able to stop her. The poor child; Nesbitt was certain he would not get a chance to see his nephew until his mother had thoroughly poisoned young Ettiscombe's mind against his father's family -- what good could come of this?
Sir Lionel Redgrave had witnessed this kind of talk more than once ever since his arrival in London, and on each occasion he had had to make an effort to restrain himself. He had no right to defend Lady Ettiscombe, he kept reminding himself, and that was fortunate for Nesbitt, otherwise he'd be looking for his teeth by now.
One evening, however, Nesbitt tried Sir Lionel's patience too far.
At the club, some friends of Nesbitt's had invited him to join their card game, and he told them that he could not afford to do so -- "thanks to my dear sister-in-law I am all to pieces".
"As to that, I recall you were doing pretty well by yourself, Nesbitt," Sir Lionel, who had witnessed the scene, said sharply before he could stop himself. Maybe it was because he and Harris were playing a game of chess -- when there was a chessboard in front of him, Lady Ettiscombe was never far from Sir Lionel's mind. Which was why he had turned into such a rotten player of late, he suspected. He could hardly concentrate.
"And what business of yours is that, Redgrave?" Nesbitt demanded heatedly.
"None at all; except that I'm sick of hearing you abuse your sister-in-law instead of putting the blame where it belongs," Sir Lionel replied. "No doubt you think you have the right to abuse her, and for all I know you may even have that right; it's not my place to be the judge though I am quite good at making guesses. But constant retelling does not make your story any more interesting. Apart from that, behaviour like yours is vulgar, and if vulgarity is going to become the norm in this place I will have to give it up."
He turned to Harris, who was staring at him, open-mouthed. "Your move, Harris," he said, as if nothing at all had happened.
"Did you just call me vulgar, sir?" Nesbitt had walked over to their table, and was now talking to Sir Lionel in a loud voice, trembling with rage. Nesbitt's friends, as well as other club members present, were watching with some interest to see how the situation was going to develop.
"I cannot remember doing so," Sir Lionel replied coolly. "Though I did use the description regarding your conduct, and to say the truth it is getting worse by the minute. - Harris, if you mean to go through with that manoeuvre you will soon have to make do without your queen. I thought I had better point it out, though you are welcome to pursue your own strategy, of course."
"Th...thank you," Harris stammered.
"Why do you waste your time playing chess with that stuttering idiot?" Nesbitt asked derisively. He was obviously trying to draw Sir Lionel into a quarrel.
"It keeps me from wasting my time in another manner," Sir Lionel replied, with maddening calm. "If you wish to force a quarrel on me, Mr. Nesbitt, you are welcome to try, but leave my friend out of it."
"Sir, I find your behaviour execrable."
"We have something in common then. I have the same opinion of yours." Sir Lionel refused to rise to Nesbitt's bait. He would serve Lady Ettiscombe an ill turn if he started a vulgar brawl on her behalf. It would be all over town within an hour and Nesbitt would have the time of his life exploiting the incident to his advantage. Instead of starting the quarrel that Nesbitt so obviously wanted, Sir Lionel turned back to the chessboard, and complimented Harris on the move he had made.
"Just the thing I would have done in your place, Harris," he remarked, and contemplated his next move, ignoring Nesbitt who was still standing there, fuming and trying to think of a proper retort.
Harris' shout of warning made Sir Lionel turn around again, just in time to dodge Nesbitt's attack. Nesbitt, who had put considerable force into the blow he had aimed at Sir Lionel, lost his balance and crashed headfirst into their table, scattering the chess pieces on the floor. One of Nesbitt's friends rose from his seat and hurried to the scene to assist Nesbitt, who was lying on the floor looking stunned, in getting up -- and prevent him from attempting another attack on Sir Lionel.
Unruffled, Sir Lionel got up from his chair to make room for Nesbitt's friend. "I believe I will have to abandon this place," he remarked. "When I joined I was told this was a gentlemen's club -- but things have come to a pretty pass if a man cannot even play a game of chess in peace."
Nesbitt knew that he had put himself into the wrong by trying to attack Sir Lionel from behind his back -- in front of witnesses, no less. But instead of accepting defeat, and apologising as would have been proper, he merely threatened Sir Lionel that "he had not heard the last of it yet."
"Why, sir, you terrify me," Sir Lionel merely said, putting on his hat and overcoat. "Do you mean to bore me to death, sir?"
With this parting shot, he left the club, and while Nesbitt stayed for a while longer he soon realised, thanks to the sudden coldness in his friends' behaviour towards him, that he had better retreat with as much dignity as he could muster. So he retired to his lodgings rather earlier than was his wont, aware that he had better not show his face at that particular club for a while -- people there pardoned a great deal, but they did not forgive un-gentlemanlike behaviour, and a gentleman did not attack another in this cowardly fashion.
Only, Walter Nesbitt reflected, he had no chance of getting at Sir Lionel Redgrave by fair means. The man was an excellent shot, and was one of Gentleman Jackson's most talented pupils, or so Jackson said himself. In spite of his age -- the man must be going on to forty -- he was in a better physical condition than most men Nesbitt knew. There was no way someone of Walter Nesbitt's stamp could outdo him; calling him out was out of the question anyway. If one of them had been justified in doing that, it would have been Sir Lionel, but he had not chosen to do so.
What the hell, thought Mr. Nesbitt, made Sir Lionel Redgrave, a confirmed bachelor and notorious misogynist, take Lady Ettiscombe's side? There was, of course, the possibility that he had heard the story of Nesbitt's wrongs a couple of times too often, just as he had said at the club, but Nesbitt felt there was more to it than that. As far as he knew, they had only met occasionally, when they had both attended functions where the other had been also invited.
Did Redgrave have a soft spot for Nesbitt's fair sister-in-law? It would be interesting to find out, Mr. Nesbitt thought -- interesting and useful as well. If the grieving widow was found out to have an affair, she would hardly be a fitting guardian for her son. Only there was no evidence pointing in that direction or he would already have discovered it. It was not as if he had not tried to find something to throw a shadow on Lady Ettiscombe's spotless reputation before. Nevertheless, it might be worth it to keep an eye on Sir Lionel's activities.
"A ... are you s ... sure this was a g ... good idea?" Mr. Harris asked his friend as, by some unspoken agreement, they directed their steps towards Sir Lionel's town house to end their game in the privacy of his library.
"I don't care if it wasn't," Sir Lionel replied ungraciously. "I got Nesbitt to demonstrate what an ugly customer he is -- surely that is worth something."
"B... but th ... that's not exactly news, is it? N...nesbitt being an ugly c...customer, that is. Everybody knows that." Mr. Harris pointed out.
"There are some people that might still need some convincing though."
"Wh ... what if he t ...takes it out on L...lady Ettiscombe?"
"Why should he? It was not her fault he made a fool of himself in there."
"It w...was not her fault th...that Ettiscombe turned Nesbitt out of the house, y ... yet he b ... blames it on her," Mr. Harris argued.
"You are right there," Sir Lionel agreed. "Well, if he tries to do Lady Ettiscombe any harm there will be nothing for me to do but to kill him."
He had said it as a joke, but was taken aback to find that there was more sincerity in his statement than he was willing to admit -- even to himself. There were few things he would stop at to keep Lady Ettiscombe safe.
"What a lovely day this is," Margaret Iverbury sighed as she was riding in the park with her new friend, Clarissa Ferrers. "It is such a waste to be confined to Hyde Park! You know what I would really like to do?"
Clarissa said that she did not know, but that she was willing to listen to whatever opinion her friend wished to share.
"A ride somewhere in the country," Margaret said dreamily. "With no one to glare at me when I am enjoying a nice gallop, and nobody to tell me I am behaving disgracefully and just like the hoyden that I am. Town is so confining, isn't it? The balls and assemblies are diverting enough, I grant you, but what is a girl to do during the day?"
"Things are rather flat here," Clarissa agreed. "Too bad we cannot ride anywhere else but in the Park."
"Why not?" Margaret demanded. "I'd be all for a ride to Kingston or ... Richmond, or... wherever. I'd be happy to go anywhere, really, as long as it gets us out of Town for a day."
"I am not certain Mama would allow it," Clarissa said doubtfully, though the idea did appeal to her. A ride in the country would be delightful, especially with the right kind of company.
"Naturally she would not allow it if we wanted to go by ourselves. I may be a hoyden, but even I know that it is not done. But what if somebody were to escort us? We could make a party of it; nothing could be more unexceptional," Margaret tried to persuade her friend.
"I daresay you are right; but we still need someone to escort us," Clarissa said. "My mother is not fond of riding, so she will not oblige us."
"How about your brother?" Margaret said as casually as she could. She hated herself for being so manipulative; she really liked Clarissa for her own sake as well as her brother's, and did not really want to take advantage of the girl, but this was the kind of thing a lady had to do if a certain gentleman did his best to keep her at a distance. She had to find a way of making him stop behaving like that.
"My brother?" Clarissa asked. She was not certain whether Jason would oblige her if she asked him. She had no reason to suppose that he would.
"Do you believe your mother would accept him as our chaperon?" Margaret asked. "I know he is an excellent horseman, and I am quite certain he could be depended on to protect us."
"Oh, certainly," Clarissa assured her. "But I do not know whether Mama would be comfortable with the idea that there was no lady to attend us."
"She does not trust your brother to take proper care of you?"
"Not really, I am afraid. Though I am sure he would never let any of us come to any harm, but Mama ... she does not like him, you see."
I bet she does not, Margaret thought. His mere existence must be a constant reminder of her evil machinations to Mrs. Ferrers. "So we will need a lady to preside over the party," she said aloud. "With a respectable lady to act as our chaperon, your Mama can have nothing against the scheme."
"I cannot think of any lady likely to take part in it, however," Clarissa sighed. "We are doomed to ride in the park after all."
"In that case I had better exchange my horse for a slug," Margaret said darkly. "It is an insult to a perfectly good horse like her to be obliged to walk all the time. They call it exercising one's horses -- I call it cruelty to animals."
She let the subject drop, but she was certain that she had made an impression on Clarissa, and she was right. What neither she nor Clarissa had expected, however, was that Captain Ferrers had been hatching a similar plan.
He, too, believed that Margaret Iverbury would be bored to death by the limited means of exercise young ladies were provided with in Town, and that any scheme of getting her out into the country would be sure to delight her. He was also aware that his sister would have to be included in the party, for propriety's sake as well as to give him an excuse for joining the outing; and knowing his stepmother the way he did he knew that there was no chance of her consenting to the scheme unless there was a hostess too -- one of the kind one had better not snub.
Captain Ferrers found this ideal hostess in the person of Mrs. Overton, an old school friend's wife. She was perfect for his plan -- Mrs. Overton was considered an artist, one who sought inspiration in the countryside very often, and in spite of walking around with her head in the clouds she was generally well liked and a popular guest even in the highest circles. There was no harm in her that anyone could discover, so insulting her would be like kicking a newborn puppy -- and would make anyone who attempted to do so a social outcast.
This fact was well known to both his stepmother and Lady Iverbury; so if he really managed to cajole Mrs. Overton into inviting Clarissa and Margaret to come with her on one of her outings into the country, he knew their mothers would consent to their taking part in the expedition. They would not dare do otherwise.
Not much persuasion was needed as far as Mrs. Overton was concerned. It was almost unworthy of his abilities for being so simple, Captain Ferrers thought. All he needed to do was praise her latest paintings, try to identify the rural setting of her work (landscapes were Mrs. Overton's preferred subject), and express utter disbelief when she told him that Hampstead Heath had served as a model for her paintings -- saying that while Hampstead was pretty enough in its own way he did not think there was any view as beautiful as the one Mrs. Overton had captured in her picture to be found there. That was enough to make Mrs. Overton suggest that they all should go to Hampstead one day, so Captain Ferrers could see with his own eyes that she had not exaggerated the beauty of the setting.
"I say, this sounds like an excellent idea," Captain Ferrers cried; a statement that earned him a look of considerable surprise from his friend Overton. Ferrers did not blame his friend; he and Overton had been acquainted ever since their school days, and this sudden enthusiasm for the picturesque must seem rather odd to the fellow. It was certainly out of character. Mrs. Overton did not harbour any suspicions, though. She was content to think that her husband's friend had finally begun to appreciate her art, and was most willing to encourage this state of mind. She was pleased to hear that Captain Ferrers' sister was fond of drawing (Captain Ferrers hoped that it was indeed so), and therefore it was not difficult for him to procure an invitation for both Clarissa and Miss Iverbury to come along.
So when Clarissa broached the matter, she was surprised to find that her brother had already arranged everything for them. They were not going to go to Richmond, but to Hampstead, and her brother recommended her to take her sketchbook along, but otherwise she found no fault with the plan. She could draw, although she had never been really good at it, but she would do some drawing to please her brother and her hostess. Mrs. Overton had no objection to the young ladies going on horseback, even though she had no taste for such exercise, and therefore nothing stood in the way of an enjoyable outing. As Captain Ferrers had foreseen, neither his stepmother nor Lady Iverbury found anything wrong with Mrs. Overton's scheme, so no opposition came from that quarter. Mrs. Ferrers even went so far as to commend his efforts to throw his sister into the company of "the right sort of people", and appeared so pleased that he almost regretted having prompted Mrs. Overton to come up with the scheme. He consoled himself with the observation that it was not often that his undertakings gave his stepmother pleasure. It must be a once-in-a-lifetime event. He would see to that.
The only one to complain about the plan was Julia Iverbury, though her main objection was that she, as the elder of the Iverbury sisters, should have been invited too -- in fact, she should have been the one to receive an invitation from Mrs. Overton, and not Margaret.
"Don't be silly," Lady Iverbury commented on her favourite daughter's outbreak of spite with uncommon asperity -- uncommon in her dealings with Julia, at any rate. "You know we are not acquainted with Mrs. Overton, while the Ferrers are. Had you taken any trouble to be kind to Miss Ferrers, I am sure you would have been invited too. You only have yourself to blame, so stop getting on my nerves. There will be other parties you can go to."
Fuming, Julia took herself off to her room, wishing that there was something she could do to prevent her sister from going to Hampstead; but since she was unable to come up with a practicable scheme that would not throw suspicion on her from the first moment, she had to content herself with uttering dark threats whenever her sister was within earshot, knowing full well that they had no effect whatsoever on Margaret. There was no getting even with her at the moment, but Julia was not one to forget about her grievances. There'd be a good moment at one point, she was certain -- all she had to do was wait, and find Margaret's vulnerable spot she could strike at for maximum effect.
Mr. Greene had been calling on an acquaintance in Berkeley Square, and as he passed Gunter's Tea Shop on his way home he encountered Miss Tremaine, seated in a dashing curricle enjoying some lemon sorbet as well as the company of a young man. Mr. Greene was not well acquainted with the fellow; he merely knew his name and that there was no harm in him that anyone knew of, still he did not relish seeing Miss Tremaine in his company.
Miss Tremaine hailed him, and so Greene had no choice but to approach the curricle and talk to the lady as well as her escort. While he had no objection to talking to Miss Tremaine, he did wish young Mr. Ackerley at Jericho. It did not help that Mr. Ackerley, probably due to some desire to impress Miss Tremaine with his good humour, was at his friendliest with him. It only added fuel to Mr. Greene's fervent wish to throttle the man.
"Mr. Ackerley has been so kind as to take me here," Miss Tremaine explained. "When he learned that I had never tried Gunter's ice cream before, he was quite shocked, weren't you, Mr. Ackerley?"
"Indeed I was," Ackerley agreed with her, with what Mr. Greene considered a remarkably stupid grin. How Miss Tremaine could put up with such an idiot was a mystery to him.
"And do Gunter's ices live up to your expectations, Miss Tremaine?" He was willing to be at his politest, for Miss Tremaine's sake -- he was aware of some close scrutiny from some of the other carriages.
"Very much so, sir. I do not think I have ever eaten anything so delicious," Miss Tremaine declared.
"Mr. Ackerley must consider himself very lucky to have been the one to introduce you to such a treat, then. It will ensure him of your goodwill, which must be of foremost importance to him."
"Oh, certainly." Mr. Ackerley grinned even more stupidly. "I'd do anything for Miss Tremaine."
"Miss Tremaine will find this notion most admirable, I am sure," Greene said. "Though I am tempted to suggest that it is a rather extreme one, don't you think? A gentleman should never promise to do anything for a lady - one never knows what will be asked of him."
"I will not ask anything unreasonable of Mr. Ackerley," Miss Tremaine said, not taking kindly to the mocking tone in which Mr. Greene had chosen to address her escort.
"I am sure you will not, Miss Tremaine. You have too much good sense." For some reason or other, Mr. Greene did not want her to be angry with him - in spite of her bad taste in men. She probably could not help it -- young girls were susceptible to the charms of tolerably handsome young fellows, and did not care if the young men in question had nothing but their looks to recommend them. One had to hand it to young Ackerley, though -- he was respectable, and not the kind of rake young girls often fell for. All the more reason for disliking the fellow. If he had chanced to meet Miss Tremaine in the company of someone like Walter Nesbitt, he could have given her a hint as to the man's character without having been suspected of any ulterior motive, but what could he do about her being seen with the likes of young Ackerley without making a complete fool of himself?
"Mr. Ackerley's mother has invited me to the theatre, Mr. Greene," Miss Tremaine announced. "Isn't it kind of her?"
"Very kind," Greene said, feeling slightly alarmed. If the mothers of young gentlemen took sufficient interest in a young chit it usually meant that their sons had serious intentions concerning the girl. One did not introduce one's flirts to one's mother. Though why it should bother him if young Ackerley had matrimony on his mind Mr. Greene did not know. Miss Tremaine was a nice enough girl in her way, though not the kind who'd be happy in her marriage to someone of Ackerley's ilk. This was something Mr. Greene was fairly certain of, though he did not know why he should be.
Mr. Greene took his leave of Miss Tremaine, planning to call on her mother soon -- and invite Miss Tremaine to an outing to the Park or wherever she liked. If she allowed herself to be seen with the likes of young Ackerley, she might as well be seen with him, too. It would not do for her to grow too partial to Ackerley's company.
"W ... what do you mean, you h ... have not heard of M ... miss Rivers lately?" Mr. Harris demanded of his cousin Margaret. "I ... I thought you wrote t ... to her o ... often!"
"I must confess I have not written to her quite so often lately," Margaret admitted, feeling guilty for having almost forgotten about her friend in Yorkshire -- as well as her cousin Wilfred, who was so obviously in love with Diana and had no means of seeing her at the moment. He relied on her for news, Margaret knew, and she was sorry not to be able to give him any.
"D ... did she not s ...send you any letters?" Mr. Harris asked.
"She did, but they did not contain much information as to how she was, apart from telling me that she arrived at home in good health. She does not like to write about herself, it seems -- her letters are full of family anecdotes, the entertaining things her nephew has been up to, for example -- and she hardly tells me how she is. I will write to her first thing tomorrow, though, and will demand a detailed account from her."
Margaret got up from the sofa, and went to her workbasket, where she also kept her letters. She took out Diana's latest missive, and offered to read it to her cousin, an offer he accepted gratefully. He must be rather desperate for news, she concluded, for he hung on her lips as if she were reading the gospel to him, instead of a rather uninspiring account of daily life in Yorkshire.
Upon re-reading it, the letter struck Margaret as being rather strange. The only piece of personal news Diana chose to reveal in her letter was the fact that she was in good health. Everything else was household gossip, more or less. It was almost as if Diana was anxious to hide something from her, which was unheard of. They had always been perfectly open with each other.
"Sh ... she sounds unhappy," Mr. Harris said when Margaret had finished reading Diana's letter to him.
"What makes you think so?" Margaret asked, startled. She had had similar suspicions, but had not expected her cousin to come to the same conclusion -- he was not as well acquainted with Diana as she.
"I ... it is j ... just a feeling," Mr. Harris explained. "Sh...she seems so b...busy t...telling you that she's p...perfectly fine and happy that I c ... cannot help but think she is not."
"You may be right," Margaret agreed. "I will try to find out more, certainly, but I am afraid she will not tell me anything she does not wish to reveal. She may not want to worry me."
"Sh ... she may also think that you c ... cannot h ... help her, b ... being stuck in London as you are," Mr. Harris suggested, and sighed. "I wish I could see her."
"I am afraid that will not be possible," Margaret said. "Yorkshire is not the kind of place where you could drop by on your way somewhere else, I suppose. I know you have no friends or relatives in Yorkshire or further north."
"I ... I will j ... just g ... go there for my health then," her cousin replied with an odd grin.
"To Yorkshire for your health. At this time of the year, too. Not to forget that you do not look in the least ill. One cannot get any more obvious than that, Wilfred." Margaret said dryly.
He blushed furiously. "D ... dash it, what am I t ... to do then?" he demanded.
"Nothing, for the moment. I will try to find out what bothers her, though I can make an educated guess." Margaret grinned. "It might be the same thing that is bothering you, Wilfred."
"I d ... do not know what you are t ... talking about," Mr. Harris said indignantly.
"Don't you? Now, that is a pity," Margaret teased him. "I will send Diana a letter tomorrow, telling her you are enjoying yourself very much in Town, shall I?"
"I am not enjoying myself at all," Mr. Harris protested.
"I will tell her so, then, and see what she says in reply to that," Margaret proposed. "Keep your health as a last resort, Wilfred. We are not quite as desperate as that."
Mr. Harris' sigh indicated, though, that he was just as desperate -- and that it would not need much persuasion to send him on his way north.
This was not how he had imagined things to be, Captain Ferrers thought morosely as he and his sister entered Mrs. Overton's drawing-room only to find young Rensfield making sheep's eyes at Margaret Iverbury. How he had contrived to be included in their party, Ferrers did not know, but there he was, the intolerable puppy, fawning over Margaret and effectively ruining Captain Ferrers' hopes of a pleasant day. With visions of cold-blooded murder in his mind, Captain Ferrers greeted his hostess and Margaret, and favoured Rensfield with a nod.
One had to say one thing in Rensfield's favour, however -- he did have good manners. Even Ferrers had to grant him that -- after all he took leave of his beloved for long enough to make polite conversation with Clarissa. Captain Ferrers, not the kind to miss a chance, took the seat next to Margaret the moment he had exchanged a few civil remarks with Mrs. Overton.
"I shall not make a nuisance of myself by informing you that it is a very pleasant day for a ride," he remarked. "Rensfield has unburdened himself to his heart's content on the matter, I am sure."
Margaret laughed. "How unkind of you, sir! As well as unworthy."
"Unworthy, Miss Iverbury?"
She blushed slightly. "I simply wonder what makes you sneer at an unoffending creature like his lordship. There is no harm in him that I know of."
"So he has not been hankering after you for weeks?"
"He may have done so, but what business of yours is it, Captain?" Miss Iverbury asked him.
"You mean to encourage him?" Captain Ferrers was incredulous. What did Margaret see in that halfling? What she needed was a man!
She shrugged. "I do not think I owe you any explanations as to my conduct, sir," she said stiffly. Since Lord Rensfield chose that moment to join them, with Clarissa in tow, Captain Ferrers had to bite back his retort and keep quiet.
"I have just assured Miss Ferrers that it is a very pleasant day for a ride," young Rensfield announced; a declaration that made Captain Ferrers as well as Margaret feel like bursting out laughing. Fortunately, they both had themselves well in hand.
"I have also told her that she need not be afraid -- the road is by no means difficult, and the outing will not be too fatiguing."
"I am sure my sister is much obliged to you," Captain Ferrers replied evenly. "Although you may be pleased to hear that she is a tolerable horsewoman, and that a ride to Hampstead and back is not likely to exhaust her. I would hardly have permitted her to come along if I had had any misgivings on that score."
"Indeed, sir, I did not wish to imply that you were not able to take proper care of your own sister," Lord Rensfield exclaimed.
"I never thought that you were implying such a thing," Ferrers replied.
"Are you a horsewoman, Miss Iverbury?" his lordship asked Margaret. Captain Ferrers tried hard to keep a straight face.
"A tolerable one, I believe," Margaret answered politely. "Miss Ferrers and I will be evenly matched."
"He has never seen you on horseback, I suppose," Captain Ferrers murmured as Mrs. Overton demanded Lord Rensfield's attention for a moment.
"Oh yes, he has. In the Park." Ladies did not grin, or so it was said, but there was no other word for describing the expression in Margaret's face.
"Young Rensfield's in for a surprise, then," Captain Ferrers remarked. "Do you think it will be a pleasant one?"
"I hope so, sir."
Since, at that moment, the butler announced that Mrs. Overton's carriage had arrived at the door, they all made their way downstairs to mount their horses. Mr. Overton was to keep his wife company in the carriage, which was also to convey Mrs. Overton and the young ladies' drawing paraphernalia to Hampstead. The young ladies would ride ahead of the carriage, with Captain Ferrers and Lord Rensfield to escort them.
Perhaps, Captain Ferrers reflected, there would still be a chance for him to talk to Margaret alone; once they were out of town. He'd challenge her to a race, and she was unlikely to refuse. Clarissa would not follow them, he was sure, for while she was a tolerable horsewoman she was not fond of racing; and so there would be nothing for Rensfield to do but stay behind with her. Captain Ferrers liked that plan.
Margaret was jubilant. It had been a lucky coincidence that Lord Rensfield was Mr. Overton's nephew, and had got wind of their projected excursion. That Mrs Overton had invited her husband's nephew to join them had been a matter of course, especially after he had drawn her attention to the fact that it was not at all the thing to have more ladies than gentlemen taking part in her scheme.
Captain Ferrers did not like Lord Rensfield to come with them; Margaret had become aware of that the moment he and his sister had been ushered into Mrs Overton's drawing room. The look in his face had been priceless.
His subsequent behaviour had been most enlightening too, Margaret thought. He had behaved too much like a jealous lover to deny his obvious interest in her. That was good news. The bad news was that she was still no closer to finding a husband for Mrs Ferrers. From what Clarissa had told her, her mother did not encourage any gentleman's advances; she was content to remain a widow for the rest of her life. It was no wonder, Margaret believed. She'd be far better off as the widowed Mrs Ferrers than as someone else's wife. It would take a man with an enormous fortune to tempt that lady into matrimony, but she would have to find a way of doing it. Captain Ferrers might not have intended to do so, but his reaction to Lord Rensfield's presence allowed no other interpretation but that he was in love with her. So, in Captain Ferrers' interest as well as her own, Margaret had to proceed with her plan of finding someone for Mrs Ferrers to marry. She would keep a close watch on the lady and the gentlemen she associated with, to come up with a likely candidate. All was fair in love and war.
While they were in town, they had to stick closely together, and there was no chance of speaking privately to anyone. So she rode in silence, with Lord Rensfield on one side and Clarissa on the other, hoping she might be able to talk to Captain Ferrers alone at one point.
Luck favoured her by the time they had left the city behind them -- Captain Ferrers suggested a race.
"I am not certain the ladies should take part in such a dangerous venture," Lord Rensfield objected. "What if they got hurt?"
"Those who've never taken a toss have never been on horseback, my lord," Margaret protested. "I am not such a poor creature as to be put off by some trifling danger."
"That's the spirit, Miss Iverbury," Captain Ferrers applauded her. "What about you, Clarissa? Are you going to join the fun?"
"I'd much rather not," Clarissa replied. "I am sure I will never be able to keep up with you two anyway."
"You need not go, Miss Ferrers," Lord Rensfield assured her. "I will stay and keep you company."
"This is very kind of you, my lord," Clarissa said.
Captain Ferrers set a goal for their race -- a huge oak tree on a hill, across a highly unchallenging meadow, so not even Lord Rensfield could have found fault with their race course. There were not even any hedgerows to jump. Not that Margaret was going to complain -- she had the chance to be alone with Captain Ferrers for a while. Once she had won that race, that was.
Clarissa was to give them their signal to start, and she did so enthusiastically. Margaret spurred her horse into full gallop, and sped away, with Captain Ferrers following closely at her heels. At least he was not the kind of man who'd let her win out of some wrong sense of chivalry -- or any sense of chivalry at all. That was one of his good qualities, really -- he did not treat her like a complete idiot just because she was a woman, out of so-called respect. How could anyone respect a woman and yet think her incapable of doing anything?
Captain Ferrers disliked women, as much was common knowledge, but at least he was honest in his dealings with them. It was much easier to fight open dislike than unacknowledged misogyny which tended to hide behind an excess of solicitude. If a man wished to feel superior to her, he would have to prove that he was.
She did win the race, but only by a short head, and the look of surprise in Captain Ferrers' face told her that he had not let her win on purpose. No one was that good an actor.
"This was fun," she laughed, and held out her hand. "Thank you for coming up with the idea, Captain."
After a moment's hesitation, he took her hand and shook it. "May I congratulate you on your horsemanship, Miss Iverbury?"
"You may," Margaret said with an impish grin. "How refreshing it was to have a proper ride for a change! In the Park I usually have to take care not to fall asleep."
"Oh, this would not do. Imagine the gossip," Captain Ferrers laughed. "A young lady on horseback found snoring on Rotten Row. You would not hear the end of it for a month."
"I do not snore," Margaret countered. "At least no one has ever complained." Realising that her allusion might not throw the best light on her -- or would he take it for granted that she had meant her sister when she had talked of no one? - she blushed slightly, and did her best to divert his attention from the topic. Her sleeping habits were not the kind of thing she ought to discuss with a gentleman.
"Your sister does not gallop?" she asked. "I thought she was good at riding?"
"So she is, but I am afraid her mother has some strict notions regarding women on horseback. I believe she thinks it is undignified behaviour in a lady to pit her skill against others'."
"Such nonsense!" Margaret snorted.
"I believe she has never seen you on horseback, Miss Iverbury, or she would have changed her mind immediately," Captain Ferrers replied. "However, Lord Rensfield appears to agree with her."
Margaret had to suppress a grin. It seemed as if Captain Ferrers was going to do his best to make his lordship appear in a bad light. Perhaps if she encouraged his lordship more Captain Ferrers would come up to scratch, driven by his jealousy? But she decided not to do it; nothing could be gained by making the poor boy fall even more in love with her and then rejecting him. There were some things a lady just did not do, not even to make a misogynist admit that he was in love with her.
"I believe Lord Rensfield was just worried that I might be hurt," she said lightly.
"Out of solicitude or impertinence?"
"Solicitude, I think. Should I ever want impertinence, I shall turn to you, Captain Ferrers," Margaret replied with dignity, and directed her mare towards the road again.
Lady Ettiscombe had been very busy. She had not only prepared a great many things for the birth of her second child, but had also been on the lookout for a home for herself and her children. It was her father who finally suggested that she move into a hunting lodge belonging to her family -- probably hoping she would reject the offer and stay at home after all. But her mind was made up, and she liked the idea.
The house was not large, but pretty; she had always been fascinated by it, though her father had only rarely taken them there -- or maybe that had been the reason for her fascination. He had allowed his sister to live in the house when her husband had died, but since her remarriage some ten years previously the building had stood empty. It was in good repair, though; Lady Ettiscombe knew that her father looked well after his property. She would not have to haggle about rents and necessary repairs; because he would make sure the place was habitable, and would not demand any rent from her. And while it was no more than ten miles from her father's house, the distance would be sufficient to prevent an excess of visits and interference from her mother. She therefore agreed to move to Birwood Lodge, taking Diana with her to keep her company until she would be brought out the following year, and went to York to buy hangings and furniture for her new home.
While Lady Ettiscombe was preparing for another change of situation, the news of her pregnancy reached London. Lady Ettiscombe's father felt that, in spite of his conduct towards his sister-in-law, Mr. Nesbitt as the late Lord Ettiscombe's closest relative had a right to be apprised of the impending happy event, and not wishing to be backward in any attention due to the gentleman -- he was hard enough to handle as it was - he had sent him a letter.
Neither Lady Ettiscombe nor her father had expected Walter Nesbitt to be very pleased upon receiving the news, but none of them could have imagined the resentment it caused. Sir Lionel Redgrave was not the only one to object to the way Walter Nesbitt abused his sister-in-law now; even Nesbitt's closest friends felt that he went too far by wishing both the lady and her offspring to the devil, and hoping that both she and her child would perish.
No one suspected, as he openly did, that Lady Ettiscombe must have played her husband false, or that the child must have been conceived after Ettiscombe's death. There had never been any doubt as to Lady Ettiscombe's virtue; on the contrary, it was common knowledge that she had gone out of her way to discourage anyone who had tried to start even a harmless flirt with her, much to her husband's satisfaction. Moreover, Ettiscombe had been thirty-five years old, not in his dotage, and had appeared perfectly healthy, too, so no one doubted his ability to beget children. Therefore the paternity of Lady Ettiscombe's child did not give rise to speculation in London; nobody took Mr. Nesbitt's furious accusations seriously, and even his closest friends began to keep their distance, feeling that his behaviour was growing positively repugnant.
Yet Mr. Nesbitt was determined to unearth something damaging to Lady Ettiscombe's reputation; everyone made mistakes, even his oh-so-pious sister-in-law did. He would leave no stone unturned in the process, he swore, and would make use of everything he discovered to ruin her. She might have put his nose out of joint, but he would make sure she would pay for that in full. For a start, it would be interesting to know why the journey to Yorkshire had taken her so long. And why, if she had gone to Yorkshire for her father's protection, was she going to move out of her father's house? Somehow he felt that he would be able to use these facts to achieve his purpose.
Sir Lionel Redgrave was astonished to hear the news regarding Lady Ettiscombe. She had not at all looked like an expectant mother to him when she had stayed at Tisbury Hall. Admittedly, he did not care much for women, and had never looked closely at a pregnant woman before. But those he had met had had one distinguishing feature, and Lady Ettiscombe's figure had not shown any signs of her state. Nor had she mentioned it, but then he was probably the very last man for her to confide in, Sir Lionel thought with a bitter smile. Especially considering the treatment she had received at his hands upon her arrival.
Still, he resented not having been told. At least when she had left, she might have told him. They had been friends by then, hadn't they? He felt left out, and at the same time was angry with himself for feeling that way. What business of his was Lady Ettiscombe, when all was said and done? The fact that he was beginning to think she was very much his business did nothing to cheer him up, however. He'd always known that the moment he allowed himself to become friendly with a female, this was bound to happen. He'd begun to care, fool that he was. He'd be thinking of marrying her next, no doubt.
On retrospect, the outing to Hampstead Heath had been more pleasant than he had expected, Captain Ferrers thought. Fine, so he had not had Margaret Iverbury all to himself, but they had had moments together, and he had greatly enjoyed those moments with her.
Even when she had berated him for impertinence. Though he had suggested that she snored, so maybe he had deserved that.
Besides, she had permitted him to take her for a walk, and had leant on his arm all that time, while Rensfield had been sitting with Clarissa and watching her draw a sketch or two. Sometimes good breeding was a great disadvantage, Captain Ferrers thought with a grin, and was grateful that Lord Rensfield was afflicted with this handicap.
Clarissa was really a most obliging girl. He would have to take her to the theatre some time soon, or some other place she longed to see, as some kind of repayment for her efforts. He had not even asked her to make an effort on his behalf, but still she had made sure Rensfield was too busy to come between her brother and Margaret. The girl had sense.
Only during the dinner at an inn in Hampstead Rensfield had had the chance to make a nuisance of himself -- and had made full use of it. Captain Ferrers really did not know how Margaret bore with the fellow. Rensfield had monopolised her during the entire meal, telling some involved story the punchline of which he never reached. In all likelihood there was none. Unfortunately, Captain Ferrers had been unable to come to Margaret's rescue, being obliged to pay his homage to their hostess and admiring the sketches she had made during the afternoon.
But there had been a certain expression in Margaret's eyes when he had kissed her hand to take leave of her -- a warm glow, as if she really had a soft spot for him. What if she returned his feelings?
This was not to be thought of, Captain Ferrers reminded himself. It was not to be. Perhaps he should stay away from her, and let her marry Rensfield or Preston or whoever struck her fancy. If only it were someone more worthy of her than either of those puppies, but try as he might, Captain Ferrers could not think of any candidate who was even remotely good enough for Margaret. Except for himself, but he was aware that even he would not stand the test of closer inspection. What kind of self-respecting woman wanted a notorious misogynist for a husband?
Though, if there was a woman in the world who'd be able to stand up to him and his attitude to females, Margaret was probably the one.
©2007, 2008 Copyright held by the author.