Authors: Laura Matthews
Tags: #Regency Romance
“Now, Mama, we have been over all this before!” the young lady declared passionately. “You assure me that neither you nor Papa would dream of forcing me into a disagreeable marriage, and yet every other word from either of you is Cranford’s name. I know he is handsome, and that his papa’s lands run with Papa’s, and that he is intelligent and stable and all the rest of it. He is also insufferably dull! And old,” she added as scourging afterthought.
“Old!” Mrs. Storwood’s countenance registered dismay. “Trelenny, he cannot be above eight and twenty! Why, of course he isn’t, as you were born when he was ten and Lady Chessels and I…”
Trelenny cast her blue eyes heavenward. “Yes, Mama, you and his mother dreamed of the day we would wed. But those were daydreams, don’t you see? The days when parents arranged matches for their children are dead! I am sure if he has said it once, Papa has said a hundred times that the young must depend on the older, wiser counsel of their relations, and I would not contradict him for the world. But I haven’t even met any other eligible young men! And I am only eighteen. Can’t you see what would happen to me? I’d be stuck here all my life just like you.”
Guiltily she dropped to her knees beside her mother’s chair. “You know I don’t mean that quite as I said it, Mama. I know you and Papa have been happy, even with his illness. But. . . but you had a chance to live in London when you were young. You went to balls and plays and parties. And the friends you made! Would you not feel completely cut off from the world if you did not still correspond with Mrs. Waplington and Lady Sandburn? I haven’t even any friends to write to, and God knows what I would tell them if I did. There cannot be many young ladies of my age who would be interested in my visits to the tenants or my rides about the mountains!”
Mrs. Storwood tucked back a straggling wisp of her daughter’s blonde hair. “You write to Clare.”
Although a great many retorts sprang to Trelenny’s lips, she said only, “She and Lord Hinton live quite as retired as we do.”
“Yes, but still she is your friend and no doubt you await her letters as eagerly as any I might receive.”
Trelenny rose and paced agitatedly about the room. “I keep expecting her to tell me how she feels about things... but she never does. Do you think he mistreats her?”
Such a suggestion obviously had never crossed her mother’s mind, and she stared blankly at her daughter for a moment. “Do not say such a thing even in jest, Trelenny! Lord Hinton is an admirable man and devoted to Clare. Whatever put such an idea in your mind? Did you not see how tenderly he treated her at their wedding?”
“At their wedding, yes,” Trelenny said scornfully. “But you cannot have failed to notice that we have not seen them since, Mama. He carried her off to the wilds of Scotland immediately—not even to his seat! And they might as well have disappeared from the face of the earth after that. They’ve been married well over a year and he has never brought her to Ashwicke Park. Except for her letters, she might be dead for all anyone knows!”
“Don’t be absurd!” Mrs. Storwood said sharply. “Her brother has visited her.”
“Oh, Cranford. It’s a wonder he could take his nose out of a book long enough to journey there, I concede. And what did he tell us of her on his return? Just exactly what anyone tells you when he has visited someone—they look well, seem happy, are busy, etc., etc. Why doesn’t she come here to visit?” Trelenny came close to her mother and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think he is keeping her prisoner.”
“Where do you get this fantastic imagination of yours?” Mrs. Storwood asked despairingly as she twisted her shapely hands in her lap. “It is not from your father, and it is certainly not from me. I have never heard anything more absurd in my life, Trelenny. Must you make a mystery of every common occurrence? She has had a child, for heaven’s sake! You don’t go jaunting about the countryside when you are carrying a child, and you don’t order round your carriage the moment you are delivered of it!”
“Little Catherine must be six months old by now,” Trelenny said stubbornly. “Lots of people travel with children.”
“And more don’t,” her mother retorted. “Have you been reading some lurid novel about an imprisoned wife?”
“Now, Mama, I have to have something entertaining to read. It is just that book Mrs. Waplington sent you and you set aside. Surely there can be no harm in it when your dear friend sent it. You know, the one by Lady Caroline Lamb.”
? It is not meant for a child of your years, my dear. Surely you can find something more uplifting than that to read.” Mrs. Storwood habitually used persuasion rather than firm injunction with her daughter, for nothing so surely set up that young lady’s back as being told what to do, especially when there was the hint that it was her youth and unworldliness which prompted the instruction.
“Would you have me read the literature that Cranford brings?” Trelenny asked sweetly. “Perhaps you would like me to read aloud to you. Let me see. There is a very large tome on antiquities and another on the Romans. But no, you would probably prefer his own translation of Antoninus. That is the very thing. . . if you have some desire to nap! Imagine his thinking that I would be interested in such stuff. Well, he cannot possibly believe I am, for I have told him any number of times that I cannot read more than two pages without yawning.”
Trelenny stood with hands on hips in a most unladylike posture, which her mother had frequently deplored. Of course, Mrs. Storwood could understand and share her daughter’s vexation with a suitor who, himself fascinated by archeological exploration, seemed to think that others shared his enthusiasm. It was all very well for him to discuss tumuli and whatever with Mr. Storwood, but to enlarge on the subject of Roman cremation at the dinner table was going a bit far! There had been a time when the Honorable Cranford Ashwicke had not been such a pedagogue, when he was the despair of his mother and a drain on his father’s purse. But after Lady Chessels’ death he had settled down quite nicely— too nicely, Mrs. Storwood feared, to appeal to her effervescent daughter.
Perhaps it was the wildness surrounding her in the Westmorland countryside which inspired Trelenny to her hoydenish behavior. More likely it was the lack of polite society, with its polishing influence, which had such an effect. No amount of strictures and examples seemed to make the least impression on the girl. Like a pot on the boil, there was no restraining her spirits. It was a wonder, really, that Cranford would even consider her as a bride!
Not that Trelenny was not an attractive girl, in her way. The impish blue eyes were set in a face which had not entirely lost its girlish roundness, though her figure had now developed from its former chubbiness into a rather alluring fullness. And there was no hiding it in today’s gowns, Mrs. Storwood thought uneasily. Not that there was anyone to see her emerging butterfly, more was the pity. It was really the greatest shame that Mr. Storwood’s weak heart prevented them from taking the girl to London to enjoy a season and meet some people of her own age. Just to acquaint her with the world of fashion, Mrs. Storwood rationalized, as she could see the advantages of Trelenny’s marrying Cranford every bit as well as her husband. And the freckles which sprinkled across her cheeks and nose would surely subside without the constant exposure to the sharp winds of the country. If not, they could be bathed with milk, which Trelenny would doubtless allow when she realized the great importance of being in fashion. The braided blonde hair, too, would be so lovely trained into one of those styles one saw in Le Beau Monde, rather than pinned tightly to her head to prevent its escaping when she dashed madly about the lanes on that frisky mare.
Mrs. Storwood sighed. “Yes, my love, it is vexing of Cranford to expect you to read such dry stuff, and I am sure he does not think to praise you for the effort you make to accommodate him. Yesterday I was astonished to find you poring over one of those old volumes of his for an hour or more.”
A mischievous light danced in her daughter’s eyes. "Oh, I found the most fascinating thing, Mama, and I intend to impress him with my endeavors when he calls this afternoon to take me riding.”
“Do you, dear?” Mrs. Storwood asked uncertainly. “I’m sure that’s very thoughtful of you.”
“Yes, I think so,” her daughter proclaimed righteously. “I shall change now, if you will excuse me.”
And high time it was to show Cranford the futility of both his efforts to instruct and to woo her, Trelenny thought rebelliously as she allowed her maid to assist her into the most capacious of her riding habits, one of royal blue velvet with lace peeking out at her throat and her wrists. Imagine being married to such a stick! Not that she thought him the least enamored of her. There was something so mechanical, and so unloverlike about his courting that of itself it would have put her off, let alone his antiquarian leanings. He bore not the least resemblance to any lover she had ever read of, and having no personal experience, she could only rely on such novels as she came by, sent by her mother’s considerate friends. The closest circulating library must be some eighty miles away, and she had only been to York twice in her life!
No, Cranford was only pursuing her out of the determined wishes of both their families, and he was doing a very poor job of it. It was time he learned a lesson, and she was just the one to give it. Aware that her mother and father would be shocked by her plans, she had bribed a stable lad to saddle her mare and take it to the copse by the stream, a spot which was not visible from the house. Still, a quaver of doubt assailed her when she surveyed Stalwart patiently standing under a tree, her reins loosely held by the boy.
“Is it... difficult to ride astride?” she asked breathlessly.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” he assured her. “Easier than the sidesaddle, I should think. You’ll be having no trouble. Just use your knees to grip and you’ll be safe as houses.”
“Very well, then. Hand me up, please.”
For years she had watched men mount their horses, and it had seemed a very simple matter. And probably it was for them, unhampered by wide skirts as she was. The heel of her boot caught in the hem of the skirt as she attempted to swing her leg over the saddle, and she found herself ingloriously slung across like a pannier. Disgusted, she allowed herself to slip down to the ground once more. “You go back to the stables, Tommy, and tell Mr. Ashwicke to meet me here when he comes.”
When the lad disappeared from view, she led Stalwart to a rock, raised her skirts immodestly, and gained a seat on the now restless mare. As commodious as the skirts were, there was no way in which she could settle them that they did not come above her short boots. She tugged and rearranged, an embarrassed flush staining her cheeks. Well, there was no help for it, and she certainly did not care what Cranford thought of her. So what if he caught a glimpse of her leg? It would probably be a unique sight for the stodgy old fellow. She was not going to abandon her plan.
Unaccustomed to sitting facing forward on a horse, she felt slightly unbalanced, though rather heady with her escapade. When Stalwart moved forward at her summons she found that her knees automatically gripped to give her a firm seat. How pleasant not to have one’s back twisted about, she thought euphorically as she urged the mare to a gallop. Yes, decidedly it was a great deal more comfortable than riding the sidesaddle. She put Stalwart to a fence.