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Authors: Mira Stables

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It proved to be surprisingly difficult. Whether from notions of proper conduct or from fear of annoying Tina, Alethea slipped skilfully away from anything approaching intimate conversation with Damon and stuck closely to Marianne. And if, by careful contrivance, Marianne managed to secure for him a few minutes alone with her, Tina was sure to break in upon them.

Tina was quite unperturbed by Damon’s kindness for her dull little cousin. It was obviously pure charity. Unless, she thought amusedly, he was trying to make her jealous, in which case he should have chosen someone a good deal more attractive than Thea. What she did find irritating were his references to that incident on the Tunbridge Wells road. There could be no denying that he had been much impressed by Thea’s behaviour on that occasion. Tina began to turn over in her mind various schemes by which she could present herself in a similarly favourable light.

The only success that the two conspirators achieved was a steadily growing friendship between Alethea and Marianne, which was very comfortable but not what they had set out to do. Yet it was this friendship which was eventually destined to bring about that much desired téte-a-téte. The two girls had reached the stage where confidences came easily, and as girls will, they talked often about the married state. They had been spending a wet afternoon in Marianne’s room, Alethea trying on her friend’s dresses and bonnets, a proceeding which reduced them both to helpless laughter, when Alethea suddenly said, “I just don’t understand it. You’re so pretty, so loveable. I know from Aunt Maria that you’ve had any number of chances. Don’t you
like
men?”

Marianne hesitated briefly. She had guarded her secret so long. Only her mother knew of her unwavering loyalty to James Borrodaile. But now, at last, James was on his way home. Her heart was light, she was in the mood to talk of wedding plans and Alethea could be trusted not to chatter indiscreetly. So the whole story came tumbling out.

She had known the Borrodailes all her life—Alethea would remember meeting Jennifer and Martin at her party—but Mama had felt that she must have at least one season in Town and meet other gentlemen before committing herself irrevocably to James. She had nothing against the match—indeed she was very fond of James—but Marianne was so young. And life as the wife of a serving officer, with its long separations and its grave anxieties would be very hard. Let them wait a little while, be very sure that the attachment between them was strong enough to withstand the strains that would be put upon it. So they had waited. And the waiting had stretched for four interminable years, while Marianne had learned the truth of Mama’s warning words, and learned, too, that parting and anxiety had only strengthened her love. Sometimes she would hear nothing for months. Then would come a whole bundle of letters when the blockade had been briefly broken. And now the long ordeal was almost over and they hoped to be married in the autumn.

Alethea listened wide-eyed. So much heartache and loneliness behind the pleasant facade of Marianne’s smooth young face! She said slowly, “You must love him very much.”

Marianne smiled a little. “Yes,” she said. “I wish now that we had not allowed Mama to persuade us into waiting. If anything had happened to James”—she broke off, with a little shiver. Then said cheerfully, “But it didn’t. He will be home any day and then we shall plan our wedding. I shall ask you and Jennifer to be my bride’s maidens.”

Alethea expressed her pleasure in the invitation but said hesitantly, “Not Tina?
She
was your friend before I was.”

Marianne laughed outright. “Very definitely not Tina. Can you imagine any bride in her senses inviting comparison with Tina? You and Jennifer are quite pretty enough. Tina would steal the scene entirely. As for friendship”—she hesitated for a moment, then said slowly, “I know she is your cousin. Perhaps I should not say it. But Tina’s friendship lasts just so long as she has use for you. My usefulness—and poor Kit’s—is almost done. She needed us only to draw Damon into her circle.”

Not even family loyalty could bring Alethea to deny the truth of this. “Is your brother very much hurt?” she asked diffidently.

Marianne shrugged. “He doesn’t quite believe it yet. Nor realise what a fortunate escape he has had. If
he
had been a Duke’s son—!”

“People are so different,” said Alethea lamely. “Tina has beauty and wealth in plenty. So she yearns for high rank—the one thing she hasn’t got.”

“And won’t get from Damon,” retorted Marianne, in tones as near malicious as her soft voice could manage. “He doesn’t even
like
her. If she but knew it, his thoughts are turned in quite another direction.”

Alethea looked both intrigued and alarmed. “Heavens! I hope I’m safe home again before he announces his betrothal,” she exclaimed lightly. “Tina would be quite unbearable,” and then, coaxingly, “Who is she? Do I know her?”

But Marianne refused to be drawn, vowing she had said too much already.

“Well, I hope, whoever she is, that she will make him happy, for the poor man has had more than his share of ill-fortune.”

Such a splendid opportunity to put in a little special pleading on Damon’s behalf was too good to be missed. “Yes, indeed,” agreed Marianne with enthusiasm, and launched into a diatribe against that horrid wretch Elinor Coutance who had thrown Damon over after playing cat-and-mouse with him for months. “And Tina thought to entrap him by her beauty in just the same way,” she ended scornfully. “Do you think she would have any use for him if he were just plain Mr. Hardendale? And scarred as he is? Have you not seen how she cannot endure to look at the injured side of his face but moves always to his right hand? Oh—she does it skilfully, casually, but she does it. And imagines he doesn’t notice! Poor Damon! He told me once—it was in the early days when they still feared for his sight—that he would have endured even
that
loss, almost thankfully, if only the child had lived. It was dead when he brought it out, you know, the baby. Suffocated by the smoke, they said.”

A glance at Alethea’s face, the brown eyes misted with pity, decided her that she had said enough on this head. “Marriage will give his life a new meaning,” she went on briskly. “And she will be a fortunate girl who marries him, despite the scars.”

“I shouldn’t think she would notice them,” returned Alethea. “They are not near so bad as he seems to imagine. After a little while one simply forgets them. They are part of him, but oh! such an unimportant part compared with his courage and his kindness.”

That augured well for Damon’s hopes, thought Marianne happily. But Alethea was not done. “For my part,” she pronounced judicially, “I would rather be wary of his pride.”

“Pride?” exclaimed Marianne, startled and indignant.

“Yes,” returned Alethea firmly. “It is not really the scars that he resents so much as his own failure. If I were his chosen bride,
that
is what I should fear—his demand for perfection. How could any girl ever come up to such a standard?”

 

TEN

That was baying
at the moon with a vengeance, thought Alethea, walking sedately homeward with Hetty. But a girl must have
some
kind of shield against a man who was not for her, and who, scars or no, could win her heart without even trying. She had tried to hold aloof because he must surely succumb to Tina’s loveliness. Now, at least, she could be thankful that he stood in no such danger. But still he was not for her. She was grateful for Marianne’s warning, though she earnestly hoped that it had been dropped by chance and not because she had betrayed herself. In self defence she had hastily devised the first criticism that she could reasonably level at the man who far too frequently invaded her thoughts.

She could not even have said when first she had begun to sense the truth. It had certainly not been a case of love at first sight! And though he had been kind to her since, had taken her part against Tina and shown himself sympathetic to her tastes, when had she first discovered that it was not just his sympathy and his kindness that she craved? She only knew that when other gentlemen became assiduous in their attentions she had found herself comparing them with his lordship and then, rather ashamedly, treating them with an undeserved coldness; pleasant mannered young men whom she had liked very well at a distance. One had tried to steal a kiss—and had his ears boxed for it.

Because it was generally known that her expectations were small, she was spared the attentions of the gazetted fortune hunters. For that she was grateful. It must be horrid to be courted for one’s money. Just as horrid, she thought shyly, as being pursued because one was the son of a Duke. But even without the attraction of wealth she could have taken her choice between three or four gentlemen, respectable matches all, if not precisely of the first stare. What ailed her, then, that she must find them all insipid and boring when compared with a certain astringent gentleman who was not likely to concern himself with the insignificant Miss Forester?

It seemed as though her mind was to be schooled to thoughts of marriage that day, for the subject was raised again at the dinner table. Mr. Newton, dining at home for once, was in unusually benign mood, essaying one or two mild pleasantries on the infrequency of these cosy domestic evenings and vowing that he had not seen either his wife or his daughter for a sennight at least and his niece only at the breakfast table. This remark might have goaded his daughter into sharp retort, reflecting as it did upon her own less energetic habits, but fortunately she was not listening, being deeply absorbed in contemplation of the costume she meant to wear to attend a military review. Mrs. Newton said placidly that when they removed to the country at the end of the month he would soon be complaining that he could never escape from chattering females. They discussed one or two arrangements connected with the closing of the town house and Mr. Newton then turned again to his niece, declaring that he could scarcely believe she was so soon to leave them and inviting her in the kindest way to travel with them into Dorsetshire. “I believe you would enjoy it,” he assured her. “Very pretty scenery, and you would be company for this wilful little puss of mine who always complains that there is nothing to do in the country.”

This alluring prospect did not tempt Alethea to snatch at the proffered treat. She thanked him politely and, she hoped, with some semblance of regret, but explained that she was needed at home. Mama and Susan were to spend a month in Worthing in the hope that the sea air would be beneficial to Mama’s health. To Alethea would fall the responsibility of looking after Papa in their absence.

Uncle Matthew commended her sense of filial duty, brushing aside her protests that it was no such thing, that she and Papa would also make holiday, after their own fashion.

“Poking about in musty old churches, I suppose,” jibed Tina, who had emerged from her abstraction in time to resent her father’s remarks about filial conduct.

“If you had some equally unexceptionable interest, you would not be forever complaining of boredom,” returned her father severely. He turned again to his niece. “But how does it come about, my dear, that out of all the gentlemen who have been so ardently paying court to you these weeks past, you’ve not found one to outshine your Papa? For well I know there was more than one trying to fix his interest with you.”

Alethea blushed scarlet. For once she had cause to be grateful to her cousin, who drew her father’s fire by saying languidly, “Perhaps the gentlemen required rather more in a wife than just proper notions of filial behaviour. For my part I can imagine nothing more boring than a female who is for ever prosing on about duty and principles.”

This speech had the double effect of bringing sharp rebuke upon the speaker and putting an abrupt end to Uncle Matthew’s genial mood. With the skill of long practice, Aunt Maria initiated a discussion on the concert that they were to attend that night, and Alethea’s matrimonial prospects were not mentioned again.

Unfortunately the concert proved to be rather mediocre, and Alethea, who was not particularly fond of music, found her thoughts straying with distressing frequency either to Marianne’s confidences or to her uncle’s teasing and from these to a consideration of the married state in general. There could be no comparison, for instance, between the marriage of her own parents and that of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Maria. Yet Aunt Maria was considered to have made a very good match while Mama was thought to have thrown herself away. Alethea could perfectly well imagine Mama keeping faith with her beloved for four weary years, just as Marianne had done, because she truly loved Papa. No considerations of wealth or social aggrandisement could so bind people together.

A patter of polite applause, signifying the end of an item, broke across her reverie, and she must rouse herself to take her part in the chorus of praise and criticism. But in the subdued mood induced by her reflections she was quieter than usual so that even Aunt Maria enquired if she had the headache. The two of them were alone in the carriage, the indefatigable Tina having gone on with friends to another party when the concert ended.

Alethea sat up hastily. “Just horridly mopish,” she said lightly. “And quite without cause, unless it is that I have been spoiled by too much gaiety. Perhaps it is the prospect of going back to workaday life that is making me feel so low.”

Aunt Maria took her seriously. “My dear child!” she said kindly. “I do hope you are not refining too much upon your uncle’s remarks at dinner! He was only funning. There is nothing in the least derogatory about coming to the end of one’s first season without having formed an eligible connection. Moreover your parents most particularly requested me not to press the matter. They wished only that you should acquire a little Town bronze—as the saying goes. But if you wish to make a push to establish yourself creditably,” she went on in thoughtful tones, “I believe John Chester could be brought up to scratch with very little effort on your part. Or even Sir Evelyn Crowley, though he”—she broke off doubtfully.

Her horrified niece hurriedly disclaimed any matrimonial designs on either of these worthy gentlemen. “And indeed, kindest of aunts, can you not understand how much I shall miss our shopping expeditions, and our comfortable gossips after parties? Not to mention the balls and assemblies and theatres that I have so much enjoyed.”

Aunt Maria was satisfied. Naturally, any girl suddenly realising that she must bid farewell to such delights was bound to feel a little low. She hastened to comfort the afflicted one with promises of a long visit to be paid next spring.

Perhaps because her thoughts had been so much with Marianne, Alethea was not particularly surprised to receive a note from her the following day. Recognising the handwriting, she tore it open eagerly, for surely it must bring news of James Borrodaile’s return.

So, indeed, it did. James had landed safely at Spithead four days ago. Thence he had posted to Greenwich where he might claim hospitality from his kinsman and patron, the Governor. There were certain duties, certain enquiries into the welfare of former shipmates that could best be carried out from there. And at this final delay, Marianne had reached the end of her long patience. See him she must, however briefly, however formally. But alas! Mama was unwell. Nothing serious, the doctor said, just a slight chill, but she must keep her room for a few days. The thought of taking an abigail as chaperone was intolerable. Would her dear Alethea consent to forego the splendours of the military review and go with her instead to Greenwich?

Alethea saw nothing odd in the suggestion. Completely unversed in the rules governing naval and military procedure—and which, in any case,
was
a marine officer—it never occurred to her as strange that after serving so long in a beleaguered fortress, James could not snatch so much as a couple of hours’ leave of absence to come up to Town himself and visit his promised wife.

Nor had she the least notion how much pains it had cost Damon to coax his cousin into agreeing to the scheme. It had taken James’s support—James, who had reached London shortly before noon and was, despite his weariness, benevolently disposed towards all mankind—to win her consent to such a deception. Imposing on her dearest friend! Even if the bit about Mama
was
true. But Damon felt that a journey by river to Greenwich would provide him with just the kind of situation that his present need demanded. James would be relied upon to see to all the trappings. If he could not borrow some kind of ship’s boat and a well-trained crew from one of his navy friends, then he had fallen sadly short of the standard required of the Marines. The river trip, Greenwich Palace itself, with its beauty and its historic associations, was just the thing to appeal to Miss Forester. As for deceit and play-acting, he was not asking a great deal. If Marianne could not feign a touching reunion with her betrothed, and that without undue effort, he wouldn’t give much for their chance of a happy married life. Marianne, laughing, protesting, allowed herself to be overborne, and her letter was written at their bidding.

Alethea did not think that she would be missed from the large party that was to attend the military review. She was a little disappointed, since it so chanced that she had never witnessed such a spectacle, but the claims of friendship must come first. She dashed off a hasty note to Marianne, promising to be with her early next day. She naturally assumed that Kit would be their escort. He would scarcely desert his sister at such a time. Hetty promised that the note should be sent off at once, and Alethea hurried down to dinner to explain her change of plan to her aunt.

Mrs. Newton, much interested, agreed that her defection from tomorrow’s party would cause no inconvenience. Of course she must go with Marianne. And Kit was perfectly to be relied upon to see her safe home again. If there was a gleam of satisfaction in Tina’s lovely eyes for the new arrangement, no one particularly noticed it. Tina behaved very sweetly, wondering if the long-standing friendship between Marianne and James would now end in marriage, and promising to excuse Alethea’s absence, if anyone should enquire about her, without betraying the mission upon which she was engaged.

Tina had good cause for satisfaction. Kit was being tiresome, hanging about her with reproach writ large in face and bearing. To have both him and Alethea removed for the day would make it just that much easier to spend most of her time with Damon. She had actually begun to wonder if his lordship had scruples about taking her away from Kit. Quite absurd, of course. She had never encouraged Kit in the belief that she might marry him. But how else could one account for the reserve with which Lord Skirlaugh treated her? He showed no such reserve in his dealings with Alethea. Of course he regarded her as a child, talked to her about such boring things as old battles, long dead kings, and the shockingly revolutionary ideas which had caused the rebellion of the American colonies. Just the kind of subjects that a gentleman might fall back upon when driven to converse with one who had no idea as to how to set about conducting a light flirtation. Tina, herself a mistress of that delicate art, thought he must be heartily sick of all this edifying talk, and just as thankful to be relieved of Alethea’s presence as she would be of Kit’s.

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