Authors: Stephanie Barron
Tags: #Austeniana, #Female sleuth, #Historical fiction
“Ah, so now Julian Thane’s the equal of Lord Byron, is he? My cup runneth over.” Edward glanced darkly at the pirouetting pair. “Poor Fanny is aflame with blushes!”
I chided, “she is merely flushed with the exercise! You refine too much upon a trifle—the waltz is everywhere accepted at private parties now, and Fanny looks very well as she turns about the room. How her mother should have delighted in it! Such a picture as she makes!”
I had long thought privately that Fanny was too little seen, too little known, beyond the circle of her intimate acquaintance in Kent. She ought to have had a true London Season, with a hired house and vouchers for Almack’s—but such an establishment was not to Edward’s taste. It was unfortunate that one of her mother’s relations did not take Fanny under her wing, and chaperon her about the Marriage Mart, for Elizabeth had been of baronet’s blood, and her family might claim the notice of the Great—but I could not raise the subject without being assured that Fanny was perfectly content with her lot. Of course she was! It was not in her nature to find fault with circumstance. Fanny was apt to be grave and sober, when she ought to have been dreaming and frivolous; and for my part, I rejoiced to see her spinning about the room as tho’ her feet had grown wings. Little danger that so circumspect
a child should let a man of Julian Thane’s stamp run away with her.
Edward’s eyes followed his daughter as he clasped my hand and waist. “She looks nothing like Elizabeth, you know. Too much Austen in her for
beauty. But she’ll do. By God, she’ll do. My Lizzy would be content, I think. I haven’t failed them all entirely, Jane, have I?”
But when he dragged his gaze from Fanny, I saw that the lost look had not entirely left my brother’s eyes. And I feared that it would remain with him forever.
Perhaps, I thought, as my feet found the music, there really
such things, once, as marriages made in Heaven.
T WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT WHEN
besought the attention of our entire party, to offer a short speech of thanks. He was supported by his hosts, Mr. and Mrs. James Wildman—he an elderly man victimised by gout, and she a handsome woman of easy manners, much given to company and gossip. It could be no surprize that the Wildmans had insisted upon throwing a ball in their cousin’s honour; they were forever looking for an excuse to welcome half the neighbourhood at their board.
“I am no Kentishman,” MacCallister commenced, “but from the kindness shewn me in recent weeks, could imagine myself an intimate of the neighbourhood from birth; and my gratitude is boundless. When duty and honour call me far from home, when the heat of battle rages about me and my thoughts revert to blessed days of happiness, Chilham shall hold no small corner in my heart. Indeed, it shall stand as the place I owe the greatest joy any man may claim.”
At this, he took the hand of Adelaide, and raised it to his lips with such an expression of mingled pride and humility
that I wonder she was not overcome. “To the lady,” he cried, “who has made me the happiest of men, in consenting to be my wife—may she live long in beauty!”
“Hear, hear,” murmured the attendant company, and it seemed to me a sigh ran lightly about the room, as tho’ a faint breeze had passed over it.
I sipped at my champagne, and found my eyes drawn to the figure of a woman. Still handsome despite her advancing years, she stood a little removed from the family party of Wildmans and Thanes; a stately lady enough, with a strong aquiline nose and hair the colour of iron, whose shoulders were wrapped tightly in a costly Paisley shawl. She was a stranger to me. And yet there was something tantalisingly familiar in her looks—a haughtiness that suggested she cared for nobody.
“Edward,” I whispered. “Who is that lady, to the rear of Captain MacCallister? She looks capable of commanding an army—indeed, I should not be surprized to learn she was the soldier’s mother!”
“There you would be out, Jane—for she is the mother of the bride.”
“Of course!” I said with sudden comprehension, tho’ the lady looked nothing like Adelaide. “She puts me more in mind of her son, Julian Thane—the one who was waltzing with Fanny.”
“Waltzing,” Edward said testily, “
next two dances
, until that excellent John Plumptre was forced to intervene—which is most particular and unbecoming behaviour in Thane, do not you think? That young buck has the air of a hound who will not be turned from the hunt, once he has caught the scent—”
“And so you have taken a strong dislike to him,” I rejoined. “You have nothing to fear in Fanny’s good sense, and surely she could do with a bit of flattering attention, Edward. She is twenty, after all.”
Very well, I will confess that I cherish a certain
regarding Fanny—who so ably filled the post of mother to her ten younger brothers and sisters, as to be almost spinster-like in the very bloom of her youth. My anxiety is that she will end her days like my sister, Cassandra, or God forbid, like
Content enough, to be sure, and freed of all the cares attendant upon marriage and children—but lingering, and dwindling, on the fringe of a world she once claimed as her birthright. I could not bear for Fanny to be merely everyone’s
. And her apprenticeship in that order was already marked: She had been so busy preparing the boys for Winchester, and compelling the girls to see the London dentist, and ordering the cook which joints were for the table, and which for the kitchen, and overseeing the stillroom, and ensuring that her father’s every comfort was met, so that he might be observed to feel the loss of his cherished wife as little as possible—that the poor child was quite worn out. Fanny had been forced to the management of a great household at too young an age, and it was a wonder she did not choose the sanctuary of a convent, over the gaieties of a ball.
Further debate was suspended, however, for the bride had chosen to speak.
Adelaide’s voice was clear and deep, with a musical timbre, and her white hand seemed almost translucent as she lifted her glass.
“To my gallant husband, Captain Andrew MacCallister—may God preserve him from harm as he serves King and Country, and return him to
loving heart, which has such cause to know his unexampled worth.”
We drank to this, and had only just drained our glasses dry, when a singular interruption occurred.
A footman belonging to the Castle made his way through the throng, bearing a curious item on a silver tray. It was a small silken pouch of a warm rosy colour, intricately embroidered in gold threads, and knotted with tassels. The servant’s
object was clearly Adelaide MacCallister, and as she watched him approach, her lips curved in a smile as tho’ she was expecting a childish treat. If the peculiarity of the purse being delivered in the midst of a ball were not enough to silence the assembled guests, the bride’s response certainly was.
“Is this your doing, Andrew?” she demanded as the footman bowed, and presented his prize.
But her husband laughingly declined all knowledge of the gift.
“Very well,” she cried. “Whom must I thank for this beautiful reticule? Some one of our guests? Or—
Have you made over to me all your unscrupulous winnings, from playing at lottery tickets with our dashing cousins?”
There was a ripple of amusement from the onlookers, but no Julian Thane appeared to answer his sister; he must be absent from the ballroom.
“How came this here?” the bride asked as she took up the silken pouch.
“I received it of a stranger at the front door, ma’am,” the footman said.
Mrs. MacCallister’s eager fingers stilled, and to my surprize, I saw the colour slowly ebb from her cheeks.
“A gift to the bride on the occasion of her wedding, the man said.”
“Man? What sort of man?”
“A common enough fellow, ma’am. He did not give his name—and I neglected to ask it, perceiving him to be merely the bearer of another’s gift.”
She nodded faintly, and took the thing from the tray—but with an expression of such dread on her countenance now that I felt an answering chill trace its finger along my spine.
“My darling,” Captain MacCallister murmured. “Are you unwell?”
“Nothing I regard.” She loosed the strings of the pouch with deft fingers, and tipped the contents into her palm.
If I had expected a pile of rubies, I was fated to disappointment. The pouch contained nothing but a quantity of dark brown beans, rather like coffee only twice as large; several slipped from Adelaide MacCallister’s fingers, and scattered on the ballroom floor.
A murmur of conjecture rose from the assembled guests, and I glanced at my brother Edward, curious to know what he made of the anonymous gift; his eyes were narrowed, but his countenance betrayed only a vague puzzlement. I imagine all of the observers felt the same.
Swiftly, the bride tipped the brown pods back into the embroidered pouch and knotted the tassels with fingers that seemed almost nerveless. Then she turned with a brilliant smile and called, “Pray let us have music! The night is young, and we must dance!”
“My darling—” Captain MacCallister attempted, but she held up one hand in mute refusal. As the guests turned in search of partners and the strains of a violin rose around us once more, I observed Adelaide MacCallister make her way haltingly from the ballroom, her husband staring after her in confusion.
The bride had not entirely quitted the place, however, before her formidable mother intercepted her. I may have imagined it—my eyesight is
what it was in earlier days, alas—but I would swear that Mrs. Thane slipped the offending pouch from her daughter’s hand.
Jealous folk have always been dangerous people—
Or at least that’s what they want their wives believing
, 21 O
T WAS NEARLY TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING WHEN THE
carriage drew up before the doors of Godmersham Park, and I confess I retired immediately, regretting that the fire in the Yellow Room’s grate had turned entirely to ash. The Yellow is generally my bedchamber, or Cassandra’s, when we are come to stay with Edward in Kent—and a very comfortable room it is, only not in the dead of night, when the buttercup hue of the silk hangings are entirely devoid of warmth, and the autumn draughts are hurrying along the Great House’s corridors like so many unquiet souls.
Fanny’s maid was sitting up in expectation of her, but having accepted of the sleepy girl’s services only long enough to know my tedious length of buttons was undone, I stepped out of my wine-coloured silk and straight into bed. My endurance for such endless amusements dwindles with each
passing year; I have not endeavoured to make a study of insomnia, or cultivated the practice of judicious napping upon the sopha each afternoon, that I might hope to shine in Society.