Behind the Mask (House of Lords) (6 page)

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
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“You strike me as the sort of woman who never does anything less than wholeheartedly.”

She laughed. “Then you have never seen me play the piano! I am dearly fond of music, but I am afraid I have no talent for instruments.”

Lady Sidney had risen to survey the desserts, and now she said, “Oh, you do not do yourself justice, Eleanor! My eldest daughter possesses a fine singing voice, My Lord, for all that she will dissemble and insist it is barely tolerable.”

“Yes, Eleanor,” Maris cried. “We must get Georgina to play so that you may sing. You will, won’t you, Georgie?”

Her twin nodded and said quietly, “But only if Eleanor really wishes to sing.”

“Of course she does!” Eleanor’s mother said confidently. “Do you have an instrument, your grace?”

The duke said, “Of course,” and rose from the table to lead them through to a lovely music room, the centerpiece of which was a beautiful piano, an Erard if she was not mistaken. Georgina slowed to walk beside her.

“Are you sure you wish to sing?”

“I can hardly refuse now. I think I will sing ‘Adelaide’, if that’s all right with you.”

Georgina shrugged. They both knew she was accomplished enough at the piano that it hardly mattered which song Eleanor chose. She would accompany her to perfection. That was not what worried her.

She liked Lord Pierce. Oh, she found him attractive as well, but she also liked him. If she had been a man the two of them might have been friends. But she found him intriguing and personable, and she did not want him to think she was throwing herself at him. Her mother knew that she would choose to sing something romantic like Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide’ because those were the songs that showcased her voice best, and Eleanor only hoped that he did not interpret it as a guileless effort to attract him. He was not here to court her, after all.

Georgina made herself comfortable on the bench and then looked expectantly up at her. Eleanor took a few deep breaths as her sister began to play.

 

When Colin first arrived in Vienna he knew no one except the foreign service operatives who had traveled with him. Sir Frederick Lamb, His Majesty's ambassador to the Austrian Empire, had tried to introduce him around, to ensure that the sort of people he would need to befriend to complete his mission welcomed Colin. One night they had attended the opera, amongst a large party including several members of the nobility. Colin had been in the midst of charming one of the ladies when a petite soprano had stepped onto the stage and begun to sing. The song was Adelaide, a lilting, plaintive melody, one it was rumored Beethoven had written as a dare to the over-confident sopranos he detested. It was a challenging piece, set to different music in each stanza, with no repetition of words or choruses. Only a well-trained voice, with a disciplined mind behind it, could manage it. Colin had sat transfixed in the darkened theatre and forgotten all about the ambassador and the woman with whom he was supposed to be flirting.

He had returned every night for the next week to hear Angeline Meltzen sing. At the end of the week he sent her flowers and was invited to her dressing room.

What had followed was a disastrous liaison that had eventually led to the events that spelled the end of Colin's tenure in Vienna. He had been a fool, and now, when he looked, back Colin could see clearly the path that had led from her dressing room to that dark alley.

When he heard the opening strains of the tune flowing out from under Miss Georgina’s nimble fingers, he prepared himself to be transported back to those days. But then Miss Chesney began to sing. Her voice was not the pure, classically trained soprano of Angeline Meltzen, but it was strong and clear and fit perfectly with the song. As she sang in the original German about moonlight and snow on the distant mountains, he found himself being transported not to the Royal Opera House, but to the magical places in the song.

Miss Chesney appeared to be looking at everyone except him as she sang. When at last, towards the end of the last stanza, she met his eyes, his heart began to pound. The intensity of feeling she put into the words and the melody was no farce, no act for an audience of operagoers. The strength of her emotion pierced him. As she held the last note, he thought he saw tears at the corners of her eyes.

Everyone applauded heartily when Miss Chesney ended. Her mother begged her to sing again, but she firmly refused. "Any trained singer will tell you that it is always better to leave your audience wanting more," she said.

That was exactly the trouble, Colin thought grimly.

 

FIVE

 

August 29, 1834

 

There were gray clouds gathering to the west in the morning, and Colin prayed fervently that there would be no rain. The hot, thick air did not bode well.

"You would be welcome in the carriage with us, Lord Pierce," Lady Sidney said as they went out.

It was for that exact reason that he hoped it would not rain, but he could hardly say that. "Let us hope for dry weather," he said.

"You would be welcome to stay another day," the duchess said, taking Miss Chesney's hand.

She shook her head. "There is too much to do at Sidney Park to delay even another hour," she insisted.

They bid their farewells.

"It is two hours’ hard ride from here to Sidney Park," Charles said as Colin climbed into the saddle, "But you know I will come if you need help."

"Thank you," Colin replied, not bothering to dissemble. There was danger ahead; he could feel it. But he would hardly call a man whose wife was little more than a month from delivering their first child away from his home.

By midday the haze had begun to clear and the warm, persistent sun beat down. When the carriage stopped at last the ladies appeared hot and exhausted, and Colin was not surprised when Miss Chesney again decided to take a turn about the village while her mother and sisters refreshed themselves. He almost let her go alone, but they were quite near Sidney Park now and he was not willing to take chances, so he trailed along at her side. As he did he saw Strathmore riding into the village, though the man kept his distance.

“I very much enjoyed your singing last night,” he said amiably as they walked.

Her face was still rather pink from the stifling carriage, but he was sure that she blushed. “I wish Mama would not make me sing,” she said. “But she is determined to showcase my few socially acceptable talents.”

“Reading Balzac is not a socially acceptable talent?” he asked.

She laughed, a merry, tinkling sound that made his toes tingle. “I do not believe so.”

“It was a beautiful performance. You should be proud of your gift.”

She shook her head. “I do not enjoy performing to crowds. Mama says I will never succeed in society unless I learn to do so, but it is difficult to force.”

“So it is,” he agreed. It had taken him two years working in the Foreign Office to develop the kind of effortless charm needed to circulate among the diplomatic set on the Continent, and even then he had often felt that he was inches away from a
faux pas
many times. How much more difficult to stand up and practice one’s art before a dozen or more people. “But you needn’t worry. You are charming company. You would grace any salon on the Continent. Have you ever been abroad?”

“No,” she said rather sadly. “Mama says—” she stopped abruptly, looking away, her flush deepening.

“What?” he asked.

“It is silly,” she protested.

“Please.”

She sighed. “Mama says that when I marry I must convince my husband to take me on a long honeymoon to the Continent,” she said.

He smiled. “So you must. You would enjoy the environment, I think. It is an intellectual set, though of course everyone is equally concerned with fashion and formality.”

“I suppose you know absolutely everyone,” she said. He was not quite sure if he heard sarcasm in her tone or not. But then one corner of her mouth lifted in a bewitching smile.

He laughed. “Not at all. Every day it seems as though there is a new face, a new name to learn how to pronounce, and a thousand connections to remember.”

“Like
Eugene Onegin
,” she said. “Where everyone is related to everyone else. One almost feels one needs a chart to keep track of them all!”

He stared at her for a moment. She read Russian novels? “I suppose,” he said, but in his head he was saying
Steady on, old man.
This situation was becoming more precarious by the minute. As he handed the ladies back into the carriage, Lady Sidney looked meaningfully at him.

“Did you enjoy your walk, My Lord?”

He smiled but said nothing. But as he mounted he found himself wondering if it would be so bad, to be married to a woman like Miss Chesney, someone intelligent and beautiful and yet seemingly completely oblivious to both of those facts. She was a woman who could take the Continent by storm, smart and poised and talented. And he liked her. He was developing a profound respect for her. What was more, his parents would like her.

But thinking of the Earl and Countess of Townsley brought to mind the reason he had entered the foreign service in the first place. He did not want that life, the endless round of balls and salons and nights at the theatre. He wanted the excitement and adventure, the thrill of the chase he was engaged in now. That sort of high-stakes game was no place for a woman, or for a man with a wife and family for that matter. Once you had something to lose, you were vulnerable.

It was of little matter. In three weeks he would be back in Brussels, and it would be as though none of this had ever happened. As they neared Starling Court, Colin reminded himself to focus on the task at hand. The Princess Victoria was all that mattered.

 

“At last!” Maris cried as they turned around the bend and began their descent into the valley. Out the window Eleanor could see the chimneys of the house peeking up over the trees. Far away down the valley the sun sparkled on the water. The carriage rumbled down the long rocky drive. Just before they reached the house the drive widened into a uniform lane flanked by ornamental trees, which marked the way to the large Elizabethan mansion. The house was truly a fine example of the style, constructed of the local sandy stone with dozens of multi-paned windows. Centered between the two flanking wings a wide staircase and archway led into the house itself, and the carriage stopped before it. Eleanor wondered as she waited for the footman to hand her mother out if Lord Pierce truly had any appreciation for architecture. Sidney Park was quite impressive to those who had not grown up there. To Eleanor it was a refuge on the edge of the sea, a place where she had known a blissful and idyllic childhood.

"Well, Lord Pierce," her mother said rather artlessly when they were all standing on the drive, "what do you think?"

"A fine specimen, Lady Sidney," he said. He was standing too far from her to tell for certain, but Eleanor thought he might have winked at her.

Looking pleased, her mother led the party inside, where all the servants were lined up on either side of the hall to greet their mistress. Lady Sidney moved down the line and back, speaking to the servants whose names she knew, and then introduced Lord Pierce. Then, with a dismissive wave she said, “I am exhausted. You’ll see to everything, won’t you Eleanor?” And she disappeared through the salon and up the stairs while Eleanor bit back a caustic remark about her mother’s offer to take over her share of the work. It would do no good to spoil the pleasure of their arrival with a spat in the front hall.

“Of course,” Eleanor said when she was gone. “Thomas?” One of the footmen, a trim man of about thirty, stepped forward. “Thomas will take care of you while you are with us, My Lord,” she explained.

“Thank you, Thomas,” Lord Pierce said, smiling. Thomas nodded politely, though Eleanor could see the glint of curiosity in his eyes. When she turned she saw that Georgina and Maris had made themselves scarce as well.

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
6.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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