Authors: Melinda Hammond
The small panelled parlour was not the grandest of the reception rooms at Oakwoods but during the cold winter months when the icy winds buffeted the ancient house it was by far the warmest. The family had grown accustomed to gathering there before dinner for with a cheerful fire
in the hearth the room was very comfortable, unlike the great hall where it was necessary to pull one’s chair almost inside the great fireplace to keep warm. It was therefore possible for members of the family to amuse themselves with their various occupations in relative comfort.
Sir Oswald, as befitted the master of the house, was in the best armchair beside the fireplace, one leg resting on a small footstool. He was engaged in studying the newspaper, delivered that day from London. His lady was sitting at a small table with her youngest daughter, poring over the fashions described in recent copies of the
while Miss Symonds was more prosaically employed mending a torn sheet.
‘This sounds very pretty, Mama.’ Camilla pointed one of the paragraphs on the page. ‘It says that the new silks with flowered stripes are all the rage now.’
Sir Oswald looked up from his newspaper.
‘And they cost a pretty penny, too.’
Camilla flew across the room to him.
‘But you would not see me go to Town in rags, would you, Papa?’ She perched on his knee, pouting prettily.
‘Baggage,’ he chuckled. ‘You know I can deny you nothing, my love.’
‘My cream tabby silk is packed away upstairs, Mama,’ said Miss Symonds. ‘Perhaps that could be altered to fit.’ She observed Camilla’s mouth turn down in disapproval and added, ‘It was never worn, Camilla. You need not fear anyone will think you are wearing a reworked gown. I am merely trying to think of the cost.’
‘I am glad someone is,’ retorted Sir Oswald, retreating once again behind his paper.
Camilla went back to the table.
‘I would rather not wear last year’s silks, Mama.’
‘And nor shall you,’ replied Lady Symonds, patting her hand. ‘With the gowns you have already, and your new silver muslin, you will look well enough in Town, and once we are there we shall be able to visit the silk mercers and see for ourselves just what will suit you. That is why I am eager to get to Town now, to give us a few weeks to buy you all the clothes you will need for the beginning of the Season….’
Lucasta Symonds looked at her mama and her sister, their heads once more bent over the pages of the magazine and with a sigh she returned to her stitching. She knew how costly it would be for Camilla’s first season in Town – heaven knows her father had told her often enough how much had been wasted last year when her own come-out had been curtailed. Lucasta has been unfortunate enough to contract chicken pox at the beginning of the Season and had returned to Oakwoods with a trunkful of gowns, gloves, slippers and fans all unused. Her father had railed against the expense
and since she had found herself crippled by shyness when presented to a room full of strangers, every one of them sizing her up like a piece of horseflesh, Lucasta had begged him to let her stay at home rather than to repeat the ordeal in the Little Season. Her mother had taken some
, but she was now reconciled to her eldest daughter
at home while she concentrated on Camilla’s come-out which, she assured her spouse, could not be anything other than a resounding success.
Camilla was the Great Hope of the family. She was
fair, with pale blonde hair that was her dresser’s delight, clustering about her head in angelic curls and
an almost perfect face. With her dainty figure and
manners, Camilla was expected to achieve a great match. For her mama this meant a connection with a noble house while Sir Oswald looked forward to an advantageous marriage settlement to alleviate his own precarious financial state. Camilla’s ambition was simple: to have all the London beaux at her feet. As the undisputed local beauty, Camilla was used to being adored and courted by every gentleman to come across her path, and she saw no reason why the same should not happen in Town, a view upheld by her fond mama.
‘Even the squire says that you are every bit as beautiful as the Gunning sisters,’ said Lady Symonds, pulling Camilla down beside her again. ‘If they could come from nowhere and marry dukes, just think what a young lady from a good Shropshire family might achieve.’
‘Mama, the Gunning sisters were in their prime nearly thirty years ago,’ put in Lucasta, smiling. ‘Times have changed somewhat since then.’
‘Oh hold your tongue, girl, of course they have not. A pretty girl will always captivate a gentleman, if she is clever enough.’
‘And I am very clever, am I not, Mama?’
‘You are indeed, my love.’
‘So you see, Lucasta, I shall be looking pretty high for a husband. Oh I do wish you could be there to see my success.’
Sir Oswald folded up his paper, saying, ‘Now, now, you know it is agreed that Lucasta shall stay at Oakwoods and keep house for me.’
‘Well, with a houseful of staff I do not think that you can really need her,’ said his lady thoughtfully. ‘She might be very useful in Town, running errands for me.’
‘I assure you I am content to stay at Oakwoods,’ put in Lucasta. ‘I think you would find me very much in the way in Town.’
‘Indeed you would,’ agreed her fond papa. ‘She is staying here and that’s an end to it.’ He broke off, listening to the sound of voices approaching from the great hall. ‘Ah, Ned’s here.’
The door burst open and a gentleman strode in, bringing a blast of cold air with him. He was not above average height and of stocky build with a round, good-natured face and an abundance of fair curls imperfectly confined with a ribbon at the nape of his neck. He was dressed in a country-style frock coat, buckskins and muddied top boots which caused a look of disapproval to flicker across Lady Symonds’ countenance but this disappeared when she saw who had followed him into the room.
‘I found Kennington on the road,’ announced Ned
The second gentleman stepped forward to make his bow.
‘That sounds as if I was destitute at the roadside,’ he said, smiling. ‘In fact I am visiting my cousins at Harley. Your servant, Sir Oswald, Lady Symonds. I had planned to call
upon you later in the week, but—’
‘I told him I am going back to Kent tomorrow and that he had best come home now and take pot luck with us,’ Ned interrupted him.
Lucasta paused in her sewing to study the visitor. She recognized his voice, even thought it was a little deeper now, and she remembered a long-limbed schoolboy visiting Oaklands when she was a child, but she doubted she would have recognized Viscount Kennington without an
. The gangly youth had matured into a tall, elegant gentleman who needed no padding to fill out the broad shoulders of his superfine coat and his tight-fitting
revealed strong, shapely limbs that proclaimed the sportsman. His rich brown hair, that Lucasta remembered flopping untidily over his brow, was neatly confined by a black ribbon and from the fall of frothy lace at his throat to his gleaming top boots he was every inch a fashionable gentleman.
‘And we are very glad to have you here,’ said Lady Symonds, going across the room to greet her guest. ‘My dear Lord Kennington! Why, we have not seen you for … oh it must be ten years at least.’
The viscount gave her a singularly sweet smile. That much about him hadn’t changed, thought Lucasta with approval. He had been a good-natured youth, always ready to laugh even at himself. She watched him bow gracefully over her mama’s hand.
‘Once my uncle’s health began to fail my visits became very infrequent,’ he said. ‘But, of course, I saw Ned at Oxford and kept in touch with him.’
Lady Symonds beamed at him and nodded, saying, ‘Perhaps you do not remember my daughters.’
From her shadowed corner Lucasta waited to observe
Lord Kennington’s reaction. He did not disappoint her. She did not leave her seat, merely inclined her head to him. His bow was perfectly executed and he gave her a friendly smile, but when Camilla came forward make her curtsey there was no disguising the frank admiration in his gaze. He was too much the gentleman to gape, but his grey eyes widened with interest and his smile deepened into something much more charming. Lucasta was not surprised: she had seen too many gentlemen react thus when they were first introduced to her sister. It did not worry her that the gentlemen did not give her a second glance if Camilla was in the room: after all, she was well aware that straight brown hair and brown eyes, however, dark, could not compare with Camilla’s golden curls and blue eyes. She watched now as Lord Kennington bowed over Camilla’s hand.
‘But of course I remember you,’ he was saying to her, ‘you sometimes joined us when we played cricket.’
Ned gave a crack of laughter.
‘No, no, Adam, that was Lucasta.’
‘Heavens yes, I remember,’ cried Camilla. ‘You called her Luke, until Mama forbade it, saying it was most improper.’
‘But much less of a mouthful,’ murmured Lucasta.
‘It is a beautiful name,’ replied Lady Symonds, adding with a sigh, ‘I was much addicted to poetry when I was younger.’
Ned chuckled as he poured a glass of wine for his guest.
‘Aye, but she should have been a boy. Camilla now, she never played ball-games: always afraid of getting grass stains on her petticoats.’
‘And quite right too,’ murmured the viscount, raising his glass to Camilla as he treated her to another of his
Camilla blushed, looked away then peeped back under her
lashes, her cherry-lips curving into a shy smile. From her corner Lucasta observed the viscount’s reaction: he was captivated.
‘Well, well,’ cried Sir Oswald in jovial tones. ‘So you will stay to dine with us, my lord. Lucasta, go and tell Piggott to lay another cover. Pray sit down my lord, then we may all be comfortable!’
Lucasta did not consider the evening remotely comfortable. With her come-out looming, Camilla was delighted to
flirting with a real viscount and Lucasta was dismayed to watch her parents actively encouraging her. She realized that this was inevitable: Viscount Kennington was
and in possession of a substantial fortune in his own right, as well as being heir to an earldom and extensive estates. He was just the sort of eligible suitor they wanted for Camilla and they proceeded to go out of their way to attach him. Sir Oswald was abnormally hearty and his lady so gushing that Lucasta was faintly embarrassed. Only Ned behaved normally, treating the viscount with his usual bluff good-humour and Lucasta reflected that if it had not been for her brother’s occasional remarks, she would have spent the whole evening saying nothing at all.
Lord Kennington did not appear in the least put out by the attentions of his hosts and responded with polite
. When Camilla asked him with studied innocence if he would be attending the assembly in Shrewsbury the following evening there was a decided gleam in his eye when he said he would not dream of missing it. Lucasta was not surprised, therefore, when the next day saw another flurry of activity as Camilla’s trunks were unpacked again.
‘But, Mama,’ Lucasta murmured mischievously, ‘I thought you had given up the idea of going to the assembly again
before setting off for Town.’
‘That was before we knew Lord Kennington would be there,’ replied Camilla, pulling out another of her gowns.
‘Well, I hope he is worth it.’ Lucasta looked at the robes and tissue paper scattered around the room. ‘There is another two hours’ work for Annie to pack all these away again.’
‘Well,’ retorted Lady Symonds, ‘since you say do not care to come to the assembly with us, you may pack it all tonight while we are out.’
‘Certainly! I would much rather be so employed than watching you fawning over Lord Kennington. But who knows, perhaps he will not turn up.’