Authors: Kate Moore
Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance, #Regency Romance, #Jane Austen, #hampshire, #pride and prejudice, #trout fishing, #austen romance
by Kate Moore
The Gentleman proposed a scheme no lady should accept ….
Copyright © 1993 by Kate Moore
Ebook edition, Copyright © 2011, Kate Moore
Published by Stillpoint Digital Press on Smashwords
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Originally published by Avon in 1993 under the ISBN 0-380-77056-3
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-9848971-1-7
For more information about Kate Moore and her books
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In memory of Linda Bek Drewry 1947-1992,
a heroine in her own right.
What an ungrateful little sister I shall prove to be if I don't answer your letter at once. But how am I to invent matter sufficient for a true epistle out of my adventures in Hampshire? You at least have the Turks to furnish an anecdote or two.
Last night another Shaw family dinner. There, I may now put down my pen and consider myself the most thorough correspondent, for I know that the very phrase "family dinner" conjures up at least a hundred closely written lines of detail.
But, Bel, you will protest, that is asking too much of your audience, for a player does not merely announce from the pianoforte the title of her ballad and expect her audience to supply the melody. Therefore, Tom, you shall have your family dinner—every note: how all remarked each other's handsomeness in muslins and coats not seen since Sunday last; with what difficulties and "pardon me's" each found his way to the seat he has occupied a score of times this year or more; how Aunt Margaret apologized for the faults of each dish until every morsel had been consumed; how general was the sentiment against the Turks; how unwilling to tolerate such accord were our young cousins, Will the Whig and James the democrat, who must frequently introduce the word "corn"; how Richard then felt impelled to discourse on the late agricultural decline of England and its ill effects on the health and morality of the people; how futile were Mother's efforts to introduce a new topic; and how at last we were spared a further enlargement of Richard's theme by the timely intrusion of three dogs and five cousins not yet considered civil enough to grace the table.
There, nothing of the picture has been omitted except your own good sense and wit and a hymn to Aunt's custard. Truly we ought to lure the Turks to our shores and offer them Aunt Margaret's custard. One taste is as fatal as that of the famed Lotos. The Turks, with their wicked scimitars, will hire out as sedge-cutters, and you, Tom, will be promoted to captain for bringing about such a defeat of our enemy.
Now, dear Tom, the day beckons. I mean to admire a cloud of blue speedwell on your favorite bank and pick a bough of hawthorn for you. And lest you think Hampshire entirely without event, Father tells us the Earl of Haverly, who owns vast estates in Derbyshire, has bought Courtland Manor and the Lower Ashe, our Ashe. Shall we dare to fish our dear stream again?
Everyone sends love.
Your affectionate sister,
IF, AS THE great Walton himself once suggested, "Hampshire exceeds all England for swift, shallow, clear, pleasant brooks, and plenty of trout," the villagers of Ashecombe might be pardoned for supposing he could mean no other than their own Ashe.
Early one May morning not far from the banks of this superior river, where a track emerged from the hedge to make a sort of rural crossroads, a party of fishermen halted and began to quarrel.
"Fish the Upper? That trickle! Bel, you can't mean it! No Shaw fishes the Upper." The speaker, a sturdy youth of fourteen with wheaten curls above dark, straight brows and fierce blue eyes, spoke from the opening in the hedge. At his hip a basket swung loosely with the brisk rhythm of his just-halted stride. A panting, butter-colored dog dropped obediently at the boy's feet. Taking the boy's side at once were three other youths, two cast in the same fair and sturdy mold, and one, a shade more slim, with hair as dark as his brows.
From across the lane, the young woman addressed as Bel regarded the four male faces set against hers. There was directness in the straight dark brows, passion in the changeable blue eyes, insouciance and rebellion in the fine, tip-tilted noses, and resolve in the slim, squared jaws, each chin with just a hint of a stubborn point. It was the Shaw countenance, repeated with only slight variations in the faces of a score or more siblings and cousins.
Bel, her sister Diana, and her niece Sarah from their side of the lane might truly have been looking into a glass. For though the girls wore muslins and bonnets and though they were fairer and more delicate than their brothers and cousins, the stubborn point was quite as plain in the female Shaw countenance as in the male. The only male Shaw who could be said to take Bel's side in the argument was a child of four, who rode on her hip.
"I generally mean what I say, Auggie," Bel replied to the brother who had spoken.
"But, Bel," protested the tallest Shaw, her cousin Phil, "we could flog the Upper all day and never pull out a trout as big as ... as ... your shoe."
"Nevertheless, Phil," she said in the level tones of one quite used to managing her younger relatives, "we Shaws no longer have any right to fish the Lower. At least not until Papa makes the acquaintance of the earl and gains his permission."
"But the earl isn't here yet, Bel," argued Arthur, the dark-haired youth. "And since he's not arrived yet, perhaps we could fish the Lower just one last time, as a sort of farewell."
"Listen to Arthur, Bel," pleaded Phil. "The earl could not be in Ashecombe yet, or some Shaw would have seen him and we'd know. And if he's not here, he can't mind what we do."
Bel tightened her hold on the squirming child at her hip. "What's an earl?" the little one asked.
"An earl," said Auggie petulantly, "is a gouty old fellow with a dozen servants to order around who cares no more than Bel does if he spoils our sport."
"Bel doesn't mean to spoil your sport," said Diana, the taller of the slim, fair girls at Bel's side.
"Doesn't she though," retorted Auggie. "Bel always comes the big sister whenever there's sport to be had." With one booted toe he pried a stone out of the mud and kicked it into the hedge.
"Auggie Shaw," returned Diana, "you're a mean-spirited clodpole to blame Bel. Papa told us we wouldn't be able to fish the Lower when the earl bought Courtland."
Bel put a warning hand on her younger sister's shoulder. Diana, at twelve, was just discovering the power of a sharp tongue and was apt to goad the rebellious Auggie into real foolishness. At twenty Bel was well-acquainted with the intractability of her male relations when their mothers or sisters made suggestions as to proper behavior.
"It is a shame," she said slowly, "that we Shaws should have to forego the pleasures of our Ashe just because some stranger has been so uncivil as to buy Courtland Manor. Why do you suppose a grand, titled gentleman has purchased such an ancient pile?" She lowered her young nephew to the ground and directed him to his cousin Joe, who had so far remained silent, absorbed in arranging the moss in a pail that held several wriggling specimens of worm.
"I hadn't thought of that," said Arthur, tilting his dark head to one side. "You don't suppose, Bel, that he bought the place for the river itself?"
"No, she doesn't," said Auggie, "and she's just trying tactics on us, which for all the supposed powers locked in your brainbox, Artie, you never see."
"Auggie," said Phil, "just because
never think, don't go knocking Arthur. This earl, whoever he is, must have wanted something more than that old ruin—right, Arthur?"
"There you go," said Auggie, "you see how she does it. You're not even on my side anymore. Oh, why'd I get stuck with Bel for a sister? If Tom were here, he'd take us down the Lower, I know he would." He turned and flayed the unoffending hedge with the rod he held in one hand.
Bel had the lowering thought that perhaps Auggie was right, that she was losing her sense of daring and fun. She had always thought herself Tom's equal in adventure, but with Tom away she had to acknowledge that she had become quite sedate. She had spent more time instructing her brothers in the schoolroom than adventuring with them along the banks of the Ashe.
The sound of a horse bearing down upon them made the older Shaws turn and edge back from the center of the lane. Bel scooped up her nephew once again. A gentleman on a fine chestnut stallion appeared at the turning. The rider cantered his animal into the midst of their party before he reined in. Even then he allowed his restive horse to dance a bit so that Bel and her charges were compelled to flatten themselves against the sharp branches of the hedge.
Checking his horse at last, the gentleman drawled, "Good morning, Bel." He doffed his high crowned beaver and swept her a bow from his waist. His gaze took in the whole party and returned to Bel. "Surrounded by admirers, I see."
"Hah!" snorted Auggie.
"What? Contention among the Shaws?" mocked the rider.
Bel regarded his smug, handsome face with annoyance. The squire's son was Tom's friend, and Tom had always been quick to point out Darlington's good points—his green eyes and golden hair, his manly proportions, his daring as a rider, his love of sport, his willingness to laugh. But since Tom had joined the navy, Bel found it difficult to appreciate Mr. Darlington's virtues, and his assurance regularly threatened to ignite her temper. She wished he would ride on.
"Good morning, Mr. Darlington," she said.
to you, Bel," he whispered, leaning down and stroking her cheek with one finger. Backed against the hedge and holding the child, she could not evade the unwelcome familiarity.
"Leave off, Darlington," said Arthur quietly.
"Of course, if you say so, Master Arthur," the gentleman returned, straightening. "Not headed for the Lower, are you, Auggie?" he inquired of the younger boy. "Sad misfortune for the Shaws, isn't it? Can't treat the Lower Ashe as your private river any longer, can you?"
"Has this earl actually arrived at Courtland, Darlington?" asked Phil.
"Arrives today, I hear. His man's there already, though—on the lookout for poachers on the Lower, I'm sure," replied Darlington.
"Well, that won't concern us, Mr. Darlington," said Bel. "We shall do our fishing today on the Upper."
"Trout, Bel? On the Upper?" Darlington paused and seemed to consider the idea. "I doubt it. Easier to catch a husband, Bel."
"If I wanted one."
"You want one, Aunt Bel, Cousin Bel, Sister Bel." It was the sort of comment Darlington liked to taunt her with, reminding her that for nearly four years she had been playmate, nursemaid, and governess to nearly a dozen younger Shaws.
"I am quite content to be of service to my family, Mr. Darlington."
"Oh, Bel," said Darlington, "I love you when you're haughty."
"I think not."
"Believe what you like, Bel, but you will marry me." Once again Darlington leaned down to touch her cheek and whispered for her alone, "All the Shaws depend on you to make their fortunes." She thought he meant to kiss her in front of them all, but he pulled back abruptly.
"What the devil!" he exclaimed, and his startled horse reared, forcing him to grab the animal's mane to keep his seat.
Then Bel could see the source of his consternation. On the other side of the hedge, Mr. Darlington's hat was bobbing away, as if it had suddenly sprouted wings. Bel glanced at the boys across the lane. Phil and Joe and Arthur stood smiling blandly at Darlington, but Auggie had vanished.