Read an Excerpt
Jane Hemingford was writing letters at her escritoire in the small parlour on the first floor of her London home, when her great aunt came bustling into the room in a fever of excitement. "Jane, Mr Allworthy is here."
"Mr Allworthy? You mean Mr Donald Allworthy?" 'To be sure. Who else should I mean?" Harriet Lane was a dumpy woman and the speed at which she had climbed the stairs had made her breathless. Her black lace cap had fallen over one ear and she straightened it as she spoke.
"But it is barely ten o'clock, too early for morning calls. I am not dressed to receive him."
"Then you had better change at once. He has gone into the library to speak to your papa and then I have no doubt you will be sent for."
"Speak to Papa? You surely do not mean he has come to offer for me?"
"That is precisely what I do mean. Now make haste and pretty yourself up. I doubt he will be talking to your papa for long, there is nothing to dispute. He is very eligible."
Jane was thunderstruck. Aunt Lane, who had been widowed many years before and had ever since lived in seclusion in Bath, had suddenly taken it into her head to pay a visit to her great-niece to 'take her in hand'. "It is time you got over that old nonsense and began to think of finding a husband," she had said.
"That old nonsense' was a previous engagement to her second cousin, Harry Hemingford, which had ended in the most dreadful scandal that she did not even want to think about, much less discuss. It had been two and a half years before and she had put it behind her, but that did not mean she was ready to plunge into a new engagement, just because her aunt thought she should.
Since her aunt had arrived at the beginning of the Season, they had been out and about, going to routs, balls, picnics and tea parties, it was at one of the latter that she had met Donald Allworthy. She had seen him several times since in company with other young people and found him attractive and attentive, but never so attentive as to suggest to her that he was seriously considering proposing marriage. "But, Aunt, I hardly know him. I certainly had no idea he was thinking of offering."
"Why should you? He is a perfect gentleman, he would not have spoken to you without your father's permission."
Not like Harry, in other words. Donald Allworthy was, Jane conceded, quite a catch, so why had he chosen her? She was not particularly beautiful, she decided, her nose was a mite too large and her brows were too fair. She had brown hair which in certain lights was almost auburn and a pink complexion which became even pinker when she was angry or embarrassed. She was not exactly angry now, but certainly disconcerted. "I do not have to receive him, do I?"
"Oh, Jane, do not be such a goose. You are not a simpering schoolgirl, you are twenty years of age and should have been married by now..."
So I would have, she told herself, if I had married Harry. Aloud, she said, "I know, but that does not mean I should jump into the arms of the first man who offers."
"He is not the first man to offer, is he?" 'Oh, Aunt, how could you speak of that, when I so much want to forget it?"
"I am sorry, dearest, but I must say what is in my mind. You did not choose very sensibly before, did you? Now you are a little older and wiser and, with me here to guide you, you are doing wonderfully well."
Jane longed to tell her aunt she did not need that kind of guidance, but she was a tender-hearted, obedient girl and could not bear to hurt anyone's feelings. "I am very sensible of your concern for me, Aunt Lane, but I had no idea Mr Allworthy wished to marry me. Are you sure that's what he has come to see Papa about?"
"Oh, I am sure. He spoke to me at Lady Pontefract's ball, asked me if I thought Mr Hemingford would agree to see him and naturally I said I was sure he would. But I gave no such assurance on your seeing him. That is your decision, of course." She sounded hurt, as if Jane's refusal would be a personal slight on the efforts she had made to bring it all about.
Jane sighed. "Then I suppose I must speak to him." 'Good girl. Now go and change into something bright and cheerful."
The house in Duke Street was in the middle of a tall narrow terrace. The ground floor was little more than a hall, dominated by a staircase and a small reception room with the library behind it, where her father spent much of the day writing a philosophical tome which he hoped would make his reputation as a man of letters. The kitchens were in the basement, the parlour, drawing room and dining room were on the first floor, and above those the bedrooms. Higher still were the servants' sleeping quarters. As the household consisted only of Jane and her father, there were few servants: a cook-housekeeper, Hannah, the housemaid, and Bromwell, who acted as butler and footman. They did not keep a carriage and so did not need outdoor servants. When Aunt Lane visited, her coach and horses were kept in a nearby mews and her coachman, Hoskins, boarded out.
Jane had never had a personal maid and relied on Hannah to help her with fastenings and pinning up her hair. "At your age you should not be without a maid," her aunt had said when she had been in residence a few days. "I shall speak to your father about it."
Jane had begged her not to. "I do not need someone to wait on me," she had said. "My needs are simple and she would not have enough to do and we cannot afford to pay servants for doing nothing. Hannah does me very well."
But she couldn't stop her aunt from sending Lucy, her own maid, to her when she considered the occasion important enough to warrant it. And it seemed today was important, because the young woman was already in her room when she went to change. She chose a muslin gown in palest green. Its skirt was gathered into a high waist and it had little puff sleeves over tight undersleeves. The neckline was filled with ruched lace edged with ribbon. "I don't know that there's time to do much with your hair, Miss Jane," Lucy said. "I do wish the gentleman had given notice he was calling."
"So do I, Lucy. Just brush it out and tie it back with a green ribbon. He cannot expect a full coiffure at this early hour." Would that put him off? That thought was followed by another. Did she want to put him off? It was a question she did not know how to answer. He was, as her aunt had pointed out, eligible, and though she was not quite at her last prayers, ought she to be particular? After all, her previous sortie into the matrimonial stakes had been disastrous. Left to herself, she had chosen very badly.
She was slipping on light kid shoes when her aunt knocked and entered. "Are you ready, dear?" She stopped to appraise her. "Very nice, a little colourless, but perhaps it is best to be modest, until you know your husband's tastes."
"Husband, Aunt?" Jane queried. "You are a little beforehand, don't you think? He has not asked me yet and I have not accepted."
"No, but he will and I am sure you are not such a ninny as to turn him down flat."
"I shall listen to him, that is all I can promise," she said, following her aunt down to the beautifully proportioned drawing room which had been furnished in excellent taste by Jane herself when she and her father first moved to London. Her father and Donald Allworthy were standing by the hearth.
Donald was tall and lean. His impeccable coat in dark blue superfine and his biscuit-coloured pantaloons, tucked into brilliantly polished Hessians, denoted a man of some substance, though certainly not a dandy. He wore a diamond pin in his meticulously tied cravat, a fob and a quizzing glass across his figured brocade waistcoat. He smiled as he bowed to her. "Miss Hemingford, your servant."
"Mr Allworthy." She dipped a curtsy, but she could feel her face growing hot and quickly turned to her father. He was a good head shorter than their visitor and was clearly not particular about his dress. It had been different when her mother was alive, but now he put on whatever came first to hand when he rose in the morning. On this occasion, he was wearing dark blue trousers and a brown coat with darker velvet revers. His white cravat was unstarched and tied anyhow; his grey hair, thin and wispy, stood out all over his head as if he had been running his hands through it. "Papa, you sent for me?
"Indeed I did." He was beaming at her. She felt a shiver of apprehension as she realised he was pleased with himself. At last he had managed to find someone to take his foolish daughter off his hands. She knew she had been a great trial to him, becoming engaged to Harry and then breaking it off. Not that it was the breaking off that had caused the scandal; that had come before and left her no choice in the matter. Papa had not blamed her; he had simply accepted the fact and left her to make what she could of her life. But he must have been worried. Poor dear, it was unfair of her to make difficulties for him.
"Mr Allworthy wishes to speak to you," he said. "I know you will listen carefully to what he has to say."
"Of course, Papa." She dare not look at the young man, but she could not but be aware of him; his presence seemed to fill the room. There was an air of expectancy, as if everyone was holding their breath, waiting for a pause in time before it resumed ticking away in a different rhythm.
"Then we will leave you." He beckoned to Aunt Lane and they left the room.
The clock ticked louder than ever. Or was it her heart pumping in her throat? "Mr Allworthy," she said, sitting on the sofa and placing her hands in her lap. "Won't you be seated?"
He came and sat beside her, perching himself on the edge of the seat, half-facing her, and doubling his long legs under him, so that she was afraid he might fall to the ground. "Miss Hemingford, I trust you are well?"
"Very well, Mr Allworthy. And you?" 'I am in the best of health, thank you, but as to my mental state, that is not so sanguine. I have never done this before, you see."
"Done what, Mr Allworthy?" 'Proposed marriage." He paused, smiling. "I have reached thirty years of age and never found a lady that I felt I wanted to marry, until now, that is..."
"Are your standards so exacting?" She was teasing him, which she knew was unkind and she had never knowingly been unkind. "I am sorry, sir, I interrupted you."
"Yes, you did, but I am not to be put off, you know." He seized one of her hands in both his own. "I have formed a deep attachment to you, very deep. In short, I admire you greatly and would be honoured and privileged if you would consent to be my wife."
"Mr Allworthy!" She tried to retrieve her hand, but he held it too firmly. Rather than tussle with him, she let it lie.
"Do not tell me you did not expect it." 'I did not, not before today. I do not know what to say." 'Say yes and you will make me the happiest man in the world."
"But we hardly know each other." 'Oh, I think we do. I know you well enough to be sure that my future happiness lies in your hands. I believe I recognised that the first moment I saw you at Mrs Bradford's a month ago. You are so exactly my vision of a perfect wife, well bred, beautiful, intelligent and honest and yet you are no milksop. As for me, I am in possession of a small estate in north Norfolk. The house is not especially large, not what you might call a mansion, but it is well proportioned, and there is a small park and a farm. I am not, I confess, as rich as Golden Ball, but I am certainly not without funds and I have expectations—" He broke off as if he had said too much, and then continued. "You would never want for comfort. I am persuaded we could be very happy together."
It was a pretty speech and the fact that he could not command the wealth of Mr Edward Ball mattered not one jot, but she was sure he did not know as much about her as he claimed, for who would want to marry someone who had broken off a previous engagement? "Oh, dear, this is difficult. Mr Allworthy, there are things you should know about me. I am not in my first Season. I am twenty years old and I must confess that I have been engaged before..."
"I know," he said. "Your papa told me of it, but he assures me it is all over and done with."