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Mrs. Regina Stansbury, a woman of high fashion and dwindling fortunes, has just trapped London's most courted bachelor into agreeing to marry her daughter Cordelia. Though young Miss Cordelia Stansbury has admired the handsome and dashing Gervaise Valerian for years, she is mortified by the circumstances of their engagement. Duty bound to obtain her father's consent for this match, Miss Stansbury becomes lost at sea while traveling to meet him in Egypt. But Valerian's hopes for a long and carefree bachelorhood ...
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Mrs. Regina Stansbury, a woman of high fashion and dwindling fortunes, has just trapped London's most courted bachelor into agreeing to marry her daughter Cordelia. Though young Miss Cordelia Stansbury has admired the handsome and dashing Gervaise Valerian for years, she is mortified by the circumstances of their engagement. Duty bound to obtain her father's consent for this match, Miss Stansbury becomes lost at sea while traveling to meet him in Egypt. But Valerian's hopes for a long and carefree bachelorhood are dashed once again when Miss Stansbury reappears after a year spent shipwrecked on a desert island.
Ignoring the Code of Honour, Valerian rescinds his offer of matrimony. To restore the family name, Piers Cranford, a distant cousin of Valerian's, is bullied into proposing to the disgraced young lady. His offer is rudely rejected, but under pressure from his great-uncle General Lord Nugent Cranford, Piers is forced to pursue Miss Stansbury or risk losing his family manor. Piers is reluctant to marry a haughty girl he barely knows, especially now that he has just met a delightfully intriguing young lady named Mary Westerman...
His worries are compounded when his estate is plagued with a series of disasters. Are these troubles linked to old foes from the Jacobite Rebellion, or could they be the work of a mysterious bidder, intent on bringing down the value of Muse Manor and buying Piers Cranford's beloved family estate?
Despite the oppressive heat of the September evening, the ball given by the Dowager Lady Hall -Bridger was a success. Fans might flutter in a constant attempt to cool pretty but flushed cheeks, fine linen handkerchiefs might be plied surreptitiously by gentlemen far too elegant to be so coarse as to perspire, but nonetheless the ballroom floor was crowded, the dancers merry and clearly enjoying themselves.
The ball was in honour of the come-out of Lady Hall-Bridger's granddaughter, and to please that very indulged maiden, a larger than usual number of the younger set had been invited. Many of these were variously frolicking or flirting their way through a country dance. Two young ladies, however, stood chatting in a secluded archway that gave onto a corridor adjacent to the ballroom. Their murmurous conversation was frequently interspersed with soft laughter. Both were pretty enough to have attracted male attention, but neither appeared distressed by the lack of a dance partner. Long-time friends who had been separated for some months by the Grand Tour of one family, they were mutually delighted to have discovered each other at this Society function and had slipped away to share the more noteworthy events each had experienced while parted. Their merry chatter turned very soon to ton gossip, mostly of a nature that their respective chaperones would have frowned upon.
Miss Maureen Coffey uttered a gasp and threw one lace-mittened hand to her cheek. Big brown eyes wide with awe, she exclaimed, "You neverdid? But—but he is by far the most adored and adorable gentleman in London!
Miss Angela Alvelley giggled and agreed, adding pertly, "And the most pursued, though for his fortune rather than his good looks; at least that's what my aunt says. Every mama in Town with an unwed daughter is on his trail."
"And some with daughters they'll never be able to fire off. Like poor Cordelia Stansbury, for instance."
"That little dowd?" Miss Alvelley patted her powdered hair coquettishly. "Much chance that hatchet-faced mother of hers has."
Behind them a large potted palm rustled suddenly, but the two damsels were so intent upon their well-bred character assassination that they were unaware of this odd occurrence.
Miss Coffey, who had a trace of kindness in her otherwise selfish heart, said, "Poor Cordelia. I cannot but feel sorry for her, she has such a frightful harpy for a mama! And she has been in love with him forever, you know."
Incredulous, her friend stared at her. "With Gervaise Valerian? Cordelia Stansbury? You never mean it! Why, how prodigious stupid! She must know he can take his pick of all the beauties in the Southland. As if he would so much as glance her way, much less flirt with her!"
"Not with you in the same room, I'll own. Though he has not seemed particular in his attentions this evening."
Quite aware that she was judged one of the loveliest maidens in London Town and well on the way to becoming an acknowledged Toast, Miss Alvelley stiffened. "He can scarce flirt with me while my grandmama is here, watching me like a hawk. She holds him to be dangerous."
"As does every mama in Town. But they will risk a little flirtation if it may lead to his fortune!" Lowering her lashes, Miss Coffey added archly, "Even so, far from flirting with you, one might suppose he does not even know you are here."
"Of course he knows, you silly thing! And when you look so smug, Maureen, I vow I yearn to scratch you! I could have him flying to my side in the wink of an eye, Grandmama or not, if I so wished. I will tell you in strict confidence that we had planned to meet here tonight." The angry flash in her blue eyes faded. She said thoughtfully, "Still, you are right; he has been ignoring me. He is playing one of his sly little games, is all, keeping me waiting. Well, I think I shall teach the so much admired Gervaise Valerian a lesson!" She beckoned a hovering footman, and having captivated him with her delightful smile, sent him off.
Miss Coffey asked curiously, "Why do you want paper and seals? Are you going to write to him?"
"Yes. And beg that he meet me in the green ante-room."
"Heavens! Angela, you must not! It is the farthest room, and very isolated. If anyone should see you alone with him you would be quite ruined!"
Miss Alvelley's smile was bright with mischief. "Do try not to be so silly! I will be least in sight, and when he gets to the ante-room he can cool his heels waiting for the kiss he will think to win, while you and I enjoy the next dance with less conceited beaux."
The footman returned, the fatal note was written and despatched, and the conspirators melted into the throng, aglow with the pleasurable knowledge that London's most courted young bachelor was about to receive a well-deserved set-down. Mrs. Regina Stansbury had chosen the small sofa in the corridor because it was tucked away, half-concealed by the fronds of a large potted palm, and offered privacy. She had retreated here to control her temper, sadly frayed by the barbed hints of two "friends" regarding her hopes for "Cordelia, poor child." A lady of strong opinions and uncertain temperament, she prided herself on her impeccable lineage, which she judged superior to most of those present at this function. Her taste in dress was as impeccable as her lineage, and tonight she had chosen to wear a splendid mauve satin ball gown. A diamond-and-amethyst necklace was spread on her bony chest, and there were two curling feathers in her wig, which was of the latest French style. More diamonds sparkled in the bracelets she wore on her gloved wrists, and only a close inspection by an expert would reveal that the gems in both necklace and bracelets were paste.
Her sharp tongue and abrasive hauteur tended to limit the ranks of her friends, but she was acknowledged to be good ton, and as one of the leaders of fashion, was seen "everywhere." Despite her husband's rapidly shrinking funds, she refused his every plea for economy and persisted in patronizing London's most talented (and expensive) modistes. Tall and thin, and blessed with a tiny waist, she wore her clothes well and presented an impressive appearance, but not the costliest gown or the richest jewels could soften the harsh line of her lips, or warm the glitter in the hard dark eyes.
Almost, she had confronted those two insolent girls when they'd dared to name her "hatchet-faced" and a "harpy," and said she would never be able to "fire off " her "little dowd" of a daughter. How fortunate it was that she had succeeded in controlling her justifiable wrath and had continued to "overhear" their wicked conversation.
Looking after the plotters, her tight mouth became tighter. So Gervaise Valerian would "not so much as glance at" Cordelia! Thanks to a succession of profligate heirs and the hopeless financial ineptitude of her spouse, the Stansburys no longer possessed a comfortable fortune, but insofar as lineage went, a Valerian might think himself fortunate to win a Stansbury for his bride. From time to time she had attempted to impart such awareness to young Gervaise, but he always contrived to slip away just as she was coming to the point. Once, while at a musicale, the rascal had been so gauche as to pretend not to have met Cordelia. It was a rare mis-step on his part and she had seized the golden opportunity at once, insisting upon introducing him to her daughter. She'd fancied that good manners would compel him to keep beside them, but he'd bowed politely to Cordelia and suddenly recalled he was promised to join another party. She had boxed her daughter's ears when they returned home, and told her a few home truths about speechless, spotted, and fat females. Almost, she had despaired of Valerian, but now, that conceited little witch Angela Alvelley (whose aunt was not good ton and gave card parties of questionable repute) may well have given her the very tool she needed to catch the insolent young rake—and his fortune! Provided, she acted swiftly.
To that end, Mrs. Stansbury went in search of a footman, wrote a hurried note and, along with other instructions, ordered that it be delivered at once! Then, with a rare and triumphant smile curving her lips, Regina Stansbury returned to her sofa, from which she might watch the corridor, unobserved.
* * *
He was here tonight! She had seen him come in, accompanied, as always, by a jolly group of friends. Tall and dashing and—oh, so very handsome.
Miss Cordelia Stansbury, short and inclined to plumpness, with a regrettable tendency to throw out a spot when she was nervous, watched him from a distance. How becoming was the powdered wig concealing his hair, which she knew to be a softly curling dark brown. How enchanting the clear grey eyes, slim nose, firm mouth and chin. If some named him a Dandy, it was no more than jealousy. Suppose he was fastidious about his dress, why should he not be? His valet was known to be proud of him, for he was tall and perfectly proportioned and had a fine pair of broad shoulders.
Miss Stansbury sighed and edged a little closer, thrilling to the sound of his deep laugh and noting every graceful movement. How immediate was the heightened sense of excitement in the ballroom now that he had arrived. And how hopeless her love for the man so sought-after for the very qualities she admired, and even more sought-after for the great Valerian fortune. It was believed that despite his estrangement from his father, Gervaise had not been disowned and remained the sole heir to Sir Simon Valerian. Much she cared for that, thought Cordelia sadly. But Mama cared. Mama never ceased to remind her that she was twenty now, and if she did not bestir herself to become less of a shy and colourless little dab, and master some of the tricks that even pretty young ladies employed to catch themselves a husband, she would be a spinster all her days. Mama had said—so often—that she did not propose to support her for the rest of her days, and that Cordelia owed it to her to make a good match.
She sighed. She'd always thought life would be easier once she left the schoolroom, but if anything, it was more difficult. If Papa were in London, it would be different. But Mr. Nathan Stansbury, a renowned authority on antiquities and a gentle soul, had escaped his wife's shrewish tongue by retreating to the less exhausting heat of the Egyptian sands, thus abandoning his only daughter to the machinations of her ruthless mother.
With a twinge of guilt, Cordelia glanced around. Mama had gone off somewhere, probably to find Lady Hall-Bridger and demand she provide a partner for her plain and timid offspring. How horrid that would be. And how humiliating. The other young ladies would giggle behind their fans, as they always did, and she would wish the floor might open and swallow her.
A footman, making a far more elegant appearance in his livery than did she in the ornate ball gown Mama had insisted she wear, was holding out a note. A summons, she thought with sinking heart, but she nodded and he gave her the note together with the admonition that she was requested to destroy it as soon as it was read.
Curious, she broke the seal. The writing was an unfamiliar scrawl, and the message brief."
I am in great distress and appeal to you for the kindness I judge you to possess. I beg that you will do me the honour of meeting me in the green anteroom, at the end of the west corridor.
On my oath, I will detain you no more than a minute or two.
In the sure knowledge that you will respect my confidence,
The green ante-room was unoccupied. Pushing the door wider, Cordelia started to call, but he had stressed confidentiality and she crept inside, bowing to convention by leaving the door open but crossing to the inner room where he might wait so as to be out of sight of the corridor.
She was a little flushed with excitement, her heart pounding madly. Of all people, in his trouble—whatever it was—he had turned to her! Had he guessed that she had adored him from the first moment she saw him? She'd been thirteen then, accompanying Papa to a dusty old bookshop. When Gervaise had strolled in it had seemed to her that the shop lit up. He had also been with his father, for this was before the terrible quarrel that had driven them apart. Sir Simon had spoken briefly to Papa and Gervaise had made his bow, smiled on her kindly, then wandered about and not glanced her way again. Why should he, an already acknowledged prize on the marriage mart, glance at a chubby girl not yet out of the schoolroom? But if he'd been scarcely aware of her, she had never forgotten him or that dazzling smile. The altar in her heart that was built that day had remained, undimmed and unshakeable, so that, while knowing he would never choose her, having met the man of her dreams, she was determined to marry no one else. Never had she hoped for this evening's wonderful turn of events; never had she dreamt he noticed her, much less judged her to be kind-hearted.
She was somewhat surprised to find that the inner chamber was empty also. It was her own fault, of course. She could never seem to master the little tricks of flirtation. Mama would likely box her ears again and shrill that a lady did not rush to meet a gentleman, but kept him waiting for a decent interval lest he judge her over-eager. "Cordelia," she murmured, starting back to the outer room, "you are such a silly—"
"Where are you, little lovely?"
The soft call sent her heart leaping into her throat. For an instant she could not move, and her voice was unwontedly husky when she gulped, "In ... here."
She heard his quick tread and knew she was pale and trembling.
He said lightly, "Discretion is, they say, the better part of—"
Then he was in the room, had taken two strides, checked abruptly and gasped, "What—the devil ...?"
"I c-came as soon as I received your note, Mr. Valerian," she stammered. "In—in what way can I be of assistance to—"
The flaring dark brows twitched into a frown. "I sent you no note, madam," he said icily. "Be so good as to let me see it."
Horrified, she gulped, "You asked that I destroy it, so I threw it in the fire."
"If ever I heard such a silly—" Suspicion dawned then. He whirled about and ran to the outer room.
Bewildered, Cordelia followed. "What is it? Have I—"
The door to the corridor was closed. Groaning a curse, he sprang at it, but his tug at the latch was unavailing. "Treed!" he snarled inexplicably. "Devil take me for a fool!"
Gripping her hands together, Cordelia whimpered, "I don't understand. Why would you have come if you had not sent for me?"
He rushed past her and threw back the window draperies, only to be thwarted by locked casements. Again he ground out an oath of frustration, then exclaimed, "Send for you? Why the deuce would I send for you, madam? A pretty web you've woven, thinking to catch me in parson's mousetrap, is that it?"
Aghast, she cried, "No! No, sir! I swear—" She shrank back as he advanced on her, eyes blazing with wrath, hands clenched. Sure that she was about to be strangled, she gasped, "You—you are mistaken, sir. I—"
A shrill screaming put a stop to her desperate denial. The outer door was opened. Mrs. Regina Stansbury, the picture of outraged and vengeful motherhood, stood there, weeping hysterically and surrounded by a shocked and growing crowd.
Very white, Valerian said harshly, "Madam, you must know I did not think to find your daughter here! If truth be told—"
"Truth?" she shrieked. "Do you deny that you had locked yourself in here with my poor innocent child?" She looked pleadingly at the titillated but disapproving spectators. "Only see how wickedly he tries to deny what is all too obvious—"
Somehow regaining her voice, Cordelia half-whispered, "Mama! Mr. Valerian did not—"
"Trick you into coming here ... alone?" wailed Mrs. Stansbury. "Oh, I am faint! My sweet little girl ... so shy and—and innocent. She would not know ... He has ruined her ...!"
"Nonsense!" snapped Valerian, but he read condemnation in the faces at the door.
The crowd separated suddenly. Lady Hall Bridger, large and opinionated and a power in Society, pushed her way through and took in the situation at a glance. "Is this how you serve me, Gervaise Valerian? A fine scandal for my granddaughter's come-out! Be so good as to explain."
He met her eyes and read the stern warning that told him there was no explanation. He had been neatly trapped. Fuming, aware that there was also no escape, he thought savagely that it would have been bad enough had it been that saucy little hussy Angela Alvelley, at least she had some liveliness, but this plain and dim-witted creature had been born for spinsterhood! She was croaking something.
"It is—is not what you think, Mama. Someone must have—"
Her hostess hissed softly, "Quiet, you little widgeon!" And in a louder tone, "Well, Valerian? You are surely aware that you have compromised the gel. You must set things to rights."
Helpless, he said in a voice that shook with rage, "I apologize, Mrs. Stansbury for my—impetuous haste in—in courting your daughter. And I—beg you will permit me the—the honour of—of offering for Miss Cordelia's hand in ... marriage."
From the corridor came a chorus of relieved exclamations.
Mrs. Stansbury dabbed a tiny square of cambric and lace at her tearless eyes, and moaned that she accepted Mr. Valerian's offer. "Though, it should have been made in a less scrambling fashion, you naughty boy."
Valerian barely restrained a shudder.
Lady Hall-Bridger fixed him with a stern stare, then smilingly urged her guests to return to the ballroom. They drifted away, chattering happily over the juicy on dit they would be able to relate to those unfortunates who had not witnessed the downfall of the popular but naughty young rake, who deserved just what he had come by.
Several people, excited, failed to keep their voices down. Their comments would haunt Cordelia's nightmares:
"Poor Gervaise! Who'd have dreamt he would be snabbled by such a plain and dull chit! ..."
"Gad, but London's hopeful beauties will yearn to murder her! ..."
"He was caught by her mother, my dear! That poor little mouse has neither the courage nor the wit to set such a trap. For trap it was, of that I am certain! ..."
"Cordelia Stansbury! The last one I'd thought Valerian would look at, much less compromise so blatantly."
"I feel for Gervaise. Only last week he told me he meant to remain a carefree bachelor till he reached thirty-five, at least."
"The more fool he, to be so indiscreet. Well, he's stuck with the chit now, poor fellow ..."
Sick with shame, Cordelia wept, and longed for an early grave
* * *
"Less than a month!" Mrs. Evaline Coffey tucked in her several double chins and poured her guest another cup of tea.
Comfortably seated on a rose velvet overstuffed chair in the private parlour of the Mayfair house the late Mr. Coffey had provided for his family, Miss Saphronia Aymer's finely drawn brows arched higher. She was a thin lady on the far side of middle age, and her powdered wig, which was somewhat out of the present style, framed an angular face not improved by a very sharp nose and chin. "As the sister of a well-known clergyman," she said in a fluttery high-pitched voice, "I should not really comment on the matter. But ... one cannot help but ask oneself what on earth could have possessed the lady—especially such a lady as Regina Stansbury—to allow her daughter to go off and visit friends and then leave the country with them so soon after the announcement of her betrothal. Has she given any explanation, Evaline?"
Mrs. Coffey refilled her own cup and stirred the tea briskly. "She tells everyone the gel was eager to visit her papa and obtain his approval of her betrothal. Stuff!"
Blinking at such vehemence, although she agreed with the sentiment, the clergyman's sister was struck by a sudden thought. She caught her breath, leaned forward and half-whispered, "But—but surely, this was Mr. Valerian's duty? Never say he accompanies the girl?"
"Gervaise? Certainly not! Lud, Saphy! That young scamp is in enough trouble with half the ton believing he was in his cups and really did try to seduce Cordelia!"
"And the other half suspecting Regina Stansbury set the scene and won herself a wealthy son-in-law. But if that were so, Evaline, what a fool she would be to send her daughter halfway around the world almost before their betrothal was safely established. If Valerian has really been entrapped and now Cordelia is gone away for many months, he is liable to cry off and claim—oh, desertion or some such thing. No?"
"Exactly so. I'll own Cordelia was devoted to her father and probably did want to see him, but I'd stake my life her mother would have fought such a plan tooth and nail. She knows Valerian, and would not risk losing her prize catch. Unless ..." Mrs. Coffey set down her teacup and stared at it thoughtfully.
Miss Aymer leaned forward again and hissed avidly, "If the gel really sails to Egypt she will be gone—at least nine ... months?"
Mrs. Coffey said with a slow smile, "You've a quick mind, Saphy. Naughty, but quick."
"Oh, my goodness! Do you really think ... But Cordelia cannot have sailed alone. Who escorts her?"
"A Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Walters and family. Close friends, so Regina claims. I never heard her mention the name before, but now she purrs that it was "so very dear" of the Walters to allow her "beloved child" to travel with their party. And do you know, Saphronia, those hard eyes of hers fairly hurl rage when she says it. No—there's more to it—far more than we are told!"
Miss Aymer drew back, her own eyes wide. "Me morals of today's youth appall one, Evaline! My dear brother—he is Chaplain to Sir Brian Chandler, you know—Nathaniel would be sick at heart were I to hint at this latest scandal." She saw her friend's disapproving frown and added hurriedly, "Not that I would, of course, for we really have no proof, have we? But—that poor child! Just think, she is on the high seas at this very moment. An East Indiaman, I suppose?"
"As you say," said Mrs. Coffey, then added with a titter, "Or as her dear mama says!"
* * *
Extract from Notice posted at the East India Company in Leadenhall Street:
It is with deep regret that the Company adds the following names to the previously published list of those who perished when The Sea Horse, 500 tons, outward-bound for Egypt, foundered off the Cape of Good Hope during a violent storm on the night of May 2nd, 1748:
Dr. James Johnson and family.
Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Jurgens and party.
Sir Kenneth and Lady Lindall and Miss Lindall.
Mr. and Mrs. Horace Needham.
Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Walters and party.
Three other vessels in the fleet sustained heavy damage, but so far as is known there was no further loss of life.
Copyright © 2001 Ralph McInerny. All rights reserved.
Posted December 9, 2008
In the mid eighteenth century, rather than spend a lifetime with Gervaise Valerian after her mother tricked the noble into marrying her, Cordelia Stansbury flees London. She plans to join her archeologist father on his Egyptian dig. Instead, she is ship wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope and lives with African ¿savages¿ for the next year. <P> When Cordelia finally comes home to England, she switches identity with Mary who wants to marry Gervaise. However, Gervaise refuses to honor his commitment so Cordelia¿s new friend, her former fiancee¿s cousin Piers, offers matrimony as a matter of family honor. However, he soon learns that nothing is quite like it seems. Of course the real Cordelia could say same thing about Piers and his twin brother. <P>No one turns a Georgian romance into an adventuress romp better than the incomparable Patricia Veryan does. Her latest eighteenth century romance, THE RIDDLE OF THE SHIPWRECKED SPINSTER, is much ado about something as the fabulous tale is filled with a comedy of errors due to changing identities. The story line is fast-paced, filled with historical tidbits to anchor the period, and loaded with entertaining charcaters. Ms. Veryan has the talent to write novels that always seem to flow as readers like it. <P>Harriet Klausner
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