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Everyone in the county said it was too bad about Miss Georgina Montcalm. Not only was she irrevocably on the shelf, being no less than three and twenty, but her father's difficult and lingering illness seemed to have sapped all the life from her. When the old man died, Georgina had stayed on at High Barrow House alone, attended only by the few faithful retainers who had not been chased off by the irascible Sir Gerald. She had contrived to live on the pittance which was all the baronet's shrunken purse could support and determinedly kept the estate going for her brother Charles until that worthy young man had met his untimely end on the field of glory at Albuera.
Many a tea tray in Lower Chippenden periodically ran with commiserations for Miss Montcalm's predicament; how beastly that High Barrow House, the home of the Montcalms for generations, should now revert to a distant and unknown cousin from Africa or the Americas or some such outlandish place. It was to be hoped that he would act like a gentleman and offer his orphaned and impoverished cousin a roof, but everyone agreed that with colonials one never knew.
How galling it would be, the teacups rattled with a completely uncharitable glee, for the once beautiful and prideful Miss Montcalm to live on sufferance as a pensioner in what had been her home!
Perpetually lost in a haze of romanticism totally unsuited to a vicar's sister, Miss Armistead maintained that the situation was merely temporary. Young Trevor Longchamps, now Sir Trevor Longchamps, Bart, would return home and marry Miss Montcalm as everyone had long expected. Her opinion was not popular, but the majority of Lower Chippenden ladies werefond of the elderly spinster poetess and allowed her to ramble on about the power of true love. She had, after all, lost her own beloved Mr. Vernon during the Yorktown campaign in the savage American uprising and so knew the grief of premature separation intimately.
"What Miss Armistead cannot seem to see," Lady Carlisle said somewhat waspishly after that venerable lady had nodded off over her last cup of tea, "is if that young scamp Longchamps had intended to marry the Montcalm chit, he would have done it a long time ago. Pity she put herself on the shelf waiting for him."
The other ladies nodded in solemn agreement. In Lower Chippenden agreeing with her ladyship was quite the customary thing to do no matter whether one truly did or not, though on this occasion Lady Carlisle was absolutely correct. At one time the Montcalm girl had been quite the belle of the neighborhood, in spite of her unfashionable height and honey-hued hair.
It was generally agreed that there had been a special sparkle about Georgina Montcalm before this endless, dreadful war, when she and young Longchamps had been such a pair. All the young men had been dazzled by her, so much so that the mothers of the county had despaired of marrying off their own daughters until the Montcalm girl was safely settled.
How the mighty had fallen! Lady Carlisle had thought repeatedly with more than a hint of malice. Even she had been forced to admit that her own Jane, dutiful and pretty though she was, had not been a patch on the beauteous Miss Montcalm. Jane, however, was now safely wed to a knight with a comfortable fortune and had a nicely rising family, while the highly-vaunted Miss Montcalm had faded away to insignificance under the double burden of her family troubles and encroaching spinsterhood.
It served her right for lording it over the others, her ladyship thought with scant charity, comfortably forgetting how often she had urged Jane to emulate her.
Miss Montcalm knew what the county was saying and was of an honest enough disposition to realize that a great deal of it was true, but she was secure in having reason to keep faith when they did not. While it had never been officially announced due to the sudden call of war and their paternal parents' illnesses, Georgina felt herself truly betrothed to Trevor. She firmly believed that when he returned they would be married, just as they had planned up at Royal Rock so long ago.
In fact, if the accursed way in the Peninsula had not dragged on so long nor had they been in near-perpetual mourning for years they doubtless would have been married (or at least officially betrothed, which was just as solemn and official) long ago. Trevor's infrequent letters had expressed expectations for that happy eventuality and although there had not been one in over a year the patient Miss Montcalm had no reason to fear a change of heart on his part. Had they not been all in all to each other since their childhood days? Months ago his commanding officer had written explaining the severity of Trevor's wound (creating a flurry of emotions in both households) and Trevor's own last letter to his mother and sister had stated his express wish to see Georgina as soon as he at last returned home.
When Georgina heard that Trevor had returned from the Peninsula alive and recuperated and at last safe on English soil, it had been all she could do to keep from rushing to London immediately to join him. The only factor preventing such a precipitate action was that she knew how much Trevor would have disliked such a fuss. Besides, it would have broken faith, negating a vow they had made to each other long before.
When Trevor returned he would find her as they had agreed, just where he had left her to go to the wars ... up on High Barrow Hill, at sunset, sitting in the throne-shaped rock near the ancient oak. They had spent their last day together there, he looking so proud and straight and elegant in his new uniform and she in her prettiest dress of pale blue India muslin. When he returned--of course festooned with fortune and glory--he declared repeatedly that she would become his wife and the mistress of Stanbourne.
Such times now seemed almost like a fairy tale to Georgina; the Montcalms, though of far superior lineage, had never equalled the Longchamps in monetary blessings. The discrepancy had never been insurmountable, though, and both families had looked on the match with favor.
Sometimes Georgina would look back on her comfortable and protected childhood as if it had been an entirely different lifetime lived by different people. Now her world was restricted to the rack and ruin of an estate gone to seed under the dissolute hands of her gambling grandfather and the neglectful ones of her unworldly, scholarly father.
At least that was one thing of which she could be proud, Miss Montcalm often reflected in lieu of other, warmer, emotions; under her impressed, impoverished and inexperienced management High Barrow had almost reached a point of solvency--no small feat when for two generations the estate had proved to be of little interest to the owners beyond how much money could be squeezed from it.
Georgina's dedication and unfeminine strongmindedness had earned first the emnity and finally the respect of the tenants, though their lazy habits and disrespectful ways had made the task doubly difficult in the beginning. Many times in the privacy of her room Miss Montcalm had wept tears of pure frustration and exhaustion and it was only the thought of her beloved Trevor's eventually returning to rescue her that preserved her sanity.
After Trevor had ridden away at the end of that last, magical day, she had gone up to Royal Rock almost every afternoon as if trying to recapture a tiny bit of him in the last place they had been together. Soon after that, however, her father had begun his long and final illness, which had irrevocably directed her attentions elsewhere.
Still, in her heart of hearts Georgina knew that when Trevor returned from London he would expect to find her there. She wrote to Edwina, Trevor's younger sister and her own bosom bow despite the more than half-decade between them, begging her to send word of Trevor's movements. With a youthful romanticism she had long thought dead, Georgina went to sleep each night dreaming of the forthcoming reunion with her beloved Trevor.
But when Trevor Longchamps did come to meet her at last, it was not at sunset and not at Royal Rock.
Whether Trevor Longchamps was home from the war or not, there was still work to be done and Georgina was grateful for the distraction. As Edwina had written that Trevor planned to spend at least another fortnight in London gathering his strength after the long voyage, Miss Montcalm tried to soothe her raging emotions by re-organizing the stillroom, a task sorely neglected during her years of preoccupation with the farm.
Wearing a dowdy dress fully a dozen years out of style and one of Penny's oldest caps as armor against the dust and cobwebs of the upper reaches, Georgina was perched on the old wooden stepstool turning out the top shelf when Miss Penworthy, her old governess turned companion and aide, fluttered in. Her round and wrinkled face was red from exertion and emotion and her speech, at the best of times disconnected and difficult to follow, almost incomprehensible.
"Oh, my dear Miss Georgina ... It's ... He's ... I never ... And not even a card!"
Miss Montcalm was too accustomed by far to her darling Penny's fits and starts to allow herself to become unduly alarmed. Without bothering to turn around she calmly moved aside an empty crock, making a mental note that it would be useful for the summer jam-making. Then, with a start, she realized that she would probably be firmly ensconced at Stanbourne by that time.
"Dear Penny, what on earth is the matter with you?"
"I am afraid I am, Georgina," said a deep voice.
Although she was normally a most sensible young lady and not given to the fashionable habit of swooning, at that particular moment Georgina thought she just might faint. During the past years she had heard that beloved voice only in her dreams and it had been so many years she had almost begun to fear in her innermost heart that she would never hear it again.
Slowly, for her perch was high and the stepstool unsteady, she turned and looked down into his beloved face for the first time in five long years.
War had left its mark on Trevor Longchamps. He had departed an idealistic, high-spirited lad and had returned a sober, hard-faced man. The curly mat of light brown hair was unchanged and the sharply honed, aristocratic features were keener than ever from illness, but now there was a weariness, a wariness about them that the untried boy had lacked. Before Georgina's eyes the two images of memory and actuality overlapped and jelled and settled into the uneasy combination of well-beloved stranger.
Haltingly Miss Montcalm descended the rickety stepstool, more intent on absorbing the sudden reality of his presence than on her own safety, and he reached up with both hands to brace her. It was a commonplace gesture but such a familiar one that the proper Miss Montcalm could have wept for joy as her universe at last settled back into its proper orbit.
He was splendidly dressed in a dark blue coat cut with carefully careless elegance, creamy doeskin breeches which molded to his athletic shape, a plain waistcoat of dark yellow, shirt and Mailcoach-tied cravat of snow-white linen. His knee-high riding boots were so highly polished they could have been used for mirrors. Such elegance was to have been expected; Trevor had always had a distinct gift for making whatever he put on his lean frame look distinguished.
Had he come in sackcloth and ashes Georgina would not have cared. It was enough that he was there, alive and well, and in her joy she was willing to overlook any annoyance that he should have come unannounced, catching her so disgracefully attired.
"Trevor!" she breathed rapturously. "You have come home at last."
"What on earth are you doing up there?" He sounded censorious.
"Surely you have not been in the Army so long that you have forgotten the rigors of life at home," Georgina replied, laughter bubbling up so naturally in her that she was shocked not to get an answering laugh in return.
"It hardly seems proper for the lady of the house to be cleaning out the stillroom," he pronounced a trifle stiffly, his nose wrinkling at the dusty air. "Is that not a servant's task?"
Suddenly and painfully aware of how shabby she must look in the dress that had been old before he left, Miss Montcalm tried to hide her embarrassment behind a facade of aloof disdain. "And pray tell who would be better suited for the task ... dear Penny, with her shortness of breath and terror of the slightest height, or old Mrs. Warrender, with her rheumatics and short-sightedness?"
He had the good grace to look abashed. "Surely it is not that bad with you ... I apologize, Georgina. Edwina had written that things appeared to be at low tide with you since your father's death, but I had no idea..." Trevor's words were civil enough, but they masked a profound disbelief. On the ride over he had seen the tidy fields, the burgeoning land; such prosperity was certainly at a variance with the harum-scarum carelessness he remembered.
"No apologies are necessary," she replied graciously, anxious to close the subject. "Perhaps you'd enjoy sitting in the drawing room ... It's so much more comfortable."
It was also the only reception room still open, the others having been shut up for lack of use and staff to care for them, but she saw no reason to parade her poverty before him any more than had already been done. Georgina had never planned for him to learn this much; touchingly, she thought she had concealed the worst of her situation even from Edwina. Her small but respectable dowry was still inviolate in the hands of her father's solicitors; she would not go to Trevor a penniless bride, but she never intended to make public the depths of her penury.
The drawing room was one of the few things unchanged at High Barrow House. Shabby even during her childhood, it had the safe feel of familiarity about it, as if the years had vanished. She and Trevor were together, as it should be; in Georgina's mind her father was in his library across the hall, looking just as he had before age and illness destroyed him, researching as always some obscure reference in one of the dusty tomes that had been sold long ago. Georgina was eighteen and Trevor but twenty-three, both carefree and happy and untried by the crucible of life.
Thank Heavens there was still enough of her father's good French brandy left in the decanter for her to offer him a decent drink! She doubted he would favor the catlap Penny had been trying to pawn off as tea.
"Please be seated," she invited, passing him a crystal snifter of brandy.
"Thank you," he replied a little less stiffly as he sank into one of the worn brocade armchairs. "This room has not changed at all. I thought of it often in the Peninsula."
"Was it dreadfully bad there, Trevor?"
"Bad enough," he said shortly, and sipped again. "I remembered how good your father's cellar was," he went on, blissfully unaware that all the rare and cobwebby old bottles had gone to satisfy the ruinously high war taxes.
"Yes, Pappa loved his spirits."
"I was grieved to hear of his death."
"Thank you. Your father's passing was an equal loss."
"Thank you. It is strange being at Stanbourne without him."
There was little to say after that. Alien silence lay between them like a thick fog, chilling each of their hearts. Trevor moodily sipped his brandy, oddly uncomfortable in this room where he had spent so many happy hours with both Montcalm father and daughter, while Georgina, she of the proud and stylish temperament, burned with shamed fury at being forced to entertain while so blightingly clad. She could not bring herself to leave him to change, though; not after all these years. First of all it would have been fearfully rude and secondly she could not take her hungry gaze from his sad, strained face.
"It is good to have you home, Trevor. Dear Lady Longchamps and Edwina must be delighted."
"Unfortunately, this is just a brief visit. I must return to London almost immediately."
Something tightened and turned hard in the inner reaches of Miss Montcalm's being. "Not for long, I hope," she said in a voice tinged with injudicious yearning.
"I do not know. My trip here this time was for two reasons ... first, to escort Mother and Edwina back with me."
Fear, hateful and trembling, rose in Georgina's breast, telling her that she wished to hear no more. "You are going to open up Longchamps House, then?"
"No, it is so far sunk in shabbiness that it needs a complete restoration before it will be fit for occupancy. My father let it go most shockingly. Mother is going to stay with her sister, Lady Barnstaple, whom I believe is also your godmother. She is a widow and desirous of company. It will also be good for Mother, as I believe she has hardly left the estate since Father died. But ... I came primarily to see you."
Her heart should have been singing at those words, but the studied expression of reluctant duty on his face seemed to encase that abused organ in a cloak of stone.
"That is flattering."
"I just wanted ... In actuality, it has been so long since we have seen each other ... I am a tidy man, Georgina, and I could not rest until I had assured myself that all was well with you."
A forced half-smile had frozen on her face; Georgina could not have spoken had she tried. Well with her? How could he possibly think things were well with her?
"The farms look good, the land more prosperous than most around here, including my own neglected acres. It makes me happy that you have found a life that makes you happy, though I am surprised you have ignored the delights of a husband and family. It is unnatural for a woman to be alone, Georgina, but you were always intent on having your own way." He spoke almost stumblingly, as if the words were clumsy in leaving his mouth.
Georgina sat stunned and past the power of speech. With each sound it were as if the earth itself moved, destroying her world a little more, and if she spoke it might bring everything irrevocably crashing down around her.
"We shared so much affection at one time, Georgina, so this is not easy for me to say. In fact, I could not say it until I had satisfied my conscience that you had chosen your own life and were happy with it. And ... believe me, I am glad for you. I was half-afraid that you would choose to hold to those childish feelings we once had. I should have known that you of all people would never be so foolish." He seemed intent on the swirling amber lights of the brandy and studied them as if they were the only things of importance in the world.
The tightness in her torso increased and for the second time in her exceedingly sensible life Miss Montcalm actually feared fainting.
"Seeing you so happily settled in the life of your choice makes this easier to say, my dear Georgina, and believe me, it is not an easy thing to say." He was avoiding her eyes, but for the first time his voice began to come alive and resemble the voice which had echoed so long in her dreams.
"What?" she croaked, but he was speaking again and did not hear her.
"I met a young lady in London, Georgina, and she is the dream of my life. I hope to marry her this winter, but I could not enjoy my happiness until I had assured myself of your wellbeing. Wait until you meet her, Georgina ... you will love her just as much as I do."
Once upon a time, at sunset in their own special world up on High Barrow Hill, the young man he had been had assured Georgina that she was the dream of his life. Now he did not even remember. She wanted to scream, to smash the precious decanter containing the last of her father's brandy over his thick head, but fortunately breeding and common sense stood her in good stead. There was nothing she could do. This was what he wanted and he probably would have made the same speech had he found her begging in the road. Physical attack would only make her seem a madwoman and if she screamed and reminded him of her prior claim to his affections--
Trevor (at least the Trevor she remembered) was an honorable man. As informal an arrangement as had existed between them really had no official weight, yet he would abide by it if she pressed him. But--what would it gain her? A reluctant suitor, who might be at her side, but whose heart belonged to a young lady in London?
How cruel that word 'young!'
Rising, Georgina extended a limp white hand and hoped it did not tremble. "Allow me to express my felicitations. Now, if you will excuse me, there are matters that need my attention."
The dismissal was almost rude, as unmistakable as it was perfunctory; Sir Trevor rose, sketched a brief salute over the cold member and departed, leaving behind the empty stonelike shell of what was once Miss Georgina Montcalm.
As he rode away from High Barrow House Sir Trevor Longchamps, Bart., experienced a distinct conflict of emotions. It certainly appeared that what he had been told was true, which was not surprising as Lady Carlisle was known as the listening post of the county. Her tongue might be happily acid, but she did seem to know everything that was going on. For his childhood friend's sake, though, he wished that just this once she had been wrong.
Despite her ladyship's warning it had been an awful shock to see Georgina gone all haggard and queer. Although the land looked better than ever, the house had been a disaster, and as for Georgina herself ... When he remembered how fresh and lovely she had been before, it was almost impossible to believe that the astounding eccentric he had seen was the same person. Georgina could be no less than four or five years his junior, but today she appeared almost a crone. He knew that High Barrow House had never equalled Stanbourne in income, but who would have thought that Georgina of all people should go so pinchfisted and miserly?
It would be difficult explaining the situation to his mother who, being the kind-hearted creature that she was, genuinely believed that Georgina had been laboring under actual financial distress. Having tasted the quality of her brandy and seen the condition of her lands Sir Trevor could not believe that to be the case. With the war gone on as long as it had, anyone in true financial distress could have sold spirits such as filled Sir Gerald's cellar to any number of thirsty connoisseurs beleaguered by the shortage of successful smugglers.
No, it had wounded him to see his old friend gone so odd; in fact, it hurt more than he had anticipated, even with Lady Carlisle's lightly veiled caveats. All the way to High Barrow House he had been apprehensive that Georgina should make a scene when he made known his feelings for Diana--the good, virtuous, beautiful, fascinating Diana, whose very memory cheered him.
Georgina would have been within her rights to claim his affections, Sir Trevor thought grimly, fully cognizant of how near a thing his release would have been. Although nothing had been formally announced he had made rash promises before leaving for the war those long years ago, wild mouthings of a boy who thought he was in love ... But, he thought with a sigh, that was before he had met Diana. And, even more tellingly, it was obvious that he had put more stock into those old vows than Georgina had, for if she had had the slightest bit of affection left for him, she would have flown to his side the moment he had made landfall in London.
At least, he thought with a surprising flick of bitterness, she would have made some sign of protest at my announcement.
That realization made him feel better, as did his growing appreciation of his narrow escape. Even as a child Georgina had been unnaturally bookish for a female--doubtless due to the pernicious influence of a scholarly father on a motherless girl--and apparently it had affected her brain, for why else would she live shut up as a miserly recluse?
It was too sad to be thought about; charitably Sir Trevor resolved to have his man of business check on her periodically to ensure that she did herself no harm. It was the least he could do for a neighbor and a chum of his boyhood. Then happily he turned his mind to the pleasant prospect of rejoining Diana Wintersea, whose beauty, charm and complete attention were awaiting him in London.