An Affair of Interest
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If love were a loaf of bread, the Lattimore sisters could afford the crust, or perhaps a handful of crumbs. Being one half-pay pension away from poverty, neither Miss Winifred Lattimore nor her younger sister Sydney could afford the luxury of love in a cottage, not when their own cottage needed a new roof. One of them, at least, had to find a wealthy husband.
"But why must it be me?" Winifred poked at the tangled skeins of needlework in her lap. The discussion had been going on for some time, to Miss Lattimore's obvious distress. The needlepoint armrest was not faring much better.
"Why, you are the oldest, Winnie. Of course you must marry first," her sister answered, rescuing the knotted yarns from further mayhem. Heaven knew they needed the new armcover. Sydney plunked herself down in a patch of sun by her grandfather's chair and straightened the blanket over the general's knees before starting to unravel the mess. "Am I not right, Grandfather?"
General Harlan Lattimore, retired, raised one blue-veined, trembling hand to where his youngest granddaughter's single long braid shone red-gold in the sun. He patted her head as if to say she was a good girl, and grunted.
Sydney took that for assent. "You see, Winnie, the general agrees. Gracious, you are twenty years old already. You are like to dwindle into an old maid here in Little Dedham, while I am only eighteen and have ages left before I need think of putting on my caps. Besides, you are prettier."
The general grunted again. He didn't have to agree quite so quickly, Sydney thought, for all it was the truth. Winnie had the fragile blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty so eternally admired, an elegant carriage, thefairest of complexions, and a smile that could have graced a medieval Madonna. Her hair even fell in perfect ringlets from a ribbon-tied twist atop her perfectly formed head.
Sydney scowled at the snarled yarns in her lap, considering her own impossible gingery mop that refused to take a curl no matter how many uncomfortable nights she spent in papers. Of course, it had to be matched with a tendency to freckles, she continued her honest appraisal, and nondescript hazel eyes, a complexion more sun-browned than any lady should permit, and a body more sturdy than willowy. No, Winnie stood a much better chance of landing them a nabob. If only she would try.
"You are much more the domestic type anyway, Winnie, teaching Sunday school, visiting the parish poor. You know you couldn't wait for Clara Bristowe to have her new baby so you could hold him."
"Yes, but a rich man with a big fancy house." Winnie fussed with the ribbons of her sash. "I don't know, Sydney. You are a much better manager than I. Think how you have been taking care of us since Mama passed on."
The general nodded. Sydney had done a good job, or at least the best she could, holding household on what His Majesty's government saw fit to award its retired officers. Mama's annuity had expired with her three years earlier, along with her widow's benefits from Papa's military unit. Since the general's seizure shortly after, Sydney had been juggling their meager finances to maintain both the cottage and Grandfather's comfort with just Mrs. Minch as housekeeper and his ex-batman Griffith as man-of-all-work.
"Exactly, Winnie," Sydney declared proudly. The pride may have more to do with unknotting a particularly tangled skein than her accomplishments as a frugal chatelaine. That last particular skill was one she was hoping to find unnecessary in the future. "And that's precisely why we should bend our efforts to finding you a husband. No man wants a managing-type female, Winnie, they want a sweet, gentle girl." She smiled up at her sister, showing her dimples and her love. "And no one is sweeter or more lovely than you, dearest. Any man would be fortunate to win you for his bride."
Winnie blushed, and the general grunted his concurrence. Then he stroked his other granddaughter's head again and said, "Aargh."
Sydney covered his gnarled hand with her own. "Yes, Grandfather, I know you are fond of me too, even if I am no biddable miss. We'll come about."
The old man smiled, and Sydney couldn't help feeling a trifle guilty that she liked him so much better now than she did when he had all his faculties. He'd made their lives hell, and Mama's, too, before she died, running the house like a military installation. The general had to have the best of everything--food, wine, horseflesh--and instant obedience to his every whim. He issued orders to family, neighbors, and servants alike until no one in the village would work for them and none of their friends would come to call.
One day he'd thrown an apoplectic fit over some sheep in his path, falling off his horse into the street. The local men waited a good long while, making sure he wouldn't lay into them with his riding crop, before they picked up the general and carried him home. He had not walked since, nor spoken. For the most part, the Lattimore home was a great deal more peaceful.
The general seemed resigned to his Bath chair, napping in the sun, having his granddaughters read the war news to him, listening to the clacking of the village hens when they came to call, bearing gossip and sharing their good cooking. He'd led a long life, called his own tunes. Now it was time to pass on the command before sounding retreat. But he was worried.
When the general fretted, life in the cottage resembled an army camp under siege. All the other nodcocks rushed around, bringing him things he wouldn't have wanted if he were in his prime. That pretty widgeon of a granddaughter even started blubbering when she couldn't understand the general's agitation. If there was anything General Lattimore couldn't abide, it was a spineless subaltern. Even his man Griffith took to acting out charades as if the general were deaf, blast him. Only Sydney seemed to understand. Too bad she wasn't a lad, the general thought. She'd have made a deuced fine aide-de-camp.
He'd no more leave his men in the field without ammunition than he'd let his family be thrown out in the cold. But, damn, his pension wouldn't last forever. Hell, not even General Harlan Lattimore thought he'd last forever. Of course Sydney knew what worried him; she was worried, too. That's why they were having this discussion, to convince Winnie that she had to make a marriage of convenience, for all of their sakes.
Winifred wiped her eyes with a mangled scrap of lace. "But, but, Sydney, what if I cannot like him?"
Sydney jumped up, tossing the yarns into an even worse pile. "Silly goose," she said, hugging her sister, "that's the best part. I'm fussy and crabby, but you like everybody!"
The next question, naturally, was where to find the paragon good enough for their Winnie. He first had to be rich, but Sydney vowed she would insist on a cultured gentleman. She was not tossing her gentle sister to any caper-merchant hoping to better his standing in the social world. He should be handsome, too, this husband Winnie would be facing over the breakfast dishes for the rest of her life. And kind, Winnie put in. Most of all, he had to be generous enough to accept a bride with a houseful of dependents and a dowry slightly better than that of a milkmaid.
The answer to the question of locating this most eligible of partis was, of course, London. He could be lurking anywhere, in truth, anywhere but Little Dedham, that is, since the local bachelors--sheep farmers, squires' sons, tutors, and linen-drapers--had been coming round the cottage for years. None had fulfilled Winifred's romantic dreams or Sydney's mercenary ones.
Winnie laughed, a gay, tinkling sound. "London, Sydney? Now who is dreaming? You know Aunt Harriet would never invite us."
"And I shan't ask her, the old cat!" Sydney did not look the least contrite, speaking thus of their maternal relation, not even at her sister's gasp. "Well, you know it's true, Winnie. Telling us the strain of Cousin Trixie's come-out was too much for her to undertake presenting another debutante! It's not as if she doesn't still have that platter-faced chit on her hands this Season, and dragging two girls from party to party cannot be any more exhausting than one. Before that it was firing off Cousin Sophy, or measles in the nursery party, or the general's ill health, though why she thought two of us were required to attend Grandfather at home is beyond me. You could have gone anytime these past years if she weren't afraid of your casting Trixie in the shade."
"She did invite us to Sophy's wedding," Winifred put forth, trying to be fair.
"Yes, and sat you with that tongue-tied young curate for both the dinner before and the breakfast after."
"He was very shy."
"He was poorer than his own church mice, and had less countenance! That was better than my treatment, at any rate. I got put in charge of cataloguing the wedding gifts, for Sophy's thank-yous."
"Aunt knows how very organized and capable you are, dearest," Winnie said, her soft tones trying to soothe her sister's indignation.
It did not work. Sydney had been seething for years over Lady Harriet Windham's slights to her family. "Aunt Harriet knows how to get the most from unpaid servants."
"But you couldn't join the company, Syd, you were not out yet."
"And never will be if left to Aunt Harriet." Sydney took to striding around the small parlor. Winifred hastily wheeled the general into a corner, out of the younger girl's way. "Face it, Winnie, getting blood from a stone would be easier than wringing the least drop of human kindness from Aunt Harriet, and getting her to part with a brass farthing on our behalf would be even harder, the old nip-cheese."
"Sydney!" Winifred's scold was drowned out by the general's chuckle. He'd never liked Lady Harriet Windham either, and he wasn't even related to the harpy. She was connected to the girls by marriage, and it was a marriage of which she had never approved. Lord Windham's younger sister Elizabeth's running off to follow the drum with a lieutenant in the Dragoons did not suit her notions of proper behavior.
Geoffrey Lattimore's leaving Elizabeth a widow with two small girls and no money suited her even less. Lord Windham's own demise saw the end of any but the most grudging assistance from that quarter, and good riddance, the general thought at the time. Lattimore was a fine old name, with a tradition of serving King and country for generations. There was no getting around the fact, though, that nary a Lattimore put any effort into settling on the land or gathering a fortune or making friends in high places. The Windhams had, blast the parsimonious old trout. The general banged his fist on the chair's armrest. That's why they needed so many new covers.
Sydney retrieved the needlework and set to untangling the mess again. She smiled sunnily at her family, the angry storm over as quickly as it had come. "I have a plan," she announced.
Winnie groaned, but her sister ignored her.
"I do. We're going to London on our own. We'll rent a house of our own and make connections of our own. We won't ask Aunt Harriet, so she cannot say us nay. Once we are there, she shall have to introduce us around, of course, and at least invite us to Trixie's ball. She'd look no-account to her friends in the ton if she ignored her own relatives, and you know how much appearances count to Aunt Harriet. Besides, perhaps she'll feel more kindly to us when she sees we don't mean to hang on her coatsleeves or ask for money."
Winnie's pretty brows were knitted in doubt. "But, Sydney, if we don't ask her for the money, however shall we go?"
Sydney kept her eyes on the embroidery and mumbled something.
The general made noises in his throat, and Winnie asked, "What was that, dear?"
"I said, I have been saving money from the household accounts for a year now." She hurried on. The general had always said to get over rough ground as quickly as possible. "Yes, from our dress allowance." Winnie fingered the skirt of her sprigged muslin gown washed so many times no one could recall what color the little flowers had been. She hadn't had a new dress since--
The general was sounding like a dog with a bone in its mouth, faced with a bigger dog. "And your wines, Grandfather. You know the doctor said spirits were no good for your health. Furthermore, all the port and cognac and fancy brandies you used to drink are being smuggled into the country without excise stamps. You yourself used to say how that was sending money straight to Napoleon to use against our troops."
Winnie's rosebud mouth hung open to think of her sister's daring. Still, a few dress lengths, some bottles of wine, fewer fires, and less candles could never see their way through a Season. She started to speak, but Sydney was already continuing.
"You know how Mama always said I had a good head for figures? Well, I started helping old Mr. Finkle keep track of his profits from the sheep shearing after his boy moved away, in exchange for mutton. Then some of the other sheepherders asked me to help them figure expenses and such, so they wouldn't be cheated when they got to market. They started setting aside a tiny portion from each sale, a lamb here, a ewe pelt there. Now I have a tidy sum in the bank, enough to rent us a modest house. I know, for I've been checking the London papers' advertisements.''
Winifred had no head for figures whatsoever. The general did; he shook his head angrily. It wasn't enough blunt by half.
"I know, but there's more. I didn't want to say anything until I was sure, but the Clarkes' daughter-in-law is increasing again, and there's no room down at the mill. They are building a house, but they have agreed to rent our cottage for a few months until it's ready. So we have all that, and Grandfather's pension ... and my dowry."
The general almost tore the arm off the chair with his good right hand and Winnie cried out, "Oh, no!"
Sydney stood, tossed her thick braid over her shoulder, and crossed her arms, looking like a small, defiant warrior-goddess from some heathen mythology. "Why not? That pittance won't do me any good in Little Dedham, for I won't marry a man who cannot add his columns."
"What about Mr. Milke? You know he has always admired you."
"The apothecary?" Sydney grimaced. "He's already supporting his invalidish mother. Besides, he smells of the shop. No, I don't mean to be a snob. He truly does, smell of the shop, that is. Asafoetida drops and camphor and oil of this and tincture of that. I cannot stand next to the man without thinking of Macbeth's witches."
Winifred smiled, as Sydney knew she would. "Very well," Winnie said, "then we'll use my dowry, too." The idea was instantly overthrown.
"No," Sydney insisted, "you shan't go to your handsome hero as any beggar maid. We Lattimores have our pride too. And you must not worry, nor you either, Grandfather. Winnie is sure to attract the finest, most well-to-pass gentleman in all of London! He'll be so smitten, he's bound to open his wine cellars to you and his pockets to me. I'll be so well-dowered, I'll have to watch out for fortune hunters."
And then, Sydney said, but only to herself, she could even marry a poor man if she loved him. Winnie would make a grand marriage, but Sydney vowed she'd become a paid housekeeper rather than wed without love.
Winnie was dancing around the room, wheeling the general's chair to an imaginary waltz. They would get to London after all, with parties and pretty gowns and handsome beaux. Sydney could do anything!
Sydney could do almost everything. She could outfit her housekeeper's twin sons, the Minch boys, as footmen and send them off to London to find lodgings. She could move the family, bag and baggage and grouchy general, to the perfect little house on Park Lane. They were on the fringes of Mayfair, but still thoroughly respectable. She could even face down Aunt Harriet, managing to convince that imposing dowager that the Lattimore sisters would be an asset: as eligible men flocked toward Winifred's beauty, they were bound to notice Trixie's..." What? The girl had no charms to recommend her. Lady Windham saw only what she wanted to see though, and was sure the town beaux would recognize her Beatrix's better breeding, especially when compared to Sydney's harum-scarum ways. The rackety gel even refused to wear corsets!
Sydney actually did the near impossible. She improved Trixie's personality, if only by example, showing the browbeaten chit that lightning wouldn't blast from the sky if Mama was contradicted. Trixie blossomed, if one could consider a horse laugh better than a genteel, coy simper.
What Sydney could not do, unfortunately, was make a pence into a pound, nor make one shilling do the work of five or ten. London was expensive. No matter how she figured, no matter how many lists she made or corners she cut, there was not enough money.
They had small expenses, like having calling cards printed, and subscribing to the fashion journals so they could study the latest styles. And medium expenses, like purchasing fine wines to offer the gentlemen who began to call, renting opera boxes, and hiring hackney carriages. In Little Dedham one could walk everywhere.
And there were big expenses Sydney had not counted on, like all the dresses considered de rigueur for a London miss. She had figured on a new wardrobe for Winnie but, never having been through a London Season, Sydney had not realized exactly how many different functions a popular young lady--and her sister, at Winnie's insistence--was expected to attend. It would not do to wear the same gown too often either.
Sydney certainly never anticipated her own need for fashionable ensembles, nor that she would ever be too busy to sew her own gowns, as she and Winnie had done their entire lives. She surely never budgeted for an abigail to take care of their burgeoning wardrobes. And there was Aunt Harriet, yammering on about Sydney employing a paid companion to act as chaperone for the girls, as if the general and their devoted Minch-brother footmen were not enough protection--or expense.
But it was worth every groat. Sydney was thrilled at the feel of silks and fine muslins and, best of all, Winifred had caught the eye of Baron Scoville. He was perfect for Winnie, pleasant-featured, always courteous, well-respected in the ton, of an age to settle--and rich as Croesus! If he seemed a trifle starchy to Sydney's taste, correct to a fault, she was quick to forgive this minor handicap in favor of the rancor in Lady Windham's breast. Aunt Harriet had been measuring the baron for Trixie, and now he was paying particular attention to Winifred. What more could Sydney ask?
Of course the regard of such a social prize brought its own complications. The baron took his position as seriously as Aunt Harriet took her purse. He would never go beyond the line, and his associates must also be beyond reproof. His bride would have to be pretty and prettily behaved, an ornament to Scoville's title. There could be no hint of straightened circumstances or hanging out for a fortune, no irregular behavior or questionable reputations, no running back to Little Dedham!
Sydney just had to get the money somewhere!
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