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Sir Harry Hawthorne, a strapping young gentleman of some four-and-twenty years, was a man with a purpose. He had been bred to this purpose for most of his life, and now in preparation for the execution of his mission, he guided his roan gelding down the country lane linking his ancestral home with Darby House, its nearest neighbor. He had every expectation of success in his undertaking, for besides being blessed with an optimistic nature, he was a young man of considerable wealth and social standing in rural Leicestershire. Besides being the holder of a baronetcy, he possessed the added charms of a headful of stylishly cropped sandy hair, a pair of speaking hazel eyes, and a firm square jaw enhanced by a fine pair of sidewhiskers of which he was inordinately proud. His cutaway coat of Devonshire brown, biscuit-colored buckskin breeches, and white-topped riding boots all proclaimed him the epitome of the fashionable country gentleman.
Not that Sir Harry was a rustic, by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, he much preferred the gaieties of town life to the tranquility of the country, and fancied himself, one minor contretemps notwithstanding, one of Society's most dashing ornaments. Until his father's death some twelve months previously had recalled him to the bosom of his family, he could usually be found in London, blowing a cloud at White's, stripping with his cronies at Gentleman Jackson's, or ogling actresses from the pit at Covent Garden. Recalling these pleasant pastimes from which he had been too long absent, he urged his horse onward, impatient to complete his mission so that he might return to the metropolis and resume his chosen way of life.
It was notuntil he entered the gates of Darby House that he began to waver in his purpose; after all, this was not something he did every day. As horse and rider made their way up the raked gravel drive which led to the house. Sir Harry frowned thoughtfully into the distance at the barren trees which made up his own Home Wood. Perhaps he should have brought flowers; it was his observation that females set great store by such things. The roses in his gardens had not yet begun to bloom, but he was sure the hothouses at Hawthorne Grange would have yielded something worthy of the occasion. Yes, he should have brought flowers. But now the edifice that was Darby House loomed before him, and it was too late to remedy the omission.
He surrendered his roan to Colonel Darby's groom, who had been watching for his arrival, and then, mounting the steps two at a time, reached for the door knocker. Before his hand touched the polished brass knocker, the heavy double doors parted before him, and the butler, who had known Sir Harry since he was in short coats, informed him rather grandly that Miss Darby awaited him in the Blue Saloon. Everyone, it seemed, was aware of his mission. Dismissing the butler with a nod, he made his way to this sanctum with the ease of long familiarity with the house and its residents, pausing midway up the stairs to provide himself with a floral offering from a large urn on the landing.
Upon reaching the Blue Saloon, he paused uncertainly before the open door. Beyond it sat Miss Olivia Darby, a solitary figure dressed in a simple round gown of blue muslin, a matching ribbon threaded through her dusky curls. Her gloved hands were clenched tightly in her lap in silent testimony to her unique role in his mission. Sir Harry took off his curly-brimmed beaver and raked his fingers through his sandy hair, disarranging his fashionable crop.
"Hullo, Livvy," he said at last, taking two uncertain steps into the room. "I suppose you know why I am here."
Her tremulous smile informed him that his surmise was correct. "I daresay I can guess. Mama told me you had something particular to ask."
The look of relief on Sir Harry's face was unmistakable. He strode forward with something approaching his earlier confidence and grinned down at her. "Well then, Livvy, what is it to be? Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
A more observant gentleman than Sir Harry might have noted the spectrum of emotions which washed over Miss Darby's expressive countenance upon the receipt of this declaration. Anticipation gave way to confusion, and confusion ever so briefly to pain, before every trace of emotion was replaced with the delicate arching of her left eyebrow in a look of ironic amusement. But alas, observant poor Sir Harry was not, and he heard only her faintly mocking reply.
"But, Harry, this is so sudden!"
"Dash it, Livvy, how can you say it's sudden when you just told me you were expecting it?" he demanded impatiently. "Always knew I'd offer for you as soon as I finished at Oxford; known it since we were in leading strings!"
Miss Darby weighed this declaration, and found it wanting. "Does my memory fail me, Harry, or has it been nigh on three years since you finished at Oxford?"
Sir Harry crumpled the brim of his hat in his hands. This was not going at all as he had expected. "Well, Livvy, no sense in rushing into things. I mean, a fellow likes to see a bit of the world before tying himself down, y'know."
"I'm beginning to," Miss Darby said with a sigh. "And what of me, Harry? Should I not have the opportunity to 'see a bit of the world' before tying myself down, as well? Mama wishes to take me to London this spring, so that I might make my come-out before we--that is, before any sort of announcement is made."
"Whatever for?" asked Sir Harry with a puzzled frown.
"'Tis not so unusual," Olivia pointed out. "Liza had a Season the year before she married George, you know."
"Yes, but your sister had to go to Town to snare a husband. You've no need to go husband-hunting, Livvy, because you've got me," her faithful swain said generously, then hastened to add, "that is, if you'll have me."
"And by this offer, am I to understand that you have seen enough of the world, and are now ready to settle down to the domestic life?" Miss Darby pressed on.
Sir Harry thought wistfully of a certain actress outside whose dressing room he had been wont to camp until his father's untimely demise had recalled him to Leicestershire. Fortunately for the success of his mission, Sir Harry had the wisdom to refrain from making this fair charmer's existence known to his chosen bride. "Much as I enjoy Town life, I know where my duties lie," pronounced Sir Harry loftily. "With Papa gone, I am the head of the family, and now that I am out of mourning, I think it high time I wed. I am sure it would greatly relieve Mama's mind to have me settled."
"Then I suppose I must accept your generous offer," Miss Darby conceded in a voice curiously devoid of emotion. "Far be it from me to disoblige your Mama."
"Capital!" proclaimed Sir Harry, then added in a more serious tone, "It ain't just for Mama's sake, you know. No matter how much she wished it, I wouldn't offer for you if I wasn't certain we should deal famously together."
Miss Darby mustered a smile. "Indeed, I have always thought we would, Harry."
"Of course we will! After all, we've rubbed along tolerably enough for most of our lives. 'Twill be just as before, only different."
With this happy prediction, Sir Harry announced his intention of imparting the good news to his family, and, after bestowing a fraternal kiss on Miss Darby's cheek, took his leave.
His affianced bride remained in the Blue Saloon for several minutes, gazing down at the flowers in her lap--unless she was much mistaken, the same flowers which she had just that morning brought in from the hothouse and arranged in the large urn on the landing. How much had changed in those few hours! Of course, she had known all her life that she would one day marry the heir to the Hawthorne baronetcy, thus fulfilling their fathers' dreams of merging the two estates. Still, there was quite a difference in expecting something to take place in the vague and distant future and seeing it accomplished as fact. Now the betrothal was real. She was to wed Harry, whom she had loved as long as she could remember. And although she entertained no illusions that Harry nursed a grand passion for her, she was well satisfied with her lot. She was certain he would be a kind and considerate husband, when he thought of it, and if he did not love her, at least she had the satisfaction of knowing that she held some small place in his affections, somewhere above that occupied by his hounds, though not so high, perhaps, as his horse. Many ladies, she knew, would envy her.
Yes, she reflected sadly, pressing her gloved hand to her cheek, where Sir Harry's kiss still burned, she was a most fortunate young lady.
While Sir Harry offered his heart and hand to Miss Darby, his sister, a Titian-haired damsel of seventeen, entertained a visitor at Hawthorne Grange. The Reverend James Collier, vicar of Hawthorne parish, was a serious-minded young man of some eight-and-twenty years. He was also remarkably handsome, being possessed of a crop of golden curls, one of which was wont to fall carelessly over the good reverend's aristocratic brow, and a pair of fine blue eyes whose charms were not entirely obscured by wire-rimmed spectacles.
In the six months since this worthy gentleman had assumed the living at Hawthorne, Miss Georgina Hawthorne had experienced a spiritual awakening of no small degree. Once a frivolous damsel who cared for little besides fashions and flirtations, she now devoted herself to the service of the little parish church and its shepherd. Throughout the summer months she had made a practice of providing fresh flowers for the altar every Sabbath, and when winter's icy blasts at last put an end to this activity, she had unwittingly offended the Widow Latham by usurping that good woman's universally acknowledged, albeit unofficial, position as overseer of the altar cloths, bearing them away after each week's service so that they might be laundered and starched by the Grange's own servants and, when necessary, mending them with her own hands. Now, with the vicar taking tea in her parlor, she presented the snowy linens to him, ready to bask in the warmth of his praise. Nor was she disappointed.
"Your devotion, Miss Hawthorne, is an example to us all," said the good reverend, his fingers brushing hers ever so fleetingly as he received the cloths from her hands.
"It was nothing, really," she protested modestly, setting at naught the stain from the Eucharist wine which had taken the under housemaid the better part of an entire morning to eradicate. "'Twas, after all, only my duty as a Christian."
"Would that all my parishioners were as mindful of their duty," he replied with feeling. "Miss Hawthorne, I have often had occasion, over the last six months, to admire the dedication with which you go about your Father's business."
"But my father is dead," protested the literal-minded Miss Hawthorne.
The vicar's handsome face registered mild shock. "I was referring to your heavenly Father," he explained with some consternation.
"Oh," said Miss Hawthorne, embarrassed at her faux pas. "As to that, Reverend, one does what one can."
"Indeed. And yet, although one may do much good, surely if two were to combine their efforts, they might accomplish twice as much." While his fair hearer digested the mathematics of this statement in silence, the vicar was emboldened to possess himself of her hands. "My dear Miss Hawthorne, will you grant me permission to speak to your brother?"
"Harry?" said Miss Hawthorne with a puzzled frown. "You may speak to him any time you like. Why should I have any objection?"
"Miss Hawthorne, I am asking for your hand in marriage!" said the good reverend, understandably chagrined.
Miss Hawthorne's eyes opened wide. "Oh!" she gasped, taken aback at thus unexpectedly receiving the offer for which she had been angling for the past six months, the achievement of which goal, it must be said, fell short of Miss Hawthorne's rosy imaginings.
"Perhaps I spoke too soon--" hedged the Reverend Mr. Collier, misinterpreting her response.
"Oh, no!" she put in quickly. "I was hoping you would--that is, I should be pleased if you were to speak to Harry. He is out at present, but he should return ere long. And," she confided with a twinkle in her hazel eyes, "you should find him in a receptive mood. He has gone to offer for Olivia."
"Miss Darby?" The vicar nodded his approval. "A most sensible young woman. Perhaps she will be able to restrict that flightiness of character which--" Mr. Collier broke off in confusion. "I beg your pardon, Miss Hawthorne. I should not have spoken so freely of the head of your family."
Miss Hawthorne, however, was not offended. "I don't see why not, for everyone knows it is true," she said with alarming frankness. "But I think she truly cares for him, and so perhaps will be a good influence."
Having settled Sir Harry's future to their mutual satisfaction, the vicar and his chosen bride turned their attentions to their own plans, and remained thus agreeably occupied until Sir Harry returned. He whistled a jaunty tune as he entered the great hall, giving his sister to understand that his mission had been a success.
"Hullo, Georgie," he said, bending over to buss her heartily on the cheek. "It seems you are to have a sister."
"I'm sure I wish you and your bride very happy," put in the vicar.
Unlike the females of the parish, Sir Harry was unmoved by the vicar's charms, and consequently had been unaware of that gentleman's presence until the clergyman spoke. "Good day, Reverend," he said, moving quickly to pump the vicar's hand. "Dashed if you didn't slip up on me! I take it Georgie has already told you the news?"
"Indeed, she has, and I offer you both my heartiest felicitations. Furthermore, since wedding bells seem to be in the air, as it were, I wonder if I might have a word with you in private?"
This preamble, combined with his sister's rosy blush, gave Sir Harry a fair indication of what was in the wind. He had not observed that young lady's newfound religious zeal for the past six months without having a shrewd idea of what she was about, but he had not supposed the vicar to be so obtuse as to be taken in by this pious display.
"Of course, of course!" he said quickly, trying not to betray his surprise. "Right this way. Will you take a drop of brandy? No? Sherry, perhaps?"
Declining all offers of refreshment, the reverend allowed himself to be led into the room which was dubbed Sir Harry's study, although that young man was not by nature studious. Still, the room had served as a study for the previous baronet, and it was to this room that the two men repaired to settle the future of that worthy's daughter. When the door was securely shut behind them, the vicar turned to address his prospective brother-in-law.
"I have often had occasion to admire the many good works which Miss Hawthorne does in the interest of the parish," he said, "and, since the holy scriptures say it is not good for man to be alone, I find my affections have fixed upon her as a suitable help meet. As I have cause to believe Miss Hawthorne is not averse to my suit, I have come to request your permission to pay my addresses."
Knowing Georgina well, Sir Harry was quite certain that she was far from averse to the vicar. Still, the discovery that the Reverend Mr. Collier might entertain similar feelings for his flighty sister was nothing short of mind-boggling.
"Georgie?" he echoed incredulously. "A vicar's wife?"
"I know the living at Hawthorne is not large," confessed the vicar, prepared for objections on financial grounds. "Still, I have some money from my maternal grandmother, and I feel myself to be capable of supporting Miss Hawthorne in a manner which, I believe, you would not despise."
"I don't doubt it, but--dash it, Reverend! She's only seventeen!"
"She is young, it is true, but her devotion to the work of the parish indicates a spiritual maturity beyond her years."
Privately, Sir Harry suspected that his sister's supposed devotion indicated nothing more spiritual than a schoolgirl tendre for the vicar, but he kept this observation to himself.
"It ain't just that. She's never even been out of Leicestershire."
"Am I to understand, then, that your scruples have less to do with age than experience?"
"Yes, that's it! Lack of experience, there's the ticket," said Sir Harry, seizing upon the excuse conveniently provided a scant half-hour earlier by his chosen bride. Warming to this train of thought, he stroked his sidewhiskers, adding piously, "She needs to see a bit more of the world before becoming leg-shackled--er, entering the bonds of holy matrimony."
"I cannot fault your reasoning, nor your concern for your sister's future happiness," said his would-be relation, nodding his approval. "What, then, do you suggest?"
"Georgie shall go to London to make her come-out," pronounced Sir Harry, improvising rapidly. "If, by the end of the Season, her feelings are unchanged, the pair of you may marry with my blessing."
The Reverend Mr. Collier, overcome by the wisdom of this Solomonic decree, was moved to shake Sir Harry's hand. "And, if the frivolities of town life prove too tempting for her to resist, then we shall know she was never cut out for life in the ministry."
"I wish you good fortune, vicar," said Sir Harry, returning the handshake, "but if you were a betting man, I would lay you odds!"
It was not to be expected that Georgina would submit without protest to this test of her devotion; nor did she.
"But I cannot neglect my church work," she objected, upon being informed of the treat in store. "If I go to London, who will see to the altar cloths, or the flowers, or--"
"Cut line, Georgie," said Sir Harry, interrupting this recitation. "The parish church has survived for nigh on three hundred years without you; surely it can bear your absence for three months. And don't tell me you won't enjoy going to balls and the theater, and wearing clothes that are all the crack, for I know you too well."
Georgina gave him a look of pitying disdain. "At one time, perhaps, I might have been tempted by such frivolous pursuits. Fortunately, my dear James has opened my eyes to the futility of a life devoted entirely to pleasure. My feet are now set on a higher path."
"Save it for the reverend," advised her brother with a snort of skepticism. "You'll forget all about your high principles the minute some blade asks you to waltz."
"You may banish me to London, Harry, but you will never prevail upon me to whirl about a public room in the lascivious embrace of any gentleman, be he blade or no."
"No? Not even with your vicar?"
"Oh!" cried an outraged Georgina, her cheeks suffused with an angry flush which, had she but known it, clashed most unfortunately with her coloring. "For your information, James says--"
But Mr. Collier's opinions were destined to remain a mystery, for the quarreling siblings' mother chose that moment to voice her own objections to the proposed scheme.
"My dear Harry, you cannot have thought," she protested in a quavering voice. "I have scarcely put off my blacks! How can I undertake the launching of a lively schoolgirl into society? I am sure my poor nerves would never bear the strain."
Having long acquaintance with his mama's poor nerves, Sir Harry recognized the futility of opposing this argument. "What of Grandmama, then? Perhaps she might be persuaded to take Georgie in hand."
"Your grandmother? Bah!" scoffed his fond parent. "Why, she abandoned London for Bath fifty years ago, and she hasn't set foot outside her lodgings in twenty years--not even for your poor father's funeral, God rest his soul."
"But why should she?" protested Georgina. "You must admit, Mama, there was very little she could have done."
But this argument, however reasonable, found no favor with the widow. "In times of bereavement, one's proper place is with one's Family. There is nothing like the presence of one's nearest and dearest to give one comfort."
"Perhaps she didn't consider us near and dear," pointed out Georgina with youthful candor. "After all, Papa only visited Bath twice a year, and we rarely accompanied him. Indeed, I can scarcely remember Grandmama at all--although I do recall that she bore a most striking resemblance to you, Harry."
"A handsome old girl, in fact" was Sir Harry's irreverent observation.
Actually, the resemblance between Sir Harry and his paternal grandmother was often remarked upon by those who were acquainted with both the dowager and the current baronet. The likeness was generally felt to be a fortuitous one, since the dowager Lady Hawthorne was the daughter of a viscount and bore the physical stamp of her illustrious lineage. To be sure, she would be an impressive patroness for any young girl making her come-out--or she would have been, had she not long since elected to cloister herself in her Laura Place lodgings.
"Failing Grandmama, I've another idea," continued Sir Harry, undaunted. "Olivia is to be brought out this spring; perhaps Mrs. Darby would be willing to take Georgina on, too--with all expenses to be paid by me, of course."
"An excellent notion," nodded his mama in approval, warming to the scheme now that it seemed unlikely to cut up her peace in any way. "You must enlist Miss Darby's aid in bringing her about. Georgina, my dear, you would not object to visiting London in Miss Darby's company, would you, now that you are to be sisters?"
"Not at all, Mama. In fact, James has the greatest admiration for Olivia. He said that he admired her good sense, and that he hoped she would be a settling influence on you, Harry," she added, not without satisfaction.
"I say!" cried that young man, eyes open wide in alarm. "When I settle down, it will be by my own choice, and not through the machinations of some cursed interfering female!"
"That is not at all a proper way to speak of your affianced bride, Harry," scolded his mama.
Thus chastised, Sir Harry had the grace to look ashamed. "You are quite right. Mama, and I beg your pardon. I am a fortunate man to have Olivia for my bride. Besides," he added with a rush of affection for his betrothed, "Livvy ain't the type to begrudge a fellow his pleasures."
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