In March 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile in Elba. In Brussels, 18 year-old Helen Whitley, is aware that war with France between Britain and her allies, is inevitable. A talented artist, Helen is aware of the anxiety and fear underlying the balls, breakfasts, parties, picnics and soirees – held by the British. In an attic, she paints scenes in which she captures the emotions of daily life during the hundred days before the Battle of Waterloo.
While Helen lives with her sister and wealthy brother-in-law, Major Tarrant, she waits for Major, Viscount Langley, to arrive in Brussels and ask her to be his wife. Langley, who serves in the same regiment as Tarrant, is her brother-in-law’s closest friend, therefore she assumes her sister and Tarrant will be delighted by the match.
She is grateful to her brother-in-law for including her in his household. Nevertheless, Helen regrets being dependent on his generosity, so she’s looking forward to being mistress of Langley’s heart and home.
Before Langley leaves England to join his regiment, he visits his ancestral home, to inform his parents that he intends to marry Helen. Yet, when he arrives in Brussels to join his regiment, he does not propose marriage to Helen, and her pride does not allow her to reveal the misery caused by Langley’s rejection.
12th March, 1815
Rue Royale, Brussels
Helen Whitley frowned at her reflection in the full-length mirror of her luxurious bedchamber in her brother-in-law’s rented house. Pringle, her middle-aged dresser, bent to tweak one of the frills above the hem of the new, cream gown into place, and Helen sighed with pleasure at the sight of soft silk that flowed from beneath her breasts.
Once more, she scrutinised the low-cut bodice, ornamented with tiny seed pearls. Although, in her own opinion, she was too tall for beauty, she was the epitome of a well-dressed young lady ready to attend a ball.
The expression in the green eyes, gazing at her from the mirror, softened. Soon her brother-in-law’s comrade in arms, Major, Viscount Langley, would arrive in Brussels and propose marriage to her. She would accept and insist they loved each other too dearly to delay their wedding. Afterward, she would be free from her brother-in-law’s charity, which, to be just, the gallant Major Tarrant never seemed to begrudge.
Another long sigh escaped Helen when she coaxed a pomaded curl into place on her forehead. Perhaps she was an ungrateful wretch to find it so difficult to be dependent on her older sister, Georgianne, and her husband. After all, through marriage to Tarrant, their cousin-in-law, Georgianne saved her and their younger sister Barbara from their mother, who imbibed excessive amounts of alcohol and wine.
Helen shuddered at the memory of Mother whipping Georgianne with a riding crop.
After the viscount and Tarrant rescued her, Langley made it obvious he had fallen in love with her.
Her head filled with thoughts of Langley, Helen allowed Pringle to enfold her in a rose-pink velvet cloak which would keep her warm on her way to the ball with Georgianne and Cousin Tarrant. Once, she looked forward to entering society. Now she was part of it, her enjoyment was diminished by Langley’s absence. The evening would be perfect if he were present. She longed for the day when they would be husband and wife.
12th March, 1815
Major, Lord Langley rode toward his ancestral home, Longwood Place, for the first time in five years or more. He frowned. Ruts and weeds marred the drive. Small saplings and brambles sprouted beneath the plane trees on either side of the once magnificent approach.
Troubled, he guided his horse through a pair of tall wrought iron gates. At first sight of the lawns sweeping up to the house, he caught his breath. They should have been scythed. They looked more like meadows than green swards which befitted a nobleman’s estate. Although his father, the earl, rarely visited the property due to an irrational dislike of it, he should maintain the house and grounds.
Langley dismounted in the forecourt. He looped his horse’s bridle around one of a pair of grimy urns devoid of plants. What could be amiss? He ascended the broad steps. Before he applied the knocker, a footman admitted him.
“Send for a groom. Tell him to walk my horse until he has cooled, and then water and feed him.”
Immaculate in a black coat and trousers, every white hair on his head in place, Chivers, the butler, stepped toward him. “Welcome home, my lord.” His faded blue eyes shone with obvious pleasure.
Langley smiled. He had sent advance notice of his arrival, so no doubt Chivers had been waiting for him.
His quick gaze around the oak-panelled hall confirmed his conviction something was wrong. The oak panels needed to be polished and the red damask curtains were faded.
No matter. Soon he would bring his bride, Helen, daughter of the late Major Whitley, who gave his life fighting against Napoleon’s soldiers in the Iberian Peninsula, to Longwood Place. Helen would help Mamma set all to rights. A vision of his intended bride, tall and shapely, with a wealth of chestnut-brown hair, filled his mind. Yes, she was young, eighteen to his twenty-eight years, but with an aura of calm which suited him after so many battles during which he saw friends killed or maimed. Now, curse it, Napoleon had escaped from Elba. Langley did not doubt he and his best friend, Helen’s brother-in-law, must fight again. If he had not been granted a brief furlough, he would be in Brussels with their hussar regiment, The Glory Boys, part of the army of occupation.
Chivers cleared his throat. “My lord, the earl awaits you in the library. The countess is in the morning room with your older sisters.”
“My lord, have you forgotten Mister Julian is at Oxford and Master Giles is at Eton.”
“Yes, how remiss of me.”
Chivers inclined his head. “May I take your hat?”
Langley handed the man his hat, to which his valet had attached an officer’s cockade. He indicated his dusty boots. “I cannot join the earl until I have mended my appearance. My man will arrive soon with my baggage.”
Chivers cleared his throat. “The earl left instructions for you to join him when you arrived.”
Langley pointed at the dusty chandelier. “Have the cobwebs removed.”
“Yes, my lord, I apologise. There are too few servants to do all the work.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” It would not be proper to question his father’s butler. “Chivers,” he added.
“You need not continually address me as my lord. Major will suffice.”
“Yes, my…I mean Major.”
Langley strode to the library.
Inside the large room, ornamented with marble busts and a handsome globe, he inclined his head toward his tall thin father, whose hair, once black, was now white.
The earl looked up from a table piled with papers. “So, you are home, my boy, soon to embark for Brussels. Supposed you were back in England for good, when you sold your last army commission.”
“Rupes and I could not desert Wellington, now that it is certain he must invade France to put a stop to Napoleon’s pretensions.”
“Rupes? Oh, you mean Major Tarrant, who married a nobody. Mind you, the Major is only a baronet’s son so he is of little consequence.”
What would his father say when he informed him he intended to marry Helen? “May I be seated, sir?” He did not wait for permission to sit on a wing-chair opposite the desk. “How is Mamma?”
“In a sad-to-do.”
“Problems, my boy, vile ones. If this damned palsy were cured, I would make good my losses in London where my luck would be sure to change.”
Langley caught his breath. “Cards?”
“Yes.” The earl looked down at his tremulous hands with disgust. “Lady Luck did not favour me. Now my hands are too unsteady for me to play. I am done up, my boy. Forced to dismiss half the indoor servants, gardeners and grooms. My confounded man of business says I must retrench even further.” Papa waved a document at him. “Longwood is mortgaged.”
“The house in Brighton?”
“Lost it on the turn of an accursed card.”
“The manor in Hertfordshire which you prefer to here?”
“Sold to pay my most pressing debts. Why else would I be in this damned mausoleum?”
No wonder his mother was in a ‘sad-to-do’. Langley pressed his lips into a thin line, a habit acquired in the army when he wanted to check his anger.
“Well, you know your duty, my boy.” Papa reached for the brandy bottle. “Pity you did not marry Amelia Carstairs. Rumour says she will inherit her grandmother’s fortune. You must marry another heiress.”
“Impossible!” he exclaimed, furious at the idea of marriage to meet his father’s gambling debts. “I shall marry Rupes’s sister-in-law.”
“What! An almost penniless girl?”
Papa’s cheeks became an alarming shade of scarlet. “I forbid it.”
“With all due respect, sir, you cannot. I don’t need your permission to wed. Moreover, I have sufficient funds to support myself and a wife.”
“Enough to provide for your mother and sisters when I am dead and buried?”
“Once it becomes known you are almost bankrupt, my marriage prospects will be negligible.”
“Are you a numbskull?”
No, he was not.
The earl thumped his fist on the desk. The goose quill fell from the inkpot onto a sheaf of papers, spattering ink over them. “Plenty of rich merchants would be pleased if one of their daughters married you in exchange for a title and a fine estate.” Papa’s blue-tinged lips tightened.
“Longwood is no longer a fine estate.”
“Bah, money would restore it. With regard to your marriage, there is a fellow, a manufacturer called Mister Tomlinson, who made a fortune. He would be glad to have you for a son-in-law.”
Langley stood. With difficulty he refrained from upbraiding his father for recklessness. He strode to the pair of tall windows, which overlooked the grounds at the rear of the house. More unkempt lawns stretched toward a stand of trees in front of a high brick wall. If only the grass still resembled a tranquil sea as it did during his grandfather’s lifetime.
He could not understand the earl’s aversion to Longwood Place. Once it was a centre of political power and now—
Papa’s voice broke into his thoughts. “We must lose no time, my boy.”
In spite of his inner wrath, he did not remind the earl he was no longer a boy.
“You shall meet Miss Tomlinson before you embark for Brussels. Two or three days later you may propose marriage to her. We shall find some pretext or other for you to wed her before your departure for the Low Countries.”
“Miss Tomlinson might reject my proposal.”
Langley turned slowly. Perhaps Papa exaggerated. Maybe his situation was better than he claimed. His man of business in charge of the family’s affairs might be able to offer another solution.
The notion of wedding anyone other than Helen disgusted him. Yet, one thing his papa said was true. He knew his duty.
“What have you to say, Langley?”
“That there is much to consider, sir.”
This morning he set out from London to inform his parents he would wed Helen. Now, he stood in a library that smelled stale. The windows should be opened to admit fresh air and sunlight. The sights and unpleasant odours all around him tarnished the happy news he had intended to share.
“Excuse me, sir; I must wash and change before I greet Mamma and my sisters.” Without waiting for permission, he left the room.
“My lord.” Chivers caught him off guard.
The old man must have been waiting outside the library, curious to know what he and Papa spoke of.
“Her ladyship ordered me to have the green bedroom prepared for you instead of your old room near the nursery. Your valet is unpacking your baggage. Shall I have hot water sent up for you to wash and shave?”
Some thirty minutes later, dressed in his uniform, he went to join the countess and two of his sisters, eighteen-year-old Charlotte and fifteen-year-old Margaret.
He opened the morning room door quietly. For a few moments, he stood at the threshold observing them. The three fair-haired ladies—her ladyship gowned in pale green silk and his sisters in sprigged muslin—made a charming picture.
Mamma looked up from her embroidery. “Langley, my dear son, how fine you look. Your uniform becomes you. But you are as dark-skinned as a gypsy.”
“The effect of sun and harsh weather, Mamma.”
Margaret stood quickly, spilling a basket of embroidery silks from her lap onto the floor. “You are here!”
“So you see.”
His lively sister flung herself into his arms, almost knocking the breath from his body. He frowned, surprised because he had imagined she might be shy. After all, he had spent many years on campaign with only two brief furloughs. During the last year, since his return to England, he had seen little of her.
“I am glad. Now you are here, Papa will stop raging and Mamma will stop crying. Of course, you will agree,” Margaret gabbled.
“To marrying the vulgar manufacturer’s daughter so we can have some new gowns and Charlotte can have a London season.”
Across the top of her head, Langley looked into Charlotte’s calm grey eyes. What did she think of the proposed match to a woman of inferior birth, who would be looked down on by the ton? “You look well, Charlotte.”
“Thank you. It is good to see you, although I fear your home-coming is a sorry one.”
“You will marry Miss Tomlinson, won’t you, Langley?” Mamma asked. “Although it was not quite to my liking, I obeyed my dear Papa when he ordered me to marry your father.”
Langley pitied his mother but could not repress a surge of resentment. Why should he wed to rescue his family from financial disaster?
Mamma pressed a small bottle of smelling salts to her nose before continuing. “Thank goodness your older sisters are married.” She sighed. “What is to become of my poor Charlotte, Margaret and your little sisters? I don’t know. I doubt they will have dowries to match those of their older sisters.” Her hands fluttered. “Those wicked men who robbed your father at cards are—”
“Mamma,” Charlotte interrupted, “they did not rob him. Papa nearly bankrupted himself at the gaming tables. It is unfair to expect Langley to marry only to restore Papa’s squandered fortune.”
The countess sank back against the chaise longue. “Langley, I am all heart. Charlotte is not.”
“To the contrary, Mamma,” Charlotte said, her voice cool, “I have too much heart to wish my brother to be sacrificed to vulgar Mister Tomlinson’s elephant of a daughter.”
“A reducing diet will much improve her,” the countess murmured, “and I don’t doubt I might grow fond of her in time.”
“Will you marry her?” Margaret asked. “Her father is nice. He has lots of money. I told him I wanted a parrot more than anything else. After his previous visit, he sent me a grey one in a gilded cage.”
Even if she was too young to understand the full implications of such a marriage, Margaret shared his parents’ selfishness.
Mamma wafted her fan to and fro. “A dreadful, squawking bird with a…a shocking vocabulary. Of course we cannot be rid of it for fear of offending Mister Tomlinson when he visits us today.”
Today! His parents wasted no time. With difficulty he managed not to scowl.
Chivers entered the morning room. “Some wine, my lord?”
Langley nodded, grateful for the timely interruption.
“Cook regrets your favourite, salmon, is not available to fortify you before the dinner hour. She enquires whether you would care to partake of lamb sandwiches.”
“Yes, I would. I have not eaten since I left London. Please thank her.”
Charlotte stood. “Chivers, there is no need to serve my brother in the dining room. You may bring a tray to the blue parlour.” She crossed the parquet floor and held Langley’s arm. “No need to disturb yourself, Mamma. Margaret, stay here in case our mother requires anything. Come, Langley.”
13th March, 1815
Langley stood aside to allow Charlotte to precede him into the parlour. A quick glance around the room revealed pale blue wallpaper with encroaching mould, and chipped white paintwork. Heavy-hearted, he gestured to a pair of chairs on either side of a sash window.
He sat opposite Charlotte. “Grandfather would not have tolerated such decay.”
“Would he not? I rarely saw him, and don’t remember much about him. I was only five years-old when he died.”
“A pity, he was a magnificent old man—not a gambler like our spendthrift father. He never neglected the house and estate. He valued the orchards, the wood from the forest, farmland and fish from the lake. The good Lord alone knows why Papa has never liked the property.”
Charlotte opened her mouth to speak. She refrained when Chivers ushered in a footman.
Solid silver cutlery, china painted with fanciful bucolic scenes, sandwiches and a bowl of pickled walnuts were put on the table between their chairs.
A second footman placed a tray loaded with a decanter of wine and some glasses on a high table which stood against the wall.
“Some wine, my lord?” Chivers asked.
While the butler served him, Langley noticed a darn on one of Charlotte’s puff sleeves. Disgraceful for her to wear a shabby gown!
“Some wine, Lady Charlotte?”
“No thank you, Chivers. That will be all.”
With stately tread, the butler led his underlings out of the room.
What, Langley wondered, should he say to this sister, eleven years his junior? To gain time, he tasted a lamb sandwich. “Delicious! It is far superior to most of our army food while on the march.” He sipped some wine. “By the way, I appreciated the many letters you sent me over the years. They were a breath of England. When I read them, I imagined my homeland while I bivouacked in flea-ridden quarters.”
“At first my governess insisted I should write to you. When I grew older, I enjoyed doing so and looked forward to your replies. Thank you for the presents you sent me.”
“Think nothing of it. I enjoyed choosing them. Now, please tell me what you know about our father’s affairs.”
Anger flashed in Charlotte’s eyes. “I hesitate to mention something you would hear elsewhere. Father lost so heavily at Whites’ that…that…he suggested staking my hand in marriage on the turn of a card.”
“What!” Langley nearly choked.
Charlotte’s cheeks blossomed scarlet. “Oh, nothing came of it. The Duke of Midland intervened. I don’t know precisely what ensued, other than Papa did not make the wager.”
Enraged, Langley walked back and forth across the parlour.
“Please don’t disturb yourself, Langley. Palsy keeps Papa from the card tables, so he is counting on your marriage to Miss Tomlinson to restore the family fortune.”
Langley sank back onto his chair. He gazed out of the window, and across the drive around the side of the house, which led to the stables and beyond them to fertile Hertfordshire farmland. He pressed his lips together. Last year, at the end of the war in the Iberian Peninsula, the heiress, Amelia Carstairs, tricked him into proposing marriage by leading him onto a balcony during a ball. First, she claimed she needed air, next, she pretended to faint so he had caught hold of her. Amelia’s grandmother, with a score of others, had followed them. In order to save the young lady’s reputation upon being discovered with her in his arms, he was obliged to propose marriage, although he wanted to marry Helen. Fortunately, the engagement ended by mutual consent. In love with Helen, he could not marry anyone else.
“Charlotte, please tell me what you know about Miss Tomlinson.”
“I am scarcely acquainted with her.”
“After meeting her you must have formed some impression.”
Charlotte’s large grey eyes stared into his. “Well, you heard Mamma say a reducing diet would greatly improve her. Even so, she is not ill-looking.”
“Margaret said the father is vulgar, so I suppose the woman’s manners are common.”
“You are too harsh. Although Mister Tomlinson is somewhat crude and ill-at-ease in a nobleman’s mansion, the lady is gently bred. She attended The Beeches, a young ladies’ school with an excellent reputation.”
Langley rebuked himself for his reference to Miss Tomlinson as a young woman instead of a young lady. “Her mother?”
“She died during Miss Tomlinson’s infancy. From something Mister Tomlinson said, I think her ancestry was superior to his.”
Langley restrained a sigh. He hoped the earl’s financial affairs were better than they seemed.
“Langley, there is no need to despair. I don’t dislike Miss Tomlinson. I think she is either shy or extremely reserved. She is well-educated and seems to share our older sister’s passion for gardening. Indeed, much to the head gardener’s astonishment, Miss Tomlinson offered excellent advice concerning the vegetable garden. Apart from this, I can only tell you she has pleasing manners.”
Memories of Helen filled his head. Why he had fallen in love with a young lady barely out of the schoolroom remained a mystery. He believed he would be faithful to her until he died. Her natural calm would steady him. He wanted to confide in her, be her husband and share her bed. Langley swallowed hard. It seemed he would not be in a position to ask his love to wed him when he reached Brussels. Of course, he could not have expected her to tie the knot while he was in danger of being maimed or killed during the inevitable invasion of France and confrontation with Napoleon. Yet the knowledge she would have been his wife if he survived would have sustained him.
“Langley, will you marry Miss Tomlinson?”
He shook his head, turning his attention to Charlotte. “My dear sister, whatever happens in the future, I have sufficient funds to bear the cost of a London Season for you.”
Charlotte’s lashes fluttered. “You are too generous, but what would Papa say?”
Langley wanted to reply he did not give a tinker’s curse for whatever the earl might say. He choked back the disrespectful words concerning their spendthrift parent.
* * * *
Attired in his black and scarlet dress uniform, Langley went to the drawing room to join his family and the Tomlinsons, before they dined.
He entered the room too quietly for them to notice his presence. Mamma sat next to an excessively plump young lady gowned in white, and ablaze with diamonds more suited to a matron than an unmarried girl. He could not see her face, for she gazed down at the carpet as though nothing could be of more interest. His mamma said something. The young woman, whom he presumed to be Miss Tomlinson, nodded, her thick brown hair glowing in the candlelight.
Opposite Mamma, deep in conversation with her, sat a man of ample proportions, garbed in a dark blue velvet coat and breeches, white stockings and a waistcoat embroidered in gold thread and garish colours.
Langley suppressed a desire to flee. “My lord, my lady.” He inclined his head toward his parents.
The guest, who must be Mister Tomlinson, stood. He guffawed with obvious delight. “No need to stand on ceremony, Lord Langley, for judging by your uniform that’s who you are.” The man winked at him. “After all, we will soon be on the best imaginable of terms.”
Langley quenched his first instinct to snub the presumptuous man. Good manners did not allow him to be rude to a guest in his father’s house.
With extravagant gestures, Mister Tomlinson indicated the faded straw-coloured brocade upholstery and shabby carpet. “I’ll soon set all to rights.”
Langley stepped back to avoid the manufacturer nudging him in the ribs. Across the room he caught sight of Charlotte, seated at right angles to Mamma, her eyes filled with amusement.
“A glass of wine, my lord?” Chivers asked Langley, his face impassive.
“Of course the lad will have one,” Mister Tomlinson said.
“Father,” a small, reproachful voice spoke. “You have not yet been introduced to the gentleman.”
“No need, no need, he knows who I am.”
Papa stood, elegant in a perfectly cut corbeau-coloured coat and breeches, a white waistcoat, white silk stockings, and a cravat cunningly arranged in the style named ‘The Oriental’. “Miss Tomlinson, may I present my eldest son, Viscount Langley. Langley, I have the honour to introduce you to Miss Tomlinson.”
Langley hoped his disapproval of the profusion of fussy trimmings at the lady’s ample bosom did not reveal itself on his face when she glanced at him for a second or two.
Miss Tomlinson looked down, giving no time for more than a glimpse of a pair of hazel eyes and slightly sun-kissed complexion, something most ladies went to great lengths to avoid. What was her Christian name? Her age? Nineteen, twenty or a little older? Regardless of Mister Tomlinson’s plans, did she want to marry him?
“My lords, ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served,” Chivers announced.
They stood. Mamma placed her gloved hand on Mister Tomlinson’s arm.
The earl committed a breach of etiquette by accompanying Charlotte. No doubt Papa was determined to make sure he missed no opportunity to become acquainted with Miss Tomlinson. He offered his arm to the young lady.
Still conscious that Papa should have escorted his guest to the dining room table, Langley sought to set the young lady at ease. “Miss Tomlinson, my sister, Lady Charlotte, tells me you are interested in horticulture.”
Despite the anxious expression in her large hazel eyes and colour flaming in her cheeks, she nodded.
What agitated her? “I apologize if I am mistaken.” He led her down the high-ceilinged corridor, past oil paintings of his ancestors. Among them was a picture of the Longwood hunt, its men dressed in hunting pink and mounted on fine horses surrounded by a pack of hounds.
The hand on his arm quivered.
“Is my sister mistaken?”
“Yes, I enjoy gardening, but I beg you not to mention it. My father does not think it is a proper occupation for a lady.”
“I see,” he said, although he did not. His mamma devoted much time to her rose garden. His eldest sister, the mother of several offspring, enjoyed cultivating her flowers and herbs with the help of a gardener. Indeed, while he served overseas she enclosed sprigs of dried lavender, rosemary, thyme and other fragrant dried herbs with her letters.
He led Miss Tomlinson into the large dining room, the table decorated with a centrepiece of early daffodils and laid with silver and fine china.
Langley guided her to her seat on his father’s right. He took his place between her and his mother, who sat at the foot of the table with Mister Tomlinson on her right. This necessitated Charlotte having to sit between their father and the manufacturer.
A footman served chicken soup. Papa picked up his spoon. Before he could taste it, Mister Tomlinson spoke. “My lord! Grace!”
“Grace?” the earl said. “There is no one present called ‘Grace’.”
“My lord!” Mister Tomlinson repeated. “I refer to thanking the Lord for our meal.”
“No need to thank me.” Papa’s mind was obviously elsewhere. “I have an excellent cook.”
A half-strangled sound escaped Charlotte, who buried her face in her linen napkin.
Mister Tomlinson’s face reddened. “Don’t mock me, my lord. Remember the commandment ‘thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.’”
“I think,” Langley began, careful not to allow his amusement over his papa’s obtuseness to reveal itself, “Mister Tomlinson wishes to thank not you, sir, but the Lord our God.”
“Why did he not say so instead of rambling on while my soup becomes cold? What does he take me for, a damned bishop or a mealy-mouthed parson?”
Charlotte removed the napkin from her face. “Heavenly Father, we thank you for the food we are about to eat. Amen.”
His face brick red, Mister Tomlinson picked up his soup spoon. “Well, Lord Langley, what do you think of my girl?” he asked presumably mollified by the brief Grace. “You needn’t worry in case she’ll waste away if she becomes sick; she’s enough substance to her not to miss a few pounds or more.”
Charlotte seemed to choke. Speechless, Mamma stared at Mister Tomlinson. Miss Tomlinson’s cheeks flushed rose-red. “Father,” she murmured.
Langley pitied the young lady’s embarrassment. “I am sure your daughter is all that is agreeable.”
Silence filled the dining room. Turbot in white sauce garnished with parsley, lobster, a fish stew, and sundry other dishes replaced the soup tureen.
Conversation resumed. The meal progressed until the ladies withdrew, leaving the gentlemen to enjoy their port. Papa, still annoyed by the request to say Grace, drank no more than a single glass before he retired.
“Pass the port, Langley. There’s a good lad,” the manufacturer said. “Can’t deny I’m pleased with the chance to have a private word with you. Provided you treat my girl right; you’ll never find me ungenerous. Bless you, I can solve your pa’s financial problems and set you up for life. There’s no need to delay the wedding. My girl knows it’s my ambition for her to be a titled lady and mistress of a great estate.” He eyed the tarnished gold tassels which trimmed the royal blue curtains. “At least, with my money, Longwood Place shall be great again.”
Torn between affront and amusement, Langley opened his mouth to respond. Before he could do so, the fond father spoke. “No need to thank me, lad. It’s a privilege to shackle my girl to a hero. Oh yes, I know how often you were mentioned in dispatches. Mind you, I don’t think much of your pa, but I’ve nothing but respect for you.”
“Why? You have only just met me.”
Mister Tomlinson’s brown eyes widened. “Upon my word, you don’t think I’d marry my girl off without investigating her husband-to-be? I know more about you than you can imagine. I have decided you should marry my daughter before your furlough ends.” His forehead puckered. “Don’t be surprised if she seems reluctant to enter the parson’s noose so fast, my girl is a little shy.”
Instead of giving in to his immediate reaction at the idea of wedding a virgin who would submit to her fate on the altar of matrimony, Langley gulped some port before he spoke. “Mister Tomlinson, there is much for me to mull over before I consider marriage. I might be seriously wounded, lose a limb or die. To wed Miss Tomlinson now would be dishonourable. She might be widowed in a few months.”
The manufacturer thumped his fist on the table so hard that his glass wobbled and the nuts in a bowl rattled. “She might not. No, no, I’ve decided you’re the husband for her, so there’s no need to delay.” He guzzled some port. “By the grace of Almighty God, you’ll survive. If you don’t, my daughter might have your child to console her. You may be sure I’d take good care of it.”
Unbearable to think of any son or daughter of his being raised by this blunt man, unversed in the ways of polite society. “We have pursued this matter far enough.”
“Well, well, my lord, I see you think I am a rough person.” He grinned. “Don’t forget I’m a shrewd one. It’s only a question of time before your pa’s bankrupted. Where will you and your family be when his creditors are banging on the door? What will you do?”
“My plans are uncertain. The entail could be broken.”
Mister Tomlinson laughed. “You’re prepared to lose your inheritance?”
Langley considered the pleasures of riding on his ancestral land, fishing and hunting. No, damn it, he would not give it up. With careful management of the income from tenant farmers and elsewhere, the house and huge estate could be gradually restored to its former glory.
“Given you something to consider lad, haven’t I?”
“Indeed, you have.” He drank the remainder of his port. “It is time to join the ladies.” Langley put the crystal glass on the table with exaggerated care. “Come to the drawing room where the countess will preside over the tea tray.”
During the short walk along a corridor, Langley considered the unbelievable truth. His father expected him to marry the ill-bred manufacturer’s daughter instead of Helen.
By birth, he and Helen were unequal, but she was a lady, born and bred. Moreover, he looked forward to their marriage strengthening his relationship with her brother-in-law, his closest friend. He looked back to the days when he and Rupes first went to Eton and then to Oxford, before they joined the same regiment. Comrades-in-arms, they fought for over ten years with few furloughs. Best man at Rupes’s wedding to Georgianne—whom he considered an honorary sister—he knew Rupes and Georgianne were aware of his love for Helen. What would they think of him if he did not propose? Before he could decide whether or not he should explain his situation to them, a footman opened the drawing room door. Langley gestured to Mister Tomlinson to precede him.
They sat on chairs opposite the ladies. Chivers brought the tea tray, which he placed on a low table in front of Mamma. Relieved, because she neither suggested they entertain themselves with music nor that they play cards, Langley relaxed a little.
“You may go, Chivers.” Mamma picked up the teapot. “Charlotte, dearest, please pass the cups?”
Langley stared at the heavy silver tea service. How much was it worth?
He must save the property. Surely there were enough treasures in Longwood Place to pay Father’s creditors. If there were not, the London house and the hunting lodge could be sold. Of course, this could not be accomplished without Father’s approval. His jaw tightened. He sighed. So few days before he must embark for Brussels, but first he would speak with the bailiff and the steward, then consult Father’s man of business in London.
“What do you think, Langley?” Mamma asked.
He turned his attention to her. “I beg your pardon.”
“I referred to Mister Tomlinson’s suggestion.” Mamma drew her Paisley shawl a little closer around her shoulders.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, suspicious of any suggestion the manufacturer might have made.
Charlotte laughed. “Langley, confess you were wool gathering. Mister Tomlinson said he prefers ‘piping hot food’ to cold food and suggested the dining room should be nearer the kitchen.”
Langley considered the conveyance of meals up the servants’ stairs, through the door on the first floor and along the corridor to the dining room. Nothing remained hot. He turned his attention to Mister Tomlinson. “A sensible solution if my parents agree to the change.”
“Some more tea, Mister Tomlinson?” Mamma asked.
“I don’t mind if you pour me another cup, Missus.”
“My lady!” Langley exclaimed, rigid with outrage. “Mister Tomlinson you will address my mother by her title.”
The manufacturer cheeks turned red as a rooster’s wattle. “Will I? It seems I—”
“Don’t lose your temper, Father,” Miss Tomlinson intervened in a low voice. Her hand shook. A little tea spilled into the saucer.
Her parent subsided like a punctured pig’s bladder which poor children used in place of a ball. “Yes, well, lad, I don’t think worse of you for taking your ma’s—”
“Father!” Miss Tomlinson looked down, seeming surprised by her temerity.
“For taking her ladyship’s part,” the manufacturer said hastily.
Mamma stood. “Some more tea, anyone? No? Then I suggest it is time to retire. Come, Charlotte.”
Langley hurried to open the door for his mother and sister.
In the hall, the countess glanced at Mister Tomlinson. “Although your dinner was too cold, I hope you will find nothing lacking in your bedchamber. Charlotte, your arm, if you please, I need your support. I am overset. Perhaps I need my sal volatile.”
“For goodness sake, Mamma, you don’t need your smelling salts.” Charlotte frowned. “Mister Tomlinson is quite right. We would enjoy hot food.”
At the bottom of the broad flight of oak stairs, a footman handed each of them a candlestick to light their way to the second floor.
On the landing, Langley kissed his mother’s cheek. “Goodnight, Mamma.”
She dabbed her eyes with a dainty handkerchief. “Langley, I am much moved. You have rarely kissed me since you were a small child.”
He looked fondly at her. “After I went to Eton, I have seldom been at home to do so.” He smiled at Charlotte. “Goodnight. I hope you will sleep well”
“Thank you.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight,”
Langley eyed the manufacturer. He tolerated it when addressed as ‘lad’. He would not put up with the least incivility to his mother, however unintentional it might be. “Mister Tomlinson, Miss Tomlinson.”
He strode down the corridor to his bedchamber, glad to be momentarily free of his cares.
“My lord,” said his man, who came forward to help remove his tight-fitting coat. “I’ve unpacked. Are you going to ride before breakfast tomorrow?”
“Very good, my lord.”
He handed the man his waistcoat. “You weary me.”
“I am sorry, my lord,” the slender, wiry young man said, not sounding the least apologetic.
“I don’t care to stand on ceremony. ‘Major’ instead of ‘my lord’ will suffice.”
Dawkins’s dark eyes gleamed. Perhaps he was thinking of the adventures they experienced when he served in the Iberian Peninsula. “Thank you, Major.”
Langley unfastened the last button of his shirt, removed the garment and gave it to Dawkins.
The enlisted soldier, who acted as his valet, passed him his nightshirt. Langley resisted the temptation to ask him what the other servants said about the Tomlinsons. It would not be proper to discuss his parents’ guests with an underling, even trustworthy Dawkins.
Langley settled himself in the four poster bed. “Much better than most of the billets in Spain. You, Dawkins?”
“Quite comfortable, thank you, Major. Will that be all?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Fatigued by the long, eventful day, Langley closed his eyes. Sleep deserted him. He could not still his mind. He found the prospect of marrying anyone other than Helen repugnant. Langley punched his pillow. Due to his father’s circumstances he found no alternative to marrying a lady with a substantial dowry. He stared into darkness as oppressive as his thoughts. Tomorrow, he must discuss the possibility of auctioning silver plates, fine china, oil paintings and other treasures with Papa. On the following day, he would go to London to talk to Papa’s man of business. His plan of action brought some relief.
14th March, 1815
When Langley woke, his rumpled quilt, which had almost slipped to the floor, bore testament to his restless night.
A ride would set him to rights. He pulled the bed curtains apart sufficiently to get out of bed. His feet bare, he crossed the parquet floor to the window and yanked open the curtains. Last night, dusk’s red sky forecast good weather. The frost-spangled grass, beyond the gravelled path beneath the window, lured him. He would enjoy a ride in the crisp morning air beneath a sun shining from a clear blue sky. No need for Dawkins, he could dress himself.
Despite his efforts to leave the house without being observed, when he unbolted the front door, the sound woke the footman on duty, who sat in a wing chair upholstered in leather.
“My lord.” The man rubbed his sleepy eyes. Before he had time to stand, Langley hastened down the front steps.
He strode across weed-strewn gravel. What time was it in Brussels? He wondered if Helen slept, her luxuriant hair plaited. He must stop dwelling on her. Striding down the path which divided two knot gardens, surrounded by over-grown box hedges, he passed through a gate in the high brick wall and entered the kitchen garden, beyond which were the stables. To his surprise, he saw Miss Tomlinson bent over a bed of rhubarb. He cleared his throat to make her aware of his presence.
Miss Tomlinson straightened. Hand at her throat, eyes wide in obvious surprise, she stared at him.
Conscious he had not shaved, Langley bowed. “Good morning. A beautiful day, is it not? Did it tempt you to take the air?”
The lady curtsied. For several moments, she seemed reluctant to speak. It seemed Charlotte was right. Miss Tomlinson was shy.
“Yes, it is a nice day. Up north I am accustomed to being up at dawn. At this time of day, it is as peaceful in our garden as it is here.” She indicated the bed of rhubarb. “I am admiring the new growth. You must have an abundant supply. Does the countess make use of its curative properties?”
Langley noticed her shyness evaporated while she spoke of the subject which interested her.
“My herbal informs me the leaves are poisonous, but the roots and stalks are efficacious when used for digestive problems,” Miss Tomlinson continued. “I dose my father with it when he suffers from gripes after indulging in too much rich food.”
His lips twitched. Langley could not imagine Mamma concerning herself with the medicinal properties of rhubarb. He could imagine her horror if Miss Tomlinson mentioned digestive problems and gripes.
Aware of Miss Tomlinson’s eyes, more green than brown in the clear light, and regarding him anxiously, he spoke. “Your father is fortunate to have so able a daughter,”
He must go. If her father discovered them without anyone else present, he would expect him to make an immediate proposal of marriage. Langley wondered if Dawkins mentioned he would ride early in the morning. If so, through servants’ chitter-chatter Mister Tomlinson might have found out and instructed his daughter to waylay him.
Why, Langley asked himself, was he the unfortunate victim of the manufacturer’s determination to see his daughter settled in life? Well, he would not be snared. He swished his riding crop against his boot. “Miss Tomlinson, I presume I shall see you later at the breakfast table.” He marched away at a brisk pace down the mossy brick path between the vegetable beds.
Good manners dictated he should not ignore a lady. He turned around. “Yes.”
His irritation must have shown, for Miss Tomlinson blushed. She retreated into shyness by shaking her head, before hurrying toward the house. Poor girl, the situation must be no less uncomfortable for her than for him. He pressed his lips together. No one could force a grown man to marry. More than likely, after he went to Brussels, he would never again meet the manufacturer’s daughter.
* * * *
Langley returned to his bedchamber, invigorated by his early morning ride in countryside not ravaged by Napoleon’s troops. When the victorious English army entered France, its citizens, accustomed to soldiers grabbing whatever they wanted, were impressed when those in Wellington’s army paid for food, drink and other commodities.
With Dawkin’s assistance, Langley shaved in preparation to meet the demands of the day, but first he needed to eat.
He made his way to the breakfast room where Charlotte sat alone at a circular table, a cup of steaming coffee on her right.
“Good morning, Charlotte.”
“Good morning, Langley. I hope you slept well, although I doubt it because you have so much to consider.”
Langley went to the side table laden with silver dishes. He piled a plate with steak, kidneys, ham, eggs and two slices of freshly-baked bread.
“You are hungry.”
“I rose early to ride across our land.” His mouth watered as he looked at his plate.
“It is fortunate I ordered breakfast to be served at nine o’clock instead of ten.”
“To escape from Papa and his guests?”
“It will not affect their comfort. Breakfast is served until eleven. Shall I pour some coffee for you?”
He cut a bite-sized morsel of steak.
“So,” his sister put a full cup of coffee on his right, “what are you going to do?”
Between mouthfuls of food he shared his plan to rescue Longwood. “I hope Papa will agree,” he concluded.
“Have you decided not to marry that crude man’s daughter?”
At the sound of a startled exclamation, they looked across the breakfast room. Neither of them had heard the door open nor noticed Miss Tomlinson enter the room.
Langley crossed the space between them, the heels of his boots clicking on the wooden floor. “You must be sharp-set. Please join us at the table.”
A little colour rose in Miss Tomlinson’s cheeks. “You reprimanded my father for calling the countess Missus.” She trembled. “I am sure you will agree Lady Charlotte should not speak of him in a derogatory manner.”
“I agree,” his sister said before he could reply. “I am in the wrong. Please forgive me. Our parents are vexatious, are they not? However, your father was kind to give Margaret the parrot.”
With a pang of remorse, Langley realised it took courage for one of Miss Tomlinson’s disposition to correct them.
“Come,” he said, gently, “please don’t allow my sister’s unfortunate choice of words to prevent you from eating your breakfast.”
The young lady stepped toward the table. A ray of sunshine spread across the room, enhancing the rich colour of her hair, drawn into a knot high on the back of her head and allowed to form ringlets on either side of her face. Were it not for her excess weight, she would be attractive. In addition to a flawless skin, she possessed a fine pair of eyes and an exceptionally musical voice.