I shared this back in January, but wanted to put it at the top for those who might not have seen it. Dancing the Maypole is coming…slowly, but surely! Yes I’ve been saying that for two plus years, but it is nearing the end. I’ve started chapter 38 and I think there are about four more chapters to go. Yes I always say that, four more chapters…four…four…forever four… No, I know how the ribbons finish weaving around the Maypole. It’s coming! It has to or I’ll go mad. Here are the first four chapters.
July 5 1818 (Outside London)
Morning sunlight dazzled off four gold Baroque mirrors onto the round French table blackened with age, the blue and gold Sèvres service glinting with pride. After an hour the four people eating their breakfast were in no hurry to finish. The grey haired Englishwoman poured her son a third cup of coffee as her husband muttered in French behind his English paper. Glancing at her youngest daughter she sighed with maternal disappointment. At thirty-six, Isabel Désirée de Bourbon had little hope of finding love. Her large dowry and pretty features had drawn a number of earnest admirers, but she’d dismissed them all as too short. The girl wanted to marry a man who’d make her feel petite. As a tall woman in love with a short man, Madame de Bourbon could only imagine her daughter had a secret fear of childbed.
Monsieur de Bourbon lowered the paper, his thin elegant moustache twitching in amusement. “Les Anglais are so bizarre! Little-man?” His adult son who had only grown to four foot eleven reluctantly looked up from his food, “Tell me that you would not advertise for a bride in le journal and embarrass les famille.”
“Non!” Louis de Bourbon’s disappeared back behind his own newspaper.
Monsieur looked up at his wife with adoring eyes. “Your son, il est Français. He iz like me. When he finds a big woman who makes him feel like a big man, he will make love to her. This Lord Adderbury iz without the heart. He does not think of hiz famille!”
Isabel de Bourbon felt the blood drained from her face as she momentarily forgot to breathe. Had her father read the name correctly? Was the widowed Viscount Adderbury publicly seeking a wife? The thought made her claw her chest for the small vinaigrette containing her smelling salts. “Isabel!” She jumped in shock, her brown eyes swerving to look at her father. “That belle femme who paints you once a year, iz she not Lady Adderbury?”
“Oui.” The word was a panicked squeak. “She’s his mother.”
Her father’s eyes went wide with horror. “Elle est Français!”
“This man is half French? Zut alors! I am embarrassed. Écoute! ‘After eight years of widowhood the Viscount Adderbury is in desperate need of a wife. Outside a few grey hairs and laugh lines he’s remarkably well preserved for forty-four years. He’s fathered five handsome sons and would happily produce a few more, though he’d really love to have a daughter. He’s of a robust constitution and has the strength of a much younger man, as could be attested by his sons. He’s worth eight thousand a year, has no debt and disapproves of gambling. He reviles drunkenness and has never lifted a hand to his family though he does have a look that can chill the spines of errant offspring. Adderbury needs a wife between thirty and forty whose good-natured, witty and healthy. Being in your twenties would not rule you out, but he might end up feeling jealous of his sons and re-enact a Shakespearean tragedy. Applicants must be tolerable to gaze upon, but a kind companion with plain features would be preferred to a beautiful jade. Ladies with sour expressions and heavy frown lines need not apply. He requires a patient wife who won’t finish his sentences or laugh when he stammers as that infuriates him. She must be honest and chaste; Adderbury has no desire to catch the pox and end up in Bedlam. A dowry is meritorious, but not necessary. If you have never seen Lord Adderbury he is tall, dark and thought handsome by some female relations. Apply in person from July 6 at Adderbury House, Adderbury or write a letter requesting an appointment. Be prepared to answer a few personal questions.’” Monsieur de Bourbon folded his paper and threw it on the table, “Il est fou!”
Isabel dropped her smelling salts and hid her trembling hands under the table. “He’s not crazy Papa. I met him once. He was very kind.”
Monsieur’s head jerked to stare at Madame de Bourbon’s shocked face before turning to gawp at his blushing unwed daughter. He couldn’t remember ever hearing her praise a marriageable man. Monsieur pursed his lips in thought. Lord Adderbury might be a lunatic, but his daughter clearly wasn’t immune to the lunatic’s charms. This was a godsend; one last chance to pry the girl from the nest and find her some happiness. “Bon! You will please me by ordering the carriage, traveling to Chez Adderbury and applying for zis position directement.”
Isabel paled at the thought of her most secret dream coming true after seventeen years. “Moi?”
“Oui! You need the husband he needs the wife. C’est Parfait.”
The thought of rejection caused Isabel’s heart to shudder, “I hardly see how it’s perfect. We’re perfect strangers. I only spoke with him the once.”
“Bah! You never know the man until you share his bed. It only matters that he makes your heart battre rapidement, is that not so Cherie?”
Madame smiled as her husband kissed her hand, “Oui. You still make my heart battre rapidement.”
“Je t’aime ma belle coeur! Ta mère, she makes me feel like a big man. This Adderbury…you like him non? You will make him feel like a big man aussi.”
“He is a big man. He’s at least six inches taller than me.”
“That iz not his fault, he iz still half French.”
“I can’t show up at the man’s door. I’d look like a desperate spinster. What would he think of me?”
“He will think you want to be a wife. Little-man will go to protect you. The man has five sons. He wants a woman of an age who can only have two or three babes. You are well dowered. You are not ugly. Once the man knows you are de Bourbon he will look no further.”
“But Papa, his first wife was a short blonde. What if he only likes short women? What if he hates brown curly hair?”
“Bof! Il tu veut!” The Frenchman had spoken. The crazy Lord Adderbury would take one look at the five foot eleven inches of Isabel de Bourbon and fall in love without a whimper.
“I can’t go. I have nothing to wear. I look like a giant nun.”
“The first time I saw ta Mère there were so many layers masking her charms I went mad to unrobe her.” His wife calmly continued refilling his cup, her cheeks suddenly bright red. “A nun makes a man feel big. You will marry this man and find the romance. You will not need to spend the hours scribbling books romantique when you can make love to a man who has the blood Français.”
“I’m too old…”
“I’d rather write a letter and ask for a…”
“Non! You will apply in personne. The men are not charmed by une lettre if they do not know the face of the writer. You leave in an hour with Little-man.”
6 July 1818 (outside Bath)
The bright morning sunlight had an enchanted quality that made Lord Adderbury’s eyes water as he paused in his solitary morning walk to admire the stunning view of distant Bath. He took a deep breath and savoured the smell of summer and being alone. He would have preferred to be home in Oxfordshire, but prospective wives didn’t appear on one’s doorstep. One had to be social and attend balls and house parties where unmarried ladies waited to ensnare unwary gentlemen. Peter Augustus Smirke the seventh Viscount of Adderbury was desperate to be snared. After three years of searching he’d finally found a pretty little woman who made him feel something. For once, the nightmare of spending two agonising weeks with strangers was sweetened with hope. Miss Helene Carteret, a petite blonde with large blue eyes, was so sweet Peter was sure she’d taste of honey. Thoughts of kissing the pretty little mouth made his body flood with life. At twenty-three she was only a year older than his eldest son, but what did it matter? Love would untangle any difficulty and his sons would adore the gentle soft spoken creature whose gaze made him feel light headed.
He rambled over the rounded hillsides thinking of the future until hunger pulled him back to the large house curtained behind a massive ancient clipped hedge. By the time he’d washed, changed his clothes and spent twenty minutes combing his black curls most of the household had finished breakfast. Peter was determined not to happen across Miss Carteret without looking his best. Staring at his reflection he felt a chill down his spine as he heard his father’s voice say, “Go home Peter!” The mirror blurred as loneliness pressed on his heart. He would give his life for another hour with his beloved Katie. The twisted mirror of memory reflected a beautiful slender boy stammering his heart to a blushing pretty little blonde maid with large adoring blue eyes. The slender boy had grown into a tall brawny man; the maid into a pretty woman. Katie’s devotion and unswerving belief in his judgment had tempered him into a better man, but all he had left were memories and five sons. He stared at the handsome gentleman in the mirror and cringed at the need for a living woman in his life. He wanted long years of celibacy to be over and the pretty Miss Carteret’s admiring eyes promised sweet physical release.
Once again in control of his emotions, Peter was ready to face other people. He arrived for breakfast as it was being cleared. He rescued half a pot of cold chocolate and a stack of dry toast and was cheerfully enjoying his food as he contemplated future kisses when another male guest suddenly stopped in the doorway and ogled him. Peter mentally rehearsed the words he needed to speak several times before allowing them off his tongue, “G-good morning.”
The male guest picked up the quizzing glass hanging from a ribbon around his neck and stared at Peter as if he was a freak show exhibit. “Dem, Ah wouldn’t have guessed you were forty-four.”
Taken aback by the strange statement, Peter unconsciously fell into French losing his stammer, “Pardon?”
“No wonder Miss Carteret fainted. No doubt she’ll find eight thousand reasons to wed a jealous aging Lord.”
Peter’s expression turned to disbelief, “Quoi?” Only his children and steward knew his yearly income. It was unlikely even his mother knew he’d increased the income of his lands by three thousand pounds since his father’s death.
“Desperate eh? Dem you’re brave…or mad.” The man dropped his eye glass with a sneering smile and walked on without explaining his comments. Peter pinched himself. Yes it hurt. He was awake and his stomach felt full of stones. Unable to finish his breakfast Peter stood up and unconsciously tugged on his waist coat feeling vulnerable. He had an awful feeling he was going to be pummelled black and blue.
Most of the party were gathered in the garden. The elder half was seated having tea while the younger members were throwing horseshoes. As Peter bowed towards his smirking hostess, the morning birdsong was drowned by giggles and guffaws. Dressed in white muslin glacéed with yards of blue ribbon Miss Carteret looked like she was wearing a marzipan covered wedding cake. The pretty young woman hesitantly peeked at him, her kissable lips twisted in doubt as her gaze whirled away to look anywhere, but at the desperately embarrassing Lord Adderbury. Peter couldn’t move as Miss Carteret’s female companions in turn glanced at him before snickering. Unlike the previous day, there was no invitation to join them. Bruised, he stood there feeling stupid and unwanted until his hostess overcame her own amusement and called him over. “Adderbury, come sit with the ancients!” Peter bowed again and accepted the command. Praying his face didn’t show his unhappiness, he took the appointed chair and forced a polite smile. “Are not the young one’s a pleasing sight? Don’t they make you miss your sons?”
“No. Why?” Peter braced for further bruising.
“Miss Carteret is looking sweet this morning. That dress…it makes me think she’s been dreaming of wedding cake for far too long. Did you know she was engaged to be married last year?”
“A young soldier…one of those rich silly creatures with more gold than sense. He forgot his pistol was loaded…a terrible loss. He was scratching an itch and accidentally pulled the trigger. Some unkind souls suggest he was desperate to escape the engagement, but it was a rather extreme exit. I understand your four eldest sons are out in society.”
“You should have brought them; they would have enjoyed meeting Miss Carteret and the other young ones.”
A very private man, Peter had no intention of spilling his emotional entrails onto the tea table. “It’s healthy…they need to g-get on without me.”
“No, I don’t suppose you’d want your sons accompanying your desperate search for a wife. Competing for a young lady’s attention with one’s own sons would be unnatural. And young ladies never notice beautiful old men when there’s beautiful youth around, unless of course the old man is rich, handsome and free of the pox.” All the other guests sitting around the garden tables burst into unexplained laughter.
Any pretence of congeniality dissolved as Peter’s features started forming the look that could chill errant offspring. “I b-beg your pardon? What is so amusing?”
A guest about his own age who’d already drunk his first two bottles of port sat up and slapped his leg, “What I want to know is how many sons you’d be happy to produce on Miss Carteret? Dem, that’s a frightening look…your poor sons…poor Miss Carteret…”
Peter clenched his teeth as he eyed the cheerful drunk with contempt. “If you were sober I’d slap your face and d-demand satisfaction!”
The man belched into his sleeve. “Never sober…fine day what?”
A widow past her prime with an exceedingly low décolletage leaned towards Peter and tapped him on the arm before drawing his eyes to her breasts by touching them with her fan. “My Lord, if you’re desperate for a wife might I propose you’d find more ‘happiness’ with a mature and experienced woman? I’d ‘happily’ apply for the position.”
The drunk snorted in amusement, “Dem right! Why bed a frigid child when you could be pleasured by Delilah? Dem, I know what I’d choose…” The drunk winked at the abundant display of flesh.
Ladies’ fans were snapped open as the company screened their cynical laughter. The hostess peered over her fan, “Delilah has a point. Count your blessings Adderbury and cease breeding while you can. Five sons are more than enough to ensure your line and no one in their right mind wants a daughter. Take my word, I had seven girls. Thankfully three died as babes. As soon as the first sweet dear turned thirteen I thought I’d been transposed to the ninth level of Hell. I used to wake up from nightmares that I’d never find a man mad enough to marry her. Granddaughters are different. They’re quite sweet, but then one doesn’t have to live with them. My surviving son has always been a perfect angel. Boys are much easier than girls.” The company sagely nodded in agreement, even the drunk who’d never knowingly fathered a child.
Peter’s horror increased as it sank in that several of his most private desires had somehow become public knowledge. “I b-beg your p-pardon?”
The drunk leaned toward Peter and patted him on the arm, “Me, I agree with you…’ Several hiccups interrupted his train of thought. “…yes I agree completely. I wouldn’t wed a sour faced jade either. I’d bed her, but I wouldn’t wed her… Dem, I feel about to be birched…now if you were a pretty woman…” The company guffawed with laughter as Peter sat there with a grim expression.
As a beautiful wealthy Lord, Peter had almost forgotten the taste of humiliation tinged with fury. The only part of him that could deal with the crushing emotion was the fifteen year old boy buried deep inside and the boy’s response was to put up his fists and fight knowing he’d lose. Jumping to his feet he glared at the company from his full height of 6ft 5in, “What the d-d-d-devil is g-g-going on?” The words cleared the giant hedge around the property and floated into the ether. He had the entire company’s attention including the horrified Miss Carteret.
The hostess lowered her fan to display her displeasure. “Honestly! What did you expect my Lord? A man who advertises his desperate need for a wife is bound to be laughed at. We’re merely giving you a taste of what you’ll hear the next time you enter polite society.” The younger men bent over in laughter as the young ladies covered their mouths with their hands.
“Advertise? I d-d-don’t need to advertise for a wife.” The company glanced at Miss Carteret and then back to the enraged giant.
The hostess raised both eyebrows, “Well! There’s no need to frighten us with that awful look. If you didn’t advertise for a wife you have a most fiendish enemy. You’ll be lucky to find a young literate virgin who’ll have you now, but there’s always Delilah.”
“Yes, I’ll have you…happily!” The widow’s eyes wandered from enraged black eyes half way down his anatomy. “I’ve always wanted a…big man.”
Feeling disgusted, Peter ignored the practically naked breasts pointed in his direction, “Where’s the p-paper?”
The hostess snapped her fan shut, “Where did that broadsheet go? Lady Wessex, would you be so kind as to hand me the newspaper? Thank you Darling, it’s a pity your husband’s still alive or you could apply for the position.”
“Darling, Lord Adderbury is far too big. One’s head would be tipped back so often it would become fixed at a slant. Eight thousand a year is hardly worth the migraine. Giant men should marry giant women otherwise the wedding portrait is unbalanced. However, if he had his legs blown off by cannon shot or amputated for gout I’d happily apply for the position.”
“I know exactly what you mean. You’re very handsome my Lord, but you are rather big, but there’s always Delilah.” Peter’s expression became more fearsome as sharp words punctured his vulnerable heart. Was he too big? His beloved little Katie had never seemed to mind looking up at him. He grabbed the paper off the table and tried to focus. “It’s on the last page at the top.”
Flipping to the last page his eyes widened in horror. By the end of the fifth sentence he was shaking with rage. “I’m going to kill him!” The roar made the company squirm in fear as Peter’s lips became two white lines of compressed fury.
His hostess sensing a prime opportunity to acquire a choice piece of gossip leaned forward. “Kill who my Lord?”
“My helpful eldest son.”
“Oh…surely you aren’t going to deprive the ton of good breeding material? That would be such a waste. I understand he’s quite handsome…” With the broadsheet scrunched in one hand Peter swivelled on a heel and shouted for his curricle. The company watched him march away without taking leave and then turned to look at each other. “Well Miss Carteret, I think you’ve escaped an unholy union. If the man’s son hates him enough to make him a public laughing stock, what must his poor wife have suffered? I think you’ve had a timely escape my dear. I should have known better than to invite a Smirke, he was bound to be a fiend. Don’t cry Miss Carteret, eight thousand pounds a year isn’t worth being crushed to death performing one’s marital duties.”
July 6 1818
Adderbury House, Oxfordshire (Late afternoon)
Isabel tightened the bow on her bonnet and fiddled the strings of her reticule. In her plain brown muslin dress and a matching brown spencer she looked like a pretty woman with plans to relocate to a convent. The nervous storm in her heart threatened to blow her over in a dead faint. She took a deep calming breath as her brother knocked on the door. Lord Adderbury would never guess he’d been haunting her thoughts and dreams for seventeen years. The wheels in her brain spun faster flashing endless horrifying possibilities of failure. What would she say? She couldn’t tell him that she wanted to marry him because they’d danced once when she was nineteen, or that she’d fallen in love before the end of the song, before learning he was a married man.
No matter how many different ways she’d imagined telling the beautiful Peter Augustus Smirke that she loved him, it always sounded like a novelette written by a madwoman. Did he know she’d hired his mother to paint her once a year for the last sixteen years just to be near someone who was a part of him and to hear stories of his family? The last sitting had ended with an effusive invitation to his mother’s house party where she planned to help her stammering son become more at ease with ladies of the ton. Isabel could still taste her tears after declining out of fear of being found too tall. What was she doing knocking on his door like a foolish desperate woman? Her father sent her; that’s what she’d say. She was forced to come. She didn’t want to come. She didn’t want to apply. She wanted him to fall in love with her at first sight and marry her sans delay. “Isabel!” She jumped at her brother’s voice near her ribs. “The door is open, entrer!” The footman looked her in the eye and raised his eyebrows. She pursed her lips to explain that her father had made her come, but her tongue failed her. “Isabel…you will not faint.”
“Non…” Isabel ignored the white sparkling lights dancing past her eyes. She was not going to faint. She’d look a complete ninny collapsing on the man’s front steps. He’d think her ill or worse, enceinte with some footman’s child. The thought made her feel genuinely ill. Breathing deeply in through her nose and out through her mouth she tried to convince herself that nothing bad would happen. If he didn’t want her he’d politely inform her that he’d consider her application and send her on her way. As long as she didn’t faint nothing bad would happen.
Louis rolled his eyes and took out his card case. “My sister, Mademoiselle de Bourbon wishes to apply for the position of Lord Adderbury’s wife. My carte…” Propelled into the entry hall, her senses intensified in the splayed light shining through Peter’s windows as if the fact he owned the glass enchanted the sunbeams. There was a haunting quality in the scent of the house, as if happiness had been used to scrub the floors. She bit her lip and stifled a moan. It smelled of him. How was she to speak to him without saying something inane? She was going to make a complete fool of herself and then he’d never want to see her again.
Her eyes devoured paintings of dead Smirkes in silly clothes, feminine ornaments bought and placed by forgotten hands. Smiling, she listened to the wooden floor creak underfoot. Her brother’s hand on her arm pulled her away from the sunbeams to follow the footman through more enchanted rooms. She caressed a table as she passed…when had he last touched it? She was pulled to a stop outside a closed door as the footman knocked. He stepped into the room as he opened the door and waved them inside. Her heart played a drum roll against her chest as the frightening prospect of social interaction with Peter Smirke became real. Once again her brother’s hand forced her to face her fears, but her wobbly knees locked solid as she stepped inside and five beautiful young men stood to greet her.
Was Peter detained? Was he upstairs? Was he nervous at the thought of meeting a strange woman who wanted to marry a stranger? She forgot why she was there as five welcoming smiles lit up the room and made her feel beautiful. Her insides melted at the thought of being a part of their lives.
One of the young men, his straight blonde hair dishevelled like a haystack, stepped forward with his hand outstretched, “Mademoiselle de Bourbon?” He looked her straight in the eyes and smiled before kissing her hand. “Enchanté! Cecil Smirke at your service… Monsieur!” Her brother’s hand was solemnly shaken and then the other four brothers were waved over. “This is George, he’s twenty-one.” The second son was over six foot with hair as black as his excited eyes. “This is Charles, he’s twenty. As you can see, he has the notorious distinction of looking just like our wicked Uncle John.”
She had to look down; he was at least an inch shorter. “You do look like him, except your eyes are kind.” Had she just insulted the man’s uncle? She was mentally slapping herself when the young man’s eyes lit up with pleasure.
“Merci Mademoiselle! Je suis enchanté!”
“Stop kissing the lady’s hand. Don’t wear a hole in her glove before I’m introduced…”
Cecil rolled his eyes. “This is Cosmo; he’s nineteen and hasn’t yet learned that a man waits his turn in silence.”
The lad looked her straight in the eyes. “Enchanté Mademoiselle…” There was innocence in the young man’s enthusiastic kiss. She had to restrain herself from ruffling the golden brown hair.
“And this is Robert; he’s seventeen though he thinks he’s twenty-seven.” Isabel’s heart throbbed as the tall slender boy kissed her hand, his charming worldly smile making her blush. In a few years he’d look just like his father except he’d never need to advertise for a wife. He probably had so many lovers he had to fight them off to return home in time for dinner. “Please sit down, would you like some tea?”
Isabel could see herself spilling tea on her skirts, “No, thank you.” As she sat down she looked around. The small aqua and gold reception room had a welcoming aura that encouraged laughter. Comfortable chairs covered in faded gold lounged around walls puzzled with family images. Small formal oils of former servants were lovingly intermingled with sketches of laughing children and beautiful smiling youth. Her heart ached as she glanced at the painting over the mantle. It was a double portrait of a twenty-one year old Lord Adderbury and his blushing bride, the housekeeper’s daughter. The happiness emanating from the picture made her ache. Would Peter be half as happy if he married her? She had to look away, but every flat surface was cluttered with maternal souvenirs interspersed with tokens of a husband’s love. She was in the holy of holies, their mother’s parlour. “Have you had many…applicants?”
“No…” All five spoke together before bashfully looking at each other.
“Three young ladies called, but they all wanted to marry Cecil.” The words appeared to depress Cosmo Smirke. “I offered to marry one, but she left in a hurry after heartless Cecil told the girl to leave before she gave birth. The poor girl was fat.”
Cecil eyed his brother with exasperation, “You didn’t look at her from the side. Her waist extended out a good seven inches beyond her bust. She was at least eight months along with some other idiot’s child. If you’re that desperate for a woman ask Cousin Lucius to introduce you to one of his widows.”
The young man’s face burned bright red. “Shut up! You’re embarrassing…I’m not desperate! The girl was crying. She needed help.”
“She needed the father of her child to cough up the ready. Forget the chit. We want to help Papa find a wife, not scare off the one decent woman to apply.” Isabel felt her insides melt as the five young men turned to stare at her with hope.
Louis de Bourbon’s leaned forward to bust the bubble. “Is Lord Adderbury aware of this cack-handed scheme?”
Cecil, the eldest, nervously tugged on his cravat. “It’s true Papa doesn’t want our help, but he’s lonely. He needs a wife in his…ouch!”
George Smirke pulled his leg back from kicking his older brother, “Our father needs help and we’re going to help him.”
The little Frenchman raised a thick brown eyebrow, “Isabel…we should leave maintenant! Lord Adderbury is clearly unaware…”
Cecil jumped to his feet and clasped his hands like a beggar, “Please don’t go! Please Mademoiselle?”
Isabel blushed with pleasure and ignored her little brother, “Since we’ve come all this way I could at least answer your questions.” Knowing she wouldn’t be meeting their father allowed her to relax and enjoy the possibility of being Lady Adderbury without fear it might actually happen. She didn’t really need an excuse to remain half hour with Peter’s sons in his magical house.
Who were her family? Her father was descended from a French King’s bastard, but had fallen in love with a tall Englishwoman. The young men’s eyes lit up with excitement when they heard her mother was the aunt of their Aunt Agnes. Isabel admitted that she’d regrettably never met their father while visiting her cousin Agnes. Isabel didn’t offer the fact that she’d only ever visited Agnes when she was certain Peter would be elsewhere. They asked her how she felt about having children. Did she want them? Yes of course…especially Peter’s children, but she didn’t mention that either. Her face felt hot as unbidden mental images of sliding into Peter’s bed flashed in her mind causing white lights to flash in front of her eyes. She lifted her vinaigrette that hung from a chain around her neck at all times and inhaled the disgusting scent of ammonia.
They asked her about her thoughts on education and her interests. Did she believe in sending her sons away to school? Lord Adderbury kept his sons at home and hired tutors from Oxford. Her University educated brother snorted in derision, but his opinion was irrelevant. She admitted she did enjoy reading, but preferred novels to classical works or edifying tombs.
What did she enjoy doing? How did she spend her time? Her cheeks ablaze, she reluctantly admitted that she enjoyed penning romance novels. It wasn’t necessary to mention that all the heroes just happened to resemble their father. Did she want to publish? Well yes, that was a dream, but she didn’t think she was good enough so she doubted it would cause a problem if their father disapproved of female writers. Oh, he wouldn’t have a problem they insisted. Their father’s mother was an artist and he was very proud of her. They were elated to learn that she not only knew their grandmother, but had hired her to paint a portrait. Isabel didn’t mention how many portraits. How could sixteen portraits be any different than one? She could see in their eyes that they were already planning the wedding. The pleasurable thought made her lungs ache. She could see herself standing in her long planned silver tissue wedding gown, her head adorned with her mother’s silver and amethyst tiara. Next to her would be a tall dark handsome man in black smiling down at her… The exquisite vision was rudely interrupted as the door flew open, the door handle hitting the wall like a single gun shot. The layer of red dust covering Lord Adderbury’s black coat made his enraged black eyes more frightening. He looked as if he’d ridden through the flames of hell and survived to wreck vengeance.
His eldest son jumped to his feet and gaped up at his unhappy parent. “Papa? What are you doing home? We didn’t expect you back for a…”
Blind to everything, but his children Peter marched over to his eldest offspring and grabbed him by the collar. “Cecil Francis Smirke, if you weren’t your mother’s son I’d whip you all the way to Greenwich. You’ve ruined everything! How could you p-p-publish that, that p-pathetic advertisement? You’ve made me the laughing stock of England.”
Cecil’s eyebrows met in confusion. “Why Greenwich?”
Peter roughly pulled his intrepid child closer, “Did I or d-did I not t-tell you to mind your own b-b-business?”
George Smirke bravely stood up to face his irate father, “It was my idea Papa. Lord Raynham found a magical wife by advertising in the papers so we thought we’d try to find one for you. You’ve been searching for three years without any luck. We want to help…” Releasing his eldest son, Lord Adderbury transferred his rage to his second child whose face twisted with displeasure. “Papa, must your hold me by my coat like some thieving footman? It’s making me feel decidedly unloved.”
“George Eugène Smirke, how could you publish my personal details? My desire for a daughter, my income; what were you thinking? Those papers will be sent around the world. I’ll be fending off toothless hags till I’m sealed in a lead coffin and dropped in the family vault. My name will become a b-byword for a lovelorn loser. Who the b-blazes will want to marry me after reading that feckless advertisement?”
George looked past his white lipped father to make sure Isabel’s pale features were still present. “She will! Mademoiselle de Bourbon is practically family and she has a sense of humour. If you’ll stop scowling I’ll introduce you…”
“Let’s leave before that big lunatic murders his children. If I have to kill him in self defence you know they’ll hang me like a dog because I’m French.” Isabel could hear her brother saying something, but it was muffled as if he was talking through a thick winter scarf. Isabel’s eyes were fixed on wide muscular shoulders encased in black. “You’re not fainting are you? Blast!” Isabel flinched as the man of her dreams turned angry black eyes in her direction. He couldn’t be staring at her face in horror. He couldn’t be looking her up and down with revulsion. He couldn’t. Her heart froze as she gasped for air.
Blinking in shock, Peter stared at the tall woman clutching her throat. The pretty face, the large brown eyes, the delicate shaped lips that could beguile him with the sweetest smile; he’d kissed them in a thousand dreams. For seventeen years this woman had been invading his sleep and tempting him beyond endurance.
Clenching his teeth, his heart thrashed his lungs as his five senses sparkled with electrifying clarity. He had no memory of meeting her, but he knew her intimately. Somehow this woman had succeeded in persuading his sleeping brain to break his vows while his wife lay dying in the next room. She was the mistress he swore he’d never have, the woman he clung to when his wife no longer had the energy to pretend she enjoyed performing her conjugal duties. He face burned as he remembered making love to her that morning; he’d opened his eyes and wished she wasn’t just a dream and here she was in the flesh.
Looking her up and down he was torn between self-disgust and the insane desire to take her in his arms and cover her with kisses. The longer he stared the more he could see. In his dreams she was younger and always dressed in diaphanous white muslin, but this giant old maid looked like she belonged in a convent.
“Papa, did you hear what I said? Mademoiselle de Bourbon is related to Aunt Agnes…” Peter could only hear blood rushing through his veins as he was trapped in a mad daydream. His dream mistress had been forced against her will into a French convent with thick stone walls. If he didn’t save her he’d never see her again. She was in the middle of taking her vows of chastity as he pulled a cannon up to the front entrance and blew away the large door. Inside he shoved away hordes of angry nuns and ran to the chapel where he found her kneeling before the altar dressed as a novice. Scooping her into his arms he carried her back to his waiting carriage, the horses galloping them away to safety as she thanked him with a heavenly kiss.
“Is Papa going to kiss her hand or stand there playing Statues? Maybe he’s too old for a wife. Maybe we should have advertised for a nurse.”
Peter covered his embarrassment by filling his lungs with air and saying the first thing that came to mind. “Get her out of my house!” The brown eyes rolled back into her head as the woman fell forward like a young tree chopped down with one blow of the axe. Peter forcibly restrained the impulse to catch her; she was clearly trying to engender pity by pretending to faint. The woman’s fall was broken by a boy in a miniature straw hat leaping forward and grabbing her before she hit the floor. The fact the boy happened to find smelling salts hanging around her neck made it seem even more like a performance. “Do you expect me to applaud this pathetic charade? Get out!”
The boy stood up and tilted back his head revealing an enraged miniature Frenchman. “Franchement, tu es une grande vache stupide! Nous sommes de Bourbons…et toi?” The small beautiful face withered with scorn as the final word addressed in the familiar punctuated the larger man’s social inferiority.
Being called a big stupid cow in acidic French on top of the morning’s insults caused an avalanche of bile into Peter’s heart. Thanks to his children, loneliness stretched into the horizon. No sane woman would want him unless she was illiterate and too deaf to hear whispers of his unsuitability. He’d spend the rest of his life fending off women like the wanton Delilah and this female lamppost desperate to ensnare a man. “I d-don’t c-care who you are. Leave my house and t-take that maypole with you.”
The little man’s eyes burned with hatred. “If you weren’t such a big target I’d call you out and fill your heartless chest with lead.”
“Louis!” The little man turned away and bent over the woman sobbing into the carpet. “Help me…”
“Stick your smelling-salts up your nose, we’re leaving!”
“I want to die…”
“Die later, when we’ve left this big cow behind. The next time Papa finds you a big man tell him you’re moving to France to be a nun. You should have married a short man while you had the chance.”
“I can’t breathe…je suis malade…”
“You’re going to be sick in gaol if we don’t escape this big idiot. He thinks we’ve come to steal his Sheffield plate. I’ve never been so insulted.” The little man grasped his sister by the waist and with great effort pulled her to her feet. Leaning heavily on her brother’s shoulder, she covered her face with her free arm and blindly stumbled as her brother helped her toward the door. “Breathe and don’t look back. You don’t want that big vache to see you looking like a red eyed maypole.”
Peter watched the performance with growing irritation. At their present shuffle it would be half an hour before the pair reached the front door. He had to get the woman out of his house, out of sight and out of reach. His emotional barometer was falling fast as her scent filled his nostrils. Enraged by conflicting emotions he didn’t dare name, he ignored his most revered maxim, ‘A gentleman treats every woman with respect’. His five sons’ mouths fell open as Peter heaved the lady over his shoulder like a sack of corn and carried her away. Strangled sobbing ceased as the woman went limp, her arms lightly flailing against his backside with every stride. Ignoring staring servants, Peter stepped outside into the late afternoon sunlight followed by the little man waving his fists with Gallic fury. “Put down my sister you big vache. How dare you treat a de Bourbon like a dead pig?”
Rolling the heavy body off his shoulder onto the ground Peter’s eyes were drawn to the face framed by the silver silk lining in her brown bonnet. With her head tilted back he could see the small scar on her cheek he often kissed in his dreams. How could he remember the woman had a scar on her cheek? “Isabel, wake up and scratch out his eyes!” Her name was Isabel? Peter felt his skin go cold. He’d always called his dream lover Ma Belle. He’d always assumed he was calling her his beauty, but if the woman’s name was Isabel… How could he dream about a woman without being able to recall meeting her? The thought made his chest ache; he needed answers, he needed to hold her. Peter scooped the woman back up into his arms and stood with difficulty. “Put her down!” He could barely hear the smaller man as soft feminine curves eased the ache in his chest. Carrying her to the inn seemed the sensible thing to do and it meant he’d be able to hold her for a few extra minutes. Giving in to temptation, he glanced at pale familiar breasts peeking out from the top of her brown dress. Each time he inhaled his heart beat faster as her smell invaded his lungs causing a mad desire to turn around and carry her to his bedchamber.
From his house it was only a short lane to the main road through Adderbury and another short walk to the inn where the miniature man demanded he carry the woman up to her hired chamber. Reaching the bed, he stood there with aching arms prolonging her nearness until he was kicked in the leg. Laying the woman on the bed he was untying her bonnet when the sound of a pistol being cocked made him look behind him. “Get away from my sister or you won’t need a wife.” Standing up his chest felt empty, as if his heart had fallen out of his shirt onto the coverlet. Glaring at the little man pointing a pistol at his groin, Peter glanced once more at the insensible woman and then and silently obeyed cringing as the chamber door slammed behind him.
Blindly returning the way he’d come, he found his sons waiting for him in the entrance hall where they stared at him as if expecting bodily harm. “I met the most p-perfect young woman this last week and she appeared to return my regard. However, after reading your helpful advertisement…she wouldn’t even look at me!” The last few words were roared into his children’s ears causing them to look suitably chagrined. “Since you’ve ruined any p-possible hope that I might find happiness, or at least a sane body to warm my bed, you will not have any Christmas money. You will not have a p-penny from me for the rest of the year. You will not have new shoes. You will not have fashionable waist-c-coats. You will not have a single new c-cravat! You will wear what you have until it falls apart after which you will search the attic for something that fits. Comprends?”
The nineteen year old Cosmo looked horrified. “Papa, that’s not faire! It was Cecil and George’s idea and they have their own incomes, you can’t punish me because I have to wait two years before I can inherit my property.”
“I wasn’t finished. Cecil, George…my carriage will take you to your p-prospective houses where you may help your tenants and neighbours. You may return in six month’s time…if you c-can afford to hire a seat on a mail coach.” Five white faces stared back at him as if he’d announced that two of them would be shot at dawn.
Cosmo’s mouth opened first. “You can’t send away Cecil and George…”
“Silence! While you’re sleeping alone in your respective b-beds give a thought to how lonely I’ll be in mine…thanks to you. Your helpfulness has ruined all my hopes of happiness!” Peter swivelled on his heel and walked away haunted by the memory of holding his dying father’s hand and promising he’d be a good man. Numbly reaching the stairs, he dragged his tired legs to the top and down the hall to his chamber. Locking his door he collapsed into his chair by the fire and pressed his face into his dusty black sleeve knowing the morning wouldn’t bring relief. Underneath the emptiness in his chest, he could feel something had been broken.
He was still sitting there three hours later when an insistent hand tapped on the door. “Pierre Auguste…c’est ton Maman…ouvre la porte!” The tapping resumed. “I need to speak with you, c’est très important! Pierre?” Sighing in defeat Peter jumped to his feet and unlocked the door allowing his mother inside carefully keeping his face turned away to hide his red eyes. “William showed me the paper at breakfast. Your boys, they love you, I am sure they were only trying to aid you.”
“The helpful wretches have ruined my life. No sane or d-decent woman will want to marry me…”
“That is not true Pierre. The boys they chose a few unfortunate words that made you seem a little…”
She pursed her lips as if she was having difficulty convincing herself. “…inexperienced and naïve, but those are not sins.”
“They made me look a f-f-fumbling lovelorn looser.”
“Pierre…you will find her. Ouvre the heart and the mind.”
“My heart can be read in every paper in the land! It will soon be thrown into the fire by every sensible woman who can read English.”
“Oh Pierre, always you see the rain clouds…this could be the thing divine. Perhaps it will aid you to meet une femme who will see that you are a good man.”
“I wanted to kill my children. I’m not a good man.”
“Pierre, there were the days I could have hit you on the head. C’est normal!”
“My empty bed is going to kill me; I need a wife!”
“Je comprends. When your Papa died I…it was horrible. My heart, it did not want to live or love ever again, but the years pass and there comes the need to be loved. You will find her.”
Peter exhaled in despair. “I did find her…”
“Vraiment? But that is fantastique! Who is she?”
“Miss Helene Carteret, but thanks to my helpful children the sweet creature now thinks me an ancient social embarrassment.”
Thankfully Peter couldn’t see his mother’s look of horror as she crossed herself. “Pierre Auguste, Mademoiselle Carteret et une belle fille, mais…”
“She’s everything sweet and good.”
“That may be, but she has only one year more than Cecil who is a beautiful man.”
Peter turned red outraged eyes towards his mother. “Are you saying I’m too old for her?”
“Non, but you have grown sons Pierre. Mademoiselle Carteret would not have the age to be immune to your sons’ charms. Your boys desire a mother. Direct the heart towards une femme closer to your age. I know une femme who longs to meet you…”
Peter’s black eyes glowered with rage. “How can you think one of my sons would seduce my wife?”
Knowing her son’s hatred of gossip his mother pursed her lips. She could not tell him what she knew. She had to persuade her son that Helene Carteret was not suitable. “Non, they would not set out to seduce your wife, but they are without experience. If Cosmo were to spend hours a day with une belle femme who looked at him with the admiring eyes he would lose his heart before he knew what had happened. It could easily end in a tragedy Shakespeare.”
“Non! I’ve taught my sons to be good men.”
“Oui, but they may not choose to be good Pierre.”
“Have you no faith in my children?”
“You think they are children, but they are men. Robert may look like you, but he is nothing like you Pierre. I’m afraid…he is like your brother Jean.”
“How can you insult my son? Robert isn’t anything like John.”
“Pierre, the boys need une femme with age in their lives who will teach them how to talk to women. You need une femme who will love them like a mother because she is too old to be the lover.”
“Whoever I marry will love my children as a mother and my sons will love her as if they were her sons.”
“Pierre, a woman who is twenty-three can not mother a man who is twenty-two.”
“Shall I remind you how many years there are b-b-between you and William? He’s four years older than me Mamma. Four!”
“Oui, but his children are young and I am not. Miss Carteret she is trop jeune for the man with grown sons.”
Peter turned away from his mother infuriated that she didn’t support his desire to wed Miss Carteret. “Is that what you came to tell me, that I’m too old for happiness?”
“Non, there is une femme who is in love with you. Why, I do not know…”
“Thank you Mamma, that uplifts my spirits no end.”
“Non, I did not mean that. She does not admit to me that she loves you, but I tell you she loves you. She may read the advertisement and think it genuine. If she comes I pray that you will be kind to Mademoiselle de Bourbon. She’s a soul timide and has the fear of rejection.” Peter’s face drained of colour as the words landed in his brain like chunks of granite. “She has hired me every year for the last sixteen years to paint her. She is not vain. She only wants me to talk about ma famille. She asks first about Jean Sebastian and then about Jacque and Agnes and the twins. She is the cousin of Agnes so she has a genuine right to question. Then after avoiding as long as possible the subject that interests her most, her eyes sparkle and her cheeks burn as she asks about you and your famille. I tell you she loves you. She is half French, pretty and a perfect age for you. She is everything that would make you a good wife, but if you do not desire her please be kind to her if she comes.”
Peter covered his face with his hands as he failed to exhale the sudden agony churning his internal organs into pâté. “Why would she c-c-c-come if she’s shy?”
“Her father, he is a Frenchman. If he thinks she likes you he will shove her in the carriage along with her little brother and demand she apply for the position. He likes to think he’s Louis XIV, but he is only a bastard relation. His wife is the sister of Agnes’ mother. They are good ton…Pierre what have you done? Your shoulders have that look.”
“I arrived home in a foul t-temper. I wanted to k-kill my children and then I turned to find I had an audience. What decent sane woman would answer that feckless advertisement? They looked so ridiculous and then that vile little man called me a big stupid cow. Now I feel like a big stupid c-c-cow.”
“She is pretty non? She faints when she’s excited or upset, but she’s healthy and only thirty-six…she would be parfait for you and the boys.”
“I don’t want a maypole. I want Miss Carteret.”
“Pierre, Mademoiselle Helene Carteret looks too much like Katie. Pierre…”
“I want to be alone!” The door quietly closed allowing silence to taunt Peter with memories of the awful day and breed mortifying visions. He’d broken the cardinal rule of being a gentleman. He’d treated a woman, a stranger, with the contempt and in front of his sons. Shame pulled him into its mangle and proceeded to flatten him as he relived the day. He growled in agony as his heart was clamped in a muzzle. He wouldn’t be able to face his children until he looked the maypole in the eyes and begged her forgiveness. He squared his shoulders, wiped his face on his sleeve and turned to avoid seeing his reflection in the mirror. Peter’s dusty black greatcoat flapped like wings as his determined stride took him back down stairs and out his front door. The Innkeeper materialised as Peter stepped into the common room and offered the haggard Lord a drink on the house. The Innkeeper expertly caught Peter’s thrown coin and turned to serve him, “The woman I c-carried upstairs…I need t-t-to speak with her.”
“They’ve gone me Lord. She was mighty upset.”
“Overheard the little man mention London if that helps?”
Peter threw the man another coin and silently retreated back the way he’d come. Doing the right thing would now entail facing Monsieur de Bourbon and admitting he’d insulted the man’s daughter. Free from the fog of rage, his shame was forgotten by thoughts of being killed in a duel. Standing in his entry hall he lifted his head and listened for echoes of laughter and quarrels, any sound that might suggest the presence of young men, but his house rang with desolate emptiness. Forgetting his red eyes, Peter rushed up the stairs, “Charles? Cosmo? Robert?” He knocked on the first door he came to, “Robert?” The eerie emptiness grew as Peter open the door. The clothes his youngest son had been wearing were in a heap on the floor like discarded skin, the chest of drawers and wardrobe open and depleted. Each successive room told a similar story with varying degrees of neatness. Peter was sitting on George’s bed with his head in his hands feeling like a lonely miserable failure when someone politely coughed at his elbow. He didn’t look up. “Yes?”
“Cecil wished me to give you this…my Lord.” The housekeeper’s words were weighted with contempt. The old woman might as well have said outright she thought him a horrid beast for sending her grandsons away. This was the price he paid for bringing the old woman back into the house after his wife’s death. If he lost his temper she’d lament that her daughter had married too far above her station and would have lived had she married the Innkeeper. It was an effective weapon that made Peter cringe every time he heard it.
“Drop it on the floor. Order me a bath and inform the stables to harness my curricle in the morning. I’ll be leaving leaving half an hour after first light.”
“Very good my Lord.”
“Don’t sneer at me!”
“As if I’d dare.”
“Save your vinegar tongue for your wretched grandsons who’ve made me the laughingstock of the c-c-country.”
“My boys were trying to help you find a warm body to share your bed. Wed the first widow you meet who can bear being married to a church steeple and have your evil way. You’ll be too tired from pleasuring yourself to wake the household crying in your sleep.”
“Pray Cecil invites you to run his home. My second wife, if I can find one, will not share her roof with your rude tongue.”
The old woman snorted in contempt. “You’ll be lucky a poxed lunatic weds you after that poor maypole tells the world you’re a heartless toad. The name of Smirke will be blackened further and my poor boys will suffer. Katie must be turning in her grave wishing she married the innkeeper.” The old woman was gone before he could vent the angry steam building in his lungs. Whoever he married he wasn’t living with another mother-in-law. He picked up the fallen unaddressed letter and broke the seal with vicious force.
Charles refuses to be separated from me and George. Cosmo refuses to be left behind without Charles and Robert flatly refuses to be abandoned like an infant. The carriage will drop us off at Bath where we’ll stop over with Uncle James and Aunt Agnes and publish a statement in the broadsheets that the advertisement was placed without your knowledge or consent before taking the mail coach to George’s place. We’re sorry we hurt you. We only wanted to help you find a cheerful companion who might give you a few more brats so you wouldn’t be lonely when we leave home. Mademoiselle de Bourbon seemed a perfect candidate. It’s a pity she won’t ever speak to you again. We’ll try not to hinder your search in future, but as you say, “A real man helps if help is needed, even if his help is unwanted.”
Sincerely your loving disobedient sons,
Cecil, George, Charles, Cosmo and Robert
Peter seethed at having one of his mantras flung back in his face, but at the same time felt a strange sense of parental triumph. His sons were growing into good men. The fifteen year old boy inside his chest sneered at him with contempt. By sending away his children he’d effectively punished himself to a year of misery and proved beyond doubt he was a big stupid cow. Shoving the letter into his pocket, he jumped to his feet and rushed from the room to find his mother for directions to the de Bourbons. He had half an hour before the mail coach thundered through the village. He’d write a short letter to his brother James and ask him to persuade the boys that it was their father’s wish they remain in Bath. The city would keep the helpful five entertained till he arrived to apologize in person for losing his temper.
With his itinerary sorted, all he had to do was shift the oppressive chains of shame and then he’d revisit his desire to wed Miss Helene Carteret. If he courted her in a friendly environment free of rude sneering people there was a faint possibility he might eat marzipan covered wedding cake sooner than later. His sister-in-law, Agnes, was keen to see him remarried. She’d throw a house party for him if he asked her. With his sons in attendance he’d prove his mother wrong. He’d win sweet Harriet’s hand and acquire a loving mother for his grown sons. He tried to imagine waking up to find Miss Carteret in his bed, but instead of a petite blonde he found Mademoiselle de Bourbon’s brown curls cascading over his pillow. He closed his eyes and tried to mentally evict the large woman from his thoughts, but Mademoiselle stared back in defiance, her naked arm sliding out from under the white bed linen and draping her hip, accentuating the curve leading to long tempting legs. He tried to shake the image from his head as he hurried to write his letters, but he could feel her in his mind waiting for him to give in to temptation.
The rest of Dancing the Maypole coming soon…