Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. It was inspired by the works of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, so if explicit sex floats your boat, I'm afraid you must seek it elsewhere - this is romance with a capital R. <g>
Though I researched the period in which this story is set, there are bound to be some anachronisms. Most are due to oversight and laziness on my part, but some are deliberate, to suit my plot.
FREDERICA AND THE VISCOUNTESS
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A fair head popped round the breakfast parlour door. "You will never guess what Edmund Lynton is telling Mama and Papa!"
Frederica looked up from her needlework and smiled at her younger sister. "And why should I even attempt it, since you are clearly longing to tell me."
Amelia closed the door and came to sit next to her. "She," she said, in tones of deep significance, "is coming to stay at Thornbury Park."
Frederica bit off the thread and regarded her sampler with satisfaction. "'She'?"
"Edmund's sister, of course."
"Viscountess Norland?" She blinked. "But I thought she was in Greece, or was it Venice?" A moment's reflection made her realise her error. "Ah, she returned to Paris last year, did she not?" Amelia nodded.
The Viscountess's travels on the Continent had long been a favourite topic of discussion among the younger members of the Bertram family, though her activities seemed to have been less outrageous of late.
"No doubt Napoleon's army made it too dangerous to remain." Frederica sighed. News from across the Channel was not good. Rumour had it that the Duke had suffered a defeat.
"She is coming to visit her brother," continued Amelia.
"Very sisterly of her," said Frederica, determined to give the Viscountess the benefit of the doubt. "And very heartening to know that even she has family feelings." She put the sampler aside.
"Hah! I expect nowhere else is willing to accept her. As for family feelings, have you forgotten?" Amelia rose to her feet and began to pace. "She deserted her husband and son!"
"No," said Frederica quietly. "I have not forgotten."
Amelia came to a stop and turned to face Frederica, her arms akimbo. "You are missing the point, as always. If Viscountess Norland is to be at Thornbury Park, what will become of our visits there?"
"Why, nothing, I expect. We shall go on as always."
"And risk meeting ... her?"
"I would have thought you would be eager to meet a woman as notorious as one of Mrs Radcliffe's characters."
Amelia looked intrigued. "I had not considered it in those terms. You are right, Frederica. Her presence at Thornbury Park should provide some entertainment at least. Can you imagine the upset it will cause in the village?" She sighed. "Thank God! Sometimes, you know - especially when Mr Smith is here - I could scream from boredom."
Poor Mr Smith, thought Frederica. The son of the clergyman adored her sister, but since Herbert was neither handsome nor rich, nor wore a red coat, the sentiment was not returned. Fortunately - or should that be unfortunately? - the amiable young man was also not very bright, and had yet to realise his suit was hopeless.
"Meeting the Viscountess is not very desirable, to be sure. But since we have no idea of the length of her stay, and she will undoubtedly have much to keep her occupied, I see no reason why matters between Chawleigh and Thornbury Park need alter in any way."
What Amelia had been about to say was lost forever as the breakfast parlour door opened and a maid appeared.
"Your father wishes to speak to you both."
Frederica exchanged a meaningful glance with her sister, and they made their way to the drawing room.
Mr Bertram, hands clasped behind his back, was standing in front of the drawing room window, staring out at the June sunshine and the rider in the blue coat cantering away from the house.
"There you are." He turned to regard his two daughters as they took their seats on the sofa next to their mother. "I have something to say to you regarding Thornbury Park. Though - " his gaze fell on Amelia and a small smile curved his lips - "you have likely already heard the news."
Amelia coloured at being caught eavesdropping but said nothing.
"It seems there is to be a new arrival there. Mr Lynton informed me that Viscountess Norland -"
A muffled exclamation stopped him mid-sentence and he turned to regard his wife. "Yes, my dear?"
"It is very hard," said Mrs Bertram, "very hard indeed, to have 'that woman' staying in the neighbourhood. It lowers the tone a great deal."
"She is our neighbour's sister," he said a touch sharply. "And he has been kind enough to give us advance notice." He turned to his two daughters. "Frederica. What is your opinion on this matter? You are the one most affected by this development."
She blinked. "Am I?"
"Now, now." His eyes twinkled. "Do not play the coy miss with me. You know I am referring to your talks with Mr Dunster."
Frederica's cheeks warmed. "Yes, Papa."
At twenty-seven, she was well on her way to spinsterhood, and all too aware of it. Several offers had been made for her hand, but she had found good reason (to her own satisfaction if not to her family's) to reject them. Her parents were now pinning their fading hopes on Edmund Lynton's brother-in-law. Chaloner Dunster had recently inherited Symond Hall and its 400-acres in Norfolk, and was staying with the Lyntons while renovations were made to the run-down property.
A moderately wealthy man, now actively seeking a wife, was not to be sneezed at, and Chaloner had shown an interest in Frederica. She knew that her parents were counting on her to bring him to the point of making an offer. She also knew her duty. Four children had been a significant drain on her father's resources, though things were easier now that her two brothers were married.
But the thought of such a future was, as always, lowering, so she pushed it away and returned to the matter at hand.
"May we not continue as before?" she suggested. "It would be only good manners to behave amicably towards the Lyntons and the Dunsters. Should they be made to suffer for what is, after all, in the Viscountess's past? Besides, we do not as yet know how long she will be staying."
Mr Bertram gave her an approving nod and opened his mouth to speak.
"Really, Frederica!" Mrs Bertram looked incensed. "How can you suggest such a thing? As if you should even be in the same house as that abominable woman!"
Frederica's father raised an eyebrow at the interruption, but said mildly enough, "I trust our daughters are sensible enough not to be irrevocably harmed by her company, Mrs Bertram."
Privately, Frederica was not so certain - Amelia could be a hoyden at times - but she held her peace.
"I was for cutting them all at first, Papa," said her sister piously, "but Frederica changed my opinion. Besides, it would be very tedious not to be able to visit Thornbury Park. I should miss playing with the dear children so."
He gave Amelia an indulgent smile. "Indeed you would. And," he looked meaningfully at his wife, "it would be unfortunate if Mr Dunster were to forget all about Frederica, which he may very well do if she does not visit at least once a week."
"You could invite him here," objected Mrs Bertram. "Would that not serve?"
But his face had assumed the stony expression that Frederica knew well. "Viscountess or no Viscountess, we shall continue our friendly relations with those at Thornbury Park." He turned to regard his daughters. "And you two will behave in a manner that will give me no cause to regret my decision."
"Yes, Papa," chorused Frederica and Amelia.
"Thank you, Papa," added Amelia.
"Well! I am sure no good will come of it." Mrs Bertram shook her head and looked grave. "But I can see your mind is made up, Mr Bertram, so I will say no more about it."
The sound of curtains being carelessly drawn back woke Viscountess Norland. Normally she would have grumbled at her abigail's lack of consideration, but today the disturbance was welcome. She had been dreaming she was back in the Bois de Bologne, staring down the barrel of de Livry's pistol in the pale, dawn light.
Reflexively she massaged her shoulder. The scar still ached sometimes, when the weather was damp. She sat up and yawned. "Good morning, Dorothea. Any news?"
"Rumours only." The plump maid thrust a folded newspaper at her then plonked the breakfast tray on the bedside table, slopping the hot chocolate over the rolls and kippers. Her lips were pressed tightly together.
"You are cross," observed Joanna. "With me?"
"No more than usual, your ladyship." The other woman flounced over to the wardrobe and took out the green evening dress Joanna had worn last night (she had thought it best not to court scandal by wearing male attire the instant she was back in London). She tutted at the ripped seam, took it to the window seat, and reached for her sewing basket.
While Dorothea sewed, Joanna sipped her hot chocolate, buttered a roll and ate it, then picked at her kippers. Her hearty appetite of yesterday had deserted her and she knew the reason why. She glanced at the newspaper then away again. She wasn't delaying reading The Gazette, she told herself, merely gathering her strength.
"It's not that I mind being poor," said the maid, after a moment. "Lord knows, that is nothing new. It's just that your ladyship said there would be no more wagering." She bit off the thread, discovered another ripped seam and bent her head to her work once more.
"The Exchange isn't wagering." A pointed look told Joanna what Dorothea thought of that notion. "Well, perhaps it is. But I am certain my faith in the Duke will prove correct." As least, she hoped so.
It was no wonder Dorothea was vexed with her, she reflected ruefully. She was vexed with herself. What had yesterday seemed a racing certainty, after a good night's sleep felt like a very risky enterprise. Plunging herself in debt to a moneylender, buying up the shares that every sensible person was selling (the City was in a panic that Wellington's defeat was imminent).... It would either make her or break her. She was no longer sure which.
"And to go to the Jews for the credit!" blurted her abigail. "They will hound us even on the Continent."
"Well, I could hardly approach Coutts or Drummond's." The Viscountess had grown tired of defending her actions. Dorothea was very dear to her but did occasionally overstep the mark. "What's done is done," she said shortly. "And for good or ill, I must live with the consequences."
"And so must I."
She chose to ignore her maid's impertinence and instead turned her attention to The Gazette. "Are the rumours very bad?" When no reply was forthcoming, she took a deep breath, shook out the paper and turned the pages to the despatch from Belgium.
The news, if such it could be called, was anything but reassuring. There had been actions at Ligny and Quatre-Bras - Boney had apparently taken the Duke by surprise. Cavalry skirmishes at Genappe had followed. The Prussians were badly mauled, and there was even a rumour that Blücher had been killed. Her heart sank then she rallied herself. These were mere rumours.
She glanced at her still brooding maid. "This morning's breakfast was a good deal better than yesterday's," she offered. "I take it you have now made friends with the servants?"
The furrowed brow smoothed a little. "Yes, your ladyship. I have the run of The George's kitchens." Dorothea sniffed. "Very provincial they are too, for all the owner's airs and graces."
Joanna smiled. "Did you spin your new friends a pretty yarn about our recent travels?"
An affaire de coeur had delayed the Viscountess from joining her countrymen in the headlong rout to the Channel, and Dorothea, faithful as always, would not leave her side. By the time Joanna was ready (she had parted from Marie easily enough in the end; perhaps her heart had not been engaged by the diminutive actress after all), bribes were the order of the day and the price of horses had become so exorbitant as to make them out of the question.
But she had always relished a challenge. They made their way from Paris cross-country, over fields and ditches, sleeping in barns and hayricks when no better accommodation was forthcoming, bypassing soldiers and roadblocks on the way. Such an adventure would have taxed most women to their limits, but the Viscountess and her abigail took it in their stride. Joanne's height and male attire, plus judicious use of her pistols, had kept trouble at bay, as had her almost perfect command of French.
Dorothea's gaze had become distant as she remembered and now a smile curved her mouth. Joanna breathed a sigh of relief. Life was always much pleasanter when her abigail was in a sunny mood.
"Cook opened her mouth so wide during the tale," chuckled the plump woman, "I was tempted to pop something in it." She set aside the evening dress, crossed to the basin and pitcher, and poured out some water for her mistress.
The Viscountess stretched the kinks from her shoulders. They had arrived back in England only two days ago, and she was still feeling the effects of her recent exertions. "It will be very pleasant to relax at my brother's house in the country."
Dorothea gave her a knowing glance. "You will be bored within a se'nnight."
"I shall not!"
Joanna flung back the sheets and got out of bed. She stripped off her nightgown and began to wash herself. Dorothea folded the discarded garment neatly and handed her a towel. While she dried herself, the abigail brought her underthings and walking dress to her.
"You will miss the attractions of a pretty face and a fine pair of eyes," predicted Dorothea.
Joanna pulled on her drawers and stockings. "You know me too well." She let herself be eased into a chemise and petticoat, demanded the stays be but lightly laced, and waited for Dorothea to button up the dress.
After that, the maid turned her attention to her mistress's hair. Joanna preferred to leave her hair loose or tied back in a no nonsense queue, but Dorothea had other ideas. She swept back Joanna's hair into a bun then reached for the curling tongs that she had set to heat in the fire and tested them against a wet thumb. They were ready, apparently, so she set to work on the cluster of ringlets over each ear that was the latest fashion.
The Viscountess sighed, twiddled her thumbs, sang a saucy song she had learned from Marie (in the original French, but Dorothea still understood enough to tut loudly at some parts), then glanced at her abigail.
"Who is to say there will not be a pretty face and a fine pair of eyes at Thornbury Park? The women there can't all be antidotes."
Her maid's lips thinned. "Think of your brother, your ladyship. To set the cat among the pigeons in his own back yard...."
"Is very tempting," agreed the Viscountess, "but I was only teasing. I am not so inconsiderate a person as I once was." She felt a moment's doubt. "Am I?"
"No indeed." The maid set aside the curling tongs and scrutinised her efforts. "There. All done." She gave her mistress's arm a reassuring pat and stood back.
Joanna checked her appearance in the mirror and nodded her thanks. "Well," she said, pulling on her half-boots then donning the matching pelisse, hat, and kid gloves, "since we are confined to town until there is more definite news, and there is no point my sitting here with a fit of the dismals, I shall take the air. No doubt London has changed since I was last here. I shall investigate and report."
Dorothea nodded. "Yes, your ladyship," she said. "Dinner will be waiting for you when you return."
London had indeed changed in the five years Joanna had been away, both for the better and the worse. It smelled a great deal better than Paris, she decided, as she walked briskly past St. Paul's and down Ludgate Hill; it was pleasant not to have to step over stinking gutters running with filth.
As she walked, she took the opportunity to eye the young ladies, both to admire their looks and appraise their clothing. A few were wearing the towering headgear, wide skirts and full sleeves that were all the rage in Paris. England might be at war with its neighbour, but in fashion it was close to surrendering.
If her shares increased, she decided, with a glance down at her scuffed half boots and faded pelisse, she would buy new clothes - for herself and Dorothea. And hire a town coach to take her to Thornbury Park; it would be fun to arrive in style. Then she would search for a place to rent. Would a town house or a country house be preferable? Perhaps Dorothea was right and the country would be too stultifying. Perhaps she should first see how she fared at her brother's -
The bubble of her pleasant daydream burst. What if the shares she had so rashly bought plunged further?
Joanna began to strain her ears and eyes for news from across the Channel, eavesdropping on the conversations of passing gentlemen, who seemed disappointingly to be more concerned with Princess Caroline's latest contretemps with the Prince Regent than with the war. Her mood darkened, and she lowered her head and walked more briskly, scarcely aware of where she was going, or of the contents of the Oxford Street shop windows.
She had promised Edmund she had mended her ways. What would he say if she turned up on his doorstep in hock up to her eyebrows?
A teashop appeared up ahead, and she became abruptly aware of just how weary she was. She took tea in a high-ceilinged room, crowded with chattering females who reminded her of a flock of twittering birds.
This won't do, she admonished herself, ordering another pot of tea and some sandwiches. What's done is done. Put it out of your mind. But disquieting thoughts kept returning, and in the end it seemed easier to think of nothing at all....
Somewhere a clock struck five, jarring Joanna out of a reverie, the details of which she could not recall. She was not far from Hyde Park, she realised. The fashionable hour had started half an hour ago. When she was younger, she had liked to watch the Ton as they paraded up and down. It would be a light-hearted distraction and might lift her spirits.
A brisk walk soon brought her to Rotten Row, and she joined the convivial crowd of bystanders calling out to the elegant men and elaborately dressed women driving slowly up and down in their carriages. She was laughing at a carefully clipped poodle that had taken a severe dislike to a Dalmatian coach dog when a familiar voice said in her ear,
"Well, well! If it isn't Notorious Norland. In a dress too, by God!"
She spun on her heel. "Perry!"
The first son of the Earl of Painswick raised his top hat then pressed her gloved fingers to his lips. Lord Peregrine looked upto-the-minute as always - his green coat sported the latest M-notch collar. But he was less handsome than she remembered, the face below his delicately spiked fringe beginning to reflect his dissipation. Nevertheless, she was delighted to see him. They had shared good times, the same interests... once even the same woman.
"I heard you were in Paris," he said.
"And I heard you were in Brighton." She eyed his extravagantly knotted neckcloth with amusement - it must be choking to wear such a thing, but Perry had always placed fashion about comfort.
"Insufferably dull place, Brighton," he said.
She gave him a knowing look. "You are out of funds, I take it?"
"Of course. For what is money for if not to spend it on the finer things in life?" He examined his yellow gloves. "In fact I am just off to tap my father for some more blunt."
"He hasn't cut you off then?"
They were attracting attention, so Lord Peregrine gestured and they began to walk. "Boney made things too hot for you over there, I collect."
"Yes. Would it also surprise you to know, I felt homesick?"
A saturnine eyebrow shot up.
"Truly. After all these years of travelling, I have been wondering if it is not time for me to settle down." She regarded him curiously. "Have you never felt that, Perry? A longing to set down roots somewhere, to have a place you can truly call 'home'?" Maybe she was getting old. She had never had such feelings before she turned thirty.
He waved a negligent hand. "Of course, m'dear Viscountess. But I take another drink, find myself another pretty wench, and the mood soon passes."
She laughed. "You have not changed."
"Neither have you. Did I not find you here, ogling the ladies?"
"Touché." They paused under a spreading chestnut tree. "I am staying at The George," she told him. "Come and dine with me."
He pretended to be horrified. "And risk incurring the disapproval of that abigail of yours?"
She laughed. "Deservedly so, I'm sure. But I am the one Dorothea currently disapproves off. For she is convinced I have made paupers of us."
His eyes twinkled. "Then I shall not bother to ask you for a loan."
"No indeed. But will you come?"
"I cannot, Joanna." His tone was regretful. "I have arranged to see my father and am travelling down to Gloucestershire tonight."
She was sorry to hear that. Perry was a rogue, but he was entertaining company. "Well. And I shall probably be in Kent by the end of the week."
"Then it may be that I shall visit you at Thornbury Park, and endeavour to alleviate your boredom." He pressed her hand to his lips once more and took his leave.
Joanna watched Lord Peregrine's elegant figure disappear into the distance, then turned and headed back to the Inn. There, under Dorothea's disapproving gaze, she picked half-heartedly at her lamb chop and potatoes, drank too much port, and fretted about the lack of news from Belgium.
It was a relief to retire for the night. But though she was exhausted, sleep was a long time coming. And when it finally arrived, it brought only nightmares in which great armies clashed, the tide of combat ebbed and flowed, and victory hung in the balance....
It was a gloriously morning when Frederica and Amelia set off to walk the three miles to Thornbury Park. As they strolled, enjoying the late June sunshine and swinging their reticules, conversation kept returning to the glad tidings of two days ago.
The first sign something significant had happened was the sound of church bells ringing. Mr Bertram had sent a footman down to the village to enquire about the peals. He had come running back to Chawleigh, red-faced and grinning, and bellowing to everyone and his dog that 'the Duke of Wellington has defeated old Boney at Waterloo'.
Everyone had cheered at the news, and a few of the servants had even danced a reel. It was as though a great weight had been lifted, and the weather obligingly mirrored the mood.
Half way to their destination, though, and in the middle of Amelia's amusing anecdote at Herbert Smith's expense, the sun began to dim. Frederica glanced up at the swiftly gathering clouds in dismay.
"We must hurry," she urged her sister and quickened her pace accordingly. They had not gone many yards before the first drops of rain began to fall. "Perhaps it will be merely a shower." But it was a full-blown Summer storm, and a few minutes later, both women were running for cover, hair dripping, flimsy summer dresses plastered to their bodies.
As they cowered under an oak tree, thunder rumbling above them and lightning flashing, Amelia grew almost hysterical. Frederica's own nerves were badly shaken when a loud crack of lightening was followed by a broken branch thudding to earth a few feet from them.
She embraced her sister and tried to comfort her, while she considered what to do. Amelia was trembling violently in her arms, whether from cold or fear she was unsure; Frederica herself felt uncomfortably chilled. They had passed the halfway point of their walk or she would have advocated returning home. One thing was certain - they could not stay here under the oak tree. Another branch might crack.
She had just told her sister, "We must continue," and was urging her out into the rain once more, when movement caught her eye. A town coach was making its grand way along the road to Thornbury Park, its progress hampered by the driver's having to cajole horses made nervous by the storm.
She blinked the rain from her eyelashes and stared. "Amelia!" she cried.
"I see it."
"Wave. They must see us. They must!"
She had begun to think neither the driver nor the coach's occupants had seen their frantic waving, when it began to slow. As it drew level with the oak tree, it halted, and the door opened.
A short woman, plump and with dark eyebrows, descended, placing her feet gingerly on the wet ground. She drew her shawl over her head, then picked her way across the grass towards them. When she was within hailing distance, she paused and shouted.
"Are you bound for Thornbury Park?" Her voice was barely audible above the elements.
Frederica thought it simplest to nod. A smile and a beckoning gesture were her reward. As the stranger turned and hurried back towards the coach, she urged her sister to follow. Moments later, they were climbing aboard and pulling the door closed behind them.
Almost at once, the coach lurched forward, tipping Frederica against her sister who objected with a squeal. She apologised, righted herself, then - at the plump woman's urging - accepted a rug for their knees and a shawl for their shoulders. At once she felt much warmer, and a sense of relief and gratitude overcame her.
"Oh thank you so much for stopping," she said, taking her sister's hands between hers and rubbing warmth into them. "It would have been very hard for us had you not." Ruefully she indicated her bedraggled state. "As you can see, the storm has got the better of us."
The woman smiled. "You can thank her ladyship not me." She indicated with her head, and it was only then that Frederica become aware there was another person sitting in the corner, gazing out of the window.
"Oh! I did not see you there." Belatedly she remembered her manners and blushed. "Thank you indeed," she addressed the silent figure. "My sister and I are both indebted to you."
The coach's shadowy interior muted colours and merged shapes, making it difficult to see their mysterious benefactress. The woman turned her head and nodded once before looking away once more. Frederica was left with an impression of a pale face and dark hair and that was all.
The loud clatter of rain on the roof lessened then died away and they travelled on for a while in awkward silence.
"F... Frederica," whispered her sister at last, between chattering teeth. "Are we nearly there yet?"
As if in answer, the coach slowed and came to a halt. Then the door opened, and the Lyntons' footman was standing there, looking enquiringly up at them. His mouth gaped when he saw the bedraggled sisters.
"Is that you, Miss Bertram, Miss Amelia?"
"Indeed it is." Frederica glanced at the woman in the corner to see if it was permissible for them to disembark first and received a nod. "We got caught in the rain."
She let him help her down then waited while he did the same for Amelia. "Fortunately for us, her ladyship's coach...." 'Ladyship'. It suddenly dawned on her just whose coach they had been riding in and she struggled to maintain her composure. "Wo... would you please tell Mr Lynton that we are here to throw ourselves upon his mercy?"
But there was no need for the footman to carry out that particular errand, because a startled, laughing, "My goodness! My sister has brought a couple of drowned rats with her," announced the presence of the master of the house himself, eliciting an uninhibited laugh from inside the coach.
"I do beg your pardon," he amended, catching Frederica's gaze and blushing. "That was unkind of me. You must be chilled to the bone." He turned towards the front porch and bellowed, "Caroline."
Seconds later his wife appeared, looking disapproving. "Good heavens, Edmund. I know your sister has arrived, but must you shout?"
Her gaze fell on Frederica and Amelia and her mouth dropped open. Once she had collected her wits, though, she was sympathy itself. "Oh, you poor dears! Come in, come in. We must get you out of those wet things at once."
Edmund meanwhile was peering inside the coach. "What a splendid contraption. Is it yours or rented, Joanna?"
"Oh, rented, of course," came a female drawl.
The clouds had thinned and the sun was threatening to appear once more. Frederica would have liked to stay to see the Viscountess alight and study her properly, but Amelia chose that moment to sneeze, which brought out the mother hen in Mrs Lynton, and without further ado they were ushered inside.
"That was Viscountess Norland?" said Amelia. "How disappointing!" She stretched out her hands to the warmth. Mrs. Lynton had had a fire lit in one of the many unused upstairs bedchambers.
"Indeed." Frederica gave her a sidelong glance. "You were expecting her to be dressed as a bandit and accompanied by a hideous hunchback, at the very least?"
Amelia snorted. Frederica was relieved to see that, now she was cosy and safe from danger, her sister's good humour had reasserted itself.
"No, I was not! Still. I wish we had been able to see more of her. Was she wearing men's clothes? I could not see, the coach was so gloomy. And she did not appear to be taking snuff."
"No, thank heavens. But no doubt we will have a better view of her on another occasion. Not, I think, today, though." From the other side of the door had come much shouting and the sounds of toing and froing - Edmund's servants helping their master's guest get settled into her new quarters presumably.
Frederica pulled the towel closer around her shoulders, and wiggled toes that were almost dry. Their wet clothes and shoes had been taken away and Caroline was sorting out some of her own dresses for them to wear.
"That plump woman must be her maid," said Amelia. "Did you notice - her clothes were the latest thing; they looked brand new."
Frederica nodded. "The Viscountess must be trying to make a good impression on her brother. Her clothes are probably new too."
"And that coach. Have you ever seen anything so magnificent?"
"Only rented, I fear." Amelia looked disappointed and she hid a grin.
A knock at the door preceded the entrance of Caroline Lynton. Their hostess had two morning dresses draped over her arm, and two sets of matching shoes dangling from her hands. After a brief, rather heated, discussion about who should have the lavender or the pink, Amelia retired behind a screen to dress.
Frederica waited her turn patiently enough, hiding a grin when her sister emerged. Amelia was rather more buxom than Caroline. The lavender dress was a tight fit on her, and the shoes pinched. Her grin disappeared, however, when it was her turn and not only did the shoes prove to be too large, the pink dress's waist was too low, its hem much too long. She sighed and not for the first time wished she were a little taller. Still, rather too long a dress than too short, she decided, ignoring her sister's laughter and reassuring their apologetic hostess that she did not mind in the least about her outfit's shortcomings.
"You have been kindness itself, Mrs Lynton. Please be easy. It is our own fault for not taking more notice of the weather before we set out."
"Well, if you are sure -"
"I am." She regarded herself in the mirror and tried not to grimace. "Now, if a maid perhaps -" She gestured at her bedraggled locks. Caroline obligingly sent for Martha, her own maid.
When they were once more fit to be seen in civilised company, Caroline nodded her satisfaction, dismissed Martha, and said, "And now. Chaloner is waiting for you in the drawing room, Miss Bertram. And the children are in the schoolroom, eager as always to play with you, Miss Amelia." She put a hand on the door handle and waited.
"They are always such good-natured children," Amelia said, getting up and crossing to join the children's mother. Caroline looked doubtful.
"That's because you allow them to do whatever they have a mind to," said Frederica. She smoothed her unflattering dress over her hips, made a mental note to slide her feet rather than lift them - that way the shoes might stay on - then dismissed her dismal appearance from her mind.
Caroline smiled and opened the door. "Whatever the case, my three are always glad to see Miss Amelia. And I am happy to accommodate them."
"Good morning, Miss Bertram." Chaloner resumed his seat and smoothed the creases from his yellow nankeen trousers. "I trust you have taken no harm from your recent misadventure?"
Frederica made herself comfortable on the sofa while Caroline settled herself at the writing table in the drawing-room window. "Good morning to you, Mr Dunster. I am quite well, thank you. My clothes, however..." She gestured at her ill-fitting garments.
He blinked. "But are those not-"
"Your sister's clothes?" She laughed and glanced across at their chaperone, who was already busy with her letter to her cousin. "Indeed they are. Either that or I must find myself a new seamstress immediately."
He looked puzzled, and she suppressed a sigh. Amiable, Chaloner might be; quick-witted, he was not.
"And your sister? I hope Miss Amelia has not caught a cold?"
Health was always a safe topic. "No, thank goodness. She is presently with the children." A shoe was sliding off her foot and she retrieved it discreetly.
"Ah, my nephews and niece." Chaloner turned to smile in his sister's direction. "Caroline tells me she is always glad when 'Aunt' Amelia entertains them."
Since four-year-old George, five-year-old Maria, and six-year-old John were always exhausted and much more biddable after a visit from her energetic sister, it was no wonder, thought Frederica.
"And your family," he continued. "They are well too?" He flicked a speck of lint off his waistcoat.
"Indeed. We are all well at Chawleigh, Mr Dunster." It was clearly up to her to change the topic of conversation. What would interest him, other than talk of his plans for Symond Hall, of which she had already heard far more than she would wish? "Is not the news from across the Channel wonderful? We were all loud in our 'huzzas' when the footman brought the tidings."
"And now the Duke is marching on Paris," added Chaloner.
"So I hear. Let us hope he brings things to a swift conclusion."
"And that things soon return to normal. Cook is forever complaining about shortages of one foodstuff or another."
"Is she? I expect the Lyntons' cook is the same." He turned to his sister. "Is she not, Caroline?"
"Oh, most certainly."
"I must hire a new cook for Symond Hall. The one who served my great uncle does not suit me at all. Her ideas are fifty years behind the times." He turned and smiled at her. "But that decision should be made by the lady of the house, don't you agree?"
"To be sure. Or by the housekeeper." Frederica examined her hands and an awkward silence fell. A rustle proved to be Caroline turning over her sheet of writing paper. Through the drawing-room window, Frederica saw Viscountess Norland's hired coach and horses driving away - back to town, presumably.
"It was fortunate that the Viscountess saw us sheltering under the oak tree," she said.
Chaloner pursed his lips then nodded. He clearly didn't want to talk about their notorious visitor, but Frederica found herself compelled to continue.
"She has just come from Paris has she not?"
"Calais," corrected Caroline from the writing table. Her quill had broken and she was sharpening a new point.
"Here, let me." Chaloner rose and strode to his sister's side, then busied himself with a knife. The tip of his tongue poked out in concentration. Frederica turned her gaze away.
"According to Edmund," continued Caroline, "his sister left Paris a few weeks ago. She has been travelling overland... on foot."
Frederica looked up at this interesting titbit. "On foot! Then it is fortunate indeed that she came to no harm."
"Perhaps not so fortunate as all that."
Did Caroline wish her sister-in-law had not returned safely? wondered Frederica. Or did she mean that, where the Viscountess was concerned, fortune had little to do with her fate?
But Chaloner had returned to his seat opposite and was frowning at her. Recollecting herself, she gave him a charming smile.
His expression relaxed. "Have you heard, Miss Bertram? There is to be a ball at the assembly rooms in three weeks time."
"Indeed I have. Amelia is all agog at the news and has been making our lives a misery trying to decide what to wear."
He laughed. "Miss Amelia enjoys her dancing, I hear. And you are not averse to it, I hope?"
"No indeed." Though it very much depended on one's dance partner, she reflected.
"Then perhaps you will keep the first few dances on your card free for me, Miss Bertram?"
She regarded him from under lowered eyelashes. Her parents would be delighted with the way matters were progressing. Did it necessarily matter that she felt nothing for him at all?
"Perhaps I shall."
CONTINUED IN PART 2
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