Numerous gentlemen stood about the vast parlour at Toadingham, the Duke of Trent’s ancient seat in Blythewold of the Yorkshire Dales, speaking in muted but jovial tones. Only two of those present seemed sensible of the recent tragedy which had occasioned the gathering. One was the duke, for his sister and her husband had died in a coaching accident. The other, Miss Feodora Margaret Tavistock, “Feenie,” only nine years old and fresh from America, was sitting on a bench on the side of the room: frowning, lonely, clutching a frozen-eyed porcelain doll, and trying not to cry. The dead couple were her parents, though it was her father’s loss only that she grieved, the father who had reconciled across an ocean with his estranged wife only to die right along with her a mere three days after arriving by ship with Feodora.
She had two living relations in England who might care for her, two uncles, the brothers of her mother. But only one of them, the duke, volunteered to do so. In his late forties, a quiet, perpetually uncomfortable-looking man, he seemed as bewildered as the young orphan.
Chatting solicitors, looking important in their grey topcoats, nondescript pantaloons, and voluminous cravats, helped themselves to snuff from little porcelain or gilded cases whipped from waistcoats and returned in practised gestures that took mere seconds. Feodora noticed this not, as her entire attention was directed inwards, where tears were suppressed but fighting to come forth. She’d been scolded by her uncle’s servants and knew better than to let them out. Even now, a grim-faced housekeeper, by the name of Mrs. Pudding—a name which might have made Feenie laugh under other circumstances—kept a sharp eye upon her, standing silently against the far wall. Her entire purpose in the room, it seemed to Feodora, was to make certain she didn’t disturb the guests.
Feodora huddled with her arms tightly about her little doll. Her world had come to an end. With Papa gone, how could life continue? The memory of the carriage overturning, and the sight of him, so still and lifeless, haunted her. The sight of her mother was disturbing, too, but she’d only just been reacquainted with that lady. Her father had taken her off to America when she was a mere infant, for reasons unknown to her. But now he was gone. She would never, ever recover. She would never laugh or be happy. She wanted to die and join Papa in heaven. He must be in heaven, of course. She wished to be there, too, not in England, not in her uncle’s home. Much better if she could return to America and live with her old nurse, Persippany, who had cried buckets at her leaving. That world was lost to her now.
After the carriage had overturned the previous night, only miles from the duke’s residence, the next thing Feenie remembered was being handled roughly. Grim countenances of unfamiliar faces staring hard at her...the housekeeper’s stern, frightening expression. She’d grabbed hold of Feodora and carted her kicking and screaming to a small room, where she was told to stop her hysterics, or she’d sleep there alone in the dark. The memory shook a fresh small sob from deep within her.
Mrs. Pudding was there in a moment and whisked Feenie with one stout arm against her side and scurried from the room with her. “I might have known it!” she huffed, setting the girl on her feet after progressing down a carpeted hall for some distance. She opened a door and roughly pushed the girl in before closing it behind them. Swiftly she crossed the room, grabbed a switch from near the fireplace and came menacingly towards Feodora, who sobbed louder. Papa had never given her the switch! Mrs. Pudding wore a sour expression and came at her with an arm raised. “Shush your ‘owling this instant!” She bent over as if to strike, but at just that moment the door opened.
A young man’s face, filled with consternation, peered inside and was followed in an instant by the rest of him: a tall, well-dressed frame, with an elegant cravat and a bearing equal to the station of an earl’s second son. Glaring at Mrs. Pudding, who instantly straightened and hid the switch behind an ample posterior, he came towards Feenie and stood between her and the servant. His expression of righteous indignation, coupled with blazing eyes, must have conveyed to that lady that her penal actions had best cease, for she slowly backed away.
The servant frowned as if wondering if the Hon. Mr. Rempeare, the duke’s nephew, had the authority to interfere. He was a mere lad of fifteen or sixteen. She put her hands on her hips, inadvertently revealing the switch. The young man grabbed it and shook it in her face. “Leave this room!” he ordered, “or I’ll teach you how it feels at the end of this.” He spoke as one who held no doubt that he would be obeyed.
Mrs. Pudding opened her mouth to argue, but his presence, young as he was, seemed to impress her. She said only, “But sir, she must keep silent in company!”
“I heard nothing from her,” he said imperiously. “And has she not suffered the loss of her parents? Only last night? Young as she is?”
The housekeeper nodded stiffly. “Aye.” Quickly she added this torrent: “But next thing she’ll scream like kingdom come and all bedlamʼs loose, like she done last night!”
“Perhaps, in her mind, it is,” he answered, and turning, opened the door while eyeing her in such a way that she exited with a great frown. Feodora was left with the tall lad who turned and surveyed her. He smiled and bowed.
“We are cousins, my dear,” he said brightly. “Gabriel Rempeare, at your service.” She regarded him, blinking. Her tears ceased. He pulled a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and said, “There, now. The old battleaxe shan’t harm you. I’ll see to that.” She took the handkerchief and blew her nose and looked up at him with instant and ardent adoration.
Young Master Rempeare looked over his little American cousin. She had an abundance of curly orange locks, a liberal sprinkling of freckles, and was painfully skinny. Hysterics did nothing to improve matters, for her nose and cheeks were bright red. Looking rather miserable, she clung to a porcelain doll with a ferocity that made him examine it as if to determine whether it was bejewelled. While she sniffed and stared, he wondered vaguely how to proceed. He should give her time to settle herself, no doubt.
While considering this, he paced about the room with one hand on his chin. He took a few lunges with the switch to fight off an imaginary Frenchie, but then returned his attention to the forlorn little girl. His compassionate eyes must have made an impression, because when he went towards her with an outstretched hand, she took it easily. He gently led her to a sofa. To his shock, when he sat down beside her, she climbed onto his lap, put her little bony arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder. In moments, she was asleep.
Gabriel held his new charge with a dazed expression. He had hoped to come to her aid somehow, but never had he dreamed of it being like this. He decided right then and there that he would champion this new little cousin. Indeed, his dear departed mama had told him about his American cousin, and that when she was of age, he must marry her. Her looks were hardly inspiring, but he was little concerned about that. He was soon to enter His Majesty’s Navy, and his mind was filled with images of ships and ocean swells and sword fighting and honour.
His father, the fifth Earl Stafford, had remonstrated all the way to Toadingham that his brother, the duke, was a fool to take the child. Looking down at the homely, drawn little face, Gabriel was glad he had. He would let her sleep for as long as she liked. For as long as they were left alone in peace.
Ten years later
“Mrs. Filbert! Only guess what I have learned from my uncle!” Miss Tavistock, the nineteen-year-old orphaned ward of the Duke of Trent, rushed across the great library at Toadingham to where her companion, Mrs. Filbert, lay settled upon a settee amongst layers of pillows and blankets near the fire, sniffling and sneezing. Mrs. Filbert was laid up in the library where her ague bothered no one else in the household but where she could take comfort in books during her affliction.
Margaret—for Miss Tavistock detested the name Feodora and went by her second name now—held a letter in her slim hands as she arrived before the companion, her strawberry-blonde curls bouncing and her gown still swishing against legs that had moved far more quickly than was usual for a genteel young lady. Her cheeks, bright with excitement, were outshone only by the shimmering sea green of her eyes. She hovered, breathless, before the settee with its profusion of blankets, uncertain where the boundaries of the middle-aged Mrs. Filbert ended.
“Here, dear,” the comfortably plump personage said, patting a spot on the blankets. “Only do not stay close,
lest this dreadful ague passes to you! Achoo!”
“Bless you,” said Miss Tavistock absently, depositing herself upon the designated seat. Mrs. Filbert noted the rosy glow upon her face with pleasure. She disapproved of the girl’s daily horseback riding, but had to concede that the country air surrounding Toadingham christened her cherubic countenance with an almost absurd vitality and youthful beauty.
“I must tell you!” the cherub exclaimed, settling herself more comfortably while peering at Mrs. Filbert. “Or shall you guess it?”
“Indeed, I am sure I may not, my dear!”
“Very well.” Margaret tried in vain to hold back an irrepressible smile. “’Tis regarding my cousin, Captain Rempeare!”
“Indeed!” said the lady appreciatively. Word of the captain, who was betrothed to Margaret by the particular wish of both their now deceased parents, was exceedingly scarce at Toadingham. It was so scarce that Margaret had vowed, on more than one occasion, to break off the nuptials, though it would disappoint the duke and go against the wish of the dearly departed.
“The captain’s injury is not as bad as we feared,” she said now. “But his ship is beyond repair and has been decommissioned! He is ashore and says he will call upon me!” Margaret’s red lips, full and scandalously voluptuous, smiled, her green eyes sparkling.
“Decommissioned?” asked the older lady. “We must thank Providence his injury wasn’t worse, if the ship fared so badly.” They had learned of the battle and the captain’s injury from the Times and the Morning Chronicle, where Margaret got most all her news of the war against Napoleon and of London’s upper class. She clipped and saved every mention of her elusive cousin and his skirmishes at sea. During the Battle at Lissa, the captain valiantly held off and routed a much greater French and Spanish force than what he commanded. Despite the victory, there were casualties and wounded. The captain’s sword arm had taken a nasty hit. He was blessed, his letter to the duke said, that he hadn’t lost the limb.
“Isn't it wonderful?” Margaret held the letter against her bosom and stared out at the room smiling, appreciating the wonder. She hadn’t seen the captain in near a decade, almost since before he entered His Majesty’s Navy. But she prayed for him faithfully each night and was mindful of the marriage arrangement, her private journal even littered with the words, “Captain and Mrs. Gabriel Rempeare.” She adored the sound of it, and thought it wise to grow accustomed to her future name.
“I dare say he must dislike it,” said Mrs. Filbert.
The smile on the rapturous face vanished. “Dislike it?” she asked. “After ten years at sea? I should think he’d be pleased!”
Mrs. Filbert hated to crush excitement in her charge, there was so little in her life, but she said, “It all depends, my love—oh, achoo!—excuse me, dearest. This wretched chill!”
“Bless you,” responded the girl despondently. “Why do you say it depends—on what?”
“On why he ran off to sea in the first place. Men have a penchant for getting it in their blood, and some never wish for a regular life on land again. The sea takes hold of a man in strange ways, you know.”
“Pooh!” said the young miss unromantically. “He went to sea to escape his overbearing father, or so says the duke. A father who is no longer with us. And if my cousin wished to remain at sea, then he would not have got himself injured and his ship decommissioned.”
“Why, my love! How can you say so! When he was fighting a war!”
“Well, perhaps he had enough of war. I certainly have!” Miss Tavistock looked at the ceiling in an injured fashion as if she herself had suffered hardships from the French blockade.
“But, my dear, how fortunate we are here in Yorkshire, situated near the coast where smugglersʼ ships get through aplenty. We never lack sugar, tea, French silks, or lace. In London, such contraband costs a pretty penny!”
Margaret nodded, looking unconvinced. Smoothing the fold of her gown, trimmed at the bust along the front centre skirt with prohibited French lace, she said, “I own I want for nothing. My uncle is too generous by halves!”
Mrs. Filbert nodded. “The cross you bear is a want of happy society. What should be part and parcel of the life of a dukeʼs ward is sadly absent in this wild country! If His Grace were not such a recluse—”
“He doesn’t snivel at surrounding me with servants, the best dancing master, or pianoforte instructors!” interrupted Margaret, hoping to cut off the remonstrances against her uncle that she knew from long acquaintance with her companion, were about to erupt.
“I dare say youʼve seen little in the way of company except for governesses and servants.”
“Do not forget Sir Thomas—”
“Who is now departed, God rest him, and whose two sons were ever seldom in residence! I never met a man more determined to avoid his own offspring! What you wanted all along was female acquaintance.”
“But his amiable wife, Lady Francis—”
“Another recluse!” broke in the elder lady.
Margaret looked bereft. “They say Sir Thomas kept her almost under lock and key. But on the occasion we met, she never uttered a complaint against him.”
“A baronetʼs wife—under lock and key? I cannot credit it.” Mrs. Filbert further pressed her point by nodding severely at Margaret. “I hate to speak against my betters, you know ʼtis true, but she is no doubt that simpering sort of woman, a church mouse, not at all the thing for good conversation or company.” She pointed a finger. “And she supplied no daughters for your acquaintance.”
“A grave failing, indeed,” said Margaret, suppressing a smile, and with a sideways glance at Mrs. Filbert. Playfully, she added, “But my uncle has been only magnanimous: why, the moment I thought to ask for a companion, he gave me you!”
Mrs. Filbert smiled, but her company was not at all the same as being in polite society. Little wonder Margaret had accepted Mrs. Filbert for a companion when a more worldly-wise young miss might have insisted on one closer to her own age. Mrs. Filbert was five years widowed and just approaching her fiftieth year when she arrived from London in answer to the advertisement. To her concern, sheʼd been taken straight to the duke himself, when usually a housekeeper conducted interviews. But His Grace, a bespectacled, mild-spoken grey-haired man not much older than herself, had approved her for the situation faster than she thought possible, almost faster than she thought respectable.
There were questions that hadn’t been asked. She knew next to nothing about the girl she was to provide chaperonage for, and usually, the much-pampered young woman would come and inspect her and finally give her reluctant agreement—if Mrs. Filbert was lucky—or whimper that she was too old (in her very presence) and send her off. Miss Tavistock had shown neither hide nor hair, yet Mrs. Filbert had been escorted by a footman to a bedchamber, which had apparently been designated for her by that young woman previous to her arrival.
Mrs. Filbert was positively suspicious. Did the young miss have a terrible deficiency? Was she mentally impaired? Ugly and awkward? There had to be some reason why the young lady had not required an interview, and her mind could furnish only those which seemed macabre.
All her fears were laid to rest when Miss Tavistock, unbidden, came to bestow a curious welcome to the new addition to the household. A firm rap on the door. “May I come in?” said a clear voice. “It is Miss Tavistock.” The door opened to reveal a slim young woman who crossed the portal and swept into the room with pointed elegance. Mrs. Filbert’s heart sank, for such a poised beauty would never desire an old widow for a companion, she was sure. At a loss for words, and finding herself under the scrutiny of a pair of wide-open, sea-green eyes, she uttered hastily, “Your uncle sent you, no doubt?”
“The duke?” she asked, smiling prettily. “No, indeed! I heard from the servants you’d arrived.” Only later would Mrs. Filbert discover that His Grace rarely spoke a word that wasn’t strictly necessary, which explained the hasty interview.
Miss Tavistock sat upon the bed, still looking curiously at Mrs. Filbert. Her lovely reddish blonde hair, more blonde than red, fell in tight little ringlets about her head, and her dress was of the latest fashion. Mrs. Filbert was to learn that all of Miss Tavistock’s stylishness came from a steady subscription to fashion magazines and journals. And that the poor child had never in her life attended a ball or concert outside of the small village beyond the Hall, except once, at the estate of the captain’s father, her other uncle.
“I was hoping,” the young woman said quietly, not lowering her eyes, “that you would be younger.” Quickly she added, “I beg you'll pardon my saying so. I can be frightfully rude, I'm afraid, for I speak my mind.”
“Not at all, my dear,” Mrs. Filbert said warmly. Unlike the spoiled young chits who criticised her as if she weren’t present, this lovely girl had apologised for an honest appraisal. “I should think you would want a younger companion,” she added sympathetically. She was careful not to show her disappointment; for only two minutes in this young lady’s presence had made her feel certain she would have liked to stay. But she couldn’t blame Miss Tavistock for wanting younger blood for company.
“But that's that!” her new charge exclaimed, surprising her not a little. “I'm sure we'll get on famously.”
The older woman blinked in surprise. “Do you mean you don’t wish for me to leave?”
“Leave?” she asked innocently. “Fire and brimstone, pray do not!” The cry was heartfelt. The young miss looked thoughtfully at Mrs. Filbert’s much-worn apparel, adding, “I dare say you need this appointment.” Her frank eyes rose to meet Mrs. Filbert’s. “And I am in need of company. All the gentry in these parts have gone off to London: the Season, you know.” She swallowed and looked suddenly sad.
“Have you had a debut—” Mrs. Filbert started to ask.
Margaret said, “I couldn't bear to ask the duke; he wouldn’t abide setting up an establishment in London. He loathes society, you must know.”
Mrs. Filbert nodded, for the duke was a famous recluse. “But surely there are other ways. He needn’t go himself.”
Miss Tavistock eyed her hopefully. “Do you indeed think so? We must discuss this further!” But she had the good breeding to check her curiosity, saying, “After you’ve settled in and rested. You’ve obviously travelled from some distance.” The young eyes had appraised the signs of a weary traveller correctly. “From where?” she enquired. “You look to have been on the road for days.”
Mrs. Filbert could not feel reproachful at this description for it was true. “From London,” she said, and was instantly glad to have come from that place, for the young lady’s eyes lit up.
“London? Famous! You will tell me about it?”
“Of course, my dear, whatever I can.” The eagerness in her new charge’s eyes eloquently bespoke the years of loneliness the girl had suffered. The young woman rose.
“Dinner is served at six—early by London standards, is it not?”
“Yes, eight or nine is customary there.”
Margaret’s eyes glittered for having known this much of London styles, and Mrs. Filbert’s heart warmed again.
All that was nearly two years ago, now. Since then, a great affection had sprung up between the two. Mrs. Filbert was grateful for being treated nearly as an equal (though she made sure never to forget she was a hired companion) and the motherless Margaret was blessed by the company and care of an older woman who had witnessed much of life and London.
The duke kept largely to himself. If he felt badly for not providing the girl with society, he made up for it by giving her all the niceties and fripperies any female could want. The only thing he denied his niece was the thing he could not countenance for himself—society. Margaret had bloomed beneath his lackadaisical care; but was lonely.
She felt sure the captain would have called upon them during shore leaves if only His Grace wasn’t averse to company. When she enquired about her cousin’s absence, the duke said that seamen often preferred to take their leave on foreign soils where adventure and excitement lay. Margaret tried hard not to believe that exotic women went along with that excitement. She might have succeeded, too, if not for Roderick.
The Honourable Roderick Rempeare, eternal student at Cambridge, was the captain’s younger brother. He did not come often to Toadingham—usually only for Michaelmas term break and Christmas—but when there, he had nothing good to say of the captain. With his perpetually disdainful eye, he would say things like, “My brother ever did lack common sentiment such as would encourage him to write you, Feodora. You should scarcely be surprised at it. I wonder you haven’t called off the arrangement: don’t want to enter the parson’s mousetrap to regret it, eh?”
“Fire and brimstone, Roddy! Have I not asked you for this age to please call me Margaret?” As usual he ignored this plea, merely looking down his Cambridge nose at her. Roderick claimed to be a poet. Or so he said this year, though last year he had been intent upon mastering the study of anatomy, and the year before, it was antiquities and archaeology that fascinated him. Margaret had long admired his scholarship, except her whole conception of Roderick had changed at Christmas when he recited his most recent creation, a poem entitled “Poetical.”
I’ve no sense o’ the highly poetical
But if I may be theoretical
For only a minute—
I’ll put a rhyme in it—
And end with a good parenthetical.
She’d been doubtful of his talent ever since.
“Does his letter say when he will call upon you?” asked Mrs. Filbert, dragging her mind back to the present.
Margaret had no need to scan the note. “In exactly a fortnight.” She shook her head to assure herself it was all quite real. Her future husband—coming at last! Her eyes grew far away. “I remember him quite well, you know. He had striking eyes, dark curly hair, and was very tall. He seemed quite elegant,” she said with a giggle. But her look turned more serious. “He rescued me once.”
“Rescued you?” Mrs. Filbert was faintly amazed, never having heard of this rescue. She pictured a damsel in distress, the captain valiantly drawing a sword to defend her….
“From Mrs. Pudding,” Margaret added. “Who was the housekeeper. She’s long gone now, of course.”
Mrs. Filbert wiped her brow.
Margaret continued, “I was a child then, but he seemed a proper hero to me, I assure you.” She smiled. “He was only a boy, I suppose, but so tall and...and I thought, manly, at the time. And those eyes.”
“You said they were striking?” asked Mrs. Filbert.
“Upon my word, yes. I even bestowed on them a space in my diary, describing them thus”—and here she stood and struck a pose like that of an actor reciting lines—“a pair of iridescent opals, only darker.” She curtseyed to an imaginary audience and resumed her seat.
“We shall see if his eyes are still iridescent opals,” said Mrs. Filbert with a fond smile.
“Say nothing of that description, if you please,” Margaret said quickly, blushing. “I dare say a decade in His Majesty’s Navy must change a man.”
Mrs. Filbert was about to opine that seafaring men might change in many aspects, indeed, but that eye colour was not likely to be one of them. But Margaret let out a heartfelt sigh. “I am sure when he comes he will explain why he wrote so seldom,” she said in a tone that conveyed she was anything but sure.
Mrs. Filbert made a clucking sound with her tongue. “I should say! Hardly a letter per annum! For a near decade!”
Margaret coloured but said, “Not all men take well to the pen, you know.”
“Only those with half a brain,” murmured the lady.
“You are determined to dislike him.”
“You are determined to protect him.”
Margaret paused and gave an impish smile. “I am determined only to marry him,” she said, with a happy sigh. “It was my parents’ wish; it was his mother’s wish, and I have no other prospect, as you well know.”
“You could have enormous prospects if you allow me to chaperon you in London.” All of Mrs. Filbert’s encouragement had so far failed to move Margaret to approach the duke for permission for a Season.
“But the marriage is arranged, recollect. And in any case, the captain will end my days of solitude. You’ll see.”
Margaret bustled about, glowing with the added responsibility of getting the ancient house sparklingly in order. For herself, visits to the mantua maker, urgent orders to London merchants, and a thorough examination of the latest styles as put forth in La Belle Assemblée and other fashion magazines, were all necessary before she felt herself ready to receive her guest.
The morning of the arrival dawned. The house shone at its best.
A disconcerting notice in the morning Times gave the ladies pause, for it said in the society column that Captain Rempeare, though new to Town and already sought after as a war hero, was busy setting up an establishment in a townhouse in Mayfair. Margaret maintained it wouldn’t postpone his visit. And then the letter arrived, not even a letter, but so brief as to have been a dictated message.
“Visit postponed indefinitely. Deepest regrets. Captain Rempeare.”