The Hair and the Spare
Sophia Tilden had rebuffed four flattering offers of marriage. Were her beauty not as dazzling as on her debut two years ago, her mama would suffer paroxysms of anxiety. But her strategy had borne fruit, for the magnificent prize had finally come calling, and her mama, Lady Tilden judged it worth the wait.
The season soared along and the outcome of the courtship still hung in the balance. Sophia is so easily diverted, her ladyship lamented, other young men turn her head, I can't count on her not allowing this fine piece of fortune slip through her fingers. I must remonstrate with the girl. I must do so before tonight. Tonight she must captivate him and him alone.
Lady Tilden approved the menu the cook had made up for supper and leaving the kitchens passed her niece in the stone passage. "Have you a notion, Clara, where I may find Sophia?"
"I quit her a minute ago in the drawing room," Clara replied.
At first her ladyship failed to find her daughter there but her wide glance did discover her reticule, forgotten on a small table. Late last evening, she recalled and crossed over to retrieve it. The spring sunshine thawed her aching joints after the cold of the kitchen and Lady Tilden stood in its warmth. While her frail frame basked, her eyes flitted around for other mislaid items.
The drawing-room of Tilden House was furnished in a style, though once fashionable, had by 1814 become shockingly shabby, thought its mistress, envying the modern décor of its Hanovour Square neighbours. The cluttered chairs and tables were cumbersome and scratched, the wall-paper was dull, the carpets frayed and faded, as were the curtains that arched the windows overlooking cobbles and green.
Soon I shall have the power to replace all this old stuff with what is new and shining, Lady Tilden sighed. If my girl troubles to secure our treacle moon!
Her gaze fell on an area hidden from the door and another search ended. A shaft of light glorified her lovely Sophia reclining on a sofa. From beneath a halo of flaxen curls stared china blue eyes at a book on a lilic taffeta lap. The furrowed focus above delicately arched brows had relief when her red mouth dimpled. Bracing herself for battle, her ladyship stalked to an opposing chair, on which she brandished a painted pink fan of chicken skin.
"Another of Mrs Radcliffe's novels?"
"Mansfield Park," Sophia murmured. "Hot off the press and already the rage."
Lady Tilden's dismay dwindled. "What author?"
"Just a lady." Sophia looked up at her gasp of disgust. "Her identity is a mystery to everybody except for Mr Murray, who also publishes for Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott."
"If Murray prints Byron's poems, I don't doubt he accepts the work of a bold blue stocking."
"It's no trifling romance." Sophia's eyes sparkled. "Nothing I have read is its equal. The copy is Cousin Clara's."
"Ah, whatever Clara reads is unexceptional." Lady Tilden tapped her fan on the polished wood of her chair. "Is it improving? Those horrid Gothic novels and trashy romances young ladies and school boys borrow at Circulating Libraries are highly improper."
"Papa permits me to subscribe to Hatchard's."
"Your papa indulges your whims. Never can I get the man to take my part in a matter." Her ladyship expanded her theme. "He refused to believe I saw Lord Jasper Vernon making love to you!"
Sophia giggled. "Just galant! I was quite charmed off my feet."
Lady Tilden cringed. "Poor Lord Ashton looked frantic with jealousy. You were very imprudent. We can't count on Ashton ever looking at you again."
"I don't know if I care."
"Sophia! Are you mad? Lord Jasper has few prospects and little liberty. The Marquess of Ashton is heir to huge wealth and consequence. His is the finest offer you may ever have."
"The marquess has never mentioned marriage."
"Your papa offered before we had known each other a fortnight."
Sophia rolled her eyes. "Now days young people prefer to test out the strength of their attachments."
"I swear you had that nonsense out of a novel."
Reminded of her reading, Sophia returned to her book. Lady Tilden's anger mounted.
"Were you not rapped up in your own fancies and pleasures, you would recognise our sacrifices." Her ladyship's voice quavered as her bitterness spilled out. "Such great debts papa has run up for you! The estates mortgaged, our country house rented out to shabby gentility, and now papa is going to money-lenders!"
"Why, Mama! You are crying!" Dropping the abused novel, Sophia knelt at her mother's feet and clutched the wan hand to her own rosy cheek. "Pray don't! I am a selfish wretch who must mend her manners. You are far too good to us. Am I so expensive?"
"Your things are just a part of the piece. Papa has never climbed out of the basket since he was swindled." Lady Tilden dabbed her nose as she watched her daughter in wonder ransack her reticule. Such sympathy filed the edge off her grief. "Don't breath a word! The world would guess you are on campaign for a rich husband."
Sophia snatched out smelling salts and applied these to her mother's nose. "I'm not so foolish, mama. There, your colour is returning. Why did you not unburden before to me? For shame!"
"To spare you anxiety, my dear." Her ladyship had a surge of hope. "I'm glad you dragged it out of me. Now you understand how Ashton is the answer to all."
Sophia put back the salts, plucked up her book, and settled back on the sofa with her nose in its pages. Lady Tilden sensed hostility but refused to backdown now.
"The Marquess is by you for supper. His brother is far down at the table's other end. Clara is too. I dare say she won't talk but it's the best I can do for him."
Sophia's eyes started up. "So am I to snub Lord Jasper as the younger Vernon son and encourage Lord Ashton as the elder? How heartless. Lord Jasper is far handsomer." Her knuckles gleamed grasping the book binding. "Why must we have the pair to dinner for the third week running? Your designs are obvious."
"Guests dispel tension." Her ladyship winced. "I can't bear a family dinner!"
"Will Nicholas be here?"
"Papa will lecture the poor boy on the error of his ways if we lack company. Then Nicholas won't hold his tongue. My belly plagues me enough without their heated arguments."
"Does Nicky still lose so heavily at cards?"
Lady Tilden fetched out some crochet from a work basket. "The poor boy can't help his bad luck."
"The stupid boy should stop gambling if it always goes badly. This madness only began when he entered the army. In plain clothes, Nicholas was almost virtuous. Amazing how a red coat transforms a man."
"Only outcasts don't gamble at barracks. Imagine the pressure!"
A thunder of footsteps and bumping of baggage in the downstairs hall heralded an arrival before a banging of heavy boots on the stairs and a muffled masculine voice upraised testified its identity. Footfalls approached and the door was thrown wide to omit a good looking, scarlet coated young man, with a mop of shiny fair hair and a pair of expressive blue eyes.
"Ah, you are here! Crochet and study? Such industry." Lieutenant Nicholas Tilden's brows shot up in exaggerated surprise. "I expected to hear you were promenading Hyde Park."
"Welcome home, my dear boy." Lady Tilden tilted her cheek to his kiss. "I had to go over cook's menu for this evening."
"Which of Sophia's beaux will plague us?"
"The most agreeable people imaginable!"
Nicholas grinned at his sister. "What you actually mean, mama, is they are plump in the pocket."
Sophia cast him a probing look. "Why are you not with your regiment?"
He flopped onto a sofa. "I'm on furlough."
"Did you request it?"
"No. I behaved badly."
"How unoriginal. What was the final straw?"
His eyes roamed. "I was party to a prank played on night watchmen and a team of coach horses."
"Did the horses object?"
"No, they liked us. Their owner didn't."
"Was the prank unsuccessful?"
"It succeeded beautifully. Not our escape."
"Were you conscious?"
"How unfair!" their mother was shrill. "No lady asks such delicate things."
"If I had gone unconscious, I should have no complaints."
Sophia's blue orbs brightened. "You were imprisoned?"
"Briefly. Half a night. Our colonel extracted us."
"How shocking! Were the instigator?"
"The plan seemed so simple and safe. It was scarcely the work of ten minutes to free the horses from their traces and chase them through the streets. We may yet have slept soundly in our barrack beds had a night watchman not objected to our raucous game."
"A single watchman arrested your entire party?"
"No, no. We had just tied the fellow up in his hut, which we had upturned, when his companions of the watch emerged from the George and Dragon to lay hands on us. Of course we resisted and a scuffle ensued. Then the owner of the horses led up a search party, who overpowered us. As bad luck had it, the horse owner was a magistrate, hungry for revenge. I narrowly missed transportation for life."
"You are wicked!" Sophia giggled. "I am impressed. No wonder Papa was in such a rage. I hope you are ashamed."
Nicholas crossed his legs. "Not a bit. It was famous sport. Now what I must do to pay for my crime is spend a spell of pleasure in London. I'm a fortunate fellow."
"We are so happy to have you here," Lady Tilden tried to change the subject. "This season promises such a parade of parties."
"A host of fresh damsels to debut." Nicholas licked his lips. "Where is Cousin Clara?"
"In the kitchen." Her ladyship glided up, conscious her son was unlikely to boast about acts of crime before his quaint cousin. "I'll fetch her!" She floated to the door. "Clara will be so pleased."
¤ ¤ ¤
"I daren't meet her eyes," Nicholas said. "Is Clara aware of what a scoundrel I am?
"Papa refused to hint at why you had made him so angry," Sophia said. "Clara is ignorant."
"Ignorance is bliss. I don't desire her frowns. Papa is bound to bestow enough disapproval. How have you behaved?"
"Mama was busy lecturing me. I must please the heirs and snub the spares. Instead, I enjoy myself with whichever suitor most pleases. I am flighty and flirty and irresponsible. And I'm determined to remain so. I hope you're shocked."
"You are expected to make a match this season. Home life won't like you if you fail." Nicholas stretched out his arms and folded the hard muscle bolts behind his head. "How happy I am to be a bachelor."
"I wish rather to die than wed a fat and boring peer, twice my age."
"Enter a nunnery," he suggested. "You could preserve saints' bones."
Sophia shivered. "How hideous. Better to cherish living bones than dead, even if holy ones. I wonder if Clara may choose that course once I am a wife. The vail may suit her."
"I forbid it! Appoint her nursemaid to your children."
The door creaked and the siblings hushed as they saw their childhood playmate. Clara Knight looked plain in contrast to her dazzling cousins. Her saving grace was her eyes, deep grey pools, which if not downcast could captivate. Her brown hair was wound in a plait about her head and her slight frame wore a white lawn gown.
"How maidenly and proper," Nicholas said.
In the next instant, he leaped up and galloped over to catch her in a bear hug and kiss her on each cheek.
"What has got into you?" Clara gulped.
"Sorry, you looked too sweet not to kiss." He inspected her flushing face. "Yes, you are unaltered, still my little mouse!"
"Your compliments shall swell Clara's head!" Sophia said.
"Clara is too like a sister to care one fig for my jokes." He slouched down on the sofa again. "Treat me to your town gossip, dear mouse. I trust you aren't too dignified."
"I am not easily offended." Clara came cautiously to take one of the chairs. "You missed the French king."
"Fat Louis is not easily missed. Is he truly an elephant?"
"Casts our Prince Regent in the shade," Clara said. "Of course cartoons exaggerate his size. He is agreeable company."
"Yet His Majesty has his elder brother's weakness and none of his younger brother's force?"
Clara grimaced. "I doubt France is at the end of her troubles."
"Whose troubles do end?" Nicholas smiled. "How goes the Royal betrothal?"
"Her father tricked Princess Charlotte to consent!" Sophia said. "It was their first meeting. The Regent bullied Charlotte to confess that she liked the Prince of Orange fairly well, on which he bellowed abroad that his daughter was engaged!"
"No wonder the Princess of Wales opposes the match," Nicholas said. "Of course Caroline opposes her husband's schemes on principle. But this must not be allowed. Slender Billy is a buffoon."
"Name me one prince not a buffoon," Clara said. "Poor Charlotte is the best of the bunch but I doubt she can avoid marrying a scoundrel."
Nicholas locked eyes with his sister for an awkward second. Then he yawned, stretched, and stood up. "I beg you ladies will excuse me, for if his lordship finds me lounging here in these travel stained clothes, you may have no pity to spare for your princess!"
He changed into evening dress and whistled back to the drawing room, looking to the wine decanter as his only companion until family and guests arrived. Lord Tilden was warming his back before the crackling hearth and leafing through newspapers. How often it was his father dampened his plans.
"Good evening, sir." Nicholas bravely stretched out for the glass decanter. "How are you?"
"Oh, tolerable, thank you," Lord Tilden said gloomily. "Of course I shoulder many burdens but we must walk our weary way to glory." He shot a suspicious look at his son." I need not ask how you go on. You appear very well!"
You need not sound so disappointed. Nicholas wondered if his father would hint how fair health portrayed moral decay. "A little wine for the stomach's sake." He lifted the glass to his lips. "Do we expect visitors?"
Lord Tilden surprised his son by reaching for the decanter himself. "Of the highest rung of the nobility. A duke and duchess." He savoured the wine and put down his glass. "It's really the sons we want. They dangle after Sophia. A good thing for us if the heir offers for her hand." His eyes narrowed. "I beg you won't shock either brother off."
"How might I do that?" Nicholas feigned dismay. "Does this duke have a daughter? Is she ripe for plucking?"
His lordship closed his eyes. "Lady Tiffany Vernon is in her first season. You won't be doing any plucking."
"A blooming debutante! The prospect of this evening improves. I was prepared for boredom."
The ladies now came to await the dinner guests, whose custom it was to arrive fashionably late. Nicholas leaned to Sophia's ear as boots bunged on stairs.
"I will observe how you go about juggling your suitors. Bear in mind, sweet sister, the elder has coronet and money bags!"
Sophia was able to cast the barest glare at his impervious shoulder before she was forced to brighten up. The butler spoke in sonorous tones.
"The Duke and Duchess of Huntington, the Marquess of Ashton, Lord Jasper and Lady Tiffany Vernon!"
In came the Vernons, Duke and Duchess, she on his arm, and his three brown haired offspring in their wake.
Lord Tilden surged out of his stupor, as a gush of water out of a barren mud bank. "I trust your graces don't dislike family parties, for we thought a cozy supper may satisfy us on the eve of festivities. This is my son, a lieutenant, who is here to share the delights of the season."
"A sporting time for any soldier, Lieutenant!" Huntington released his wife and extended his arm to shake Nicholas's hand. "Just got back from France? Serve under Wellington?"
This was unexpected. Nicholas warmed to the Duke, his fellow feeling. "I regret not. My regiment guarded our homeland against invasion."
"How unpleasant!" The Duke gestured to the shorter if handsomer of the two young men to his rear. "Jasper served a brief spell but saw no action. Now he follows in my footsteps. Politics! Clever fellow." He chuckled as if this were a fine joke. "Ashton is only fit for boxing and ratting." He poked the belly of the broader and flashier if less refined of his sons. "Ain't that so, my lord?"
One of Beau Brummell's dandy set, Nicholas thought.
"I'm afraid so, sir!" The Marquess of Ashton held out his hands in self deprecation before resuming to ogle Sophia.
"I don't wish war still went on." Huntington took a glass of wine off a salver and spoke to both Tildens, father and son. "I do lament our family has no share in its glory. I may yet wangle my second son onto Wellington's staff!"
"I am eager to see the great man," Lord Tilden said. "I admit to be an admirer."
"Who but Whigs are blind to his genius?" the Duke said. "Beat almost all of the Emperor's marshals. Master of the offensive! I doubt not he could beat Boney as well. But never had he the opportunity. Another pity of this Peace of Paris."
"We may still get war," Nicholas said.
Huntington cast a keen eye. "The French people don't like having yet another King Louis. Eighteenth! Title cries out Old Regime. Now France must pay us back for our long innings. But will she? By Jove, no!"
"I am as inexpert on policy as I am on military matters," Nicholas said with a smile.
"Oh, I'm also an amateur," the Duke said, edging now to honour his hostess. "I had only a spell in the Admiralty."
As Huntington shifted aside, Nicholas saw a dark haired and dark eyed girl in pale pink. The Blooming Debutante, he thought.
"Are you always in such good looks, Lady Tiffany, or is this a special occasion?"
"How would I know?" The debutante's flutter of feeling deepened her bloom. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
"A disclaimer!" He took her hand, to lead her off, but impulse had him raise it to his lips. "How happy I am you honour us. Are you fully out?"
"I saw society in the last little season but my step mama must present me to the Queen and papa throw a ball before I may count myself as fully out."
"When will those be?"
"Papa will wait till the heroes have come and gone while step mama is showing me to her Majesty at this month's official drawing room. The idea has me in a quake!"
"The Queen failed to frighten Sophia, despite big wig and royal regalia."
Lady Tiffany dropped her eyes. "I shudder to imagine how I must approach her throne before such a host of critical faces. What if she speaks to me?"
"You're sure to charm her. You have greater courage than with what you may credit yourself." He slid his arm into hers. "I will contrive to be there. You must have one friend while you beard the lioness in her den!"
"How excellent!" She was dimpling. "My stepmother shall stand by me but she is nearly as formidable as Queen Charlotte."
"Of course you must try out this pianoforte." He brought her up to the instrument. "As every beautiful debutante is an accomplished player, you can't pull the wool over my eyes."
"I play medico at best."
"And at worst, delightfully."
"You have never heard me!"
"Yet I sense it's true."
"How are you able to be so sure about what you can know nothing? You met me minutes ago!"
"I won't quibble, for it is so easy to prove you wrong." He presented her the piano stool. "May I turn the sheets?"
"It is a lovely grand," she sighed again, "so tempting."
"Do, dear, do!" Lady Tilden called out. "It's neglected here except for my niece's practice."
"Play a lively one," Sophia urged. "I'm eager to dance!"
"How do our youth have such energy?" Lady Tilden said to the Duke. "Do you fancy a rubber, sir?"
Nicholas glimpsed a dash of dark suits, lifted his eyes off the curls at the nape Tiffany's neck, and saw the Vernon brothers proffering their hands.
"Convention is wretched," Sophia said. "If I could dance with you together, I may avoid the snub." Her eyes flashed between the pair before twinkling on Lord Jasper. "I fear, sir, a senior must precede his junior." Her hand flew to Lord Ashton. "I hope my cousin can content you. Just don't forget the second dance is yours."
¤ ¤ ¤
As Lord Ashton swept Sophia Tilden to a free space, Lord Jasper stepped over to where Clara Knight sat reading. Her grey eyes flitted up and her lips curled.
"Care to make up a couple, Miss Knight?"
"Thank you, sir, but I prefer to not," Clara said, "unless you are desperate to dance."
"I am as content to sit," Jasper said. Parting his swallow tails, he took the vacant spot on her sofa. In her face he saw surprise but no discomfort.
The frequent fashionable parties they had attended never threw them together. He had scarcely looked at her, yet tonight he had noticed a fresh life in her expression. Was I before too fixated on Sophia or is she truly happier? he thought. What has caused the change? Let us get acquainted and I may discover!
He picked up the book she had put aside. "Plato's Republic! By Jove, I expected a novel."
"Oh, I read a novel if it interests me," Clara said. "I am nice about my choices. I don't thrill at spectres."
"Of course the final volume explains how the apparition was no ghost but a distortion of light," he said, smiling. "Or the mistake was made because some old lady patrolled the gardens at night in a sheet. Such a natural thing to do and see! No stretch of reality."
"Ah, Mrs Radcliffe. I confess to knowing her works well if only for their evocative elusions to Spanish landscape. I doubt her research extends beyond illustrations."
"Has Miss Tilden your refined taste?"
"Plato doesn't divert her."
"Do you read only to cultivate your mind?"
"What I take up must be rooted in reality or I fear losing my reason."
"As has your giddy cousin?"
She smiled again. "Her company surpasses mine in charm. That compensates."
"I used to read purely for pleasure. While we convalesced, a tutor compelled Ashton and me to attack a tower of books of the dullest substance conceivable. I grew prejudiced and refused any but the lightest reads until Oxford kindled a love for learning. I connected such study to the deaths of my sister and mother in that period."
"Your excuse is valid, I can fancy your feelings! Oxford must have such treasures to enlighten the flightiest scholar."
"If he chooses to use its resources for his benefit. Some may idle their terms away. I'm not sure my elder brother was any wiser after college."
Jasper glanced at Ashton, pirouetting Sophia on the centre carpet, and tried not to mind her glowing cheeks or his brother's grasp.
"How did you enjoy Madame de Staël?" Clara's voice diverted his attention.
"I never met her," he said. "The Princess of Wales forgot to invite Madame to the ball of the year and our literary lioness went raging back to France."
"Oh, the daughter of Monsieur Necker is a curious creature! I saw her confront Lord Byron. What was her astonishment at his options! Childe Harald's author dispelled a host of false impressions. Our country's constitution is no piece of perfection. It wants radical reform to fulfil any justice. As for the people whom other sources had her think were the champions of the world against tyrants, Byron portrays us as disjointed and destined for ruin!"
"How unpleasant for her!" He grinned. "Was she hot in our defence?"
"Madame de Staël talks as she writes, full of eloquence! Byron's prophesy of doom deepened and darkened to equal her enthusiasm. Have you seen either of her two books on her father?"
"Louis the sixteenth minister? I reread both before her visit."
"I can't help beginning books on the French revolution as an ardent republican. I think no struggle too tough to adjust such unjust laws and systems. Seventeen-ninety-two has me hesitate. I gasp at the massacre but hope for no return of the Old Regime. If that king had promised sincerely, could bloodshed have held off?"
"Had Marie Antoinette not betrayed campaign plans to Austria, had the family not tried to escape... These are somber thoughts. France had loathed their queen for years, but respect for their king may have survived had Louis not betrayed the new laws."
"His queen was his undoing. The weak man may never have gambled their lives and his monarchy on such poor chances without Marie Antoinette's influence."
"Louis had for years feared the fate of our First Charles. The portrait of the headless monarch was once sneaked into his chamber as a warning."
"How shocking for him!" Clara averted her face, likely to conceal a flicker of mirth. "His radical schemes led to his wretched end. I often feel his generosity unbound the hands of his enemies to harm him. Necker's reforms encouraged rebellion. How will his younger brother fair on that unstable throne?"
Jasper was enjoying her every expression. What a refreshing female! he thought. What a fully fledged intellect.
"What deep notions! Were you a man, Miss Knight, I must recommend you enter politics. You could lead this nation as its prime minister."
Her animated eyes faded. "How improper you think me!"
"I see no impropriety," he said. "You may help a husband's career. You would not forerun in that work. The previous Duchess of Devonshire was a significant force in putting the Whigs in power last decade."
Her gaze remained downcast but he detected a pleasant flush. A shrill voice sliced into his thoughts.
"This is your dance, sir! Do you not wish to claim it?"
Sophia had flung out her bear arm toward Jasper's sofa while his brother retained her other. Her eyes twinkling like blue stars through sandy lashes brought a roar of blood to his brain.
Jasper sprang up and strode to seize her pearly paw. "I don't deserve to be reminded. You are gracious, Miss Tilden."
Sophia snatched her hand out of Ashton's clutch and ignoring his protest gave him her back. "I'm happy my cousin has charmed you. It eats me up with jealousy."
The Marquess of Ashton failed even to glance at her cousin. Instead, he marched morosely to glower over Lieutenant Tilden's shoulder at his sister playing another reel on the pianoforte. The couple were so absorbed in music, neither noticed his presence until Ashton burst out in imperfect baritone.
Clara picked up her book but her eyes lingered on the couple taking the floor.
"Any man would fall in love with Clara were she handsomer," Sophia said. "I know she's not plain! I for one think her very pretty. Of course her delightful personality outweighs whatever she lacks in feature. If only she would give up stuffy philosophers..."
"I found her conversation charming," Jasper said.
"Now I am intrigued. What in the world was it about?"
"Literature, Madame de Staël, and the French Revolution."
"Really?" Her expression cleared of anxiety. "How riveting!"
"Your jealousy was groundless."
"No, no. I'm quite forlorn, sir. Clara and you looked adorable together. Of course your papa may object. Clara's penniless. Her papa was a nobody. Had we not rescued her, the dear creature must have gone to Foundling Hospital."
"How fortunate Miss Knight has such a generous aunt."
"Only a monster must have denied her! Papa trusted her father would reclaim her, but the man must have died, for we never had a word! I for one have never looked back. The girl's a darling."
"Then she is doubly fortunate," he said.
Would you cherish her as willingly if she had been born a beauty? he mused. I won't taunt her further talking of her cousin. An idea hit him and he smiled. Of course it is a tool I could use to the good of my cause.
"What of her mother?"
"Childbirth killed her," Sophia sighed in sympathy. "How hard for Clara to know her mother died on her account."
Before the final bar of the dance had faded from the pianoforte, the Marquess of Ashton was tapping Jasper's shoulder. "Beg pardon, mine, I think." Ashton raised Sophia's hand to his lips. "Cheerio!"
Jasper bit back the swelling annoyance at his brother's arrogance and graciously withdrew. If I am too clingy, I won't be as precious to her, he thought, then looked back to Clara's sofa, where he saw her give a smile to encourage him on, so he strode to rejoin her.
"Clara, come here," Nicholas's voice rang out. "Relieve Lady Tiffany's tedium. I must prove her foot's as talented as her hand!"
Jasper halted to see Clara go reluctantly to the pianoforte. "I don't perform well for audiences," she said.
"No excuses! I know you won't be so selfish as to have Lady Tiffany swoon from fatigue. The piece is not Beethoven." Nicholas glided Tiffany to the gap in the clutter of scratched old heavy furniture. "You must practice your dance move to stun the ballroom at Almack's!"
Clara had scarcely touched the keys than Jasper cast his shadow across the floor by her stool. Her focus on the music was so intense, however, she appeared not to notice until he turned the page. Her hands tripped on the keys.
"I'm sorry for startling you!" he said.
"I apply all my faculties playing for people," she said, the touch of a tremble in her tone.
"You're like my sister. You both lack assurance. You will gain it by playing before friends. The lieutenant referred to Beethoven. I can easily believe your wits may master his mesmeric webs of music."
"Eroica has burgle calls, sword clashes, battles! Beethoven is so modern, the Byron of music. And yet, he is as tough to stomach as to perform."
"I'm sure!" He lifted another leaf. "I liked Eroica until I learned Beethoven had dedicated his radical piece to the radical Corsican First Consular of the French."
"The composer scratched Bonaparte out of the title when Napoleon crowned himself emperor."
"Good man! Now I can attend a concert of his music bearing a clear conscience."
"Mozart is my favourite."
"I'm shocked, Miss Knight. You are a war behind the mode."
Clara giggled, the first laugh he had caught from her lips, and Jasper dared believe a friendship had budded.
"Dinner is served," the butler said.
¤ ¤ ¤
The door had just closed on their guests, the clatter and rumble of the coach yet in their ears, as son and daughter ascended the staircase. Their cousin was slower. Lady Tilden caught a tired sigh of pleasure and turning saw her niece begin to amble after the pair.
"Wait, Clara, a word!" she said. "I'm grateful for you keeping Lord Jasper Vernon from Sophia. It was well executed. Sophia is blind. In time she will learn her heart."
"I had no notion of helping." Clara touched her forehead as if it hurt. "I wasn't artful. Lord Jasper stayed on his own accord."
Her ladyship forced a smile. "Well, I trust you can continue to captivate his interest. The odd occasion, you know. Sleep well, my dear!"
Clara curtsied and went upstairs but Lady Tilden saw Sophia intercept her in the gallery.
"You have stolen the handsomest of my admirers, you sly thing!"
"I don't deny our conversation increased Lord Jasper in my regard," Clara said calmly. "His character is deeper than that of his elder brother."
"You talked about history." Sophia giggled. "Dull work, not deeper."
"I prefer his humility." Clara had her hand on the doorknob to her chamber. "Jasper is more the gentleman."
"Is Ashton not?" Sophia looked worried.
"Oh, of course he is. Ashton is just arrogant. It's easy to see the source. An heir's indulged, upward of childhood."
"Ashton isn't disdainful or lacking in cheer!"
"Well, he likes to be agreeable to you."
"Jasper is also conscious of his station."
"Its responsibilities. But he believes in the equality of the classes."
Lady Tilden hurtled up the staircase. "What absurd ideas! I smell Whigs. We must beware. Such stuff is dangerous."
¤ ¤ ¤
Other people also analysed that evening. Despite her miner role in the drama, the Duchess of Huntington had watched the young people's interaction with keen interest. Once closeted in their bedroom, she probed her husband's feelings.
"Pretty puss is that Miss Tilden." The Duke of Huntington was stoking the fire. "No wonder my boys lick her shoes."
"Also knows how to use her charms to manipulate." The Duchess tightened the cord to her robe. "Did you detect how at the outset the hussy sparkled at Jasper and then darted for Adolphus? I dread that is her strategy." She shot a look at her husband's approach to the bed. "Don't it trouble you?"
"Ought I to be troubled?"
"Stephen, they're infatuated!"
"Stuff!" The Duke got under the bed-clothes. "My sons have both been infatuated before. They survived."
"With the same female?"
"Yes! Last year. Dark haired girl. Can't recall name."
"That lasted one month. This has twice as long. Neither look ready to quit."
"Years could pass before either settles." Huntington corrected his nightcap. "Meanwhile, Salina, I don't grudge the lads their wild oats. By Jove, I sowed mine!"
Salina tittered. "Adolphus fancied Miss Tilden only once Jasper was dangling after her."
"Which illustrates how absurd you are to worry. The thing is skin deep!"
"Sophia is scarcely Jasper's type. I admit he runs little risk."
"Who can guess what type of a bride Jasper may choose! The girl must be taught a thing or two before her mind is compatible to my clever son. Yet she is perfect to inspire his poetry, poor devil. Depend on it, Salina, once his muse runs dry, so shall his passion."
"I only hope the fountain evaporates before that sly creature entraps your heir!"
"Hmm." The Duke kissed her cheek and blew out his candle.
"What of that rakish Lieutenant?" Salina ignored the droop of his eyes. "Surely the clan don't intend to capture your daughter as well as your sons?"
Huntington sighed. "Fine fellow! Had he the laver to Tiffany in honeycombed speeches? Well, he's the first of many!"
"What if her heart is bruised?"
"Heartbreak won't harm her. May work good. Educate her."
"I fear Jasper contains Tiffany in a glass box." Now the Duchess was tittering again. "It's ludicrous. Surely he's not such a fool as to call Tilden to account?"
His only reply was a loud snore.
The Duchess yawned. "Very true, my love, the hour's late. We defer judgment. Happily I'm uninvolved. I'm content to care for my own child. The result may be fully satisfactory." She leaned over and blew out her own candle. "Wait, how did that skinny chit divert Jasper? What's her game?"
Snores now came in rapid succession. Still her voice sang out.
"And whom and what in this world is Miss Knight?"