When the Encounter is Something Out of Ordinary
The Winscotts lived in one of the fashionable dwellings at Bruton Street in Mayfair. Mrs Winscott was a window of several years, and although her beloved husband’s early demise had brought about a long period of melancholy it did not, gratefully enough, left her in straightened circumstances. Although undistinguished, the family was quite respectable and enjoyed every comfort of life without being obliged to reduce into exigent economy. Mrs Winscott had always counted herself fortunate indeed, for while her obliging husband had left a fortune in their coffer, there was only one daughter to provide for.
This daughter, Miss Sophie Winscott, was yet another fortune for her widowed mother. She was an exquisite vision of golden locks, bluest eyes, and graceful figure, with manners quite as lovely as her appearance; and though not exactly sharp-witted, she was a young lady with a great deal of commonsense. No Mama could have been more proud than seeing her dear daughter walked into a room and completely cast the other young ladies into a shade. Mrs Winscott, though by nature humble, was acutely aware of this distinction, and the swelling pride that came with it. Her daughter was an instant success on her first Season, and they were able to move among fashionable circles and mingled with some distinguished personages of the ton. Her daughter did not lack in suitors either. Perhaps, the only despair felt by Mrs Winscott was that of all the seven offers her daughter had received, none of them was accepted. “It would be an enormous pity, Mama, if I decided to accept the offer, for I am yet to fully enjoy my Season! I beg you would understand,” her daughter had begged. The matron, her love for her daughter overpowering whatever big ambitions she had for her (for she was no harpy, as she liked to remind herself) was moved to accept this reasoning.
For the next Season Mrs Winscott, seeing that there was little to be done about Sophie’s second come-out, set her attention on her niece, who was also coming of age to be launched into the Polite Society. The notion had been considered for more than once; her niece being motherless, Mrs Winscott was more than willing to make it her business to see her comfortably established in the future. Indeed, her conviction became more pronounced when she’d received a letter from her brother in Hampshire, apprising her that his Caroline had just finished her schooling, enumerating a list of her academic merits, and describing his dear daughter as ‘a promising young lady of remarkable intelligence’, whose preferences were, thankfully, for books rather than female fripperies. He couldn’t help but be pleased, he had told his sister.
It did not please Mrs Winscott in the least, nor arouse any feelings of appreciation in her bosom. After perusing the letter, she exclaimed indignantly to her daughter: “Why your Uncle James is bent on making a bluestocking out of Caroline is beyond my comprehension! Remarkable intelligence indeed!”
Miss Sophie laughed. “Do not let him tease you, Mama! I’m sure my cousin is in no danger of becoming a bluestocking — at least, it didn’t appear to me that she had the slightest inclination for it at all when we visited them. I hope we can persuade Uncle James to let Caroline stay with us this Season. I really do miss her so!” Mrs Winscott foresaw that it would take a great deal of persuasion, but assured her daughter that when her heart was set upon it she could be as adamant as her brother.
It had proved to be a task quite within her capabilities. Mr James Davis, a good-natured man in his early forties, was content in leading a quiet life down the picturesque countryside, lavishing his time on his daughter (for he was a devoted papa) and on some scholarly pursuits that his sister suspected had a lamentable influence on her niece. When Mrs Winscott finally presented to him her wonderful scheme, his first reaction was that of reluctance. He would love to let his little Caro enjoy a prodigious pleasant time in London, but his reluctance was derived from fatherly anxieties about his daughter’s naive streak, too callow by half to be exposed to the lures of the town, he said. His sister allayed these fears easily by promising to keep a sharp eye on Caroline, and after a little more coaxing, his consent was eventually gained.
To Mrs Winscott’s relief, Miss Caroline manifested no signs of being a bluestocking; she was a lively girl with an air of friendliness, ready smile, and not in the least shy. But her impressions of London were not as favourable as what she’d imagined. She was happy to have her very first Season, but while the Metropolis certainly offered her entertainments quite unlike the banal ones in the country, she found it excessively bustling, and the people prissy and remarkably exacting. It stood to reason that, for a young lady reared in the comfort of countryside for seventeen odd years, and hardly traveled away from home, she found everything equally fascinating and unnerving.
As a girl just out of schoolroom, her naiveté had, for more than one occasion, made her the object of Aunt Emilia’s disquietude, and the amusement of her cousin Sophie. It was soon discovered that Mr Davis’ fears were not altogether unwarranted, for his daughter had the tendency to fall into some scrapes. In one instance, she had sauntered the length of Bruton Street alone, blissfully unaware of the consequence for a Young Lady who ventured outdoors with no Abigail in tow. Mrs Winscott had been horrified when, upon returning home from an engagement, she was met with intelligence that her errant niece was nowhere in the premise, and gave the poor maid an earful dressing-down for the negligence of her duty.
This slip on Miss Davis’ part wouldn’t be the last.
However, for the weeks that had followed, the likelihood of her committing a solecism had only become a lesser source of anxiety for Mrs. Winscott. Perhaps it was due to the influence of a few decorous young ladies whom she had constantly met at soirees and balls, and had eventually befriended her. To be sure, Caroline had never met so many people in her life! There was the adorable Miss Lorrington, and the painfully shy Julie Sutherton (with whom she became fast-friends); the elegant though slightly haughty Miss Leticia Debery, and the silly Mr. Melton who was head over heels for dear Sophie, and more that she could hardly remember their names and titles in one night!
Although the company seemed agreeable enough, there were times when she found them less appealing. For one thing, there were these gentlemen with whom she’d developed an acute dislike, for all their pontificating and flaunting airs. “Regular coxcombs, m’dear,” one of Aunt Amelia’s friends had confided to her once. “London’s overgrown with them! It may be fashionable to appear like that, but I strongly abhor dandyism, and so I deem it an eye sore! And several might appear decent, but don’t be deceived! Sly creatures, the lot them!” The old lady added warningly that some of ’em were in the habit of taking liberties with ladies hailed from the countryside. Miss Davis only nodded her assent and expressed her appreciation for the kind warning, but dismissed the thought as soon as a more interesting topic was introduced.
Alas, she should’ve been more heedful to the whispers of the worldly and wise! Perhaps, she wouldn’t have found herself presently in a situation where Lord Anthony Randwick was trying to enfold her between his bony arms, while she was fighting against his every attempt these several minutes already.
“Let me go!” she squirmed violently until the top of her head hit the repulsive gentleman’s jaw with a soft cluck.
“I’m afraid I cannot, Miss Davis!” returned Lord Randwick with a voice that trembled with passion, notwithstanding the pain. “You already have my heart. I pray you, accept my love!”
“No!” Caroline shuddered. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, sir! I daresay you barely know the meaning of the word! Oblige me to stop this nonsense at once, and let. Me. Go!” It took all she could to finally shove him away. But this feat only resulted in the young lord swaying precariously backwards only a few paces. He might be as thin as an unfed crow, thought Miss Davis, but he was overwhelmingly strong.
Her tenacious suitor seized her once more. “But I do! Indeed I do!” Lord Anthony exclaimed, and gave the object of his affection a little shake. “Dash it, ma’am, I’m not shamming it at all! Lord, don’t you see how smitten I am with you?”
“No, I don’t!” came the crushing reply. “The only thing I see is that you are three parts drunk!” No desired effect was made by this discouraging response. The persistent young man groped Miss Davis’ arms with such force that she gasped, and began to feel very alarmed indeed.
Quite alarmed, she said, this time in an imploring tone, “Sir, please, let me go because I don’t love you! And you behave so abominably that I am beginning to detest you already! Will you listen to reason and —”
Her supplication broke off; a tall figure suddenly crept behind her unwanted suitor and roughly grabbed him on the shoulder. She was freed the next moment, for Lord Randwick was ruthlessly forced to confront the intruder. Not one to put further delay on the task, the newcomer hit him at a vulnerable spot under his eye before he could even utter a protest. There was nothing more to be done; the shock of it all, and the force with which the blow was delivered, sent Lord Randwick reeling to the ground, unconscious, with a sickening thud.
Miss Davis and her champion stood in silence while staring down at the sprawled figure. Hardly recovering from just transpired, she declared, rather dazedly, “Well, that was rather remarkably neat, I should say.”
Her champion looked momentarily nonplussed, but grimaced at her afterwards. At this point, Miss Davis looked intently at the stranger. He was unmistakably a Young Gentleman (though not quite like Lord Randwick, who was nothing but a mere stripling), and regardless of the sullen countenance, she acknowledged—rather reluctantly— that the chiseled face was a handsome one. Barely recognizing the color of his eyes, Miss Davis contented herself instead with the notion that they were quite piercing under the arched brows. He had long, straight nose, thin lips and a strong square chin. And although he was dressed in the first stare of fashion, his dark locks fell slightly outmoded. Not the kind of which Miss Davis would have conjured up for a hero, though the gentleman was certainly an imposing personage.
After this quick scrutiny, she squatted beside the motionless Lord Randwick and poked his side with a gloved finger to see any sign of consciousness in him. When he did not stir, she poked him a couple of times more, but to no avail.
She leaped on her feet, exclaiming, “Oh, dear, I’m afraid you’ve outdone yourself, sir!” Her emerald eyes widened at the man across her, who was at the moment nudging Lord Randwick’s leg.
“You don’t need to sound like I killed him,” retorted the gentleman dourly. “He’ll come around soon enough.”
Miss Davis was brimming with doubts about it, but nonetheless said: “Well, if you say so. May I ask what brings you here, sir?”
“I was about to ask the same thing of you.”
“Well, I was only taking a stroll earlier, but then Lord Ran—”
“Alone?” He interjected, looking incredulous.
“Why, yes! I wasn’t with someone else, don’t you see? Though I’m sure Aunt Emilia would be very appalled indeed — ”
“Of course! And she a high—oh, stop interrupting me, if you please!” exclaimed Miss Davis, a little vexed. Surprisingly enough, he meekly complied and held his peace for the next part to finish “Then Lord Randwick followed me without my knowledge, and imagine my shock, sir, when he emerged from the shadows and started to declare himself like it was the most natural thing in the world—which is not!—and then made advances to me!”
The gentleman’s brows creased further at this tale. Miss Davis continued, “Well, don’t you think he is a little bit fast? And we’ve been only introduced a week ago! It was very silly, because he said I already have his heart, though how it came to that, it is beyond me. He must have been quite drunk indeed and I daresay he would not even remember half of what he told me this evening when he becomes sober.”
“I think,” declared the gentleman at last, “that he’s a precocious lecher to a fault, besides being a besotted fool.”
She giggled. “My thoughts exactly! And he is besotted!” When he fell silent again, she politely asked, “Now that I’ve explained my plight may I ask again what brings you here?”
He was hesitant for a moment, but reticently answered, “For the same reason as yours — taking some air.”
“Oh!” Miss Davis appeared dubious. She wasn’t an obtuse young lady; indeed, she saw instantly that her champion was a little troubled. Perhaps he was escaping from an unpleasant encounter himself? Well, that must be why he was so ill-humoured. Or it might be on the account of his guilt, seeing that he did really inflict a far more severe injury on Lord Randwick than he expected.
“Are you troubled that Lord Randwick might…be seriously injured?” she enquired anxiously. “Not but I think it served him right, though. Still, it was not necessary to make him unconcious, you know.”
“Lord, no,” responded her champion caustically. “He could go to the devil for all I care.”
A bubble of mirth almost broke from Miss Davis, but bit her lower lip to suppress it. “If that is the case, I rather think we are pretty much in a pickle!”
“Yes, and a devilish one, too.”
They fixed their irresolute gazes again at the immobile Lord Randwick. The bruising on his countenance would undoubtedly be remarked upon over the tables of any clubs he frequented, and the poor man would have to suffer the indignity of it for the weeks to follow.
After a fleeting silence, the gentleman announced with a marked callousness: “We should leave him here.”
Caroline let out a soft gasp at this unfeeling decision. The blow might very well serve him right, but he did not deserve to be left inside the hedge maze at night, and most certainly not when he was unconscious. “We can’t!” she objected, “Poor Lord Randwick!”
He looked over her irritably. “Oh, it’s poor Randwick now, is it? When hardly ten minutes ago you were in a most compromising situation that would have eventually resulted to your ruin had I not been here!”
“Yes, yes I know!” she placated. “And I thank you for that. Truly! Although we just can’t leave him here: it’s a monstrous thing to do!”
“Then what do you suggest? Drag him all the way back to the ballroom?” he returned snappishly.
“Let me remind you, sir, that this is your fault in the first place!”
“And why is that?”
“Well, if you hadn’t knocked him senseless like that—!”
The gentleman shook his head and threw his hands up as if in resignation. “Fine! Stay here then until he gains consciousness; I’m leaving!” Without so much as a bow, he turned on his heels and walked away, leaving Miss Davis in quandary. Biting her lip, she watched his retreating back, and then to the unconscious man at her feet.
Left with no other alternative, she sighed, and called after the gentleman. “Sir! Wait for me, if you please!” Clutching a handful of her skirt, she made a rather unladylike sprint to catch up behind the gentleman.
He turned to Miss Davis and drawled, not without a little triumph, “Well?”
“Well, I could see that you have a point, and I’m sorry if I blamed you earlier,” she softly said while searching his hard face. “But I do still think you have a share for this inconvenience—mind that!”
“Incorrigible brat,” the gentleman muttered under his breath. “Do you know the way out?”
Caroline looked up and vouchsafed a confident smile. “Why, certainly! I know the way!”
It was borne in on Lord Stokeford, several minutes later, that his misgivings on the wisdom of letting his little companion lead the way were gradually realized. His patience was wearing thin, and the tirade hovering on his tongue was ready to lash any moment now, particularly at this chit who was probably steering them farther and farther away from the portals of the hedge maze.
“Well, brat?” he demanded imperiously.
“Well what, sir?” Looking briefly over her shoulder, she saw the Earl’s black look and reproached him boldly: “Do stop scowling like that! You could even scare a spectre, I daresay!”
Considerably taken aback with this admonishment, he decided wisely to bit back a retort and returned to his brooding. They continued to wend on their way, with only the flickers of burning torches as their guide. On the course of this journey, the Earl took the liberty to study his young companion through stolen glimpses. She was a petite creature, barely reaching his shoulders (as he was exceptionally tall), with luminous black hair knotted and pinned at the top of her head, while short ringlets dangled on the sides of a heart-shaped face. Her eyes were definitely green — it didn’t take long for him to discern it, for hers were quite vibrant, wide and smiling, and oddly candid whenever they gazed at him, as though they could pierce right through his inner thoughts. But what queered him the most was her affable manner towards him: unlike the other frail society beauties, she didn’t fidget nor cower in his presence. Instead, she’d smiled and talked and even argued with him, and was never in the least discouraged by his rather clipped answers.
“I gather, sir, that you find the ball quite dull?” she enquired politely, glancing back at him.
“Well, I daresay it is, but my Aunt Emilia believes that Lady Mortimer’s balls are one of the best in town,” the young lady disclosed. “As someone who is being introduced to Society, wouldn’t you agree that I am the best judge of it?”
“I think so, too. Why, my aunt would just sit there and chat with the crowding dowagers and chaperones, while my cousin and I are obliged to dance till small hours! It’s a relief that the supper was excellent: we certainly need some nourishment after all!”
Lord Stokeford mentally acquiesced with this, but vouchsafed no answer.
Turning back at him, the young lady suddenly asked, “Have you tasted the lobster, sir?”
The elegant brows creased at this unexpected question. It occurred to him that the young lady had the knack to steer a conversation to an arbitrary course. Since the Earl had little interest in gastronomy and the food he’d eaten, he shrugged, and said no, he had not.
“A pity, then. Perhaps you’ve not eaten much, though to be sure Lady Mortimer is a generous soul, and has prepared food enough to feed the whole Parliament!”
As she giggled, Lord Stokeford felt his own lips twitched. It was a good thing that he was walking behind; he would not definitely give her the satisfaction of seeing his countenance wreathe into a poor resemblance of smile.
“Why do I have this feeling that we are lost?” He remarked dryly. “Do you really know the way?”
Upon hearing this sarcastic inquiry, she stopped on her tracks, saying, “The truth is —,” she turned to him with a guilt-stricken countenance and solemnly confessed, “I couldn’t quite remember it.”
That had finally snapped a limb of Stokeford’s temper.
“Good God!” he practically roared, making his little companion winced and instinctively covered her delicate ears. “Am I to understand,” he started menacingly, “that we are only straying these past ten minutes all because you’re doing some little guesswork about which curst way to take?”
“But I am not guessing! Only that I am thinking this is the right path, but it turns out that it isn’t! Indeed, it is very confusing.”
“And you said you know the way!”
“Well, I know the way! I just couldn’t remember!” she pointed out defensively.
Lord Stokeford looked utterly confounded. For the life of him, he’d never encountered a female (not that he had often, anyway) that could reason out as ludicrously as her. “I can’t believe you’re extremely ridiculous,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“I beg your pardon?” She snapped, finally flaring up.
“Never mind,” the Earl waved a hand. “Damn it, we’re lost,” he muttered, not minding his language.
“Well, I suggest you have to pick your brains and get us out of here, if you please!” she retorted, and crossed her arms in front of her. Stokeford threw her a withering glare, and bold as she was, she returned it with her own, and for a splitting moment there seemed to be a clash of wills between the two strangers.
Lord Stokeford finally concurred, if somewhat a little surly, and walked ahead of her. It wasn’t too long before they finally found the entrance, and the circuitous journey inside the uncanny hedge maze was put to an end. When they steered themselves out, his companion let out a glee of triumph, flailing her arms like a babe receiving a new toy. Stefan, whose humour became blacker than ever, did not in the least share these raptures. Why, the little imp had done her best to plague him with idle talks and silly banters and retorts — yes, retorts, for they had a good round of putting blames on each other, wherefore he’d eventually given up refuting his part, deciding that the young lady’s wayward reasoning was something unworthy of his time and breath.
“What a relief to be out in here again! It seemed ages that I’d been trapped inside that horrid place!”
“Yes, and thanks to me that you’re breathing fresh air again!” retorted the Earl ungraciously.
The young lady giggled. “Of course! Thank you, sir. I’m very much obliged to you,” she curtsied, her green eyes twinkling.
“My pleasure,” responded Lord Stokeford in a dry tone. “Next time you get lost in a hedge maze ma’am, don’t hesitate to call my name for help.”
“I will, but I won’t get lost next time,” she said, and wrinkled her little nose. “In fact, I don’t think I’ll venture to walk all by myself in a hedge maze again. I don’t like it very much.”
“At last, a piece of common sense from you! Next time you’ll venture out in the hedge maze, with nothing to protect you from any drunken fellow, it will be the worst for you,” warned his lordship darkly.
“If ever I venture out in the hedge maze,” Miss Davis returned, “it would be in the daylight, and I’d likely bring a parasol with me, so you need not worry that I could not protect myself from any fellow with unwanted intentions, drunk or otherwise.”
“Much good a parasol can do for you!”
Her green eyes opened at him. “Why, yes! It will be a great help for me, I daresay.”
“It seems to me,” said his lordship severely, “that you are not paying any attention to a word I’ve said!”
“Indeed, I do. But — it must be very late now! My cousin would be in fidgets if I don’t put an appearance for another minute, and my Aunt Emilia would surely scold me for this.”
“I don’t know about your Aunt Emilia, but if she does, then I hope she’d make a devilish fine work beating some sense on you! You deserve every word of it, brat!”
“I daresay!” the brat replied, but seemingly unperturbed by the prospect. “Well, I must bid you good night for now, sir and — thank you!” she smiled and turned on her heels.
The moonlight brightened its white glow, casting out the shadows that lurked in the garden. Lord Stokeford remained where he was, idly watching the small figure walked rather frantically until it disappeared from his sight. He shook his head, thinking how extraordinary the night had been: he’d been challenged to a duel by a fool, knocked another one down, and found himself copped up in a bloody hedge maze with a young lady who’d vexed him at every opportunity. Quite an eventful night indeed!
Come to think of it, thought Lord Stokeford with puckering brows, he didn’t even get to know her name.
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