Bride of Dreams, страница 1
Bride of Dreams
Jane Aiken Hodge
Copyright © 1996, Jane Aiken Hodge
Amanda and her mother were early. The fiddlers in the little musicians' gallery that overhung the Assembly Room were still tuning their instruments. Mr Random, the proprietor of the George Inn where Rye's Assemblies were held, was hurrying about with last minute preparations and it was left to his wife, buxom Mrs Random, to make her nervous bob to the first arrivals and guide them through the dance hall and up to the dressing room they had hired for the evening. As always, she talked, lugubriously, all the way. The weather was bad; the attendance at this, the first Assembly of Rye's little season, would be thin; the news was terrible – particularly that from France. In the year 1791, France, with its developing revolution, could be relied on, by pessimists, as a source of bad news.
Equally true to form, Mrs Carteret took not the slightest notice of Mrs Random's flow of nervous talk, and it was left to Amanda to make the rejoinders courtesy demanded. At seventeen, world affairs do not seem vastly important, but the question of the weather struck nearer home. Yes, it had indeed rained all day; their coach had nearly stuck in the mud at the foot of Rye Hill; did Mrs Random really think the attendance would be poor? "For my first ball? I do not believe I could bear it."
Satisfied with having got the reaction she wanted, Mrs Random relented, promised Amanda all the partners her heart could desire, and took her leave.
"Truly, Amanda," said her mother, turning to the long glass as she removed her cloak, "sometimes I despair of your breeding. Must you always be gossiping with the lower orders? I wish you would at least try to remember who your father was."
Amanda made a face. "I wish you would try to forget it, Mama. What is the use of giving ourselves the airs and graces of the nobility when everybody knows we are as poor as church mice?" She stopped and coloured, alarmed at her dangerous plain speaking, but on this important night her mother was determined to be pleasant.
"What a little Jeremiah it is, to be sure." She pinched her daughter's cheek affectionately. "But I tell you, my love, there are those who recognize how infinitely more important blood – and breeding, of course – are than mere money. Who knows, perhaps our troubles are nearly over." It was her turn to pause, colour, and apply herself assiduously to the problems of her toilette.
Though young and full of dreams, Amanda was no fool. She had not failed to notice the steady diminution in the trappings of her mother's widowhood. Tonight, Mrs Carteret's admirably preserved charms were set off by a gown of palest lavender, with faint touches of crêpe surely more for ornament than out of respect for a long dead husband. To Amanda, who had grown used to the widow's cap and the widow's black, she looked, just faintly, ridiculous, but then, to Amanda, Mrs Carteret was a mother and, by definition, old. To a chance observer she was a woman in the ambiguous mid-thirties; to herself, she was in the prime of life.
Amanda, on the other hand, was very young. "Is Lord Meynel to be here tonight?" She knew the question for a mistake as she spoke it.
But once again, almost miraculously, her mother's uncertain temper held. Mrs Carteret had learned, among many bitter lessons of a disappointing life, how fatally anger blotched her pink and white complexion. "How should I know?" she countered mildly. "But come, my love, let me look at you. To think that my little girl is really old enough for her first ball. I can hardly believe it."
Amanda was privately convinced that she had been quite old enough to attend the quiet Rye Assemblies the year before, and knew equally well that she owed this year's unexpected indulgence to a chance remark of Lord Meynel's. It had been at the end of one of the neighbourly morning calls that had become so frequent of late – to Amanda's disgust and her mother's not quite concealed delight. Rising to take his leave, he had paused for a moment to twirl the inevitable cane in his thinning white hand and spare one of his uncomfortably appraising glances for Amanda. "You will be bringing this child to the Assemblies this year?" It was hardly even a question.
Amanda, whose own timid overtures in the same direction had been briskly rebuffed, had looked up with a sudden flaring of hope. Here was an ally indeed, however dislikeable a one.
Mrs Carteret had paused, coloured, seemed to consider, then deferred prettily to her guest's opinion. "Do you truly think her old enough? Is it really my duty to cast off my widow's weeds and bring my baby before the world? Must I – for her sake – give up the retirement that suits me so well?"
"Of course you must, ma'am," her visitor had said roundly. "For her sake, and your own, and the world's, that has missed you too long. There'll be many a hot cheek and anxious brow, I warrant, when the belles of Rye hear Mrs Carteret is coming among them again. You'll put them all in the shade, and they know it."
Already on her feet to wish her visitor good day, Mrs Carteret had curtsied and coloured prettily for the compliment, and Amanda, while wondering how her mother – that dragon of good taste – could overlook its vulgarity, had known her point gained. There could be no doubt now: she would go to the Assemblies this year.
And here she was, obediently standing and twirling for her mother's inspection, while downstairs the fiddles were warming to their work and a rising hum of talk suggested that the world was beginning to arrive. "Will I do?" she asked anxiously. Impossible, now, with the sounds of music and talk coming up from below, to trouble herself too much about the unwelcome likelihood that Lord Meynel would soon be her stepfather. She had other things to think about. She was at her first ball at last. Her dress of finest pale blue sprigged muslin was almost exactly what she had wished. Her mother's judgement of people might leave something to be desired, but on clothes, she was superb.
Mrs Carteret was nodding critical approval. "Yes," she said at last, "you will do admirably, my love. The dress is just as I wished it, modest but," she paused, "becoming. I do not think you will lack for partners, and if, by any unhappy chance you should, I am sure Lord Meynel will have an eye to you."
That was just what Amanda was afraid of. She knew, she sometimes thought, rather more about Lord Meynel's eye than her mother did. It was apt to lead him into dark corridors or shady paths among the shrubbery where he would linger to await a chance encounter with any personable young female. After the first of these meetings, Amanda had hurried for counsel to her friend and comforter, Phoebe, her mother's maid. It was characteristic of her relationship with her mother that it had never occurred to her to go to her. But Phoebe had been robustly comforting. "Think nothing of it, love," she said. "He does it to all us girls and we just laugh at him for his pains."
Amanda, who had never expected that her first kiss would be from elderly, snuffy Lord Meynel, had almost managed the laugh, and had become expert in avoiding dark corridors and shady paths when he was about. But it was certainly not to dance with him that she had dressed so carefully for her first ball, while the idea of his sharp little eyes upon her made her dress seem suddenly far too low cut. She had protested about this when she had first tried it on, but her mother had been firm: "You should see how the Duchess of Devonshire wears hers." Amanda had not thought the argument exactly to the point, but she had bowed, as, in the end, she usually did, to her mother's superior judgeme
"Mother," she turned from the glass, "I have the headache. Could I not stay here and wait for you?"
"Nonsense," said her mother robustly. "It is nothing but a spasm of the nerves; you will feel better directly you have got your first partner. Come, my love, you will only make yourself worse if you stay lingering here."
For once in her life, Amanda had to admit the justice of her worldly mother's opinion. If the ballroom must be faced, the sooner the better. Besides, John had promised to watch for her and take her out for her first dance, and John did not like to be kept waiting. She spared one last quick glance, half fright, half satisfaction, at the unfamiliar and undeniably elegant reflection in the glass, then followed her mother down the long corridor to the ballroom. To her deep, delighted relief, John was indeed waiting close to the door and came up at once to greet them and ask for her hand for the next dance. Amanda had never seen him in evening dress before, and forgot her qualms about her own appearance in admiration of his. Even her mother, who habitually, and infuriatingly, referred to him as "poor Mr Purvis," treated him, tonight, with something like respect, made no objection to his claiming Amanda's hand for the dance, and even went so far as to enquire, almost archly, what he was doing so far from the fleet.
"Wishing for war, ma'am," was his forthright reply. "God knows how we poor sailors are to earn our living else."
Mrs Carteret flirted her fan at him in pretended horror. "La, Mr Purvis, how can you be so callous. To want a bloody war, merely for your own advancement! I am shocked at you, and so, I wager, is Amanda."
"Indeed, Mrs Carteret," he protested, "you do me less than justice. If I did not think the declaration of war in the country's best interests, I would starve gladly on half pay for the rest of my days. But, I tell you, if those madmen in France are not taught a sharp lesson, and quickly too, the whole world will rue it. And of course," he added, with the engaging frankness Amanda had always loved in him, "there is no question but the sooner war is declared, the sooner I shall be at sea again, where, but for one thing, all my happiness lies. But, come, Miss Carteret, the set is forming, shall we go?"
He held out his hand, and Amanda took it, blushing. How odd it seemed, after all their childhood years together, to have him calling her "Miss Carteret". In the good old days – how long ago they seemed – the Purvis estates had marched with the Carterets' and Amanda, five years the younger, and a lonely, fatherless child, had been John Purvis's willing slave. Then, it had been "Mandy, come here," or "Mandy, hold this . . . mind my dog . . . see how far I can jump. . . ."
Overnight, the long, happy companionship of childhood had ended. Mr Purvis, who, it seemed, had been speculating wildly in the East Indian market, shot himself to avoid the disgrace of bankruptcy and his wife followed his example in a timely decline and graceful death. Lord Meynel, the chief of Mr Purvis's creditors, had taken over the house on Leasam Hill and John, after one last wretched scene with Amanda in the course of which, to her amazement and his fury, he had actually shed tears, had left the district. Taken in hand by his mother's brother, he had been sent to sea, almost at once, as a midshipman, and from then on Amanda had seen him only occasionally, on his brief visits to his father's sister, who still lived in a dark little highly polished house near Rye church. Like him, an only child, Amanda had lavished on his career all the affectionate interest her mother rebuffed, and while Mrs Carteret set her widow's cap now at this eligible bachelor and then at that prosperous widower, Amanda's main interest in life had continued to be John's progress from one of His Majesty's ships to another. Her somewhat randomly selected governesses might lament over the lapses in Amanda's arithmetic, but of her geography and her spelling they could never complain; these were necessary to her, the magic by which she followed John round the world.
It had been disconcerting, the other day, to drop in, oh so casually, on Miss Purvis, find John there – with the proper protestations of surprise – and have him great her, with total seriousness, as "Miss Carteret". He was handsomer than ever, too, a man full-grown, his shoulders broad, his skin brown from the weather (terrible, he told them) around the Cape of Good Hope. But he had treated her, throughout a much shorter visit than she had intended, with all the formal courtesy due to a young lady, and that night, in bed, she had wept bitter tears for Mandy and John. At least, however, he had promised to come to the Assembly tonight – but then, how could he help himself when she, still half in, half out of the old casual relationship, had begged him to come and 'see her through'. Well, he was here, her hand was on his arm, the musicians were tuning up for her first public dance – surely, it should be happiness enough?
As soon as it was threatened, she chid herself for a fool to have admitted any qualification in her bliss. For here, now, at the last moment, when the set was forming and the music rising to its preliminary climax, came Lord Meynel, all smiles, all eagerness – and it was just as she had sometimes feared. It was not to her mother that his soft white hand was held out, but to her. "I must have the privilege of taking my dear Miss Amanda down her first dance."
Mrs Carteret had not expected this. Despite herself, perceptibly, she bristled. Amanda blushed crimson, and her little hand clung more tightly, with a desperate silent appeal to John Purvis's arm.
He did not fail her. "I cry your pardon." How completely a man he was. "But Miss Carteret has done me the honour of accepting my hand for this dance."
"Oh," Lord Meynel was only taken aback for an instant. "Young Purvis, eh? And how goes the world for midshipmen these peaceful days?"
"Well enough, I thank you." John had been a lieutenant for several years, but refused to be drawn. "Come, Amanda, we shall lose our place."
He had called her by her first name. In silent happiness, she let him lead her out to the line of couples now forming up in the centre of the room, hardly caring that they left Lord Meynel and Mama equally bristling. In a moment, however, the older couple joined them in the set. Mrs Carteret was all smiles now, and Lord Meynel gave every appearance of complete satisfaction as he made his dignified way down the hall. Only once, joining hands with Amanda, he held her more tightly than necessary and called her, in passing, "Little rogue". And then, as he reluctantly let her go, "The next one, then." She pretended not to hear him.
But John had. "He is a trouble to you?" It was their turn now to meet in the figure of the dance.
"Sometimes – a little." She had to leave him again, and then, as they reached the head of the set, was too busy remembering her steps to be troubled about Lord Meynel or anything else. It was her first ball; she was dancing with John; what else could she do but be happy?
When the dance ended and the couples began the usual parade about the room, John had her arm firmly in his. They were near the little side door opening onto the inn's garden. "Come," he said.
It did not occur to her to resist him. After all, she had obeyed his every command since she had been five years old. The door shut with a little sigh behind them and they were away from the lights, the smell of tallow and the sounds of music and laughter, in a quiet world of moonlight and shadows. They had played here often enough as children under the tolerant eye of Mrs Random while their mothers busied themselves with the eternal female preoccupation of ribbons and gauzes. Now, without thinking, she let John guide her to their favourite seat under the arbour of honeysuckle. The bench was rickety now, with age, and the honeysuckle untrained and shaggy but fragrant as ever.
Seating her, John looked, for a moment, anxiously down at her. "I wish I had a cloak to wrap you in. Will you be warm enough?"
"Of course." She coloured, grateful for the neu
There was infinite comfort in his well-known laugh. "Mind? Absurd Amanda, why should I mind that you are beautiful tonight? Or at least," he did not pretend not to understand her, "to be honest, I do not mind when we are out here together, but when I see you with Lord Meynel – then I do. Tell me of him, Amanda."
She folded and unfolded her fan. "I . . . I do not know what to say. He is – always – most attentive to Mama – and to me. I had thought – I had wondered . . ." she dwindled to a pause.
"Whether you might not find him, one fine day, your step-papa?"
"Yes," she breathed it gratefully. "Oh, John – Mr Purvis, do you think it very wicked of me not to like him?"
"Like him? I'd never forgive you if you did. I only hope your mother knows what she is doing; his reputation is – not of the most savoury."
"He is very rich," said Amanda apologetically.
"What's that to the purpose? I tell you, Amanda, I do not like to think of you in the same house as him. Nor," she sensed his frown in the darkness, "nor do I quite understand it. Your mother is a fine woman, it is true, but," he broke off for a moment, then took another tack. "I collect she has not had some unexpected acquisition of riches since I last saw you?"
Amanda laughed. "I only wish she had. You know perfectly well that we are poor as curates."
"Not so poor as I am, Amanda. If only I had something – anything to offer! But a half-pay lieutenant in time of peace is about the lowest of God's creatures. Your mother thought me heartless, I know, to talk of wanting war, but how can I help it? What chance of promotion have I otherwise? And, without that, what hope of happiness?"
His intensity almost frightened her and she answered out of embarrassment: "I had not thought you mercenary."
"Mercenary? I? Oh, Amanda, do you not understand?" He caught the hand that was still playing, nervously, with her fan. "How can you imagine that I want money for my own sake? Surely you know me better than that. But when I see you surrounded by creatures like Meynel, and your mother, Amanda – forgive me for saying it – not the wisest of guides or counsellors. . . . Then I cannot bear my penury, my absolute lack of prospects."