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Authors: A Hero for Antonia

Elisabeth Kidd

 
A HERO FOR ANTONIA

 

Elisabeth Kidd

 

Chapter 1

 

Antonia Fairfax stared dreamily out of her bedroom window on the west front of Wyckham, from which a fine prospect presented itself even at this early hour of a January morning. Pockets of mist lingered among
the leafless beeches at the edge of the home wood, and a lacy film of frost
decorated the sloping lawn, which was dotted with slender poplars. But
Miss Fairfax was oblivious to the lure of the natural beauty around her.

The immediate cause of her abstraction was the letter which fluttered
between her slender fingers and at which she glanced frequently, as if to
assure herself that the words she had already committed to memory were
really there and not merely written on her imagination.

My dear Antonia, it has been too long a time...

It had been, indeed, six years since Antonia had last seen Charles
Kenyon. It pleased her to think that Charles’s consciousness that the end
of their separation was in sight had prompted him to write such an
uncharacteristically impulsive letter—so unlike his others, which might
have been published in the Morning Post for all the world to read.

Your beauty is engraved on my memory....

That passage did cause Antonia’s cheeks to colour a little. Really, he should not write such things—it was most improper! Worse, it set down in black and white what could no longer be true in reality. Antonia
snatched up the looking glass she had resorted to when she read the letter
through the first time, peering into it for signs of the ravages of age, but
even she could find none to pretend to laugh away when the inevitable
mannerly coolness came into Charles’s eyes.

At five-and-twenty, Antonia’s clear complexion and candid blue eyes were those of a girl. To be sure, her nose was uncompromisingly straight
rather than sweetly retroussé, and she was unfashionably rounded of
figure. But her careless curls were a rich guinea-gold, her much mended but gaily coloured dressing gown was undeniably becoming, and her
generous mouth was invariably curved into a warm smile. She looked like
no one’s notion of a maiden aunt of advancing years—not even her
own.

My father tells me how well you have managed Wyckham since your brother s tragic death, and I confess I seized upon that as a reason for your coming to London with Isabel. Surely you will not deny yourself a well-deserved holiday....

A holiday? Oddly enough, she had felt no desire to leave Wyckham for some time now. It had been difficult at first, to be sure, but she was proud
of her management of the estate left to her charge on her elder brother’s death
three years before. The ladies in residence there were now quite adept at
their little economies, and so practised in the harmless lies they told
themselves to prove how little their straitened circumstances mattered to
them that they finally had become very cosy in their illusions.

This very morning, Antonia was comfortably ensconced on a velvet
sofa facing a warm fire, before which a large grey cat was dozing
peacefully. A portable breakfast table arranged before her held a steaming
pot of coffee, a half-eaten dish of apple compote and cream, and several varieties of cakes and preserves. There was also, crowding out all the rest, a large ledger opened to a lengthy column of figures, which she had been
re-adding in an effort to come up with a more agreeable total. To be sure,
a surplus of eighty pounds for the last quarter was nothing to be sneezed
at in view of the losses of preceding years, but Antonia’s conscience did
not permit her to crow about it either. Rather, she sighed, folded up her letter, and regarded the sleeping cat with an unkind eye.

“Wake up, Balthazar! It is too bad of you to sleep when the price of
hens is so shockingly low—and everything else appears to be going up!
Perhaps we ought to raise partridges instead? Not that anyone would buy
them when it is so much more entertaining to shoot them oneself.”

Balthazar blinked sleepily and expressed a lamentable lack of interest
in the price of livestock.

“Yes, well, I was not raised to a life of cheese-paring and chipped
china, either, but I do not shut my eyes to it!”

Antonia reached out to stroke her favourite cat and thought for a
moment how pleasant it must feel to be as unconcerned as he was about
the source of his next dish of cream. She looked down again at her paisley
dressing gown and could not help noticing that the fall of lace at the
sleeves was decidedly shabby and no longer very white. She sighed again,
and wondered if Charles harboured any desire to indulge her with lace
and cream teas.

Your brother would not have expected such a sacrifice as for you to
bury yourself in the country,
Charles’s letter had gone on, as if having
once begun, he was determined to marshal every possible argument to
further an end Antonia had no wish to dispute.

And of course, little
Isabel must have a companion—I dare not say chaperone, for that sounds
far too drab to describe Isabel’s lovely young aunt—as well as her godfather Kenyan to sponsor her debut....

It had been Anthony Fairfax’s ambition to give his daughter Isabel a dazzling
season, but now it had fallen to Charles’s father, Philip, to carry out the old plan. Anthony had been a kind and loving father, but his death— which had occurred unexpectedly but characteristically in an accident
when he was leading the field on the turbulent first day of the Quorn—
had left his affairs in much the same disorder as his dressing room. It
soon became apparent that for all his charm, Tony had possessed no head
for business.

Neither, for that matter, had his sister, Antonia, who had
been raised by doting parents to be equally charming and even more decorative and to conceal her native intelligence behind a lovely counte
nance and an infectious laugh—to be praised, indeed, for the very
frivolousness of her existence.

It was true that she had welcomed the task of repairing their fortunes
mainly as a palliative to her grief over her beloved Tony, but later, when
her mind had been activated by the challenge of running the estate, she found quite simply that she enjoyed it. She loved her home and thrived
equally on the quiet of her sunny, many-windowed room and on her long
rides over the square fields and exhilarating slopes of the country near
Wyckham. And if occasionally she felt a stab of regret for the life she
might have lived had her family not been what it was, she never regretted
her loyalty to them.

Antonia’s younger brother, Carey—as charmingly self-centered as the
rest of the Fairfax brood—had gone off to the wars well before Anthony’s
death with a commission in the most decorative regiment he could find.
The life of a young lieutenant of hussars in Wellington’s Peninsular
Army had suited him to a fare-thee-well, and on his few brief leaves home
since, he had declared his complete confidence in his sister’s ability to
keep the ancestral acres from passing into the hands of their creditors.
He had then gone away again as merrily as he had come, to keep his
memory alive at home through the cheerful, rambling letters, which had
not changed a whit since the first of them arrived from Lisbon nearly six
years before.

... La Belle France, indeed!
the lieutenant had recently complained,
disposing thus cavalierly of the British army’s entry, after five years of
bitter fighting in the Peninsula, into France.
Nothing but Rain & more
Rain, & just for the novelty a little more Rain. Old Duoro’s tetchy in the damp, & he don’t like to sit still. Cadoux says it’s his Lumbago & there’s
no help for it. We do not advance because of the Rain, nor may we
retreat, Spain by now having been washed into the Sea....

A scarcely audible knock on her bedroom door caused Antonia to look
up and wonder if she had really heard it, but before she was able to decide
on this point, the door opened and her niece, Isabel, entered, wearing a
frown of concentration and holding her place in the book she carried by
keeping a finger inserted between the pages.

There would have been no doubt in any stranger’s mind, upon beholding these two ladies for the first time, that they were related, but beyond
the indefinable bond of kinship, there was little resemblance between
them. While the elder reminded one forcibly of a luxuriant, full-blown
rose, the schoolgirl who carefully pushed the door closed behind her was
a pale bud—possibly the lovelier of the two, but that was not yet
apparent. Her hair was very fair, but worn in a severe knot on the back of her head. She had a shapely small pink mouth and large grey-blue eyes framed by delicate, well-formed brows. But the gold-rimmed spectacles
which concealed them, the neat but plain kerseymere gown which did
little to fill out her rather too-slender figure, and a slight air of other-worldliness all combined to obscure her natural beauty.

Antonia transferred her coffee cup to her left hand in order to kiss
Isabel’s cheek and bid her an affectionate good morning.

“You are looking very pretty today,” she said, as she invariably did in
an effort to encourage Isabel to think a little more about her natural attributes than those she had cultivated by dint of much reading in
Wyckham’s otherwise little-used library. Just as invariably, Isabel thanked
her, smoothed her hair perfunctorily, and pushed Balthazar aside to make
a place for herself on the sofa.

“And how is your mama this morning?” Antonia went on. This
question, too, was a ritual, and Isabel did not have to consider her reply.

“Much as usual,” she said, replacing her finger in her book with a
ribbon she picked up from Antonia’s dressing table. “She complains of
draughts.”

Antonia sighed. “I should think she would rather complain of the lack
of air, for I vow we have hung no less than three sets of draperies in her
room and one can no longer even see the windows, much less feel any
hint of a draught from them.”

Isabel’s mother, Maria Fairfax, was a self-proclaimed invalid, having proclaimed herself such on the day following her husband’s funeral and
subsequently taken to her room, from which no one had yet seen her
emerge. Since, despite Maria’s lamentations, her health appeared to be in
no way adversely affected by this unnatural seclusion, and since her small
circle of friends was perfectly willing to come to her—bearing all the
gossip and glacéed bonbons she could possibly desire—the family had gone along with the widow’s eccentricity. Indeed, Antonia frequently
thanked Providence that Maria was not to be stumbled upon in other parts
of the house. At least she required very little extra care or expense and seemed perfectly content with her self-proscribed lot.

“She also complains of the bed linen,” Isabel reported. “She put her foot through a sheet last night.”

Antonia could not help but laugh. “Oh, dear! And I suppose she will
insist that it was one of ours, instead of those dreadfully musty things out of her own trousseau. But never mind. I can with all modesty boast of
sufficient improvement in the accounts this quarter to at least purchase
new linens. I trust you are properly impressed by my diligence?”

Isabel expressed herself transported with delight at this heartening
news and even asked Antonia to explain how it had come about, but her
aunt assured her that she would find the penny-farthing details exces
sively tedious. As if to emphasise this point, she closed the ledger she had
been perusing and replaced it on the shelf. Balthazar climbed up on it to
resume his oft-interrupted nap.

“What are you reading, love?” Antonia asked, since Isabel offered no
opening by which she might approach the subject of Charles’s letter.

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