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Authors: The Kissing Bough

Joan Smith

 
THE KISSING BOUGH

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

“So he is finally coming home!” Mrs. Lipton declared, as soon as her vestments had been removed and she and her niece were seated in the Gold Saloon at Clareview. “I suspected as much when we received your letter, Lizzie, even before I read your invitation to spend Christmas with you.”

Lizzie, Lady Elizabeth Morgan, cast an arch glance at her other guest. “I have his letter here,” she said. “Perhaps you would like to glance at it, Jane.” She handed Jane the well-worn letter.

Jane Ramsey’s head was the only one in the room without a cap. At twenty years, she had by no means given up hope of nabbing a husband. Neither her looks nor her fortune made it unlikely. Although she had never been called an Incomparable, the whole neighborhood agreed that she was handsome. She would happily have exchanged her Junoesque build and Titian hair for her aunt’s dainty, brunette beauty. To minimize her striking size, she dressed modestly, and to tame her riotous red mane, she wore it pulled straight back from her face, secured in a bun. On this occasion she wore a sturdy gray shawl over her gown to ward off the winter drafts that inevitably invade even the best-built houses. What she could not conceal or minimize were her wide-set eyes, which were a clear, cool green.

When people first met her, they expected her to be arrogant and hot-tempered. Her size and red hair, perhaps, suggested it. They were surprised to find her not only modest, but gentle and soft-spoken. Having grown up in a household of women and with an invalid mama, since deceased, she had learned constraint at an early age. It was only amongst her oldest and dearest friends that her more hoydenish side was revealed.

She applied herself to the letter Lady Elizabeth had just handed her. At the first glimpse of Nick’s bold penmanship, she felt a thrill seize her. Ever since the invitation to spend Christmas at Clare-view had arrived, her aunt had been dropping sly hints that it was Nick’s idea. Jane hastily scanned his letter now to see if it was the case. Her name leapt off the page at her.

“Let us make it a party. Invite Jane and Mrs. Lipton and Pel and anyone else you can think of. I have a great surprise for you all. The warrior is home, and ready to settle down at last.”

“Invite Jane!” A smile tugged at her lips. It would be presumptuous to imagine that the surprise was what the older ladies thought, but his being ready to “settle down” did suggest it. He was going to ask her to marry him!

For three years she had been hoping for it, not without some reason. She and Nick had always been close friends. When he bought a new mount, she was the second one he called on to show it off. His best friend and her cousin, Pelham Vickers, had taken precedence. When she had put her hair up and let her skirts down and begun calling herself a young lady, Nick always stood up with her first at the local assemblies, and often repeated the honor. The three friends, Nick, Pel, and Jane, were a common sight in Amberley, the little village in Sussex where the locals purchased their necessities.

Then, just when she had reached the proper age to receive an offer, Nick had taken into his head to join the army and go off to Spain. He had always had that restless streak. Of course, he had not actually been Lord Goderich’s heir at the time. Goderich’s younger brother, Arthur, stood between Nick and the title. As Arthur was a widowed septuagenarian, however, it was unlikely he would either produce an heir or long survive his elder brother as the Earl of Goderich. Eventually the title and estate would fall to Nick, and he had been raised at Clareview with this possibility in mind.

Upon Arthur’s death last year, Nick had become the heir presumptive. It was utterly unlikely that Lord Goderich would sire a son. He was not only bedridden, but senile. While he lived, however, Nick’s right to the title was not positive. He was apparently the heir, but not the heir apparent. He did not use the title, Viscount Wyecliffe, but when he heard from Lady Elizabeth, Goderich’s spinster sister and housekeeper, that Goderich had finally run completely mad and set his pillow afire, he knew it was time to come home and take up the reins of Clareview.

After Wellington’s stunning victory in Spain, he was the most revered man in England. The Tory government was eager to be rid of him, and sent him to Paris as ambassador. Nick had been invited to join him there and had been sorely tempted, but he had declined. He remained in London for a few months in a liaison capacity between Wellington and the government, but now he was coming home to settle down.

“How very happy you must be, Lady Elizabeth,” Jane said, handing back the letter. “It will be a great relief to you.”

“I couldn’t be happier, my dear Jane, if they made me a duchess,” she replied, smiling from ear to ear in a way that made her look like a crocodile, for as well as protuberant eyes, she had a large mouth. There was nothing saurian about her figure, however. She was a short, roly-poly lady.

Lizzie and Mrs. Lipton exchanged a smile that spoke of April and May. They had long harbored the hope of seeing Jane installed at Clareview as its mistress.

“It is
time we heard the patter of little feet at Clareview,” Lizzie
said.

Jane felt acutely uncomfortable. “Nicholas has not offered for me,” she said, gently but firmly. “Indeed, he has not written me so much as a single line since leaving three years ago, except a short note at each birthday.” How she treasured those notes. They lay in state in her desk, bound up in pink ribbon.

“But how could he?” Lizzie asked. “It would be improper for him to write before the proposal. Not that it would have prevented him
,
but he knows you are much too nice to carry on a clandestine correspondence. I have kept him informed as to your doings, Jane. You may be sure of that. He always asks for you most particularly.”

Emily Lipton gave a tsk of
playful disapproval. “Jane is so cautious. Her papa, God bless his soul, was used to saying she would not squeal if she was stuck with a knife, but I wager she will squeal for joy when Nick pops the question.”

Mrs. Lipton’s appearance was in stark contrast to Lady Elizabeth’s. She was extremely stylish, and at forty years, she still had enough remnants of youth and beauty to turn an elderly gentleman’s head. Her chestnut hair showed just a trace of silver at the temples. Her eyes still sparkled. She had been widowed for two years. The expectation in the neighborhood was that she would not be a widow much longer.

“Really, I cannot think—” Jane said, embarrassed.

She was rapidly talked down. Without further ado, tea was called for and the older ladies began hatching wedding plans. Jane sat, half listening, making occasional demurs. She would not let herself take it for granted that Nick meant to marry her. She had thought he was coming to propose three years ago, the day he arrived at the door of the Willows wearing his new blue superfine jacket and carrying a bouquet of white roses. But he had only come to announce he had bought a cornet and was joining the army in Spain. She had stoically blinked back her tears on that occasion, and if his “great surprise” now proved to be only that he had some plans for improving Clareview, then she would blink back her tears again and admit he didn’t care for her in that way.

She had had offers, and would very likely have more in the future. Her dowry of ten thousand pounds made her entirely eligible, but she did think it would be wonderful to be Nick’s wife. It was not a hankering after the title, nor a wish to lord it over the local ladies as mistress of Clareview, that lured her, fine as the estate was. No, it was Nicholas Morgan, the most dashing buck in the county, whom she wanted. But then, she sternly told herself, so did all the other ladies want him. She would not moon about like a green calf if he did not offer.

How strange it would be to be mistress of Clareview. She gazed around at the grand saloon, her eyes flicking to the massive paintings by old masters, the heavy furnishings by Kent, the lovely old Persian carpets. Garlands of evergreen boughs graced the doorways and mantels in honor of the Christmas season. Their perfume scented the air, calling up memories of other Christmases. And through the front windows, hung in fading golden velvet draperies with pelmetted top, she saw the park, stretching off into the distance. Capability Brown had improved it in the last century, clumping graceful groupings of trees, curving the roadway, and subduing the hills to gently rolling vistas. But he had not been able to command the weather. His fine work was often hidden by
a
mist from the sea, which hung damp and cold in December, here on the south coast of England.

Jane heard a sharp voice say, “A spring wedding? Oh no, Nick will not want to wait. We can have things arranged by the end of January.” It was Lady Elizabeth speaking. “Ask Jane what she wants.”

Jane just shook her head. “It is too early to make plans,” she insisted.

“Well, it is not too early to change for dinner, at any rate,” Lizzie said, and stood up. “Nick will not be here until later. He said to expect him around nine. Dear me, it has begun to snow. Ah, but that will not stop Nick. He will be here, if he has to hire a sled. Put on your best bib and tucker, miss,” she said roguishly to Jane.

Jane and Mrs. Lipton went abovestairs to dress for dinner and the evening. They had been put in adjoining rooms in the east wing, away from Lord Goderich, who sometimes awoke in the night and made a racket. Lady Elizabeth’s servants had unpacked and laid out their evening frocks. They both declined the offer of assistance in dressing.

Jane was happy she had had a new gown made up for the festive season. When she turned twenty, she had forsaken the pastel shades of the deb for the deeper hues of maturity, and found they were attractive to her strong coloring. The dark green velvet gown was simply cut, with no excess of lace or ribbons or ruchings on the hem. The rich material clung to the curves of her body, outlining her small waist. Her only adornments were a rope of pearls and a small pair of emerald ear pendants. The gown brought out the green of her eyes, and emphasized the drama of her fiery hair. Her ivory cheeks were flushed with excitement in anticipation of the coming meeting with Nick.

Would he think she had changed much? She had been wearing her hair loose when he left. With so little experience of the world, she had felt and acted like a child. Three years of waiting, of dealing with her mama’s death, and of avidly reading the news from Spain, fearing to see Nick’s name in the list of casualties or deaths, had matured her. When she looked in her mirror, she saw a lady, not a girl. But deep inside that mature body and proudly held head, a little girl was still pressing her nose against the windowpane of Clareview, watching, hoping.

Dinner was an informal affair. Lady Elizabeth planned to serve a grand supper when Nicholas arrived. The table talk was all of the weather, and whether it would delay his arrival. No one was so foolish as to think it would keep him away entirely, but he might be late. They kept country hours. By seven-thirty they were back in the Gold Saloon, seated by the flaming grate, with their backs cold and their faces uncomfortably hot. They sat with their sewing or knitting in their hands; they were all sensible country ladies, and did not believe in wasting time.

The next two hours passed pleasantly. At nine-thirty they all went abovestairs to say good night to Lord Goderich. He lay in state in the grand master bedchamber, playing with a set of tin soldiers. His thinning white hair had grown long, and stuck out around a nightcap. He wouldn’t let anyone near him with a pair of scissors. His long, bony, bearded face and wild eyes lent him a forbidding air, but in fact, his mind had reverted to childhood. When confronted with a pretty lady, however, his body darted forward to young manhood.

“Where is my cocoa, Nanny?” he demanded when Lizzie
went to his bedside.

“It is coming, Henry,” she said soothingly. “I have brought these nice ladies up to say good night to you.”

“I’ll have the redhead,” he said, with a wolfish gleam in his rheumy eyes. “Who are you, eh?”

He asked Jane the same question every time she came.

“This is Jane Ramsey, Henry,” Lizzie reminded him.

“Robert Ramsey’s lady? Nothing of the sort. She was a mouse.”

“Robert’s daughter.”

“Daughter, hah! Why didn’t he have the wits to have a son, like me?” Henry’s one son had died of consumption at the age of six. “Where is my son? I want my son.”

“Nick is coming home tonight,” Lizzie said, hoping this would distract the old man.

“Nick? I didn’t call him Nick. I called him Ronald George. Not after that Hanoverian fool on the throne, but after my own papa. I called him Ronald for every day.” His memory came and went. It was stronger for the distant past than for more recent tunes.

He rambled on for a few moments, becoming excited. Lizzie led the visitors out, and they went back downstairs. The chandelier in the entrance hall was alight, casting prisms of dancing color on the marble hallway below, and the evergreen garlands that graced the gilt-framed pictures. A statue of Zeus wore a garland around his neck, which only emphasized his stark nakedness. It was just as they reached the bottom step that the knocker sounded. Pillar, the butler, darted forward to answer it. Before he could reach the door, it flew open and Nicholas stepped in. Snowflakes shone like diamonds on his hat and the shoulders of his greatcoat, lending him the charmed air of unreality. He removed the hat and handed it to Pillar, then stood, just smiling at the welcoming committee, looking from face to face with an air of deep contentment.

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