Read The Fifth Kiss Online

Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

The Fifth Kiss

The Fifth Kiss

Elizabeth Mansfield

chapter one

The fog was remarkably thick even by London standards, and Olivia, peering out of the window of her coach, could not be certain at first that the gentleman she suddenly spied there on the street was indeed the one she thought he was. She drew in her breath in a suppressed gasp and threw a quick, uneasy glance at her sister who was dozing beside her, her head nodding gently with the motion of the carriage. Relieved to see that Clara was still asleep, Olivia turned back to the window and pressed her nose against the pane. Yes, the gentleman out there who was so brazenly embracing a lightskirt looked shockingly like Strickland.

But he couldn't be! Olivia
must
be mistaken. The fog (a chilling, enveloping mist that made one feel colder this February night than snow would have done) had made of the nighttime streets of London a cloudy nothingness, and even though the gentleman was standing in a beam of light from the open door of the house behind him—a beam which cut a swath of brightness through the soupy haze—his outline was nevertheless made indistinct by the thickness of the fog. The little scene being played out on the street just beyond the carriage appeared to be shrouded in gauze. In addition, the gentleman's face was obscured by the tousled coiffure of the woman he was so unrestrainedly embracing. The two had evidently just emerged from the house and were engaged in a shockingly fond farewell. The position was too intimate for propriety, and the woman was obviously not the sort of creature a gentleman should be seen with at all. So of course he
couldn't
be Strickland … could he?

The coachman was inching his way through the mist very cautiously, and Olivia had ample time to stare down at the man in question. He seemed to be as tall as Strickland and his shoulders as broad. If he were not Strickland, his form was as like as a twin. Still, Olivia cautioned herself, it was decidedly nasty-minded of her to suspect for a moment that Lord Strickland could be the sort to embrace a doxy on the street. She disliked Strickland intensely, but she was not so mean-spirited as to assume that he would be likely to behave in so reprehensible a fashion. She must not permit herself to jump to such an unwarranted—

But she did not finish the thought, for the gentleman lifted his head at that very moment and looked directly at the passing carriage. Olivia gasped aloud and quickly withdrew her face from the window, her heart pounding and her fingers trembling in shock and chagrin. It
was
Strickland after all!

“What is it, Livie? What's the matter?” Clara asked, suddenly awake.

Olivia's breath caught in her throat. She forced a smile. “Matter? Nothing's the matter. Why?”

“I heard you gasp,” her sister replied.

“You must have been dreaming.” Olivia patted her older sister's hand nervously. “Go back to sleep.”

“I wasn't really sleeping … just lightly drowsing. I was sure …” She shrugged and grinned at the slim young girl beside her. “Well, perhaps I
was
asleep. Your London hours are too much for me. At Langley Park I would have been abed these past four hours.”

“You really
have
become a country mouse, haven't you?” Olivia remarked absently, glancing back through the oval window behind them and noting that the scene she'd just witnessed was still visible, the embrace still revoltingly in progress. “I suspect you no longer care for London at all.”

“That doesn't mean I don't care for
you
, love. I've truly enjoyed this little visit with you and the family, you know that. But—”

“But you'd rather be back in the country with your babies.”

Clara gave her sister a mock-shamefaced smile. “Yes, I would.
Mea culpa
. Guilty as charged. I admit it frankly—I hate being away from them.”

“But
why
, my dear?” Olivia asked, forcing herself to keep her eyes from the rear window of the coach. “You know they're being adequately cared for. You couldn't
have
a better housekeeper than Mrs. Joliffe, and there's Fincher and Miss Elspeth and—”

“Yes, I know. The staff is completely reliable. Nevertheless, the children need their mother at their ages. Perry, even though he's almost seven, is too young to take a scolding without his feelings being hurt. Shy though he is, he does seem to fall into mischief. He's apt to be scolded more than you'd expect, and, somehow, I don't like anyone to scold him but me. And little Amy is only three and hardly understands why her mother has deserted her.”

Olivia threw her sister a scornful glance. “
Deserted
, indeed! You've sent them trinkets every day since you've come! Besides, isn't it about time you began thinking of yourself? You haven't come down for a visit since before Amy was born. Four years! Haven't you missed it at all—the bustle, the excitement, the activity of London life—the opera, the political dinners, the witty conversation, the shops and bazaars, the cultural variety, the intellectual stimulation—?”

“No, not a bit,” her sister admitted without a touch of shame. “I miss
you
, of course, and Charles and Jamie. But as for the rest, I find ‘cultural variety and intellectual stimulation' a bit of a bore. I know that
you
, you little bluestocking, find these things exciting, but I'm too involved in motherhood, I'm afraid.”

Olivia frowned. “Yes, you've always been more motherly than anything else,” she said with a touch of disapproval. Sophocles had once said that “children are the anchors of a mother's life,” and he was quite right. Children weighed a woman down. She loved her sister devotedly, but she strongly objected to Clara's absorption in domestic life to the exclusion of all other matters.

Of course, she had no right in the world to be critical of her sister. Clara was twelve years her senior, and when their mother had died (Olivia was only two at the time), Clara had stepped into her mother's place with remarkable serenity. She'd raised her twelve-year old brother, Charles, her six-year-old brother, James, and her baby sister, Olivia, with a tenderness and wisdom remarkable in a fourteen-year-old girl. Their father, a famous scholar, revered and respected for his brilliant Greek translations, had not been brilliant in domestic matters. He had been of no help at all to Clara during those years. Sir Octavius Matthews had always preferred the solitude of his study to the companionship of his family. Clara had had to deal with the management of the household and the rearing of her sister and brothers entirely on her own. Olivia should feel nothing but gratitude that her sister had always been the maternal type.

A sound of a muffled curse from the coachman interrupted her thoughts, and the carriage came to an abrupt halt. Wollens, the coachman, slid open the little window through which he communicated with his passengers and stuck his head in. “Beggin' yer pardon, Miss Livie … yer ladyship. There seems to be a bit of 'n accident up ahead. Now, don't be alarmed. Both of ye just sit right there nice and snug while I 'op down to see what's afoot.”

Olivia cast a worried look over her shoulder through the oval window, while her sister lowered the window at her side and peered out ahead of them. “I don't see a thing out there,” Clara remarked.

But Olivia could still see Strickland. Although he and his
chère amie
were now at quite a distance down the street, she could dimly make them out. The woman was now standing apart from her paramour and, with his hands in hers, seemed to be trying to coax him back into the house.
Go in, blast you!
Olivia urged him in her thoughts.
Go in or go away! Do you want Clara to see you?
She slid over close to her sister. “Are you sure you can't see anything up ahead?”

“No, nothing. But here comes Wollens now.”

The coachman informed them that a carriage had collided with a wagon in the fog and that the street was completely blocked. “But they've righted the wagon an' steadied the 'orses. They'll be out o' the way in a minute or two.”

Olivia threw another quick glance over her shoulder, noting with irritation that the miscreant pair was still visible. Would Clara be able to detect the gentleman's identity if she turned around? Olivia rather doubted it, but she nevertheless turned hastily back to her sister, determined to keep her so closely engaged in conversation that Clara would not be at leisure to look behind her. “I don't wish to imply that there's anything wrong, exactly, with being the motherly type,” she said, deftly picking up the thread of their conversation before the interruption of the coachman. “But one can carry domestication too far, you know.”

Clara smiled at her indulgently. “Can one? And do I?”

Olivia blushed. She was an ungrateful wretch to criticize her sister's loving nature. Clara had been the best sister in the world, motherly at a time when Olivia had needed mothering. Clara hadn't tried to force Olivia into her own mold, either. When Olivia had shown, quite early, that she wanted to study Latin and mathematics with her brothers' tutor rather than music and embroidery with her governess, Clara had permitted her to sit in on Jamie's lessons. Clara had never tried to turn her sister into one of those simpering misses who know nothing but the latest fashions in hairstyles and the feminine tricks to lure gentlemen to their sides.

For ten years, Clara had unselfishly refused all the suitors for her hand. She'd repeatedly rejected matrimony in order to do her duty by her younger siblings. But eight years ago, when she'd fallen deeply in love with her Miles, Charles had insisted that she accept him. Charles had reached his majority by that time and felt completely capable of taking over the management of the family. James was already at Eton, and Olivia, although only twelve, was an intelligent and independent girl. So Clara had married and moved away to Langley Park, her husband's estate in Wiltshire.

But Olivia had not felt—nor did she feel now—any resentment toward her sister for marrying. It had really been all to the good. Clara had made for herself the kind of life for which she was most suited, while Olivia had been permitted to develop her mind and personality in her own way. It was a different way from her sister's. Olivia could read Latin and Greek, she had an interest in politics, in literature and in scientific developments, and she didn't waste her time with dressmakers, milliners, frivolous gossip and shallow flirtations. Clara might call her a bluestocking, but as far as Olivia was concerned, that was just what she wanted to be. Better a bluestocking than a domesticated brood-mare.

Clara was quite aware of her sister's unspoken disapprobation, but she merely smiled lovingly and put her arm around the young girl's shoulders. “Don't look down your nose at me, love. When you have babies of your own, you'll understand.”

Olivia's eyes flickered guiltily. “I wasn't looking down my nose at you, Clara, really. How could I? You've always been my closest and dearest friend. But I shall
never
understand you, you know, for I don't intend to
have
any babies. There are
other
things I want to do with my life.”

Clara had heard that declaration before and had no intention of entering into a foolish debate on the matter. Olivia was too pretty and spirited a girl to be passed over in the Marriage Mart, and Clara was convinced that when a man of sufficient wit and charm came along, Olivia would change her tune. Until then, all argument was pointless. “Be that as it may, my love,” she said placidly, “I hope you won't be put out with me if I leave for home tomorrow.”

“Leave?
Already?
See here, Clara, you haven't been here a fortnight!”

“I know, dearest. But to the babies it must seem like a year.”

Olivia had no answer. Nervously, she darted a quick look over her shoulder again. Strickland and his paramour were still there. With a frowning glance at her sister, she sat up straight, folded her hands in her lap and pursed her lips. “I don't suppose one could expect your children's so-consequential
father
to step in and care for them while you're here in London.”

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