Chapter 9 – Hope and heartbreak
Anthea ran from Lord Rydges’ study, her only clear thought to escape the presence of the man who had destroyed her happiness three years ago. With her breath catching in dry sobs – part anger, part heartbreak – she headed along the dim corridor that led to the main entrance, some part of her seeking the solace of the gardens. She passed countless portraits of lords and ladies on the walls, their dispassionate eyes pressing upon her as she fled by them. Finally the corridor opened up into the huge entrance foyer. She ran towards the front door. A maid, polishing the staircase bannister, looked up, startled. It was Sally, her expression shifting into concern. Anthea slowed and nodded to the girl, pressing her palms together to try and muster some control. She looked at her bare hands; no gloves. Nor bonnet or spencer. But she could not go back for them. She had to be out of the house now or she would scream.
She strode through the front door and down the steps, feeling the balm of warm sunshine hit her unprotected face. A deep, shaking breath brought a measure of control, but she still felt as if the very centre of her shivered with shock.
For three years she had wondered what she had done wrong, what had been the flaw within her character that had sent Hayden away, and all the time it had been his own sense of duty and right. His own nobility. Anthea quickened her pace, her anger propelling her across the grass. Idiot man, to put himself in such danger. She saw a stand of Weeping Willows beside the lake, instinctively making for the privacy afforded by their veil of thick trailing branches.
She pushed aside the languid fall of greenery and stood at the water’s edge, the lake’s dappled serenity and the rich smell of wet earth bringing some sense of calm. Of course, she had to admit, it was the Commander’s nobility and sense of right that she admired so much. Her anger fired again, this time at Lord Rydges. Why could he not have chosen another man? Why his own friend? Again, her reason chimed in: Lord Rydges would not have taken the decision lightly. He would have needed someone he could trust.
Anthea watched a duck slide smoothly across the surface of the water, glossy black and green head tilted curiously. Why had the Commander not searched for her when he had returned from the war? It was the question that burned into her, pushing her into a restless pace, back and fro along the grassy bank. Why had he not searched for her? Why?
Anthea turned. Hayden stood before her, breathing hard as if he had run across the lawns. One hand held back the curtain of willow branches; the other was gripped around the top of his cane so tightly that the bones of his knuckles showed white. The expression upon his face was as raw as she had ever seen on a man – a mix of tightly reined fury, dread and something else. She bit her lip as she realised what it was: shame.
“Commander.” She could feel the pounding demand of her questions, but she held them back. They were too wild, too uncontrolled, and she was not sure she could stop her anger if it was given voice.
He released the branches, enclosing them both in the trailing green canopy. “Lord Rydges just informed me–” He stopped and took a deep breath, lifting his face to the sky for a moment. Like a prayer for control, Anthea thought. “He informed me that he has told you about the events of three years ago."
“Yes.” Anthea saw his blue eyes bleach into grey. “Although none of the particulars,” she added swiftly.
A brief flash of relief crossed his face. “Then you understand why I could not tell you…why I had to leave like that?”
“I heard why, but I do not understand it. To just leave with not even a goodbye. To leave me wondering if I had done something wrong?” All the hurt and disappointment flooded through her voice. She could not stop it.
“I did not expect to come back,” he said, stepping forward until he stood only a hand-span from her. “Do you not see? I did not expect to live.”
“But you did,” she said, holding her ground. “Yet you did not try and find me again.”
“I could not.” He stepped even closer. “What came back was not the man who once courted you. I think you know that.”
She looked up into his anguish, facing it squarely. “You seem to think that none of the Lieutenant Hayden that I once knew is left –” She stopped feeling as if she stood on the edge an abyss. Gathering her courage she continued “– that none of the Lieutenant Hayden that I once loved is left. But I do not believe that.” She felt dizzy with the bold declaration.
He sucked in a pained breath. “There is enough of him to know that he does not deserve you. That his corruption would only bring more corruption.” He lifted his hand, cupped as if to touch her face. She swayed towards him, but he dropped it back to his side. “You deserve a man who can bring you a clean soul. Someone who is as young as you in spirit, who can face life with the same hope and innocence that you have.”
“No one has a clean soul,” Anthea said. “And I am not so innocent.” She reached towards him – so forward – but he caught her wrist, holding her away.
“Do not touch me. Please,” he said, although he held on to her like a drowning man. “I am not speaking of country parish sins, Anthea. If you knew what I had done, you would not have any regard for me. And I could not bear to see that light in your eyes die.”
“It would be a poor light, indeed, if it could not withstand the truth.”
He shook his head, but for a moment she had seen such longing in his face. “I cannot…please, do not offer me hope. I cannot stand it.”
She stood looking up into his bleak eyes, caught in the intensity of his pain and the tightness of his desperate grip.
“What the hell are you doing, Hayden?” Lord Dansworth’s voice cracked like a whip across the moment.
Anthea saw the Commander flinch. He dropped her hand, swinging around to face the younger man.
“Dansworth, what are you doing here?”
“Miss Stanwell, are you all right?” Dansworth pushed aside the willow branches.
“Yes.” But she saw his eyes fix on her hand, instinctively cradled in the other.
His focus shifted back to the Commander. “Hayden, you should leave now.”
The Commander eyed him, his voice carefully even. “You are not my master, Dansworth. I will go when Miss Stanwell asks me to leave.”
“No, you will go now,” Dansworth said, his fairer skin flushing. “You need to find some equilibrium, sir. Or do you propose to detain Miss Stanwell by her wrist again?”
“You are interfering in something that is not your business,” the Commander said coldly. “This is a matter between Miss Stanwell and myself.”
“On the contrary, Hayden. This lady is a guest in my father’s home, and a particular friend. Her safety is my business.”
The Commander half-turned to Anthea. “A particular friend?” He shook his dark head. “Do not fall for his so-called charm, Anthea. I may not deserve you, but neither does he.”
Dansworth stiffened. “What do you mean by that?”
“I was not addressing you, sir.”
Dansworth stepped forward his fists clenched. “If you have something to say…?”
The Commander turned to face Dansworth, his body gathering into tense readiness. “I would not sully Miss Stanwell’s ears with your grubby exploits.”
Anthea had never seen two men fight, but some part of her knew that this was a prelude to violence.
“Gentlemen!" She stepped forward pulling their attention away from each other. “I wish to return to the house.”
The Commander bowed. “It would be my pleasure to escort you.”
“Miss Stanwell,” Lord Dansworth said, “perhaps you would prefer me to take you back?”
Anthea looked from Dansworth to the Commander. Both men were, once again, glaring at one another.
“I will walk back by myself,” she said.
A girl’s voice cut through the overloaded silence. “Anthea? Are you there?"
Lily. Anthea could hear the anxiety in her sister’s call. With a sense of relief, she walked past the two men and swept through the curtain of branches, calling, “I am here, Lily.”
Her sister stood in the centre of the broad lawn, also without bonnet or gloves, shielding her eyes. She waved as Anthea crossed the grass.
“Are you all right?” she asked breathlessly as Anthea caught her arm and pulled her into a quick walk towards the house. “Sally came for me in the morning room. She was worried about you.”
Anthea looked over her shoulder. Lord Dansworth had emerged from the stand of trees and paused for a moment watching them. From the other side, the Commander strode towards the stables.
“Oh my,” Lily giggled, following Anthea’s glance.
“It is not what you think,” Anthea said. “It is horrible.”
Lily immediately sobered. “What has happened?”
Anthea shook her head. Although not explicitly bound into silence about the Commander’s role in the war, she knew she should not speak of it. Lily – dear as she was – could not be called discreet.
“I have found out the reason why Commander Hayden left Town. And I have found out the reason why he has stayed away.”
“Why?” Lily said.
Anthea met her sister’s eyes. “I cannot tell you. All I can say is that Commander Hayden is a man of great honour.”
Lily frowned. “Honour? Really?”
"And stupidity,” Anthea added.
Lily’s brow cleared. “Yes, I have noticed that the two often go together,” she said, prompting a grim smile from her sister. “And what about Lord Dansworth?”
Anthea resisted the urge to look over her shoulder again. “Not quite as much honour, I think.”
Lily’s eyes widened. “Anthea, are you are in love with both of them?”
Anthea quickened her pace, leaving Lily in her wake. She but did not want to answer, just in case it was true.
As good manners demanded, Anthea and Lily returned to the morning room where the other ladies were engaged at their fancywork. Anthea’s long absence from the afternoon’s activity, coupled with Lily’s subsequent departure at the behest of a housemaid had, apparently, occasioned a great deal of speculation amongst the ladies. As the sisters took their seats once again and picked up their needlework, Anthea sensed a faint atmosphere of hostility. Only Lady Charlotte smiled, her eyes holding sweet concern.
“Is all well with you?” she asked in a low voice.
Before Anthea could answer, Lady Rydges said, “Yes, are you quite well, Miss Stanwell? You have been gone such a long time.”
“Quite well, thank you, my lady,” Anthea answered with tolerable composure.
“When Miss Lily left us, I was quite sure you were in a crisis of health.” Lady Rydges twitched her own needlework irritably. “It was very disconcerting. And then Philips said you had gone into the garden.”
“I needed some air, my lady. Thank you for our concern.”
Anthea bent over the table-piece she was embroidering and forced herself to make a nonchalant stitch.
“Yes, but you went without your bonnet, Miss Stanwell,” Miss Tait said, her brittle tone drawing Anthea’s head up again. “You must be more careful. I can see that you have already freckled. No gentleman likes a freckled lady. I am sure I heard Lord Dansworth comment as much.” Her voice took on an acid edge. “Perhaps you saw him in the garden too? Philips said he was also headed that way, and you seem to accidentally meet there so often.”
“I was there but for a moment, Miss Tait,” Anthea answered.
“Yes, but even a moment in the full glare of the sun can be disastrous for a lady, don’t you think?” Miss Tait looked around the circle of ladies for support. At her side on the sofa, Mrs Hanes tensed and made a soft sound of warning.
“Too true,” Lady Davinia interspersed sleepily, “one cannot protect one’s complexion enough.” She eyed Anthea. “But you are wrong Miss Tait. Miss Stanwell’s complexion is quite unharmed.”
“Unlike her reputation,” Miss Tait murmured into her own needlework.
Mrs Hanes cast an appalled look at her charge. Anthea froze, her hand poised over her silk. Had she heard aright?
“What did you say, Miss Tait,” Lady Charlotte demanded.
There was a small silence, and then Miss Tait said, “I believe I agreed with Lady Davinia. Miss Stanwell has a lovely complexion.”
“What gown have you chosen for the Garden-Gardiner’s ball tomorrow night, Lady Charlotte?” Mrs Hanes asked hurriedly.
At that, the conversation ponderously turned to the ball and the gowns each lady was considering for the grand event. The discussion progressed into a catalogue of the company that was expected to attend. Anthea stabbed at her needlework, answered when directly addressed, and waited for the moment when she could return to the seclusion of her bedchamber and think without interruption. The dismissal seemed to take forever, but Lady Rydges eventually waved them all away to rest before the excitement of the evening fireworks display. Anthea fled, leaving even Lily behind.
Finally alone in her room, Anthea sat at the dressing table. All her anger was finally spent and she now saw it for it was - shock and self pity. She eyed herself with some severity. It was time to stop dwelling in the past and look to the future. A future that was maybe linked to one of these two men. She leaned forward, frowning at her reflection. Was she really so fickle that she had formed an attachment to two men? Or did she prefer one to the other? She enjoyed Lord Dansworth’s company – his playfulness and humour – and although he had been mistaken in the situation under the willows, he had shown great chivalry. Yet, perhaps her pulse did not quicken with him as much as it did with Commander Hayden. There was something about the Commander that made her want to touch him. She saw her reflection flush and busied herself rearranging her hairbrush and comb.
A knock on the door saved her from her own thoughts.
She stood and said, “Yes?”
The door opened. A footman stood at the threshold, holding Waverley by a lead. The young man bowed, trying hard not to smile.
“Miss Stanwell, Lord Dansworth sends you a message by his most trusted messenger.”
He released Waverley, who padded into the room and seeing the fire in the grate, immediately settled his huge shaggy body on the rug before it. Anthea saw a note threaded through the dog’s collar.
“Thank you,” Anthea said.
The footman bowed and withdrew, closing the door.
“What do you have there, Waverley?” Anthea asked, kneeling on the floor beside the hound. She scratched him under the chin and pulled the note free.
Dear Miss Stanwell, it read.
Propriety does not allow me to sit with you in the afternoon, but Waverley has offered to stand as my deputy and keep you company. He does not have much conversation, but he claims he is almost as a good listener as myself. I hope that the afternoon’s events have not upset you over much and that I will see you at the dinner hour restored to your usual serenity.
Anthea smiled, noting the informality of his signature. “Your master is very thoughtful,” she said. “But what does he want with me, Waverley? Is this just play?”
Waverley yawned, settling his long muzzle between his paws. Anthea stroked the rough coat. “You are no help,” she told him.
Another knock brought her to her feet. “Yes?”
The door opened to another footman. “Miss Stanwell, a message for you.” He bowed and offered the folded paper.
He bowed again and closed the door.
“Does your master have something to add?” she asked Waverley. She unfolded the note.
Dear Miss Stanwell, it said.
And for some reason she could not fathom, she burst into tears.
The house party had been instructed to gather in the drawing room before the fireworks display. Anthea wore her old evening gown with her new westkit, the bronze silk sitting perfectly over her bodice. Too bad it wasn’t real bronze, Anthea thought as she entered the room. She could have done with some armour against Miss Tait’s barbed looks.
“Miss Stanwell, do join us,” Mr Edgecombe said.
He stood at the fireplace beside Lily who seemed to be glowing under his attention.
Anthea walked gladly over to them, noting that Commander Hayden stood at the far end of the room with Lord Rydges in close conversation, and that Lord Dansworth was occupied with Miss Tait and his mother. He glanced up as she passed and smiled, much to Miss Tait’s annoyance. Anthea smiled back, deepening the heiress’s sour expression.
“Are we set for the spectacular?” Mr Edgecombe asked. His face held a boyish expression of anticipation. “I have seen some of the preparations and I believe we are in for a wonderful treat.”
Lily clapped. “How exciting. I have only seen fireworks once before.”
Lady Rydges turned at the clap and finding that its source was Lily, motioned her towards the pianoforte. “My dear, do favour us with some music while we wait.”
“Of course, my lady,” Lily said, curtseying. With a bright smile at Mr Edgecombe, she made her way to the instrument.
Anthea shifted slightly to view Commander Hayden’s back, clad in a well-fitted navy blue tailcoat. By the tilt of one shoulder, she could see that his murmured conversation with Lord Rydges was strained.
“Perhaps you would be able to answer a question for me, Mr Edgecombe,” she said. “A question of theology.”
Mr Edgecombe bowed. “Of course, Miss Stanwell. It would be my pleasure. And,” he added with a small smile, “my vocation.”
“How do you help someone find redemption?” She glanced back at the Commander.
“Ahh,” Mr Edgecombe said and Anthea realised he had followed her gaze. A sharp man, for all his gentle nature. “I am afraid a person must come to redemption by themselves. It is a personal journey.”
“But how long does it take?” She smiled wryly, knowing the question was foolish. Mr Edgecombe, to his eternal credit, answered with all seriousness.
“It can be a matter of a moment, or a lifetime,” he said. “And for some poor souls who have lost all hope, it can be never. Although, do not let my Bishop hear me say so, for it is not the official line.” He sighed. “Nevertheless I have seen it.”
Anthea looked again at the Commander’s broad back, his dark head now bowed as he listened to Lord Rydges. A moment or a lifetime. Which would it be for Commander Hayden? Anthea smiled her thanks to Mr Edgecombe and turned to face the pianoforte as Lily struck the opening chords of sweet folk song. A moment or a lifetime. Anthea closed her eyes. The third alternative – never – was beyond contemplation.
Next Time: Before the Ball
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© Alison Goodman 2012.
Alison Goodman holds the Intellectual Property rights to the Trust and Tribulation serial, but acknowledges the right of 2012 JAFA season ticket holders to make use of the characters and situations in the serial to fulfil the conditions of the competition.
Please also note that the use of brand names in the serial has been used in the spirit of fun and is not meant, in any way, as product placement. The author has, alas, not been offered any terrific freebies to use these names.