Chapter One of A Knowing One, coming via Kickstarter May 2023
Though only early June, the unusual heat had long ago burned the mist off the roads when the well-sprung curricle swept into the yard of the Angel Inn at Maidenhead. The groom who went to the new horses’ heads cast a practiced eye over the tidy pair of bays, then his gaze turned speculatively to the couple in the curricle—a handsome young gentleman in his early twenties, and a pretty young lady with dark hair and a strained expression. They had no baggage apart from two portmanteaux strapped to the back of the vehicle, and no groom or maid. It all made for an interesting circumstance, he thought, which augured well to provide some diversion in his demanding but unvarying occupation.
The driver of the curricle, unaware of this scrutiny, hopped out to hand down his companion, but she instantly took vocal exception to their delaying their journey even a moment longer than necessary. She stayed stubbornly in the vehicle as the young gentleman remonstrated with her, giving rise to hopes in the groom’s breast that they were a fugitive couple bent on elopement and hotly pursued.
This hope was challenged a moment later, however, when the gentleman declared, in very un-loverlike accents, “I’m dashed if I’ll endure another minute sitting down—and next to one who may as well be a statue for all the conversation I’ve got out of you for the past three hours! But you may suit yourself, Nora, and stay here simmering in this dashed heat, while I take the chance to stretch my legs and refresh myself, for I am very much mistaken if it isn’t going to be the devil of a hot day. Besides,” he said, as one presenting a leveler, “It is my belief that Mr. Ingles will be disinclined to take you back if you arrive at his gates looking like a wilted flower.”
“There you are dead wrong, Tom!” returned the lady indignantly. “You do not know James as I do, for if you did, you would be aware that such trivial matters would not weigh with him!”
Tom crossed his arms over his chest and said, “One would hope not, especially if he is to become my brother-in-law; however, Mama will have my head if you arrive home in even worse condition than she sent you. If you do not care for my health, Nora, you must give a care to your own.”
The lady sighed gustily and rolled her eyes in a very sisterly fashion, withering the last shred of hope for excitement in the groom’s heart.
“Very well,” she said, pulling back the rug that had protected her traveling dress from dust and allowing him to hand her down. “Ten minutes.”
Evidently pleased by this concession, the young gentleman triumphantly issued orders to the groom to pole up another pair— “a good, steady pair, mind you”—and disappeared with his sister into the inn, leaving the groom to shake his head at the ill-luck that employed him at so respectable and unexciting an establishment.
When Tom and Lenora Breckinridge had recommenced their journey a quarter of an hour later, it had indeed become warmer, and Tom, squinting at the cloudless sky, put up the sunshade. Lenora offered only mechanical thanks for this action before relapsing once more into the ruminative silence that had hung about her all the morning.
After one or two glances at her anxious countenance, Tom—whose temper had been decidedly improved by the ingestion of a ham sandwich and a pint of ale—said bracingly, “Come now, Nora, you mustn’t vex yourself! What is the worst that can happen?”
She bit her lips. “The worst, Tom, is that I am horridly mistaken and James left town, not because he was deceived as to my feelings, but because he was relieved to be rid of me!”
“Well, if Mr. Ingles hopes to bring his fortunes about with your money, Nora,” said Tom reasonably, “then you can hardly imagine he should be relieved to be rid of you.”
Lenora’s shoulders slumped. “If only I could be certain that he loved me. He never did say so, after all. I came to believe it, for he seemed to show me in many ways, but why then would he not question Dowbridge’s assertions? If he truly loved me, why did he simply turn tail and run?”
“When you put it that way, I can only be convinced that he is poor-spirited, and not worth regretting.”
“But he is not poor spirited, Tom!” cried Lenora. “Only think what he has so valiantly borne already! First his father’s death, then suffering so in the Peninsula, and then coming home to find his inheritance a shambles! And just when he believes he can bring it all about, Mr. Dowbridge must deceive him so—so villainously! Oh, I can scarcely keep my countenance when thinking of that man!”
“He was undoubtedly the worst of your suitors this Season,” conceded Tom. “I suppose I cannot be amazed at your uncertainty regarding Ingles considering you had all manner of fortune-hunters like Dowbridge after you.”
Lenora did not immediately reply, only furrowing her brow against the unpleasant recollections. She shook these away, exclaiming, “Oh, I feel as wound up as a cat in a tree, clinging with all my might to the branch and not knowing if anyone will come to catch me.”
Tom was more in sympathy with Lenora’s situation than she realized. He was well acquainted with her love of Gothic romance, and had imagined that she who had been fed a steady diet of fainting heroines being rescued from the clutches of dastardly villains by dazzlingly handsome but tragically ineligible gentlemen would know what to make of a poor man falling in love with a rich lady. It was only after he recalled that the poor gentlemen in the stories almost always turned out to be the lost son of a fabulously wealthy nobleman—and therefore needed no lady’s fortune—that he saw how she could be confused. But Tom, who only recently had found himself in just such a position, knew exactly what to make of it—at least from an honorable man’s perspective. The lady’s fortune had nothing to do with it, though it was—or could be, if the fates aligned—highly providential.
He could not unequivocally ascribe his own honorable intentions to James Ingles, Lord Helden, however, not having had the pleasure of his lordship’s acquaintance for more than a few days. He had been positively impressed by Helden’s soft-spoken humility, and not a little pleasantly surprised by his dry humor, but even to one not so inclined as Tom to be over-protective of his sister’s interests, this was insufficient evidence to convince one of his honor. But glancing again at Lenora’s strained expression, Tom could not deny that Lord Helden had won Lenora’s heart, and though Tom had often believed her silly, he could no longer do so, for her experiences in recent weeks had undoubtedly matured her.
After more partial consideration of the matter, therefore, he was moved to say, “It may be that he loves you too much to wish to discommode you with his presence. If you had developed an attachment to another, as he was made to believe, it would be irksome to you to see him again, not to mention incredibly painful for him to witness your joy in another man’s company.”
Lenora, blinking herself from her reverie, regarded him with astonished interest. “I do believe you are right, Tom, and am only now to discover how it is that you, who have not a romantic bone in your body, could come to such an insightful conclusion.”
As he was not at all certain that he was prepared to share the disappointment he had recently suffered with her, involving as it did her dear friend, it was well, perhaps, that they had reached Nettlebed, where Tom had planned to change horses. Studiously avoiding Lenora’s curious gaze, he entered rather energetically into treating with the ostler for a steady-looking pair of chestnuts that would carry them toward Gloucestershire at good speed, and then very thoughtfully ordered a light nuncheon to be packed to take with them on their way. This was soon accomplished, however, and he returned to Lenora in the curricle to find her gazing thoughtfully ahead.
As they turned out of the yard she said, “I do wish we were closer to Wrenthorpe, Tom, for what if James has met with trouble, or sickness, and is all alone, and here we have more than a day’s drive ahead?”
“With no rain to speak of this fortnight, we should have no trouble on the King’s highway,” said Tom in a matter-of-fact tone. He was both grateful for her diversion and apprehensive that she would yet return to his former comment, and he continued a little gruffly, “I hope his lordship is worth all this rumination. Do you really think he’ll be at Helden Hall?”
Lenora said resolutely, “I must, Tom, don’t you see? If he is not—”
“If he’s not,” said Tom matter-of-factly, “he’s a scab, and not worth another thought.”
“Tom, you must not speak so of him,” she replied, her gaze once again searching his face. “If what you just said is right—and I am more convinced every moment that it is—then you must know he is an honorable man who has been through too much to simply give up. He will have gone back to Helden Hall, to try what he can to redeem it himself. He must be there.”
Tom smiled ruefully. “You truly love him, don’t you?”
“I do, Tom. I never knew what it was to love—not really—until I thought he was lost to me.” She hesitated, then turned away and said placidly, “That is how I know you are right about why he left London. It was not until I thought I had lost him that I knew I could never marry anyone but James.”
This was uncomfortably close to Tom’s sentiments regarding his lady, and he wondered if he ought to abandon his scruples and confide in her. She already was aware that her bosom friend, Miss Diana Marshall, was the most delightful young lady of his acquaintance, and she could have guessed that Diana was not far from his thoughts the greater part of every day. Indeed, it was generally known among his family that, though he had known Diana for only two Seasons, he had lately entertained very serious thoughts of matrimony with her. But unknown to Lenora, Tom had recently been given cause to believe that Miss Marshall was no longer within his reach, and he thought he comprehended Lord Helden’s situation more exactly than he would like to admit, for he had not formerly made the exact nature of his sentiments known to Diana, nor had he exerted himself to follow when her father had carried her out of the county in pursuit of a more eligible suitor.
Smarting under the knowledge of this weakness, he said gruffly, “Helden is certainly a gudgeon if he is not at Helden Hall, pining for you like one of those ridiculously poor but noble young heroes in your novels—except that he has failed to discover that he is, in actuality, fabulously wealthy.”
“Precisely, Tom,” Lenora said, casting him an annoyed glance. “That is why he must be there and he must marry me. Only my fortune will save him.”
“Save the Hall, you mean,” said Tom dryly. “You first wanted Lord Helden for his ramshackle, broken-down wreck of a house. How you can think it so terribly romantic, I shall never comprehend.”
“Tom Breckinridge,” replied Lenora tartly, “you are the most horrid, odious, disagreeable person alive. It is many weeks since I thought more of Lord Helden than I did of his house. Helden Hall is still the most romantic house imaginable, and I would be excessively gratified to be made mistress of it, but you are a toad to think that I could still cherish—that I ever did cherish—such mercenary motives. I love James Ingles, and I wish to bestow my thirty-thousand pounds upon him so that he may redeem his estate and reclaim the position that is his due.”
Tom grinned a trifle ashamedly at her. “If I hadn’t these chestnuts to hold I’d clap my hands. Bravo, Lenora! Have you an encore performance ready?”
She cast him a smoldering glare but folded her hands primly in her lap. “Someday you will understand, Tom. Someday, you will open your eyes and see that your destiny has been before you all along.”
“If you mean Miss Marshall, Nora, I fear you are much mistaken,” he said with a gruffness to his airy tone that belied his discomfiture.
“Of course I mean Diana! How can you be so vexing?” She turned to scrutinize his countenance. “Why are you acting so oddly, Tom? A bare month ago you very nearly asked her to stand up with you a third time at the Colderbeck’s ball! You send her flowers and trinkets and take her driving everywhere! It is an understood thing that you will make her an offer. What has happened to make you so cool? You—you did not have a falling-out?”
Tom chewed his lip. He had rather not bare his soul to Lenora just now, while she was all but consumed by romantic sentiment, for he was in no mood for a lecture on the necessity of persistence and endurance and sacrifice in pursuit of love, all of which he was well aware. However, the circumstances being what they were, he was fast coming to the conviction that she may be able to return his favor of earlier in the day and give him some sound advice.
With a sigh, therefore, he said, “She has another beau, Nora.”
“She has any number of beaux, Tom. Don’t be a saphead. She has preferred you to all of them for months! Or are you blind?”
Tom sighed. “I see more than you know, Nora. It’s this Popplewell fellow that’s come out of nowhere. It’s as plain as day she cares for him more than me.”
Lenora gave a derisive laugh. “He’s her childhood playmate, separated from her for many years! She is only glad to be reunited—nothing more, Tom, depend upon it. What a cawker you are.”
“I’m no cawker! Her eyes light when he comes into a room, and she delights in every trifling thing he says. It’s enough to make me itch to draw his claret!”
“And you claiming you don’t know what love is,” said Lenora, eyes dancing as she looked at him askance. “You certainly know what jealousy is! Let me see—have your eyes turned green?”
Tom grumbled something about Job’s comforters and though Lenora begged his pardon, she strove for some minutes to command her mirth. At last she was able to say, “In all seriousness, Tom, as one of Diana’s fast friends and privileged to know her innermost thoughts, I hold to my opinion that she continues to prefer you above anyone, even Mr. Popplewell.”
Tom sighed. “Nora, even if I am being a jealous fool and Diana does still prefer me, Mr. Marshall has made it plain he wishes her and Popplewell to make a match of it.”
“No, Tom, you must be mistaken,” she said firmly. “Mr. Marshall takes very little interest in Diana’s swains. His rule is to let Mrs. Marshall guide Diana, and you cannot make me believe she would allow him now to take a hand.”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know how it is, Nora, but Mr. Marshall takes more than a friendly interest in Popplewell—Popplewell! What a name! How could anyone wish to be allied to someone named Popplewell?”
“It certainly is not a very dignified sort of name,” giggled Lenora. “I must own that I should not—but that is neither here nor there. Diana, I assure you, does not wish to take a name such as Popplewell.”
“It doesn’t much matter what she wishes if Mr. Marshall steers her toward his choice,” said Tom gruffly.
“Now Tom!” Lenora remonstrated. “Do not go into the sulks. You know as well as I that he could not force her to marry where she does not wish it. Indeed, he is an indulgent father, and would not wish her to be made unhappy.”
“Popplewell does not seem to make her unhappy,” pursued Tom doggedly. “And Mr. Marshall is decidedly eager for the match.”
“They are like brother and sister, Tom! Diana has long shown a pointed preference for you—if you have not seen it, Mr. Marshall must have. Whatever his motives, he would not put his own wishes before Diana’s.”
Tom shook his head. “You do not know the whole, Nora. Diana has been at Brighton half the Season—”
“I am well aware of that, Tom. They have gone for her father’s health—Diana says they always have gone to Brighton when he is poorly, for it is not ten miles from their home, and he will go nowhere else. But I do not know what that has to say to anything.”
“It has everything to say to it,” said Tom, exasperated. “Her father’s health has never been better, I am persuaded. He goes to Brighton, and carries his daughter with him, to follow Popplewell.”
Lenora looked at him, brow furrowed. “But are you certain? Mr. Popplewell’s estate is nearby Brighton, to be sure, for they are neighbors. Are you sure he also has gone to Brighton?”
“Dead sure,” said Tom. “I was present when he announced his intention of removing thither a fortnight ago. And not two days later, Mr. Marshall discovered his rheumatism had become so insupportable as to require the sea air and Indian Vapor Baths of Brighton.”
She was silent for a moment, pondering this. “Dear me. He is, then, either a great invalid or Mr. Popplewell has done something immense to gain his favor.”
Tom snorted. “He has done nothing less than become heir to a viscountcy, my dear, and a very tidy fortune, if my information is good. Add that to his already snug estate and he becomes quite a million times more eligible than my humble self.”
“Oh, no, Tom!” cried Lenora. “I cannot believe Mr. Marshall to be so mercenary as that. Your estate is nothing to scoff at, you know. That is, in a few years it will be excessively profitable, and surely he can see that you are an excellent manager, and will take very good care of Diana. Besides, it is what she sees that matters, and she does not want a title and a fortune, depend upon it! She has ten thousand pounds of her own, and wants nothing more than to put it to good use, I am persuaded.”
Tom laughed mirthlessly. “What fine philanthropists young ladies of fortune are! I fear, however, dear sister, that you attribute your own ideals to your friend. She has not once declared a wish to make her fortune useful, to me or to anyone.”
“As if she would do anything so improper,” chided Lenora, unperturbed. “She need not say it, but she is just the sort of kind, generous-hearted person who would wish to do good. She certainly does not yearn for position above an opportunity to do her Christian duty.”
“You comfort me exceedingly,” remarked Tom wryly. “But then, you know nothing of my position.”
Lenora looked conscious but then laughed ruefully, putting her arm through his. “Come, now, Tom, no more of these megrims. We both must be calm and rational. Perhaps Diana has been distracted by Mr. Popplewell, but I can assure you that she thinks very highly of you—Do not look at me in that odiously cynical way! I had a letter from her only last week, and if she mentioned how well she liked Brighton it was only to urge me to visit her there, and to mourn the loss of her time with her friends—all her friends, Tom. She most specifically requested that I remember her to you, and I am much mistaken if she did not hint that she would be delighted if you were suddenly to appear there, or at Findon when they are returned home.”
Tom humphed, but he was consoled despite himself. The idea of Diana wishing to meet him, even while in the nearly constant company of the incomparable, soon-to-be viscount Mr. Popplewell, was encouraging, and he allowed himself to dwell on this happy thought all the way to Farringdon, where they were to pass the night.