lizabeth Elliot bit her lip and looked away; it would never do to laugh! But when Mrs Leighton reached for her teacup, the bare skin beneath her arm swung to and fro like a pendulum! Her gown was just as bad. Why, she looked like a walrus wrapped in muslin!
“Have you no tea, Miss Elliot?” Mrs Leighton signed for the footman to correct the oversight. However, nothing in her manner suggested an apology. Though she smiled, her eyes were hard and bright. She was, Elizabeth realized, more formidable than she appeared.
“Do I have this right, Miss Elliot? Your father has left his estate in Somerset to reside among us? Exactly how long ago was that?”
Elizabeth’s stomach tightened into a knot. Was she to be peppered with questions? “My father and I took up residence at the end of September, ma’am,” she said.
“And has your father come to Bath for any particular reason?” There was significance in Mrs Leighton’s tone.
Elizabeth’s chin came up. Gossip was a favourite pastime in Bath. Was her own discomfort meant to provide the morning’s entertainment?
The footman approached. With a fluid movement, Elizabeth took the cup and saucer. Not for nothing had she practiced this, hour after hour, all those years ago. The slightest rattle of china would betray nervousness, giving Mrs Leighton an advantage. This was something Elizabeth refused to allow.
“We came to Bath on account of my father’s health, ma’am,” she said. This was a safe, conventional answer. It was also distinctly untrue.
“Father will never admit to such a thing, of course,” Elizabeth continued. “If you ask him, I daresay he will give a very different answer.” She accepted a serving of cake, mindful not to shift the position of the silver fork. “Men are very private about their health, are they not? But Father had the oddest symptoms.”
“Symptoms?” someone said.
What a very good idea! Old ladies loved hearing about symptoms. Since coming to Bath, Elizabeth had been in the company of enough of them to know! She gazed at Mrs Leighton with what she hoped was a soulful expression. “It was not a sickness we could name,” she said. “He had difficulty breathing. At times he was pale and weak. And his heart, Mrs Leighton, his heart!” Elizabeth brought a hand to her breast. “I was so dreadfully frightened.”
Mrs Leighton’s brows lifted. “Dear me,” she said.
Elizabeth bit back a smile. Truth to tell, her father’s frightening symptoms appeared only when he was forced to acknowledge the enormity of his debts! “But now that we are come to Bath,” she continued, “Father is very much better. So we shall not be returning to our estate in Somerset at all.” This was perfectly true. It would be here, in Bath, that Elizabeth would make something of her life. For too many years she’d lived buried in the country.
Mrs Leighton speared a morsel of cake; while she chewed no one said a word. Presently she said, with emphasis, “I did hear that your father has been in financial distress.”
Elizabeth fought to keep her countenance. What nerve this woman had! And yet, she also knew there was no evading the inquiry. “My father has had some small degree of difficulty,” she admitted. “But then, who has not? These are uncertain times.”
“Not for all of us, Miss Elliot,” said Mrs Leighton.
To buy time, Elizabeth took a sip of tea. The way to deal with gossip was to admit a small portion of the truth and disguise the rest. But this woman and her friends were connoisseurs of gossip; they would not be easily satisfied. Then it occurred to her that Anne had once answered a similar question quite gracefully and with that air of gentle humility that Anne was so good at wearing. Anne, with her piety and lessons of economy and thrift—was there ever a drearier sister? But perhaps Anne could be of use. Elizabeth settled her cup in its saucer. She would give Anne’s answer…with a few amendments of her own.
“Does it not seem to you, ma’am,” she said, “that when it comes to financial matters, we women have the upper hand? Oh, the gentlemen are more knowledgeable, certainly, but it is we who are the better managers of money?”
A pleasant clucking among the ladies told Elizabeth she had hit her mark. She folded her hands demurely, as she had seen Anne do, and launched into her version of Anne’s answer. “So it was with my mother and father. She was the practical one. When she died, he was lost!” Elizabeth looked at each woman’s face in turn. How fortunate that so many of them were widows! “Father,” she said, “has been so very lonely.”
“Poor Sir Walter,” someone murmured.
Elizabeth nearly laughed out loud. How fortunate that her father was so handsome! “I daresay,” she continued, “that each of you understands the depths of his despair better than I. As a result, some of his expenditures have not been very wise.”
Elizabeth’s voice was unsteady now but not because of grief. She dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her napkin. “How true it is,” she said soulfully, “that the accumulation of worldly goods can never compensate for the loss of a beloved spouse!”
The ladies gave a collective sigh.
From beneath her lashes, Elizabeth stole another look at Mrs Leighton. The woman’s expression had softened. “I did hear that Sir Walter has taken a tenant at your ancestral estate. I must own, I was surprised.”
“Yes, ma’am. Our tenant is a distinguished gentleman of the Navy, a Rear-Admiral of the White. It pained my father greatly to leave Kellynch Hall but...”
Elizabeth paused. She feared to say too much, and yet, to have the rapt attention of these ladies, all so well placed in Bath society, was too delicious. “May I be honest with you, for I feel that I am among friends here?” Elizabeth’s voice took on a confiding tone. “It was my wish that we leave Kellynch Hall, not his. My father was only growing worse there, and I have always enjoyed Bath. My godmother, Lady Russell, spends the winters here; perhaps you are acquainted?”
“Well!” she continued, “life in Bath agrees with us; Father has become so robust! I was soon convinced that if we were to let the estate to a tenant, he would reduce his debt more quickly. It seemed a sensible thing to do, since we are never to live there again.”
Elizabeth leaned forward to deliver her final point. “But it is my hope,” she said, speaking clearly so that every one of the ladies could hear, “that perhaps here in Bath, at long last, Father will find the desire of his heart: a loving wife. And so, he will no longer be cast adrift, alone.”
The sighs among the ladies were audible.
“A wealthy wife, Miss Elliot?” asked Mrs Leighton.
“Well, yes,” Elizabeth admitted, returning the smile. “That would be most convenient, of course! But I would much prefer that he find a woman with something more. That is to say, an intelligent woman of proper connections, who has a loving heart and who knows how to care for him. That would be the very best.”
This caused quite a flutter. “But of course,” said Mrs Leighton. “My dear Miss Elliot, I believe your tea has grown cold. Allow Henry to refresh your cup.”
Elizabeth kept her gaze lowered as she passed the cup; she dared not show her triumph, not yet. But she had done it. She had held her own against the very worst of the Bath gossips—and prevailed! No matter that she had told lies. The events were true, more or less; although, her father had never been ill, and in spite of the nasty things Anne said about Penelope Clay, not once had he expressed an iota of interest in taking another wife!
She glanced at the drawing room door. If only he would return from wherever Mr Leighton had taken him, she could make a graceful exit. And leave she must, for every moment she lingered invited fresh disaster! But the drawing room door remained closed and the women continued to talk.
“Hail wedded love, mysterious Law…” A slightly built lady in grey now spoke in quavering, reverent tones. Mrs Morton, Elizabeth seemed to recall. Apparently, she was reciting some poetical text. Was this in reference to Sir Walter? “True source of human offspring, sole propriety in Paradise, of all things common else!” Mrs Morton ended with a sigh. “Milton.”
Lady Jessup laid down her fork. “I don’t see that at all, Fanny,” she said. “If Sir Walter wishes to marry, well and good; but there will be no offspring, not at his age. Unless he is snared by that tart of a companion.” Lady Jessup looked pointedly to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth caught her breath. What was this? The ladies were looking at her expectantly. Did they expect her to say something about her father and Penelope Clay?
Before she could answer, the drawing room opened. All heads turned, but it was only James Rushworth. He stood there blinking, a flush mounting his doughy cheeks.
“Hallo, Mrs Leighton,” he said, making a difficult bow. He turned. “Mama, you told me three o’clock. And here I am, just as I promised, to see you home.”
Mrs Rushworth, who was as stout as her son, sighed heavily. “In a moment, dear,” she said. She turned to Mrs Leighton. “Beryl, might James have a slice of your delicious cake?”
At the word cake, Mr Rushworth brightened.
“But of course.” Mrs Leighton gestured to the vacant seat beside Elizabeth. “Miss Elliot, I trust you are acquainted with Mr Rushworth?”
Mr Rushworth’s head whipped around; his gasp was audible. “Miss Elliot!” he cried. With care, he lowered himself onto the sofa which creaked unappreciatively.
A generous slice of cake was presented, and Mr Rushworth fell to the business of eating, casting an occasional glace at Elizabeth. She paid no attention this. For her, admiration from younger gentlemen was simply a matter of course.
“Now, about Miss Anne Elliot,” said Lady Pembridge, leaning forward. “I simply must hear about this engagement. A patched-up affair, was it?”
“A disappointment for the cousin, to be sure,” said someone else.
The mention of Mr Elliot nearly threw Elizabeth off her guard. At all costs she must turn the conversation! “Anne and Captain Wentworth were acquainted years ago,” she said. “So when they met again in Bath, why, it was like something out of a fairy tale. My father calls it a touching romance.” She did not share her own opinion of Captain Wentworth.
“Such a fine-looking man,” said Mrs Leighton. “He has a definite air about him, yes.”
Elizabeth became occupied with stirring her tea. Frederick Went-worth was opinionated, self-assured, and brash. He was utterly unworthy to become allied with the Elliot family, even if he was marrying only Anne.
“A bosom friend of Admiral McGillvary’s, in fact,” said Lady Jessup. “He’s hosting a dinner for them. Sparing no expense, apparently.”
Elizabeth nearly rolled her eyes. This dinner was nothing out of the ordinary. She’d never met the host, but it made no difference. He was probably a loud, common sort of man with the blustering manners of the lowborn. Her father’s tenant, Admiral Croft, was such a man. The guests would be naval officers and their wives—if such men had wives. Elizabeth was determined not to attend.
Still, she knew her duty. “I trust my sister will be happy in the life she’s chosen,” she said. “However, in times such as these, I would be reluctant to marry a man of the Navy.”
“Hear, hear!” It was Mr Rushworth who spoke. “Too many sailors in Bath nowadays,” he explained.
The conversation veered to a more general topic; Elizabeth was left with Mr Rushworth. She had no desire to converse with him, but politeness demanded it. “Have you lived long in Bath, Mr Rushworth?” she asked.
He swallowed and blotted his lips with the napkin. “Mama lives here,” he said. “After Maria and I were married, she—that is—” Mr Rushworth’s cheeks flushed scarlet; he pinched his lips together. Eventually he was able to continue. “After my—marriage—Mama left Sotherton and removed to Bath. I am come for a visit.”
Elizabeth had heard the gossip, of course. Mr Rushworth’s beautiful young wife left him for another man not a year after the wedding; he was now near the end of a lengthy divorce. Such a thing was beyond Elizabeth’s comprehension. Mr Rushworth might be a fool—he certainly looked like one—but he had inherited a large fortune and an extensive estate. Why would any woman abandon such a handsome independence? After ten minutes of laboured conversation, however, Elizabeth had a fair idea. When her father came into the room, she rose immediately.
Mr Rushworth also got to his feet, though not very gracefully. Elizabeth could not help but notice the cascade of cake crumbs…and his crestfallen expression.
Her father remarked on this as soon as they were out of the salon.
“Father, really,” she said. “Where do you get these ideas?”
“Ah, but young Rushworth was the picture of disappointment. You have quite broken the lad’s heart.”
“I expect he simply wanted a second piece of cake.”
There was a tall looking glass in the entrance hall; Sir Walter caught sight of his reflection. He turned this way and that. “I do not know,” he said. “This waistcoat—”
“It looks very well, Father.”
“But the colour! Puce is all the crack, to be sure, but—” He frowned. “I daresay it is a bit too bright for early spring. But the pattern of this neck cloth is very nice. And Roberts achieved a tolerable arrangement for my hair. He had a new man in to cut it yesterday. I feared the worst.”
At last Sir Walter took his hat from the Leighton’s butler and settled it tenderly on his head. When he was convinced all was in order, he offered his arm to Elizabeth. Together they went out the main door and descended the wide steps to the street.
“A pity about young Rushworth’s figure,” said Sir Walter, “for the Rushworth name and fortune make him acceptable anywhere.”
“Not to mention his soon-to-be granted divorce,” said Elizabeth. “Really, Father. He is hardly fit to be a suitor, even if he were the proper age!” To change the subject she said, “Did you examine Mr Leighton’s gun collection?”
“I was shown something better: his collection of Chinese antiquities. Quite an assortment of baubles, if one goes in for such things. Mr Leighton is, apparently, an enthusiast.” Sir Walter glanced at the fog-shrouded sky. “We should present the Leightons with an invitation to our card party.”
“I suppose,” said Elizabeth. The card party had been his idea. Although the guest list was hers to assemble, he could never resist making suggestions.
“Sir Henry Farley would be another excellent addition,” he said, “but I daresay you have already thought of that.”
She had, indeed, thought of that, unfortunately. A man of Sir Henry’s consequence could not be ignored, especially since she and her father had ambitions to get on in Bath. Elderly, urbane gentlemen were known to be outrageous flirts. His sallies and winks, though uncomfortable, meant nothing.
“We should send an invitation to our cousin as well.”
Elizabeth frowned. “Do you mean Lady Dalrymple?”
“No, no. Mr Elliot is the man I mean.”
Elizabeth compressed her lips. If she never saw William Elliot again it would be too soon! Why must her father always bring him up? “We’ve seen nothing of Mr Elliot since Anne’s engagement was announced. I daresay he has left Bath for good.”
Sir Walter sighed. “More’s the pity. To see you and William Elliot wed and settled at Kellynch Hall was the dearest wish of my heart.”
“I thank you, sir, for the reminder!”
“Why, I meant no offence. When Mr Elliot met you for the first time, he was smitten. Definitely smitten.”
“That,” said Elizabeth, “is ancient history.”
“Is it?” Sir Walter applied himself to thinking. “Let me see. You were introduced after your mother passed on; you were just sixteen, were you not?” He counted on gloved fingers. “Why,” he said slowly, “that must mean…” He slewed round, his eyes wide. “My dear,” he cried, “are you now thirty?”
With difficulty, Elizabeth found her voice. “Not until June!”
“Saints preserve us,” he said at last.
Elizabeth trod beside him, the chill air pinching at her face.
“Where, oh, where has the time gone?” he said.
“Where, indeed?” echoed Elizabeth.
At last they turned the corner onto Camden Place. The columned façade that was Camden Crescent appeared through the mist. Sir Walter halted. “The hand of fate is cruel,” he said. “Kellynch Hall is nobler than the sum of all of these. Yet, it is let to strangers while we, the rightful inhabitants, must live in a corner.”
What new mood was this? Was he sorry to be in Bath? “It’s quite an elegant corner, if a corner it is,” Elizabeth said, bracingly. “Kellynch Hall is the ideal gentlemen’s residence, of course, but you must admit, it is rather remote. And so cold during winter! Do you recall how the dining room chimney smokes? The Crofts pay handsomely to live there. I wish them joy of it!”
Sir Walter looked pained, but he said nothing.
Their butler had the door open immediately. Sir Walter waited while Wilson removed his coat; Elizabeth seized the opening to change the subject. “Father,” she said, “are we engaged Thursday evening? I would very much like to attend the assembly.”
“The assembly in the upper rooms? Certainly not. We have better things to do with our time.”
Elizabeth gave her cloak and hat to Wilson and ascended the stairs, followed by Sir Walter. The foot-boy opened the drawing room door, and they went in.
“I would like to attend just the same,” said Elizabeth. “What can be your objection? Everyone attends the assembly, even Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret, upon occasion.”
“That is exactly my objection,” said Sir Walter. “Everyone attends.” He wrinkled his nose. “Tradesmen, Elizabeth. Solicitors and military men. I prefer small, select gatherings. We do not attend a public ball.”
“But—” Elizabeth hesitated. If she handled this poorly he would become even more stubborn. “My new ball gown,” she said, allowing disappointment to creep into her voice. “I long to wear it with the diamonds, as I had it made especially to –”
Sir Walter lifted a hand. “No, no,” he said. “Impossible. The diamonds have gone to thejeweler’s for cleaning. And speaking of jewellery…” He held out his hand. “Come,” he prompted.
“Now?” Elizabeth sighed, dropped her gloves onto the table, and worked at the clasp of her necklace. Lately, he insisted on locking up the jewels the instant she arrived home. “Are you having every piece cleaned, then?” she asked, passing the ruby pendant with its chain. “What is left for me to wear to the concert?”
“What is left? What is left? A fine way to speak to your father!”
With effort Elizabeth kept her temper in check. “I need to know what you have sent for cleaning and what you have not. The rubies are here, but what of the others?”
Sir Walter’s cheeks flushed. “You may wear the emerald set,” he said, “but not the rubies. And not for the assembly. We do not attend the assembly.”
“But Miss Carter—”
“The Honourable Miss Carteret is a sensible young woman who will do as her mother bids,” said Sir Walter. “Lady Dalrymple has as much aversion to public spectacles as I.”
Elizabeth almost laughed. Of all of his stories, this surely was the worst! “Lady Dalrymple enjoys her position in Bath, Father,” she said, “and she takes every opportunity of making a display of herself!” As do you, she added silently.
“But not at a public assembly.”
“I know assemblies are crowded with inferior persons, and I am quite aware that the atmosphere in the ballroom is wretchedly stifling! I wish to practice my dance steps.”
“Then hire a dancing master!”
“But why should I when yousubscribe to the assembly?”
“I subscribe to show my public spirit, Elizabeth.”
Wilson came into the drawing room, forcing Elizabeth to bite back her reply.
“A person by the name of Cripplegate is in the book room, sir,” said Wilson. “He claims to have an appointment.”
Sir Walter gave a start. “Already?” He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. “Fifteen minutes early, imagine that.” He put the jewellery pieces on the table and examined them. “Bracelet,” he murmured, “two earrings, pendant. But…how is this? Where is the ring?” He turned to Elizabeth. “A valuable piece, missing! How many times must I tell you that Bath servants are not to be trusted!”
Elizabeth twisted the ring from her finger. “Here it is,” she said. “What is the point in having jewels if we must always be locking them up?”
“My dear girl,” said Sir Walter, “one can never be too careful.” He collected the jewellery and went out. Elizabeth flung over to the window. As usual, her father thought only of himself.
Penelope Clay, who had not been invited to Mrs Leighton’s, spent her morning in the back sitting room. As soon as she heard voices, she made her way to the drawing room, bringing with her an enormous bouquet of roses. She could scarcely conceal her triumph; what would the fine Elizabeth say to this? She paused outside the door; the voices within were sharp. Penelope withdrew a pace. Her father had called the Elliot’s move to Bath a retrenchment, but Penelope was not taken in. As always, her father must be cautious. Sir Walter and his daughters lived in a style far above anyone else she knew. No doubt Elizabeth had overspent her allowance again.
Sir Walter left the drawing room and, without noticing her, descended to his book room. Penelope watched him go and then slipped inside. Of course, Elizabeth noticed the flowers. She smiled broadly and held out her hands—did she think they had come for her? How delightful to be able to set her straight!
“A gentleman has sent these, Miss Elliot,” said Penelope. “To me.”
Elizabeth’s brows went up. “Indeed? Is there a card?”
“Not a card, but a letter. It is…unsigned.” Penelope felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “These are hothouse roses, are they not?” she said.
“They are. So you have an admirer. And what does he say to you?” Elizabeth held out her hand.
Penelope knew it was useless to object. Slowly she drew the folded paper from the bosom of her gown. Elizabeth unfolded the sheet and read:
My dear Penelope,
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate...
“That is a very generous sentiment,” said Elizabeth. “How kind to apply it to you. I wonder who sent it.”
The note was from Sir Walter, Penelope just knew it. Still, she wished to be certain. “Miss Elliot, I hesitate to ask, but your acquaintance in Bath is now so extensive. Do you recognize the handwriting? It looks familiar, somehow.”
Elizabeth gave the page a quick glance. “No, I have never seen it before. Do you know, I am rather hungry. I couldn’t eat a thing at Mrs Leighton’s. Ring for Wilson, won’t you?”
Penelope did as she was bid, smiling as always. Miss Elliot never allowed her to forget that she was only a paid companion. But, the note and the flowers were from Sir Walter all the same. The fine Miss Elliot would sing a different tune when she became mistress of the house!
Sometime later, Sir Walter came in. Immediately, he noticed the flowers. Penelope lowered her head, wishing she did not blush so hotly.
“Elizabeth?” said Sir Walter. “What is this? A gift from young Rushworth already?”
“The flowers are Penelope’s, Father. A gentleman sent them.”
“For Mrs Clay? Why would a gentleman send flowers to Mrs Clay?”
“Why, because he thinks she is lovely, Father! What other reason is there?”
Sir Walter puffed out his cheeks. “I don’t see what one has to do with the other.” He found the tray with the post and began sorting through the letters.
“We think she has a secret admirer. How amusing it will be to guess his identity!”
Sir Walter looked up. “It’s no one we know, surely. He must be someone she’s met in a shop or on the street.”
Penelope’s heart was hammering. How clever Sir Walter was! How well he disguised his intentions!
Sir Walter held up a square white envelope. “This looks promising!” he said, smiling. He broke the seal, pulled out the card, squinted at it—and felt for a chair. When at last he spoke, Sir Walter’s voice was reverent. “My word! Chalfort House!”
Elizabeth put aside her cup and saucer. “Father?”
“It seems,” said Sir Walter, “that we have been invited to a house party at Chalfort House, Lord and Lady Claverling’s estate in Richmond!” He studied the card more closely. “Gracious, but we’ve not much time to prepare! We have the shiftless mail service to thank for that!”
Elizabeth and Penelope crowded around his chair. “My new wardrobe …” said Elizabeth, and she gave her father a nudge. “And all you could do was to complain about the expense. Now what do you say?”
“I have never been to Richmond,” offered Penelope. “Shall I like it, sir?”
Sir Walter’s smile fell a little. “I believe everyone likes Richmond.” He passed the invitation to Elizabeth. “Do you know, perhaps this would be a good time for you to visit your family in Crewkherne, Mrs Clay.”
“Visit Crewkherne?” she faltered. “Oh, sir, do you think so?”
“Surely you miss seeing your children, Penelope,” said Elizabeth. “After your holiday, you must return so that we may enjoy the remainder of the season together.”
Penelope spoke slowly. “Oh. Yes. That would be very well, I suppose.”
“You must write to your father straightway,” said Sir Walter. “We shall leave for Richmond at the end of the week. You must do the same.”
Penelope did not trust herself to speak. If Sir Walter had sent the flowers, why was he now sending her away? He and Elizabeth resumed discussing the party heartlessly, with no regard for her feelings. Indeed, to them she had ceased to exist! She excused herself and fled to her bedchamber.
“Oh dear,” said Elizabeth, as the door closed behind Penelope. “That was rather awkward.”
“But what was I to do? Mrs Clay’s name was not on the invitation! Even Anne was not invited!” Sir Walter took another look at the card. “’Sir Walter Elliot and Miss Elliot,’ it says. Of course, this must refer to you, for by Saturday next there will be no other Miss Elliot.”
“Why my dear, there is no need to take that tone! So long as you marry, all will be well. Even if you are at your last prayers, this invitation is clearly the hand of Providence! Which reminds me…” He brought out a velvet-covered box. “Here is the emerald set, nicely cleaned.” He passed it to Elizabeth. “Open it. I want to see what you think.”
Elizabeth did so. There was nothing remarkable about the emeralds. She removed the pendant with its chain, as she lacked a necklace.
“Do you see how the stone sparkles?” said Sir Walter. “Mr Cripplegate is a genius; a master craftsman.”
Elizabeth returned the box. “Perhaps you’d prefer to keep the others until I dress for the concert?” She could not resist adding, “Since the Bath servants are such thieves?”
“I no longer have any worries on that score.” Sir Walter pocketed the box. “And now, I have a bit of business which needs my attention.”
“Business?” said Elizabeth. “You?” Her father never conducted business on his own!
Sir Walter waved aside her questions and went out, humming a snatch of a tune. Elizabeth sank onto the sofa, the emerald pendant in hand. What luck that the emeralds had been cleaned; she would certainly wear them at Chalfort House. Idly, she studied the stone, watching the light play across its rectangular surface. Her father was right, it sparkled beautifully. Too beautifully, in fact.Elizabeth sat up. Something about the stone was different, but what?
Dissatisfied, she went to the window for a better look. Large emeralds like this one should display an inner light of vivid green. Emeralds were never transparent; there were inclusions called jardin. Today, however, the stone was a darker green, rather like an apothecary bottle, and the jardin were nowhere to be seen!
Elizabeth went immediately to the landing. “Wilson!” she called.
The butler came to the base of the stairs. “Is something wrong, miss?”
“Has my—” Speaking was difficult; she began again. “Has my father returned from his errand?”
“No, Miss. Shall I send the boy after him?”
“No. Thank you, Wilson.” Elizabeth returned to the drawing room, biting her lips. There was a mistake, she was sure of it. Her eyes must be playing tricks on her. And yet, how could that be? She hunted in the drawer of the escritoire. Her father had a pair of spectacles; where did he keep them?
The book room. He used them in the book room, not here in the drawing room where he would be seen. Elizabeth glanced at the clock. If she worked quickly there would be time.
Penelope did not see the letter at first, for as soon as she entered her bedchamber, she flung herself headlong on the bed. It waited on her dressing table, well sealed, with her name clearly written. The message was short and to the point:
My Dear P,
I know you are engaged to attend the concert tonight. Stay behind. Join me for dinner instead. I’ll have my carriage waiting near the corner at nine.
Penelope studied the signature. W.E. must refer to William Elliot, but how could that be? She’d heard he’d left Bath days ago. And how had this come? Had he bribed the maid to deliver it? Penelope read the words again and again. Wasn’t he the most presuming man! He did not ask her leave; he simply ordered her to dinner. She folded the paper in half. Just because she was in Elizabeth’s employ did not mean she was at William Elliot’s beck and call!
There was only one thing to be done with this note—burn it. Or else, tear it to shreds. Both would be delightful! But then she thought of something. Out came the secret admirer’s note, and…what was this? The handwriting matched exactly. And here was something more—Mr Elliot had written not on plain paper, as before, but on stationery bearing the Elliot crest. Penelope bit a fingernail, thinking. Sir Walter had not sent the flowers, Mr Elliot had. Mr Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir.
No one needed to tell her that it was improper to dine alone with him; she knew that. He was a man of the world, as her late husband had been. Such men were dangerous and, yet, so very enticing. And in the end, in spite of everything, she’d become Mrs Clay. Not for nothing was her father a solicitor!
She gazed again at Mr Elliot’s letter. Perhaps she ought to risk it?
Heavy net draperies covered the windows of Sir Walter’s book room, but there was enough light for Elizabeth’s purpose. She slipped into the chair behind his desk and opened the top drawer. There were the spectacles, but there was also something else: a stack of open letters. The one on top was from Mr Shepherd, her father’s solicitor. Elizabeth knew better than to read her father’s correspondence, but the word drastic caught her attention. She glanced at the clock. There was time to read it if she hurried.
Mr Shepherd came right to the point. He was receiving requests for payment from tradesmen in Bath at an alarming rate. He was concerned lest these debts become in excess of the income of the estate (which monies included the rental fee paid by Admiral Croft). Did Sir Walter understand the nature of a retrenchment?
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. How dared Mr Shepherd write such things! Did they not follow his advice to the letter? “In Bath you may be important at comparatively little expense!” Mr Shepherd had said. Little expense? Hardly! How he had misled them! But there was more: something about quarterly payments and the terms under which Sir Walter’s primary creditor had agreed to make over the loan.
Loan? Elizabeth gazed at the letter in amazement. She knew nothing of a loan. She struggled to make out Mr Shepherd’s closing paragraph.
With funds so low at present, it appears that securing the two hundred pound payment due on Lady Day could be a close-run thing. Therefore, I respectfully advise that you exercise whatever means are in your power to raise the ready cash payment yourself. I further advise a drastic and severe course of action: All extemporaneous spending must cease immediately.
Extemporaneous spending? What more was there to give up? They had already sacrificed their customary trip to London, along with gifts to various charities. Elizabeth’s allowance was only half of what her father had promised. Grand dinners had become a thing of the past as well; they now hosted insipid card parties with meagre refreshments. What more did Mr Shepherd expect?
The clock chimed the half-hour. Elizabeth hurried to replace the letter. Back in the drawing room she went directly to the windows. Carefully she brought the emerald into focus. She adjusted the spectacles and looked again, scarcely daring to believe what she saw. Inside the stone were bubbles. Her mother’s prized emerald was nothing more than green glass.
Elizabeth’s heart was hammering. She could be wrong—she must be wrong! She looked again. Sure enough, there were the bubbles—three of them. Elizabeth compressed her lips. Not only was this paste, but it was particularly bad paste! How and when had the stone been changed?
And then she remembered that the emeralds had gone for cleaning. Her father had been especially pleased with the results. He’d called her attention to the stones, in fact, and to the man who’d done the work.
Cripplegate, the craftsman.
Cripplegate, the genius.
The man whom he called Cripplegate had robbed them!
Elizabeth sat very still, willing herself to think. She must not give in to panic. She must be certain about what had happened, absolutely certain. If she alerted her father and it turned out that nothing was wrong, he would be furious. He’d cut her allowance once already; would he do so again to punish her?
Ideas came swiftly. She must consult an expert. There were jewellery shops on Milsom Street; a simple repair would be reason enough to consult a jeweller. She could say that one of the surrounding diamonds was loose. And she would lead the man to converse about the quality of the emerald. Better yet, she would say that she feared that it was false—a mere bauble—and then wait for the jeweller to contradict her. And he would contradict her. He had to!
Elizabeth’s fingers closed over the stone. She would go now, and she would send Penelope away to make a purchase while she went into the shop. With luck, she would be back within the hour; and her father would be no wiser.
But if the stone was false?
Elizabeth had no answer for this. Nor had she any idea how her father would raise the two hundred pound payment for this shocking loan.