| Incognito |
By Suzanne Allain
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Lady Elizabeth Smithfield, relict of Sir John Smithfield, surveyed her two daughters as they sat together, their heads bent over their needlework. Lydia, her light brown hair picking up golden highlights in the morning sun, was dutifully working away at the laborious task, sewing small, intricate stitches that would eventually result in a pillow or seat cushion her mother could proudly display. Sweet Lydia, her mother thought, a gentle smile lightening her somewhat rigid countenance. Glancing over at her younger daughter, Emily, the smile disappeared and was replaced by a slight frown. Her needlework forgotten on her lap, Emily sat gazing out the window, softly humming a ditty her mother was sure she had not learned in a polite drawing room. It was probably fortunate Emily had ceased her stitching, if the few wide, uneven stitches were an indication of how the finished product would appear.
Lady Smithfield heaved a great sigh, wondering, as she often did, why her second daughter could not have been a younger replica of the oldest, or, better yet, a son. It was one of her frequent laments since she and her daughters had been forced to leave their home upon the death of Sir John two years previously. Since Sir John lacked a direct male heir, Rollings Park had gone to a distant cousin and his family, and the Smithfield ladies had been forced to relocate to their present, more modest domicile in Stonehurst.
The house they were able to purchase from a wealthy attorney was small but comfortable, with classical lines, a pleasing redbrick fa?ade, and an interior said to have been designed by Robert Adam. However, Lady Smithfield felt their decline in the world quite forcibly. She was no longer Lady Smithfield of Rollings Park with a staff of forty and a full stable. In their less affluent circumstances, they could barely afford six servants and one carriage.
When Lady Smithfield sighed a second time, Emily and Lydia exchanged a knowing look that their mother did not see. They were well aware of the cause of their mother's melancholy. Emily tried to be sympathetic, as she missed Rollings as well, but she could not help wishing her mother's sighs were for Sir John rather than his estate. To distract her mother's thoughts, Emily motioned to the letters on the rosewood table and asked if anything interesting had come in the post.
Lady Smithfield picked up the morning correspondence and leafed through it in a halfhearted manner. One letter caught her eye, and, setting aside the rest, she scanned it eagerly. Upon discerning the nature of its contents, her gloomy manner dissipated completely, and her features took on a look of joy coupled with disbelief.
"My dears, I have just received a letter from His Grace, duke of Alford, with some very encouraging news!" Lady Smithfield paused briefly to ensure she had her two daughters' full attention. Confident they were listening, she continued, "You may remember, girls, that the duchess and I were schoolmates at Miss Finch's Academy for Young Ladies and that we remained friends even after we both married." Knowing her daughters had heard many times of their mother's friendship with the duchess of Alford as had anyone who had spent more than half an hour in conversation with Lady Smithfieldshe hastened to the point. "You might recall also that we both wished that you, Lydia, would marry Lucy's son, Lord Wesleigh. But when the duchess died, I felt my cherished hope would come to naught. But it is not to be!" She paused in happy anticipation of her daughters' reaction to the news, but as her announcement elicited confusion rather than excitement, she hurried to explain. "What I mean to say is, it is not going to come to nothing, it will proceed after all. The duke has suggested it himself ! He writes that if we are in agreement with the proposal, an announcement of the marriage of Miss Lydia Smithfield to Lord Wesleigh will be inserted in the Morning Post in thirty days. My daughter, the future duchess of Alford. I can hardly credit it! I daresay this is the happiest day of my life." The joyful news moved Lady Smithfield to tears, and as she searched for her handkerchief, she missed the less-than-joyful looks her daughters exchanged.
Lydia, with her light brown hair, big blue eyes, long slender neck, and ladylike demeanor, was generally deemed the prettier of the two girls. In comparison, Emily looked rather like a gypsy. Thick dark hair, high cheekbones, large dark eyes, and a full lower lip combined to give her an exotic look in stark contrast to her sister's proper English Miss. Emily's unconventional looks were the despair of her mother, who considered anything out of the common way to be, well, common. In her opinion, Emily looked more like a lusty farmer's daughter than the proper daughter of a baronet. It caused Lady Smithfield to question whether Sir John's ancestors were all they should be. (Of the superior quality of her own lineage she was never in doubt.) However, Lydia looked remarkably like she herself did at that age. So Lady Smithfield had centered all her hopes on Lydia. Emily could marry where she willed, as long as she married a respectable gentleman, but it was sweet, dutiful, gentle Lydia who her mother felt sure would bring home the matrimonial prize.
"Whom should I tell first?" Lady Smithfield asked, her triumphant tone jolting her daughters out of their shocked contemplation of her announcement. "I shall write a letter this very moment to Cousin Harriet. Then there's Sir John's side of the family"
"Mama," Lydia interrupted, her voice slightly higher-pitched than usual. "Mama," she repeated, a little more calmly, "before we tell anyone, could we please keep the news to ourselves for a bit longer? After all, we've not heard from Lord Wesleigh as of yet. We have no knowledge of his agreement to his father's plan."
"My dear child, the duke is a man of honor. He would not raise our hopes only to dash them to the ground. You may rest assured that his word is as good as carved in stone."
Lydia did not appear comforted by this piece of information. Quite the opposite, in fact. Emily, who was unused to seeing her sister's calm composure disturbed, interceded in her behalf. "I think what Lydia means to say is that she needs time to accustom herself to the idea of being affianced. After all, the betrothal is not to be published for thirty days."
Lady Smithfield considered Emily's suggestion for a moment while both girls waited. "Perhaps you are right, Emily," she finally replied, and Lydia relaxed visibly. "We shall wait until Lord Wesleigh comes for a visit. That will be the appropriate time to make the announcement. I shall write his father immediately to inquire when Lord Wesleigh is to arrive. I am a little surprised His Grace did not mention it in his letter. No matter, I am sure he intends to come soon. In the meantime, we had better start planning your trousseau, Lydia. We shall most likely have to make a trip up to London. We cannot trust the dressmakers here in Stonehurst, or even in Hastings, to make a wardrobe worthy of a duchess." Leaving their mother happily making wedding plans, the girls slipped upstairs. Once in the safety of her bedchamber, Lydia's beautiful blue eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Emily, what am I to do?"
"I take it you're not pleased with the notion of becoming Lady Wesleigh."
"Why would I be pleased? I do not even know the gentleman!"
"No, you do not know him. But who is to say he is not the epitome of charm and masculine beauty? We do know that he is young. The duchess was only a year or two older than Mama, so her son could not be more than thirty. You should be grateful they are not trying to marry you off to some gouty, doddering old man. I know it is quite difficult, Lydia, but you should at least try to suspend judgment until you have actually met him."
"But I do not love him," Lydia said, her voice a mere whisper, her eyes downcast.
"Well," Emily replied in a bracing tone, "perhaps you will learn to love him. It is not as if you are in love with anyone else."
Lydia's quiet crying ended with a hiccough, and she turned abruptly to walk to the window. Emily looked suspiciously at her sister, who was avoiding eye contact with her. "Lydia? You are not in love with someone, are you? Lydia?"
"Of course not. With whom would I be in love?" she replied, fiddling nervously with the cornflower blue ribbon on her bodice. "I have no idea. There are no eligible gentlemen in Stonehurst under the age of sixty. Except, of course, for" She halted abruptly as Lydia looked up nervously. "Lydia, don't tell me you are in love with Jonathan Sedgewick! He is as poor asas a chimney sweep! Mama would never allow it. He is a vicar."
"Vicars are perfectly respectable."
"Respectable, yes. Rich, no. But I suppose that does not matter if you truly care for him. Do you?" Lydia nodded. "Then of course you must not marry Lord Wesleigh," Emily said.
"But, Emily, Mama is counting on me to marry a fortune. How could I disappoint her so?" It was obvious the notion of disappointing their mother was abhorrent to Lydia. Emily reflected wryly to herself that it was a good thing she did not suffer from a similar anxiety.
"You know what Mama is like," Emily told her sister. "She acts as though we are living in penury now that we are no longer at Rollings. It is absolute nonsense. We are perfectly comfortable here." Emily paused, a contemplative look on her face. "But there is a way we could avoid disappointing Mama without sacrificing you at the marriage altar." Emily thought for a moment, while Lydia watched her in anticipation. "Yes, I think it would serve very well," Emily said slowly.
"What is it?" Lydia asked.
"I could marry Lord Wesleigh in your stead."
This calm announcement was met with a moment of shocked silence, before Lydia instinctively protested. "Oh, no, Emily, I cannot let you," she stated, shaking her head.
"Lydia, be reasonable. I am very unlikely to meet any prospective husbands here in Stonehurst now that my sister has chosen the only eligible man in the vicinity. I have to marry one day, and I am not the beauty you are. And just think of poor Lord Wesleigh," Emily said, struggling to keep a straight face but unable to contain a mischievous smile. "We cannot just let an eligible young marquess wither on the vine."
Lydia did not smile at Emily's droll remark, but only regarded her in silence. Emily shrugged, growing more serious. "And as you said, we do not want to disappoint Mama," she added.
"But Emily, it is such a sacrifice," Lydia protested.
The gleam returned to Emily's dark eyes, and she grinned impishly. "A sacrifice? To marry a wealthy young lord and live the pampered life of a duchess? I do not think most young ladies would view it as such. I will marry him if he is not despicable and he will have me. But from what we know of him, he does not appear to be particular. He agreed to marry you, and you are not even acquainted."
Alexander Eaton, Marquess of Wesleigh, and heir to the dukedom of Alford, was totally unaware that a trio of females he had yet to meet had decided his future. In fact, he was blissfully unaware of anything at all, being sound asleep after having arrived home in the wee hours of the morning. So he was none too pleased to hear a knock at his door, followed by the sound of someone entering his chamber.
"My lord, you've received an urgent summons from your father."
"Somebody die?" Wesleigh muttered thickly.
"Excuse me, my lord?"
"Did someone die?" Wesleigh repeated in a louder voice, albeit only a trifle more distinguishable, as it was muffled by the pillow he had pulled over his head.
"I should hope not, my lord, but I would not know."
"Well, in that case, Jenkins, I expect I had best find out what this is about."
"I should think so, my lord."
Wesleigh sighed and rolled over in bed. If only Jenkins weren't so dashed good with a cravat, he'd replace him with a valet who possessed a sense of humor. "And a face that would not curdle cream," he muttered to himself, ignoring Jenkins's look of inquiry.
As he dressed, he wondered what was behind his father's summons. It was not like the old man to issue commands like that. Besides the occasional supper together at Alford House, his father usually left him to his own devices. He hoped this wasn't about the aborted duel he'd taken part in the previous week. Both men had been foxed when the challenge was made, and when they sobered up the next morning, they realized they had made a mistake and deloped. Surely his father wouldn't summon him about something so insignificant as that.
Or could it be he'd taken offense at Alexander's latest entry in White's betting book? It had indeed been in poor taste to place a wager on the number of weeks after Lord Montville's recent demise that his young widow would remarry, but it was only a harmless jest. A bit childish, perhaps, but surely not so heinous a crime as to precipitate an urgent meeting.
So it was in a state of mingled anticipation, curiosity, and trepidation that Alexander finally entered Alford House and his father's study. The duke looked up as his son entered, and it seemed to Alexander that his father had aged a few years in the fortnight or so since he'd last seen him. Stanley Eaton, duke of Alford, presented an imposing appearance to some, being a large man with a prominent nose and large, bushy eyebrows. But the sharp, alert expression Alexander was accustomed to was missing this morning. Alexander hadn't seen his father look so weary since his mother's death.
"You wished to see me, Father?"
"Yes, Alexander. Please sit down." The older man waited for his son to take a seat before continuing. "I summoned you, Alexander, to discuss your future."
"My future?" Alexander repeated, somewhat surprised. This was not at all what he had expected, but he was a bit relieved that his past was not going to be the topic of discussion.
"Yes. Your future. Have you given it any thought?"
Alexander barely considered the question. "No more than the next chap, I suppose."
"I did not think so. Alexander, you are nearing thirty. Did you think you could continue on in this manner forever? Engaging men in duels for sport and making short shrift of a lady's reputation?"
Alexander flushed and sat up straighter in his chair. Apparently his past was on the agenda. "I wondered if you had heard about those incidents."
"They merely top your already illustrious career." The duke sighed, rubbing his forehead wearily. "I believe you to be an intelligent, responsible young man at heart, Alexander, but you are frittering your life away. And I cannot stand by and do nothing any longer."
"What do you mean to do?"
"I have already done it. I have written to a lady who was a close friend of your mother's, a Lady Elizabeth Smithfield. Your mother and she had fond hopes that you would one day marry Lady Smithfield's daughter Lydia. Well, the day has come. I proposed that in thirty days, unless she had an objection, the notice of her daughter's betrothal to my son would appear in the Morning Post. Lady Smithfield probably received the letter this very morning."
Alexander was momentarily speechless. The gall of his father's action infuriated him. He was not a child, however childishly he had behaved in the past, and he would not be dictated to. "I am very appreciative of the honor you do me, sir, but I am afraid I must refuse your very flattering proposal," he said through clenched jaws.
"Do not be sarcastic with me, young man. You know I cannot go back on my word."
Alexander felt himself losing his fragile hold on his temper. "I cannot understand why you made such a suggestion in the first place. You cannot have expected me to submit quietly to an arranged marriage with a woman I have never met. The idea is preposterous. It's...it's medieval," he sputtered, running a hand through his dark hair and disarranging his careful toilette.
"I understand your anger, Alexander, and I dislike putting you in such a predicament." Alexander looked up, hopeful that his father could still be persuaded to change his mind, only to be disappointed as his father continued implacably, "But you have been on the town now for nearly a decade and have shown no inclination to make your own choice. The few women you do consort with are totally unfit to become the next duchess of Alford."
"I hope you at least trust me to know the difference between a lady of quality and a light-skirt!" Alexander shot back, standing up abruptly and beginning to pace about the room. His father's words wounded him deeply, but he was pained even further by the knowledge that it was his own behavior that had caused his father to form such a poor opinion of him.
The duke was moved by his son's obvious distress. "I am not an ogre, Alexander. I will not force you to marry a young lady you could not esteem. If you and the girl cannot come to an agreement, I will forgo making an announcement. But," he added, as a dazed smile of relief lit Alexander's face, "do not think that means you are relieved of all responsibility. If I do not find that you have made every effort to make yourself agreeable to Miss Smithfield in the next thirty days, then I will be forced to cut off your allowance. You'll find that your free and easy lifestyle is not so easy to maintain on an empty purse."
Alexander nodded his agreement to his father's terms. He realized it was time he settled down, so if he liked the girl well enough, he supposed he might as well marry her. And if he did not, well, his father had loosened the noose around his neck just enough that he might be able to slip through.
"If you are concerned about Miss Smithfield's appearance, you needn't be. I would not expect you to marry a woman you found unattractive. I made her acquaintance four years ago at a wedding. She was only seventeen at the time, but already blossoming into a beautiful young lady with a pleasing demeanor. She is tall and slender, with light brown hair and fine blue eyes."
To Alexander, she sounded just like every other milk-and-water miss he had ever met at Almack's. "Why is it such a vision of pulchritude is still single at the ripe old age of twenty-one?" He asked, half-jokingly.
"Miss Smithfield was to have a London season her eighteenth year, but it was cut short when her father fell ill. She and her mother returned home immediately, and a month or two later Sir John passed away. The estate was entailed on a distant cousin, and Lady Smithfield and her daughters were forced to relocate. They now reside in the village of Stonehurst, where they have been the past two years or more. I assume they no longer have the finances to expend on a London season. Sir John left them comfortably enough, from what I have heard, but the cost of another residence probably took a large portion of their settlement."
Alexander was dismayed by his father's story. If the Smithfields were financially depressed, his father's offer would seem like their salvation. What self-respecting mother would not jump at the chance to marry her daughter to the heir of a wealthy duke? He could behave like an ill-mannered boor and they would pronounce him charming. He tugged uncomfortably at his exquisite cravat, which Jenkins must have tied too tightly that morning, for it suddenly felt as if it were choking him.
Excerpted from Incognito , by Suzanne Allain . Copyright (c) 2001 by Suzanne Allain . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top