“You are in need of a husband,” Cecilia’s mother admonished her.Cecilia’s lips twitched, ready to smirk at her mother’s favorite pronouncement.
“A husband such as I find you will not tolerate your behavior. You will not so readily ignore a husband as you do a mother, I am sure.” Mrs. Wilcox sighed, a sign of her affliction. “Why cannot you let young Mrs. Fordham assist Polly? She has a husband; her prospects cannot be hurt as yours are.”
“Polly waits upon me,” Cecilia said. She rocked back on her heels and cut her eyes toward the polished front door of Partridge Place, her second home.
“Why can you not behave like she? No games with the children, now. Let the boys have their fun. You must set an example for the girls with Polly. You must, as should they, learn a gentleman has no desire for such a hoydenish wife,” her mother said as Cecilia put on her straw bonnet, tying the pale blue ribbon under her chin. “Your gloves, girl. Can you not at least look a proper young woman?”
Cecilia took her worn York tan gloves, exhaling in relief at the appearance of Mrs. Partridge.
“Mrs. Wilcox, will you join me in the drawing room? I wish to show you the patterns my sister sent from London.” Mrs. Partridge rescued her again.
“Behave yourself, daughter.” Mrs. Wilcox turned her attention to Mrs. Partridge, who gave Cecilia a brief smile. “Do you recall my telling you that my sister’s home in Portman Square neighbors that of Lord Nefton? His nephew Mr. Thornhill will be in town…” Mrs. Wilcox’s voice echoed back to Cecilia as her mother followed their neighbor into her drawing room.
Cecilia blew out a breath and hurried outside, where Polly stood gazing at the greenish pond which shimmered in the chill spring breeze. An open field stretched around them, leading up the hill home or, to the right, into Abingdon. Polly turned, smiled serenely, and hooked her arm in Cecilia’s.
“Your mother had last moment instructions again?” Polly asked.
“Yes. She is determined I shall marry.” Cecilia kicked a small grey rock from her path. Her mother’s choice of suitor would probably rival their neighbor Mr. Drake in boring conversation and their former curate in propriety. Cecilia straightened her posture. She would marry for love.
“Your papa is not.”
“He has agreed I shall accompany her to London,” Cecilia said as they strolled arm in arm on the road toward the village. Breezes and birdsong wove a sweet melody, enhancing the luminescent landscape. Trees, frothed with blossom, gave way to hedges woven with trumpeted bluebells and sunny broom, until the river which wound through town edged into view, along with the twin stone spires of the church. The scent of the water coupled with the new blossoms and spring foliage made Cecilia’s step quicken. She longed to run and spend the day exploring. But she had duties now.
“I shall miss you and I do hope you will not marry yet. Wil and I wish you to visit us at Partridge Place often. And who else but you will help me start the village school?”
“If I do not marry soon, Mama may wish me to live with you.” Cecilia laughed.
“You are always welcome. My marriage to your brother will not make you any more my sister than you already are.” Her sisterhood with Polly and Cecilia’s love of children were the only reasons she took an interest in Polly’s school. Cecilia had other plans, which did not include becoming a schoolmarm.
Cecilia squeezed Polly’s hand and smiled. “How many children shall accompany us today?”
“Only eight. The Garrick boys are needed at home.” Polly’s smile faded. “Papa was such an advocate for the school…now I do not know…”
“Wil and I shall help.” Cecilia whistled the first verse of a sea shanty her uncle James had taught her.
“Today we sing,” Polly said in as firm a tone as she could.
“And play.” Cecilia skipped ahead, her boots scuffing the soft brown earth of the road. Cecilia knew Polly thought of her father, as she did also. Mr. Partridge had been a second father to her, so much had the families been together. Now that their mourning period was almost passed, Cecilia did all she could to cheer Polly. If sometimes that meant giving into her childish impulses, which secretly amused her mother-hen friend, Cecilia would oblige.
Once they had assembled their company, Cecilia led the village children in song while Polly walked behind with two of the older girls, almost more ladylike at fourteen and twelve than Cecilia herself at eighteen. She giggled and chased the younger boys and girls while Polly and their eldest charges settled on a bench. Soon Cecilia arranged a game of blind man’s bluff, discarding her beribboned bonnet and tan gloves on the grass. Some of the men of the village ambled toward the tavern. It angered her mother that they saw Cecilia, the daughter of Mr. William Wilcox, the local justice, a fine gentleman, cavorting on the green like a girl of five.
Cecilia laughed with the children while they played, but she stopped, her throat gripped in panic, when little Mary Fordham toddled into the road as the hard beat of horse hooves approached. She ran and scooped up the girl, nearly toppling over from the swiftness of her steps. The horse and rider came so close she imagined the dampness on her back was from the glistening flank of the animal. Clutching the trembling two-year-old to her, she marched over to the inn where the rider alighted.
“Sir, I believe you ought apologize. You nearly struck this girl.”
Mary stopped trembling; Cecilia tightened her hold on her. The rider turned to her, a lion of a man, tall, strong, almost rough features, a thatch of tawny hair, but his attire showed him to be a gentleman.
“Excuse me, I do not believe we have been introduced,” he said, his voice lofty and correct.
Cecilia’s cheeks grew hotter, now in shame and anger. He would set her down in front of all?
“I have no wish to be introduced to such a thoughtless man.” Cecilia worked to steady her breathing, but her chest tightened under his inspection.
Mary squirmed out of Cecilia’s grip to see who this stranger with the deep, commanding voice was. He held out a coin to her, which she grasped in her tiny palm.
“Thank you,” the little girl said in her sing-song voice as she wriggled down. She ran back over to her playmates and Polly, chattering in her childish gibberish.
Cecilia tweaked the back of her old sprig muslin gown. His clothes were of fine wool and linen, his leather boots well crafted, like those of Lord Wellington himself. He must think her some poor county miss, of indifferent parentage. Pulling herself to her full height, she still had to tilt her head up slightly to meet his appraisal. She narrowed her eyes. She was a Wilcox, a gentleman’s daughter.
“I see even one so young can remember her manners,” he said with a glance at Mary Fordham. His blue-green eyes sparkled.
Cecilia gripped her hands together. She itched to slap his condescending grin away. The old men lounging in front of the inn laughed and chattered like two old biddies. Her mother would hear of this.
“Pardon me,” he continued with a bow, “I have urgent business--”
“Good day,” Cecilia said. She turned and forced herself to walk with careful, measured steps to Polly, who waited for her with a small frown. Cecilia glanced over her shoulder, but the man was gone. A groom tended his horse, an impressive bay mare. Cecilia drooped, her limbs heavy, as if she had endured a day of censure and sewing under her mother’s critical eyes.
Polly led the way as they returned the children to their homes and walked down the road. Usually, Cecilia felt calmed by her older friend, but she tensed at Polly’s silent disapproval for her unladylike behavior in front of a gentleman.
“I know I acted improperly, Polly, but surely you would not have me sit idly by in the face of such conduct?” The air chilled and Cecilia wished she had worn her pelisse rather than her light spencer.
“Yes, I would. He was a gentleman. You ought have given him opportunity to explain.” Polly spoke quietly. Cecilia did not respond and they were silent save for saying goodbye as they came to the turn into Partridge Place.
Cecilia ran up the hill toward her home, pausing to glance at the lengthening grass. There would be no resting on its soft new growth to read Wordsworth or Shakespeare today; her mother expected her back soon. At least that morning, she had the pleasure of listening to her father and brother discuss her uncle’s latest letters and a few local matters, then making her daily rounds about the grounds of Middleton House, hearing her own footsteps swishing through the sloping lawn, scrunching along the path of the walled garden, splashing across the stream, and padding in the wood. The tall beeches and elms of it caught her eye as she crested the hill.
When she descended, she saw Middleton House, her home, with its symmetrical, weathered red brick coziness, too small in her mother’s estimation, but it suited Cecilia, who found scope enough in the surrounding country. Cecilia wended her way home, musing over what her mother planned for her in London so she might keep her thoughts off a certain stranger.
Cecilia did not wish to go to London with her mother, though she did want to visit her cousins and take in more enlightening sights than her mother allowed on their previous visit. It was the prospect of so many hours in her mother’s company and most especially of her pressing Cecilia to marry which discomfited her. For Cecilia had a decided opinion of whom she should marry, as she had about many other things, which did not coincide with the opinions of her parents. Only her cousin, Amelia, was privy to Cecilia’s wish to marry her brother’s friend, Mr. Adam Cateret.
But it would not do. She had not spoken to him in nearly two years and he was talked of as a bit of a rake. They had the London gossip from Aunt Higham, Amelia, and Fanny, though Cecilia usually did not like to listen to such talk. Mrs. Wilcox could tolerate such behavior in a wealthy gentleman of nearly six and twenty, with his fine country estate and fashionable London home, but not in a suitor for Cecilia. And he was not her suitor, in any case. He had always been kind to her, taking her part when she got into some girlish scrape and confiding in her about his childhood in Naples and his dreams of travel and adventure. He was so different than any other man she had ever met and Cecilia became dazzled on his last visit by his charm, deep sensibility, and glamorous plans. Cecilia felt his rakish behavior was partly because he could not bear to be at Landsdown without his family. Her cousin Amelia, on the other hand, said he was being a man and she did not mean this kindly.
Cecilia knew of Mr. Cateret’s faults, his indiscretions, but she loved him for she also knew his kindness, intelligence, and pleasure in what she loved: walking, music, reading a good book, a lively conversation. Though they had always been friends, she could not say when she fell in love with him. Was it when at fifteen she could not attend Polly’s coming out ball so ‘Ret dragged Wil into the anteroom so she might dance a few dances? At sixteen when he imitated the local dignitaries to her and Wil’s mirth, even jesting at himself? Or was it when she glimpsed him riding past her Aunt Higham’s in London last year and noted his appearance in the first flush of attraction: middle height, dark curly hair, classical profile, and lean physique? Some likened him to Lord Byron, but Cecilia thought he showed his mother’s Neapolitan heritage. Indeed, he looked quite like his ancestor, Salvator Rosa, a copy of whose self-portrait she had seen at Landsdown.
Mr. Cateret visited them at Middleton House frequently when Cecilia was younger, but these last years had seen the loss of his beloved mother and sisters and then his father two years ago. She knew he was bereft at these losses, especially those of his mother and sisters; on his last visit to Middleton House when Cecilia was sixteen she witnessed his grief. They had shared a private moment, but she was still a girl then, his “bella bambina” as he called her, his beautiful girl.
She'd spent the last two years dreaming of ‘Ret, finding other men lacking his elegance, charm, humor, intelligence, and passionate sensibility. Cecilia wished she could see him again and he her. He might see her differently now, a noted beauty of eighteen, rather than the tomboyish girl of sixteen he had last met. Still, she supposed, it would not matter, as her mother was determined she would marry some such as Mr. Thornhill, and her mother would brook no disappointment.
Cecilia was just rounding a corner toward the house when she happened upon her father and brother standing with Mr. Cateret.
“Why, ‘Ret!” she said, using the name Wil always had for his friend. At a cough from her father, she corrected herself. “Mr. Cateret, good day to you. I…”
Mr. Cateret bowed to her, his gaze more intent than she recalled from his previous visits.
“Ah, Cecilia,” said her father, “I was wondering where you had got to. Wil has invited Mr. Cateret to stay with us, I hope for some time, though he claims to be off for London shortly.”
“I understand you and Mrs. Wilcox will be journeying there as well,” remarked Mr. Cateret.
“Yes, we leave in a sen’night,” Cecilia said. She was afraid to say more before she could compose herself fully. For once, Cecilia was relieved to see her mother, who approached in their carriage.
“Mr. Cateret,” Mrs. Wilcox began as she exited the carriage. “How unexpected to see you. We thought you to be in London this time of year.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Wilcox, I was on my way there when I met Wil in town. He invited me to stay, if you are so good as to extend your hospitality.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Wilcox replied, arching her brow as she gave Wil a quelling look. Mr. Wilcox, seeing his wife’s mood, engaged her attention as they walked up the front steps into the house, leaving Wil and Mr. Cateret to escort Cecilia. They each offered her an arm, as they used to when Cecilia was a young girl. She smiled and lightened her step in this small gesture, as she always had, surrounded by her beloved brother and her favorite of his friends. Now it was accompanied by the thrill of being close to Mr. Cateret, who had occupied her thoughts so often.
“Cecilia is quite changed from last you saw her, eh ‘Ret? She is near as tall as myself and she doesn’t giggle as she used,” Wil said. They passed through the wide paneled door, the fanlight above it casting patterns on the polished wood floors.
“Yes, she is changed,” he said with a bitter frown, as Wil excused himself to find the housekeeper about Mr. Cateret’s room.
Wil had not noticed Mr. Cateret’s study of Cecilia, but she had. Her elation at his look of regard was tempered by his cold reply to Wil and unhappy countenance. Perhaps she mistook things. She wanted his approval so much she did not trust herself to recognize it.
“Are you happy to go to London?” he asked.
“I am happy to visit my cousins, yes.” She glanced down the hall, relieved only the chairs and pictures lining the walls witnessed their exchange.
“Are you and Miss Amelia still bosom friends? Has she made a bluestocking of you?”
“Amelia is not a bluestocking. She is interested in antiquities and enjoys reading, as I do myself.” She frowned. He and Wil teased her too much.
“Does she know my friend Mr. Frederick Dryden? He will be giving a lecture on Roman antiquities in a few weeks time. She should attend. I would be happy to introduce them.”
“She has mentioned his writings. I am sure she would be glad of the introduction. Will you be attending as well?” Mellow light played across the now rosy-hued burgundy carpets, which had been in use since her grandmother’s day.
“No, I have heard many of Dry’s lectures. It is not my usual London pursuit.”
“Oh no, sir, and what would such pursuits be?” Cecilia asked, assuming an expression of innocence at which Mr. Cateret first smiled then his countenance clouded. Seeing he would not answer, she continued. She could tease him as well. “I suppose you find Landsdown lonely. Perhaps you seek company in London?”
Mr. Cateret stared at her with a stormy expression, his ample brows tugged together. Any answer he may have had was stopped by her brother’s return.
“Are you being a pert miss, Cecilia? You see she has not changed so much, ‘Ret. I can show you to your room now, if you wish. Dinner will be in an hour.”
“Thank you, Wil,” said Mr. Cateret. He bowed to Cecilia and followed Wil up the wide oak staircase.
Cecilia placed her hands on her cheeks, their heat felt even through her gloves. She pulled them off. Wil ought not tease her so and ‘Ret shouldn’t be upset by her questions. Had they not always been friends? She hurried up to her room before her mother found her so vexed.