Thursday, May 28, 2009


© By Maggi Andersen
Lord Bradshaw’s country seat was situated in Hertfordshire. Alice and her mother traveled all day in the carriage, stopping once for luncheon at a coaching inn. Alice veered from vexation to abject fear as the carriage horses trotted along the road through green fields dotted with black and white cows. “How long must we stay?” she asked.
“We are invited to spend three days at Bradshaw Hall.”
The sun lowered in the sky, and a chill wind blew into the carriage. Lady Dumbarton suffered a crisis of conscience, tucking a carriage rug around Alice. “If you do not in any way approve of this arrangement, don’t worry, my dear. I shall make our excuses and we’ll return to London after breakfast tomorrow.”
Lady Dumbarton continued in this vein as the carriage passed through a pair of ornate iron gates and continued up the well-tended carriage drive through the magnificent home park, where trees displayed their new spring green.
“My goodness!” Lady Dumbarton clutched her pearls, as the carriage reached the top of a hill. The aspect afforded an excellent view of Bradshaw Hall perched on the far rise. It wasn’t just a large establishment that greeted them; it was one of immaculate grandeur.
The carriage swung around the drive and pulled up in front of the building where a row of enormous white Doric columns stretched across the pedimented facade. A footman in crimson and gold livery leapt forward to open the carriage door. Alice stepped out and began to climb the marble steps with trembling knees, as a peacock called from across the lawns. She swallowed and glanced at her mother’s face. A smile trembled on Lady Dumbarton’s lips, and she raised her eyes to the massive entrance as if she’d caught sight of heaven.
The Grand Hall in no way failed to impress. A vast sea of black and white marble tiles swam across Alice’s vision. The butler escorted them upstairs to the drawing room, passing niches displaying fine ceramics and statuary. They entered a room decorated in blue and gold. A fire blazed in the white marble fireplace. Lord Bradshaw rose from a sapphire-blue velvet sofa. Beside him, a much younger man reclined with a rug over his knees.
Lord Bradshaw came towards them. He greeted them both warmly, but Alice’s gaze rested on the young man turned towards them. She thought him incredibly handsome, with a rather stubborn chiseled jaw and dark hair brushed sleekly back from his brow. His blue eyes favored his father’s, at least in color. But Lord Bradshaw’s twinkled and his son’s did not. They glared at Alice from under strong black brows that met in a heavy frown.
Alice swallowed and gave Lord Alexander her gloved hand. He held it and studied her openly. She thought his gaze lingered far too long on her turned-up nose, and she removed her hand from his grasp.
“Please sit by the fire,” Lord Bradshaw said. “I have sent for tea, I’m sure you’re exhausted after the long drive.”
Lady Dumbarton sank gratefully onto one of a pair of tulipwood chairs with scrolled feet placed each side of the fireplace. Lord Bradshaw settled on the other. It left Alice to sit next to Lord Alexander on the sofa. She had never felt more unwelcome as she gathered the folds of her apricot traveling dress carefully around her.
The two older members of the party engaged in polite conversation and left Alice and Alexander to study one each other. “I trust you had a good journey,” he said politely in a tone of voice that spoke of complete disinterest.
“We did, thank you.” Heavens, thought Alice, if he doesn’t want us here, why were we asked?
Lord Alexander’s manner failed to thaw at dinner. His father talked volubly to cover any awkward pauses in the conversation. Lady Bradshaw had died some years ago and left him to rattle around this mausoleum on his own, he complained. At least until Lord Alexander had come to keep him company.
“Not very cheerful company,” Lord Alexander added, reaching for his wine glass.
“Well, of course you are, my boy. But it’s no life for you. I know it isn’t,” his father muttered.
“I don’t see that there’s much to be done about that,” Lord Alexander said with a frown in Alice’s direction.
Alice began to believe she could return to London with her romantic dreams intact. The sulky Lord Alexander had been assisted to the table by two footmen. He hardly touched his food and drank rather a lot of wine, until his father had the wine carafe removed from his reach.
When they retired to the drawing room after dinner, Lord Alexander offered to play Casino with Alice. He trounced her twice with little apology. Alice fidgeted in her chair. She felt awkward and ill at ease. She was at the disadvantage of never having played Casino.
Another hand?” Lord Alexander asked, shuffling the cards. Did she detect a challenging light in his eyes? They were so blue; she had to stop herself from staring.
“But you’ll only beat me again,” she said reasonably.
“Yes, I probably will,” Lord Alexander said maddenly.
“We might play whist.” Alice knew she was a dab hand at that.
“With only two players?”
“I often do.”
“Very well.” He handed her the cards. “You shuffle.”
The game went in Alice’s favor. She sneaked a glance at Lord Alexander, expecting him to sulk, but was surprised to find him looking quite alert and keen. “Another hand?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Lord Bradshaw said, rising. “We keep country hours here, and Alexander needs his rest.”
The eager look faded from Alexander’s eyes, but he made no complaint as the footmen carried him off to bed.
Lady Dumbarton hesitated at Alice’s bedchamber door. “Do we return to London tomorrow?” she asked.
Alice realized it took a great deal for her mother to ask. Returning to their mean rented property in the unfashionable part of town to survive on the small stipend left to them, was an unattractive proposition even for Alice. “Perhaps we should stay. It might be rude to leave too soon.”
Her mother smiled with relief. “My sentiments exactly.”
The next morning Alice made her way to the breakfast room. She was happy to be in the country again and relished the fresh air and the fine view of the woods from the windows. Lord Alexander sat alone eating a sirloin. The butler led her to the chair opposite him. Alice sat as the maid poured tea from the silver service into a fine china cup. “Did you sleep well?” She reached for a warm scone and began to spread butter and plum preserve on it.
Alexander frowned and continued to cut up his meat. “There’s no need to treat me like an invalid.”
“Oh, but I wasn’t,” Alice protested. “I was merely being polite.”
He looked up, his blue eyes hard. “You must hate coming here.”
Alice drew in a sharp breath at the mixture of shame and anger in his eyes. “Not at all, I love the country. I wish I could return to live at Dumbarton House. I miss it so.”
He put down his knife and fork. “Where is Dumbarton House?”
Alice took a sip of tea. “It’s in Devon. You can smell the sea on the breeze. And see it too, although it’s some miles away.”
“I’ve never seen the sea.” Alexander took a swig of ale. “I always planned to. Wanted to join the navy under the Iron Duke when I was young.”
“What stopped you?” She knew his injury was recent. He didn’t look like an invalid. He was well-built with broad shoulders and his limbs looked strong.
He grinned and it lit up his face. He was handsome. “Still at school. And when I grew up the war was over.”
Alice smiled. “I’ve had some pretty hare-brained schemes of my own.”
“Had you? Tell me about them.”
“I had a pet pig called Peggy. It used to follow me everywhere. I wanted to bring it into the house, but Father wouldn’t allow it.”
“That’s not very unusual is it?”
Alice searched her memory for something that would shock him. “I created a wire device to wear at night, to straighten my nose.”
Alexander threw back his head and roared. “You did?” He studied her. “It didn’t work.”
She frowned. “I know, and it’s not polite for you to say so.”
“But I like your nose,”
Alice flushed. “You do?”
“Yes. It was one of the first things I noticed about you. It made me believe …” He hesitated.
“I hoped you might have a sense of humor.”
It wasn’t romantic or poetic, but she expected a turned-up nose would never inspire poetry. Alice sipped her tea. “I believe I do have a sense of humor,” she said. “I see you have a Bath chair.” She had passed the chair with wheels in the hall.
“Father bought it. I told him not to. I shan’t have it for long.” He reddened at the reminder that he was a cripple, and it made her feel sorry she’d spoken.
“Why don’t we go out into the garden after breakfast?”
He looked sulky again. “If you wish.”
“You might show me the stables, or the home farm. I’m very fond of animals.”
“The stables?”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Your injury, I forgot …” Alice swallowed feeling awful. She was making a dreadful mess of things.
“No,” he said mildly. “It wasn’t my horse’s fault.”
“Would you … like to tell me what happened?”
“My horse, Pegasus, stumbled into a rabbit hole and fell on me.”
“How horrid!”
“He broke a leg, and had to be shot.” He sad gaze slid away to the window. “I’m going to get back in the saddle soon, though.”
“That’s a good positive attitude,” Lord Dumbarton said, entering the room.
“Don’t patronize me, Father,” Lord Alexander said, reddening again. “I mean it.”
“Of course, my boy,” Lord Dumbarton said mildly. “I plan to have a special saddle made for you.”
Alexander signaled to the footman standing at the door. “Take me out,” he said savagely.
“But what about our excursion around the grounds?” Alice asked.
Alexander chewed his lip as he put his arm around the footmen’s shoulders. He was lifted out of his chair. “After breakfast, wait for me on the carriageway.”
* * * *
Their trip to stables was not without incident. Lord Alexander argued with the footman, Breck, telling him to go away and leave them on their own. Finally, Breck stalked off to have a word with Lord Bradshaw leaving Alice to push the chair, which was like a large baby carriage with a hood, across the cobblestones. It was rather difficult and when she maneuvered it around a corner it almost tipped over. “Careful,” Alexander yelled. “You’ll spill me out onto the cobbles.”
He began to laugh.
Alice giggled nervously. She felt quite puffed when they reached the stable yard.
“Go that way,” Lord Alexander said pointing. “I’ll show you Lightning, he’s a capital horse. The best we have.”
They came to a horse stall where a tall black stallion was housed. He whinnied at the sight of them. Alice pushed Lord Alexander up close. He reached into his pocket for an apple and held it up to the horse. “I’ll ride him again one day.” He rubbed his knee. “Soon.”
Alice patted the horse’s big head. He had a crest of white on his forehead in the shape of jagged lightning. “So that’s how you got your name.”
“A pity he’s too big for you,” Lord Alexander said.
“He isn't,” Alice said firmly.
Lord Alexander looked at her with raised brows. “We’ll go riding together one day.”
The footman appeared and pushed Lord Alexander back to the house.
That night Alice beat Lord Alexander twice more at whist. She thought he took it quite gracefully, until he said he would beat her at chess on the morrow.
But the next day dawned warm and clear and drew them outside again. It was Alice’s last day here and her feelings for the prickly Alexander had become difficult to understand. She found herself looking forward to their meetings.
They roamed for hours, visiting each horse in its stall, and wandered down the lane to the pond where the ducks and swans swam towards them. The footman bowed and left them. Lord Alexander had come well prepared; he produced some bread from beneath his rug. He and Alice broke off bits and threw them into the water. One duck flew up to try and sit on the Bath chair and they both laughed.
“That’s Greedy, he always does that.”
“Surely, you don’t have names for them all.”
He shook his head. “Not all. Just one for each of the seven deadly sins.”
Alice giggled. “He is rather fatter than the rest.” She sat down on the grass. “It’s lovely here.”
“Yes. I guess it is.”
She studied his profile. It would inspire the poets.
“You’ll be going home tomorrow,” he said suddenly.
Alice held her breath. “I expect so.”
He turned to look at her. “I wish you wouldn’t.” He reached for her hand. “You must know of my father’s plan?”
“He’s a wise man.”
“I believe he is. And he loves you dearly.” Alice's heart pounded in her ears.
“Marry me, Alice. Will you?”
“How do you know we will suit? We’ve known each other for little more than two days.”
“I just know it. Will you kiss me?”
Alice glanced around. They were quite alone. She knelt beside the Bath chair and pressed her lips to his. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her close. His soft lips on hers were like ambrosia, and her head swam. It was her first kiss. When it ended, she moved away, her hand touching his knee. She felt it flicker with life.
“Oh, your knee moved!” she cried in delight.
He grinned. “My legs are beginning to do that; I’ve noticed it more in the last two days. I won’t tell Father. I want to surprise him.”
“When you walk again, you may wish for a different life entirely,” Alice said, suddenly fearful.
“Yes.” His eyes lit up and he reached for her again. “I plan something else entirely. You and I together properly as man and wife.” He pulled her down onto his lap. “And children, Alice. Many children.” He kissed her again.
Alice felt sure Alexander would achieve his goal. Someone as determined as he couldn’t fail. But if he remained as he was she still intended to always be by his side. She lay in his lap with her head on his shoulder. She’d always believed in love at first sight.
She glanced up to see Lord Bradshaw and Lady Dumbarton on the terrace. Lord Bradshaw took her mother’s hand and kissed it.

The End

1 comment:

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Maggie,
Sniff sniff, what a beautiful, touching story. I loved it.
Wonderful blog site too. You're from NSW aren't you. I hail from Melbourne.