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Mills & Boon
It ill behoves a young woman of good breeding to think unkindly of a gentleman to whom she has only recently been introduced. Yet such was the disdain with which Lord Alfred Boon first regarded my sisters and I that it was perhaps not unreasonable for me to consider him at once a most disagreeable young man. It did not matter that he was a gentleman of considerable means, as my mother insisted on informing me, nor less that he was a man of an admittedly handsome aspect. The contempt that I observed in his finely sculpted features as he spoke to each of us in turn was more than enough to demonstrate his singular lack of character. The fact that he refused even to meet the eyes of those he addressed only served to reinforce this judgement.
‘I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Mills,’ said he, looking over my shoulder, though at what I knew not.
My younger sister Fanny could not hide her distress. ‘He did not even look at me,’ she lamented, once the introductions had been completed.
This was not by any means the worst of his crimes. The dance had been organised in his honour, to mark Lord Alfred’s arrival at Waverley Hall and to introduce him to the local community; yet when he greeted Lord Tavistock, the man who had taken the trouble to organise the ball and who had invited him to attend that evening, he would not even make the effort to shake the man by the hand. I saw the look of discomfort on the face of Lord Tavistock and I pitied him.
My mother was disconsolate. I must confess, she had harboured unrealistic expectations of this particular social function. It had been her earnest desire to see my sisters Elizabeth, Fanny and I married to the most eligible men she could find before we had reached our nineteenth birthdays. My elder sister Elizabeth had already passed that milestone two years earlier, and as I was only one year her junior my mother’s concern was understandable. Yet at the same time, I was resolved to wait. I would rather marry a man I truly admired than make a match simply as a matter of convenience. Thankfully my father, though by no means an affluent man, was content to take my part in the matter, and so I had a little time yet remaining to find a suitable match.
My card, in any event, was almost full for the evening and I was content to dance with the several polite young men from the surrounding countryside who had converged on Lord Tavistock’s manor house. My cousin Geoffrey and his older friend Henry Sebastian were most attentive. Lord Alfred was not dancing. He had taken to the floor but once, with his sister Annabel. I had watched him briefly, more out of pity than curiosity. His movements were stiff and formal. After that first dance, he had retired from the floor and would doubtless have spent the rest of the evening talking with his army friends if he had been allowed the opportunity. Even with these friends, he seemed aloof, gazing carelessly past them at the prettily decorated furnishings of the extravagant ball room.
As the evening progressed, I could not help but steal occasional glances at the man. I was infuriated with Lord Alfred and the contempt that he had shown to everybody there. He may well have been a lord and, according to dear Fanny at least, “devilishly handsome”, but that should not have prevented him from making some effort to show the proper respect for his fellow guests and particularly for his host. It would surely not have hurt him to dance with one or two of the local girls, since the ball had been organised in his honour. That I had no wish to dance with him myself will, of course, be well understood; indeed the thought of his deep blue eyes staring coldly across my shoulder as we traversed the dance floor only served to infuriate me further.
Henry Sebastian was a pleasing contrast. I had promised to dance twice with him that evening, though it was well understood that I considered him a friend rather than a suitor. We talked briefly, but for the most part he was content to smile and dance in companionable silence. Conversation drifted across the dance floor. At various times, I overheard small snatches of conversation from different corners of the room. It is not my custom to eavesdrop on these occasions, but oftentimes it is difficult to avoid.
A tall military gentleman was deep in conversation with Lord Alfred. ‘And what do you think about the Mills?’ I heard him ask at one point.
I confess I strained to hear the reply.
‘I think they are a disgrace,’ said he. ‘It is outrageous that they should behave in such a thoughtless and cavalier manner. They do no service to their class to act in such a brazen and unchristian way.’
It can surely be imagined the shock with which I received these words. Never in all my short years had I heard such vile and undignified comments proclaimed in so public a fashion. No gentleman even in jest would have considered myself or my sisters in any way “brazen”. Such was my distress at these unwarranted accusations that I momentarily lost my footing. Henry Sebastian tried his best to prevent my fall, but, alas, proved too slow. All at once, I felt a hand grabbing onto my arm and I was able to steady myself; but the hand was unwelcome.
‘Let go of me!’ I protested, with some vigour.
Lord Alfred flinched and moved backwards. There was a pained expression on his dark, aristocratic face and, such was the arrogance of the man, he still could not bring himself to meet my eye. ‘I was merely trying to prevent your fall,’ said he.
‘I have no need of your assistance, sir,’ I exclaimed angrily. ‘I am well aware of the low opinion in which you hold my sisters and I. And I would thank you to render assistance only when asked.’
By now the commotion had brought the dancing to a halt.
My mother came forward in abject horror.
‘Miss Mills, I do not know why you are reacting in this fashion,’ said Lord Alfred. ‘I was merely trying to assist you.’
I was prevented from replying by my mother, who was profuse in her apologies to Lord Alfred. Before I was able to say another word, she had dragged me away and within minutes we were in a coach heading back to Cottosloe Hall.
‘I have never been so humiliated!’ exclaimed my mother. ‘Jennifer, how could you behave in such an unpardonable fashion?’
I was unrepentant. ‘I had no choice, mother. Even a lord has no right to talk so disrespectfully of my dear sisters.’
That night, I could not sleep. As I lay in bed, with Fanny and Elizabeth serenely asleep either side of me, the inglorious spectacle replayed itself over and over in my mind. It was unconscionable that Lord Alfred should be allowed to behave in such an outrageous manner. In my angered state, I composed a letter in my mind, informing him of my displeasure and demanding an apology. Yet I knew in my heart that I could never send it. A public display of anger would be unseemly in a woman of my tender years. I would endeavour to forget Lord Alfred and his ungentlemanly behaviour. With luck, I would never come into contact with him again.
The following morning, my anger unabated, I sat and wrote the letter. It is doubtless understood that I had no intention of ever sending it, but I thought perhaps the act of writing it down would help to ease my frustration. I left the letter sealed on the study table, but when I came back to the room a few minutes later, having gone to the pantry in search of refreshment, I discovered that my correspondence had disappeared. Upon enquiry, I found that our housekeeper had seen the article along with some of my father’s letters and had dispatched it with the butcher’s boy to the postmaster in the village.
I was naturally horrified. To compose a letter in anger is one thing, to actually send it is quite another. With some trepidation, I awaited a response. A day passed and then another. It so happened that on the third day my father was away on business. Mother was visiting her sister in Foxcombe, while Elizabeth and Fanny had gone out for a walk.
When the doorbell rang I waited patiently for our housekeeper to answer. Belatedly, I realised that it was Mary’s day off and that I was all alone. I went to the door myself; and there, standing in the doorway, was Lord Alfred Boon.
He removed his hat. ‘Miss Mills,’ said he, acknowledging me with a bow of his head but still failing to meet my eye. ‘I have been away on business for a couple of days, but I have recently received a most peculiar letter and felt that I should come at once in order to provide you with a satisfactory response.’
The last thing I desired was to engage Lord Alfred in conversation. ‘I am afraid my father is away today. I am here on my own and cannot receive you.’
‘I understand. I would not wish to do harm to your reputation. However, I think it only fair that you grant me the courtesy of allowing a response to the accusations you have levelled against me in your letter. Perhaps we could walk for a few moments in the garden?’
I was loath to grant him that much; yet I could not in all conscience deprive him of the opportunity of defending himself, even if I was certain that it would prove to be of no consequence.
‘Very well,’ I agreed. I stepped forward and we walked together along the path towards the gate.
‘I fear, Miss Mills, that you may have gained a false impression of my character the other evening and I would like to correct that.’
‘I think I have a very good impression of your character, my lord. I do not know how you expect me to revise my opinion when you find it beneath your dignity even to look me in the eye.’
Lord Alfred stopped suddenly and turned to face me. Even now, his gaze was directed across my shoulder. ‘Miss Mills, perhaps I should explain.’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘This is not something that I would normally speak of, but in these circumstances I will make an exception.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Since childhood, I have suffered from a medical condition known as an “alternating strabismus”. It is a visual affliction. Each of my eyeballs functions perfectly well on its own but, sadly, the two are incapable of working together. If one eye is focused, the other is not. At the moment, I am looking at you with my left eye. It is my right eye that appears to be looking over your shoulder.’ Sure enough, as I now looked closely, I could see that his left eye was indeed gazing directly at my face. The eye was a deep, penetrating blue. All of a sudden, I felt my pulse begin to quicken and I looked away in embarrassment. ‘I understand that sometimes people feel I am being aloof, but it is difficult to explain the underlying reason for this to each and every person to whom I am introduced.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I am sorry for your affliction, Lord Alfred, and I ask your pardon for drawing undue attention to it. But that does not explain your atrocious comments regarding my sisters.’
‘Ah yes.’ At that, Lord Alfred smiled. It was the first time I had seen any sign of humour in the man and I have to declare I was somewhat startled. It was, in truth, the most dazzling smile I had ever seen. Yet I steeled myself against him. ‘I wondered long and hard after reading your letter,’ continued Lord Alfred. ‘At first, I had little idea to which of my comments you could possibly be referring. But then I recalled the conversation I had had with Major Edward Stanley that evening. We had been discussing the issue of the cotton mills in Yorkshire.’
I let out a sudden gasp. ‘Cotton mills?’ said I.
Lord Alfred nodded. ‘You have surely heard about the new machines they have recently introduced in the north? The mill owners have been laying off hundreds of workers, leaving their families destitute. I am all in favour of progress, but an employer has a duty of care to those beneath him and there is no reason why these machines cannot be introduced gradually. It is not a fashionable opinion, I admit, but, so far as I am concerned, the behaviour of these mill owners is nothing short of scandalous.’
‘And it is them to whom you were referring when I overheard your conversation?’
‘Indeed it was. But I see how the confusion may have arisen, Miss Mills.’
I frowned. ‘But what about the dancing? And poor Lord Tavistock. It was unpardonably rude of you not to shake him by the hand.’
Lord Alfred laughed, with a deep and surprisingly loud voice. I must confess, I flinched at the unexpected sound. The gentleman seemed full of surprises this morning.
‘I…had a little accident a few days ago,’ he admitted.
My eyes widened in alarm. ‘I trust you were not hurt.’ I examined his face but there was no sign of bruising there. Indeed, now that I looked closely, I could see that my sister Fanny had been correct in her estimation of Lord Alfred’s singular beauty.
‘Not seriously, I am glad to say,’ said he. ‘I was out riding and I attempted to ford a stream. I mistimed the jump and fell from my horse. It was my own fault. I should not have been riding so fast across unfamiliar country. I hurt my wrist and injured my back. It is nothing serious. But it does still hurt a little.’
‘That is why you could not shake Lord Tavistock’s hand?’
‘Indeed. I did apologise to him at the time, of course. I explained that I had sprained my wrist and he was content, as no doubt you would have discovered if you had taken the trouble to ask him. That was also why I wore such a pained expression when I came forward to assist you that evening.’
‘How is it that I did not hear of your injuries?’
Lord Alfred gave a modest cough. ‘I had no wish to advertise my foolishness.’
‘And what of the dancing?’
‘With the pain in my back, I was not sure if I would be able to dance at all, but my sister Annabel insisted that I should at least try, given the honour Lord Tavistock had bestowed upon me in organising the ball. I danced one dance with my sister, as you saw, but the pain was too much for me, so regretfully I had to retire for the rest of the evening.’
‘Well,’ said I. His explanations had a certain credibility, I was forced to admit.
‘If my back had been a little less sore, I would very much like to have danced with you,’ said he, his left eye directed straight at me. ‘I have seldom met a more headstrong and opinionated woman.’
I shuddered. ‘Doubtless you despise me for my poor judgement and lack of understanding. I can only apologise if I have misjudged you.’
He took my hand in his abruptly. I saw him wince, but he quickly mastered the pain. ‘On the contrary, Miss Mills, I have only the highest regard for you. Doubtless if I had seen a man behave in the way you had observed me behaving, I would be equally quick to judge. For my part, my opinion of you, from the moment I met you, has been of the warmest and most generous kind.’
I pulled my hand away from him, wary of any passer-by who might draw unwarranted conclusions from our sudden intimacy.
‘You are very kind, sir,’ said I.
Lord Alfred took a deep breath. ‘It is a shame your father is not here. I wonder if, with his permission, you would consider it acceptable for me to call on you again?’
My mouth fell open. I did not know how to respond. It was clear that Lord Alfred was in earnest; and I had certainly misjudged him. The man was most vexing, to be sure, but he was also, I now realised, utterly charming.
Reader, what else could I do? I accepted.