There was no question of Captain Hugh Bradley Smythe’s missing his visit to the Duke of Wellington. Wild horses could not have kept him from his appointment, though they had tried their level best to do so. Or at least one had. Blast, his ankle was devilish sore.
“Are you certain you won’t have a bit of fish paste?” asked the rather buxom woman seated next to him in the coach. There were, in addition to Hugh and the fish lady, a very plain looking girl of about seventeen years of age who was traveling with a lad of about four years and an elderly and so far silent gentleman, soberly dressed, who was seated on the other side of the boy. Hugh had the very dubious privilege to be seated across from these three and beside the fish lady, the odor of whose sandwich now fully permeated the interior of the coach and threatened to upset Hugh’s stomach Really. How much was one man expected to bear?
The coach encountered a rocky patch of road that wrenched a groan from both the great springs beneath the carriage and from Hugh, who felt a stab of pain through his right ankle and side.
A naturally kind, not to mention well-mannered young man, Hugh still felt compelled to reply to the woman's offer through gritted teeth, “No, madam, I thank you, but I’m rather tired and believe I’ll try to nap. Thank you.”
“Sorright, pet, there’s more where this come from if you change yer mind. You have yerself a nice doze.”
Being that the weather was mild and rather fine, Hugh was able to use one hand to let the window of the coach down a bit in order to dispel the reek of fish. He leant his head a bit to the right, closed his eyes and settled down for a nap. Not that he thought it would be at all possible for him to sleep, but his closed eyes might keep the fish lady quiet for a few miles, at the least.
Hugh had looked forward to this journey ever since the invitation to Walmer Castle had been issued to him upon fairly short notice by the Duke of Wellington himself. A note written in the Duke’s own hand. Imagine. Hugh could not fathom why the Duke should have singled him out of a literal army of officers of much higher repute who were, no doubt, more worthy of the honour. Regardless of whether or not Hugh felt he was entitled to such notice, he was bound and determined to go to Walmer. And to do himself and his regiment proud. He’d dashed straight down to Hoby’s and had ordered new boots, telling Hoby that he had but a week to delivery. Hoby had, of course, scoffed at such a rushed order, but had agreed to work himself and his assistants round the clock upon hearing that the boots were to be worn by Hugh at Walmer Castle. In fact, the Duke being one of Hoby’s regular and long standing customers himself, Hoby and brought out the drawings for the Duke’s personal boots, upon which Hugh had ordered that his pair be made as closely as possible to the Great Man’s preferences. Hoby had delivered and now, with his ankle relentlessly throbbing within the confines of his brand new, unforgiving boots, Hugh wished instead that he had ordered Hoby to fashion him a pair of soft, comforting house slippers.
Another jolt shot up through the carriage, racketed around Hugh’s ankle and then delivered itself up to play havoc with the two broken ribs. Hugh wanted to cry. He longed to cry; not in pain, so much, but in frustration. Of all the times to take a tumble from a horse! And what a tumble. Hawkins had, in fact, described it as nothing short of spectacular. The horse had come out of the accident unscathed, thank God, though Hugh's pride had been dented. No matter, being singled out by the Duke of Wellington more than made up for the teasing he'd taken at the hands of his fellow soldiers.
What the deuce could the Duke want of him? What was the nature of this summons? Hugh had served under Lord Fitzroy Somerset, who himself variously acted as Wellington's ADC and military secretary, but surely there was nothing in that rather routine service to distinguish Hugh in the Duke's eyes. Otherwise, the time Hugh had so far spent in the military had been fairly uneventful. Might the Duke have career plans for him? If so, they might change the entire course of Hugh's life. The mind boggled and, as it did, the eyelids, encouraged by the rocking motion of the carriage, began to fall and before long Hugh was fast asleep beside the woman with the fish paste.
Elizabeth, Baroness Bloxley, had not revealed her excitement at her artistic commission to anyone. Her daughters were fairly wrapped up in their own lives, preparing for their portraits. Andrew was away at school and she did not think he’d consider her little achievement worth writing about. What did he care that the earl wanted his mother to illustrate his wildflower book? He’d much rather hear about his mare’s new colt, born just last week.
As for Bloxley himself, he’d been preoccupied of late. Even more distant than usual. Perhaps he had another paramour, although Elizabeth doubted it. His last mistress had caused much too much trouble for him. He had no idea Elizabeth knew about his dalliances, but then he paid no attention to the conversation of the servants -- conversation she pretended not to hear but conversation she had often found informative about all sorts of matters at the hall, on the estate and in the village. She’d learned to listen discreetly to servant gossip from her husband’s mother, the dowager baroness, when she’d asked her, many years ago, how she managed to keep up with the doings of the families in her neighborhood.
So for the moment, Elizabeth kept the contents of the earl’s letter to herself. He lived far enough away that not even the Dowager would pick up the scent.
Elizabeth felt decidedly, if secretly, triumphant. Her drawing and painting were the perfect occupations, everyone said, for a lady of her standing. Her artistic talent had in the past been viewed by all who know of them as nothing but a diversion, as harmless and diverting as embroidery or knitting. Through all the years of patronizing remarks and gentle teasing about her attention to her pens and brushes, Elizabeth had smiled and kept her skills sharp.
And now she had actually been given a genuine artistic comission - an assignment for which she would be compensated. She knew what Bloxley would say when she told him, as sometime she would have to do. She could hear him in her head. “If you need money for anything, my dear, you have only to come to me.”
How could she explain her feelings to him? It had nothing to do money. It had everything to do with her work being worthy of appreciation and being deemed as serious talent. She knew exactly what she would do with the money she earned. She would buy herself a little brooch or a ring as a memento of her achievement and then she’d put the rest of the money in the poor box at church. In amounts small enough to deflect curiosity or interest.
Elizabeth sighed and set her mind to thinking about how she could gather the first specimens the earl wanted her to paint. She rather liked having this little secret for herself. It gave her a warm feeling inside, filling her with a shivery sparkle that resembled how she’d sometimes felt after – oh no, she would not think such thoughts. That too could be part of her secret.
Labels: The Secrets of Bloxley Bottom