Home of the du Mauriers
“Daphne, come away from that window at once. You haven’t answered Lady Gersham.”
Pulling at the curtain edge, I set my mouth into the acceptable and pleasing afternoon-tea smile: vacant and supercilious. “Dear Lady Gersham, I haven’t fully considered the notion. I imagine rolling one’s clothes into packed carry cases is the best way to travel.”
“Daphne’s clothes are always crumpled.” Grinning, Jeanne cut Lady Gersham another piece of seed cake. “She packs in a hurry.”
“It is ill-advised to pack in haste,” observed Lady Gersham. “Perhaps you ought to get her nose out of a book, Muriel.”
Lifting a brow, my mother’s smile, for once, exuded a little patience for my social shortcomings. “Oh, but crumpled clothes or not she has managed to secure the interest of a certain gentleman.”
Lady Gersham sat up. “Oh?”
“A certain gentleman of impeccable quality.”
“A man of property and breeding.”
Feeling my face grow hot, I glared at my mother. Surely, she’d not say his name. Surely, she’d not embarrass me in front of one of London’s most notorious gossips.
“Sir Marcus Oxley.”
Lady Gersham bestowed her aura of approval on me.
“I thought you were going to say Major Browning,” Jeanne blurted out to my mortification.
“Younger sisters never get the current favorite quite right,” my mother assured Lady Gersham. “Daphne, take Jeanne to her room and see that she finishes her sums. I have something particular to say to Lady Gersham.”
Thus dismissed, I did indeed take Jeanne upstairs but with the intention to box her ears. “How dare you? You promised you’d not say a word.”
Jeanne, bearing the trademark of a younger sister, had developed the unsavory habit of eavesdropping on Angela and me. “You’ve broken your oath.” Halting, I crossed my arms. “And if you can’t keep a secret, then you’re not coming to Ellen’s on Friday. There’s no room for silly little girls.”
Lowering an instantly glum face, Jeanne sank onto her bed and wept. “Sorry, Daph, I didn’t mean to … I want to go to Ellen’s. I’ve never been to a bridal shower … oh, Daphne, please, please let me go.”
“No.” Slamming the door, I retreated to my room. It was a fortunate thing she hadn’t overheard Roderick Trevalyan’s name, too. Angela and I alone shared the secrets of Somner House but for one careless mention of Major Frederick Arthur Montague Browning.
“Was he at Somner, too?” Jeanne hunted me out later that day. “Mama doesn’t know.”
“And nor shall she,” I had replied. To guarantee her silence, I relayed a little of my private affairs and agog with the news, Jeanne gave me her solemn promise.
I expected my mother’s summons the moment Lady Gersham departed.
“Why did Jeanne mention the major? Have you received more word from him?”
I turned away. I didn’t want my mother to detect the truth in my face. Faces had a way of betraying one and mothers possessed the uncanny knack of unlocking such secrets. “Mother,” I sighed, “Sir Marcus is a friend of mine, not a beau. I wish you would cease spreading rumors about us. He won’t find it amusing.” In fact, Sir Marcus would find it amusing but my mother needn’t know it.
“Well, the way you two whisper in corners would suggest otherwise.”
“We’re just friends.”
“I was a friend of your father’s before we married.”
Oh no. The marriage subject again. “Mama, I told you. I’m not getting married anytime soon and to make it seem as if I were to Lady Gersham of all people!”
“I am merely advertising your marketability,” came the swift retort. “Really, Daphne, do you intend to become an old spinster? For you will be one if you continue on this way. Gentlemen need encouragement and I despair you’ve got too sharp a tongue. It didn’t help Elizabeth Bennett with Mr. Darcy, did it?”
“I beg to differ. Her sharp tongue secured his interest early on and later he praised her for her mind, more than her ‘fine eyes.’”
My mother’s eyes rounded. “Oh, then you have an understanding with the major as I suspected. When shall he be calling again? Your father was sorry to have missed him last time.”
I drew away to the window. The affair she referred to had occurred the Wednesday before. Without any warning, he called upon us. Heart pounding, for I was not properly dressed and my hair looked horrid, I crept down the stairs to see him smilingly entertaining my mother and sisters in the tearoom. Angela caught my gaze. She wondered, as I did, what this call meant since our last meeting at Somner House.
I had to wait. Upon his departure, he raised my hand to his lips and murmured, “Au revoir. Until we meet again.”
“When should we expect him again?”
I wanted to know the same thing. “I don’t know, Mama. I do know he is invited to Ellen’s wedding.”
“Ah, weddings.” My mother grinned. “A perfect location for a blossoming romance. Your father has given his full approval. Though,” she paused to reflect, “we are not yet fully aware of the major’s circumstances. Your father wants the best for his Daphne … that is why I think you shouldn’t rule out Sir Marcus as a candidate. What a splendid catch!”
Poor Sir Marcus. “Hunted like a fox.”
“Well,” my mother’s lips pursed together, “foxes should expect such and let’s hope some of this wedding season will inspire you or your sister, for otherwise I shall feel like Mrs. Bennett and lament I have three daughters, all unwed and what does your father do about it? Nothing! Nothing at all.”
* * *
The gloomy pathway beckoned. She paid no attention to its dilapidated state, neither seeing nor hearing the windstorm brewing around her. Such was her state of mind as she progressed toward her destination, knowing this was the last time—
“Daphne! The car is waiting.”
Sighing, I scribbled down the last sentence. They could wait.
The world could wait.
This sentence could not.
“Oh, dear.” Running up the stairs, Jeanne pushed open my door. “You’re not even dressed!”
“I am mostly dressed,” I corrected, sweeping up notebook and pen to put a few final items in my bag. Mentally reviewing my list, I was satisfied I had everything I needed and followed Jeanne downstairs.
Angela was already in the car, waiting. She, too, had curlers in her hair and we prayed no one saw us on our way to Ellen’s house.
“How fun this will be.” Clapping her hands, Jeanne exuded the younger-sister excitement of a first grown-up party. “I can’t wait to tell Bethany; she’s always going on about her rich German cousins yet she’s never been invited to a bride’s party.”
“Nobody likes a braggart,” Angela warned. “And whatever you do, don’t monopolize the ladies with your questions. You’re there to sit and learn and if you’re good, we’ll let you have some champagne, won’t we, Daphne?”
Busy staring out the window, I agreed. I didn’t know what I’d agreed to for Angela’s babble faded against London at night. Still early, dusky embers bathed the streets, catching the lights on the passing motorcars. The city had its glow and its attractions but my heart longed for Cornwall and the wild, open rural country, and the sea, the sea …
“Daphne, you didn’t forget to bring Ellen’s present, did you?”
I gave my sister a woebegone look. “We’ve been writing to each other for how many years now? I’m not likely to forget, am I?”
“One never knows with you,” Angela teased. “Did you finish the chapter?”
“No,” I lamented as I’d much prefer to stay at my desk and work on my book. Wrong of me, but apart from Ellen, what business did I have going to a bridal shower? I abhorred these kinds of parties for they invariably attracted giggly females chatting of men and marriage.
Since the war, the men and marriage subject became my mother’s favorite as we came of age. Among certain acquaintances, it turned into a competition, mothers airing their daughters’ successes a great part of it. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get married. I regarded the idea of enduring love with cynicism, perhaps because I had yet to experience what Elizabeth Bennett felt: “I am convinced only the greatest love would induce me to matrimony.”
Such deliberations accompanied me through the gate to Ellen’s smart London house. Well, to be accurate, the house belonged to her rich fiancé. Walking up to the door, I admired the crisp hedges and the neat row of flowering pots. Of course, it was nothing compared with Thornleigh.
“What’s Ellen’s fiancé’s name again?” Jeanne whispered.
“Teddy Grimshaw, but don’t you call him Teddy. He’s Mr. Grimshaw to you.”
“Oh, that’s right. He’s old, isn’t he?”
“It’s a matter of perspective,” I murmured back. “Did you think Colonel Brandon too old for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility?”
Jeanne reflected. “I suppose not because he was a good man and Willoughby was the devil. A handsome devil, mind.”
“Handsome devils do not make good husbands,” Angela advised, tearing off her gloves. “And though Mr. Grimshaw is sixteen years Ellen’s senior, he’s not ancient. Didn’t you see the picture of him in the paper? He’s very good looking.”
“He has gray temples,” Jeanne pointed out.
“He’s very rich,” Angela also pointed out. “And if Ellen minds his gray temples, she can boot-black them out.”
We all laughed at this, glancing at each other guiltily when Ellen came down the stairs.
“There you are, darlings! Fashionably late as the term goes.”
Sweeping to us in a purple satin peignoir and smelling of expensive perfume, Ellen Hamilton looked every inch the society bride. With her honey-blond hair bouncing on her shoulders and dancing lights in her green eyes, she presented a very different picture since the last time I’d seen her.
Upon seeing me, the sparkle left her eyes for the sincere graveness I knew so well. “Oh, Daphne, I’m so glad you’re here. There’s so much to do—I never thought a wedding could be so complex.”
“It’s a society wedding,” I reminded. “Were you happy with the name cards?”
“They’re perfect! Honestly, I don’t know how I’d manage without you and Megan to help me. It’s sad my mother never lived to see this day. She would have relished every little detail.”
Wistful, her face returned to bridal jubilation as we entered the room full of girls.
At twenty-eight, Ellen Hamilton exuded a confidence none of us possessed. Perhaps her experiences during the war and afterward had taught her self-reliance in the face of poverty, heartache, and oppression. I’d shared so much with her through our letters, yet I still felt gauche and inexperienced in her company.
“No, Daphne,” she drew me aside later. “You mustn’t envy what I’ve been through. Yes, I’ve learned much from it and it is fit for a novel,” she smiled faintly, “but don’t envy me. You have your whole life ahead of you and innocence is something you don’t want to part with too early.”
“I am not innocent.”
She sighed, her perceptive green eyes knowing better.
“Have you any word of your stepdaughter-to-be?”
“Well, Rosalie is coming to the wedding. Teddy’s gone to meet her at the station. Oh Daphne, I’m dreading it … dreading it all.”
“The wedding or his daughter’s arrival?”
“Both. You know how much she hates me.”
“Pressed by her mother,” I reminded. “Surely she’s excited to have a little sister? I can’t imagine growing up without my sisters … I suspect only children are very lonely.”
“And spoilt,” Ellen added. “Unfortunately, Rosalie is more concerned with losing her inheritance than gaining a sister.”
“Again spurred on by the mother?”
“Oh, Daphne, you know all of my history but not many others do. If word were to leak out, it would ruin me.”
“It won’t leak out and it won’t ruin you,” I assured her. “The daughter or her mother would be fools to try something like it.”
“I think they will try. They can’t stand Teddy to be happy again. Oh, I wished they’d just stayed in Boston!”
I pressed her hand. “Now, where’s little Charlotte?”
“Not so little now. She turned eight last month.”
“Eight! I remember when she was born…”
“Yes, so do I.” Ellen smiled. “She’s with Nanny Brickley at the moment and she loved those books you sent her. We read them every night. Hansel and Gretel is her favorite and reminds me of the summers we spent together in the woods at Thornleigh.”
I was glad she noted the connection for I had thought the same when I looked at the illustrations.
“And, my darling, have you seen the major since your last letter? You must keep me up to date, you know, for otherwise how can I look out for you? Is he a good man or is he a cad? He seems very popular with women; I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
“As is your Teddy.”
Ellen reflected before returning with a fond smile. “Yes, I suppose you are right. He is the darling of his family. You should see how his sisters dote on him.”
“Have they all arrived for the wedding?”
“Mostly, yet I am anxious to get to Thornleigh first.”
“To prepare for the invasion.”
“Exactly so.” Grinning, Ellen asked what I thought of the new painting of Charlotte on the wall. “Teddy commissioned Rudolf Heinemann to do it. See how she’s smiling? That’s her smile for Daddy. He so adores her. He always wanted more children but he never thought it would happen.”
“Nor did you,” I gently reminded with a laugh. “I remember your horrified letter in which you confessed to me your mortal sin.”
“It was a good thing I kept it hidden from Mama,” Ellen reflected. “News of the pregnancy would have killed her. Scandal of the century.”
I laughed. “Well, for a time.”
“One would have thought after the war people would be more accepting and forgiving. But some things they never forget. They hold onto it and it festers until it becomes poison … that’s why I dread if…”
“Nothing will happen. Years have passed since then.”
“Dear, wise Daphne! I am so relieved you are here. Adding the crystals to the dresses was a great idea.”
“You’ll be a radiant bride, the most radiant of the season.”
A sudden pallor crept into her face. “Please don’t say such things. You know how I hate being the center of attention. I just want the wedding over and done with so we can begin our lives at Thornleigh.”
“But does Teddy agree? He has his business in America.”
“Yes, he does,” she sighed, “so we’ve reached a compromise. Half year there and half year here so Charlotte gets the best of both worlds.”
“You’re brave to take on the ‘Boston Brahmins’ again.” I smiled.
“It will be a challenge, but then my whole life has been a challenge. I suppose, in a way, I am used to it.”
“You’ll triumph, I am sure,” I proclaimed. “And I want to see many pictures of you in the paper defeating the Boston Brahmins. Agreed?”
“I’ll do my best.” Ellen laughed.
Copyright © 2011 by Joanna Challis