By the end of the year, Ombersley Court was uncommonly full. Sophie had left London as early as May, finding herself somewhat knocked up by the combination of unseasonally warm temperatures, her increasing state, and the excitements occasioned by twin sons, whose rowdiness when confined to the Berkeley Square house portended many interesting years to come. Charles had followed quickly on, citing a need to oversee the enclosure of the west field. None of the rest of the family dared challenge this flimsy excuse to his face, but there was much mirth after he left, for he had been fussing around Sophy since her second pregnancy had been confirmed by Dr Baillie: like a dove that found itself brooding over an ostrich egg, Selina said with some accuracy.
Theodore was next, down from Oxford at the end of Trinity term; and after the Henley regatta had finally brought the London season to an end Lady Ombersley arrived with the girls, Gertrude still overwhelmed by the balls they had attended and the dinner parties they had held. Yet she had carried off the thing admirably, Lady Ombersley confided in Sophy, for all that she was just seventeen and only the thought of Amabel still in waiting had spurred Dowager Lady Ombersley to bring Gertrude out so soon, before securing a match for Selina. Lady Ombersley had great hopes - there were a number of gentlemen who had been most solicitous, drawn by Gertrude's beauty. She had not sat down for a single dance! As for Cecilia, she went with Charlbury to his estates in Kent. Letters flew back and forth between the two houses for the rest of July. In early August she posted to say that she would soon join them; and by the middle of the month three cartloads of luggage had been sent in anticipation of her arrival. When she finally stepped out of her carriage, Charlbury solicitous at her elbow, Lady Ombersley exclaimed over her wan complexion and thin face. But after half an hour's conversation in the breakfast room, Cecilia sipping weak tea and nibbling dry toast while she whispered with Sophy and her mother, the news spread throughout the house. Not one but two babies could be expected in the family by spring. That night Charles and Charlbury consumed a startling amount of brandy as they reassured each other of their respective wives' prospects.
Charlbury had brought with him his sister Fanny, also fresh from her first season although she seemed to have weathered it less well than Gertrude. A shy girl and somewhat plain, she soon confided to Sophy that she had found the attention paid to her most disconcerting, prompted as it was by a general interest in her fortune. It was to be expected; and as an heiress there was no avoiding a number of seasons in the marriage market. But the fulsome compliments had grated on her: she expressed her gratitude for the superintendance of Cecilia and Selina, who had intervened to relieve her of the necessity of answering them whenever possible. All in all, she was most glad to be away from the endless rush of public engagements, spending her days quietly with Cecilia who was suffering badly from morning sickness, and who would hardly stir from her couch before noon.
Hubert arrived as soon as the partridges began to rise in September; and Sophy's first daughter Elizabeth followed him into the world in early October, as easily as a baby bird launching itself from the nest. "At least Charles' temper should improve," Selina observed, efficiently cleaning the new baby and giving her back to her mother with the practised hand of one who had helped with the twins from their birth. And indeed the atmosphere in the house was much lightened. Even Charlbury could be persuaded out into the fields to gallop after a fox or two, once a chill November had hardened the ground for the hunt. As if to compensate for the summer's swelter, snow came early that year, and by Advent the mud in the narrow country lanes had turned to ice, and a deep frost had set in. Travel, even to the county town, became a chore rather than a pleasure.
Which made it all the more remarkable when, a fortnight before Christmas, Sophy received from Sir Vincent Talgarth a letter with a request to visit, thinly disguised as congratulations on Elizabeth's christening.
"That roué!" Charles exclaimed, tossing the paper on the table. "I didn't even know he was in the country!"
"Cecilia told me he was in London in June," Sophy said, giving Elizabeth her finger to suck. "They met him out in company quite regularly. I think we must invite him, Charles. Poor man - he can't be left to spend Christmas on his own. It's only a year since Sancia died."
"I doubt his heart felt the pain as much as his wallet did," Charles caustically replied; but nevertheless the invitation was sent; and within the week Talgarth's coach was seen coming up the drive. It drew up beside Sophy who was out walking with Selina in the sharp morning air, and Talgarth sprang down from the box, sweeping off his hat and tucking it under his arm. "Juno!" he exclaimed, clasping her hand. "I see you haven't let Rivenhall lock you in purdah!"
"Only in the nursery, which is far worse," Sophy laughed as he kissed the back of her glove. "How brown you still are! Spain has toasted you into an acorn." Privately she thought him much thinner of face, noting the fine lines beside his eyes and the forced gaity with which he shook Selina's hand. His manner was as easy as ever, though, as he walked with them up the drive to the house, his groom whisking the coach off to the stables. "I hope you intend to ply me with suet puddings and mincemeats," he said, catching her concerned gaze. "Spanish food has left me lean and hungry. I don't have the stomach for that much olive oil, the way I did when I was marching with the Duke."
"We were all younger then," Sophy said ruefully, patting at the small mound Elizabeth had left at her belly.
"Pshaw! I have never seen you finer," he said, smiling. "Marriage agrees with you, Juno." But there was a wistfulness to his expression that tugged at her; and she saw it again when he greeted Cecilia, whose condition was now obvious, and emphatically wished her the best of health.
"I hadn't realised how much Sancia's death had affected him," she said to Selina once the ladies had withdrawn after dinner. She kept her voice low, unwilling to draw the attention of either Aunt Lizzie or Cecilia; for whom the topic could only cause concerns of a more personal nature, given that Sancia had died in childbirth three years into her marriage, her infant son following her a few days later. The Talgarths had long since been resident in Madrid at the time, one winter enough to change Sancia's mind on the suitability of settling in England; and Sophy, upset enough by the news, had not enquired of all the details in her letter of condolence. Less kind commentators had noted that Sancia's death left Talgarth free to pursue another fortune, and to work his way through the first at the gaming tables. But contrary to their expectations he had not returned to London that year, and the topic had quickly been superceded by other, spicier gossip.
"I don't think it is the Marquesa he is grieving for," Selina murmured back before they were interrupted by the return of the gentlemen, and a call to a game of charades which rapidly had the adults behaving with the dignity of Sophy's twins.
In seemingly no time at all Talgarth had settled into the cosy domesticity of Ombersley Court. He spent hours winding wool for Cecilia, turning the pages of Gertrude's music as she practised the piano, or romping with the twins in a manner that had Miss Adderbury convinced they would all soon break their necks sliding down bannisters, or racing along the galleries in the older wing of the house, chasing footballs blown up by the gardener from pigs' bladders. Talgarth was often to be found dandling Timothy on one knee and George on the other after one of these games, both boys blissfully asleep. Even Charles, after his first coolness, found he enjoyed the acquisition of a skillful backgammon player to enliven his evenings, especially since the notorious gamester professed himself happy to play for penny points. Soon Charles was as accustomed to Talgarth's presence as the ladies were charmed by it.
That was not true of Charlbury, however. So wrapped up had he been in Cecilia's welfare, carrying her cushions for her feet, bringing shawls to put over her shoulders in the slightest draughts, ferretting out small titbits from the kitchens whenever her appetite showed the slightest signs of reviving and generally behaving in a fashion that would have driven Sophy mad directly, that it took him some days to truly notice Talgarth's arrival. However, it slowly dawned on him that Talgarth was spending more time with his wife - and his sister - than he did out with the gentlemen on the hunt. It was not long before he trapped the lady of the house into conversation on the subject. "Sophy, what is that damned rake doing here?" he asked when he caught her alone in the library one afternoon. "It was bad enough that half the fortune seekers in London were hanging over Fanny the whole season. Do they really need to follow her into the country? He eats breakfast with her, recommends books for her to read - any minute now she will be totally besotted! And I can hardly call the man out in the circumstances!" He paced across the room and back, clearly agitated. "Do something! It's what you're good at!"
Sophy couldn't help but grin. "Are you actually giving me permission to scheme, Everard?"
"Yes!" He stopped to consider. "If it doesn't involve pistols and elopements, that is!"
"How can I amuse myself without an elopement at the very least?" she teased before she whisked herself away.
In the event, she began with a simpler approach, engaging Fanny in a tête-a-tête over the wrapping of Christmas bonbons for the children. Fanny, she discovered, was rather more level-headed than Everard had given his sister credit for. "Colonel Talgarth is quite the sweetest man," she declared when Sophy touched upon the subject. She twisted a handful of boiled sweets in brightly-coloured crepe paper and secured it with a ribbon. "Yet I cannot help but be conscious of his past reputation. Even if he were to profess an affection for me - which he certainly has not! - how should I know if his inner feelings matched his outward assurances? Any true connexion must begin with a confidence and trust that I think could never develop between us." Which smacked of an idealism that Sophy admired, but could not wholly believe was practical for someone in Fanny's circumstances. Her fortune must always play a part in a husband's considerations, unless she was to fall in love with someone as thoroughly impervious to worldly concerns as Augustus Fawnhope. For a man with no fortune must surely covet hers; a man with a lesser fortune could not help but resent his wife's superior standing; and a man with a greater fortune would most likely be snatched up by any number of girls whose attractions were more easily discovered than Fanny's.
Talgarth's behaviour gave not the least indication that he had set his mind on the unlikely seduction, for he paid her the same courtesies as he did Cecilia and no more. Yet that left the question still to be answered. Why exactly had Talgarth chosen to visit them? For as engaging as Sophy thought her family to be, she had no doubts that Talgarth's taste generally ran to more sophisticated amusements than showing a four year old how to tackle a ball, or playing parlour games in the evenings.
Deciding to bide her time, she watched him carefully over the next few days as he helped hang Christmas decorations and twine holly wreaths. At first she wondered about his intentions towards Gertrude, whose beauty had indeed fulfilled the earlier promise of matching her elder sister's. Sophy was not at all surprised that Gertrude had been in demand for the season: she was as sunny in temperament as her golden locks intimated, with none of Cecilia's inherent shyness; and if she did not have the most serious mind, nevertheless she could easily hold a conversation on the light and amusing topics deemed seemly for a young lady. Unlike Charlbury, Sophy thought that another fortune was not Talgarth's objective in a second marriage; he might well wish to avail himself of a lovely, charming wife. Watching him sit patiently behind a screen so that Gertrude might draw his profile upon it, she was almost convinced of her reasoning - until she saw him hide a yawn behind his hand.
Talgarth would never marry for pleasure a woman who bored him. Sophy instantly dismissed Gertrude from her appraisals.
When it came to Cecilia, though, Sophy found her suspicions slowly aroused. Talgarth made no effort to usurp Charlbury's position at Cecilia's side. But when Charlbury was elsewhere he was often to hand, with a gentle care that hid something deeper. Could it be that Talgarth had developed a tendre for the woman whose interest he was least likely to attain?
"I doubt it," Selina said coolly. Sophy had taken to discussing the matter with her, in light of the unwelcome reception the whole subject would have met with at Charles' door. "It appears to me he spends as much time with your boys, Sophy, as he does with Cecy. You might find the answer there." Since Selina had grown into an uncommonly perspicacious if somewhat close-mouthed young woman, Sophy was minded to give the idea some weight.
But all such trivial concerns were wiped from her consideration on the morning of Christmas Eve, with Dassett's dramatic arrival in the breakfast room. "It's young Timothy, my Lord!" he was crying. "He's fallen - they're bringing him in - " He pointed to the kitchen with a shaking hand.
Sophy and Charles rushed down the corridor together, to find the horrifying sight of Timothy carried in Talgarth's arms, the both of them white, shaking and with clothes soaking wet, while Nanny stood to one side incoherent with shock, George clinging to her hand. Blankets were found; hot water boiled; and presently man and boy had recovered some of their natural colour after being swathed outside in comforters and warmed inside by mulled cider toddies, the latter fortified in Talgarth's case with an extra-large swig of brandy. Nanny was handed over to Selina's capable hands, Selina cunningly taking the brandy bottle with her to the nursery to settle Nanny's nerves, while George curled into the crook of his father's arm and Timothy squirmed on his mother's lap, both boys now eager to recount the adventure. Between the twins' rambling and the rather more coherent interjections by Talgarth's groom, who had watched the whole thing from a vantage point by the stables, the tale was soon told.
It appeared that, during the twins' morning walk with Nanny along the path by the frozen duckpond, Timothy's eye had been caught by a brightly coloured object that stood out against the white ice. His mind on the possibility of paper-wrapped sweets, he had slipped his hand out of Nanny's grasp and set off to get it before she could even turn her head, the slippery surface of the pond no impediment to his nimble feet. He had already reached the centre when the ice, not yet fully frozen, started to crack beneath him.
But Nanny's cry had already fetched Talgarth, who had been coming along the path from a conversation with his groom in the stables. Before Timothy could fall Talgarth ploughed his way in, the ice breaking immediately under his weight so that he was pushing through it rather than skating over the surface. The pond was no more than four feet at its deepest point and the rescue was quickly effected, the only damage being a thorough dowsing in the icy water for them both.
The exclamations of the household staff who had unabashedly been listening in persuaded Sophy to whisk the boys away to her own rooms, there to deliver the quiet admonitions needed to quell their rising excitement over the morning's events. So it was left to Charles to escort Talgarth to his bedchamber - for he was still shivering long after Timothy had wholly recovered - and there to try and thank him for the service he had rendered them. "Nonsense," Talgarth said, stripping off the last of his wet clothes and easing himself into the sheets, his teeth still chattering slightly. "Anyone coming upon the situation would have done the same." But as Charles settled the counterpane over him, he murmured, "I wouldn't have you lose a son, Rivenhall. I hardly knew mine, yet the pain doesn't ease." Charles went to stoke the fire, too overwhelmed by his own emotions to reply; and by the time he had turned back Talgarth was asleep.
Their sons tucked safely in bed, and the midnight service attended in the family chapel with fuller hearts than was usual, Charles gave an edited version of the conversation to his wife as they cuddled in to sleep. "Selina said it was something of the kind!" Sophy exclaimed. "Oh, the poor man! No wonder he pays so much attention to Cecilia and the twins!"
But when Sophy in her turn told Selina over breakfast that her suppositions had been correct, Selina merely nodded and said, "That is half of it; but only half."
There was little chance amid the Christmas festivities to pursue the topic further, for there were presents to open and a huge meal to be eaten, in between visits from most of the local gentry who were not deterred from calling by a new smattering of snow. Although Talgarth came down for the eating of the pudding, he soon retired to his room with a head cold, leaving the twins most disappointed by his absence. By Boxing Day it was clear that a fever had set in; and while Charles and Sophy distributed presents to the house staff and then travelled the bounds of the estate to parcel out contributions of food and clothing, Selina took it in hand to see that he was made comfortable, cooling his forehead with lavender water and persuading him to sit up and drink weak tea. The fever broke as quickly as it had come; but somehow a pattern had been set, and for the rest of that week Talgarth convalesced on a couch in the library where a fire was lit religiously for him; and Selina and Cecilia kept him company while the others fulfilled the social obligations of the household at this most festive time of year.
By New Year's Eve he had recovered sufficiently to join in the dinner and dance: no more than twenty couples from the surrounding houses, but the evening enlivened by a Scottish piper whom Charles had hired from London and the playing of jigs and reels in the Caledonian tradition. There was laughter as the unfamiliar steps tripped up even the most accomplished dancers, and much cheering when, at midnight, a tall man with dark, curling hair stepped over the lintel, a bag of salt in his left hand and his face blackened with the coal he carried in his right. Charles greeted him with a small tumbler of whiskey; and there was a general movement to the supper board that sat groaning under the weight of black pudding, treacle tart, marzipan fingers and many other such delights. But Sophy saw Talgarth step back into the quiet of the library, and nod his head for her to follow.
"We've hardly had a word together recently, Juno," he said when she had closed the door behind her, "but I have a favour to beg of you."
"Anything," she said immediately. "You know we can never thank you enough for - "
"No," he said, swiftly breaking in. "There's no more to be said on that subject: Rivenhall has said it all for you, and I cherish you both for letting me be of service. I've come to love your boys quite thoroughly - my breathing stopped when I saw Timothy run out on the ice. But I need you to harden your heart now, Sophy, and give me the reply you would have a week ago to the question I'm about to ask." He drew in a deep breath and began again, more slowly. "You may have wondered why I came to visit."
"I've guessed some of it," she said gently. "But tell me the rest."
For a moment a look of anguished indecision passed over his features; and then he composed himself. "You will think me a great gaby," he said simply, "but I have fallen utterly in love with Selina, and I have not the slightest idea of what to do about it."
Sophy collapsed onto the couch. "Well, I didn't guess that!" she said, quite taken aback.
Talgarth gave a wry smile. "It's not often I get to surprise you, I suppose."
"But, Talgarth, when did this happen?"
"Oh, I kept stumbling across your sisters through the season," he said with contrived nonchalance. "I hadn't looked at a woman since Sancia - " He turned away for a moment. " - since Sancia died," he finished quietly. "And then suddenly I couldn't look at anyone else. Selina understands, you see. All my sophisticated poses, the flirting and the clever words: she sees right through them. What she must think of me." He shook his head. "An aging libertine with a sullied reputation as a gambler and a fortune hunter. Do I dare to ask for her hand, Sophy? Or will she put me completely out the house? For I don't think I could stand that disappointment after these last two years..."
Never had Sophy thought to see such a look of entreaty on Talgarth's face. "I could sound the waters for you," she said slowly, "but don't you have any concerns that she might agree to a betrothal for your fortune alone, Talgarth? After all, she's been out for four years and hasn't been offered for yet. And while Charles has done magnificently in repairing the family fortunes, there's no doubt that her mother would jump to marry her daughter to even half of Sancia's inheritance."
"There's rather more than half left; and no doubt the wags would say it would be justice well served for my own fortune hunting," he answered ruefully. "But she's not one to lie, Sophy: she would tell me outright if that were the reason for her acceptance." His voice was firm in its conviction. "Will you talk to her on my behalf? Or do you disapprove tremendously of the thought of me as a brother-in-law?"
Impetuously she leapt to her feet and kissed his cheek. "A better one I couldn't imagine," she said warmly, and watched with incredulity as a blush crept to his face. "Just leave it to me. I'll arrange everything."
And she even managed to preserve the secret from Charles, although she was dying to confide it in him; a resolution eased by the lateness of the hour when the last carriage finally rolled away. The breakfast room was empty when she rose the next morning, long before any but the servants were likely to stir. But it was a fortuitous surprise to find Selina alone in the morning room, bending over her embroidery. "Good morning," Sophy said, seating herself on the couch by the fire.
"Good morning," Selina replied, neatly tying off one thread and putting another through her needle. Desultorily they discussed the gossip from the party, while Selina's thread grew shorter and Sophy racked her brains on how to begin with the real matter of moment. "And how do you think Colonel Talgarth fared last night?" she finally asked. "I was glad to see him capable of dancing."
"He is indeed much recovered," Selina said, checking the pattern that lay on the sofa beside her.
Sophy ploughed on. "I am sure without your care he would not have rallied so quickly."
"Perhaps," Selina rejoined calmly, tucking the tail end of her thread under her last stitches.
"I hope you weren't too fagged looking after him," Sophy tried next. "At least he could not be as difficult a patient as Charles."
"He was most gracious," Selina agreed, putting the needlework away in the little bag by her side. "I must go and check on Mama now: she tires much more quickly after a party these days." She got up and went to the door; then turned.
"I can see you have guessed the other half of it," she said, with a secret little smile. "And you can tell him I said yes, Sophy. Indeed, the only question is why he took so long about it."
And then she was out the door; and Sophy was left, completely nonplussed, for the second time in two days. "What is the world coming to?" she murmured, before hurrying upstairs to wake Charles with the good news.
~ ~ ~ The End ~ ~ ~