Heaven in her Face - a Regency Romance by Nene Adams ©2003 - All rights reserved
Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori -
Honeymead village, England 1816
"Oh, Lord!" cried Emma Fullham, throwing herself full length upon the sofa cushions. "I am in love!"
Guy Fullham peered at his sister and sighed. "What, already? My dear Emma, we've been out of London and in the country for a fortnight. Surely none of the milk-cheeked maids hereabouts have caught your eye so quickly."
"You can be positively infuriating at times." Emma sat up, her face flushed, blue eyes bright. A tumble of blonde curls fell over her forehead; she pushed them back impatiently. "I tell you, I am in love for the first time in my life. How dare you make sport at such a beautiful sentiment!"
"Because you have been in love so often, I cannot take the subject seriously," Guy replied. "Let me see... have you forgotten Georgina Bartlett?"
"I was a child then."
"It was last year! You were moonstruck by the lovely Georgina, as I recall. Nearly suffocated the poor wench in letters reeking of eau-de-cologne. Before that, the Hon. Elizabeth Parker had the dubious pleasure of your affections. Then there was Ursula Threadgoode, Jane Barkley, Miss Caroline What's-Her-Name from Bath... shall I go on? The list may take some time to enumerate in full."
In response, Emma quoted a favorite poem:
"I did but look and love awhile,
Her brother made a rude noise. Emma picked up a cushion and threw it at his head. "Hateful beast!" She looked around for something else to throw, and her eye lit upon a vase sitting on the table next to her.
Guy dodged the cushion and clucked his tongue. "Temper, my dear," he said, plucking the vase from her hands. "Don't start banging crockery about because you don't care for the truth. When it comes to matters of the heart, you're neck or nothing and deuced fickle, to boot."
"Nonsense, I'm not fickle! I am very faithful..."
"To the light-o'-your-love of the moment," Guy interrupted. He put the vase back down on the table and gazed at his sister with a serious expression. "Frankly, Emma, I wouldn't give a tinker's damn except that I'm your closest surviving relative, and therefore somewhat responsible for you. This romantic nature of yours is going to get you into trouble. That it has not already, I put down to the same Providence that protects children and idiots."
"Oh, Guy!" Emma let out a peal of laughter, which only served to deepen her brother's frown.
"Mock me at your peril, dear girl." Guy sat down on a chair, stretching his legs out before the fireplace. "Love is not all a matter of moonlight and posies and sentimental poetry. I would wish all poets hanged for the trouble they've wrought! For once in your life, I beg you to be sensible before plunging headlong into another fleeting romance."
"I do not understand you at all." Emma rose and began pacing the room. "How can you be so cold? When I am in love, I cannot think. My feelings run too deep for sense or rational thought. Breathless, I am a-flame and a-flutter, unable to do naught else but be swept away. I am consumed by it, obsessed by it. How can true love be otherwise?"
"You speak of infatuation. Calf-love never lasts."
Emma turned on him in a swirl of white muslin. "Love without passion is nothing!"
"Passion that contains not a hint of reason is madness."
"Then I must be mad." Emma helped herself to a sweetmeat from a dish and glared at her brother.
Guy ran his hands through his hair and tried to calm himself. He could not argue with Emma. She was impulsive but obstinate by nature; the more one tried to push her in a direction, the more she dug in her heels and refused to budge. Yet he could not sit still and let her continue on this path. The blind pursuit of sensationalism and romantic ideals would lead Emma to grief if she was not taught a lesson. She was not stupid - in fact, she was an intelligent girl whom he felt had been deceived into believing that violent passions were a substitute for moderation and sense. A glimmer of an idea surfaced in his mind.
"Very well, my dear," Guy said. "Will you concede that your love spells tend to come and go rather quickly?"
"What do you mean?" Emma replied, her brows drawing together in a suspicious frown.
"It seems to me that such passion as you feel, while intense, does not last more than a week or two. Am I correct? You enjoy the pursuit, but once you have the lady in question, your interest fades and you begin to seek a new amour in other pastures."
Emma stared at Guy, who stared innocently back at her. At last, she said, "What mischief are you brewing now?"
"No mischief, but a wager."
"I know that you've long desired a pony phaeton of your own. God knows you'll probably break your neck when you overturn the cursed thing while speeding down a lane, but there it is." Guy leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees. "Here are the terms of my wager - if you demonstrate that you can remain faithfully in love with one person for a period of one month without turning your attention and affections elsewhere, the phaeton will be yours. Furthermore, I will never again attempt to interfere in your affairs or give advice, as you will have proved your point beyond doubt. Romance will have triumphed over reason, and I shall be named a heartless fool. Does this seem fair?"
Emma smiled. "It will be an expensive wager for you, Guy, as I cannot lose."
"Ah, yes. The inamorata you were telling me about earlier... may I know her name?"
"Miss Marianne Pye."
"And does Miss Pye look upon your suit with favor?"
"Naturally. I have an engagement with her this very afternoon to walk on the village green"
"Excellent." Guy sat back with a satisfied look. "Remain in love with Miss Pye for one month entire. Should the flame of passion be extinguished and you wish to disengage your affections for another, you will be the loser. If that is the case, you owe me your solemn vow to remain chaste as Diana for a full twelve months. No more poetry. French and Italian love songs will be strictly forbidden, as will romantic novels, posies and billet doux. You will remain sober at all times, contemplate serious matters, and not stir out of doors unless you can conduct yourself in a sensible fashion. Are we agreed?"
"We are agreed. You'll see, my doubting brother. Miss Pye is the most exquisite creature imaginable. Delicate as a trace of dew on the blushing petals of a rose. I worship the ground she walks on. My life depends upon her happiness." Emma's expression was beatific. "The fair Marianne will have my heart forever."
"I certainly hope so, dear girl." Guy reached for a bottle of wine and poured himself a glass. "I certainly hope so. Otherwise, I fear you're in for a very dull year."
Emma made a face at him and left the drawing room.
Miss Marianne Pye was eighteen, petite and extremely pretty, with big brown eyes, pouting lips and a china doll's face. She was pacing to and fro on the grass, a parasol on her shoulder to shield her complexion from the sun. As soon as she caught sight of Emma walking into the square, she let out a squeal and ran towards her. The many tiers of lace on her white high-waisted gown made Marianne resemble an animated wedding cake.
"Do you have it?" Marianne asked breathlessly, as soon as she reached Emma. "Oh, please... tell me you have it!"
"Would you like me to read it to you?" Emma replied, taking a folded piece of paper from her reticule.
"Please! Don't be so cruel! You know I've been waiting ages for you to copy it out." Marianne came closer, linking her arm through Emma's. The feather on her bonnet tickled the side of the other woman's face.
Emma smiled. "Close your eyes." When Marianne had obeyed, she began to declaim slowly, with great emotion,
"When as I wish, fair LICIA, for a kiss
"Ah," Marianne sighed, apparently thrilled to the core. Her eyes popped open and she stared soulfully at Emma. "It is Shakespeare? Cowper? Scott?"
"I've never heard of him, but you read the lines with such passion, it fairly makes me tremble." Marianne giggled and began walking, tugging Emma along with her. "I might swoon, as I did when you recited the divine Byron."
"I'll bring more sonnets. Tomorrow, if you like."
"I don't know. My mother needs me tomorrow at the house. She says I've been neglecting my needlework, which I find a tiresome business. I would much rather read aloud, but Mother doesn't care for novels, and I cannot bear Fordyce's Sermons."
Emma was taken aback. "Mrs. Pye does not read novels?"
"No, no... she says they are immoral. I've had to hide mine under a floorboard in the pantry, and dare not read them in the house at all. If it weren't for your kindness, dear Emma, I would surely be undone."
"Dearest, you know that I can refuse you nothing, because I love you so."
"I love you, too. You cannot know how much! Without the comfort of your friendship this past sennight, I do not know what might have become of me," Marianne simpered.
Emma's mouth went dry. The fairest flower of them all says that she loves me! Just then, her shawl slipped from her shoulder; she paused a moment to adjust it, and nearly fell over when Marianne suddenly released her.
"Oh! Let us walk the other way, quickly!" Marianne cried, so agitated that she dropped her parasol.
Emma did not understand what was causing the girl's alarm. "What is it? Are you unwell?"
"No, you goose! Hurry! Hurry! Oh, Lord, she's seen us," Marianne groaned. "You should have helped me escape while we had the chance."
Emma glanced around, wondering what terrible character had put her dear Marianne into such a state. Coming towards them was a tall woman; as she drew closer, Emma sucked in a breath, astonished. The stranger was a veritable Amazon! She had a quiver of arrows slung over the shoulder of her yellow gown, a bow in her hand, and a leather bracer strapped to her forearm. Her dark hair was drawn back and tucked under a bonnet, which only served to emphasize her Grecian profile, complete with broad forehead and a proud eagle's beak of a nose.
"Marianne," the stranger said, nodding her head. "Will you introduce me to your friend?"
Marianne rolled her eyes. With ill grace, she said, "Penelope, may I present Miss Fullham, who has taken Stafford House with her brother, Mr. Guy Fullham. Emma, this is my eldest sister, Miss Pye."
"I am very pleased to meet you, Miss Fullham," Penelope said, giving a little curtsey.
Emma returned the curtsey, but could not stop herself from staring at the bow and arrows.
Marianne noticed the look and said pertly, "Not only is Penelope a bluestocking, but she's fond of archery, too. And Greek, and Latin, and all sorts of terribly boring things, which is why our mother says she's unlikely to have any marriage prospects. It's just as well. No gentleman in the full possession of his senses would want to take a gawky great cow to wife."
Despite her belief about the free expression of one's feelings, Emma found this rudeness shocking. She was both ashamed and fearful on Marianne's behalf, and regarded Penelope anxiously, as one might while waiting for a seething volcano to explode. Surely a woman of such formidable profile, such broad shoulders and healthy figure, accoutered with deadly arms, would take steps to redress the insult!
Instead of striking Marianne down where she stood, Penelope merely reached out and patted Marianne's cheek, as if she was jollying a sulky child. "Someday," she said with a twinkle in her dark eyes, "you will learn that there is a difference between honest candor and ill manners. Good day to you, Miss Fullham." She turned and walked away, headed for the ladies archery range.
Marianne sniffed and tossed her head, making the feathers in her bonnet dance. "Penelope is horrid. Simply horrid! She might as well put on a spinster's cap and be done with it. Do you know, she was once asked to dance by Lord Rushworth's eldest son at a neighborhood assembly and she refused him? He was all politeness and affability, too! She would rather read a fusty old book or play whist than dance. Can you imagine? Lord! She is the most tiresome creature. One would hardly think we were related at all."
Emma watched Penelope's retreating back, then shook her head and turned her attention back to her friend. "Why did you not tell me that you had a sister?"
"Because she has recently been in London with our aunt and uncle Bertram. She was meant to stay there another month entire, except something occurred which brought her home again."
"What was it?"
Marianne put on a pout and began walking again. "I do not know. Our father had a letter from Mr. Bertram, but I haven't seen it. If it were anyone but Penelope, one might suspect that her trouble had to do with a young man." She rolled her eyes and giggled.
"Oh, Marianne! How wicked!"
"I told you, my sister is too serious minded for larks of that nature. No, she was probably so tedious, our aunt and uncle could not bear it any longer. Penelope is always trying to ruin my fun. I see no reason why she should not continue her horrid behavior whilst away. She takes pleasure in few things and resents my happiness and gaiety, for she complains to our father and mother that I'm allowed too many liberties. It was through her influence that the Bertrams did not invite me to visit London, which I found most unfair. I had just as much right to go there as she did!"
"Poor girl. There are many diversions to be had in London."
"If I should ever go to London, I shall definitely desire a turn along Lover's Walk in Vauxhall." Marianne gave Emma a sidelong glance. "How wonderful it would be!"
"Vauxhall is beautiful, but the food is dreadfully expensive, and the cold meat is cut so thinly, one could almost cover the entire garden with slices from a single ham!"
Marianne laughed. "Have you ever seen a duel in Hyde Park? Pistols at dawn... the crack of bullets... a red stain blooming on white linen. I feel quite faint thinking about it."
"No, I have never witnessed a duel."
"That is a shame, for I believe that there can be no more beautiful or noble thing than to die for love."
Emma pressed closer. "I would die for you, dearest."
Marianne responded by kissing her cheek. "And I for you."
The simple caress made Emma's head spin. She wanted to place her mouth against those sweet lips, bury her face in Marianne's neck and inhale the fragrance of lavender water and powder. Emma was about to suggest they go elsewhere when a voice interrupted their interlude. It was Penelope.
"Marianne! Our mother requires you urgently at home."
"What is it?" Marianne asked crossly, pushing Emma away.
"Mother received an express about a half-hour ago. The letter says that our aunt Talbot's son has taken very ill." Penelope walked up to her sister, and glanced at Emma. "Please excuse me, Miss Fullham. Marianne is to accompany our mother to Wynbourne at once."
"Why can't you go?" Marianne stomped her foot. "Sir George Benwick is giving a ball on Tuesday next, and I did so want to attend. Mother promised me a new gown and said I should wear her pearl necklace."
Penelope leaned down and took her sister by the arm. "You will not be a selfish beast at a time like this," she said softly but firmly. "Our cousin has a putrid fever, and there are four other children in the house. You've had the fever and I have not. So you go home, Marianne, and pack your trunk, and cease your childish complaints. You and Mother are to catch the post coach for Wynbourne as soon as it may be accomplished. I trust we have come to a right understanding on the matter?"
"Yes," Marianne said, a sullen expression on her china doll face. "It isn't fair! Why should my cousin's trifling little fever spoil my plans? Mother should go alone, but not before she finishes my dress. I'm sure they'll survive until then."
Penelope gave her a little shake. "Mother needs your help, God save the poor woman, as does our aunt. Now behave yourself and do as you're told, or I vow that you'll not get a moment's peace from me."
Marianne wrenched herself from her older sister's grasp. "Very well! You needn't be so vile. I'm going home, but I wish you would go to Wynbourne and to the Devil, too!" Without glancing at Emma or even saying her good-byes, she flounced away.
Emma was at a loss, embarrassed by witnessing the private argument.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Fullham," Penelope said. "Family rows are never pleasant."
"No, I should have made my excuses and not become involved in such a personal business," Emma said, ill-at-ease.
Penelope shook her head. "Marianne has been spoiled and petted and pampered all her life by our father, who dotes upon her too well. Mother tried her best but my sister's disposition was ruined at a young age."
This insult upon her beloved made Emma say hotly, "How can you say that about Marianne? I have always found her a most amiable and sweet natured girl."
"Ah, but you have not had the experience of eighteen years to guide your judgment." Penelope gestured with the bow she held in her hand. "Shall we sit down, Miss Fullham? Unless you have pressing matters to attend, of course."
"I had planned to spend the afternoon with Marianne."
"Since that is no longer possible, may I presume upon the pleasure of your company for a little while?" Penelope walked to a nearby bench and sat, shrugging off the quiver of arrows. She leaned the leather case and her bow against the seat.
Emma joined her reluctantly. They sat together for several minutes without speaking before Penelope said at last, "I understand that you are from London."
"Yes, my brother Guy has taken Stafford House. We have no plans to return to London at present."
"And how do you find our country society, Miss Fullham?"
"Very pleasant. We have been invited to all the neighborhood assemblies and balls."
Again, there was an awkward silence. Penelope heaved a sigh and said, "I suppose you know that Marianne is engaged to be married?"
The news burst upon Emma like a cannon shell. She jumped up, shocked and dismayed to the core, but half-convinced that she had misunderstood the other woman. "What? It's impossible!"
"I fear that it is so, Miss Fullham. Marianne has been engaged these past four months to Henry Musgrove, a very respectable widower who has six thousand a year and an estate in Oxfordshire. They are to be wed this summer. He will make her a very good husband, I think. Sir Henry is a kind man, old enough to be patient with a silly young girl and indulge most of her whims. It is a good match."
"I cannot believe it," Emma whispered through stiffened lips. She felt as if she had been stabbed through the heart. It was difficult to breathe; a stone was pressing against her chest, heavier and heavier until she thought her ribs would crack. The blood drained from her face. She stumbled and would have fallen, if Penelope had not caught her around the waist.
"Here, sit down, Miss Fullham," Penelope said, pushing her onto the bench.
Emma was devastated. She began to weep helplessly, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. Her world was in ruins. The pain was so great, she hoped that she would die on the spot. Penelope kept an arm around her shoulders. "You must not carry on so, Miss Fullham. Did you think that you and Marianne could run away and live together? Surely you have not known each other long enough to make promises. Your brother has only had Stafford House for a fortnight."
"I... I loved her," Emma said between sobs. A handkerchief was placed in her hand; she pressed it against her face.
"Believe me, I am not unsympathetic to the affection you bear for my sister, but she is to be married. It is all arranged."
Emma jerked herself away from Penelope. "Marianne told me you were horrid," she said, desperate for an explanation that made sense. "Do not think you can deceive me, Miss Pye. It is some plot, I know it. Marianne would never willingly wed anyone without taking me into her confidence. She loves me. Does she even know about this so-called engagement?"
"The marriage was arranged with Marianne's full consent." Penelope clasped her hands together in her lap and gazed at Emma. "Did you know that last year, my sister eloped with a calvary officer she met while his regiment was stationed in the village? The officer was no gentleman; they did not go to Gretna Green but to Bath, where they lived together as man and wife without benefit of the clergy for several weeks before they were discovered. Thank God that Marianne did not get a child from the misadventure. It cost our father a pretty penny to have the matter hushed up and thus preserve her reputation, otherwise our family would have been ruined."
Emma's mouth opened and closed a few times. She swallowed and said, "I refuse to believe it."
"Did Marianne tell you that she was engaged? I know she did not. She can keep secrets when she chooses." Penelope's expression showed nothing except concern and compassion. "I don't wish to offend your sensibilities, Miss Fullham, however I must tell you that my sister is no innocent, no matter how well she plays the part. She is selfish, sly and manipulative. One dislikes speaking ill of one's own relation but I felt you had the right to know. If you believe my interference is unkindly meant, then I urge you to speak to Mrs. Gray, the village midwife. She knows the truth of the matter. Our mother consulted her when it was believed that Marianne might be with child."
Emma thought she might vomit. She remembered the kisses she had given Marianne, who had lain in her arms and accepted them with little sighs and moans. Hesitant caresses through a thin muslin gown, whispered endearments in the dark. Their mutual passion had never been fulfilled, for Emma herself had been loathe to go too far lest she frighten the supposed maid.
While Penelope sat beside her, Emma went through as many moments as she could remember spending with Marianne. She had first been attracted to the pretty, vivacious girl at a card party; they had established an immediate rapport, idolizing the same poets, writers and artists. She could see now that Marianne had always let her lead the way, never expressing her own opinion without first ascertaining Emma's thoughts on the subject. Marianne had flattered and charmed and cajoled until Emma was thoroughly besotted.
She recalled how Marianne would denigrate other girls in their social circle; at the time, she had considered the remarks witty, but now realized that they were mean-spirited and petty. The contempt with which Marianne treated her sister was very telling, as was her reaction to the trip to Wynbourne. These incidents spoke volumes about her friend's true character. There were other things, too, that should have alerted her, but Emma had been blinded by love.
No, by the idea of love, Emma thought. Guy is right. I felt nothing more than infatuation for a pretty face and false charm. I have been stupid and acted without common sense of any kind. Have I been deceived in every love that I've ever felt? Could I have been such a fool? She felt shamed and angry, both at herself and the girl who had betrayed her. Her head was aching, as was her heart.
She had gotten into the habit of intensifying her emotions to a fever pitch, coaxing embers into raging flames. Music could send her into transports of rapture or tears. A well-turned poetic phrase gave her the vapors. Whether she loved or hated, she did so with every fiber of her being. Emma had reached for the familiar grande passion that had always carried her to dizzying heights, and made the unpleasant discovery that it could also scorch her to the soul and leave her feeling empty of everything save ashes and bitter regrets.
Penelope cleared her throat and said, "I wish you would come to the house with me, Miss Fullham. You've had quite a shock and your color is not as it should be. A glass of wine will do you good. Marianne and our mother should have gone by now."
Emma recollected herself with an effort. Surely nothing could be more painful than visiting a house where the very atmosphere was permeated with Marianne's invisible presence. She had exposed herself enough to pain and humiliation. At that moment, she decided that she would never fall in love again. Never!
"Thank you for the loan of your handkerchief," Emma said, returning the object to its owner, "and thank you for the invitation. However, I must decline."
"There may even be a few olives left in the cupboard, along with a Portuguese ham that I brought back from London." Penelope stood up and ventured a smile. The expression lightened the severity of her features. "It is well known that the surest cure for heartache is a good meal and good company. Can I not tempt you?"
"I thank you, but no." Emma rose with as much dignity as she could muster, considering the circumstances. "There is no need for concern, Miss Pye. I shall find my own way home."
She was proud that her footsteps did not falter until well after she was out of Penelope's sight.
"So, Miss Marianne Pye has gone to Wynbourne, eh?" Guy said at supper a few days later. "I had the news from her father, who has lately returned from business up north. Why did you not tell me that your inamorata had flown away? I assume this is why you have been sulking around the house instead of playing the suitor."
Emma put down her fork and knife. This was a moment which she had been dreading. After much consideration, she had decided that as long as Marianne remained away, she would pretend as if everything was as it should be. Emma had been humiliated enough without the added burden of her brother's triumph. She would confess and let him say, "I told you so," but only after her pain had dulled.
"Of course I am saddened by separation from my lover," Emma told him, putting on a suitably mournful expression. "My misery is a torment that haunts my every waking hour."
"Well, so long as you do not sit in the music room playing those disgustingly sentimental tunes, you may pine to your heart's content. If you must weep, though, I beg you will do it quietly in your own room. Do not alarm the servants by having blue devil fits in the garden at midnight." Guy helped himself to more boiled chicken with celery sauce.
"Have you no consideration for my melancholy?"
Guy swallowed and said cheerfully, "None whatsoever. What you need, dear sister, is an occupation which will distract you from wallowing in romantic misery. May I suggest the Honeymead Ladies' Toxophilite Society as a suitable venture?"
Emma, who had taken a forkful of chicken, nearly choked on it. Guy helpfully pounded her back until she caught her breath. "Toxophil---what?"
"Archery! The Society meets every Wednesday on the village green. I understand from Mr. Pye that his eldest daughter is a member. You will be able to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Ingratiate yourself with the family before your inamorata returns, and distract yourself by learning a new skill. Dr. Delford assures me that archery is a perfectly suitable exercise for young ladies, most beneficial to the health."
"Indeed." Emma took a gulp of wine to steady herself. That Guy should suggest... dear God! It was almost beyond belief. The last thing she wanted was to see Penelope. No matter how kind the woman had been, the sight of her would only serve to remind Emma of Marianne. Her wounds bled afresh merely considering the idea. However, Guy might grow suspicious if she refused.
As she considered her options, she realized something else. If Marianne came home and found her in a state of utter desolation, wasted away to a shadow, would that not put triumph in her corner? It was bad enough that she had been cut to the quick by Marianne's treachery. Why should her betrayer have further opportunities for smug satisfaction? If Emma did take care to present herself as healthy and carefree as possible, Marianne would never know how much she had been hurt.
"You are right, Guy," she said after a pause. "Perhaps it would be best for me to take up an occupation. Fresh air, sunshine, exercise... yes, I think a little archery may do me good."
"It will do wonders for your complexion," her brother said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. "Put roses in your cheeks. You should be as pale and wan as curdled cheese if you stayed in the house moping and composing tragic sonnets all day." His blue eyes twinkled. "I understand from Mr. Pye that you may call upon his eldest daughter tomorrow at three o'clock, if that is convenient."
Emma finished her wine in a single long swallow, hoping it would give her the courage to face the ordeal to come.
The Pye family's home, called The Pynery, was about a mile away from Honeymead village. The distance was easily traversed on foot, although the country lane was narrow and filthy from recent rains. Emma had prudently donned an old flannel petticoat and stout walking shoes, for while the day was warm, there were still mud puddles and dirt to be reckoned with. Her straw bonnet was new, however, and it caused her no end of consternation when the silken ornaments became entangled in a low-hanging tree limb.
"Oh!" Emma exclaimed, the knotted ribbon beneath her chin drawn chokingly tight. She thrashed about in a brief panic, thinking of footpads and gypsies and all manner of persons who lurked (at least in novels) in gloomy woods, their main purpose to abduct young ladies and carry them off to a fate worse than death. Reaching her hand back, Emma discovered that her attacker was, in fact, a tree. An attempt to twist around proved impossible. She tried to loosen the ribbon that held her bonnet on, only to discover that the pretty bow had turned into a knot which might require the Gordian solution.
Again, she tried to turn around, only to have her feet shoot out from under her as she slipped in the mud. Down she tumbled, the branch snapping, and landed flat on her back in a puddle. The breath was quite knocked out of her. Emma lay there in a daze, her muslin gown and flannel petticoat quickly soaking up dirty water.
"Good Lord, Miss Fullham, are you injured?" said a familiar voice from nearby.
Emma opened her eyes and beheld Penelope Pye, looming over her like a giantess. At least, Emma thought, she is not laughing at me. That I could not endure. "I do not think so," she replied, her voice sounding very thin and weak to her ears. "But my bonnet... the tree..." To her horror, tears welled up in her eyes, and a sob caught in her throat.
"I see the difficulty." Penelope squatted down, heedless of the mud that now stained her skirts. "Have you any pain?"
"Not as such," Emma said. Her skin felt chilled all over; she was soaked through and beginning to shiver. Very little sunlight penetrated the thick canopy that surrounded the lane. Here in the shade, on the wet ground, the temperature seemed more appropriate to autumn than summer.
Penelope removed what was left of the bonnet from Emma's head and slid an arm under her shoulders. "It is only a quarter-mile further to the house. We must get you on your feet and see if you are able to walk."
More swiftly and easily than she could have imagined, Emma was standing upright and clinging to the taller woman. Despite her embarrassment, she was amazed by this show of strength. She could feel Penelope's smooth muscles beneath her hands, see the pulse that throbbed in her throat. Smell the rosemary scent of her hair. Emma blushed, hoping that Penelope would attribute the heat in her cheeks to shame rather than impulsive desire. She wished her treacherous body would be obedient to the vow that she had taken. I will not fall in love, she told herself firmly, especially with Marianne's sister!
"Are you able to walk, Miss Fullham?" Penelope asked.
Flustered, Emma released Penelope and took a step, only to cry out at a surge of pain in her lower back. Glancing down, she realized that a tree root had been submerged in the puddle; it had struck her when she fell. She already felt stiffer than she had after her first pony ride. The bruising must be considerable and would only get worse.
Penelope's dark brows drew into a frown. "What is it? Your ankle?"
"No, my..." Emma hesitated, unable to voice such an indelicacy to one who was a virtual stranger. She took another tentative step and nearly fell.
Penelope caught her. "I am not a surgeon, but I am no stranger to the sickroom, either. Whatever the problem, I do wish you would confide in me. I should not like to make an injury worse by ignorance."
Emma hung grimly to Penelope's upper arms. The pain in her buttocks and lower back was throbbing worse than a toothache. She looked up into the woman's face and beheld only concern. "It is a bruise, nothing more. On my... the intimate regions, if you comprehend my meaning." She glanced again at the root, which was now sticking out of the puddle.
Penelope followed her gaze. "I see. Well, I have something at the house that will help." At Emma's protests, she continued in a no-nonsense tone, "Miss Fullham, neither one of us is a stranger to other women's bodies. As the injury is not mortal, you will allow me to treat it. I shall hear no objections." With that pronouncement, she scooped Emma into her arms and set off for the house.
Emma threw her arms around Penelope's neck, startled by the suddenness of being lifted and held. After a few minutes, she relaxed. It was as they came into view of the house that certain words that Penelope had spoken finally registered in her consciousness. Neither one of us is a stranger to other women's bodies. Emma felt her cheeks burning anew. That simple phrase could mean nothing, or it could mean everything. Females who shared a household often assisted one another with bathing or dress-making or treating illnesses. It was common for sisters to share a bed if there were not enough suitable chambers in the house. She supposed that was what Penelope meant, but she could not stop thinking about other implications.
The Pynery was a modest place which had once had a large greenhouse attached to it for the growing of pineapples. The greenhouse had fallen into some disrepair, but the house itself and the rest of the grounds seemed well tended. Penelope carried Emma through the front door, took her straight to the still-room that overlooked the back garden, and stood her next to an old oaken table.
"I would offer a seat," Penelope said, removing her bonnet, "but I fear it would bring you more discomfort. After we are finished here, I will give you some wine in the drawing room and provide a soft cushion for you to sit upon."
Emma placed her hands on the table. Her gloves were filthy and she stripped them off, unwilling even to contemplate what the rest of her must look like. A mud soaked horror, she thought. Why, oh why, did this stupid mishap have to occur today?
To distract herself from worries about her appearance, she glanced around the room. The walls had been freshly whitewashed; the wooden floor was spotless. Racks suspended from the ceiling held bunches of drying herbs and flowers. She recognized lavender, rosemary and sage, but Emma was not a very keen gardener. Shelves held pots whose contents were a mystery. In a few moments, Penelope returned to her side, bearing a small pottery jar.
"If you would be so kind as to lift your gown," Penelope said, "and expose the site of the injury."
There was not a hint of impropriety in her tone or expression. She sounded like a professional, and Emma had no doubt that she would act like one. Accordingly, Emma bit her lip and hauled her drenched skirts and petticoat up to her waist. A blast of heat from the fireplace began to thaw her frozen skin. It felt so good that Emma nearly moaned. She did let out a squeak when Penelope began smearing her bruises with liniment.
"I make it with an extract of arnica, which I grow myself," Penelope said, causing Emma to grasp the edge of the table as warm breath puffed across her buttocks and thighs. "The receipt includes lavender, comfrey, yarrow root and calendula."
"I see." Emma's knees felt distinctly unsteady. The liniment was cool at first, but heated up quickly under Penelope's gentle massage. That is not the only thing which is growing hotter, she thought. With an effort, she said steadily, "I have no practical knowledge of medicines."
"I should think not, coming from London which has apothecaries on every corner. Here in the country, we must often do for ourselves." Penelope rubbed in a quantity of liniment, taking care not to hurt Emma any more than necessary. "It is a good thing that I went out to meet you in the wood, otherwise you might have been there a while longer and caught your death of cold."
Unbidden, Emma's thoughts began to turn upon Penelope and how close she was, how intimate those touches were, and how much more intimate they could become. Neither one of us is a stranger to other women's bodies. Oh, God! If only she would...
But the fantasy went unvoiced inside her head when Penelope said briskly, "I think that will suffice. Do lower your gown, Miss Fullham."
Emma let her skirts drop and spun around, knowing her face was crimson but unable to stop the rush of blood. Penelope did not remark upon her color but assisted her to the drawing room with every courtesy. Once there, with a shawl around her shoulders and a plump cushion to shield her bruises, Emma felt herself calming.
Penelope gave her a glass of clear liquid that smelled like almonds. "Ratafia d'Angelique," she said, sitting down in a chair. "Made of angelica roots and seeds with crushed peach kernels."
"Do you brew it yourself?" Emma asked, taking a sip. The liquor was sweet but deceptively powerful, burning its way down her throat.
"Yes. Angelica is an excellent tonic for soothing the nerves." Before Emma could respond, Penelope rose to her feet. "Please forgive me, Miss Fullham. I must leave you for a few moments to find a servant. You cannot possibly walk home and my father has the horses at the farm today. I shall send a note to your brother, relating your accident and asking him to send a carriage to collect you. Does this meet with your approval?"
"Of course. You've been too kind already."
"Nonsense." A beam of late afternoon sunlight came through the window, illuminating Penelope's strong profile. "It is the least that I can do." She exited the room, leaving Emma alone.
Emma sighed, drank the rest of the liquor, then rose somewhat stiffly. The room was fairly large and faced south, with an excellent prospect of the garden. Beneath the window was a small table which held a number of glass bottles. She examined the labels with no real interest, expecting the usual port or Madeira. Instead, she found herself intrigued by exotic names such as Elephant's Milk, Frontignac and L'Huile de Venus. She pulled the stopper out of a bottle marked Parfait Amour and sniffed. There was a nearly overpowering fragrance of roses. Emma poured a little into her glass and tasted it, wondering if this was indeed intended as a beverage or if it was perfume. The stuff certainly tasted like rosewater, except for the strong alcoholic kick.
In quick succession, she tried Elephant's Milk (which reminded her too much of medicine), Tincture Japonica (a bitter but spicy brew), and Frontignac (which tasted of gooseberries). Eau Divine was nice; she savored the lingering aftertaste of lemons and oranges. L'Huile de Venus had almost no flavor at all except for an odd suggestion of carrots. Emma was especially disappointed in the last; the name 'Oil of Venus' had been so evocative, she had imagined someone like Lord Byron sipping it while composing verse in his Oriental cap and slippers.
Someone cleared their throat behind her, and Emma nearly dropped the glass.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Fullham," Penelope said, coming to the window. "I have dispatched a servant and hope to hear from your brother before the afternoon is entirely gone. In the meantime, if you think you can manage the stairs, I have hot water and a change of dress waiting."
"Thank you," Emma said, putting the glass down quickly. She hoped that her breath did not reek of the various liquors she had sampled. "I believe I can negotiate the stairs."
"Mr. Pye is at the farm today. As you know, my sister and mother are in Wynbourne, so we are mostly alone in the house. You need have no fear of being disturbed." Penelope crooked her arm in obvious invitation. "Shall we go?"
Emma was glad of the support as they made their way upstairs. The liniment had done its work; she felt a little easier in her movements, but only time would heal the bruises. Penelope led her to a bedroom, which was simply but elegantly furnished. A basin of hot water was steaming on the dresser, with folded lengths of clean linen beside it and a new cake of soap.
A dress lay across the bed. Penelope remarked, "It is one of Marianne's, I fear. Mine would never fit. You would be swallowed by the length, and my shoulders are much broader. I hope..." For the first time, she hesitated, but the pause was brief. "I hope this will not cause you further distress, Miss Fullham. I would have gladly given you something of my mother's, but she is a stout lady, and Marianne's was the best choice."
Emma glanced up at her. "It is true, I would rather not have further reminders of Marianne. But I'm grateful for your consideration." She ventured a smile and said with the tiniest waver in her voice, "Do I look very horrid?"
"You look like a pretty young woman who has had an unpleasant encounter with a mud puddle," Penelope replied, returning the smile. "Shall I leave you to it? If you are hungry afterwards, I can make a cold supper."
"I did not think to have an appetite," Emma said, "but I do feel peckish."
"Good. I will come back for you in a half-hour." Penelope exited the room, closing the door behind her.
The first thing Emma did was examine herself in the mirror. She gasped at her reflection. Her curls were limp and muddy; the rest of her hair had come unpinned and gotten its share of the dirt. Her face was a mess, too, splattered with liquid filth. Emma could scarcely believe that Penelope had carried her to the house. She would not have wanted to touch such an apparition.
She removed her shoes, dress, chemisette and petticoat, bundling them together and laying them on a chair, retaining only her stays. Her white silk stockings were ruined; she clicked her tongue in annoyance, for she had paid three shillings for the pair in London. Emma untied the garters that held the stockings below her knees and pulled the sopping things off, adding these to the pile of discarded clothing.
She could not wash her hair, so she settled for combing out as much of the dried mud as she could. Hot water and soap were put to good use for cleansing her face, neck and hands. After she had washed and dried, Emma turned to the bed and Marianne's dress.
It was simple frock, high-waisted with a scooped neck. The indigo-dyed Indian cotton would not have suited Marianne's dark coloring; she looked her best in Turkey reds, bronzes and greens. Emma did not see a chemisette, but there was a lace fichu to tuck into the bodice for daytime modesty. She put on the dress, relieved that it did not smell of Marianne at all. She could detect only laurel leaves, lavender and a hint of camphor, and decided that it must have been stored away.
The dress did not fit her very well; it was too short by a few inches, loose in the waist and sleeves, and the bodice hung dangerously low. At least it is warm and dry and clean, Emma thought, gazing at herself in the mirror. I need only wear this for a little while, until I am home again She arranged the fichu to conceal her décolleté and drew on the pair of stockings provided. They were badly knitted and lumpy; Emma wondered if Marianne had made them herself. She also donned some slippers, which were more comfortable.
There was a knock at the door. "Miss Fullham? Have you finished?"
"Yes, Miss Pye," Emma said.
Penelope entered the room. "I trust you have found everything to your satisfaction?"
"It will do wonderfully, and I thank you again for your kindness."
"Miss Fullham, there is no need for repeated gratitude. We are neighbors; I hope we may someday be friends."
Emma paused before replying, "My recollections of Marianne are, at present, very painful to me."
"I know." Penelope came closer, until her skirts brushed Emma's. "I am willing to do whatever I can to help mend your spirits, Miss Fullham."
Once more, Emma felt a swelling of desire. Kiss me! she demanded silently. Kiss me! Part of her was horrified that she should feel such an attachment to one who was not only a stranger, but allied by blood to a treacherous lover. Her body, however, was already inclining towards the taller woman. She felt her breath catch in her throat. Emma raised her eyes. Penelope's expression was guarded, but was there a glimmer of something indescribable yet thrilling in that dark gaze?
Their gazes locked; tension hummed between them, a tightly drawn thread that was broken when Penelope let out a strangled cough and looked away. "There is cold veal pie for supper, and apricots from our orchard," she said with only a trace of strain in her voice. "Will you come down and dine? We could discuss archery, if you like. Your brother believes that you might find the exercise beneficial, or so my father has informed me."
"Oh! Of course." A little flustered, Emma followed her out of the bedroom and down the staircase. She did not know how to interpret Penelope's reaction. Had she offended her by being too obvious? There had been a moment - a heartbeat only - when she had thought that Penelope might kiss her after all. It was very confusing. Her own feelings were also confused. She had sworn never to fall in love again, yet here she was acting like a short-heeled wench when Penelope offered her only simple courtesies! The attraction was unmistakable, yet...
If I had any sense, Emma admonished herself, I should be very ashamed. Miss Pye has done nothing more than rescue me from a mud puddle, smear me with liniment, and see to my comfort in a neighborly fashion. There is nothing romantic about bruises, mud or liniment. What is the matter with me?
Her problem was compounded by the fact that Penelope was different. Far from trumpeting her feelings for the world to hear, she presented a cool facade that was difficult to crack. Emma was not used to restraint. At one time, she would have thought Penelope was the coldest creature on earth. Now she found herself remembering how the other woman's arms had felt around her body, cradling her tightly. The strength of her! And Emma, carried like a heroine through the wild wood, yet not to ravishment but to hot water, soap and medicine.
Guy is correct. I am mad.
By the time they reached the dining room, Emma had regained her some of her equilibrium. If Penelope noticed how closely Emma studied her, she gave no sign. Penelope's conversation did not stray from the conventional, beyond waxing eloquent on the beauties of archery for a time. Confined to polite chat about the weather, the health of one's relations, and Madame de Genlis' advice to young ladies, Emma was frustrated.
Furthermore, she could get no closer to solving the puzzle that Penelope had become. More than once, she found herself longing to express her sudden affection, to simply lean over and capture the other woman's lips with her own. Emma did not because she had no idea how these advances might be taken. If she could only ascertain some sign that Penelope felt the same way! But there were no signs, or if there were, they were carefully hidden. Still, Emma could have sworn that she had seen a frisson of desire lurking in Penelope's eyes, but she could have been mistaken. It was very tiresome to be so unsure!
When Guy Fullham arrived to retrieve her, Emma was ready to make her good-byes and return home.
On Wednesday, Emma arrived at the village green dressed in a pink-and-red striped gown that was bordered around the hem with lace and silk ribbons. It was new, as was the bonnet she had bought to replace the one destroyed during her accident in the lane. The sun was out and the day was fine; her chief worry was not rain, but that excessive sunshine might freckle her nose.
The ladies gathered around the archery range were varied in age and social station, from spinsters to matrons to unmarried young women from the neighborhood. They wore simple frocks, canary yellow bordered with green. Emma did not recognize anyone save Penelope Pye.
When she approached the group, a full-figured older woman came to meet her and said, "Miss Fullham? I am Mrs. Sharples, chairwoman of the Society."
Emma murmured a polite response and curtseyed.
"I understand that you are to join us today?" Mrs. Sharples continued. She was handsome rather than pretty, middle-aged with severe lines running down from the corners of her mouth. "As you have no bow, you will share with Miss Pye, who will also be instructing you in the basics of toxophily. I have assigned the two of you to the target at the end, the one nearest the pond. I urge you to pay close attention to Miss Pye's lesson. Archery is a serious study, not a frivolous pursuit." She sniffed, looking with disapproval at Emma's dress, and especially the dangling pearl earrings that she had chosen to wear.
Emma felt intimidated and insulted. She was about to make a rude reply when Penelope appeared and said, "I believe that Miss Fullham approaches toxophily with all the seriousness that is due to the subject."
Mrs. Sharples sniffed again. "Well, be sure that she wears something more appropriate at the next meeting. Our Society colors are yellow and green. Pink silk and lace and ribbons, indeed! This is not a picnic, Miss Fullham, nor are we fashion plates."
"It is entirely my fault," Penelope replied, taking hold of Emma's arm and giving it a warning squeeze. "Accept my apologies, madam. I will take Miss Fullham to the end, as I see that the Misses Andrews are about to toe the scratch."
"Are they?" Mrs. Sharples peered at the line that had formed. "Miss Andrews! Miss Elizabeth Andrews! You are not to loose until the signal is given!" She bustled away and Penelope let out a sigh of relief.
"Mrs. Sharples may seem like a harridan, but she is a good woman at heart," she said. "I am sorry if her manner distressed you."
"I thought she might have apoplexy at my poor earrings!" Emma replied, shaking her head to make the objects in question dance.
Penelope led her to their assigned target. "You should remove them. Mrs. Sharples is concerned because last year, one of the new girls - a Miss Thicknesse - tangled an earring with her bowstring and nearly lost an earlobe. The incident has made her much more conscious of our dress. Speaking of dresses, we do have a uniform for our members. I should have mentioned it before. If you decide to join, I will give you the name of my seamstress. She has the pattern and works quickly, but her fees are reasonable."
Emma found herself standing on the grass while Penelope strapped a leather bracer to her forearm. "The snap of a bowstring can be very painful. This part," Penelope said, tapping the long section that covered the inside of Emma's left arm from wrist nearly to elbow, "protects you from the sting. It is heavy and can be hot, since it is lined with felt, but the bracer is essential."
Next came the shooting glove for her right hand. It, too, was heavy leather; not exactly a glove, but more of a gauntlet that covered the fingertips but left the palm bare. Penelope adjusted the buckle and said, "If you continue, it would be best to have your glove made to fit. This is one of my old ones; you can see it is too large. Your hands are quite a bit more delicate than mine."
Penelope went on to describe the art which was her passion. Soon, Emma's head was spinning with terms such as 'dead shaft,' 'fistmele,' and 'whipping.' At last, Penelope realized that the young woman's eyes were glazing over and relented. "For now, we will deal with the practical aspect." She showed Emma first how to string the bow.
Laying the yew bow flat side down on the grass, Penelope braced her foot against the middle. She bent over and slipped one end of the string - the eye - into the bottom nock, or the groove cut into the wood . Then she grasped the top of the bow and stood upright gradually, bending the length until she could slip the other eye into the upper nock. When she was finished, the bow was a graceful curve ready for use.
Emma expressed her amazement that this was accomplished so easily. Penelope replied, "Perfection comes with practice. Think of Odysseus and the test of Iphitos' bow against his wife's suitors in Ithica. Strength alone could not have fitted string to weapon. He was able to do it when others failed, and thus prove his identity and his rights, because Odysseus was familiar with the vagaries of that particular bow."
"Ah, but then he had to shoot through twelve axeheads," Emma said, choosing an arrow from the quiver and offering it to Penelope. She smiled, glad that the other women was at least familiar with one of her favorite stories. "Fortunately, in this modern age we have no axes, only yon target on which to test our mettle."
Penelope took the arrow and nocked it. The feathers were dyed bright yellow, the better to be seen against grass should it miss the target. "One must normally account for windage and drift, but today is calm," she said. Settling her feet, she drew the bow and loosed the arrow in a smooth movement.
Emma watched as the arrow seemed to magically appear in the target. "You have struck in the red," she said. "Does this have significance?"
"One looses three arrows per set. An archer's pair, it is called, though there are three arrows instead of the two which might be expected from the name. The colors of the target determine the number of points that one has gained. The outer white, or the petticoat, is one point. Black is three; inner white is five; red is seven; and gold is nine." Penelope nocked another arrow, drew and loosed. It struck near the other.
"May I try?" Emma asked, intrigued by the notion of shooting a bow. It seemed simple enough. She was startled when the other woman moved behind her and seemed about to give her an embrace.
"If I may instruct you?" Penelope spoke directly into Emma's ear, making her shiver.
"Please do," the young woman replied, trying and failing to keep a flush from blooming on her cheeks.
"Hold your body thusly." Penelope pushed Emma's shoulders until she stood at right angles to the target. "Keep your head towards the goal." She touched Emma's chin and tilted her face slightly upwards. "Most importantly, your posture should be straight and erect."
Emma jumped when Penelope's hand suddenly cupped her buttock. It was not exactly painful - her bruises were mending nicely - but the gesture was unexpected. She whirled around, heart thumping, and beheld Penelope grinning down at her.
"Is something wrong, Miss Fullham?" Penelope asked, dark eyes brimming with mischief.
"Not at all," Emma replied, thinking that Miss Pye was not as cool as her demeanor tended to suggest. Still, she did not know her well enough to judge whether this was a jest or something in earnest. Penelope's expression did not give her any clues. Emma decided to ignore it and continue with the lesson. She positioned herself again and said, "What do I do now?"
"Take the bow and nock an arrow." Penelope moved in once more, almost snuggling against Emma's back. She placed her hands over Emma's and guided her movements. Together, they drew the bowstring back until the arrow feathers brushed Emma's cheek, then loosed.
It struck near the small gold circle at the center of the target.
"Excellent!" Penelope said, releasing the smaller woman. "Now we must retrieve our arrows and try another set." She began walking towards the target. Emma stared after her.
I cannot believe... no. It is impossible. She wishes to be my friend, nothing more. True love is like standing on the edge of a precipice, having neither the will nor the desire to resist falling headlong into the abyss. Love is a fire that is impossible to extinguish, all consuming and burning so brightly, it dazzles. What I feel cannot be love... can it? Despite these reservations, Emma began to consider whether there might be different levels of intensity - the slow yet relentless swell rather than the crashing wave that she had experienced before. Both were powerful in their own way.
She desired Penelope physically. In her mind, that stirring was related to love - the type of violent and irresistible passion that soon, she had to admit, gave way to ennui and seeking new thrills, new sensations. She would have once dismissed anyone without similar sensibilities as hopelessly dull. Now she was learning to see Penelope as a person; not the type to wear her heart upon her sleeve, but complex and enigmatic all the same. Rather than pursue a frenetic relationship, Emma was being forced to patience, to uncertainty, to a mutual understand that could not be rushed.
At that moment, Emma knew that she would have to make a decision.
Penelope returned, the arrows in her hand. "Are you ready for another set?"
Emma nodded. My fate is in the hands of Providence, she thought. I would like to love her, and be loved in return, but it seems that I don't know what love truly is. I have never learned to nurture feelings that should not be forced, and allow them to flow naturally from within. I have instead been a child grasping at bubbles and weeping when they burst in my palms. Am I ready to become a woman? I shall have to school myself to patience and find out.
Aloud, Emma asked, "Will you show me how to hold the bow again? I fear that I have quite forgotten."
Penelope's smile grew wider. "Of course, Miss Fullham. We have all afternoon, you know."
"Then I am ready for your demonstration," Emma said, turning around in silent invitation.
Penelope came close again, and the hours flew by as swiftly as the arrows they shot.
Emma persuaded Guy to let her set up an archery range on the lawn of Stafford House. She had discovered a positive passion for the Amazonian pursuit; the local bowyer, fletcher and saddler felt the benefit of Emma's new obsession as she ordered the finest custom equipment to be made. Guy paid the bills without complaint. He had suggested the venture, after all, and could not find cause to make an argument against expense.
"At this rate, you will beggar me," he said to Emma one evening after dinner, "and my pockets will be put permanently to let. However, I had rather you purchase every arrow in the country than sit around the house with the megrims. This archery business seems to have done you good. I haven't heard you sing Voi Che Sapete at the pianoforte once since you began."
"I still harbor great affection for Mozart's Cherubino," Emma replied pertly. "It is a lovely song, and The Marriage of Figaro is a lovely opera. You have no taste in music, brother."
"All that sentiment gives me a headache." Guy raised his voice in a quavering falsetto and sang, "You who have tasted love's mystic spell/What is this sorrow naught can dispel?" He stopped and snorted. "Shocking stuff."
Emma laughed. "Dreadful man! How do you expect to get a wife if you disparage her singing, pianoforte playing, and all her other lady-like accomplishments?"
"I would just as soon have no wife at all than some twittering, empty-headed ornament." Guy stood up and glanced at the clock on the mantle. "I must leave tomorrow for London on business. Do you wish to accompany me?"
"No, for Miss Pye has promised to visit. We will be practicing toxophily in the late morning, followed by supper and conversation. Miss Pye will show me how to make honeyed rosewater, which she says is an excellent remedy for coughs."
"Taking an interest in the still-room, eh?"
"I have been informed that country folk must often do for themselves. It seemed a practical thing to learn." Emma picked up her embroidery from her lap and began to sew.
Guy observed his sister keenly. He knew that Marianne Pye was still at Wynbourne with her mother. He also knew, because the housekeeper had told him, that Emma had received no letters from Marianne, nor had she sent any. She was spending a great deal of her time with Miss Penelope Pye, who by all accounts was a spinsterish and respectable sort of woman, not the kind he would have expected Emma to find interesting. Furthermore, his sister was not exhibiting the normal signs of infatuation as he had come to know them.
It must mean nothing, he thought. She need not fall violently in love with every female of her acquaintance. Yet Guy had a suspicion that all was not as innocent as it appeared. Emma had changed in the last month, ever since she had begun her association with Penelope Pye. She was calmer, more introspective, not the same hoyden who blurted her every opinion and feeling as soon as it occurred. She had matured, her terrible taste in music aside.
Whatever Miss Pye's influence, I find it a good thing, Guy thought. He bent over and kissed Emma's forehead, startling her.
"Good-night, dear sister," he said, smiling.
She smiled in return, although her brows were drawn up in surprise.
At archery practice the next day, Emma thought that Penelope had made a mistake when she called her, "Fair Clorinda."
"Who is this Clorinda?" Emma asked, laughing. "And should I be jealous of her attentions towards you?"
To her astonishment, Penelope bowed like a gentleman and quoted,
"As that word was spoken, Clorinda came by,
"Oh!" exclaimed Emma, clapping her hands together. "That is perfectly marvelous! Did you write it?"
"No, indeed," Penelope replied. "It is part of a ballad from the previous century. You have greatly improved upon your skills with the bow, and thus reminded me of the Fair Clorinda."
"For any skill that I have learned, thanks are due to my tutor's patience with one who would otherwise be hopeless." Emma turned and walked towards the house.
Penelope followed after her, saying, "What I have done for you is little enough. The rest lies with diligent practice."
"Aye, and you are a diligent task-mistress! I have rarely worked so hard at anything in my life." Except, Emma added silently, trying to determine the nature and extent of our connection.
The two women had become friends; little gestures of affection, like a hand on the waist or a kiss on the cheek, were common between them. Emma had found that such caresses were satisfying in a way that heated embraces were not. It was soothing, comforting, a true rapport of the soul. She felt loved, although no words or further evidence was offered. This realization had not come upon her as swiftly as an epiphany; instead, the knowledge had gradually crept in until Emma did not know exactly when the idea had found anchorage in her mind.
Penelope was a friend... would she also be a lover? Even now, Emma was not sure. The only thing she knew with certainty was that she had difficulty envisioning a future in which Penelope took no part.
She was distracted from these considerations when Penelope asked,"Will you be attending Mr. Palmer's ball at Wendelwood on Saturday?"
Emma frowned. "I have been invited, yes, though I suspect that Mrs. Palmer and her unmarried daughters would prefer my brother's attendance over mine."
"Well, I think that I may have a surprise for you on the night of the ball." Penelope gave her a sly look. "Do not importune me, either, for this is a secret I mean to keep."
"I had believed you no more capable of mystery than an open book. Now you show a positive gift for intrigue!"
"I am full of surprises and more secrets than you know." Penelope quirked an eyebrow and grinned. "But you will have to wait until Saturday before a particular one is revealed."
"Beast!" Emma laughed and shook a mock fist. "I hate you!"
Penelope leaned down, so that her face was on a level with Emma's. Her expression was suddenly serious. "Do you?" she murmured. "I have wondered, you know."
Emma's mouth went dry. "Wondered... what?"
"I did not mean to hurt you that day, when I told you about Marianne's engagement. It grieved me to give pain to someone so exquisitely beautiful, so lively in spirits. I was the blackest villain of the piece, and would not have blamed you if you had hated me."
"I never could," Emma said, half-closing her eyes. She felt that it was time to make an admission. With such an opportunity at hand, how could she resist? "My feelings are... quite the opposite," Emma said. Her lips parted; she waited breathlessly, all her senses reeling.
Instead of kissing her, Penelope drew back. "I am glad to hear you say that," she said. "My life would have been lacking had you not appeared to take a place in it. You are my most cherished treasure."
Emma was torn between weeping in frustration or weeping in despair. She does not love me! Or does she? Oh, why does she not declare her intentions and be done with it! Until I know how she feels, I cannot declare my true feelings. I dare not commit myself one way or the other. It would be dreadful to lose her now. How I hate this indecision! What shall I do? What can I do, except wait?
Something of this inner torment must have shown in her face, for Penelope frowned and said, "Dear girl, are you unwell? Your face has gone ghastly white, but your cheeks are spotted as with fever."
Emma stammered a lie about a headache. When Penelope offered to stay with her, she said, "I have taken too much sun today, I think. I will lie down in my room until dinner. That should set me a-right."
"I could make a cold compress..."
"No!" Realizing from Penelope's concerned expression that she had been too forceful, Emma moderated her tone and attempted a smile. "No, I will be fine on my own. Solitude and rest are what I need the most. You need have no worries on my behalf."
"Very well," Penelope replied, drawing on her gloves and bonnet. "If your condition worsens, please send a servant for me, or at least ask Dr. Delford to call. I do not like your color; summer fevers can be dangerous."
After more assurances and promises, Emma finally persuaded the reluctant Penelope to leave.
Once she was alone, Emma went upstairs to her chamber, threw herself across the bed and cried until she did have a headache. When the storm of tears had subsided, she quoted to herself a bit of poetry that seemed apt:
"To sigh and wish is all my ease;
Mournfully, Emma wiped her wet face and contemplated the thought that comfort could not always be found in the poet's art.
She did not see Penelope Pye at all on the day of the ball. Emma sent the other woman a note, saying that her health had improved but preparations for the evening would take up much of her time. She had labored for hours composing those few simple lines. Instead of polite phrases, she longed to pour her heart out upon the paper, but insecurity kept her from making any admissions. Crumpled love letters had littered the floor around her desk, tear-stained and half written. Emma made sure to burn them before the maid arrived in the morning with her cup of chocolate.
Her ballgown was not new; she had brought it with her from London - an ice blue silk that complimented the color of her eyes. When she tried it on that morning, Emma realized that practicing with the bow nearly every day has caused her to gain some muscle in her shoulders and upper arms. The gown was far too tight in the bodice, so much so that the mother-of-pearl buttons in the back were gaping, and her breasts were nearly spilling out over the top. Lacing her stays tightly only exacerbated the situation. Emma looked into her mirror and could not decide whether to laugh or tear out her hair. She had known that her ordinary dresses were somewhat less comfortable than usual, but this was extreme!
After consulting with the housekeeper, Mrs. Atkinson, it was decided that Emma should take the garment to the village dressmaker herself, since new measurements would have to be taken. There was no time to make the gown afresh; it would have to be let out skillfully. Emma knew the dressmaker - a widow named Mrs. Ludlow - since that woman had made the frocks she wore to the Toxophilite Society's meetings. Mrs. Ludlow was a dab hand at the needle. If anyone could perform a miracle, she could.
Declining the carriage, Emma walked into Honeymead. The distance was only a few miles and the road was well graveled. She delivered the gown to Mrs. Ludlow's establishment, had measurements taken, and was assured that it would be ready well before the ball. Having made these arrangements, Emma was examining some gloves in the milliner shop's window when she caught a reflection in the glass that made her gasp and whirl around.
Marianne Pye was walking across the street, headed towards her.
Emma let out a squeak of near panic. There was nowhere to hide, however, and she could not avoid the confrontation. She straightened her shoulders and assumed a mask of polite indifference, determined to be civil. Marianne had other ideas.
"Dearest!" she cried, launching herself at the cringing Emma. "I have missed you terribly!"
Emma muttered something - afterwards, she never knew what. Marianne did not notice anything odd in her friend's reception; she bubbled on, "It was so very horrid in Wynbourne. I thought I should perish from tedium alone! And you never wrote me, you wicked creature! I would have written you, except that I had no time, as my mother insisted on my playing the ministering angel to my cousins."
"I... I did not think..." Emma was at a loss for words. Time and distance had made her forget how charming Marianne could be, how vivacious and beautiful she appeared.
Marianne wrinkled her nose and laughed. "I see that you have become somewhat dull since I last saw you. What, no word of welcome? No sonnet, no kiss, no ardent declarations?"
"No declarations," Emma said, all her hurt and bitterness welling to the forefront, "for I hear that you are to be married."
Far from denying it, Marianne nodded. "So you have heard the news, eh? I wonder who could have told you. The engagement has not yet been announced. Was is my sister Penelope, perchance?"
"Yes." Emma could hardly speak past the lump in her throat.
"That interfering baggage!" For an instant, naked hatred blazed in Marianne's dark eyes. "Have I not told you that she has set out to ruin me? She cannot bear any happiness that comes my way." Her expression softened; her voice took on a wheedling tone. "Dearest, do not take on so. This engagement is not of my doing."
"I was told that you were agreeable to the match."
"A lie! They seek to force me to wed some old man against my will. I shan't do it, not even if they lock me away! Let my mother and sister apply the bastinado to the soles of my feet, and still I shall not marry!"
This disclosure gave Emma pause. Although it was not usual for parents to make an arranged marriage, she knew that pressure could be brought to bear. A young girl with a modest dowry would be thought lucky to wed an established gentlemen of good fortune, regardless of her feelings on the matter.
Marianne continued, "And I suppose that our helpful Penelope has also told you that I ran away with an officer last year?"
"You do not know the story in full," Marianne said, a quaver in her voice. "I did not run away with Mr. Willows. I was taken by force - kidnapped! - and held prisoner in Bath." She sniffled, a teardrop spilling down her cheek. "I was terrified for my virtue and feared that he might ravish me. Indeed, he did try, but I struggled and screamed until he desisted. Of course, my father paid a ransom! Very few people know the truth, because you know that everyone will think the worst. Oh, how can you believe her lies? I tried to warn you that she is the most deceitful wench, but it seems that you, too, have tasted her poison."
Emma shook her head, not knowing what to believe. On the one hand, she had never caught Penelope in a lie... at least, she thought, not yet. On the other hand, Marianne's story sounded convincing. She had heard gossip about impecunious officers 'kidnapping' impressionable young ladies and forcing their families to pay to have the matter hushed up. Whether anything untoward had happened or not, a woman's virtue could be fatally compromised by the mere suggestion of impropriety.
Society could take a very cruel view; she knew this from her time in London. She and Guy had not associated with the Bon Ton - that fashionable set flew too high for either of their tastes - but the men and women in her modest circle took pleasure in vicious gossip. Tearing some unfortunate's reputation to shreds, or relating a deliciously scandalous piece of news over coffee, was considered a social delight. She had no reason to believe that such things were different in the country.
"Why did you not tell me about this engagement?" Emma asked, trying to reconcile what she had been told by Penelope with the tale that Marianne had given her.
"Because I knew you would misunderstand." Marianne took out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "Still, I would have told you that day on the village green, but then I had to go to Wynbourne and there was no chance."
"Why would Penelope tell such horrid lies?"
Marianne began to sob. "Because I wanted to run away with you! Escape from this dreadful destiny and live happily with you for the rest of my days. If you loved me as much as you claimed, would you not want to rescue me? I may speak brave words, dearest, but if no one comes to my aid, I fear that I shall end in parson's mousetrap, married to a disgusting lecher. Can you imagine the wedding night? Oh, I wish I could die rather than let a rake like Henry Musgrove touch me as you have touched me. He is vile, Emma, truly vile. The stories I have heard..." She broke off in another sob.
Emma did not know Mr. Musgrove, but her heart went out to the pitifully weeping girl. She seemed genuinely terrified and lost. All at once, the feelings for Marianne that Emma had thought were dead came bursting forth, having lost little of their power. Whatever she felt for Penelope was swept away by this flood of familiar feelings. Emma was relieved to stand on the precipice again, to be warmed by an irresistible blaze of love. There was no doubt here, no agony of indecision.
Reason gave way to passion - an old habit that had not been broken but suppressed. She wanted to comfort Marianne, to protect her; most of all, she wanted to forget discretion and throw caution to the winds. It was madness, but it was a beautiful madness and not to be denied. At that moment, she forgot how mean-spirited Marianne had been; she forgot everything except how good it was to be swept away and care not a fig for the consequences or the cost.
But Penelope has been your good friend, said her conscience, and you believed that you loved her. Will you throw aside that friendship, the possibility of a future, in favor of what can only be folly?
Emma looked deeply into Marianne's bewitchingly dark gaze. She could fall forever in those depths, drown herself in dreams. If there was deception in those fine eyes, she did not want to see it. Emma desperately wanted to believe that this love was real. She wanted to be intoxicated, bewitched and enchanted. She had been floundering about with Penelope, unsure about the other woman's feelings, unwilling to expose herself. With Marianne, everything was clear.
A few lines of Dryden's poem sprang to mind:
"In ev'ry possessing
She had suffered long enough; the pangs of unrequited love were too much to bear. How much better it was to simply let go and be swept up in a whirlwind! Accordingly, Emma told her conscience to go to the Devil, and said aloud to Marianne, "Yes, we will go away! When shall we go?"
Marianne stopped sniveling and answered promptly, "I hoped that we might go this evening, following Mr. Palmer's ball at Wendelwood."
"Mr. Musgrove is expected to call at any time and I greatly wish to avoid it. He may try to elope with me to Gretna Green. My mother would not issue a protest, for she dotes upon him and his fortune. I scarcely dare delay a single moment."
Emma nodded. Her lover's fears made sense. "And where shall we go, dearest?"
"Anywhere. The Continent, perhaps."
"Very well." Emma took Marianne's gloved hand and pressed it to her cheek. "Until tonight, my love. I will arrange everything."
"Oh!" Marianne pulled her hand from Emma's grasp. "There is Alice Decastries, one of Penelope's Amazons. If she sees us together, she may tell tales. Please tell no one, my dear. Discretion must be our watchword, otherwise we will be undone! Until tonight, beau chevalier... farewell!" With that dramatic pronouncement, the young woman fled around the corner, out of sight.
Emma's jaw clenched. Resolutely, she made her way to the local stables in order to make the necessary preparations. She was the knight in shining armor, riding a-rescue for the fair maid in durance vile. She was the hero to Marianne's heroine, slaying dragons and laying her sword in chivalric devotion at her love's feet. They were Tristam and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Hero and Leander, Abelard and Heloise... yet she wished for no tragic ending, but a happy forever after.
A beautiful madness had to be embraced with one's whole heart.
Wendelwood Hall was considered one of the most pleasant properties in the neighborhood. The house had a very picturesque aspect, with a broad lawn bordered by cypresses leading to a pond and trout stream. From the outside, the place seemed fairly modest, all ivy-lashed brick and a minimum of detail save for the neo-Classical portico; it was cozy and homely rather than grand. However, the interior was spectacular, furnished with everything that fashionable taste could possibly demand.
Mr. Palmer had inherited a large fortune; together with Mrs. Palmer's income from her mother's marriage settlement, they had lavished a great deal of money and attention on Wendelwood. The long gallery in particular was thought to be fabulous; the gilt and crystal chandeliers had come from Italy, the carved ebony benches around the walls from France. Walls were papered in red and gold, while the marble fireplace was a wonder to behold. A mural on the ceiling depicted Jove's conquest of Europa; the bull seemed to have a wickedly lascivious expression, but Europa's long tresses were strategically positioned to conceal that which had shamed Eve.
Such a conspicuous show of wealth might have alienated the Palmers from their neighbors, but both of them were so hospitable, so willing to give parties and freely deliver invitations, that they were quickly forgiven their good fortune.
On the evening of the ball, candles blazed from the chandeliers overhead, making the long galley feel stuffy and hot. Emma entered the room, blinking at the light and heat. An orchestra was wheezing away while couples had formed up to dance the Sir Roger de Coverly. Matrons in lace caps sat on the benches along the walls, talking furiously and keeping an eye on their daughters, or they lingered near the refreshment tables, gulping white soup and exchanging news. Many husbands had already retired to the card rooms, leaving unmarried gentlemen the pleasure of mingling with young ladies. Everyone was dressed in their finest; jewels glittered, silks and satins gleamed.
Emma was greeted by Mr. Palmer, who though sweating and red-faced was in a jovial mood. "Welcome, Miss Fullham! I trust you had a pleasant journey to Wendelwood?" he asked.
"It is barely eight miles from Stafford House," Emma replied, having to speak loudly to be heard over the buzz of conversation and music, "and I was quite comfortable, indeed."
"And your brother? He is in good health, I trust?"
"Very excellent health, sir. Guy asked me to convey his regrets and apologies. Urgent business in London called him away most unexpectedly, otherwise I'm sure he would have delighted in attending your ball."
"I am very sorry that he cannot be here," said Mr. Palmer, "but we must all bow to necessity. Would you care for a drop of negus, Miss Fullham? It is a deucedly warm night."
"Thank you. That would be kind." Emma waited until he returned with a glass of mulled wine, then made her excuses. Pushing her way through the crowd that had gathered to observe the dance, she ran directly into a tall woman, splashing negus on the back of her gown. Emma stammered an apology, shocked at her clumsiness. To her further startlement, when the lady turned around, she saw that it was Penelope Pye.
"So, the Fair Clorinda has arrived!" Penelope said with a smile. She was dressed in Turkey red satin; a feathered turban concealed her dark hair except for a cluster of curls on her forehead. A garnet necklace was nestled on her décolletage; matching earrings swung from her earlobes, and she carried a painted chicken skin fan in one gloved hand.
"Oh! Miss Pye!" Emma went white, then pink, as apprehension warred with embarrassment and guilt. The sight of Penelope filled her with dismay; she thought that her plan to elope with Marianne must be writ upon her forehead in letters plain enough that the other woman could not help but discern them.
"I see that your complexion is still not as it should be," Penelope said, concerned. "Are you feeling faint? I should hate for you to succumb in all this crush; you would probably be trampled. Shall I take you to the retiring room?"
Emma could feel a droplet of sweat rolling off the tip of her nose. "No, that is not necessary. I am quite well, thank you." She glanced left and right, trying desperately to manufacture a way to liberate herself from this dreadful situation.
"You appear very ill to me. Perhaps this will help." Penelope removed a small gilt vinaigrette from her reticule, opened it, and passed the box beneath Emma's nose. The sponge inside had been soaked in a strong camphor solution.
Heat, light, noise and roiling emotions had made Emma's head reel. Now she choked on the reek of camphor, spilling the rest of the wine from her glass. Her eyes watered; she could not catch her breath. A wave of dizziness and nausea swept through her body. Despite the warmth of the room, cold chills made her shiver. Emma felt someone grab her wrist and pull her stumbling along, but she was helpless to protest.
Not until she was out in the garden, gulping at the fresh air like a victim nearly drowned, did Emma realize that Penelope was supporting her. The tender expression on the taller woman's face made her feel even sicker. All her courage, all her resolve had drained away, leaving Emma shaken and weak. She made a deliberate effort to summon the passion she felt for Marianne. She reminded herself of Romeo and Tristan and Lancelot, but it was in vain. How could she think to be a hero, when she stood beneath the gaze of one who would find her future actions dishonest and intolerable?
Emma stared into Penelope's face. She was no china doll like her sister; she was an Amazon - strong, capable and intelligent, possessed of good sense and honor. Was she also a liar and a villain? To hear Marianne tell the tale, one would think that Penelope was steeped in the blackest dye. Yet now that Emma was no longer in that young lady's presence, the romantic fever that Marianne excited in her was dissolving. The spell was loosening its hold, coming unraveled under the scrutiny of Penelope's fine dark eyes. Who was the villain? Who was the liar? She did not know anymore.
In her confusion, Emma grasped at the few facts which seemed as unclouded as crystal. Marianne loved her. Marianne needed her. Penelope did not.
She wrenched herself out of Penelope's gasp. "I do not want you," Emma said through gritted teeth. She stood with her back to the other woman, her hands balled into fists at her side. Unshed tears burned in her eyes.
Penelope said very softly, "Do you not?"
Emma felt hands upon her waist. She could not resist when Penelope turned her around. Her head fell back; her lips parted when a warm mouth descended upon her own. Emma responded to that gently insistent kiss, winding her arms around the taller woman's neck. She was breathless and yielding, trusting to Penelope's strength to support them both. Time spun out in increments measured by the beating of her heart.
Penelope tasted of wine and caraway comfits. There was a firm body beneath the satin gown, but there was a woman's softness, too, pressing against her. Emma's senses were reeling again, but this time the cause was very different. A lazy heat suffused her blood, robbing her of every inclination except to clutch those broad shoulders and be suffocated with love. When Penelope released her, she whimpered an inarticulate protest.
"Good Lord! What have I done?" Penelope said, pulling away from Emma.
Emma swayed on her feet, touched her mouth with her fingertips. She could not speak, nor did she notice Penelope's distress. A simple kiss had deprived her of that power. Doubt was crushed beneath the weight of a revelation. She loves me! She loves me! Emma exulted. Marianne was forgotten. At this moment, in this hour, there was only the tall, dark lady who had haunted her dreams for what seemed like a lifetime.
She understood now that her notions of love were fatally flawed. This was the true meeting of hearts and souls - a coming together that was beyond anything the poets described. No words were sufficient. In a thousand lifetimes, Emma would never be able to articulate the glory she had felt when Penelope kissed her. Joy suffused her until she could have sworn that she was glowing brighter than the candlelight streaming from the house's windows.
Emma took a step towards Penelope, eager to declare her affections, but stopped when the woman held up a hand.
"I did not mean... I cannot... oh, God!" Penelope's face was ashen, her eyes dulled with pain. "Stay your distance, madam, I beg you. Forgive me." She turned on her heel and walked quickly back to the long gallery.
What does she mean? Emma thought. What is the matter?
With a growing sense of horror, Emma realized that Penelope did not love her. Why else would she offer such a demonstration and then flee, looking as if the hounds of hell were nipping at her heels? How could I have been so stupid?I was too ardent, too practiced, yielding too easily. She must think me the worst wanton in England! What else could she do but reject me? She tasted the fruit and found it spoiled by too many other hands.
I have lost her. I will never see her again.
The pang that lanced through Emma's breast made her want to fall to her knees and scream, but she found that she could not even weep. Her eyes were dry but she wished the tears would come, if only to offer some modicum of relief. She stood in the garden, staring into the shadows, her sorrow and despair too great to find expression. She had caught a glimpse of what might have been, only to have the promise snatched away from her in an instant. Emma thought that she had known heartache before; it came to her that whatever injuries she had suffered in the past were mere pinpricks that left no mark and were quickly forgotten. In her present state of agony, the torments of Torquemada would have been a blessing.
After a while, Emma said to herself, At least Marianne has some regard for me. She loves me. She needs me. I may be certain of giving no offense in that quarter. We will go away together, and I will try to forget.
Rain began to fall. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Her heart broken - it seemed beyond repair - Emma went back to the ball.
She had no difficulty spotting Marianne. The young lady was flirting outrageously with a gentleman, admonishing him not to tread upon her gown when they danced, as she wore nothing beneath to preserve her modesty. Marianne had never seemed so beautiful. The rich, poppy-orange coquelicot color of her silk dress was enhanced by heliotrope trim; her black hair was caught up with a pearl-studded comb and hung in glossy coils to her shoulders. She tossed her head and laughed at the gentleman's whispered remark, and her eyes sparkled as brightly as the crystal earrings she wore.
Emma laid a hand on Marianne's arm. "Pray excuse us, sir," she said to the gentleman. "A matter has arisen which requires Miss Pye's immediate attention."
The gentleman bowed and took his leave, though not without casting a smoldering glance at Marianne.
"What are you doing?" Marianne asked, a petulant frown marring her face. She rapped Emma's wrist with her fan. "I was about to favor Mr. Carteret with a dance."
"To dance at such a time? My God!" Emma took hold of the young lady's upper arm and drew her into a private corner. She was amazed that Marianne was so cool. "Have you forgotten that we are to leave this very night?"
"No, my memory is perfectly clear."
"Then how can you be calm? Is it not the fashion for girls to show some hint of nerves on their elopement?"
"Oho! You are jealous of Mr. Carteret!" Marianne crowed. "That is the true cause of your distemper. Do I spy a tinge of green in your face? Will you play Othello to my Desdemona, and if so, who is to be our Iago? Do you think that I tempt heaven with a dance?"
Emma was in no mood to bandy words. She wanted nothing more than to be gone from this place, the scene where her hopes had been dashed to pieces. With an effort, she suppressed her impatience. Emma reminded herself that Marianne - and the certainty of Marianne's affections - was all that she had left to cling to. There was nothing left but to follow the course set by Providence and her own actions. Penelope was gone. Marianne remained.
"Forgive me, dearest," Emma said, attempting to sound lover-like and contrite. "I could not bear it if some swaggering dandy were to importune you with charm and promises. I'm also very eager for us to be away."
"So soon? But it is scarcely ten o'clock!"
"I have a hired coach waiting." Emma said, unable to withstand the desperate desire to flee. Her glance swept over the crowd; was that a feathered red turban bobbing in their direction? She would rather be struck dead than confront Penelope. "We must go, Marianne. If we leave at once we'll not be missed for hours."
"La, madam! Soften your tone lest we be overheard!" Marianne's eyes flashed with ire. "Very well, I'll come with you now though it quite spoils my evening. I do not like us haring off into the night like a pair of thieves. It is not a whit romantic, you know. I'm sure an elopement doesn't go so hurriedly in novels."
"I will make it up to you, I promise," Emma cajoled. "Come, dearest. You shall have sonnets and sonatas later."
There was a slight delay while Marianne retrieved her cloak, and then the two women made their way outside. Emma spotted her driver and ordered the man to bring up the coach. He was not one of her brother's servants; she had hired him along with the conveyance, fearing that someone who knew her would object to being an accomplice in her flight. As soon as the coach rolled to a stop, Emma helped Marianne climb the steps and clambered in beside her.
They set off in motion with a jerk, but that soon steadied into a rhythmic jogging of horses and rolling wheels and the road. The storm was worsening; blasts of wind now accompanied the rain, which was falling in heavy sheets. The noise of water lashing down upon the roof was nearly deafening. Emma knew they would not make many miles that night, not with the weather conspiring against them.
It was dark inside the coach. Emma could see very little of Marianne besides the subtle gleam of her jewels, the mere suggestive glimmer of her face. They sat in silence for a while before Emma groped for the other woman's hand.
"We are going to London," she said, and winced when her voice cracked. Emma cleared her throat and tried again. "We shall need funds if we are to travel to the Continent. My father left me a portion of his estate, and of course I have my mother's income to do with as I choose. I must visit my solicitor to make the necessary arrangements."
Marianne did not respond, so Emma continued, "We'll be comfortable, dearest, I promise. Maids can be got in London, too, and a manservant, so that everything will be proper and respectable when we begin to travel. I thought perhaps to begin in France, since our brave Duke put paid to Boney last year, and it should be safe enough. Then Italy, Venice, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Greece..."
"I think not," a man's voice said, interrupting the recital.
Emma screamed. A narrow beam of light shot out, directly in her eyes. Dazzled, she cried out and flung an arm across Marianne as the stranger finished opening his lantern, illuminating the interior of the coach. She blinked, eyes watering a little, until her pupils adjusted enough to let her see the intruder.
There was a man sitting on the seat opposite. He was roughly handsome, as swarthy as an Italian, with pale green eyes that stared at her with all the insolence and self-confidence of a tomcat. His mouth was curiously sensual, wet and plump and pouting. He was dressed entirely in black - the better to conceal himself in the shadows - and holding a flintlock pistol in his free hand.
Emma gathered up her courage and asked, "What do you want, sir? We have no money." She held Marianne close to her side, trying to shield the other woman with her body in case the ruffian had violent plans. "We are not without friends or connections. Your interests would be better served by withdrawing at once and leaving us in peace."
He said nothing, merely stretched his legs out with a grunt. The pistol lowered, pointing at Emma, who wrapped her arms around Marianne more tightly. To her consternation, Marianne jerked herself out of Emma's grasp and moved to sit next to the man. "No!" Emma cried, trying to catch the girl's skirts and haul her out of danger.
Consternation turned to disbelieving shock when Marianne tilted up her face and bestowed a loving kiss upon his lips.
"What are you doing?" Emma whispered, shrinking back into her seat. "Have you gone mad?"
"Am I mad, Willows?" Marianne asked with a little laugh. Her sidelong glance at Emma was full of glee.
"Of course not, my love." The swarthy man gave the lantern to Marianne and received another kiss in return.
Willows! Emma recalled that this was the name of the officer who had run away with Marianne to Bath (or kidnapped her) and very nearly caused her ruin. For that act alone, she considered him a brute, a commonplace thug and a villain of the first water. He was clearly no gentleman! She could not explain the kisses that she had witnessed, except to think that perhaps Marianne's mind had come unhinged through terror. Emma saw him run a hand over Marianne's thigh in a possessive manner that she found unsettling. Uneasiness turned to wrath when Willows dipped his head and ran a tongue over the girl's ample décolletage.
"You cad! Unhand her at once!" Emma demanded, making a desperate lunge for Marianne.
Willows quickly planted a boot in her midriff and shoved her back into the seat. "Stay still and quiet," he growled, "or I'll put a ball between your eyes."
Marianne giggled. It was an ugly sound.
Emma glanced from one to the other, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. "What is this game?" she asked, a dull and leaden ache spreading through her belly. "Marianne, has he threatened you? Coerced you? In God's name, tell me!"
"Willows and I are to be man and wife," Marianne replied, snuggling closer to the man in question. "He wrote to me after he learned that I was to marry Mr. Musgrove. Isn't it exciting? A real elopement! Oh, my mother will gnash her teeth when she finds out that I've run away with Willows!"
"Your assumptions were mistaken, Miss Fullham." Willows pursed his plump lips. "I never kidnapped Marianne. True, we went to Bath - and I intended to make her my bride when I could - but Mr. Pye put all our plans at naught. I had to resign my commission and flee to the north of England, for my reputation was in deshabille thanks to that gentleman's work. However, last month an acquaintance made mention to me of Marianne's engagement. When I learned of it, I made all haste to contact my beloved. Our affection for one another was unaltered. Absence does make the heart grow fonder."
"How long has this affair been going on?" Emma felt sick, looking at their smug faces. The coach rocked on its springs as the driver urged the horses around a corner. She braced herself and swallowed hard.
Marie said, "Willows and I met in Wynbourne to make our plans. He is very clever, you see. We need money and you are going to procure it for us, Emma!"
"I do not have the pleasure of understanding you," Emma said, pressing a fist to her breast.
"It is you who are being kidnapped!" Marianne said with another giggle. "Is that not the most amusing thing? You believed I was running away with you, but that was just a bag of moonshine. Your weakness for the fairer sex made everything easy. I told Willows about you, and he planned it thus so you would be deceived!"
"What wickedness is this!" Emma cried. "Have I meant nothing to you? I thought you loved me!"
Marianne said to her with casual cruelty, "I am all astonishment, madam! Did you think that a few kisses and heated fumblings would be enough to turn my regard from Willows? I'll admit that your attentions gave me a little pleasure, and you were a very kind friend to me when I was otherwise alone, but there was nothing else on my part."
Emma damned herself for a fool. Aloud, she said, "I tried to be good to you, Marianne. I was willing to sacrifice my family, my home, so that we could be together."
"What is that to me? Is it my fault that you were willing - nay, eager - to hang upon my every word? To believe every faradiddle I told you? Hah! I'm a champion story-teller, am I not? Lured you into the Devil's own scrape with false tears and lies, and you followed straight behind me like a lovesick calf! I could laugh myself to fits thinking about it."
"You lying chit!" Emma spat, a burst of anger overwhelming her. Instead of gold and amber, the lantern light inside the coach was tinged with red. "You shameless wanton hussy!"
Marianne was quick to respond. "Stupid wench! How dare you insult me? Willows, do something!"
Emma leaned forward, her blue eyes bright with fury. She was raging at herself, at the Providence that had made her a dupe, at the loss of all the illusions that she had held dear. Love's opposite is hate; at that moment, if she had possessed a pistol, she would have shot Marianne dead without a qualm.
"I wish to God that I could scrub myself clean of your pollution," Emma said flatly. "To live with the knowledge that I have touched such a loathsome creature is almost more than I can bear."
"Enough!" Willows said loudly. "I've heard enough, by Jove, so sheathe your claws - both of you!" He poked the flintlock at Emma, who sat back and glared. Marianne sneered in triumph.
"You will not profit from this crime," Emma said to the man. "My brother will come. He knows how to deal with scoundrels like you."
"Your brother will not miss you until he returns from London," Marianne answered. "By that time, we will have you safely locked away. Mr. Fullham will pay a large ransom, and Willows and I will go to the Continent, where we shall be very gay together."
Emma kept her attention on Willows. "And if he does not pay?"
Willows smirked unpleasantly. "Oh, I think he will. Look upon this as an adventure, Miss Fullham. Taken captive against your will, forced to accede to your captor's whims at pistol point. Solitary confinement in a ruined abbey - or better yet, a haunted convent - where you may wallow in despair and grief to your heart's content. Just like in one of those novels you fancy, eh?"
"If you touch me, I will kill myself," Emma said, not liking the gleam in the man's eyes or the way he kept wetting his lips.
"Your virtue is safe," he said. "I have no interest in you beyond your brother's fortune."
Suddenly, they heard the driver's panicked shout above the drumming of rain. The coach gave a sickening lurch. Marianne's scream was echoed by the horses. Willows bellowed like a wounded beast. Emma cracked her head against the side of the window; scarlet light and pain burst behind her eyes, then faded to darkness as she lost consciousness.
The coach lurched again, seemed to pause for a breathless moment, and finally toppled over on its side with a mighty crash.
Emma woke up with a gasp. Ice cold water saturated her to the skin. She was disoriented at first, until she realized that the coach had been overturned and was lying on its side in a rain-swollen stream. Emma was on her back, lying at the bottom of the wreck. Water had come in through the shattered window beneath her, and she was partially submerged. There was no sign of Willows or Marianne. Above, she could see the sky framed by the open door; storm clouds still swirled around the moon and a few drops of rain were falling, but the violent tempest seemed to have passed.
She tried to move and bit back a scream as a vague ache in her ankle bloomed into agony. One of her legs was stretched up in the air, her foot wedged beneath the collapsed seat. She thought her ankle might be broken. Emma tried to pull her foot out and was rewarded only by a fresh wave of pain. The limb would not budge. Because of the awkward angle of her leg, she could neither sit nor stand. Emma was well and truly trapped.
Emma called out, "Help! Someone help me, please!" Her cries became more urgent when she realized that the water level was gradually rising.
The stream was not yet deep enough to cover her face, but that could only be a matter of time. In a frenzied panic, Emma began to thrash around, heedless of the excruciating pain that flashed up her leg. The water was up to her ears. It lapped at the bottom of her chin. It kissed her cheeks and trembled at the outer corners of her eyes. Emma screamed, took in a mouthful of water and choked, fluid bubbling up from her throat. Racked by convulsions that threatened to tear her apart, she coughed and spluttered until her airway was clear again.
After a few moments of harsh panting, she caught her breath and blinked away the droplets clinging to her eyelashes. Above her, the moon shone as brightly as a silver penny; it was surrounded by a halo of cold fire. She focused her gaze on the moon and lifted her head. Outside, she could hear nothing except the gurgling of the stream, the wind rushing through trees. Emma blinked again, the hysteria that had gripped her fading quickly. She was left feeling grateful that no one had witnessed her embarrassing loss of control, but also angry that her pleas for help went unanswered. Where were Willows and Marianne? Could they have been thrown clear of the wreck? And where was the driver?
More minutes passed while she gathered her strength for another attempt. Gritting her teeth, she tried to move her foot back and forth in the hope that she might be able to shift it out from under the seat. The pain was terrible, but she persisted until it became obvious that no amount of effort on her part would be able to free the limb. She had to take a different approach.
Elbows braced against the wood beneath her, she pushed her body up until her torso was out of the water. It was not an easy position to maintain - threads of fire were crawling across her shoulders and neck - but Emma thought she could hold herself up until help arrived. They had been on the road to London; it was a well traveled route, and if someone did not come tonight, it was likely that a post coach or private carriage or express rider would be along in the morning. The accident would be discovered. If she could just hold out until dawn, there was every hope of rescue.
If the water stopped rising.
If the stream did not flood its banks and sweep her away, coach and all.
Merciful God, Emma prayed, if it be Thy will, deliver me from this fate. I do not want to die.
Like an answer to her prayer, a face appeared above her at the open door. It was Willows.
"Stand up and give me your hand!" he shouted.
"It is not possible!" Emma cried back to him, so grateful that she could have kissed the scoundrel. Relief made her feel faint. "My foot is caught!"
"Well, pull it out!"
"I cannot! Help me, sir! Can you not see that I am trapped?"
Willows cursed. He had abandoned his coat; his white linen shirt was wet through, dyed pink in places where a cut had bled and rain had bleached the stain. "Are you certain that you cannot free yourself?"
"Yes! For God's sake, help me!"
He still held his flintlock in one hand. To Emma's shock, he aimed it at her.
"I'm sorry, Miss Fullham," Willows said. "The coachman is dead of a broken neck and I cannot free you without assistance. If you prefer to drown, I'll leave you to make peace with your Maker. Otherwise, I'll do you a mercy and make the end quick. It will be painless, I assure you. I'm an excellent shot."
Emma screamed a hoarse protest, and as if by magic, an arrow appeared in Willows' arm.
He dropped the pistol and turned, falling off the coach. Emma heard hoofbeats and men's voices shouting and howls that had little to do with the wind. She lay there, dazed and numb, beyond any reaction at all. Her strength was gone, her will shattered by too many strains, too much horror in a single night. There was nothing left except mute acceptance. She let her head fall back into the water and waited for the end.
Raindrops pattered gently on her face. The storm was fading. Her eyes closed, only to flutter open again when someone called, "Miss Fullham! Emma! Good God, Emma, speak to me!"
It was Penelope Pye, peering down at her anxiously. "Tell me, are you hurt? Please, sweetheart, say something!"
Emma could not answer. There was nothing to say.
She closed her eyes again and let peaceful oblivion carry her away - to Heaven or Hell, it did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore. She was so tired... so very tired...
Not even that lady's insistence could make Emma disobey the call to rest.
Emma woke up slowly, her recollection a somewhat confused jumble of images and sounds. She remembered the coach ride, the moment when she had learned the extent of Marianne's betrayal. The appearance of Willows. The kidnap plot, and then they were overturned, and the water...
She sat up, heart racing, and found herself warm and dry in her own bed at Stafford House.
A nagging headache gripped her temples. Careful examination with her fingertips revealed a bandage wrapped around her brow. Emma's throat was dry and scratchy, too. All that was nothing compared to the throb of her broken ankle. Her foot felt unnaturally stiff. She reached down beneath the covers and felt linen wrappings binding her limb tightly from instep to mid-calf.
Glancing around the room, she saw Penelope Pye sitting in a chair near the window, reading a book. Since her awakening had gone unnoticed, Emma lay back on the mound of pillows and studied the other woman.
Penelope's face was drawn and pale; this made her beaky nose seem even more impressive than usual. Her hair was pulled back in an untidy bun; she wore a stained apron over her dress. Dark circles had formed like bruises beneath her eyes. Penelope looked as though she been suffering acutely, and Emma thought she knew the cause.
I have caused her so much anguish and grief. It is all my fault. She came to care for me when I was hurt because she is good and kind, but I can see how much it pains her. How she must have steeled herself to touch me, believing that I'm no better than... no. I wrong her compassionate spirit. She would think only of a friend's duty and perform what service she could without grudging or complaint. I was a fool - ten thousand times a blind fool - to mistake Marianne's dross for Penelope's gold. The one soul is worthless; the other bears a price beyond rubies.
Emma's chest began to ache under the weight of unshed tears, unvoiced sobs, unuttered words. She still loved Penelope; those feelings would never change, not if she lived to be a hundred years old. That kiss at the ball would never be forgotten. She would experience that glorious moment again and again in her dreams. Yet Emma would not force her attentions on one who found them so obviously repugnant, nor would she permit Penelope to remain in an environment which she found distressing. Penelope would have to leave Stafford House and return to The Pynery as quickly as possible.
And afterwards, since I cannot avoid her in society, I will probably go to London when my ankle will bear the travel, Emma decided. 'Twill be the purest torment to leave her, but what else can I do?
Watching Penelope sitting there reminded Emma of a poem. She murmured softly, "Graceful and useful all she does, blessing and blest where'er she goes; Pure-bosom'd as that watery glass, and Heaven reflected in her face."
Penelope's book fell from her lap as she rose to her feet. "Miss Fullham! You are awake!" A brilliant smile spread across her features. "Thank God!"
Emma could not return the smile; indeed, she could scarcely bring herself to look Penelope in the face. She felt terribly awkward and uneasy. "Yes, I am much better, I think," she said, averting her gaze and peering at the other woman from beneath lowered eyelashes. Absently, her fingers began plucking at a loose thread on the embroidered coverlet.
"I had thought... that is, we were all worried..." Penelope faltered and stopped, a spot of bright pink burning in each cheek.
"I am alive, and I thank you most profoundly for your concern," Emma replied, resolved to mask her feelings behind a polite facade. "Would you be so kind as to call my brother?"
Several emotions flickered across Penelope's face - chagrin, anger, pain - before she presented a blank countenance. "Of course. I shall fetch Mr. Fullham at once," she said. "He will be eager to see you." Without uttering another word, she left the room.
Emma sighed and continued to unravel threads until Guy came into her bedchamber. He wore a grin so wide, it seemed to stretch from ear to ear.
"Dearest sister!" he cried, practically glowing with relief. "You do not know how sick I was with worrying! How do you feel? Do you wish food or drink? Ask and it shall be yours." He danced from foot to foot in his eagerness and joy.
"My throat is dry," Emma replied, and accepted a glass of wine from him. After a few sips, she said, "Do sit down, Guy, and stop buzzing about the room like a bumblebee!"
"Oh, but I am so top-filled with joy, I should like to fly!" Guy laughed, dragged the chair to her bedside and sat down. He could not stop grinning. "It has been a harrowing three days... add an evening to the score, too, if we are to count your rescue as part of the ordeal."
Emma's hand tightened around the wine glass until it threatened to crack. "Can you... can you tell me what happened? I remember so little about it..."
"And no wonder! You must have been crazed with fear." Guy leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. "Well, I had gone to London to make arrangements for your pony phaeton, since I believed that you had won our wager. I returned early and thought to surprise Mrs. Palmer and her unmarried daughters by paying a call at Wendelwood towards the end of the ball. Upon my arrival, I met Miss Pye, who seemed anxious because both you and her sister were missing and could not be found upon the grounds. An inquiry amongst the servants revealed that your hire coach had been observed leaving the house in great haste. Furthermore, some of the other coachmen had witnessed a strange gentleman entering the hire coach earlier in the evening, and were able to describe him in great detail.
"It was at this point that Miss Pye became alarmed. She related to me the details of an incident between a John Willows and Miss Marianne Pye, and that this was the man whom the coachmen described. Miss Pye proclaimed Willows to be a scoundrel and a rogue of the blackest sort. It was assumed that he was in the north of England, but she had seen him in London a few weeks previously, and she came home at once to inform her family.
"Needless to say, everyone feared for the safety of two young women in such company. It was assumed that he had abducted you both for some nefarious purpose. Myself and a party of gentlemen set off on horseback to overtake the coach. Miss Pye insisted on accompanying us, for she swore most dreadfully that if Willows harmed you, he would pay dearly, and her own hands would take the pound of flesh he owed! She is the most extraordinary creature, Emma, but I suspect you know that already."
"I do," Emma said, wondering why Penelope would want to defend her so fiercely.
Guy continued, "We stopped only once, to retrieve Miss Pye's weapons. The rest of us were already armed with pistols, but she was most familiar with the bow, and put it under her cloak to keep it dry. What a terrible ride! With the storm howling all around us, the night was dark as pitch and fairly impenetrable. More than once we thought that we were on the wrong track. The road was full of puddles and pitfalls and ruts deep near enough to sink a horse to the fetlocks! Yet we persisted at breakneck speed, and Miss Pye was the most daring of us all.
"Then, when we finally came upon the coach, it was overturned in a stream. There was no sign of you. We could see Miss Marianne Pye huddled beneath a tree on the opposite bank, and Willows standing on the upturned side of the coach. He had a pistol. The eldest Miss Pye did not hesitate, but shot the damned - pardon me, dearest - the deuced blackguard in the arm with an arrow. He fell off and tried to make a run for it. Mr. Palmer and some of the gentleman went in hot pursuit of the rascal, while the rest searched for you. It was Miss Pye who found you trapped in the coach. Oh, you were nearly dead, poor girl, but Miss Pye refused to let you go. I have met Army colonels who had not half as much command! While she braced your leg, the rest of us pushed the coach upright on its wheels. After that, it was ax work to cut you free. Miss Pye stayed with you the entire time and insisted on carrying you back to Stafford House herself. And she has not left your side for an instant these three terrible days, nursing you back to health, preparing medicines and cures... in short, Dr. Delford has proclaimed her a horrid nuisance, but could find no fault in either her sickroom skills or her devotion.
"I do believe Miss Pye cares for you greatly... perhaps more than you know," Guy concluded, and sat back in his chair with an air of satisfaction.
Emma did not trust herself to speak for several long minutes. At last, she asked, "What of Willows and Marianne?"
"John Willows... hmph." Guy ground a fist in his opposite palm and scowled. "That damned - pardon me, dear - cursed scoundrel had the cheek to try and threaten me with the exposure of my sister's peccadilloes unless I stopped his mouth with cash. Hah! I gave Willows a good thrashing and warned him that if he came within a hundred yards of the village again, I would certainly call him out. He escaped and fled two days ago, presumably to the Continent. As for Miss Marianne Pye, she has gone to Oxfordshire to stay with relations until her wedding to Mr. Henry Musgrove."
"Poor, stupid Marianne," Emma said. "She will never appreciate Mr. Musgrove, I fear. He is not romantic enough."
"She is besotted with ideas and illusions. There is no reason for you to emulate her behavior."
Emma's eyes went wide with surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
Guy took her hand and squeezed it affectionately. "I do not know what passed between you and Miss Penelope Pye on previous occasions, but it is clear to me that she loves you, Emma."
"No. It is impossible." Emma wrenched her hand out of his grasp. It was very unfair, she thought, for her brother to pile misery upon misery. Have I not suffered enough? "She does not. She cannot."
"Nonsense! If you two have had some trivial quarrel..."
"Nothing like that, Guy, I assure you."
"Well, then, don't lose this opportunity, dearest!" Guy stood up and smoothed back his cropped blonde curls. "She loves you deeply. I swear that I'm not mistaken. Why else would she risk her life? It was not for the sake of her sister that she rode miles in the rain and the dark. And there is something else I have not told you. Willows admitted that he was prepared to shoot you - a mercy, he claimed, for he could not bear to see you drowned. It took three grown men to subdue Miss Pye and stop her from killing the rogue on the spot. She was positively enraged on your behalf. Indeed, the curses she uttered were such that if I were Willows, I might have died of pure fright! I doubt he would have fled so handily if Miss Pye had not prompted that flight with promises of tortures beyond measure. I would not have wanted to face her with a brace of pistols to hand."
"She... she wanted to fight for me?"
"She was eager to defend your honor and punish the man who had nearly caused your death. That goes beyond mere friendship, my girl. Tell me again that Miss Pye does not love you!"
"Oh, Guy... I don't know what to do!" Emma buried her face in her hands and began to cry. The whole sorry tale poured out in a rush. Her infatuation with Marianne. How her feelings had changed, her affections turning to Penelope, then the confusion and doubt that had led her back to Marianne. The ball, the kiss... and a rejection that had shattered her heart. She did not spare herself; she admitted that her own foolishness had been the ultimate cause of all her woes.
"If only," Emma wept, "if only..."
Emma became gradually aware that someone was sitting next to her, holding her tightly. She assumed it was her brother. That same someone gave her a handkerchief, and she used it to wipe her eyes and wet cheeks. When she looked up to thank Guy, she froze in shock.
The person holding her was Penelope!
Guy was still standing next to the bed. He raised a gilded brow at both women and said, "I believe that some private discussion is required, so I will take my leave." He bowed and walked out of the room.
Emma was left alone with the one woman whom she loved and feared more than anyone else in the world.
She recoiled, terrified of giving offense, of humiliating herself, but Penelope gathered her in a closer embrace and said, "Do not struggle so, sweetheart. Unless you find this unpleasant, in which case I'll trouble you no more."
"Please," Emma whimpered. Although she had ceased trying to pull away, her body was rigid. She waited, suspense rubbing already raw nerves to the breaking point.
"I have not that ease, which some possess, in revealing my innermost feelings at the snap of a finger," Penelope began at last, one hand stroking Emma's hair. "I am a cautious and private person. It gives me no pleasure to put myself forward that way. Some think me cold and uncaring because I will not hang my heart upon my sleeve... but I do have a heart."
"I do not doubt it, madam," Emma said stiffly, crumpling the handkerchief in her hands.
"Hush, dearest, and listen. This is not a simple confession to make." Penelope paused, drew a deep breath, and continued, "The first moment that we met, when you were walking with my sister on the village green, I knew you were not one of those frivolous and goose-witted girls who plague the countryside composing sonnets to sheep or odes to dead leaves. Oh, you played the part very well, as one exceedingly practiced at the art, but I felt there were depths to you that were yet unplumbed. I was intrigued. I was entranced. You were so beautiful! How I despised myself for hurting you with the truth about Marianne! At the same time, I rejoiced because in severing your connection to her, my own suit might have a chance. Was this very wicked of me?"
Emma said in a very small voice, "I do not know." She was not entirely sure of the direction this conversation would take; some apprehension remained that Penelope was merely being kind and trying to soften the blow to come.
"Ah, but you must hear the rest," Penelope said. "It was I who encouraged my father to speak to your brother about the Ladies' Toxophilite Society. This was the only way I could become acquainted with you. You can have no idea, Emma, how difficult it was for me to maintain propriety when you were in my house that day. Even covered in mud and bruises, you were like some dazzling goddess. The temptation was very great. If I had not known you were in pain, if I were not sensible of right and wrong, I might have abandoned prudence altogether. I could not, of course. As far as I knew, you regarded me as a friend and nothing more. No, not even that. I was the one who had ruined your hopes with Marianne.
"So I made the effort and we did become friends. The more we were together, the more sure I became that you were the woman to whom I longed to give my heart. If only you knew how much I have suffered, wondering if you could ever return my love! Despite my feelings, I had to be cautious, I had to be sure - this is part of my nature. Doubt tormented me. Finally, I thought I discovered some regard for me in your countenance, though your affections were not marked enough to make me declare myself on the spot. I decided to tell you of my feelings on the night of the ball."
"You kissed me," Emma said, touching fingertips to her lips.
"Yes, I kissed you." Penelope's dark brows drew together in a frown. "That was the surprise I had teased you about. You seemed to be delighted, at least until the end. Imagine how I felt when I heard your protest! You whimpered like a wounded kitten, and the look in your eyes is one that I will never forget. Your face was pale as milk. God save me, I thought I had violated you in the most despicable fashion. To make such an appalling mistake! I was too overwrought to offer an apology. Instead, I withdrew from your presence immediately, in order to preserve you from further distress."
"No!" Emma cried, almost falling from the bed in her haste to put her arms around Penelope's neck. "I thought you hated me! I thought I had offended you terribly, to make you run away like that!"
"Then you did not... you were not..."
"Of course I wanted you to kiss me, you ninny! In fact, after the first, I desperately wanted you to kiss me again."
The sheepish expression on Penelope's face made Emma laugh. All her cares seemed to vanish in an instant. Once again, she felt enveloped in a warm glow that made her tingle from crown to toes. "I love you," Emma said, gazing into Penelope's fine dark eyes. "I love you more than I can possibly express. Do you think that you're the only one who has bedewed her pillow with tears? I was not sure of your feelings in the matter. I even wrote you passionate letters, but dared not send them lest you think me too forward. "
"Did you? I wish you had sent them. Then you might not have been abducted by that blackguard, Willows."
Emma sighed. "The day before the ball, Marianne told me that her marriage to Mr. Musgrove was forced. When I decided there was no hope that you would reciprocate my affections, it seemed that saving her was the best thing to do. I believed she loved me. I could not leave the poor creature to her fate. Marianne was familiar; I could cling to her as a habit and forget how much I desired to be with you instead."
"And then we kissed, and misunderstood each other, and you nearly lost your life because I'm a fool!" Penelope groaned. "Perhaps you had better not love me, if only for the sake of your continued good health."
"But you saved me most heroically. I hear that you offered to spill Willows' claret, too, for daring to endanger me."
Penelope said fiercely, "That disgusting ruffian was going to shoot you in cold blood! Had he harmed a hair of your precious head, I would have torn him limb from limb. As it was, I managed to puncture him with an arrow before he could fire."
"Did you know that I was inside the coach?" Emma asked, curious to discover the answer.
"Somehow, I did. It was the luckiest shot I have ever made." Penelope grinned. "Fully fifty yards in the dark, in a rainstorm, to boot. And so small a target at that distance! But I am almost ashamed to admit that I was aiming for his chest, not his arm. The thought that you were about to be murdered set my blood afire. I would have killed him if I could. Afterwards, when you were brought from the coach and I knew you would live, I confronted him. He had the audacity to expect me to applaud him for granting you mercy instead of abandoning you to an agonizing death. Had your brother and some others not restrained me, I would have done considerably more than draw a little blood from him, my dear. I would have broken his neck!"
"I seem to recall that you called me sweetheart, or was that part of my delirium?"
"I forgot myself, so great was my agitation. I fear that your brother must have overheard me. He has been winking at me and making suggestions as to poetry and plays I might read aloud while you convalesce. Hence my embarrassment when you awakened; I thought you had remembered the endearment and been offended by it."
Emma giggled and snuggled closer, feeling incredibly cherished and protected. "Lord, we are a pair of idiots!"
"The course of true love never did run smooth, if one is to believe the poets."
"Speak to me not of poetry! Or novels, or Italian songs, or picturesque landscapes, or dead leaves and sheep! I know what love is now. I shall never again mistake sentiment for truth." Emma could hear Penelope's heart beating. She thought the sound was finer than any music ever played. "You know, the first time I saw you, I thought you were an Amazon. My first impression has not been proven wrong."
"Nor has mine. I thought you were lovely and spirited and brilliant as a star." Penelope leaned her brow against Emma's hair and breathed in her ear, "So... we are in agreement. We love one another, and neither of us has any reservations on that score."
They kissed, their lips meeting, mouths joining together in a harmony that was sweet and timeless. Nothing else existed; the world was utterly forgotten. When they broke apart to breathe, Emma said, recalling the poem she had uttered earlier, "When I look at you, I see Heaven in your face."
"You are so beautiful..." Penelope whispered, her expression suffused with a joy and wonderment that made her beautiful, too.
"Kiss me again, my dearest Amazon. Never stop, not while we live."
"Never, Fair Clorinda. Not while we live, I swear."
They melted into one another's arms, two souls that had suffered and found each other through the storm. Cherished and cherishing, loved and loving, both friends and lovers. Each was completed by a love that was deep and abiding. Doubt and error were gone; in their place was a union powerful enough to withstand tempests and remain unmoved, unaltering and unchanging except to grow ever stronger as the years passed.
After a time, Emma murmured, "Lock the door."
And Penelope hastened to comply.