Three Bridges

 
 

 

A regency novel by JF Bailey

 Chapter One

 

 

 

The sunny village of Three Bridges (some sixteen miles from the larger market town of Axminster in the south of England) boasted three quaint bridges and four rather impressive residents. Or so the villagers proudly reckoned. In truth, one bridge was so old and crumbling that it were more a ruin than a functional structure, but to possess such high numbers of the upper crust surrounding a village of only thirteen dwellings, one baker, and one very small parish church was fortune indeed.

First of the noteworthy residents was a spectacularly fine, albeit fatherless family of the oldest and noblest English blood – Lady Eleanor Channing and her four young sons. A widow since her husband battled three years against a weakening illness that eventually claimed him, the Lady was in rare possession of her own title and fortune, fortune indeed, and so the young family prospered in their country seat, Stanton Manor, a large property with many tenant farmers and much fertile land.

Three miles hence resided the James family, of the landed gentry, a family filled with good teaching and good taste, where a general love of all books prevailed. Despite being the possessors of several distinguished knights lighting the family tree during the age of Henry VIII, their branch had long since been untitled. Not that such prestiges mattered to them. Not at all. The grounded family rarely noticed such patrician ideologies as feeling superior, and this made them very well liked by the lower orders. The James family were the good neighbours to the east of Lady Channing and her growing sons and were the prosperous owners of Brightly House, a house so named for it’s unusually large windows and abundance of natural light therein. But also so named, according to village lore, because of the brightness of the souls that resided there. Kindness and sweet dispositions made that house shine brighter, villagers often said. Surrounded by sloping meadows and well-sprinkled with fine oaks, the property possessed areas with pretty rustic lanes and hidden nooks sheltering early primroses and wild hyacinths and many intricate bird nests. The James family were blessed with two daughters who had quite possibly the most beautiful mother that ever did exist. Mrs. James was frail, delicate, and very kind, and her husband, Mr. James, a lovable gentleman with unruly sideburns known for treating his servants prodigiously well.

The third prominent resident near Three Bridges was the modestly funded but very grand, Lady Emma Ashley, Dowager Duchess of Pembury, now retired to a small residence of her own purchase in order to avoid her toadying step-son, now odiously the most insipid Duke of Pembury that ever did inherit the title. The villagers said her heart sang to be rid of the haunted Dower House at Pembury with twenty-eight cold rooms and no privacy at all. Her eight rooms nestled in the picturesque shadow of a rolling green hill, home also to the remnants of a sixth century chapel now blanketed mostly with ferns and roots, suited her well, as did hiring a brand new staff from the local village and surrounding tenants, none of whom had ever heard of her great pustule of a step-son. She did not miss the generous allowance the Duke of Toadying had bestowed upon her, for her freedom and days filled with peace were worth their weight in gold.

Last of the prominent residents, Three Bridges housed one comfortably well-off country squire of the overweight, red nosed and often unwashed variety who possessed but a little land, a lot of self-importance, and several tenant farmers whom paid their rent mostly on time. Squire Weatherspoon kept a close eye on the local church and was, in truth, the possessor of questionable genealogical roots but who owned such strength of character, like that of a lion, so fierce and hairy and occasionally slobbery (especially whilst expostulating with righteous indignation over a point of church doctrine) that no one ever dared brave the storm to challenge him his past. Confirmed bachelor by choice – as he so often reminded those within earshot – and an horrific gossiper – though he denies any such unchristian vice – the villagers (especially the vicar) put up with his sometimes thorny ways mostly with good humour and the occasional shake of the head.

These nobles of varying shades and degrees along with many tenant farmers who lived in considerable comfort and prosperity on the various properties (for their taxes were low, their noble landlords on the whole fair and good and their soil yielding vastly good crops year after year in this fertile region south of London) made the village and it’s surrounding lands an area filled with a general sense of good fortune and content living. Indeed it felt as though the sun shone warmer over Three Bridges.

Our story begins at the ivy-covered Stanton Manor, home of the Channing family and all those rambunctious boys. It was a very grand old place and not only because it housed one of the famed bridges for which the town was so named. The Manor itself was a converted abbey some three stories tall with the bell tower still intact. The old, double-arched stone bridge built by the monks seven hundred years earlier was located on the boundary leading into the small village, of which was also Channing land, crossing over a peaceful stream that meandered lazily toward the big lake some two miles away behind the Manor. The picturesque, ivy-covered arches of the bridge were surrounded by tremendous selborne yews whose thick, hollowed-out gnarled trunks lined the stream in a highly impressive border to Lady Channing’s lands; lands that also possessed pockets of lush forests of scots pine teaming with game and secret hiding places. There were small hidden ponds filled with the friendliest fish that practically jumped onto ones hook and genuine ruins of a Norman castle long since forgotten by history but not forgotten by those four boisterous Channing boys with their dark hair, matching blue eyes and mischievous grins.

Nor their two female neighbours for that matter. I am speaking of Annabelle James, an authoritative eight year old who knew everything about anything according to her own reckoning, and her younger sister by four years, Frederica James, the absolute opposite of her elder know-it-all sister of whom she adored with glowing stars in her eyes, following her everywhere like a happy little shadow.

The Channing boys were, from eldest to youngest, John, Edgar, Peter and skinny little James – the youngest so named in honour of their beloved neighbour, Mr. James. John being fifteen and James six, with Peter and Edgar falling somewhere in between.

It was of the second eldest, Edgar, that the eight year old know-it-all Annabelle had taken an immediate a liking to as a babe and likewise, he. He took to dragging her chubby form about on his small hip, holding her as he saw the nursemaids do, searching for adventures. He oft times took her into the scented rose garden to dig for worms (of which she ate a fair few) and into the Channing hedge maze with sandwiches and cordial then promptly getting lost for hours. He possessed a penchant, much to Mrs. James softly-feminine dismay, of disappearing with her daughter only to be found – after a search party had often been formed – smelling of something indistinguishably dirty having without fail ventured into some place filled with snails and puppy dog tails.

Though Annabelle’s mother was oft confused over a girl behaving so un-lady-like, baby Annabelle relished her time with Edgar and always returned home from those neighbourly visits sun-kissed, gurgling and happy, covered from head to toe in dry, crackling mud and more oft than not, grasping a new pet toad possessively in hand.

But now, at the stately age of eight years, the mature and worldly-wise Annabelle did not remember eating worms with Edgar – although he did. Just a faint recollection somewhere on the edge of his younger memories for he were only five at the time. Today, as a toothy twelve year old with his first spot and soft, dark blonde fuzz thickening upon his upper lip, he pulled at her long braids and sing-songed, “Rats-tails, rats-tails, Annie has rats-tails! You better watch out for the black plague, Ratty Annie!”

That’s Annabelle to you, Edgar Channing, and I’ll give you the plague!” She ran after him chomping with her teeth, jutting the top ones forward in a rat-like way, her delightful younger shadow, Frederica, mimicking her every move and giggling wildly. Annabelle was not offended by his teasing; rather she revelled in it, her scrupulous desire for accuracy causing her to feel ecstatically pleased that he had remembered what she had so sombrely informed him regarding the disease-carrying rodents on her previous visit to Stanton Manor. She liked being listened to. It made her feel like the grown-up she was certain she was – a grown-up trapped inside a freckly school misses body. Oh, how she couldn’t wait to be old like mother!

Chasing him all the way to the big lake, chomping and laughing the entire way, Annie and Freddie crashed down in the long grass by the water with Eddie. They were a team of two plus one little half – the dark haired Annie, the gangly Eddie and little blonde Freddie. Little Freddie and her glowing golden ringlets immediately rolled over onto her tummy and crawled after a grasshopper, having the attention span of a grasshopper herself. Eddie crept silently through the long grass and caught one for her, then, crouching in front of her with the water of the lake glistening like diamonds in the summer sun behind him, he slowly opened his hands. The hopper flew out and Freddie squealed with delight and fell back in the grass. All three laughed and jumped about like hoppers, jumping into the lake fully clothed and splashing happily for quite some time. After a while, the elder two stood to their knees in the water and fished the afternoon away under the warm summer sun while Freddie napped in the shade of an elm tree.

When they each took their catch to the kitchens, Eddie and Annie felt the proud glow of being provider for French Chef exclaimed he would “serve zee beauteez for din-yeur!” The three children then retired to the library where a groomsman asked haughtily if Master Edgar should have him call off The Search Party. The usual lack-lustre party had been formed and sent out in search of them an hour previous, but the servants merely looked about with half-hearted enthusiasm, having learned long ago that there really was no need for panic where Master Edgar and Miss Annabelle were concerned – those two who were now lounging about the library in their half-dried clothing reading romances and adventures as though they were lord and lady of the place.

It was to be five years later on a blustery winters day that a vacant-eyed thirteen-year-old Annabelle arrived disheveled upon the doorstep of Stanton Manor, desolate and white with shock.

Edgar had seen her approach from the small school room window and now stood under the ancient arch of the main entrance, staring wordlessly at the unusual sight.

“Edgar… say something… to take this agony away,” she whispered hoarsely as they stood staring at one another upon the windy step.

“What is it? What has happened, Annabelle?”

Empty eyes suddenly turned wild, she clawed at her chest and struggled to swallow, “I… cannot breathe, Eddie…”

“Annie, what is wrong?” He reached for her, quite alarmed.

He was eventually able to extract from her the sad news of her mother passing during the night, it had been the influenza and it had been very fast.

“Annie, I’m so terribly sorry…” said the gangly sixteen year old as he pulled her into his skeletal chest, embracing her.

“Why do the kindest get taken, Eddie? First your father, and now my mother?”

He smoothed out her tangled hair with awkward fingers as he recalled his own father dying, “I think that we expect life to be sunshine, but it is more a cloudy day with those kinds of puffy clouds that let the sun shine through every now and then. Right now, a large cloud has cast an horrific shadow, Annie, but soon it will be warm again…” He felt her body shiver against his, as cold and rigid as ice. She had walked the long way around through the village then up the two mile drive without so much as a coat on. The winter wind whipped about them, tossing dead leaves into the marble-lined entry behind him promising snow in time for Christmastide – the possibility of which would normally have found Annie and Eddie chattering happily and making plans for snow adventures for hours.

Eddie suddenly felt very grown warming her there in the cold wind. “Oh my poor, sweet, Annie…” he murmured over and over as she finally wept into his bony shoulder.

The next spring, Eddie rode up to Brightly House to escort Annie on a promised ride around the ruins atop her new strapping mare (of whom she’d bizarrely given the masculine name, Romulus). She strode out to meet him with her head lowered, wearing men’s riding pants with two alarmingly round additions to her chest that had popped up out of nowhere.

“For the love, Annie!” Eddie laughed at the sight.

Oh do hush, my lord,” she hissed in the sarcastic way she addressed him when she was angry, “If you say one thing, I will throttle you, I swear it to God Almighty.”

I was merely going to comment on the fact that if by the choice of flattering pants you mean to ride poor Romulus like a man, that is, straddling the poor mare with the poor masculine name, well it would be most controversial, don’t you know? I… do not precisely know why…” he scratched his head, “I only know that it’s not the done thing. Not the done thing at all, Annie.”

Do not suppose to lecture me, Edgar Channing. I shall do as I please with this revolting body of mine of which I have no control over!

“Ahem. If you insist… stubborn rat,” he muttered while admiring his polished nails.

And besides, the oh-so-delicate and proper side-saddle has to be the most ridiculous invention I have ever seen,” she clipped as she checked her father’s saddle with impatient movements before mounting in one swift, angry move.

“And you have seen a great many inventions of which to compare…”

Invented by a man. I tell you, I have never sat upon anything more uncomfortable in my whole long life. My poor back! Do you want me crippled before I have yet tasted what this cursed life has to offer? I dare you to ride just one afternoon that ridiculous way. I dare you! I will give you all my pin money if you do it, but I bet you would cry like a babe before the hour is up!”

Edgar rolled his eyes and watched as she angrily settled on her mare like a man. He had to laugh.

“I bet all my money you couldn’t do it, Edgar. I bet you couldn’t last one day being me.”

He snorted. “You’re quite the Greek tragedy today,”

Laugh all you want but I warn you, get all your hee-haws out now. This, right here,” she pointed to the gravel of the drive beneath the horses fine hooves, “is your one unpublishable chance to laugh at the circus freak before you, then never again.”

So naturally he threw his head back and made it a good and hearty one. Her frustration cracked and dissipated and very soon she found herself trying not to laugh along with him. “Oh come on you gangly fool,” she said gruffly, suppressing her smile, “When are you going to start growing some real whiskers anyway, you look like a ten year old girl,” she added for good measure.

“You are merely jealous that you cannot grow whiskers yourself!” was his happy rejoinder as they raced off in the direction of the ruins, the two being possessed of an enthusiastic love of all things sport and competition.

The following year saw a much taller and broader-shouldered Edgar announcing his mothers wish to send him off to Oxford. Lady Channing’s parental government since the tragical event of her husband’s death was a fairly simple one; that she keep her boys close, without restraint. She did not send them away to school like so many others of her class, but brought the best tutors to them so that she may enjoy their youthful energy vibrating through the ancient stone walls of Stanton. But she saw something unique in Edgar; a natural acumen toward all things botanical. His passion for gardening and hunting was very natural and enduring. He was vastly active, curious and self-reliant, and would make a wonderful man some day. It was discussed that at Oxford he was to learn how to manage their various properties, and since he believed he would have a knack for it, more so than his elder brother who had shown more interest toward the controversial topic of trade, heaven forbid, he was rather in favour of the idea – that, and the glorious adventure of Oxford – Oxford!

Annabelle was jealous. Seethingly so. She wanted to go to Oxford. Oh the unfairness of being born a cursed woman! All these silly things she had to deal with like monthly courses and riding side-saddle and two giant-sized bosoms that were forever getting in the way. How she longed to be a man!

“Well, have a grand time, Eddie,” she ground out through a clenched jaw, trying to be good sporting about the whole thing and only just barely pulling the attitude off.

“Uncross those arms. I shall write you every week.”

“Well. Good. And you must tell me everything for it is most unfair that I be left behind.”

“I promise I shall!” he exclaimed in a rushed, excited sort of way, “Every adventure shall be yours for the reading I swear it!” He tugged her braid roughly and rubbed the top of her head until her hair pulled free and stood on end. She kicked him in the shins. Laughing and limping homeward, he paused a moment, then turned back and called out with his patented Channing grin, “So long rats!” and limped off happily looking forward to manhood that was so close now he could taste it.

Annabelle had reluctantly noticed that he’d finally started to shave his upper lip. Oh why did everything have to change!

That Christmas he came home for a visit. His first port of call after kissing his mothers cheek was Brightly House. “Do not be too long my dear, dinner is at four – country hours you know, darling!” Reminded Lady Channing to his retreating form, “And if you simply cannot bear being away from Annabelle for the duration of a dinner meal, you may invite her and her family to dine, just send a messenger over so Chef knows, will you dear?”

“Thank you mother!”

She smiled and shook her head, “Thick as thieves…” she murmured happily as she continued with her embroidery – an ornate edging to a new table cloth for her card table in the drawing room. She was thinking of starting a little card club with the local ladies.

Annabelle came tearing down the staircase after receiving the butler’s tortoise-like message in the schoolroom that Lord Edgar was awaiting her in the entryway (for they were too young to yet visit officially in drawing rooms).

“Eddie?! Eddie, is it you? Lord, I can barely recognise you!” she exclaimed as she peeked over the banister halfway down before leaping the rest of the way, most unladylike, “Why, you must be three inches taller and look – what sideburns! Oh my, what a dashing corinthian you look!” she ejaculated in a whirlwind of excitement as she vaulted three stairs at a time.

A corinthian?” He blushed and tugged at his impeccable silk waistcoat. “Why, I was aiming for a devilishly handsome dandy,” he secretly puffed under her compliment, “I’ve vastly cleaner teeth than the corinthian set, don’t you know.” He flashed his healthy teeth inside a charming Channing grin as though to prove the point.

“Good heavens, you prankster,” she panted happily at the bottom of the staircase, wondering for a curiously awkward moment if she should curtsey, for he suddenly looked so old. “You did not even tell me you were coming and I received your last letter but two days ago! What a rascal you are!” she laughed.

“It was a last minute impulse, a whim!”

“Oh confess Eddie, you cannot lie to me, you just wanted to surprise us all and make us all extremely giddy.”

“Ah, you know me too well! Did it work?”

She grabbed her thick shawl and worn kidskin gloves from a stand in the entry and motioned for him to join her on a walk outdoors where they could be as noisy as they liked, never taking her eyes from him. “I swear I can barely recognise you Eddie. Please don’t grow into a man too soon. You may forget me!”

“Why should I stop growing into a man, when it appears you are growing into a woman?” he looked her up and down with a twinkle in his eye, pretending to gauge her value at market as though she were a cow. It did not escape his notice that she were still binding her bosoms into a more boyish figure, “I am afraid neither one of us can avoid the inevitable forever, Annie.”

She groaned. “Pray, do not remind me…” She whined in a very depressed tone, showing her age despite her outward changes. “Being a woman could very possibly be the death of me. Oh cruel world. Cruel fate. Cruel God!” She cursed the leaden skies, for she currently lived within the pages of gothic novels.

“Whom else could you add to that list of blame I wonder?”

“Cruel Mamma and cruel Papa for begetting me in the first place!”

He rolled his eyes and laughed, “What news Annie, since last you wrote?”

She looked out over the dry wintery landscape as they strolled, over the sleeping oat fields and the leafless trees, the monotones of browns that surrounded Brightly House, and she sighed with great passion. “Well Eddie, I must confess that not much happens around these parts since you have been up at Oxford. My life is rather dull now.” She suddenly skipped and kicked a pebble as far down the dirt path as she could. “Your youngest brother James comes here often, as you know, for he learns the pianoforte with Freddie – both very ill indeed,” she laughed and her childish face changed into something different, which Eddie could not quite identify and so soon forgot, “They are like twins in their complete inability to detect a tone and duplicate it harmoniously.”

“Ah, they are tone deaf. That could be quite entertaining to bear witness to – shall we invite them to perform after dinner this evening at Stanton Manor? Mother would like very much for you all to join us.”

“Oh, it has been such an age! Yes! I will answer for us all, yes!” Turning to the house she called out in a very unladylike manner to the butler, Pigsley, whose real name was Higsley – a hunched, elderly gentleman with three hairs left on the top of his head after the rest had fallen to his ears and back in great long tufts – and asked him to please send a messenger to Stanton and to also inform Papa, Freddie and Cook of their new dinner plans. The man, who had been slowly closing the door she had left open, had long since stopped flinching at being called ‘Pigsley’ by these two. For ten years he had responded to it as though it actually were his name. He nodded in his slow, tortoise-like way.

“Thank you!” Annabelle yelled, then turned and kicked another pebble farther this time. Eddie took a short run up and beat her effort by almost half. He grinned. He liked to win.

And so did she.

Never one to back down from an unspoken challenge, she lifted her chin proudly, squinted her eyes at him in warning of an impending thrashing, and carefully lined up the perfect pebble. Lifting the hem of her faded blue schoolroom dress, she ran and kicked it with all of her might. Her pebble landed close. They immediately ran over to the two rocks and measured the winner – Eddie by three inches. He grinned again, flashing those straight Channing teeth. She accidentally ground her heal into his foot with all her might while she bent and picked a bunch of dandelion blowballs which she promptly blew into his grimacing face, all the while smiling with so much sweetness.

He held back a grin as he brushed off his face.

“And apart from being tone deaf, how is Freddie?”

“Oh Freddie is well, but slightly mad. She just turned eleven and still has some baby teeth which I am determined to pull for her in her sleep, for she refuses to touch them. She eats her food all around the things, insisting that they will fall out when it is their time, like death, giving them not one bit of help at all. Meanwhile her hair grows lighter and curlier every day while mine grows darker and straighter; her eyes grow lighter and bluer while mine grow dark like pooh-pooh.”

“Delightful.”

“I tell you, I do not know myself any longer! The looking glass betrays me, I am a stranger even unto myself!” she exclaimed dramatically. He thought she belonged on the floorboards.

“Oh Annie, you are not so different to my eyes. And what of your father?”

Good, happy, contented, his heart seems healed – you know all of this Eddie, for my letters to you are prose enough for any gothic novel, pages and pages! But what of you? How was your journey from Oxford? Did you pass through dreadful London? Were there swarms and swarms of rats pouring through the cracks of ‘Cheapside’ and ‘Rotten Row’? Did gypsies accost you on the road southbound? Did highwaymen molest you or… or perhaps a highway-woman – for I have heard they exist you know – oh tell me all! It must have been so very exciting!”

Edgar thought ruefully of his sore and tender rear from sitting on his horse for two dull days straight save the night spent sleeping with the flees at a rundown inn with questionably clad barmaids. “Ah… yes, there was one highway woman, I believe,” meaning the barmaid, “She had the most round…” he held out his hands in front of his chest as his eyes bulged wide with a silly expression. Annabelle folded her arms and glared at him. “So naturally I knew it was a highway…. woman…” his eyes sparkled mischievously.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Well that is hard for me, as you well know.”

“It was simply a man hiding fruit that he had just stolen whilst ruthlessly robbing a fruit cart,” she supplied, “At knifepoint!”

Oh, yes, yes… by jove, that was it of course,” he laughed. “And you should have seen his guns, for he had guns as well as knives and they were many and were magnificence defined – probably stolen from dukes and lords and Spanish Ambassadors and American Slave Traders for some of them looked very foreign indeed. I tell you, I feared for my life, Annie,” he wiped invisible sweat from his brow with his crisp white handkerchief while slyly watching the reactions play across her expressive face. He had missed teasing her. “I tell you Annie, I did indeed fear for my life when I found myself suddenly looking down the barrel of the largest of the pistols, an ornately carved maple blunderbuss surely worth a kings ransom, loaded and primed and ready to blow my brains to kingdom come should I not do as I was told. And all I could think, after naturally appreciating the sheer magnificence of the manmade weapon of death that could very well be the end of me, was, the deuce! This, is it? This? Being shot dead for my lousy horse with a limp and the scuffed boots on my blistered feet? Oh cruel world, but I haven’t loved, I haven’t lost! I haven’t had my heart torn to shreds by a silly girl or lost all my money at the gaming tables!… Or joined a club for that matter! Or travelled the continent! Noooo! I cannot die today! This is not my time, I have yet to truly live!!!”

“You did not.”

No you are quite right. Although I have often wondered if that is what I might think should I ever be held at gunpoint – which could very well happen to me you know, living in such a densely diseased-ridden rat-infested population such as the outskirts of gaseous London. Black plague – everywhere, don’t you know,” he added especially for her, “It is practically one giant steaming chamber pot.

“Ghastly! Is Oxford considered London then? Have you been surrounded by disease and death this whole time and did not tell me!”

Yes! By Jove, villains and pirates abound, disease and death and beheadings at every turn, women and children hanging by their skinny crooked little necks on every street corner. You know, all one need do is glance at one of the elite members of that gilded circle the wrong way and you are as good as shipped to the colonies. Without trial.”

But we are the gilded circle, Eddie! Especially you, Lord Pulling My Leg. None of us need ever fear the colonies.”

Yes, right,” he grinned, “Right you are as always, Annabelle. So wise. So learned. So knowledgeable. So young but a brain beyond her years. Hmm. Well. In that case there is not much to tell. Unless,” he paused for dramatic effect, “I tell you of my philosophy professor who has just arrived back from Greece where he swears, with his hand across his noble heart, quite adamantly as you can see – and he truly does look serious while he tells this story I must emphasise – that while in Greece, he swam in the ocean without a stitch of clothing on,” (Annie did not think this scandalous for she considered it the only way to swim between bath days if one was in the company of only oneself) “-swimming atop ancient ruins now sunk deep into the sea,”

“Oh! How romantic! Perhaps he found the lost city of Atlantis!”

That is what I thought too! But there he found a hidden cave cut into the coastline that turned out to be the home of the most beautiful mermaid.”

She snorted. “Mermaids do not exist, Edgar.”

Oh, but they do, my Oxford professor told me so.”

“Poppycock. No, I have read that they do not exist. They are simply pranks at the fair. They are scientifically implausible and, and impossible! Really, the idea of man mating with fish? Come on, Edgar. What poppycock!” She snorted.

Poppycock? Did you read that scientific fact in one of your fictional romances?”

Excuse me, but I am possessed of the most exquisite taste in every species of literature, all of Three Bridges says so!”

Annie, hear my words, my Oxford professor swore on his life to the entire class that he not only found this magical cave, but spent the entire summer there as the love slave of this mermaid!”

“Eating raw fish and sea snails I suppose,”

“Something like that.”

“A love slave you say?”

“Mm, quite. Very scandalous I agree. I should never have breathed a word of it, of course…”

She squinted sideways at him,“You are not funning?”

He looked down at her, he was now a good head taller than her and he noticed how that changed the view somewhat. As serious as could be, he lifted one dark brow very slowly, as if in answer. Most mysteriously. He almost had her.

I wonder…” she went on more to herself than him, tapping her dainty chin, thoroughly distracted by this imaginative tale, “…what, precisely, the definition of a love slave might be…”

His eyes opened like saucers then. He’d heard a thing or two since moving to Oxford, but best to keep such things to oneself. Manners and all that.

“For example,” Annie went on, her passion building, thinking of the anti-slavery pamphlet she had recently acquired through covert means, “I doubt the cotton slaves who are not allowed to marry or have families of their own, who are stripped naked, sold like cattle, never paid a fair wage and are apparently treated worse than dogs feel loved? And they are slaves. Edgar?”

“Hm? What was that, little neighbour?” He was not going to be drawn into telling her what a love slave was, she was smart enough to figure it out on her own.

Little?”

“Why yes, I declare you are shrinking with age so henceforth you shall be known as, Little Neighbour.”

She almost kicked him in the shins for that, but taking in his very adult looking coat, his handsomely starched cravat and shining knee high riding boots, it suddenly felt a little wrong to go kicking him as she was used to doing whenever the urge presented itself. But when he suddenly started pulling her braids too hard and rubbing the top of her head until her hair stood on end, she felt no guilt in kicking him good and hard then.

“Ow, ow, ow, how I have missed my bruises, my sweet Little Neighbour!” He laughed happily while hopping on one leg.

Do not call me sweet or little! Now, be off with you and your fictitious stories. We shall see you at four and you will be on your best behaviour, my lord.” She said crossly as she stalked back to the house, trying to smooth down her hair.

After that Christmas, it was to be almost two years before she saw Edgar Channing again. They no longer corresponded each week, for who could keep up with such a fiercely passionate writing schedule? And in truth, simply not enough happened in ones ordinary life (except for perhaps the handsome Prince of Wales’s ordinary life, for he was such a very important person, with such a handsome likeness in the paper, at least to Annabelle’s countrified eyes) to make the letters riveting and gripping without reverting to pure fiction or poor jokes as they were used to doing. But still, they kept in touch with frequent irregularity.

The letters had changed over time, not that either one had particularly noticed for they were busy changing and growing in time with the letters. Edgar’s slowly started taking on a more grown up tone. He did not tease her quite so much, and he talked a great deal about the medicinal uses of various plants and how he should like to increase crop yields upon his return, even going so far as listing the precise scientific methods of how he would go about achieving such a thing and then asking her to share these pearls with her father. He also discussed a little of the politics regarding France and Prussia and other world events, topics of which, while vastly interesting for a girl of Annabelle’s natural intelligence and curiosity, did not prove as engaging as her First Love…

His name was Sir Phillip Brown. Not a very promising name to be sure, very plain, the Brown part, brown being her least favourite colour, the colour of her eyes, her hair; but ever such a dashing man attached to it. Flowing sandy hair brushed forward across a strong brow rather like he rode backwards in the saddle, and a pair of legs on him like a winning racehorse; his trousers so well-fitted it were as though his valet had melted them down and applied them with a paint brush. Sweet saints, he was a fine specimen of a man, of which she should like to study under her magnifying glass.

The fact that she was not yet out of the schoolroom did not once occur to her as an obstacle. She felt so confident that he would naturally return the strength of her affections, for how could he not when she felt so impassioned deep inside her bones? And even she could see that her reflection had morphed into that of a goddess in the last year. Any man was clearly blind who did not recognise this also. Indeed, logic dictated that if her heart and soul felt thus engaged, then surely he must feel the same stirrings regarding her. She could literally feel the vibrations of mother fate weaving her spell. That they had never spoken nor been introduced meant nothing to Annabelle.

In recent weeks she had started pulling her hair up with her mothers pins and hot curling irons and ribbons. Ever since her heart felt the first stirrings of romantic love, she took to enhancing her simple gowns, transforming them into something of far more elegance with all the ribbons and laces she could find in the attic. Her father simply shook his head when she came to dinner one evening sporting an over-ribboned ensemble with hair as high as Marie Antoinette.

Oh Annabelle, how you do grow so quickly. Does this mean I must give you a season next spring?” Her eyes brightened with delight and he looked momentarily stunned by her reaction for he were actually funning with her, expecting a preachy speech about vanity or the frivolity of women as a sex or the dangers of London and all those god-forsaken rats. Never had he once imagined she would actually desire a come-out season in sooty, diseased London. He sighed, quite shaken, “London is quite the crush you know my dear. People everywhere, endless gossip, over-priced frivolity, horse droppings always on the nose, far too much drink, inhuman social hours, breakfast at four instead of dinner, and there is barely a genuine person within the whole top ten thousand, not to mention the countless scandals and how easily one can fall from grace. I am sure you would be bored to tears with that sharp intellect of yours, surrounded by so much nonsense. Did you know Annie, some of the debutantes actually affect the speech of two year olds, I just heard that recently from Lady Channing – can you believe the absurdity of such a thing?” He chuckled but with eyes like that of a cornered animal.

“Oh, how I should love it above all else, Papa!”

“What? Really?” His kind old weatherworn eyes didn’t know what to do. “Who are you and what have you done with my stubborn, independent-thinking daughter.” When her expression didn’t change he sighed for a full half minute before closing the topic upon a long, defeated shrug. “Oh well, you will be the belle of every ball I am sure. Consider it done, my dear.” He shook his head in resignation, for he had once been young in London and had enjoyed himself immensely. “Lady Channing has a town house and she may be willing enough to help bring you out. I fear that sort of thing is not quite within my area of expertise, my dear. I’m better with vegetables,” his walled-in kitchen garden being quite magnificent and free of deer.

Oh Papa. I hope she will say yes! Do you think she will say yes? She is so, so very elegant and always dresses like the queen, or how I imagine the queen would dress, and I am sure she would give me the most excellent advice and introduce me to all the best circles – perhaps I will even meet a handsome gentleman who could love me and adore me, perhaps a man with a little title, even a sir I would not mind!” she added with a blush, thinking of her true love, “Oh Papa, how I would adore a season!”

He eyed her warily from his position at the head of the table for it really were as though an evil spirit of a dead debutante had inhabited this sweet, unique girl, turning her quite wild about the eyes. Freddie, sitting opposite Annie, was gawking at her elder sister with her mouth wide open like a swinging gate, her un-chewed food sitting forgotten inside.

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