“You dance very well,” Constance said when she and Henry had completed their set.
Henry inclined his head in acceptance of her compliment. “And your performance added credibly to mine. We were well-matched. Did you enjoy yourself?” He knew that she had only accepted his offer to dance because her brother had decreed it would happen. “You did not feel too put upon, did you?”
Constance blinked in surprise. “No, I was not put upon in the least, and though I do not particularly enjoy balls, I enjoyed that set of dances. You are a lively conversationalist even when there is little time to converse.” They had spoken of rather mundane things — the weather, the decor, her aunt’s rose garden — nothing of importance, and yet, it had not been dull. Henry’s expressions had added some interest, as had his occasional witty remark. Constance had felt herself in very good company.
“You mentioned your stables,” she said as they approached her aunt and brother. “I had not realized you had been at Everingham. You did not call.”
Henry had nearly always called on her brother when he was at his estate and Trefor was at Linthurst. Henry even called occasionally when Trefor was not at Linthurst just to see that all was well with her and Aunt Gwladys. She had always suspected that Henry did so with the hoped there would be a need for him to turn around and ride back to town with some message for Trefor instead of proceeding to Everingham.
“Crawford has spent a good amount of time on his estate — sorting it out and seeing to improvements,” Linton said. “I called on him.”
“He came to lend a hand,” Henry explained. “I know my way around an estate to some degree, but your brother insisted I needed further instruction.”
“And he did.” Linton gave a sharp nod of his head to punctuate his point.
“I can tell by your expression, Miss Linton, that I have surprised you.”
Constance’s mouth had dropped open the slightest amount, her eyes had grown wide, and she had blinked several times. It would have been a most charming expression if Henry did not know that his doing what was merely the common duty of an estate owner had been the cause of it.
“I thought you disliked the country.” Her cheeks reddened at not having been able to better regulate her expression.
Henry’s replying smile was tight. “It is not that I dislike the country, but rather that I have always found it and the responsibility that accompanies it dull.’
Constance gasped, and before she could think better of it, she replied, “Responsibility may not always be pleasant, but one should not simply avoid it because it is dull.” Constance did not know which was worst — the way her brother cleared his throat and scowled at her, the displeased hiss from her aunt, or the shadow of sadness that passed across Henry’s face.
“Proper ladies do not lecture,” her aunt whispered. “Not even if the gentleman deserves the reprimand.” She raised a brow in Henry’s direction. “You do not wish to be labelled a shrew, my dear.”
“She was not lecturing,” said Henry.
The small, sad smile that accompanied Henry’s gracious words — that, Constance decided, that was the worst response to her unguarded comments.
“And,” Henry continued, “she is correct. One should not neglect responsibility in favour of pleasure. I have learned that it can be very costly, and that is a lesson I do not wish to repeat.” He bowed. “I have danced my one dance and will now take my leave. Thank you, Miss Linton, for providing me with a most enjoyable reintroduction to society.” He turned to leave but paused and turned back. “Might I call on you tomorrow?” He looked from her to her brother. He did not know why he wished to call on her exactly, but for some reason, he felt a strong desire to spend time in the presence of a lady who, knowing his sins and censuring him for them, did not spurn him but treated him with respect.
Linton shrugged. “Do you wish it, Connie?”
“She would be delighted,” said Aunt Gwladys before Constance could do more than open her mouth. “We are always pleased to have you call at Lindhurst. The fact that we are in town should not change that.”
Henry thanked Mrs. Kendrick but sent a questioning look toward her niece.
Constance nodded. “We would be delighted,” she assured him.
“Until tomorrow then.” Henry made one more bow and took his leave.
“I am surprised that after all your disapproving remarks you would wish to have him call on us,” Constance whispered to her Aunt.
“One does not cast out a stray because he has a blind eye.” Aunt Gwladys winked at her niece. “Besides, I believe he has indeed changed,” said Aunt Gwladys as she watched Henry make is way past several young ladies, who were doing their best to attract his notice. “Did he flirt with you, Connie?”
“No, he was pleasant and charming, but he did not flirt. Of course, that is likely because I am his friend’s sister.”
Aunt Gwladys rolled her eyes. “And no man has ever married the sister of a friend.”
“Aunt Gwladys, you cannot be meaning to matchmake!”
“No, no, no,” her aunt assured her. “As I have told you several times this week, I will wait until your third season before I begin to arrange matches — and it will not be with the likes of Mr. Crawford, whether he has changed or not — well, at least not until I am assured that this reformation is lasting.” She shook her head and huffed slightly as if it were quite taxing to have to explain all of this. “I was just attempting to make a point, although I am not entirely certain what it was now.”
“I believe your point was that Crawford did not flirt with Constance because he knows I would thrash him if he did so; therefore, he is perhaps a changed man,” supplied Linton.
Aunt Gwladys scowled. “You threatened him?”
“Every time we have met since Constance turned sixteen.”
“Well, that does take a bit of the sheen off my point,” grumbled Aunt Gwladys.
“Only a bit,” Linton assured her. “It was still a valid point. He is changed — or changing, as it may be.”
Aunt Gwladys sighed. “Stand forward, girl. No gentlemen are going to see you if you stand in your brother’s shadow.” She turned a hard look on her nephew. “You have not threatened every gentleman of your acquaintance, have you?”
Linton shrugged. “Only the ones I felt needed it.”
“Oh, good heavens,” cried his aunt, “I think I will withdraw my promise. I shall have to devise a match for you, Connie.”
“No,” said Constance. “You will not go back on your word. I have this season to find a match of my choosing.”
“Then stand forward, and, Trefor, go fetch me a glass of something to drink or go find a partner for a dance or go play cards — it does not matter what you do so long as you do not do it here where your presence will frighten away your sister’s prospects.”
Linton laughed, gave his aunt’s cheek a kiss, and wandered off toward the card room.
Henry had made it almost to the door of the ballroom when a familiar voice calling his name stopped him.
“Henry! Is that you?” Mary Crawford hurried toward her brother.
He stopped and, taking the hand she extended, placed a kiss on it.
“You have not called,” she scolded before he could say so much as a word. “You did not even write to our sister with your intention to return to town. She had thought, and I agreed most heartily, that you might defer your return to society until a few weeks into the season.” She gave him a knowing smile. “I knew you could not stay away forever, however. You are too fond of pretty things and company.”
She wrapped her arm around his and stepped closer. “Rushworth was recently wed. November, I believe it was, so you are safe on that account. He will be much too busy and happy to bother with you.” She stepped away slightly. “She is a beauty and much more pleasant than the previous Mrs. Rushworth. Is she not, Flora?”
“Lady Stornaway,” Henry greeted the lady that had come to stand next to his sister with a dip of his head.
“Indeed, she is much more pleasant and better acquainted with the need to be discreet if one wishes to retain her position within society.” The feather in Lady Stornaway’s cap fluttered as she tipped her head to survey Henry. “You are looking well. It appears this little incident,” she made a small circular gesture with her hand, “has not had an ill effect on you. I have several friends who are desirous that I invite you to a dinner as soon as you returned to town — and it was not just your sister,” she assured with a quick flick of her brows. “I will send a note around. You are at your townhouse, are you not?”
“At present, I am.” He wished he was not. He wished he had an address that neither his sister nor her friends knew. Many of his sister’s friends were very much like the women his uncle, the admiral, kept as friends and lovers — ladies, who had secured a comfortable position in the upper layers of society but had failed to do so in such a fashion as to be entirely pleased with their position. “I am afraid I will have to disappoint you, however. I am not in town for a lark.”
Mary laughed and swatted his arm playfully. “Don’t be foolish, Henry,” she chided. “You are always looking for an adventure. Life is dull without them. Is that not what you have always said?”
“I believe I have had my fill of adventure,” Henry replied.
“Your fill of adventure! Let it not be so!” Mary cried. “I have become the sister of an insipid brother, Flora. How greatly you should pity me!”
Lady Stornaway gasped and looked appropriately affected before Mary continued.
“You cannot still be regretting Fanny,” Mary said with some force. “She is but a silly girl, whom I shall never forgive, and not only for not having accepted you. For if she had, we should both be happily married.”
“Yes, well, that has not happened.” Henry covered her hand that still lay on his arm and lifted it off. He would extricate himself from this conversation much more easily if he were free of his sister’s grasp. He would also be free of this discourse if he were to be direct with his sister. She was too practiced at twisting his words when he was anything but forthright. “However, marriage is my purpose in coming to town, and since Lady Stornaway’s friends are neither single nor of the stripe who place great importance on the vows taken before a parson, it would be best if we kept our meetings to soirees such as this.”
Mary gasped while Lady Stornaway looked affronted.
“Let me put a point on it for you, my dear sister. Had I not attended that last party at your persuasion and had I gone to Norfolk as I had planned, we might both be happily married. But,” he dropped her hand and held up a finger to mark his point, “you wished for me to see Mrs. Rushworth. You thought there would be great entertainment in it. Do not cast this debacle at Fanny’s feet. She was the only one in this whole sorry tale who was without guile. She refused me because she knew I was not worthy of her, and I was not — as anyone who reads a paper or sits in a drawing room with a cup of tea knows, I was not. And with that blackness attached to my name, I shall have a difficult enough go of it trying to find a lady of substance to accept me. To throw myself back into the society I kept before…” He shrugged and shook his head. “It would be foolish. Therefore, I will gladly welcome you and your friends at soirees such as this, but I will not be accepting any invitations to private parties, save for those held by Dr. and Mrs. Grant. I will call on them next week after I am truly settled in town.” He bowed to the gaping women and hastened out into the corridor.
“That was some speech,” Linton said from his place of repose against a column, causing Henry to stop his progress to the door and freedom from the stifling confines of society. “Lady Stornaway will not be pleased.”
“Nor will my sister,” Henry replied.
Linton tipped his head toward the door. “My aunt sent me away. She thought my presence was scaring away all of Connie’s prospects.”
Henry chuckled as he and Linton exited the building. “You do cut an imposing figure.”
“I try to,” Linton replied with an easy smile. “It keeps the blackguards away. I wish to see Connie well settled.”
Henry nodded. “I wish I could say the same for my sister.”
“You do not wish to see her in a good situation?” Linton asked in surprise. He motioned down the street and began to walk.
“Oh, I wish her to be happy. I just fear it shall never be.” Henry shrugged. “You have done much better for your sister than I have for mine.”
“I had parents to do most of it,” Linton replied. “You had the admiral, but he was not a good example, and his wife was too indulgent.”
It was not the first time Henry had heard Linton’s opinion on this matter, and he could not fault his friend for his words, for they were true. Mrs. Crawford had doted on his sister, teaching her all there was to know about shifting in the best society and snaring a man of means. The admiral had likewise taken Henry on as a protégé of sorts. The admiral was a charming and clever man with an easy smile for a pretty woman, no matter her age or marital status. His own marriage seemed to mean little to him beyond having a beautiful hostess to preside over his parties. If the admiral saw something, or rather, someone, he wanted, he would scheme his way into her bed. Lies were only punishable when they were spoken to him, but never when they were used in claiming what he desired. All this, he had impressed upon Henry. Henry would be a man of means, and as such, he should enjoy his status. It had been a pleasant idea to a young man who dreaded giving up his carefree existence. If only he had been willing to give up that unfettered lifestyle when his sister required it.
“I should have taken her to Everingham instead of Mansfield. I should have taken her there even before that.” Henry had rehearsed over and over to himself the events that had led him to Mansfield and into the presence of the Bertrams and Fanny Price. He knew precisely the points where disaster could have and should have been avoided. He also knew he could not go back and undo what was done, but in contemplating his errors, he hoped not to repeat them.
“Yes, you should have, but you did not.”
Henry sighed. Linton was that sort of person who did not try to smooth over the deficiencies of his friends just to lift their spirits. He never went out of his way to find times to point out their errors, but if the subject of some folly was broached, he would not gloss over it. To Linton, it was best to recognize the error for what it was and learn from it. Trying to soften the fault, or to deny it, was foolishness of the greatest kind, and Henry had come to agree with him in recent days.
“I fear it is too late to be of any good to her,” Henry admitted.
He and Linton walked on in silence for some distance down the line of carriages before Linton spoke again. “Your sister will likely do what she wishes, but there is a chance that your example might impress something upon her. You have just this evening made a lasting impression, I dare say.”
“She will likely deem me a fool. She will have to if she wishes to keep Lady Stornaway as her friend.”
Linton shrugged as he stopped and turned back. “It is likely, but in her heart, she will ponder what you have said. She is fond of you, you know.”
Henry nodded slowly. “I know, and despite how it might have sounded tonight, I am also fond of her. However, I cannot allow my love for her to sway me from my purpose.”
“No,” Linton agreed. “That you cannot do.”
“She persuaded me away from what I knew I should do to secure an excellent wife once. I will not allow it again.” Henry clasped his hands behind his back and watched his foot flick a pebble off the walkway. “It is possible, is it not, for me to become a man deserving of an excellent wife? Am I capable of becoming what my uncle was not?”
Linton clapped him on the shoulder. “Aye, I think it quite likely.”