Francis is one of the young men in whom Persey hopes her stepdaughter might take a romantic interest. She believes Francis is highly suitable marriage material for Honoria, as he is the right age, handsome, good fun, chivalrous, kind and well set in life. Unfortunately, Lady Honoria is not in the mood to look at him currently, because she has her eye on an utterly unsuitable gardener hired by her brother to "improve" the grounds of his estate.
And Francis thinks he's in love with Persey, who does her best not to notice so she doesn't have to hurt his feelings.
Lady Flora and Persey have much in common. They are both the young widows of older men and they both enjoy life's little luxuries - good champagne, a boat ride on the lake, soft pillows and marzipan comfits for example. They can also both appreciate a well-made man, although only Flora is likely to confess it aloud. She is boldly unapologetic in her pursuit of fun and frolics and, like Persey, she cannot abide affected manners and pomposity. Flora has suffered her great-aunt's nagging for some years, because she adamantly refuses to stop running about the countryside enjoying her freedom and resists all efforts to get her respectably married again.
For the first time in several days, Persey was not hidden behind a hedge with her old opera glasses to see what the gardener was up to; she had decided, instead, to save her skirts from thorny branches and enjoy the company of Francis, Lord Chelmsworth and his widowed elder sister, Lady Flora Hartnell, her dearest friend for the last eight years. Together the two ladies had shared misadventures that had made her former husband laugh— and caused poor Albert to roll his eyes. The current marchioness made no secret of her disdain for Lady Flora, but this, naturally, did not curtail the friendship at all and such a visit could always be counted upon to bring Persey out of a glum mood, taking her mind off the latest battle with her daughter-in-law.
"We heard about Minty's plans for the estate," Flora had exclaimed, dashing into her parlor that afternoon and embracing her as if they came to rescue their friend from imprisonment in the Tower of London. "I immediately knew you'd be in distress and I said to Francis, we must go to her at once!"
"That was very good of you, Flora."
But her brother had interrupted. "Don't believe a word from my sister's lips. She only wants to purloin a glimpse of the infamous Radcliffe."
Although Flora fiercely denied this, as soon as they were on the lake and her brother pointed out the distant figure at work in the reeds, she craned her head about desperately to get a better look and finally insisted he turn the boat around before they could drift too far away. "That's him, isn't it? Is it? Is it Radcliffe? Oh, it must be for there, beside him, I see Lady Honoria. I heard he takes the job into his own hands and wields his own tools, but I hadn't realized he was so very... capable. Nor his tools quite so large."
Persey groaned. "Why is it that everybody has heard of this wretched man but me?"
"Because you do not follow fashion and keep to your own little society. You ought to get out more. Now you are no longer in mourning, there is no excuse."
"I don't agree," Francis exclaimed. "I believe Persey's little society is the best there is and she needs nobody else. Particularly since her small, exclusive circle includes us. Obviously she is a woman of discerning tastes." He smiled at her, as he pulled back on the oars and the unaccustomed exercise caused a gleam of perspiration across his brow. "Why should she follow fashion when she can lead instead?"
"Oh, do be quiet, Francis," his sister replied. "Persey and I are far more interested in the delightfully capable Radcliffe than we are in your opinions."
"I can assure you I have no interest in that man, Flora. Why should I?"
"Because you're not dead."
"But I am old enough to have perfect control over my sensibilities. And he is more years my junior than I care to think about."
But Flora, deaf to this protest, nudged Persey's arm, "Is it true that he works outdoors sometimes in a state of undress? I hear the Bainbridge maids swooned with clockwork regularity, while he was there, and the housekeeper could get nothing done because they were all creeping off to watch him work every day. Hiding behind hedges and such."
Persey felt her cheeks glowing and ducked her chin, tucking her face further out of sight under the frayed, moth-bitten brim of her bonnet. "I really wouldn't know about that."
"Do you pretend that you're not in the least curious?" Flora persisted.
"Exactly so. Why should I be?"
"Why should you not? What's the matter with you? You're not succumbing to a fever, are you?"
Leaning away from her friend's questing hand as it reached for her forehead, Persey laughed. "I am not sixteen, Flora, and neither are you. Men are no mystery to me, and they all have the same parts, dressed or undressed."
Francis muttered apologetically from the other end of the boat, "Of course you are much wiser, Persey, and would not have your head turned by every handsome scoundrel, as my sister does."
"Nonsense, brother! Our dear friend Persey merely pretends she is above appreciating such a man's attributes, and you hold her in such high esteem that she can do no wrong in your eyes. To you, Persey is an angel, unsullied by the sin of lust. But I know her better. For one thing, I'm a woman and I know how devious our minds can be. Oh, don't blush, brother, you know I say these things to you, because I am your sister and entitled."
Soon after this, Francis's efforts became even more of a struggle when, in a flustered temper, he broke an oar. It snapped in two as he attempted to free it from some stubborn weeds, and the little rowboat was reduced to turning in circles, the second oar gradually weighed down with thick green weeds in much the same way as the first. The two women did their best to advise him, but their attempts to help row with bonnets and hands only made the situation worse. When the second oar escaped his grip and sank somewhere amid the weeds, Persey could do nothing but laugh at Francis's aghast expression, and his sister joined in.
"Glad I am you find this amusing," poor Chelmsworth exclaimed, looking down at his drenched thighs. "Now we're stuck. Ha ha! Yes, isn't it delightful? Jolly good fun." He tore off his gloves to show what he insisted were the beginnings of two blisters on his palms.
But the angle of his sad, perplexed eyebrows only made Persey laugh harder. There was something about dear Francis's eyebrows that sent her into peals of tender laughter. Of course, she always had a soft spot for a gentleman in need. She only wished Honoria would take note of Lord Chelmsworth's fine features and feel a desire to look after him, but despite Persey's subtle attempts to recommend the fellow to her stepdaughter, so far the girl had shown no particular interest.
When Francis reminded the two ladies that their predicament would not be quite so funny once they had run out of champagne— a tragedy likely soon to befall— Flora began shouting for help at once, waving to the people on the lake side.
Copyright Jayne Fresina 2017
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