I must thank you for the delightful lemon cakes, which arrived yesterday and were devoured in due haste. My brother and I had never tasted such a heavenly recipe and now we are spoiled for any other.
Hearty thanks should also be extended to your messenger, who succeeded in conducting speedy delivery without any damage befalling his precious cargo. I am sure that if such a task were ever left in my hands those delicacies would have been scattered to the four winds before they reached their destination. But you must know that. And on that subject I am enclosing the sum of five shillings which, although princely to me, shall not, I fear, make much headway in clearing my debt for damages incurred during my brief stay at Castle Malgrave. Do let me know the total reparations required.
At least this will show an intention to pay and you will not think so ill of me...I hope.
Should you write back, please address the note to Kate, the Under Housemaid, and she will see that it gets to me.
"The first Chelmsworth in several generations I've known to pay a debt," muttered Plumm. "Or even make an effort. How very curious."
"Yes." Maxim gazed at his window. "She is rather... unique."
She had suggested they might be friends, but he considered that idea quite impossible. What need did he have for a female friend? A young, reckless, unguarded female friend? No, it could only be a recipe for disaster. Detrimental to his health. He would be forever getting her out of scrapes with no reward for his trouble. What was the point?
"Send the five shillings back at once. They are not required."
"Very good, your grace. Perhaps...you would care to write a note yourself? To soften the gesture and make her understand that you bear no grudge."
"Do we not bear a grudge?" he grumbled. He certainly felt something unpleasant lurking.
"No, sir. It is polite in these circumstances to forgive. It is gentlemanly, your grace."
"Gentlemanly? Pah! She would not know a gentleman from a rogue."
"Then it is surely a good service for you to teach her the difference."
"Oh, for pity's sake. Pass me the tiresome, bloody pen."
And so he wrote a note with which to return the five shillings.
Do not give the matter another thought. I shan't. Keep your shillings, for I would not want to be accused of taking your last coins.
Plumm, standing behind him as he wrote, cleared his throat sharply. "Is that what you want to send, sir?"
"Yes. What of it?"
"Seems a trifle...brusque. Sulky...even."
"Sulky?" He scowled. "A Malgrave never sulks."
"No, indeed. And we would not want anybody to think your grace capable of such childlike action. Would we?"
Annoyed, he paused to read it over again and then added a final hasty thought.
I am glad you approved of the cake. That's something I did rightly, in any case.
It was the best he could currently manage, and really he did not know why he made the effort. Sometimes Plumm got above himself. A grievous occurrence that ought to be nipped in the bud.
Expecting no further correspondence, within a week he was surprised to receive a reply.
You are too kind to this silly and inconsequential girl. But if you do not let me repay you, I shall be forever in your debt, and that won't do at all. I am enclosing an envelope of sunflower, hollyhock and lavender seeds from the garden at Wyndham. They might be planted to help cover the hole I left in your box hedge. Well, strictly speaking, poor Georgie Tarleton's head left the hole, but I suppose it would not have done so without my mischief and the urge to propel him through it.
I hope these seeds can be accepted and put to use, for in my humble opinion your gardens are lacking in a sufficient bounty of color. These are some of my favorite flowers, and I should like to think I have left one mark at Castle Malgrave that is not an unsightly souvenir and grievously regretted.
After a day or two, during which he decided he would not write back, he wrote back.
You are not the first person to be taken with the urge to send Tarleton's face through a hedge. You are simply the first to succeed. And with considerable aplomb. He seems none the worse for it, and I daresay my hedge suffered the most harm.
The seeds will be put to use somewhere in the garden to relieve the gloom it suffers now that you are no longer gallivanting colorfully through it. Rest assured your mark has been made, but we recover. At least our house was not razed to the ground. Entirely.
To which she replied,
I am thrilled the seeds are acceptable. You will notice that I do not write your name, for I fear my great aunt might come in to see what I am up to. Her hopes are too easily raised, and she has taken to looking over my shoulder. I am obliged to smuggle my letters out of the house like a spy confined in the Tower of London.
My brother thanks you for the book 'Robinson Crusoe', which he is most eagerly reading as I sit here. I shall encourage him to write his own note of appreciation as soon as he puts it down and pays heed to me.
Although you have no desire for friendship between us, it cheers my spirits to know that we are not enemies. I do not like to imagine you despising Lady Flora Chelmsworth. She does not mean ill, and I think it will please you to know that she attempts now to curb her wicked ways, to have better sense and cause considerably less havoc. It is an uphill task, but I bear it.
We might nod when next we meet?
And he soon answered,
Indeed, a nod would be acceptable. I am informed a remark about the weather is also within respectable range, but nothing further should be attempted. A man such as myself and a woman, such as yourself, simply cannot form a bond of friendship in any way that would be free of perusal and speculation. Especially in our circumstances.
I hope you enjoy your summer and do not cause too many riots among the rhododendrons. I understand they are beautiful at Wyndham.
The paper seemed empty, so he struggled for something to tell her that she would not find dull and dreary.
There is a particularly noisy chaffinch that comes each day to rattle its beak against my library window, and steal any string, paper or crumbs it finds, should I inadvertently leave the latch ajar. Yesterday it stole its way in and tipped over an entire pot of ink, before it was safely chased out again. Naturally, I have named the bird in your honor.
He waited a full fortnight to hear from her again and then tore the seal open so impatiently with his knife that he cut his finger.
That looks very mysterious and somewhat menacing for a salutation, does it not? I am minded to call you Fred, if you have no objection. It is much easier to write to a 'Fred' than anything else. There, it is decided, and you are Fred. Now nobody can know to whom I write and we are safe from the horror of being Suspected Friends. In "our circumstances"— as you say— we cannot afford to have our names linked.
Yes, the summer passes swiftly and with many entertainments. I am to go boating with a small party. I have no great anticipation of enjoyment in the company— Miss Harriet Seton will be there and the last time I saw her she stuck me with a pin, although she denies it— but this is my great aunt's urging and she is best kept happy. There is not much time to write as she watches me like a hawk.
I hope you feed your little, trespassing chaffinch. I'm sure she is well-meaning at heart, for all the trouble she causes with her visits.
Fred. She called him Fred. Apparently none of his many other names were adequate in her eyes.
She had to be different, of course.
He sensed this strange correspondence was not a good idea— it was very hard to get one's best, most discouraging glare across in written words— but his usually stalwart instincts of right and wrong were, on this occasion, remarkably capricious. It was not a friendship, and about that they were both agreed; they had nothing in common. So he could not say for certain what it was that they had or did.
But it continued nonetheless.
* * * *
Want to read more about Flora and her "Fred"? The Peculiar Pink Toes of Lady Flora is out now at all good e-book stores and will be available in print soon!
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Artwork used above: Man Writing at his Desk by Jan Ekels 1784
and Young Woman Reading a Letter by Jean Raoux (1677-1734)