Lady Damerel allowed her breathing to return to normal before she spoke. Would that she had exercised the same control over her tongue.
"I had never believed that London could be so tedious."
Venetia heard her own words with dismay. It was a thought which had already ploughed a perceptible furrow into her once-perfect brow, but had so far been restrained within the confines of her own mind. And it was a moment most unpropitious for such a confession. Her husband raised his head from the pillow, his mouth curled almost into the ironical sneer she had hoped to have banished entirely.
"My apologies, my dear. I strive only to please, as you know."
A good wife considers marital repercussions before speaking. Fortunately, Venetia's only possible response was both honest and helpful. She giggled. "Fool. Not this. This is splendid. It is the rest of the world which is lacking."
Damerel (and yes, our heroine had never quite come to think of him as Jasper) dropped his brow back to the pillow. His voice muffled, he murmured," Society not quite to your liking? You seem to have made quite a hit."
Venetia nodded towards his unseeing back. "And therein, the trouble. When we were shunned, it was so much more interesting. We saw such fascinating places at our leisure, and went wherever we might. No one cared a straw for tedious propriety. Oh, if only I hadn't had that unlucky encounter with Sally Jersey, we should have been left in peace."
Her husband abandoned thoughts of sleep for the present, and rolled to face his aggravated spouse. "Well, my dear, you are an incorrigible saver of the helpless. And it is only just that occasionally you save someone wealthy and well connected."
"I should have let her wretched dog drown." Venetia's voice lacked some conviction. She was irrepressibly concerned with the fate of the less fortunate.
Damerel tutted. "Come, come. No such thing. You might perhaps have sworn daintily at her ladyship when returning the beast, or begged a guinea from her. Some such shift to cause an instant disgust would have sufficed."
Her face warmed by an admiring smile, Venetia laid a hand on his bare shoulder. "Would that I had your quickness of wit, my love. My days would be free of morning calls, afternoon teas and thrice-cursed Almacks. Will you really not make a drunken scene there someday, and have the stewards eject you while I weep for shame? It would be the most efficacious fall from social grace."
"Alas," said her ungallant spouse. "They'll never let me cross the threshold. Quite hopeless, my dear."
It was undeniable, and distressingly the case that Lady Damerel, in her second season as a married woman, had been made a favourite of the Ton. Gone were the peaceful months of their first London season, made pleasurable learning the fascinating ways of London at Damerel's side, and their carefree social intercourse with couples sufficiently raffish or adventurous to find Damerel's wife acceptable company. Happy the days of small parties at Kitty Standen's pretty house, or hilarious entertainments at the side of Deb Ravenscar. Nothing beyond what was conformable, but nonetheless, a little apart from the most predictable turn of Society. Venetia now found herself flooded with invitations from that very quarter, almost too flattering to reject. She tried to be discerning, but nonetheless, her time was overfull and her patience wearing.
Venetia had also recently, distressingly, acquired that most fashionable accoutrement, a poetic cicisbeo, and the attentions of Mr Walsh were painfully verbose and naïve. He reminded her overwhelmingly of the Oswald Denny of two years before – quite impossible to hurt him in his youthful pride, but tedious to a degree. His ode to her fingernails had been quite improper, as well as sadly risible. She could only hope that he would mature as well as Oswald, now an occasional dance partner at some of her less tedious social engagements, and greatly improved by increased confidence, a reputation among huntsmen, and most recently the admiration of a certain Miss Anthony. Failing that, Venetia longed for the day when Mr Walsh's literary fancy should light upon another muse.
There was another cause for Venetia's fretfulness, however. A pressing question had been intruding upon her notice for some weeks now, interrupting her sleep and reducing her patience with the absurdities of the ton. After a further night without sleep, she felt the time had come to face her fear squarely.
To her husband's evident puzzlement, she raised once again the issue of the too-pressing Society ladies the next morning at the breakfast table. "I did rather fear that they would pursue me even after the Season ends," she confessed. "However, we may be spared. I-" And she hesitated, un-Venetialike. But he must be told sometime, and now was no worse than any other. "I have the most lowering suspicion that I am increasing."
She eyed Damerel with caution. A doting father figure Damerel? Unlikely. She half expected him to flee the room on the instant. Far more like, he would take to gaming or drinking alone to avoid bothering her, as though boredom were not the most corrosive bother in her life.
But her husband laughed. "But it is perfect, my love!"
It was not perhaps what a gently-bred lady expected upon the announcement of her fond Hopes, but it was not so bad. "How, perfect?"
"For your boredom. You can take up Doting Motherhood. Stay at the Priory as you will and involve yourself in Educational experimentations. Eccentricity among loving mothers is positively expected, but if you choose your freaks well, you need never again be troubled by the most tedious among the tabbies." He said it with a laugh, and Venetia attempted to match it. But there was a small sore spot in her heart, not entirely alleviated by his speedy realisation of what had been omitted from their exchange.
"You are well, my dear? Blooming, I think, from your complexion! And pleased?"
She smiled, comfortably. "Entirely so. Too energetic, if anything, though Nurse assures me it is no great trouble. I want to walk abroad more than is possible here. Perhaps I shall retire to the Priory and ponder my scandalous ways?"
He nodded. "If you wish. London doesn't entirely suit you, I know. I shall miss you, my dear friend."
He was not coming to Yorkshire with her, or not now. Had Venetia expected anything else?
She had not. Rustication was a momentary amusement for her love, not a way of life. Her considerable confidence in herself and Damerel notwithstanding, it was to bbe almost a year before Venetia's unhappiness was fully addressed.
…. I may trouble you at the Priory again, my dear, if you will excuse such an incursion. I find myself sadly blue-devilled here, pleased by nothing and no one. I have considered patronising three different monstrously high-flyers this month. None has pleased me sufficiently to engage her services, though I promise all were of the first stare. A repairing lease is called for if such fair beauties fail to please.
Venetia looked up from the letter with a small frown between her brows. Truly, she was glad Damerel treated her with honesty. Much better to know than to wonder. But she thought few women would receive such a message with joy in their hearts.
Something had gone awry with them in the last months. She could date it most precisely, to that otherwise treasurable day when, exhausted and proud, she had been lying with her gaze fixed on the evidence of her labours. Gilbert had been almost asleep, a sliver of blue eyes visible under the scrumpled lids, and Venetia had considered it perhaps the most wonderful sight in the world. But an arm had come between her and her son, then a broad back, and a hectoring voice. "Lord Damerel, I present your heir." The midwife's order came without possibility of objection, quite the worst way to engage Jasper's pleased attention. There had been a moment when Venetia hoped for a warm response, but it passed. He had looked, nodded, and enquired as to Venetia's health in tones of polite boredom. The midwife answered, as though Venetia were incapable. Inwardly indignant, she had nonetheless let the moment slip by, exhausted and longing for quiet. She had thought it a minor omission. But there had been few similar moments after, till Damerel returned to the capital and became a corresponding-husband only.
It was not how Venetia had hoped their marriage would progress. Fond fatherhood had never been a probability, but friendship surely demanded more than this distance.
She let the letter fall beside her breakfast plate. The Priory morning room was looking well, and Aubrey had promised to sit with her this morning, so she should have conversation as well as maternity to occupy her. Gilbert gurgled a little, but remained asleep in the cradle she kept by the breakfast table, to the scandal of her neighbours. Studying for eccentric maternity amused her still, though without Damerel's audience it occupied a little less of her heart than when they had first suggested the scheme.
A step outside. Aubrey was early. Or- no, not Aubrey, too firm and even a stride. She turned even as the door opened, prepared for civility but wild with absurd hope. And it was indeed Damerel, inexplicable but present. Propriety be damned, thought my lady, and ran to embrace her husband.
"What are you doing here?"
"I wrote, I thought…"
"It arrived today. You must have made absurdly good time-"
He broke the embrace, a little abashed. "Posted through, my dear. Once the fit came upon me, London seemed the last place for me."
Venetia was recalled to some small sense of dignity and commonsense. "Through the night? You must be famished. Sit down, my love. I'll find you something more substantial than my poor breakfast fare."
My lady Damerel sped towards the kitchens, ignoring all knowledge of bells and other means of bringing servants to the morning room. A few moments to recover her self-possession were called for. She found Mrs Imber already well on her way to producing a fine breakfast, kidneys sizzling and bacon being sliced. The kitchen staff looked at her, affronted, as she instructed them to do what they very well knew was essential.
Somewhat restored to herself, Venetia returned to the morning room to find her husband at bay. A small determined hand had him by the cravat, and was refusing to let him retreat from the cradle with due dignity. She was morally certain that Damerel had intended a quick peek, and a return to feigned indifference before anyone should catch him in such a loss of self-possession. But his son's interest in this new playmate had foiled the plan.
Gilbert gave a great gurgle of delight on seeing Venetia, and released his father's travel-stained and sadly rumpled neckcloth. Damerel met his wife's gaze, levelly. She thought, confused, that he expected her to be angry. But why?
"So you've met Gilbert again. He's becoming interesting, I think. A wicked sense of his own importance, at least." Venetia absently lifted the child from his cradle, hesitated a moment, and passed him to Damerel.
She watched her husband fumble uncertainly with the child. Secure in his hold, though, and without the stiff terror of Aubrey when first confronted with the infant. Damerel almost looked the part of a father now. Would he choose to play it?
Gilbert did not oblige her that morning. He demanded parental attention, little caring that his doting mama was wishing him silent or indeed very far away for just a few minutes until she should have divined just why her love had been so determinedly fleeing the capital. (Surely not creditors? Damerel's affairs were in reasonable part now, he having given up some of his more outrageous expenditures on acquiring a wife. But then what had driven him here? Scandal?) Ingrained habit prevented Venetia from summoning the nurserymaid, however. This was her time with her son. His father might choose to throw all her plans into confusion, but Gilbert should have his due. She was, however, conscious of great relief when she could ring for Daisy to watch the baby while he napped.
The Priory gardens were showing signs of early spring. Not a clement day, but excuse enough to leave the house and walk together, leaving servants and babies behind.
"Your letter sounded discontent. Are you happy, my dear?" If there was one thing their love had to offer, it was honesty. If he had sickened of domesticity, best to know it.
"Happy? Not at all." Damerel quirked a brow at her expression. "But only thanks to your absence. I missed you confoundedly. You were quite right about London's charms lacking appeal. I found once you had left, there was little to engage me."
Venetia, quite deliberately, prodded at the sorest spot. "No Cyprian fit to engage your notice? I am aghast!"
He paused, looking most grave. Her heart thudded, once- twice-, like a fainting maiden in a Gothic horror, she thought, crossly, willing herself to pay him full attention. If he were to leave her for another, she would need all her faculties clear.
But that was not the dreadful confession so preoccupying her husband. "My dear… I find no one compares to you. Absurd, is it not? You are so entirely occupied with matters of great domestic import, and have no need of a wastrel husband."
Venetia took a steady breath to cover the racing of her mind. Did he believe himself unwelcome? Why on earth-?
"My dear friend," she began. Stopped, and started with more honesty. "Oh, stoopid! I always have need of you. No need to be jealous of your son, my lord."
She thought for a moment that had been the wrong tack. It was a petty accusation. But, always, better honesty. Damerel's first response had been a curl of the lip, but his mouth was uncurling once more, lips twisting wryly in a failed smile. "Do you? Not my experience of maternity, my dear delight."
"Well, I daresay it is very difficult for ladies of light morals to keep up their former lives with a baby in tow. But simplicity here, you know." She had made him smile fully, at least. She dared more, risking self-exposure. "Gilbert is very engaging, but somewhat lacking in conversation. For that, and much else, I need you."
Damerel looked at her, deeply considering. "Then I have been guilty of shameful neglect."
"Yes," she said simply. "You never promised me fidelity, but I quite thought you would save me from boredom. I mind a great deal more about that." Not quite true, those words, but she would try to make them so.
Damerel wrapped her into his arms. "I won't promise fidelity still, my dear delight. But until the world provides me with someone so fascinating as yourself, I see very little point in other company. And I would much rather be here."
Lady Damerel tilted her face up for a kiss, and received it in full measure. "If you ever do meet such a fascinating creature, you will introduce me, won't you? I feel we should have so much to talk about."
Damerel's shout of laughter echoed through the Priory. His heir slept on upstairs, untroubled by his parents' rediscovered joy.
Some days after these stirring events, Edward Yardley entered the library at the Priory to make his customary weekly call on Lady Damerel. His continued punctilious attendance was a sad source of annoyance to Venetia, had he known it, but she had never succeeded in giving him sufficient disgust of herself, despite her forays into eccentricity. So the politeness of visiting continued, giving both parties little pleasure in truth.
Today, however, their usual pattern was quite overturned. Edward, boggling, perceived that the master of the Priory had returned home, unheralded. Damerel was lounging on a couch, with Aubrey Lanyon opposite. Edward drew breath to greet them both, as they broke off an intent conversation about – he collected – an improper Greek poet.
"… unnatural vice seems to be a constant theme of his work. Among others. My tutors refuse even to mention this aspect, which I find immensely frustrating. One might even infer, from the frequency of the contemporary mentions, that unnatural vice was regarded as perfectly natural!"
Damerel, unlike Aubrey, at least did Edward the courtesy of a perfunctory acknowledgment. "Yardley, it has been many months since we met. I trust I see you well." Then turned back to his brother-in-law. "I regret to confess, young Aubrey, that the tutors who refuse to discuss such matters are usually the safer. Unless you wish to be seduced, of course, in which case I recommend raising the subject at every opportunity."
The most shocking part of the entire shattering conversation now manifested. A cheerful laugh rang out from the curtained window alcove, and Edward became conscious that they were in the presence of Lady Damerel. A Lady Damerel, moreover, who appeared to have been feeding the infant Viscount Delancy until moments before. She was righting her clothing, and if every feeling had not been already outraged, Edward would have admitted she was wholly decently clad. But this was too much.
Venetia's voice followed his outraged retreat. "Oh, dear Edward, they are teasing you most horridly…" But it was too late. Mr Yardley, affronted beyond measure, had gone.
Lady Damerel tapped reprovingly on her husband's boot. "Not the good footstool, please, Jasper. We must have somewhere fit for dear Lady Denny. That is, if any neighbour should ever cross our threshold again."
Aubrey shrugged at her. "Much you should care. I think our plan came off extremely, don't you?"
"I fear Venetia may have overshadowed us," murmured Damerel, smiling at his morning coffee. "Eccentricities among unrespectable gentlemen are only to be expected. Mr Yardley has too much sensibility to support such behaviour in females, however. Do you mean to alienate all your neighbours, my love? I am not certain that you are built for the secluded life, despite your father's best efforts."
Aubrey snorted. "Just the bores, Jasper. Just the bores."
"Oh no," responded Venetia. "Not all the bores, or we would have precious few conversations. But freeing poor Edward from his bondage here seemed only kind. He does so hate setting foot on your lands, and I fear he will never set up his own household while he remains so set on offering me fatherly advice at every turn."
"Fair Venetia, cruel only to be kind," said Damerel, laughing. Aubrey claimed his attention on a point about the Phaedo. Gilbert claimed hers with a tug on an escaped lock of hair.
The Damerel household was happy.