If Mrs Elinor Cheviot (née Rochdale) had not gone hunting to celebrate the end of her mourning year, she would not have gotten so ill. But she had, and for all that she had gleefully kept up with her betrothed over the rough ground despite her lack of practice, she had also been caught in a bad downpour and taken a chill, and before she knew it she was in the grip of severe influenza and had been packed off to Bath to convalesce. “Carlyon is the most odious man alive,” she complained to her former governess and current bosom friend, as they sat in the window of Molland’s watching the rain pour down.
The recent cessation of the war had made for an influx of now half-pay officers, and she and Becky watched in bemusement the parade of colourful Admirals, Generals, Colonels and occasional dashing Captains who spent their days strolling through the steep streets of the watering hole. The rain did nothing to deter these decorated men, they merely lofted umbrellas and continued about their incessant chattering, rather, as Elinor again acidly remarked, a pack of old women might do.
“But my dear Mrs Cheviot – or is it Lady Carlyon now? – I fear you injure the reputation of the aged females of our society; I must assure that there is no fool on earth more voluble than a uniformed man.”
Standing behind them, decked out in an exquisite coat of blue Bath coating and beautifully tied cravat, was Elinor’s cousin, Francis Cheviot. Cousin in name, she reminded herself fiercely.
“I am retreating from the weather, as you see.” Cheviot brushed the impeccably white fabric of his pantaloons and minutely adjusted the fit of his silk waistcoat. “The slightest touch of water would be fatal.”
“Goodness gracious,” Miss Beccles said brightly. “It has been a full year since we have had the pleasure of your company. And what strange events you presided over,” she said sadly, “I have often wished that we might have another adventure this last twelve month.”
“With the jammed doors and the vicious marauding dogs prowling the house in the dark, and those poor daffodils thrown on the floor,” Cheviot agreed sadly. “What a dreadful thing to do to so harmless a thing as a daffodil. Still, it was exciting.”
“Whatever are you doing here?” Elinor asked, too nettled to be civil about it.
“Oh, I come here every year for the sake of my health. It always pays to take the waters you know, especially for one so delicate as I. But I trust you are well, Mrs Cheviot, you seem rather pale; I would not want to be at risk of some new catarrh, which in my invalid state might be fatal.”
“Everything is fatal to you,” Mrs Cheviot said tartly.
“A touch, a veritable touch,” Cheviot’s eyes glinted as he gazed out the mullioned panes of the bakery window. “But alas, I see an acquaintance on the street with whom I must speak,” and with that the dandy had hustled himself into his greatcoat and taken himself off.
They saw Francis Cheviot a few days later, and this time he really did look ill.
They were attending an assembly with their hostess, Lady Hartlepool, and Elinor noticed the dandy bowing and scraping to several of the young ladies before disappearing off into the card room. He returned to the main hall some half an hour later and was so earnestly friendly to Elinor and her chaperone that she found it quite impossible to decline to dance with her cousin-by-marriage, not least because he had brought a friend to lead out little Miss Beccles, and Elinor knew for herself how much dear Becky loved to dance. Mr Cheviot took Elinor’s hand kindly and chatted idly of not very much as they progressed down the set for a half hour, and when the dance had finished he handed her off to another gallant with good cheer before taking his leave: “for it will rain again, I fear, and if I get mud on my new boots my poor man Crawley will likely take justice into his own hands. No, no, my dear Mrs Cheviot and Miss Beccles, I must take my leave now.”
Elinor let him go without demur, but she wondered at the man’s stiffness and the hitch in Cheviot’s step.
“Elinor, dearest,” Becky said, when the pattern of the next dance brought them together again, “the dear Mr Cheviot—he reminds me so very much of your father. Do you remember that time when your own dear Papa took a fall off his horse but refused to disappoint his guests at the house party…”
“Yes, and he spent the night dancing with a broken rib refusing to mention it to anybody.”
“But why,” Becky said, artless, “would such an invalidish man as Mr Cheviot not expect sympathy for such a complaint?”
The dance whirled them away again and Elinor had time to think on her answer. Becky, after all, had not been present for the conversation in which Lord Carlyon had explained to her the details of how that strange plot of the Buonapartists had been foiled. “I think he did not want anybody to know he’d been hurt, my dear Becky. Perhaps he danced with me for the purpose of being seen dancing at a ball.”
“Do you think,” Miss Beccles said, a little breathless, “that there is the hope of another adventure in our way? I do so hope. We want only your dear fiancé and his brother to complete the scene.”
“Mr Cheviot,” Elinor said astringently, as she took his arm and walked along the parapet of Blaise Castle. “We are running into you in all the oddest places.”
“One gets to know people,” Cheviot said, off-hand.
“You’re looking much better,” she added daringly. “You seemed very down in the mouth when we saw you at the ball last week.”
“Oh, and you also, Mrs Cheviot. I did not like to mention—so gauche, you know—but I do remember thinking that you seemed dreadfully pulled. This influenza going around is such a blight. I would have offered to send my man Crawley around with a tonic, but for the fear of treading on good Miss Beccle’s toes. One always wants the people who cared for you as a child when one is ill, doesn’t one.” He winked at the former governess who was walking along behind.
“Yes, but what are you doing here?” Elinor asked. The Castle did not live up to its reputation for Gothic frights in even a small way, she thought sourly, but was instead an attraction for vulgar tourists of the worst sort. Cheviot led the two of them to a comfortable vantage point at the top of the tower and chatted amiably about the view. “Oh, you are up to something,” she growled, noticing how the older man kept one eye fixed on the crowds below.
“I have placed a bet,” Cheviot said with a glint in his eye, craning his neck to watch the to-ings and fro-ings of the tourists. “I am in this small moment ascertaining if I have won the wager.”
“But alas, dear cousin, I must take my leave of your delightful company, I must away.” He raised Becky’s hand to his lips and kissed it gently, wisely left Elinor’s hand unmolested, and disappeared out of their lives for another day.
Elinor picked up the cards from the table and sorted them into an acceptable order. She smiled at her partner, Lady Hartlepool, to signal her readiness for play and commented to the player on her left: “And did you win your wager, Mr Cheviot?”
“Mrs Cheviot, I did,” her cousin was almost purring with delight. “And for stakes that were acceptably high, also. Might I introduce you to my friend, Captain Kelsey? He has been assisting me in some minor business.”
“Do get Francis to advise you on tailors,” Lady Hartlepool added from across the table as she played her card. “I expect you all must be feeling sadly at a loose end now that Buonaparte has abdicated.”
“I’m finding that I’m a little busier than I’d expected,” Captain Kelsey said, playing his own card. “Winning the Peace has its own considerations, it transpires.”
Cheviot played a trump card, and triumphantly scooped the trick over to his side of the table. “And one is always meeting the most interesting fellows.”
The next day, the papers were all agog with news of a government minister who had suddenly resigned, with various correspondents breathlessly speculating on what the cause might be. As Elinor had seen the gentleman, a very foolish man, gallivanting about in Bath, as had several journalists, there were rumours abounding that the man’s health had failed. She couldn’t help remembering, however, seeing the fat toad on Milsom-street the day they had met Francis Cheviot in the bakery, and yet again a familiar looking silhouette from the highest tower of Blaise Castle being followed by her cat-like cousin and a dashing Captain of the Infantry who had transpired to be a demon whist player. And she couldn’t help but wonder. She would have to tell Ned about it, she supposed, if he would ever move himself to arriving in Bath to give her an actual proposal.
Around the arched hall of the Pump Room, busy with gaily coloured holiday makers pretending to be convalescents, Mr Francis Cheviot strolled, arm in arm with his dashing Captain Kelsey. Elinor watched the two men as they strolled about the room, their eyes soft, and their faces animated, the set of their shoulders so terribly relaxed; as one does when talking to one’s bosom friend or one’s confirmed love. She ached with the sudden fierce pang of missing Edward. Perhaps her hunger for the touch of a lover showed in her face, for Francis Cheviot nodded slightly to her with a wry smile.
When she and Becky approached the pair more nearly, they paused and made their bow, and allowed Cheviot to make introductions to Becky, and they spoke little nothings for the two minutes that civility advised.
When Francis and his Captain took their leave, Elinor Cheviot wished them well. As her cousin tipped his hat, she realised that she meant it.