Nathaniel Gascoigne has arrived in London to help his sister and his cousin find husbands during the Season. He also plans to enjoy spending time with three close friends with whom he fought during the Napoleonic Wars. They are riding in Hyde Park, where they have an unexpected encounter with the widow of another fellow officer, a lady of whom they had all been dearly fond. Sophia Armitage is at home a few hours before this fateful meeting, worrying about a problem that threatens her every hope of peace and happiness and seems to have no solution.
Early the following morning a lady sat alone at the escritoire in the sitting room of her home on Sloan Terrace, brushing the feather of her quill pen across her chin as she studied the figures set out neatly on the paper spread before her. Her slippered foot smoothed lightly over the back of her dog, a collie who was snoozing contentedly beneath the desk.
There was enough money without dipping into her woefully meager savings. The bills for coal and candles had been paid a week ago—they were always a considerable expense. She did not have to worry about the salaries of her three servants—they were taken care of by a government grant. And of course the house was hers—given to her by the same government. The quarterly pension money that had been paid her last week—the coal and candle bills had been paid out of it—would just stretch to pay off this new debt.
She would not, of course, be able to buy the new evening gown she had been promising herself or the new half boots. Or that bonnet she had seen in a shop on Oxford Street when out with her friend Gertrude two days ago—the day before she had been presented with this new debt.
Debt—what a sad euphemism! For a moment there was a sick lurching in her stomach and panic clawed at her. She drew a slow breath and forced her mind to deal with practicalities.
The bonnet was easily expendable. It would have been a mere extravagance anyway. But the gown…
Sophia Armitage sighed aloud. It was two years since she had had a new evening gown. And that, even though it had been chosen for her presentation at Carlton House to no less a personage that the Regent, the Prince of Wales, was of the dullest dark blue silk and the most conservative of designs. Although she had been out of mourning, she had felt the occasion called for extreme restraint. She had been wearing that gown ever since.
She had so hoped this year to have a new one. Although she was invited almost everywhere, she did not usually accept invitations to the more glittering ton events. This year, though, she felt obliged to put in an appearance at some of them at least, This year Viscount Houghton, her brother-in-law, her late husband's brother, was in town with his family. Sarah, at the age of eighteen, was to make her come-out. Edwin and Beatrice, Sophia knew, hoped desperately that they would find a suitable husband for the girl during the next few months. They were not wealthy and could ill afford a second Season for her next year.
But they were kindness itself to Sophia. Although her father had been a coal merchant, albeit a wealthy one, and Walter's father had resisted her marriage to his son, Edwin and Beatrice had treated her with unfailing generosity ever since Walter's death. They would have given her a home and an allowance. They wanted her now to attend the grander events of the Season with them.
Of course, it could do them nothing but good to be seen in public with her, though she did not believe they were motivated by that fact alone. The truth was that Walter, Major Walter Armitage, who had fought as a cavalry officer throughout the war years in Portugal and Spain, always doing his duty, never distinguishing himself, had died at Waterloo in the performance of an act of extraordinary bravery. He had saved the lives of several superior officers, the Duke of Wellington's included, and then he had gone dashing off on foot into the thick of dense fighting in order to rescue a lowly lieutenant who had been unhorsed. Neither of them had survived. Walter had been found with his arms still clasped protectively around the younger man. He had been in the act of carrying him to safety.
Walter had been mentioned in dispatches. He had been mentioned personally by the Duke of Wellington. His deed of valor, culminating in his own death while trying to save an inferior, had caught the imagination of that most soft-hearted of gentlemen, the Prince of Wales, and so, a year after his death, Major Armitage had been honored at Carlton House and decorated posthumously. His widow, who had shown her devotion by following the drum throughout the Peninsular campaigns and Waterloo, must not suffer from the death of so brave a man. She had been gifted with a modest home in a decent neighborhood of London and the services of three servants. She had been granted a pension which, though modest, enabled her to achieve an independence of either her brother-in-law or her own brother, who had recently taken over the business on their father's death.
Walter himself had left her almost nothing. The sizable dowry that had persuaded him to marry her—though she believed he had had an affection for her too—had been spent during the course of their marriage.
Life had been rather pleasant for a year after that appearance at Carlton House. For some reason the event had aroused considerable interest. It had been reported in all the London papers and even in some provincial ones. Sophia had found that in the absence of Walter himself, she had become the nation's heroine. Although the daughter of a merchant and the widow of a younger son of a viscount, a lowly person indeed, she was much sought after. Every hostess wished to boast of having the famous Mrs. Sophia Armitage as her guest. Sophia grew accustomed to telling stories about the life of a cavalry officer's wife following the drum.
Even last year, when she might have expected her fame to have waned, it was suddenly revived when Lieutenant Boris Pinter, a younger son of the Earl of Hardcastle, and a fellow officer whom Walter had not even liked, had arrived in London and chosen to regale the ton with the story of the time when Walter, at considerable risk to his own life, had saved Pinter's when he had been a mere ensign and had got into danger through his own carelessness and naivete.
The ton had been enchanted. Their love affair with Major Armitage's widow had continued unabated.
And then she had been presented with the first of the great debts, as she had come to think of them. She had been innocent enough to believe that it was also the last. But there had been another, slightly larger, one month after that. That time she had hoped it was the last. Hope had blossomed over the winter, when nothing else had been forthcoming.
But it had happened again. Just yesterday. A new debt, slightly larger than the second had been. And this time she had understood. She had spent a sleepless night pacing and understanding that her comfortable world had gone—perhaps forever. This time she was without hope. This would not be the last of such demands. Not by any means.
She knew she would go on trying to pay. She knew she must. Not only for her own sake. But how would she pay the next one? With her savings? What about the next after that?
She set down her pen and bowed her head. She closed her eyes in an attempt to ward off the dizziness that threatened. She must live life one day at a time. If she had learned nothing else during her years with the army, she had learned that. Not even always one day at a time. Sometimes it had been reduced to hours or even minutes. But always one at a time.
A cold nose was nudging at her hand and she lifted it to pat her dog's head and smile rather wanly.
"Very well, then, Lass," she said just as if the dog had made the suggestion, "one day at a time it is. Though to borrow some of Walter's vocabulary, I find myself in one devil of a pickle."
Lass lifted her head to invite a scratching beneath the chin.
The door of the sitting room opened and Sophia raised her head, a cheerful smile on her lips.
"Aunt Sophie," Sarah Armitage said brightly, "I could not sleep for a moment longer. What a relief to find that you are already up. Oh, do get down, Lass, you silly hound. Dog paws and muslin do not make a good combination. Mama is to take me for a final fitting for my new clothes later this morning, and we are to ride in the carriage in the park this afternoon. Papa is to take us. He says that everyone rides in the park at the fashionable hour."
"And you cannot wait to return home so that all the excitement may begin," Sophia said, getting to her feet after putting the paper with its figurings inside one of the cubbyholes at the back of her desk.
Sarah had been so restless with pent-up excitement the afternoon before that Sophia had suggested a walk back to Sloan Terrace and an evening and night spent there. Sarah had accepted the treat with alacrity. But now, of course, she was terrified that she would miss something. Soon—two evenings after tomorrow—all the activities she so eagerly anticipated would begin with the first major ball of the Season at Lady Shelby's.
"Shall we have some breakfast and then walk back through the park?" Sophia suggested. "It will be quiet and quite enchanting at this hour of the morning. And it looks to be as lovely a day as yesterday turned out to be. You need not dash about the room with such exuberant glee, Lass. There is to be breakfast first and you are not going to persuade me otherwise." She led the way to the dining room, her collie prancing after them, since Sophia had been unwise enough to use the word walk in her hearing.
How wonderful it would feel to be eighteen again, Sophia thought, looking wistfully at her niece, and to have all of life, all of the world, ahead of one. Not that she was ancient herself. She was only eight and twenty. Sometimes she felt closer to a hundred. The ten years since her marriage had not been easy ones, though she must not complain. But now, just when she had achieved some measure of independence and had made a circle of amiable friends and had expected to be able to make a life of quiet contentment for herself…
Well, the debts had arrived.
It would have been so very pleasant, she thought with an unaccustomed wave of self-pity, to have been able to afford a new gown, to have been able to afford to have her hair trimmed and styled, to have been able to convince herself that though not beautiful or even pretty, she was at least passably elegant. She had never felt passably elegant or frivolous or lovely. Well, not at least since the days of her youth, when she had deluded herself into believing that she was pretty enough to compare with anyone.
The truth was that she was dumpy and frumpy and unattractive and—and in a sorry state of self-pity indeed. She smiled in self-mockery and set herself to amuse Sarah with her conversation. She ignored Lass, who sat beside her chair breathing loudly and gazing unwaveringly into her face.
© Mary Balogh