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Submitted on 06/03/2020

Categories: Historical Fiction

Robert scowled as he inspected the tip of his thumb. The initial sting preceded the appearance of the red sliver which bubbled to bisect the rings of his skin. Pressing the injured appendage against his lips, he more carefully resumed thumbing through the leaves of Sense and Sensibility whose heroine, like his bride-to-be was pretty, quaint, even-tempered and kind. A loud crash resounded downstairs followed by a chorus of undignified, wine-induced laughter. His frown deepened. He had been right to escape the throng when he did, even if the act made him appear unsociable. Far from a proper socialite, Robert Westly could only subject himself to a limited amount of aristocratic customs, a negligible amount by his mother’s opinion especially by one “born into the part”, but having crossed into manhood long ago, he cared very little of public opinion. The only mores he staunchly adhered to were his attendance at Sunday mass, his commitment to the care of his mother, and his selection of a well-bred woman to wed. Only a few months had passed since he had found his Elinor in Miss Adele Bailey, the daughter of a well-to-do family from Kent. Town gossip went that Miss Bailey had been engaged at 17, but the man instead ran off and eloped with a close, more-wealthy cousin of the same family, leaving young Miss Adele in emotional shambles. Robert discovered later that she had just returned to society, not 2 months before they met. Yet despite this scandal and the matter of her drastically inferior wealth to his own, not one person uttered a word of discontent against his pursuit of her. And now, after only 5 months of passionate courtship, the Carolingian beauty was his.

 In fact, the rabble downstairs was intended to serve in-part as an engagement party though he had yet to make the official announcement. The ceaseless conversation and dancing had left him drained and in need of a renewal of romance, so when the moment presented itself, Robert had snuck away to the library to read the chapters leading up to the engagement between Elinor and Edward. He had hoped that the actualization of true love and Adele’s resemblance to Elinor would provide him with the eagerness to publicly commence their love. 

They were brought together by mutual affection, with the warmest approbation of their real friends, their intimate knowledge of each other seemed to make their happiness certain . . .

 Not a moment after his eyes swept across those words was he interrupted by the loud slam of the library door and the inebriated though still charming laughter of a debutante.

“Come my dearest, Emma.” He recognized the soft, soothing voice immediately. Adele. “No more dancing for you, rest your head here.”

“I shall, but you should not be burdened with my tiresome company. You ought to dance.” Robert closed his novel, intending to announce himself when Adele’s younger friend Emma introduced his name into the conversation, entreating Adele to find him so that she could enjoy the festivities of the evening a while longer. One cannot say whether innocent interest or vanity drove him to inaction, but he decided to keep his presence unknown to them. “Pretty as you are, I always knew you’d marry above your station, but Mr. Westly has wealth above conception! I’m a reputed beauty myself, but even I never imagined that I could attract the eye of a man who— how much did he pay for your carriage? — It’s no matter— I never imagined that I could attract a man who would buy me such a fine carriage after only a month of courtship, and I am much more beautiful than you. . . Oh, my dearest Adele, forgive me, that is not to say that you are plain. No! You just have obviously Frankish roots and pure Englishwoman are historically more stunning . . .” Emma went on like this for a time with Adele’s patient and constant attention until she again mentioned him and the budding romance that everyone (apparently everyone by her account) suspected would end in matrimony.

As he listened, he came to understand that it was those very gifts that had secured Adele’s initial affection and paved the way to their engagement. Any reserve he may have felt at the confession was washed away by the relentless questioning of her friend who, upon hearing the role his gifts had played, coyly accused her friend of vanity. He could never own to particularly liking Emma, but her inquisitions offered him an incredible insight into the mind of his beloved. Adele answered her friend’s intrusive questions with so calm an air that Robert almost suspected her to be dishonest. With her soft voice, Adele led Emma to realize that the gifts Robert had bestowed upon her had not been the means of procuring her affection, but that they had only acted to reassure her of his interest and with that reassurance allowed her the liberty of embracing the full extent of her admiration for him.

“His manners had always been refreshingly cool and easy,” his betrothed went on to explain, “but so they are with everyone. I could not allow myself to suppose that his attentions toward me held any significance other than a declaration of friendship.” His brows furrowed as her words settled in his mind; he had always thought his interactions with her to be warm and affected, deliberately preferential only to her.

“Yes, yes,” Emma agreed, her voice too eager to match the severity in Adele’s. “He is a perfect gentleman.” There was an accusatory note to Emma’s words that Robert could not understand as if that quality (though admirable) was the only redeemable piece to his character. He could feel the heat rising to his cheeks and was again thankful for his concealment. Adele too must have sensed the insult in her friend’s compliment for she immediately came to his defense with orations of his magnanimity.

“He is much more than that my dearest Emma. Mr. Westly is wealthy with generous manners to be sure, but he is also humble, severe yet kind and he is very knowledgeable about most things. I confess that I often feel the utter fool during our conversations intelligent as he is.” Robert’s chest swelled with fresh love at her adulations. She never praised him to his face and only ever offered him the small, genial compliments that his rank required of them all. To hear her now speak so tenderly of him only reminded him of the first moment he became cognizant that he was smitten by her. But amidst his inner praise for his love, Emma interrupted with another tantalizingly mischievous question.

“I do not doubt you sweet Adele, but as kind, humble, and rich as Mr. Westly is, he is still a man. All men have faults.” Robert held his breath in anticipation of her response. What on Earth would she venture to say, that is hair was a bit too thin or his nose a bit too Roman? Perhaps, he contemplated with horror, she would remark on his lack of romantic eloquence despite his education or the way in which he babbled when discussing something of interest to him and often unconsciously pushed that subject upon his audience until they agreed in some manner that the conversation was in fact highly stimulating to them as well. Maybe she would call him a vain. All of these follies and more ran through Robert’s mind as the anxiety of her answer almost overtook his better judgment. He suddenly regretted not revealing himself when they first entered. If he did so now, they would think him some sort of a mischievous imp. And what could he say in his defense? That he had come to the library to get away from the humdrum downstairs? That was the truth after all. Yes, so he retreated to the library for some privacy, picked up a book, and fell asleep. Yes! That was a perfect excuse and the lie would merely be a small sin as it was rooted in some fact. He would unveil himself, explain away the awkwardness of his appearance and they would all return downstairs gay as ever. He’d announce their engagement and they would all be too lost in that happiness to question his delayed appearance in the library. Only the sound of Adele’s voice halted him from stirring and exacting his plan.

“My dearest Emma you are right. All people have faults; men are not exempt, and Mr. Westly is no different except that he only has one.”

“Oh, do share Adele, unless you tease me without consequence heaven forbid!” Robert’s stomach knotted in anticipation; there is no greater pain than the acknowledgment of one’s flaws by the object which one considers the epitome of perfection.

“He fancies me,” Adele replied at length. “He fancies me and that is his one fault because he is so much and I, so very little.” Emma interjected almost immediately, claiming that by the heavens Adele could not truly mean what she had suggested. “No, of course,” His love conceded softly. “You are inattentive from the wine and misconstrue my meaning. Rest now, we will talk in the morning.”  

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