To my mother, my best critic
And my grandmother, my biggest fan
Lady Elizabeth Smithfield, relict of Sir John Smithfield, surveyed her two daughters as they sat together, their heads bent over their needlework. Lydia, her light brown hair picking up golden highlights in the morning sun, was dutifully working away at the laborious task, sewing small, intricate stitches that would eventually result in a pillow or seat cushion her mother could proudly display. Sweet Lydia, her mother thought, a gentle smile lightening her somewhat rigid countenance. Glancing over at her younger daughter, Emily, the smile disappeared and was replaced by a slight frown. Her needlework forgotten on her lap, Emily sat gazing out the window, softly humming a ditty her mother was sure she had not learned in a polite drawing room. It was probably fortunate Emily had ceased her stitching, if the few wide, uneven stitches were an indication of how the finished product would appear.
Lady Smithfield heaved a great sigh, wondering, as she often did, why her second daughter could not have been a younger replica of the oldest, or, better yet, a son. It was one of her frequent laments since she and her daughters had been forced to leave their home upon the death of Sir John two years previously. Since Sir John lacked a direct male heir, Rollings Park had gone to a distant cousin and his family, and the Smithfield ladies had been forced to relocate to their present, more modest domicile in Stonehurst.
The house they were able to purchase from a wealthy attorney was small but comfortable, with classical lines, a pleasing redbrick façade, and an interior said to have been designed by Robert Adam. However, Lady Smithfield felt their decline in the world quite forcibly. She was no longer Lady Smithfield of Rollings Park with a staff of forty and a full stable. In their less affluent circumstances, they could barely afford six servants and one carriage.
When Lady Smithfield sighed a second time, Emily and Lydia exchanged a knowing look that their mother did not see. They were well aware of the cause of their mother’s melancholy. Emily tried to be sympathetic, as she missed Rollings as well, but she could not help wishing her mother’s sighs were for Sir John rather than his estate. To distract her mother’s thoughts, Emily motioned to the letters on the rosewood table and asked if anything interesting had come in the post.
Lady Smithfield picked up the morning correspondence and leafed through it in a halfhearted manner. One letter caught her eye, and, setting aside the rest, she scanned it eagerly. Upon discerning the nature of its contents, her gloomy manner dissipated completely, and her features took on a look of joy coupled with disbelief.
“My dears, I have just received a letter from His Grace, duke of Alford, with some very encouraging news!” Lady Smithfield paused briefly to ensure she had her two daughters’ full attention. Confident they were listening, she continued, “You may remember, girls, that the duchess and I were schoolmates at Miss Finch’s Academy for Young Ladies and that we remained friends even after we both married.” Knowing her daughters had heard many times of their mother’s friendship with the duchess of Alford—as had anyone who had spent more than half an hour in conversation with Lady Smithfield—she hastened to the point. “You might recall also that we both wished that you, Lydia, would marry Lucy’s son, Lord Wesleigh. But when the duchess died, I felt my cherished hope would come to naught. But it is not to be!” She paused in happy anticipation of her daughters’ reaction to the news, but as her announcement elicited confusion rather than excitement, she hurried to explain. “What I mean to say is, it is not going to come to nothing, it will proceed after all. The duke has suggested it himself! He writes that if we are in agreement with the proposal, an announcement of the marriage of Miss Lydia Smithfield to Lord Wesleigh will be inserted in the Morning Post in thirty days. My daughter, the future duchess of Alford. I can hardly credit it! I daresay this is the happiest day of my life.” The joyful news moved Lady Smithfield to tears, and as she searched for her handkerchief, she missed the less-than-joyful looks her daughters exchanged.
Lydia, with her light brown hair, big blue eyes, long slender neck, and ladylike demeanor, was generally deemed the prettier of the two girls. In comparison, Emily looked rather like a gypsy. Thick dark hair, high cheekbones, large dark eyes, and a full lower lip combined to give her an exotic look in stark contrast to her sister’s proper English Miss. Emily’s unconventional looks were the despair of her mother, who considered anything out of the common way to be, well, common. In her opinion, Emily looked more like a lusty farmer’s daughter than the proper daughter of a baronet. It caused Lady Smithfield to question whether Sir John’s ancestors were all they should be. (Of the superior quality of her own lineage she was never in doubt.) However, Lydia looked remarkably like she herself did at that age. So Lady Smithfield had centered all her hopes on Lydia. Emily could marry where she willed, as long as she married a respectable gentleman, but it was sweet, dutiful, gentle Lydia who her mother felt sure would bring home the matrimonial prize.
“Whom should I tell first?” Lady Smithfield asked, her triumphant tone jolting her daughters out of their shocked contemplation of her announcement. “I shall write a letter this very moment to Cousin Harriet. Then there’s Sir John’s side of the family—”
“Mama,” Lydia interrupted, her voice slightly higher-pitched than usual. “Mama,” she repeated, a little more calmly, “before we tell anyone, could we please keep the news to ourselves for a bit longer? After all, we’ve not heard from Lord Wesleigh as of yet. We have no knowledge of his agreement to his father’s plan.”
“My dear child, the duke is a man of honor. He would not raise our hopes only to dash them to the ground. You may rest assured that his word is as good as carved in stone.”
Lydia did not appear comforted by this piece of information. Quite the opposite, in fact. Emily, who was unused to seeing her sister’s calm composure disturbed, interceded in her behalf. “I think what Lydia means to say is that she needs time to accustom herself to the idea of being affianced. After all, the betrothal is not to be published for thirty days.”
Lady Smithfield considered Emily’s suggestion for a moment while both girls waited. “Perhaps you are right, Emily,” she finally replied, and Lydia relaxed visibly. “We shall wait until Lord Wesleigh comes for a visit. That will be the appropriate time to make the announcement. I shall write his father immediately to inquire when Lord Wesleigh is to arrive. I am a little surprised His Grace did not mention it in his letter. No matter, I am sure he intends to come soon. In the meantime, we had better start planning your trousseau, Lydia. We shall most likely have to make a trip up to London. We cannot trust the dressmakers here in Stonehurst, or even in Hastings, to make a wardrobe worthy of a duchess.”
Leaving their mother happily making wedding plans, the girls slipped upstairs. Once in the safety of her bedchamber, Lydia’s beautiful blue eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Emily, what am I to do?”
“I take it you’re not pleased with the notion of becoming Lady Wesleigh.”
“Why would I be pleased? I do not even know the gentleman!”
“No, you do not know him. But who is to say he is not the epitome of charm and masculine beauty? We do know that he is young. The duchess was only a year or two older than Mama, so her son could not be more than thirty. You should be grateful they are not trying to marry you off to some gouty, doddering old man. I know it is quite difficult, Lydia, but you should at least try to suspend judgment until you have actually met him.”
“But I do not love him,” Lydia said, her voice a mere whisper, her eyes downcast.
“Well,” Emily replied in a bracing tone, “perhaps you will learn to love him. It is not as if you are in love with anyone else.”
Lydia’s quiet crying ended with a hiccough, and she turned abruptly to walk to the window. Emily looked suspiciously at her sister, who was avoiding eye contact with her. “Lydia? You are not in love with someone, are you? Lydia?”
“Of course not. With whom would I be in love?” she replied, fiddling nervously with the cornflower blue ribbon on her bodice.
“I have no idea. There are no eligible gentlemen in Stonehurst under the age of sixty. Except, of course, for—” She halted abruptly as Lydia looked up nervously. “Lydia, don’t tell me you are in love with Jonathan Sedgewick! He is as poor as—as a chimney sweep! Mama would never allow it. He is a vicar.”
“Vicars are perfectly respectable.”
“Respectable, yes. Rich, no. But I suppose that does not matter if you truly care for him. Do you?” Lydia nodded. “Then of course you must not marry Lord Wesleigh,” Emily said.
“But, Emily, Mama is counting on me to marry a fortune. How could I disappoint her so?” It was obvious the notion of disappointing their mother was abhorrent to Lydia. Emily reflected wryly to herself that it was a good thing she did not suffer from a similar anxiety.
“You know what Mama is like,” Emily told her sister. “She acts as though we are living in penury now that we are no longer at Rollings. It is absolute nonsense. We are perfectly comfortable here.” Emily paused, a contemplative look on her face. “But there is a way we could avoid disappointing Mama without sacrificing you at the marriage altar.” Emily thought for a moment, while Lydia watched her in anticipation. “Yes, I think it would serve very well,” Emily said slowly.