The Rector of Uppercross

Chapter One

London
June, 1839

Walter Musgrove looked about him and sighed. It never changes, he thought tiredly. The same people, the same mendacity, the same intrigues and gossip. It was here long before I arrived and will be here long after I am gone.

He had come to this assembly, along with everyone in London, it seemed, at the behest of his friend Julian Leverett, whose company he had formerly enjoyed but had lately become onerous. Leverett lived for such social occasions. Like Walter, Mr. Leverett was tall, handsome, and charming, and unlike Walter, he was rich.

"You must come, Musgrove," Mr. Leverett had said. " 'Twill be a famous soiree."

"Indeed," Walter had replied dryly. "And your attendance at this famous soiree would have absolutely nothing to do with the lovely Miss Sarah Wolfe?"

Mr. Leverett's flushed countenance gave Walter all the answer he required. At heart, Walter was a romantic, and this admission warmed him toward the young man. "Very well, I shall accompany you," he declared, and it took many more words than he cared to hear for Mr. Leverett to properly express his happiness.

Miss Wolfe was currently enjoying Mr. Leverett's undivided attention, and Walter roamed the perimeter of the room alone. In previous years, nay, previous months, Walter Musgrove would have enjoyed exerting all his considerable charm on the most attractive young ladies in the room, but tonight his mood did not permit such activity. Of late, his delight in such activities had palled. There must be something more to life than this endless round of meaningless public display!

His brother Charles stood across the room with their parents and sister, who clung blushingly to the arm of her fiancÚ. Walter had been delighted but surprised by Elizabeth's choice. Mrs. Musgrove had always encouraged her daughter to hold out for a title, but Elizabeth's taste ran more to red and blue coats. Walter had expected her to end up a soldier or sailor's wife, and she always seemed to have admirers both military and civilian, but none whose offers she felt inclined to accept. Then Charles had invited James Leigh to visit Uppercross the previous summer.

Mr. Leigh's regard for Elizabeth had been obvious, but at first the lady was not interested in his attentions. James was not discouraged by her diffidence, and plied her with wildflowers and poetry. One day Walter had been walking in the Uppercross shrubbery when he heard voices; he stepped around a hedgerow and saw James and Elizabeth sitting together on a small bench, hand in hand, the gentleman whispering in the lady's ear. Elizabeth's glowing countenance had clearly indicated her feelings, and Walter Musgrove, hopeless romantic, had smiled and retreated to the house before he could interrupt the lovers. When the engagement of the squire's daughter to the baronet's son had been announced some months later, the malicious gossips of the neighbourhood surrounding Uppercross had sniped that the Elliot pride had been passed from mother to daughter, but Walter was happy in the comfortable knowledge that his sister would marry very much for love.

A hand on his arm brought him back to the present, and he looked down in delight at his cousin Anne Wentworth. "Hello, love," he said, kissing her hand warmly. "I did not know that you were in town. Are my aunt and uncle with you?"

"Yes," said Anne, smiling. "Are you acquainted with my father's good news?"

Walter laughed. "My mother lost no time in advertising her brother-in-law's good fortune. My congratulations, Lady Anne," he added, sweeping into an elegant bow.

It was his cousin's turn to laugh. "The daughter of a knight is not addressed thusly, Walter, as you well know, and besides, his elevation will not take place until September." Admiral Wentworth was to be rewarded for his long and distinguished service to the crown with the title Grand Commander of the Order of the Bath, and his family rejoiced, although the admiral himself suffered no emotion so much as embarrassment at all the fuss.

"Is your family here tonight?" Anne asked him.

"Yes, my mother is busy displaying her future son-in-law to all London, and she even managed to drag Charles away from his books long enough to make an appearance," he replied, watching her carefully. He had long suspected that Anne had feelings for his brother, and he had also noticed Charles' gaze resting on Anne more often than not.

"I will be glad to see Eliza," said Anne noncommittally, her eyes fixed on an undetermined spot in the distance.

And my brother, too, I suspect, he thought, swallowing a grin. "They are standing over there by the pillar," he said, nodding to the other side of the room. "I am sure that they will be delighted to see you as well. All of them," he added, endeavouring to give her a hint, but she did not seem to hear or understand it, and her eyes darted eagerly to the pillar, a small smile gracing her pretty features.

"I must pay my respects to your parents," she said, then turned back to him and laid a gloved hand on his arm. "It was very good to see you, Walter," she added softly, then made her away across the room to where Charles stood.

Walter watched her go with mixed feelings. He had always liked Anne, since they were all children; she was pretty, ladylike but not missish, and had a spark of laughter in her eyes that always made him smile. Walter had entertained some fleeting thoughts to the effect that Anne Wentworth would make him a fine wife, but something had always held him back from pursuit; perhaps he had always known, somehow, that she was for his brother. The romantic in him wondered whether he should give Charles a hint as to Anne's feelings, but he knew instinctively that Anne would not have appreciated his interference, and he was content to let nature take its course. My brother is a simpleton, he thought, watching Anne talking to Eliza, and Charles studiously ignoring them both. One of these days he will wake up and realize that they are perfect for one another.

He continued his circuit of the room, watching the dancers, both those on the dance floor and those engaged in the dance of social interaction. The mammas seeking alliances for their daughters; the impoverished noblemen seeking moneyed wives, even a tradesman's daughter, to save their ancestral estates; the flirtations, the affairs, the gossip, the malice, they all fed the darkness that pressed upon his soul. Why did I come here? he wondered in exasperation. What did I expect to find? Walter decided that he might as well depart; there was nothing for him here, and solitude at the inn was better than solitude in the midst of a roomful of people.

As he made his way to the door, his elbow was seized; Mr. Leverett protested, "Musgrove, you are not leaving so soon! I am astonished. You are depriving all the lovely young ladies present of one of the most accomplished dancers in town!" He laughed and waved his hand toward the other side of the room. "Look there. Dalton's latest bit of muslin can't take her eyes from you, you dog."

Walter's gaze followed Julian's hand, and his eyes met those of a young woman, her hair perfectly dressed and her gown in the latest style, except that the neckline was cut a bit lower than current fashions dictated. She smiled and inclined her head to him. Walter stared back at her in amazement. "Do you know her, Leverett?" he asked.

Julian tittered. "We are not personally acquainted, my dear Musgrove. I have no desire for a dawn meeting with the Earl of Dalton. I understand that he is rather possessive about the lady."

"Are they married, engaged?" asked Walter, still staring at the lady, who continued to smile at him.

"Good Lord, no!" laughed Mr. Leverett. "She is currently under his protection, but there is no permanent alliance planned. Such a match would lay the Dowager Countess in her grave once and for all. She has had one foot there these ten years at least." He took Walter's elbow once again. "Come and have tea with Sarah and me."

"I thank you, Leverett, but no," said Walter, finally wrenching his eyes away from the lady's. "I must take my leave. You will give my best to Miss Wolfe." He resumed his movement toward the door, but yet another hand on his arm stopped him. He looked down in surprise at the Earl of Dalton's mistress.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Musgrove," she said in a low-pitched voice that washed over Walter like a warm bath. "I hope you will forgive me if I presume on a former acquaintance."

"I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage, madam," he responded politely.

She smiled; her eyes were mesmerizing, deep jade green with glints of grey. "It is a family connection, of sorts," she said. "My mother is married to your cousin Sir William Elliot. My name is Gwendolyn Clay."

"Oh, yes!" he exclaimed. "Miss Clay, I beg your pardon!" He bowed over her hand. "Please forgive my ignorance. You have not been at Kellynch in a very long time, I think."

"No," she said. "I have lived here in town since I completed my education." Walter did not think it would be politic to comment on her living arrangements. He had heard a great deal of gossip about Gwendolyn Clay, who had acquired a reputation as a courtesan to moneyed and titled men. Walter could well understand why; she was lovely, with masses of golden curls and a shapely figure. And those eyes, he thought. A man could lose himself in those eyes.

They spoke for a time of inconsequential things, and finally Walter said, "I must excuse myself, Miss Clay. You caught me as I was taking my leave."

"The evening is young," she said with a smile. "Can I persuade you to stay if I promise to dance with you once?"

Walter, remembering Mr. Leverett's warning about his lordship's possessiveness in regard to his lady, said only, "That is a temptation indeed, madam, but one that I must refuse, however regretfully. I bid you good night." He bowed and would have turned away, but his sleeve was seized and he was turned about to find himself face-to-face with the Earl of Dalton.

"I would have a word with you, sir," said his lordship, and his unsteady gait and slurring speech alerted Walter that the Earl was intoxicated. He had sufficient social experience to know that such men were dangerous; he must tread carefully.

"I beg your pardon, my lord," he said as deferentially as possible. "I was just leaving."

"I am placing you on warning," said the Earl, thrusting a finger into Walter's chest, "that you are not to speak to Miss Clay. She does not want to be importuned by the likes of you, some--" he looked Walter down and up, contemptuously, "--some farmer from the country."

Walter, who knew perfectly well that he had more education than his lordship and, at the moment, a sight more gentility, nonetheless said, "You are correct, my lord. I beg your pardon. I will leave directly." What is the Earl of Dalton doing at a public assembly, anyway? He must be foxed beyond all reason!

The Earl grabbed the lapels of Walter's coat and pulled until their faces were only a few inches apart. "You will stay away from her in the future. You have been warned. Am I understood?"

"Clearly, my lord," said Walter, turning his face away slightly to avoid the smell of gin and cigars on the Earl's breath. The Earl released him, and Walter walked hastily toward the door, hoping that none of his family had witnessed the encounter. As he reached the vestibule, he heard a feminine voice call his name. He turned and saw Miss Clay, who had followed him in great haste.

"Mr. Musgrove," she said, breathing heavily. "Please allow me to apologize on Dalton's behalf. He knows not what he does when he is in liquor."

Walter smoothed down his rumpled lapels and said only, "It is not your place to apologize for him, madam."

"No," she said. "But I seem to find myself doing so more often than I care to admit."

Walter glanced at her, at those green eyes, and said, "I wonder that you stay with him, then."

"I am leaving him," she said quietly. "He does not know yet. I am going to my brother's house." She hesitated, then said, "I hope that I can persuade you to call on me there."

He smiled. "I am afraid that you would find me disappointing, Miss Clay. I do not have his lordship's extensive financial resources. I am but a younger son, and I have my living to earn." Yet you earn it not, an inner voice reminded him. You have yet to take orders. You have continued to take the allowance your father hands you. You are no better than Dalton and his ilk, for all your fine Cambridge education.

Miss Clay was not embarrassed by the implication of his words; Walter felt the compliment she paid him of not denying her circumstances. "Does that mean we cannot be friends?" she asked. "You once did me a great service, sir. I would offer my friendship in return, poor repayment thought that might be."

"I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage once again, Miss Clay," he said. "What service have I rendered you?"

"You do not remember?" she asked, smiling. "You once comforted a small girl who was desperately unhappy, by a pond somewhere between Kellynch and Uppercross."

"I remember," he said softly, thinking of the angel who had wept in his arms.

"I have treasured that memory for many years," said Miss Clay. "I would return the favour, if I may. There are many who have found comfort in my company."

I am sure that there are, he thought wryly, but said only, "Perhaps I shall call upon you and your brother, Miss Clay." He said it only out of politeness; he had no intention of calling at Henry Clay's house. His reputation was little better than his sister's.

She smiled at him again, and Walter was struck anew by the beauty of her eyes. "I hope that you do, Mr. Musgrove." She curtseyed and went back into the ballroom.

rule

"Miss Clay is at home, Mr. Musgrove, if you will follow me," said the parlourmaid, opening the door to admit him.

Walter went inside, surrendered his hat and umbrella to the girl, and followed her into the small parlour.

"Mr. Musgrove, ma'am," the girl said, then curtseyed and left the room, shutting the door behind her.

Gwendolyn smiled at him from behind the pianoforte. "Good evening, Mr. Musgrove," she said. "You find me quite by myself tonight. I am taking this unusual opportunity to practice my neglected musical skills." Her fingers never stopped moving as she spoke; Walter had heard the music through the open windows as he stood on the doorstep, and it had not faltered since. He had spent several nights at the townhouse over the past two weeks, drawn there almost against his will by the memory of glowing green eyes and the lovely woman to whom they belonged. Henry Clay was rarely present, and when he was, he ignored Walter entirely; but Gwendolyn always seemed glad to see him, and sat by him and conversed with him on every subject under the sun, even when the parlour was crowded with admirers and hangers-on. Walter knew that he tread on dangerous ground while in the intoxicating presence of Miss Gwendolyn Clay, but he cared not; her attentions kept the darkness at bay, for a few hours anyway, and he was grateful for that.

But tonight they were indeed alone. She did not seem to feel that it was improper to receive him without her brother present, or her maid.

"Neglect seems to have caused your skills to thrive," Walter said. "Beethoven, I believe?" The music was almost ghostly, perfectly suiting the low lighting of the room and the unusual stillness of the humid night.

"Oh, yes. Piano Sonata Number Fourteen, 'Quasi una fantasia,' although I have heard it called the 'Moonlight' Sonata as well." Her fingers continued to move as she spoke. "I am glad you are here. Would you be so kind as to sit next to me and turn the pages of my music? I have given Jeanne the evening out, or she would have performed that office for me."

Walter rather suspected that she had the music by heart and needed neither pages nor anyone to turn them, but he seated himself on the bench next to her. "You may turn," she said, and he did so; her fingers never faltered. He could not read musical notation and had no idea if she was playing from the pages. When he glanced at her, he realized that she could not be; her eyes were locked on his, a small smile on her lips. "Do you play, Mr. Musgrove?"

"No," he said. "My parents did not consider music a necessary accomplishment for a man. My sister had lessons, but she has never been a great musician. My talents lie more in the field, I am afraid."

"Such manly accomplishments," said Miss Clay. "Shooting, and riding, and jumping horses, I presume?"

"Yes," he said. "But sometimes I wish I had the opportunity to learn music. I am fond of it, but it is rare that I have the good fortune to hear a musician of your skill."

"Would you like to play?" she asked him. "I can help you to do so, quite easily."

Walter laughed. "I would much rather listen to you play, madam."

"And so you shall." She took her fingers from the keyboard and seized his left hand. She passed his arm over her head and around her shoulders. "Place your hands over mine," she said.

Walter manoeuvered himself so that she was between his arms. Her back rested against his chest. He placed his hands over hers, matching them finger to finger, and she began to play. The 'Moonlight' Sonata swelled from the pianoforte, each note dropping like a perfect, round pearl into a still pool of water. Walter had to place his head next to hers, his chin almost resting on her shoulder, in order to see the keyboard. The scent of her hair, musky yet sweet, was all around him.

Her fingers continued to move, along with his own, resting lightly on top; her skin was soft and warm. Walter closed his eyes, relaxed his arms, and let her hands carry his own as the music wrapped around them. And the music never stopped, not for either of them; not when Walter's hands slid from the keyboard; not when his arms enveloped Gwendolyn's waist; not when her hands touched his face; not when she whispered his name; not when their lips met. It did not stop for the rest of the night, that ethereal music; it rose, note by exquisite note, through the warm, heavy air to the moonlit sky, filling the night and haunting their dreams.

~ Continued in next chapter