WARNING! Contains spoilers for Amy and Belle!
Connie was the last to step from the coach, shaking out her skirts. The Allamont travelling coach was capacious, but with five young ladies squeezed into it, she was sadly crushed. She stood for a moment, looking up at front facade of Staynlaw House. It was a handsome building of red stone, very modern and well-proportioned, and the interior fitted with every comfort. Not for the Amblesides the inconvenience of narrow stairs or rooms too dark to work in or a kitchen that produced meat half burnt or half raw, depending on which way the wind was blowing. How strange to think that she might have been mistress of it by now instead of her sister, if she had chosen differently.
There was Amy rushing down the steps, arms wide, to embrace her sisters, the ribbons of her cap flying. That was strange, too, to see Amy in her new gown and cap, a married woman, the first of the six daughters of Allamont Hall to enter matrimony.
“Connie, dear!” Amy said, wrapping her in a sisterly embrace, then breaking away to gaze into her face. “How are you? You look a little pale.”
“I am perfectly well, I assure you, but we have been having a giddy time of it lately, with so many parties. I daresay I am a little tired. But let us not talk of me! We are here to congratulate the bride on her return. Welcome home, Mrs Ambleside.”
Behind her, with his warm smile, stood Mr Ambleside. Connie’s heart performed a little somersault at the sight of him. Only a few months ago, she had been quite sure she was desperately in love with him, and he, being an honourable man, had felt obliged to offer for her. She had quickly realised her mistake, and he had returned to Amy, his true love. Connie had no regrets, but in many ways Mr Ambleside remained her ideal of a gentleman — handsome and personable, and with a good independent fortune, which is always an advantage in a man. A little domineering, perhaps, but love tempered that facet of his character. If he had been just a few years younger, and had a title, his array of good qualities would have been complete, and perhaps she would have been tempted to hold on to him.
Amy blushed prettily, and Ambleside came to shake Connie’s hand. “Welcome to Staynlaw House, Miss Connie.” Then he tucked Amy’s arm into his, and the bridal pair led the way into their home.
There were refreshments laid out, for the visitors were expected, but there was far too much news to impart for anyone to have the leisure to eat.
“Belle is betrothed!” Grace burst out, almost before they were properly seated. “She is to marry Mr Burford in the spring.”
This news was no surprise. Amy jumped up to hug her sister. “Oh, Belle, I wish you so much joy! May you be as happy as I am.”
Ambleside shook Belle’s hand warmly, his smile brighter than ever. “Congratulations, Miss Allamont. Burford is a good man, and will take excellent care of you.”
Miss Allamont. That was so like Ambleside, always exquisitely correct with titles. Now that Amy was married, Belle was Miss Allamont for a few months, and then it would be Connie’s turn for the title, until she herself was married. And when would that be? If only she could be fortunate enough to find another Ambleside.
Belle blushed, but accepted the congratulations calmly. As she took her seat again, Amy glanced across at Hope, then quickly looked away again, but nothing was said. Poor Hope! She had been in love with Mr Burford for an age, and he with her, but then something had happened, although Connie was not very sure what, and now Belle and Mr Burford were quite in love.
“And you will never guess where they are to live,” Grace said. “I was never so surprised in my life.”
Mr and Mrs Ambleside agreed that they could not guess.
“Willowbye!” Grace burst out. “Cousin Henry is all to pieces, it seems, and so he is to move into the Dower House, and Belle and Mr Burford will rent Willowbye.”
“Willowbye!” Amy said. “Surely Cousin Henry will not like to leave his home.”
“Indeed he did not want to at all, but now that James is married to Alice Whittle and there is no hope of him bringing home an heiress with a large fortune, there is nothing else to be done. They must economise, or be ruined.”
“I am sorry to hear that Mr Allamont finds himself in difficulties with money,” Ambleside said. “Sorry, but not surprised. There was always an air of economy about the place, and the house left to fend for itself rather. Renting to Burford is a good solution, Miss Allamont, for then you will not be so far away from us.”
“So now you know our news, you may tell us all about your tour of the lake country,” Connie said. “Was it very beautiful?”
“It was very wet,” Ambleside said indignantly. “Wetter than any self-respecting place ought to be. I see now why there are so many lakes there, for it never stops raining. Next time my wife and I travel for pleasure, we will go south, I swear it. Brighton is very civilised, so everyone says. We shall promenade beside the sea, and ogle the monstrous Pavilion, and perhaps, if we are very lucky, we may catch a glimpse of the royal personage.”
“Next time we will travel in the summer,” Amy said with an affectionate smile. “I cannot imagine what we were thinking to be going anywhere at this time of year. We were lucky not to be snowed up for the whole month. But come, sisters, let me show you the morning room, for Mr Ambleside arranged for it to be redone while we were away, as a surprise.”
“Amy will want a pleasant room to sit in while she sews, and it was a little dark before,” Ambleside said, walking down the hall ahead of them and throwing open the door. “There! Is that not a very pretty room now? The new sofas came from Bristol and the wallpaper from London. The writing desk was made by a man I found in Brinchester. The rug is the original, however, for there is plenty of wear in it yet.”
They all admired the new fittings, although Connie thought the wallpaper too heavily decorated for a lady’s room. Then there was some new china, a wedding gift, to be seen and the spot on the wall where Amy’s portrait would hang, once a painter had been engaged. As they wandered from room to room, Connie found Ambleside next to her.
“Have you forgiven me for my ill-treatment of you?” he said, with his heart-stopping smile.
“It is all long-forgotten.”
“You were always the most generous of creatures — after my dear wife, of course.”
“Of course,” she readily agreed. “Amy is so sweet and gentle that she deserves her happiness.”
“She is happy, I believe,” he said eagerly. “She tells me so, and gives every appearance of it.”
“Every appearance of it? My dear Ambleside, she is aglow with joy, anyone might see that. Marriage suits her admirably.”
He beamed with pleasure. “I am delighted to hear you say so. But what of you? Now that Miss Allamont’s future is settled, it is your turn to look for a husband.”
She winced. “I know, but I shall take my time in choosing. I must marry, I suppose, to fulfil the terms of Papa’s will, but there is no urgency now that…” She stopped, unwilling to mention Hope by name.
Ambleside had no such scruples. “Now that Miss Hope has no suitor waiting, you mean? How has she taken the loss of Burford to Miss Allamont? She seems a little subdued to me, not her usual self.”
“She is a little down-hearted, although she tries very hard not to show it.”
“I am sorry for it,” he said. “Perhaps a change of scene would improve her spirits? I will suggest to Mrs Ambleside that she invite her to stay with us for a while.”
“Oh, how kind you are!” Connie said. “But will Amy want to share your attention with a guest just yet?”
He laughed. “My wife is used to being one of six, Miss Connie, and no matter how fond of me she might be, there is no substitute for female companionship.”
Before they left Staynlaw House at the end of the morning, a firm arrangement was made for Hope to make a longer stay, if her mama approved.
“Shall you come and see us soon, Amy?” Connie said, as they waited for the coach to be brought round. “The Hall is not the same without you.”
“I shall come when I can,” she said, “but there is a great deal to be done here, and many people will wish to pay wedding calls. I cannot be gadding about as much as I used to. But we shall meet at dinners a great deal, and at the Assembly Rooms.”
“But the next ball is an age away,” Hope said. “You have just missed one. Oh, why did you not come home sooner?”
Amy just laughed, but Ambleside said, “The next ball is not so far away, Miss Hope, for we plan to have one here just as soon as it can be managed.”
There was no time to elaborate on the idea, but the prospect of a private ball was so delightful that the discussion of it lasted them all the way back to Allamont Hall, and through the evening, and was not exhausted in several days of delightful anticipation.
Despite her protestations, it was not long before Amy visited her sisters to discuss all those small but fascinating details for the ball. The guest list was the first important point of debate.
“We must consider Connie now,” Grace said. “We need to have as many eligible gentlemen as may be found. Those two brothers from High Frickham, for instance.”
“That is no good,” Belle said. “At this time of year, only the local families will be prepared to drive in the evening, and then only if the weather is clear.”
“But all our acquaintance in the immediate neighbourhood are elderly or married or infirm,” Dulcie said. “Or all three.”
“That is not quite true,” Grace said. “Mr Ambleside is taken, and Mr Wills is betrothed now, but Sir Osborne Hardy is still available, and what could be better than a baronet of independent fortune?”
Connie pulled a face. “I should not like to share a house with his mother. Lady Hardy is such a tyrant, and Sir Osborne is not quite appealing enough to compensate.”
“Well, I do not know who else there is,” Grace said. “Only Mr Drummond, who has not two pennies to his name, and Mr George Graham, who is quite wild and not at all the thing. You do not want him.”
“There is Cousin Mark, although he is still at Oxford,” Dulcie said. “And you would inherit the Hall, if you could put up with him. They are none of them very appealing, it is true, and Hugo is too young, but Mark is not so bad as James.”
“Do not be in such a rush to find me a husband,” Connie said. “I am not at all sure I want to marry anyone just yet. I like being free to do as I please.”
“Nonsense,” Dulcie said. “You must marry so that the rest of us will get our dowries in turn.” Then she giggled. “What about the Marquess of Carrbridge? A title and a fortune! If his features are above passable, I would marry him at once!”
The others groaned. “He may be the Dowager Countess’s great nephew and heir, but he has never in his life been to visit her,” Belle said.
“But Amy is intimate with his sister,” Grace said, clapping her hands in glee. “Invite Lady Harriet, Amy, and tell her to bring her brother with her.”
“Well, I shall do so, but I do not suppose he will come,” Amy said. “If he does not come for his great-aunt, he is hardly likely to come for me. However, Harriet may come, and I should dearly like to see her again.”
“That is agreed, then,” Grace said. “And for the rest, you may invite whomever you please, for they can be of no interest to Connie.”
The day of the ball arrived. The sisters and their mother were to stay overnight at Staynlaw House, so they travelled in the morning, the two coaches proceeding in stately convoy over the rutted roads. Grace and Dulcie were in the carriage with Lady Sara, while Connie was in the lumbering old travelling coach with Belle and the maids. Hope was already at Staynlaw House, having been staying there for more than a week.
“This is so exciting!” Dulcie said. “A ball held by our own sister — what could be more perfect? I cannot wait to see the rooms with the doors all thrown wide for dancing. I do hope the musicians arrive in good time.”
“I am sure everything will go off splendidly,” Belle said. “Ambleside is an excellent organiser.”
“When shall you hold your first ball at Willowbye?” Dulcie said. “I long to dance in the great hall, just as people must have done hundreds of years ago.”
“You will have to be patient, then, for there is a great deal of work to be done first,” Belle said, smiling. “However, no doubt you will get your wish, in time. I do not know how our ancestors danced, but I doubt they performed the cotillion. Those huge skirts would have made it very difficult. We do not appreciate how lucky we are to have a practical style of dress.”
“What shall you wear?” Dulcie said. “I did not see what you packed.”
“The white silk with the lilac trim.”
“Oh, that one. You wore that at the Grahams’ last ball. Why do you not wear something new? I am to wear my pink, and Connie has not yet decided.”
“I wish I had brought my other gown,” Connie said mournfully.
“You have packed two — or is it three — already,” Belle said. “Is that not enough to choose from?”
“It is three, but now I think I should like to wear the one with the pretty gauze sleeves, with the gold under-gown.”
“I like the one with the green embroidery round the neck and sleeves,” Dulcie said. “It suits your complexion, I fancy. Do you not think Connie looks well in the green, Belle?”
“It is no use asking me,” Belle said. “You know I have no eye for colour. I always allow Mama and Miss Purdue to decide.”
“Shall you have your wedding clothes made by Miss Purdue?” Connie said. “For I do not think she has much eye for colour, either.”
“She is an excellent seamstress, and not expensive,” Belle said.
“Burford is so rich now you may spend as much as you choose,” Connie said. “Really, Belle, you should go to London, then you would have the latest fashions and all the best colours. When I marry, I shall choose a very rich man so that I never have to worry about money.”
The rest of the day passed in a froth of anticipation. Connie tried on each of her three ball gowns twice, and Dulcie’s once, in case it should suit her better, and even as they descended the stairs for dinner, she fretted that she had made the wrong choice.
They found Amy alone in the drawing room, reading a journal.
“You are very calm, sister,” Dulcie said. “I am sure I should collapse from nerves in your situation.”
“She has been so serene, anyone would imagine this to be a regular occasion,” Hope said. “The very first ball in your new home — I should be quite terrified! So many things could go wrong.”
“Terrified? No, indeed,” Amy said. “My dear Mr Ambleside has taken care of everything so that I need not be under any anxiety. He is so good to me.”
“Well, that is too bad!” Grace declared. “Are you to have no say the arrangements for your own dinner and ball?”
“I have had a say in everything, of course, but I need not concern myself with the details. Although I confess I am a little concerned about the dining room, for we only have room for twenty four in any comfort, and I have had word today from Harriet that she is to come, and that makes twenty five. It is very lucky Mr Wills is away, but even so, we shall be sadly squeezed, I fear.”
“Is Lady Harriet to bring her brother?” Dulcie said, clapping her hands with glee. “It will be famous if she does. Think what a compliment it would be to you, Amy.”
“I cannot tell you, for she writes so much that I cannot make it out at all. There, can you make anything of it?”
The letter was passed from hand to hand but Lady Harriet had had so much news to impart that she had crossed her lines once, and then crossed them again, rendering most of her message unintelligible.
“Where was this sent from?” Belle said. “Oh, Drummoor, I can just make it out. But look, the letter was not franked, so the Marquess could not have been there.”
The sisters groaned in disappointment.
Ambleside came in, and then Lady Sara appeared, and other guests in twos and threes, almost all the principal inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Connie watched them arrive without enthusiasm. There were few single men amongst them, and those few were either too young or too poor to be of interest. She had turned her gaze on Lady Hardy, wondering whether the attractions of a fine house, a title and a large fortune that attached to Sir Osborne would overcome the disadvantage of daily intercourse with his mother, when the door was thrown open one more time. There on the threshold stood the most beautiful man Connie had ever seen. He had the face and figure of a Roman statue, his attire was in the finest of London fashions, his hair elegantly arrayed. He stood on the threshold, as if to be admired, his gaze raking the room. Every conversation died away.
“The most honourable the Marquess of Carrbridge, and the Lady Harriet Marford,” the butler intoned, into the silence.