Strangers on a Hill [Uskweirs #5]

One of my favorite tropes from English pastoral novels is the country walk, when guests at a house pass an afternoon by wandering around the countryside, dropping character reveals and nudging the plot forward.  So I couldn’t write my own romance novel emulating that genre without indulging in a little walk, myself.

Of course for Amelia, it’s her first foray outside of Uskweirs en femme, and she’s still wobbly on her femme voice, and she has to get to know these strangers as the same time as she does her best to not get clocked.  So Amelia is, characteristically, a little overwhelmed, poor thing.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the most recent chapter of (working title) The New Girl at Uskweirs Manor!

Start reading The New Girl from Uskweirs at the beginning here.

Strangers on a Hill

June 1812

The carriage, like everything else that Ashbourne owned, was well-appointed, suffused in rich fabrics, and, at least objectively speaking, very comfortable. But Amelia perched at the edge of her seat, back teetering stiffly, a torrent of hasty words spilling out of her mouth.

“…these stays aren’t as sturdy as I thought they were, they are sliding around, and they are doing a very poor job living up to their namesake. Which means that my middle does not have the shape that it needs which in turn means that the drape of this dress is…compromising. I don’t think I’m credible. I think it’s plain—and I’m plain, too, but that’s another issue—that I seem to be… intending to deceive, and that’s hardly the best foot forward when making new acquaintances.”

Amelia was doing her best to push her voice forward, up against her teeth, as Cordelia had drilled into her over the past month. Her sibilants had been vexing her, and she was ashamed to admit that had developed a bit of a lisp. Even now she was intensely aware that she was forcing too much air through her mouth, which made her sound reedy and whiney, but she also couldn’t seem to stop.

This had been the theme for Amelia for the past few weeks. As she had settled into life at Uskweirs, large portions of her internal mental architecture had simply come… unmoored and disjointed. Everything that had been stationary inside her was now in motion.

It seemed as if the foundation that her mind had rested on had fractured—or perhaps her foundation had been revealed, in fact, to have been long fractured and its weaknesses ignored. Now thoughts, fears, emotions, and impulses that she barely recognized came oozing up through the fissures—or at least, they rose up like an incoming tide when they were not erupting out of nowhere, seizing her with sudden swells of feeling.

Once upon a time, before Uskweirs, Amelia had prided herself on her restraint and self-control. She had always been careful to only think the right thoughts, only do the right things, only feel the right emotions. That was gone, now. The jumble that replaced it was not unpleasant—it felt right, being so discombobulated, freeing in the best and worst senses—but she often felt like the inside of her head was swamped, and whatever melange of joys, stray thoughts, and misgivings with which it was suffused… it all inevitably came dribbling out of her mouth.

Which at the very least gave her opportunity to practice her voice.

“Perhaps it’s best if I simply wait in the carriage,” she said, either to Ashbourne or Elizabeth, or both. It wasn’t clear even to Amelia whose permission she was seeking.

The viscount scoffed. “You’re going to spend two nights in here? I pride myself on these cushions, but they are not that comfortable.”

“I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the chance to visit with your… friends,” she said, hesitating only a moment on the last word. What Lord Ashbourne and Lord Mulvey were to each other was unclear, and neither man seemed interested in clarifying things. Mulvey had invited them all to a short visit at his estate outside of Bath; both Ashbourne and his daughter had leapt at the offer, but Mulvey had made it clear that Amelia must come, too.

It was the first time she had left Uskweirs.

Crossing that threshold had inspired strong feelings in Amelia, which was really not much of a distinction as just about anything inspired strong feelings in her, these days. The other morning at breakfast she’d almost cried at the perfection of a poached egg.

Elizabeth, who had spent most of the trip staring pensively out the window, cracked a distracted smile. “Friends,” she repeated distantly.

“Mulvey wants to see you,” Ashbourne said, not unkindly. “You must forgive your elders our vicarious pleasures in watching you find yourself. It’s been some time since we had our own heady days of youthful discovery.”

“But… strangers…” was all she could articulate.

The viscount smiled gently. “Strangers is the point. You’ve blossomed at Uskweirs, but you’ve been knocking about among the same handful of people for weeks. You’ve already made every possible awkward misstep with each of them, and so everyone there knows you as the girl who is trying. You need a chance to be a girl who is.”

“That would be well and good,” she answered, letting a jostling of the carriage send her back into the seat cushions, “if there was a girl who I am. I’m not certain that’s the case, yet.” She paused a beat, and then felt compelled to fill the silence: “I am a mess.”

“As are we all,” the viscount chuckled. “And one of the greatest pleasures in being a mess is sharing your messiness with others. You never know who will find some scrambled corner of your mess absolutely charming.”

Elizabeth sighed gustily at that, but then tapped the window. “We’re nearly there. I remember that signpost.”

“When we arrive,” Ashbourne said with the weight of authority in his voice, “we’ll say our pleasantries to our hosts and then Elizabeth, why don’t you and Amelia retire for the evening. It’s quite late already, and pleading travel weariness is perfectly reasonable.” He reached forward to pat Amelia’s knee. “You can gather your wits, enjoy a good night’s rest, and awake refreshed in the morning.”

The next morning, Amelia awoke and, after a moment of self-evaluation, became vaguely annoyed at how refreshed she actually was. Elizabeth, with whom she had shared the room, smilingly chided her for indolence as she slipped out the door. Amelia dressed and made up her face, which was taking less and less time each day, and only hesitated a moment before stepping out her door.

The Mulvey’s house at Bath was, as many houses in Bath, a composition of compact opulence. The upstairs corridor and its six bedroom doors encircled an open space that looked down on the ground floor hall. Downstairs was a dining room, sitting room, and a library, each of them designed to maximize their use of space without being obvious about it. It was the kind of house that people who lived most of the year in a much larger and grander manor would initially call their ‘summer cottage’ and over the years forget to say those words with any trace of irony.

Amelia saw no one as she went down the grand staircase and across into the dining room, and was simultaneously gratified and disappointed to find only Elizabeth at the table. She sat and served herself some cake and some ham, then belatedly fetched herself coffee from the urn on the sideboard. The two girls talked a little as they broke their fast.

When Elizabeth’s cheery voice faltered in the middle of complaining about the stiffness in her back, Amelia looked up to find her friend forcing herself not to smile into the hall. She turned to see what Elizabeth’s eyes had fixed on. A young man had just descended the stairs.

He was tall and lean, willowy, with an improbably bright mop of red hair bursting from the top of his head. His features would have been bland if it were not for the spray of freckles that spread across his face. The spots contrasted sharply with his pale skin, as did his rust-coloured eyebrows. He smiled brightly as he entered the dining room.

“Miss Randall, a pleasure to see you again.”

“Mister Harcourt,” she replied warmly, with a dip of her head. “Your uncle said we’d see you here, but we must have come in too late to catch you yesterday.”

“More likely I arrived later than you,” Harcourt replied, pouring himself coffee. “Well past nightfall. And now…” he smiled as he crossed to the table, “…I am desperate to see the place. I may go for a walk. It’s been more than a year since I last climbed Solsbury Hill.”

“That’s your day gone,” Elizabeth said lightly, and sipped at her coffee. “We won’t see you until dinner. Oh, excuse me. ‘We’ is myself and my friend, Miss Amelia Wright. Amelia, please meet Mister Francis Harcourt, our host’s nephew.”

Truth be told, Amelia had been perfectly fine playing the wallflower, but she put her hand forward, palm down, and Harcourt took it, pressing gently in greeting. She screwed up her resolve, made sure her tongue was where it ought to be to push her voice forward, and said, “A pleasure.” She was moderately sure she hadn’t embarrassed herself, but felt herself blushing all the same.

If Harcourt noticed anything amiss in her voice or appearance, he made no sign. “Well we can fix that easily enough if you join me,” he told Elizabeth. “It’s a good walk, a little long but not arduous. And once you gain the hill, it’s a fine view.”

“We can take a basket, make a picnic out of it,” the other girl suggested smilingly.

“Clever girl,” the man said, touching the side of his nose. A moment later he pushed his chair backward. “I’ll go tell Cook right away. We can leave… within the hour?”

After he strode out, Elizabeth hid another smile in her coffee cup before looking uncertainly to Amelia. “You don’t mind?”

Amelia shrugged helplessly. Elizabeth abandoning her to strangers in a strange house was hardly appealing. But she said, “I’m sure Lord Ashbourne won’t mind my company through the morning.”

Elizabeth looked at her like she had spoken in another language. “You’re coming, too, Amelia. I’m not disappearing into the woods with a man and no chaperone.”

It struck Amelia rather suddenly that she was the chaperone, and for that matter Elizabeth would be hers. “Oh. Of— of course. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She sipped at her coffee. “No, I don’t mind. Not at all. I love the Cotswolds.”

Spending most of the day on a walk with only one stranger, in fact, was very appealing to Amelia, but it was not to be. While the girls changed clothes for the outdoors, a coach rattled up the drive and disgorged two figures in heavy black traveling coats. By the time Amelia descended the stairs, Harcourt had swept the two new guests into their walking plans.

He smiled to them as they came back down the stairs. “Miss Randall, Miss Wright. This is Doctor Barry. Don’t be fooled by his youth, he’s a real, bona-fide doctor.”

“Aye, for near two months, now,” the young man replied with a rueful Scots accent. He was slight and ruddy, but held himself with a whipcord precision. As his hat was already in hand, he touched his brow and dipped his head. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, ladies.”

“And this is a friend of my aunt’s,” Harcourt continued, gesturing to the other guest, who was facing the door and in the midst of doffing a heavy coat. The nephew’s voice wavered just slightly with uncertainty. “…Miss Theresa Chesterley.”

The figure turned, and indeed, it was Miss Chesterley, again wearing her waistcoat and breeches, the ruffled folds of her elaborate cravat thrust forward like the prow of a ship. She favored them, or perhaps just Elizabeth, with a short, familiar smile. “I am in fact already acquainted with Misses Randall and Wright. Pleased to see the both of you. I understand we are hiking up a hill!”

It did not take long for their party of five to attenuate along the road into a pair and a trio. Harcourt took the lead with Elizabeth at his side while Amelia, Theresa, and Barry followed along behind. This soundly dashed her hopes of being only a third wheel chaperone whose only contribution to conversation was an odd word or two.

Theresa grilled her with questions at the outset, asking after her health, if she had recently been to London, what she has last read, asked where she had acquired the fetching ribbon along her sleeve. As the suited woman did not appear to wear ribbon, Amelia was uncertain why she cared to ask, not that she could furnish a decent answer as to their provenance, in any case.

Walking and talking, it turned out, was much more difficult than just talking. Amelia struggled to keep her voice forward, hold her tongue up against the back of her palate, and make sure she was pushing the right amount of air into her words. If she slipped up—and she must have, not that she could place her finger on any one instance—she hoped it was covered by the exertion of the walk. At least she had changed into a lighter, breezier outfit suitable for the exercise.

Luckily, as the walk’s incline increased, the frequency of Chesterley’s questions decreased as she conserved her own breath.

Barry suffered no such limitation, but his conversation was sparse, if not guarded. He did not speak quickly, instead pausing before nearly every reply. More than once he would begin speaking, come to an abrupt halt, and then begin again from the start. Amelia recognized the same habits that she had developed in the past few weeks.

“Forgive me if I am being too forward, Doctor Barry,” she said along a particularly shallow bit of the path, “but are you attempting to tamp down your accent?”

For once, he evinced an emotion as he flushed. “Aye, lass. I must admit, I’d hoped to use this visit to practice my proper English, as it were. I start my courses in London in the fall, and I’ll be facing enough judgment as it is without sounding the bumpkin.”

Amelia was so relieved to find some camaraderie in her own goals that she laughed. “I noticed you doing the same things I do.”

“If you’ve set out to conquer an accent, Miss Amelia, I’d say that your fight is over.”

“Not an accent,” she answered, and hoped her scrambling for an explanation didn’t show on her face. She might as well go with the truth, or at least one aspect of it. “I’m afraid I’ve developed a bit of a lisp. I’ve been taking elocution lessons to tame it. My tutor says I need practice.”

“And we’re your target dummies,” the doctor laughed. “Just as you lot have been mine. I dinnae ken— I didn’t… imagine… that pretty young ladies such as yourself worried about such trifles. A lisp can be quite fetching, don’t you think, Miss Chesterley?”

“I am not fond of the sound,” the other woman answered brusquely. “I like to hear grown women sound like women and not like little girls in pigtails.” She accorded Amelia a nod. “Your efforts do you credit, Amelia.”

Amelia murmured her thanks and turned her face to the path, suddenly dizzy. Was she flushed? What was this feeling? Such a surge of giddy happiness and… pride? It was kin to the tiny thrill she got whenever someone used her name, and while Theresa had indeed addressed her by name, there was some other aspect to it, too. That she had been complimented? But Barry had also just called her pretty, which was nothing more than a nicety, but still technically a compliment.

Perhaps because she felt that Theresa believed what she had said, and she’d directed that genuine compliment to her, to Amelia, by name. It felt real, more real than any well-meaning pleasantry that had ever been applied to her.

Everything was so complicated, now. Amelia loved it.

The path’s grade had fallen further, and now the hill did not rise up alongside them but laid down before them. They had reached the broad summit, and a carpet of greenery stretched out all around them. The weather was bright and clear, and they could see for miles. Hedgerows and roads and lines of trees cut up the endless pasturelands, spread across rolling hills off to the distant horizon.

Harcourt had stretched out both his long arms and was slowly turning round and round, beaming. “Is this not marvelous?” He led the party to a handful of vistas, pointing to his uncle’s house, to Bath in the middle distance, to the newly-completed canal just visible as a thin silver ribbon, shimmering straight lines like stitching through a quilt.

They laid out a blanket and the picnic provisions, which Harcourt promised would be sufficient for five even if it had been packed for three. Cook had a long history of trying to overfeed him.

Amelia sat down and tried not to admire how her own legs looked, folded up beside her beneath the thin cloth of her dress.

They ate and laughed and chatted about nothing deeper than the quality of the food and how fresh air improved the taste of everything.

It was not long before Harcourt leapt back up and held out a hand to Elizabeth. He had remembered that he wanted to show her something. They ran off giggling, and Amelia watched them go, not quite certain how intently she should take her responsibility as chaperone. But they stayed within sight, standing at the edge of the hill’s flat top and looking off at something that Elizabeth apparently found thrilling.

“They make a charming couple,” the doctor observed with a soft smile.

Theresa looked over at the two. “Lizzie makes a charming couple no matter who she’s standing next to,” she confided with no small measure of affection. “But she does seem particularly taken with Mr. Harcourt.” The three of them watched the couple for a while, communally confident that they were too distant for their staring to be obvious. Amelia tried to keep her simmering sense of consternation from her face.

Dr. Barry chuckled. “If I were a betting man, I might propose a wager for how long it takes for wedding bells to peal.”

“But—” Amelia began to say, and then stopped herself. She smiled and said instead, “But you are above such petty trifles.”

“As marriage?” the doctor laughed in surprise.

Amelia rolled her eyes. “As gambling.”

But Chesterley snorted softly as she found another sandwich. “I’m above such petty trifles as marriage.”

“Are you really?” The words came blurting out of Amelia’s mouth before she could stop them. One corner of her mind worried what voice had been used to say them. The rest of her tried to smoothe over the conversation. “You don’t hope to marry, Miss Chesterley?”

“There’s too much work to be done to allow myself be entrapped and distracted by a marriage,” the woman replied airily. She took a sharp bite of her sandwich and chewed meditatively. “I am lucky. My dear aunt left an endowment for my maintenance. It’s not a great deal, but it does mean that I do not need to marry. And if I do not need to marry, I choose not to. Besides, I’ve never met a man even halfway intriguing. No offense, Doctor.”

Barry put up his hands. “None taken. I’m in the same boat.”

Amelia giggled. “You’ve never met a man even halfway intriguing?”

“I have my work, too,” he insisted with an easy laugh. “Medicine is my mistress, and I am quite happy with the arrangement.”

Amelia turned back to watch the two lovebirds, who were slowly making their way back to the picnic blanket. Amelia, of course, would never marry, and neither would Elizabeth, no matter how she played at making love. Amelia supposed it might be entertaining to flirt and to be courted, but doubted she could do it. Since she could never marry, even these first steps towards courtship could only be performed under false pretenses. She had no doubt that she would be consumed by guilt far surpassing any enjoyment.

But if Elizabeth could take pleasure in a man’s attention for a day, Amelia wanted her to do so. She liked seeing her friend happy.

“What about you, Miss Wright?” Theresa was asking.

Amelia turned her vicarious smile back to her immediate surroundings. “Marriage is not for me, either,” she answered lightly.

“Have yet to meet a man even halfway intriguing?” the doctor teased.

She turned to face Barry and before she could stop herself, replied sweetly, “Present company excepted, of course, but medicine has already captured your heart, so you’re taken.”

When she realized what she’d said, her heart thudded in her chest. What was she doing? False pretenses, indeed! She had found the doctor easy to talk with, but their conversation had stirred no romantic feelings in her. If he took her flippant remark the wrong way—

But the doctor laughed, high and long, and plucked another sandwich from the platter.

Next Chapter: The Mulveys Give Dinner

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