Sir Lawrence Hadley of Sherbourne Hall was considered, in the best sense of the word, the ideal gentleman. He attended the assemblies and gatherings of great importance with a happy disposition which was open to all who attended him, and yet he conveyed such subdued manners that even those who spoke ill of his character could not deny him their temporary favor.
A widower with a great estate and inheritance, not to mention a highly regarded name, Sir Hadley had only one fault, and it was one that could not easily be pinned on any wanting of his pleasant nature. In fact, some claimed it was a failing of the mother, who was deceased for nearing on thirteen years, who had not properly nurtured their young daughter Emmeline in her early development.
It had been not yet three years since young Emmeline's integration into good society. And on the night of her debut, she was widely acclaimed as one of the most amiable young women that most had ever encountered before. She had danced with many a gentleman and high-ranked officer who had attended, included herself in all of the countryside's novel gossip, and never once overly exerted the powers of her amusing qualities as any practiced, educated young lady of accomplishment would do.
She was, for the three short years of her affiliation with the populace of Derbyshire, a frequented topic amid many of the other young ladies which could boast a refined aura and indication of some intelligence. For it was widely acknowledged that a young woman's most enviable traits were her beauty, a sweet, restrained disposition and a good name to recommend herself to men of similar rank in the social hierarchy.
And it was most certain that Emmeline Hadley had all of these traits to balance the necessary evils of her imperfections.
But upon the year which marked the advent of her eighteenth birthday, Emmeline's presence at the assemblies was beginning to become ghostly in manner. Sir Hadley, too, was missed amongst the elder sort of company and many took to speculation to excuse the reason for their absence.
I daresay, it is quite strange that Miss Hadley should not be here! She is quite easily one of the favorites within our rather exclusive society.
I agree, dear lady, for the circumstances of the absence of our dear Sir Hadley and his daughter are grave at best.
I suspect they must have reason for their nonattendance. It could not be borne if anything less than illness or death in the family were to keep them away!
Indeed, the more recent turns of observation were the closest in accuracy. The young Miss Hadley had begun to feel ill more often than not, especially with a bad spell of weather. A frightful pallor took hold of her once fair complexion and she took to her bed on account of fatigue, which she attempted to tell her father in the most admirable tone of voice that could be expected of a girl wrought by an inexplicable malady.
Sir Hadley, upon recognizing that his daughter's health was steadily worsening, called on the local physician. The act of desperation did not fare unnoticed by the eager masses, all of which were equally desperate to unearth a rationalization for such tedious secrecy!
Have you heard, dear sister? The Miss Hadley has taken ill! And at such a tender age. It is a very outlandish sort of happenstance that a girl of her standing and circumstance should fall ill so terribly!
Now there is a stroke of ill luck for you if I ever saw one! It is punishment, I daresay, for Sir Hadley's early conquests as a young man! I am under the impression, which I have heard from dependable sources, that he was quite the blackguard in his youth, having many a young lady at his disposal and treating them very ill indeed.
I have heard, sir, of news that may very well astonish you and alter entirely your opinions on the Sir Lawrence Hadley of Sherbourne. Of late, it has been discussed that his youthful lifestyle was led by the calculations of a veritable blackguard! Isn't that so very peculiar, good sir? Does that not strike you as the very essence of mystery?
Never was it considered that perhaps the rumor was false, only that it was a queer situation indeed to have been the former state of affairs of the honorable Sir Hadley.
News of the young girl's illness spread like wildfire throughout the community, raging in even the households which found gossip a paltry pastime and habitually did not entertain such a dangerous diversion. Before long, the heat of such a terrible blow to the Hadley name was instilled in the back of every mind and was not limited to certain age in regards of interest. Young ones, too, had taken to discussing it in the parlor as they awaited a dry bout of weather to play in. Maids chattered on about it with tireless devotion.
And so it came to pass that Sir Hadley became a man of confinement and little interaction.
As his young daughter suffered the consumption, he counted the hours carefully and did not waste one moment with her.
---- ~ ----
Six months ensued in which not a whisper of a rumor was heard concerning Sir Hadley and his star-crossed daughter.
The ebb and flow of changing interests in the rural town of Derbyshire drifted to other matters of enigma. The elopement of young Eliza Ingram, another promising youth who had been in the same league of beauty and manners has Emmeline Hadley had been, once upon another time entirely.
The horrifying rape and ruination of a temperamental flirt by name of Catherine Hartford, which, following the event, resulted in the replacement of her family altogether (though it was rumored that Catherine went wholly mad after such ghastly abuse). The Hartford's were never heard from again, their reputation soiled in Derbyshire for eternity.
Mostly, there was little to be discussed. Life entailed a certain amount of ennui which all were required to tolerate and therefore were accustomed to the burden. Gentleman continued to read their periodicals by firelight and window light and the women of the estates kept the run of their households stringent for both children and the hired help.
Sir Hadley was quite forgotten.
Until it came to pass that a letter was rumored to have been sent in the dead of the night, just after the dawn of midsummer. Many murmured over tea and breakfast the next morning that it had been dispatched to a certain gentleman of equal, if not higher, rank in high society whose own reputation had recently been ravaged by the misadventures of his first born prodigal son, Alexander. The estrangement between father and heir had been quite the sensation in London.
However, it was not widely known amid the quiet rural life of Derbyshire that Lord Carlisle and Sir Hadley were of prolonged acquaintance which, for most of their youth, had been fashioned into a design of less insipid relations. Over time, their association grew into a companionship that would be carried late into their lives, becoming rather distant only after the death of the Lady Hadley.
It was to this same Lord Carlisle, who all knew well resided in London as a man of great esteem, to whom Sir Hadley wrote to in the middle of the night, in a fit of urgency as his daughter's health continued to fail most adamantly. And before noon the day next, when all ears were again fixed on Sherbourne Hall, the gentleman in question arrived, received by the servants of the manor without delay.
"Good afternoon, my lord," greeted one of the servants as he took Carlisle's greatcoat and tricorn from him. "The Master awaits you in his study."
Carlisle gave a great sigh of relief, glad to have arrived on steady ground. The journey had been abysmal, with such dreadful, weathered roads to be tolerated. "Thank you, good man, I've been quite impatient to see him. Take me to him straight away."
The servant did as was demanded of him and escorted the guest into Hadley's study, where the man was standing by the lively hearth, his hands fastened behind his back and his posture furling in on itself like some dying autumn flower.
Upon heeding the appearance of his old friend, Hadley's hands unlocked themselves from their pensive bearing and he hastened to greet the fellow. The two shared a hearty shake of the hands and a grave smile; both men had suffered a great deal in the years which had passed them by.
"It has been much too long, my friend," Carlisle scorned him teasingly. "Why, if I had not known better of you, I would have suffered such pangs of abandonment that could never be borne by a more common man!"
"I see your delusions of god-hood have not yet abated with time, Carlisle," Hadley chuckled, though the usual good nature of it was darkened by his somber mood.
"Yes, well, enough of my failings," said the man in question, who took repose in Hadley's chair. "I am under the sore impression that you have summoned me here on business. And, being a man of rather selfish nature and injured by such a dismal prospect, I came here straight away. Eager to prove my silly misconceptions wrong."
"They are correct, I'm afraid," replied the master of the house. He, again, tied his hands behind his back, resuming his former thoughts. "But if you would allow me to explain my actions, I believe it would be all the better for our situation."
Lord Carlisle waved his hand, as if conveying his consent for Hadley to continue.
"For some months now, I have been cursed with every father's most terrible nightmare; my dear Emmeline has been stricken with the consumption. However timid the girl may be, she is covertly stubborn by default and I do not fear for her untimely death, if she continues to fight this malady so valiantly. I, however, am beginning to attend a certain concern for her…that I will not be here long enough to prolong her time here and the conditions of her necessary lifestyle. All of my estate shall soon pass on to my detached cousins, who reside in London and avoid our house like plague, waiting on my passing so that they may evict poor Emmeline and take Sherbourne as their own domain. Therefore, you may understand, being a father as well, the anxieties I suffer. Emmeline's fate will be a poor one indeed if I allow her to be left in the hands of my cousins. It cannot be borne. I must provide a stable future for her, if I am to rest peacefully in my grave."
He began to pace the room. "Not all is lost, however. I have concocted a scheme which should enable Emmeline to be situated very happily for the rest of her short life, if I am successful in procuring it for her. I have called on you primarily because of your son, Alexander. I have written to many of my more wealthy companions who I am certain have sons of their own in order to ascertain more suitors for Emmeline's choosing and have reached the sympathies of only three as it were. Before your delicate pride may be injured by such a confession, my good friend, you were my very first choice."
Carlisle heaved a weighty sigh. "Dear, dear Lawrence…I would spare you my son tenfold if he were at my disposal. I fear that he will not abide by my wishes, for he is a reckless fiend. Selfish and arrogant and a cynic by nature, with displeasing manners that, certainly, would not be at all deserving of Emmeline in any light of reason."
"Certainly, he is not a cad?"
"Of the most terrible sort, I'm afraid."
Hadley appeared reluctant to even consider such a man for his beloved daughter, but her choices, as they currently stood, were limited. "He will have to do. My acquaintances are presently much too inadequate for severity. If you are able to persuade him, he may be included as a man of interest."
"I shall exercise the very best of my influential abilities," Carlisle chuckled deviously, touching the pads of his fingertips together in a fiendish sort of way. "By withdrawing his right to inheritance if he should endeavor to refuse me."
Hadley, too, was amused by his friend's scheme. "Oh, Christopher…what a terrible devil you are indeed."
© patchwork halo, 2010.