Christmas Excerpt from
My Lord Protector
© 1999 by Deborah Hale
December 24, 1742 Mayfair, London
The next morning, Julianna lingered in bed as long as she dared, dreading exposure to the chilly air. There were distinct disadvantages, she decided, to giving all one's servants a holiday. She had become spoiled -- used to rising in a warm room with hot water to wash and a steaming cup of tea to drink. Driven by hunger, Julianna finally took a deep breath and bolted from her bed. Hurriedly, she dressed in her warmest gown. Entering her sitting room, she found the fire already burning. On her breakfast table sat a plate of buttered bread and a pot of tea, still hot. She could only smile to herself and shake her head, no closer to solving the riddle of Sir Edmund Fitzhugh.
Again that evening, Julianna considered wearing her new green silk gown. In the end, she decided it might be too bright and fashionable for an evening of sacred music. Instead, she settled on a frock of genteel gray. Its colour gave her complexion a sallow caste, while the cut made her look no more than twelve-years-old. Julianna comforted herself with the thought that she was going to watch and listen, and not to display herself. She was beginning to regret her impulsive purchase of the stunning emerald gown she could never find an occasion to wear.
Any worries over her costume vanished with the opening bars of the oratorio. Though ostensibly a rehearsal, the performers were doubtless aware of their highly critical audience and determined to perform well. London music lovers had turned out at the Opera House in force, curious for a taste of the work Dublin had received so well.
Julianna had never heard so many instruments and voices massed. In her estimation, the resulting music beggared description. The soloists' fine voices soared above the lush orchestration in melodies so evocative and hauntingly familiar she longed to sing with them. When the full chorus cascaded together, her Welsh soul resonated to the rich harmonies. During the great 'Hallelujah', the very air throbbed with exultant music. Lost in the moment, she reached for Sir Edmund's hand, clasping it tightly. As the piece ended, she stirred from her trance and pulled her fingers away, her cheeks burning.
Under cover of the polite applause, Sir Edmund leaned towards her and whispered, "You mirror my feelings precisely. I understand Handel composed this work in three weeks. Having heard it, I can only credit Divine inspiration."
A reception for the Hospital patrons followed the concert. Julianna noted with chagrin that the other ladies had all dressed in high style. Beside them she looked thoroughly dowdy and callow. Embarrassment changed to resentment when she intercepted several surreptitious glances and covert nods in her direction. Her youth, not her dress, was drawing this silent censure.
Parity in age between a husband and wife was hardly a general circumstance, she mused indignantly. It could take years for a man to earn or inherit the means to support a family. By that time he must marry a younger woman, capable of breeding. Ten or fifteen years between a couple would not raise an eyebrow. However, when the gap widened to a score, folks looked askance at a so-called Smithfield match, with all the mercenary implications of the Smithfield cattle market.
She could tell Sir Edmund was aware of the critical scrutiny bent upon them. He strode about, stiff as buckram and painfully civil in his introductions. With an immense feeling of relief, Julianna spied a group of familiar figures, erstwhile musical protégés of her father. Hauling Sir Edmund in her wake, she approached the gentlemen with an effusive greeting.
Mr. Kelway, the senior of the three, squinted in Julianna's direction. Recognizing her, he called out, "Upon my word, fellows, if it isn't our little tyrant, Miss Ramsay! My dear, I just returned from Florence and was shocked to hear the sad news of your father. He will be sadly missed."
Kelway's companions nodded with vaguely sympathetic murmurings. Caught off-guard by these expressions of condolence, Julianna could think of little by way of response.
"How kind of you to say," was her subdued reply. Then she brightened. "Gentlemen, may I introduce my husband, Sir Edmund Fitzhugh. Sir Edmund, Messers Smith, Nares and Kelway, fine musicians all. They very nearly wore out the strings of my father's harpsichord, but in a glorious cause."
The gentlemen bowed and shook hands all around. Sir Edmund opened with the expected conversational gambit. "You brought trained ears to this evening's entertainment, gentlemen. What were your impressions?"
Nares' lip curled. "Oh, it might have been worse. I expected wonders after the laudatory notices from Dublin. Of course, Dublin is not London."
"True," countered Sir Edmund. "Sometimes the unjaded palate can best appreciate an excellent vintage."
"There were some rather fine bits," said Kelway. "I did appreciate Handel's refinement of that little Italian pipe tune."
The other two musicians reacted with sagacious nods. "I must admit..." Smith pointed heavenward. "He had a good librettist."
This caused some laughter but Nares resumed his carping tone. "I still say this piece won't add anything to Handel's popularity. The King may like his music but everyone else disdains it, to spite German Georgie."
Sir Edmund did not let that go unanswered. "Society has come to a sorry pass indeed, when the appreciation of music becomes a province of politics."
"Our friend Mr. Arne quite liked it," ventured Kelway. "Though that may simply be clannishness on his part, for his sister's performance was very well received. I believe it has salvaged her reputation. Did you hear what the Dean of Dublin Cathedral pronounced upon hearing Mrs. Cibber sing her aria?"
To their questioning looks, he intoned ecclesiastically, "'Woman, for this, are thy sins forgiven thee!'"
The three musicians laughed heartily. Nares clucked his tongue. "Poor Suke! More sinned against than sinning, if you ask me. Now, that rake Theophilus could sing with the seraphim half-way to Judgment Day without hope of absolution!"
Smith and Kelway roared at their friend's sour quip. Their merriment soon evaporated in the face of Sir Edmund's curt rebuke. "Need I remind you gentleman there is a lady present?"
The three men, all well past thirty, reddened like school-boys caught at mischief. Kelway muttered his apologies as they moved off. Behind the cover of her fan, Julianna cast them an apologetic smile. Privately, she found it sweetly amusing that Sir Edmund should spring to the defence of her feminine sensibilities.
The Cibber Scandal was cold, albeit salacious gossip and Joseph Kelway had undoubtedly assumed she knew every unsavory detail. After all, Jerome had long been an intimate of Theo-philus Cibber, the disreputable son of England's poet laureate. When the scoundrel had coerced his actress wife into an adulterous affair, gossip claimed Jerome had played a particularly odious role in the whole shameful business. Julianna had never doubted those reports. Still, if Sir Edmund chose to think of her as some paragon of innocence, she was in no hurry to disabuse him. Having long admired Cervantes' tragicomic senor de La Manche, she was flattered to play Dulcinea to his Quixote.
Sir Edmund spoke little on the drive home. Julianna wondered if he was still privately bristling over the implied censure of their marriage. Trying to draw him out, she asked how he had come to be involved with the Foundlings Hospital, under construction in Bloomsbury. He quickly warmed to the topic.
"Thomas Coram instigated it all, and he pressganged me early in the venture. As an old fellow seaman, he played upon the soft heart our kind are wont to harbour for needy children. I have little sympathy for the gin-swilling layabouts and cutpurses that make up half the parish pauper's rolls. Still, no person of conscience can fail to pity the innocent infants who perish on the streets of this prosperous city everyday, for want of care. Perhaps if there was some refuge for their mothers in the first place...." His voice trailed off and Julianna wondered if, once again, he was seeking to shield her from life's darker side.
"Suffice it to say, there are two kinds of men in this world," Sir Edmund continued in a tone of asperity. "Those who believe it is the prerogative of the strong to prey upon the weak and those who know it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. Unfortunately, the former far outnumber the latter."
Nodding her agreement, Julianna smothered a yawn. Not because Sir Edmund's conversation bored her -- quite the contrary. But this would be her second evening in a row keeping late hours. Despite heavy eyelids, she vastly preferred the past two merry evenings to her former, cheerless early nights.
Leaning back on the comfortably upholstered seat of the carriage, she dismissed the reception from her mind. Instead, she concentrated on the beautiful music that had so touched her. Closing her eyes, she quietly hummed one especially sweet melody: "He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom.
Poised on the brink of sleep, she pictured the gentle, protective shepherd with her husband's face.
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From the novel My Lord Protector by Deborah Hale
Publication Date: March 1999 Harlequin Historical®
Copyright © 1998 by Deborah Hale
® and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.