Innocence and Experience
by Pam

Sequel to Children of One Family

 

So I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,
To tend her by day and by night.
But my Rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.

--"My Pretty Rose Tree"

 

PART ONE

London, 1798

 

The plot of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was quite nonsensical, Horatio
Hornblower reflected. Identical twins, mistaken identities, girls disguising
themselves as boys, letters gone astray . . . could anything be more
contrived? The thought did not deter him, however, from applauding along
with the other inhabitants of the Edringtons' box when the curtain descended
at the first interval.

Beside him, Archie Kennedy was clapping so energetically that Horatio feared
his friend's hands would be numb long before the play was over. But then
Archie loved the theatre, especially at Drury Lane--and when the play being
put on had been written by his revered Shakespeare, and featured the
celebrated Katharine Cobham in one of the lead roles--well, Horatio could not
fault Archie's enthusiasm. He himself had been pleasantly surprised by the
quality of the performances. Mr. Baring, the actor playing Orsino, was a bit
moony for his taste, but Miss Cosgrove, a fair-haired slip of a girl, brought
freshness and charm to the role of Viola, and Miss Cobham--Kitty, he amended
privately--made a regal Olivia.

"An excellent production," Major Lord Edrington pronounced, applauding more
moderately in his turn. "Far superior to the performance of 'King Lear' I
saw when I was last in London."

Archie, who had been smiling down at the vacated stage, turned around at
that. "Hardly surprising, my lord, when so many companies insist upon
staging *Tate's* version, instead of Shakespeare's!"

Lady Edrington raised elegant brows. "You do not approve of a 'Lear' that
restores the king to the throne and marries Cordelia to Edgar, Mr. Kennedy?"

Archie pulled an eloquent face. "I fear not, my lady. I am too enthralled by
the master to be impressed by a mere journeyman."

The countess laughed. "Well, I cannot blame you for that! Mr. Tate's
rendition is a far cry from the play I studied in the schoolroom. One wonders
what these so-called improvers will think of next--a version of 'Romeo and
Juliet' in which the corpses come singing back to life?"

Archie's eyes began to dance. "Perhaps an 'Othello' in which Desdemona isn't
really smothered!"

"Or a Troilus whose Cressida remains faithful," Edrington drawled, lazily
amused.

They could probably go on like this for hours, Horatio thought with an inner
grimace. Less familiar than his companions with Shakespeare's plays, he
allowed his attention to wander. His and Archie's London holiday was off to
a rousing start. Just outside Hatchards bookshop, they had encountered the
Earl of Edrington, who had invited them to dine with him and his wife, then
to accompany them to the theatre. Both invitations had been accepted--eagerly
by Archie, more hesitantly by Horatio, but here they were, nonetheless.

It seemed that a fair portion of Society, along with the Edringtons, had also
decided to attend the evening's performance. Men in immaculate evening
dress, women in soft, clinging gowns meant to resemble Grecian drapery. The
latter were far more unsettling to observe. Gone were the full skirts, stiff
bodices, and heavy brocades of recent years; now, waists were high,
necklines cut alarmingly low, and the gowns themselves made of the lightest,
sheerest fabrics. Very little was left to the imagination, and on first
beholding all that feminine flesh--proudly displayed--Horatio had hardly
known where to look without appearing rude or lascivious.

"How can they go about dressed like that?" he had murmured to Archie. "Aren't
they afraid of catching lung-fever?"

"Don't question, Horatio," his friend had advised him, grinning.
"Just--appreciate."

As long as appreciation didn't earn him a slap across the face, Horatio
reflected darkly, then started as Edrington's cool voice interrupted his
thoughts.

"My dear--who is that woman waving to us?"

The earl had been addressing his wife, but all of them turned in the
direction indicated. And indeed there was a woman, fashionably dressed and
still quite young, waving at them from the box opposite.

A little tentatively, Lady Edrington waved back. "Difficult to be certain at
this distance," she ventured, "but it appears to be the Countess of Langford."

"Good God!" Archie's eyes widened. "That's my sister!"

"Alice Langford is your sister?" Lady Edrington inquired, glancing at him
with renewed interest. "But, of course--why did I not see the resemblance
before? I find your sister to be a charming creature, lieutenant, though our
paths have not often crossed so far this Season."

"I believe they are about to cross *now*, my dear," her husband observed.
"Lady Langford is leaving her box."

 

***

 

As Edrington had predicted, within a few minutes there was a light knock at
the door. With a quizzical glance at her husband and guests, Lady Edrington
went to answer it.

Rising to his feet with the other men, Horatio glanced down at his uniform.
Although it was well enough for an evening out, he could not help wishing
that the new uniforms for which Mr. Collins had measured him and Archie had
been ready that afternoon, instead of tomorrow morning. Not so long a wait,
to be sure, but one had only a single chance to make a good first impression.
He was conscious of Archie fidgeting beside him. Was he too regretting that
new uniform? Or was it merely the prospect of meeting his sister that
unsettled him?

"Cecily, my dear!" A clear, sweet, almost childlike voice greeted their
hostess. "I have not seen you this age!"

"Dear Alice, it *has* been a long time!" Lady Edrington agreed.

They embraced lightly, cheek to cheek, then Lady Edrington beckoned her
visitor--visitors, Horatio corrected himself, seeing that two younger females
had accompanied Lady Langford--forward to meet everyone else.

Hornblower tried not to stare. Archie's sister had guinea-gold curls piled
high upon her shapely head and eyes of so deep a blue as to appear almost
violet, a match for her evening gown of lilac spider-gauze. She was also
tiny--just over five feet tall at a guess--but bore herself with the dignity
of a queen, not seeming to notice or care that everyone in the Edringtons'
party towered over her. Diamonds sparkled at her ears and throat but they
were outshone by the sheer personality of the woman who wore them. Not even
the elegant Lady Edrington, with her lustrous chestnut hair and emerald eyes,
had quite the same presence, although she seemed not the least bit envious of
her guest.

"Alice, this is my husband, Lord Edrington--of whom you have often heard me
speak."

"Indeed?" The earl raised inquiring brows. "I shall cease to wonder, then,
about the cause of my ears burning at inconvenient moments." He bowed over
their guest's hand. "I am honored to make your acquaintance, Lady Langford."

"And I yours, Lord Edrington," she returned, dropping a graceful curtsy.

"Is Lord Langford well?"

"Quite well, although some last-minute business kept him from attending
tonight. He will be sorry to have missed such an excellent performance."

"Perhaps he will have another chance to see it. I understand this production
will run for several weeks at least." Lady Edrington linked her arm lightly
through her friend's and smilingly inclined her head towards Horatio and
Archie. "But allow me to present to you our two guests--though I trust that
one of them at least requires no introduction."

"Indeed not!" Lady Langford agreed, and advanced upon her brother. "Archie,
you wicked creature! Why did you not *tell* me you were in London?"

To Horatio's bemusement, his ordinarily cheerful, composed friend flushed and
stammered, "I--I had just got in today. But I did plan to call on you,
perhaps in the morning--"

Lady Langford smiled brilliantly. "Well, by fortunate happenstance, we have
met tonight, so you may be easy and cease to worry about bearding the dragon
in her den tomorrow. And indeed, I *am* a dragon in the morning before my
first cup of tea--or so Langford always swears! Now, are you going to
introduce me to your companion?" She sketched a little bow towards Horatio.

"Of--of course." Archie recovered some of his aplomb. "Alice, this is my
friend Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower. Horatio, my sister--Alice, Countess of
Langford."

Horatio quickly made his own bow, grateful that it had become less awkward in
the last few years. "Lady Langford."

"You are Lieutenant Hornblower?" Lady Langford turned the full force of her
luminous blue eyes on Horatio. "Sir, you cannot imagine how delighted I am to
meet you at last!" She extended a hand to him; at Archie's barely
perceptible nod, Horatio took it in a light clasp. "Allow me to offer my most
heartfelt thanks for the friendship you have shown my brother, and your care
of him while you were both in Spain."

"N-not at all, Lady Langford," Horatio returned. "Archie has more than repaid
my efforts with the gift of *his* friendship."

"I don't doubt that." Smiling, the countess turned back to her brother. "I
know Archie to be a staunch and loyal friend--even if the frequency of his
letters leaves much to be desired!"

A soft ripple of feminine laughter greeted that remark. Horatio glanced
toward the source: the two young ladies--one fair, one dark--who had
followed the countess into the Edringtons' box, and were still standing some
distance behind their fashonable chaperone, their faces half-hidden behind
their fans. They were both quite pretty, he thought, though not at all
alike. The blonde was a petite, fairy-like creature in petal-pink, with
flaxen ringlets and startling brown eyes, rather than the blue one expected
to find with that complexion. The brunette, by contrast, was some inches
taller, though lightly built, and clad in soft sea-green; her eyes, however,
were concealed beneath demurely lowered lashes.

"Ah." Lady Langford smiled indulgently at her young companions. "Cecily,
gentlemen, if I may present to you my protégées for the season? My
sister-in-law, Lady Georgiana Harrow, and Miss Tresilian, a connection of
mine from Cornwall."

The girls curtsied, their fans descending to reveal a pair of lovely
faces--clear-skinned, bright-eyed, and smiling. Horatio heard Archie's
sudden sharp intake of breath and wondered with a glimmer of amusement which
of the two had snared his friend's fancy. Then the familiarity of one name
struck him. Tresilian . . . wasn't that--?

His suspicions were confirmed the next instant when Lady Langford addressed
her brother again. "I am sure, Archie, that I do not need to make you and
Miss Tresilian known to each other."

"Indeed, Lady Langford." The dark girl favored Archie with a charming smile,
slightly higher on one side than the other. "Mr. Kennedy is quite like
another older brother to me."

To Horatio's surprise, Archie stiffened beside him. The next instant,
however, he replied with punctilious politeness, "Quite so. I am pleased to
see you well, Miss Tresilian--and in such looks."

Lady Langford smiled benignly upon them both. " I vow, Archie, you did not
appear to recognize her at first! Have two years wrought such a complete
transformation? But I see the interval may be coming to an end," she
continued, without waiting for a reply, "so I must discharge the purpose of
my errand. Will the four of you dine with us at Langford House tomorrow at
three o'clock? It will be but a small gathering but we would be delighted if
you could attend."

Lord and Lady Edrington exchanged a quick glance, then the latter accepted
graciously for them both. Archie likewise acquiesced, after a moment's
hesitation. Horatio wondered if he only imagined the glint in Lady Langford's
eyes that seemed to dare his friend to refuse. Being born an only child left
one at something of a disadvantage when it came to deciphering the hidden
communications between siblings.

A last exchange of smiles and pleasantries, then Lady Langford, her two
charges in tow, departed for her own box. And indeed, Horatio observed,
those of the audience who had left their seats during the interval were
returning to them now. Sitting down again beside Archie, he stole a glance
at his friend whose usually open countenance had become closed-off, almost
tight-lipped.

"Are you all right?" he murmured, his voice pitched just for Archie's ears.
"If you dislike the prospect of dining with your sister so much, I'm sure we
could come up with some excuse. A headache, or a bilious attack, perhaps."

"Hm? Oh, no--it's not that. In fact, dinner will probably be pleasant enough.
Alice is considered an excellent hostess." Archie's expression eased
fractionally, though his mouth was still compressed.

"Oh! Well, that's--reassuring." Horatio was starting to lean back in his
chair when another thought occured to him. "That was *the* Miss
Tresilian--your other sister's sister-in-law?"

"Medora. Yes." Archie's voice sounded oddly clipped.

"She's not at all what I expected."

"No?" His friend turned to face him, blue eyes sharpening. "How so?"

Horatio shook his head. "Archie, whenever you had a letter from her, you
always referred to her as your 'young friend from Cornwall.' I was expecting
someone about ten years old. Well, twelve, perhaps," he amended. "Instead .
. . "

"Instead?"

"She's quite the young lady now, isn't she?"

"Yes." Again that clipped tone.

"Just how old was she, when you first met?"

A brief silence, then, "Fifteen. I was not expecting so--pronounced a
change."

Horatio considered the matter. "I remember my mother once saying that girls
*do* change quickly, after they leave the schoolroom."

"Someone might have warned me, all the same," Archie muttered.

"That young girls grow up?" Horatio could no longer hide his amusement. "It
has been known to happen, Archie!"

As he turned back to the stage, he thought he heard his friend's teeth
grinding together. Over what, however, he could not possibly imagine.

 

 

END PART ONE