Smitten with an Ethereal Lady – Bridget Barton

Lady Charlotte Lumley stared out of the window of her second storey bedroom. Today was the day. The sky arched in a perfect blue above the manor, and she could see the sun already ascending, climbing higher towards the heavens. The wind whipped her long dark hair around her face, and she closed her eyes, breathing in the fragrance of the rose garden just below her. The door suddenly burst open and Dulcie, her maid since she had been a little girl, came in, halting abruptly. “My lady! What do you think you are about, half hanging out of the window in your nightgown?” The plump maid bustled towards her. “Come in quickly, before the grooms see you.” Charlotte laughed, closing the window. “Do not scold me, Dulcie. The day is simply perfect.” The maid’s blue eyes flashed. “It would not be so perfect, my lady, if the servants started gossiping about you,” she said tartly, taking her by the arm and leading her further into the room. “Let’s get you dressed, and then we can talk about what fanciful notions are going through that head of yours.” Charlotte obeyed, letting Dulcie dress her. The maid was long practised and took barely any time.

The next thing she knew she was sitting at the dressing table, staring at herself in the mirror. Charlotte sighed. The joy she had felt at greeting the summer day was dissipating just a little. Her siblings were not at home, staying at a friend’s estate twenty miles away. Her father, the Earl of Montgomery, was always holed up in his study entertaining his gentlemen friends, or else out hunting in the grounds. Her mother, the countess, was usually tearing around the countryside in her carriage, visiting acquaintances. Charlotte had been left to her own devices for weeks now. “I am so bored,” she announced dramatically, staring at Dulcie in the mirror. “I declare I have been haunting the manor like a ghost ever since Diana and George left.” “You miss them, I daresay,” said Dulcie, her mouth full of hairpins.

“You three are like peas in a pod, and always have been. But they will be back next week, my lady. Then we shall all be travelling to London for the season. Oh, I cannot wait, I must say!” Charlotte smiled at the maid’s excitement. Dulcie always looked forward to the annual trip to Acton House, their London residence. But London was still two weeks away. A great chasm of time stretched out before her. So many hours and days to fill. She had read practically every book in the library. She had played the piano until her fingers ached.

Painting also occupied some time, but she was uninspired. “I think I shall take Prancer for a ride today,” she declared. Dulcie put down the hairbrush, staring at her dubiously. “You know your father’s thoughts about riding alone, my lady.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “He shan’t even know, Dulcie. And besides, the weather is perfect. Prancer and I shall be back before the earl knows that we have gone.” Dulcie frowned at her. “Just because you turned nineteen a month ago doesn’t mean you are too old to obey your father.

” She put her hands on her hips. “Promise me you shall do no such thing, my lady. If you wish to ride, wait until your brother and sister are back to ride with you. You might even speak to the earl and see if he could accompany you.” Charlotte picked at a stray thread on her gown. “He will not. He is always too busy, as is my lady mother. They have barely spent any time with me in the last two weeks.” “Such a sour-puss.” Dulcie’s voice was mild.

“The good Lord doesn’t smile on sulking young ladies, as well you know.” Charlotte rolled her eyes again. Dulcie had been trotting out that line since she was little. But she was too old now for platitudes. She was a young lady of nineteen and old enough to make up her own mind about such silly things as going for a ride. The weather was good. Why shouldn’t she? The earl and countess would never know. Neither would Dulcie. She would simply slip out and be back before they even realised. Her mind made up, Charlotte smiled.

Yes, today was indeed the day. *** The wind was cooling on her face as she approached the stables. Old Harris, the farrier, broke into a gap-toothed grin when he saw her. “Morning, my lady,” he drawled. “And what can I do for you this fine morning?” Charlotte smiled. She liked Harris. He had been farrier in her father’s stables since she was a little girl. He had taught her everything she needed to know about riding. “Good morning, Harris,” she said. “Can you prepare Prancer? I think I will head out over the hill towards Salbridge.

” Salbridge was a village only five miles from Cranwick Manor. Harris rubbed his stubbled chin. “My lord has said that you can ride by yourself?” “Of course.” She stared at him, not blinking. “My father and mother are aware of it. Do not worry, Harris. I shall be back before you know it.” Prancer was happy to see her. He stomped his feet, neighing with delight. She rubbed him down gently, talking to him.

He was her favourite horse and always seemed to understand her. Harris led him out of the stables for her, and then she mounted him, spurring him across the fields. It was so wonderful riding in the open air, green fields spotted with wild daisies, that she lost track of time. And her bearings, too. Puzzled, she stopped on the edge of a hill. Salbridge was nowhere in sight. She must have taken a slightly different way. “We’d better head back,” she whispered in the horse’s ear. “Come on, old boy. Mama will be angry if I am not in the drawing room for afternoon tea.

” Prancer whinnied as she turned him around, back towards home. A single drop of rain fell on her face. She stared up at the sky, puzzled. The sky was darkening ominously. A storm was approaching. A sudden summer storm. They could whip up quickly in this part of Devonshire. Angry grey clouds swirled around, and in the distance she heard the first low rumble of thunder. Prancer whinnied nervously. She petted him, whispering sweet words in his ear to reassure him.

But she couldn’t stop the stab of misgiving that entered her heart as she watched lightning criss-cross the sky. She spurred him on. She simply must get home before the worst of the storm. She was only half a mile away when it arrived. Torrential rain whipping around her face. It was so heavy, and fell so hard, that it was all she could do to lead Prancer onwards. She was drenched. A drowned rat, as her brother George would say. Mama would be furious that she had ruined her new white muslin gown. It was a birthday gift, after all, purchased from the very best dressmaker in Salbridge.

But all thoughts of ruined gowns fled her mind as another fork of lightning pierced the sky. It was close. So close that Prancer took fright suddenly, racing off. She could barely hold on, and she couldn’t see a thing through the rain. “Prancer!” she cried desperately. “Slow down!” But the spooked horse kept running, veering wildly. Suddenly, he hit a ditch. His legs buckled violently, and she was flying through the air, landing with a thud on the sodden ground. Dazed, she tried to get up. But every time she attempted it, sharp pain assailed her.

She couldn’t get to her feet. Even moving her head and arms was an agony beyond anything she had ever experienced. But worse than anything was hearing Prancer’s desperate squeals from the ditch. She clawed the ground, trying to get to him. But then everything went dizzy, and black. She awoke abruptly to the face of Old Harris, calling to her. “My lady,” he had entreated. “Lady Charlotte. Wake up, my lady!” Her eyes flickered open. The rain had slowed to a drizzle.

“Harris,” she whispered. “What happened?” And then she remembered. “Where is Prancer?” A look of sorrow came over his weathered, wrinkled face and his rheumy blue eyes filled with tears. “It’s too late for old Prancer, my lady. He broke both front legs, I am sorry to say. I had to have him shot.” He took a deep breath. “It was the kindest thing.” “No, no,” she cried. How could he be dead? It was all her fault.

*** London, 1816. Four years later A flash of lightning illuminated the bedroom. It was so intense that it permeated through the heavy lace curtain, etching the furniture in an almost white light. In the four-poster bed, Charlotte stirred slightly, huddled beneath the blankets. She moaned, turning to her side. Even though she was deeply asleep, she knew. The thunderstorm was bringing it all back. She slid into the dream as seamlessly as putting on a glove. It was raining. So much rain that it fell in heavy sheets around her.

So much rain that she could barely see through it. For one moment she was staring up at the sky, watching the lightning flash in forks around her. Then she turned her gaze downwards, to her arm. Static electricity crackled through the air, the hairs were raised slightly, like soldiers standing to attention. She shivered, even though it was warm. Prancer shivered too. She leaned down in the saddle, stroking his chestnut coat, trying to reassure him. But strangely, no words came out. Surprised, her hand flew to her throat. She opened her mouth again … but nothing.

The rain was drenching her. So much rain. She had never seen so much rain before. How was it even possible that the sky contained so much? Thunder and lightning. A fork flashed, and Prancer was racing. She gripped him fiercely, but it was too late. He had bolted. Everything blurred. Everything was too fast. She felt sick, like she was tumbling over and over.

And then the world started spinning. She was flying through the air. She put out her hands to stop her fall, but the ground never arrived. She was hurtling downwards, forever … Charlotte sat bolt upright in bed. Her heart was racing. Without hearing it, she knew that she had screamed. She also knew that no one would come to her. Her mother and father were on the other side of the mansion, and her sister and brother – who were closer – had been told not to humour her. She had eavesdropped on a conversation just the other day in the drawing room, between her mother and her sister. She hadn’t meant to be loitering in the hallway.

She hadn’t even known that her mother and sister were in there. “Charlotte is verging on hysterical,” the countess had said. Charlotte heard the clink of a teacup on a saucer. “So many nightmares. Do not encourage her, Diana. If you keep rushing into her bedroom every time she has one to comfort her, it becomes a habit. She feeds off it, you see. It is best if you just ignore her entirely.” “But Mama,” her sister Diana’s voice was sweet and concerned. Just like her.

“She is terrified. Every time I go to comfort her she is so shaken and distressed. Surely it cannot hurt to give her even a small measure of relief?” The countess sighed heavily. “Indulgence. It is not to be tolerated. It has been more than four years, and the earl and I despair of her.” The countess paused. “No, I must be strict on this. You and George are too soft with her, Diana. You are the younger sister, after all, and yet you pet her like she is an injured lamb.

” “Mama,” said Diana cajolingly. “You of all people know what she has endured. How can you say such things?” Charlotte’s heart had constricted. Indeed, how could her mother say it? And yet, she already knew how much of a burden she was on her parents, even as they sought to help her. Sometimes she felt their cold eyes upon her, assessing her, as if she were a strange insect they had just happened upon. She sighed now, slowly drifting backwards towards the pillow. No, there would be no one coming to comfort her. She would just have to endure it alone, as she always did these days. She wasn’t even in her usual bedroom at their beloved estate in Devonshire. They were at their London mansion, Acton House.

Charlotte stared around. She had never liked this room. It was cold, empty and devoid of sentiment. A place that she must endure before they could return home to Cranwick Manor. She turned to her side. Another flash of lightning illuminated the room. She gazed at the window. That was what had brought it on, of course. The thunderstorm. Just like the one that had filled the sky all those years ago.

Charlotte raised her left hand. It was happening again. The nightmare must have brought it on. A slight tremor, growing worse as her heart beat faster. Fiercely, she willed it to stop, but she might as well have been wishing for the sun to stop rising in the east. When it happened, she could not control it. She had learnt that the hard way. *** She must have dozed off again, because the next thing she knew Dulcie was pushing back the curtains. The maid turned to her, plump hands on her hips. “Well now, my lady.

Time to rise and shine.” Charlotte sat up in the bed, disoriented. “Has the storm passed, Dulcie?” she asked fearfully. “All gone.” The maid beamed. “Sunshine now, my lady. Never fear. Let’s get you up.” Charlotte put out a hand to allay the woman. “I am fine, Dulcie.

I can get out of bed myself.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed, tentatively stepping onto her feet. A wave of relief swept through her. She was fine. The tremors had abated while she slept. The maid briskly dressed her, pulling at her as if she were a rag doll. And then she led her over to the dressing table to do her hair and toilette. “Ringlets?” Dulcie picked up a strand of her dark hair, staring at her in the mirror. “All the ladies are wearing ringlets at the front, I have noticed.” Charlotte shrugged, disinterested.

“Do what you will. It is not as if anyone ever notices, anyway.” “Oh, fie, my lady.” Dulcie’s eyes widened. “You are a pale thing, to be sure. But just as pretty as any of those flibbertigibbets that parade down Bond Street. You should take some interest in how you look.” Charlotte sighed heavily. “I cannot seem to find the interest. It is not as if I go anywhere to make such an effort.

I cannot remember the last time I attended a dance, or even a morning tea.” The maid nodded as she skilfully arranged her hair. “Well, that is in the country. They are all dull there, as well we know. You are in London now and must look the part. You are an earl’s daughter, after all, and better than most.” She rested a hand gently on her shoulder. “The nightmares aren’t real, my lady. It is all over and done with.” The door suddenly opened.

The countess, resplendent in a gold high-waisted gown with matching cap, stood there imperiously. “Leave us.” Her voice was sharp. Dulcie quickly curtsied, leaving the room. The countess swept into the room, staring at Charlotte. She picked up a hair ribbon from the dressing table, winding it in her hands. Charlotte watched her mother cautiously. What was she doing here, so early in the morning? What couldn’t wait until breakfast? “We will be having a visitor this morning,” she announced. “As soon as breakfast is over, I want you to go to the drawing room.” Charlotte stared at her.

“A visitor? For me?” The countess sighed, letting the ribbon fall to the floor. “That is correct, Charlotte. And I do not want any of your usual nonsense about it.” She frowned, as if underlining her statement. “A Dr. Gibson. He has a formidable reputation. I want him to examine you and give us his opinion.” Charlotte sighed. “Mama, you know that it is all for naught.

No physician can tell us what is wrong with me, nor have a cure for it.” The countess gazed at her sharply. “There are always second opinions, daughter. And third ones. You must not give up so easily.” She drew herself up to her full, imposing height. “The drawing room. As soon as breakfast is over.” She left the room. Charlotte sighed again.

What did any of it matter, anyway? Her life as she had known it was over. All because she had chosen to ride through a summer storm, so many years ago.

.

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