This scene originally went between the end of Chapter 7 (Nev and Penelope’s meeting with Kedge and Snively and Nev’s explanation of the 1816 riot) and the beginning of Chapter 8. In it, Nev and Penelope visit the local village and meet Josie Cusher for the first time. It was one of the first things to go when I had to make major cuts (in fact, only one mention of the village remains in the final draft), but I always liked it. Note the original first appearance of Agnes Cusher’s satin ribbon, and also of the ribbon Penelope is wearing in the first scene in Chapter 8.
Loweston was one great disaster, and the more Nev heard about what to do about it, the less soluble the problem seemed. He glanced at Penelope as they drove back towards the Grange. She looked small and wilted in her bonnet and black dress, holding tightly to the seat as they jolted over a hole in the road. He almost put an arm around her, but something stopped him. A week ago she’d been living in a luxurious townhouse, wanting for nothing. Now she was sitting in a farm cart under the hot sun, wearing mourning and learning just how bad a bargain she had made. The poor girl had barely spoken all day. Why would she be comforted by his arm?
They had nothing more to do, but Nev didn’t want to go back to the house, where Penelope would closet herself with the books and he would be alone with his thoughts.
“Is there a dressmaker in the village?” Penelope asked.
He nodded, scenting a delay.
“Is she any good?”
“I think she is,” Nev said uncertainly. His mother always got all her clothes in London, but Mrs. Appleby had made some of his clothes as a boy, and Louisa’s schoolroom dresses.
“I need some new gowns. I don’t—I don’t have enough black. Would you mind terribly—”
“Not at all,” Nev said with great sincerity. “Let’s go.”
She relaxed. Evidently she wasn’t any more eager to return to the Grange than he was. On an impulse, he put his arm around her shoulders after all.
She pulled away, awkwardly.
He put his hand back on the reins, watching the road and trying not to show he was hurt. He could hear her fumbling with something. A moment later she touched his arm, and he turned to look at her. Her bonnet was in her lap. Her hair was coming apart in the back, but he didn’t care. “I—the bonnet would have got in the way,” she said.
Nev grinned at her, absurdly pleased. “I’ve been thinking that all morning,” he said with a wink, and felt his grin widen when she flushed. He reached out and she snuggled into his shoulder, small and warm. For the first time that day, Nev felt like things might be all right.
The town was just as bad as the rest. Nev cast his eye down the small street—the alehouse, the blacksmith, the dressmaker, the baker, the cobbler. Most of the businesses were the same, but they seemed to have aged and shrunk since the last time he had seen them. Part of that, surely, was in his imagination, but he was certain that it was part fact as well.
How would it look to Penelope? It had certainly never interested him. The last time he had been home, he was just back from the Grand Tour with Thirkell and Percy. The three of them had stuck it out for four days before sloping off to London.
Nev hired a boy to hold the horses, and the two of them went into Mrs. Appleby’s store. It was still clean and neat, but the shelves that had been full of bolts of fabric were half-empty. Sarah, the owner’s daughter, who had nearly always been behind the counter since Nev was twelve and Sarah a few years younger, wasn’t there. Mrs. Appleby, though, sat by the register, vacantly sucking a peppermint. When she saw them, she smiled and hurried forward.
“Lord Nevin—Bedlow! Is this Lady Bedlow?”
“Indeed it is,” Nev said. “Lady Bedlow, this is Mrs. Appleby.”
Mrs. Appleby bobbed an unsteady curtsey. “Pleasure to meet you, your ladyship.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Appleby,” Penelope said. “I was hoping to order a few black gowns from you; I am afraid I was woefully unprepared for the heat.”
The woman’s face lit up, and Nev wondered when her last big sale had been. Soon the dressmaker had bustled Penelope into the back room to be measured, and Nev was left to wait, feeling faintly resentful that soon Mrs. Appleby would have seen more of his wife than he had.
There was a stand on the counter, hung with brightly colored ribbons. Nev spun it idly, wishing he could buy one for Penelope. The lavender satin, in particular, would have looked perfect against her dark hair. He imagined it there. Then he imagined sliding it out and watching Penelope’s brown hair slip down against her cheekbones and fall over her neck. He didn’t think she kept it long enough to reach her breasts, so if she were naked, there would be nothing to hide them from him. He imagined dragging the ribbon across her bare bosom and down her stomach and following it with his mouth…
Penelope hoped Nev wasn’t waiting too impatiently in the other room. She probably should have come back without him later, but she was desperate for new clothes—she hadn’t had time to have very many black ones made up. Molly was washing her only other morning gown at that very moment, and the one now draped over Mrs. Appleby’s chair already smelled a bit. She hoped Nev hadn’t noticed when he put his arm around her. She looked in the mirror, and her heart sank.
Her hair had been flattened and tangled by her bonnet, and her face was red with the heat. And were her arms already starting to freckle from the sun? Freckles, how common, said a voice in her head that sounded a lot like Lucy Hopper from school. A glance at her gown revealed a dusty hem, with splotches of dirt on the backside from the wagon. Nev was in as bad a state from the heat and dust as she was, but somehow his flushed face and loosened collar just looked healthy and charmingly pastoral.
She felt suddenly humiliated at the memory of his casual embrace. He couldn’t have wanted her against him, not her; he had simply been sorry for her, a poor city girl covered in dirt and sweat.
The dressmaker, glancing at her face, fumbled with the tape measure. “Is something wrong, my lady?”
“No, no.” Penelope forced a smile. “I can’t wait to choose my new gowns.”
When they emerged from the back room, Nev was leaning on the counter, staring into space. He must be bored nearly to tears.
“Let me show you some patterns,” Mrs. Appleby said eagerly. Going behind the counter, she took out a stack of pattern books and fashion plates, so many that some of them cascaded onto the floor.
“I just want something simple and light.”
But the dressmaker showed her design after design, talking excitedly—something in her manner made Penelope wonder if the woman were a little simple—and they all looked more or less the same to Penelope.
“Maybe something like this one, but with only one flounce at the hem,” she said at last, pointing at a short-sleeved muslin gown with a V-neck and narrow lace trim at the neck and sleeves. “Make sure the lace isn’t any wider than this, though.”
“We should get you a hat like that,” Nev said, pointing at one of the women in the fashion plate. Penelope hadn’t realized he was even paying attention. It was a tall bonnet ornamented with ribbands, ruched around the edge of the wide brim, with a profusion of ostrich feathers on one side and a wide ribbon tie. “If we asked the milliner to use black taffeta, it would be a lot cooler in this weather than the one you were wearing.”
That was true, but the bonnet was a good deal showier than anything Penelope had ever worn. Her mother would like that bonnet. She could just imagine the whispers about vulgar Cits. “I’ll…think about it,” she said weakly. Nev shrugged and turned away, and Penelope almost wished she had agreed with him.
She and Mrs. Appleby finally decided on three dresses, with the understanding that Penelope would order more when she came back to pick them up. The dressmaker’s inordinate gratitude made Penelope feel ill. This town was a disaster. She focused on a ribbon stand so she wouldn’t have to look at the woman’s glowing face. There was a satin ribbon in Penelope’s favorite shade of lavender. Without thinking, she reached out and ran it through her fingers. Then her mind caught up with her—she was in mourning, she couldn’t wear colors, she mustn’t let Nev think she was repining—and she drew her hand back quickly, darting a glance at Nev. He was staring fixedly at her.
Penelope flushed. Nev had lost his father, and she was sorry because she couldn’t wear a satin ribbon? But her treacherous eyes turned back to it. She hated to admit it, but she wanted something to make her feel pretty.
“Do you have one like this in black?” she asked.
The dressmaker nodded.
“I’ll take it.”
Nev watched Mrs. Appleby painstakingly count out Penelope’s change. He remembered her fitting him for his first pair of breeches, her fingers deft and sure. He must have been a squirmy child, but she had never stuck him with a pin. Now her hands trembled slightly. As she reached out to hand Penelope the change, she bumped her elbow on the edge of the counter and dropped the coins. Nev, suddenly suspicious, scanned the counter. Sure enough, a Loweston Arms tankard peeked out from behind the register. The woman wasn’t growing old—she was drunk.
What the devil had happened to Sarah? Nev was about to ask when the bell over the door jangled and a girl of about eight or nine came in. She was skinny and blonde and wearing a dress several sizes too small, but she walked up to the counter with the confidence of a queen.
“I’d like that ribbon, please.” She pointed to the lavender one Penelope had wanted.
Mrs. Appleby pursed her lips. “Have you got the money for it?”
“Yes, and I earned it, too.” The girl held out tuppence.
“I’m sure your mother is very proud of your hard work,” Mrs. Appleby said sarcastically.
The girl scowled and flushed, but she brightened when the ribbon was in her hand. She stroked it, turned it this way and that, and then ran out of the store.
Penelope watched the ribbon go with a rueful smile that made Nev want to kiss her.
“She used to be such a good girl,” Mrs. Appleby said. “Followed after Sarah everywhere. I thought she would do piecework for me, in time.” She shook her head. “It’s not her fault. How could she grow up honest with that woman for a mother?”
“Mrs. Appleby,” Penelope said, sounding shocked, “are you suggesting that that girl stole that money?”
Mrs. Appleby started. “Oh, of course not!” she said hastily. “I don’t know what I meant! It just makes me so angry—that girl’s little brother goes hungry half the week, and she comes in here buying a ribbon! If the folk hereabouts were only better at managing money, they’d have plenty, let me tell you. Of course Sarah never agreed—” She shut her mouth abruptly.
“Mrs. Appleby,” Nev said, dreading the answer, “where is Sarah?”
Mrs. Appleby’s face grew long. “My poor, poor girl. This would all have been hers, you know. Who’s to have it after I’m gone now?”
“What happened?” Penelope asked gently.
“She emigrated to America.”
Nev let out his breath all at once. He had expected something much worse. “Why?”
“She said she would send for me,” Mrs. Appleby said querulously, “but she never did. But I know who’s to blame—it’s that Aggie Cusher! Aggie was always hanging about, asking Sarah to read her them radical pamphlets and talking about the working folk and the Corn Laws and things that nice girls shouldn’t worry their heads about! That’s always how it is; there are a few bad apples and they turn all the rest rotten.”
Nev wondered if his own face mirrored Penelope’s naked look of distress.
“Sarah helped Aggie write up that list of demands to take to the magistrate in ’16, though I told her no good could come of it, I told her! And then things got out of control, and they smashed up our store and took our money, and Aggie Cusher right among them not saying a word against it! It broke Sarah’s heart. And then it was off to America, leaving me to clean up the mess! It’s hard running a business alone, let me tell you, and I’m not getting any younger. Do you know what it cost me to replace the windows?”
“No,” Nev said, his heart like lead. While he had been safely in Cambridge, anxious but rather excited because he might be given a gun and excused from classes, people at Loweston had been watching their lives crumble around them. And Nev had no doubt that the fault lay, not with criminals from London or radical pamphlets, but with his own family’s mismanagement and unconcern.