She was fighting back angry tears when a gentleman pushed his way through and grabbed the soldier who held her and flung him aside. ‘Off with you, or your commanding officer will hear of this.’
Recognising the voice of authority when they heard it, they flung her bonnet down and fled, leaving Sophie to fall into the arms of her rescuer. He held her a moment to steady her before releasing her. His face had a weather-worn look of someone used to being out of doors and there were fine lines at the corners of his brown eyes, above which were well-defined brows. His hair, under a tall hat, was light brown and curled a little into the nape of his neck. He was stylishly but not extravagantly dressed, but none of that counted with her because he was endeavouring not to laugh, and that annoyed her. She felt obliged to thank him, but it was done in such a superior way, he could have no reason to think his assistance was any more than her due as a lady.
He picked up her bonnet and attempted to brush the mud off it, but it was ruined, and he simply handed it to her. ‘Have you far to go?’
‘Only to Mount Street.’
‘I will escort you there.’
‘That will not be necessary. I bid you good day.’ She walked away, her only purpose at that moment to return to the safety of her aunt’s garden and make up her mind how to explain the state of her clothing.
* * *
Thankfully her aunt and brother were still abed, so she was able to creep up to her room unseen. Bessie was there, unpacking the things from her trunk that had not been taken out the night before. ‘Mercy me, Miss Sophie, whatever happened to you?’ she asked, seeing the state of her young charge.
‘I slipped on the ice and fell into a puddle.’
‘Are you hurt?’
‘No, except my pride.’
‘You had better take off those wet things before you catch cold.’ Bessie bustled about fetching clean clothes for her. ‘Where did this happen?’
‘On the way to the park. I had seen all there was to see of the garden, so I thought I would take a walk.’
‘Miss Sophie,’ Bessie said while busy helping Sophie out of her clothes, ‘you cannot, indeed you must not, go out on your own.’ The maid had been with the family so long, she felt at liberty to speak her mind to the young lady she had known since the day she was born. ‘This is London, not Hadlea. Anything could have happened. Did anyone see you?’
‘Only the people walking in the street, but I soon got up again and came home.’
‘No harm done, I suppose, but you should have come indoors and asked me to go with you, if there was no one else.’
‘I didn’t think of it. I have never had to do it before.’
‘Isn’t that just what I have been saying? What is permissible in Hadlea is not permissible or wise in London.’
‘You won’t tell my aunt, will you? It is too mortifying.’
‘No, of course I will not, but you must not do anything like it again. You could have twisted your ankle or broken your arm. It is fortunate that you did not.’
‘It was more humiliating than painful.’ Just how humiliating she was not prepared to divulge.
* * *
Her aunt came downstairs at noon to find her niece in the morning parlour with a novel by Miss Jane Austen in her lap, although she was not reading it but daydreaming. Not even Miss Austen’s elegant prose could hold her attention. She had never expected to be so bored. It was worse than being in Hadlea, where at least she could go out walking or riding or visit her sister.
‘When we have had nuncheon, we will go out in the carriage,’ her aunt said. ‘I must go to the library and change my book.’ She nodded towards the volume Sophie was holding. ‘Unless you want to read it.’
‘No, Aunt, I have already read it.’
‘Then to the library we will go and then we will call on my friend Mrs Malthouse in Hanover Square. Mr and Mrs Malthouse are very wealthy, but it makes no matter for I have often spoken of you and dear Jane and Issie and their husbands and how well up in the stirrups they are, so you do not need to feel in any way inferior.’
Sophie did not see why she should feel inferior and was tempted to say, ‘I do not’, but held her tongue.
* * *
Mrs Malthouse was even rounder than Aunt Emmeline, but in spite of that wore fussy clothes with a great many lace flounces and ribbons. Her daughter, Cassandra, was nothing like her mother, being tall and slim, with dark brown hair arranged in ringlets and a merry smile.
‘You remember me speaking of my sister’s family, do you not?’ Lady Cartrose explained to her friend. ‘Sophie is staying with me, but as you know, I seldom venture out in the evenings nowadays. Her brother is also with us and will escort her to whatever function has been arranged for her to attend. Everyone knows I do not go out so very often these days and I am wanting in invitations. I am come to appeal to you to help me out. I know Cassandra is engaged to attend the Rowlands’ dancing party and wondered if you might ask them to include Sophie in the invitation.’