‘Of course everyone is smiling,’ he said. ‘You cut a very fine figure in that rig, even though I shouldn’t say it for making you more conceited than you are already.’
‘I am not conceited.’
‘Then stop grinning like a Cheshire cat. You are putting me to the blush. A little cool modesty, if you please.’
‘Oh, very well.’ She assumed a serious expression that was so comical it only served to make him laugh.
They were attracting the amused attention of other riders, one in particular. As they drew abreast, he bowed slightly towards her. She recognised him easily from the upright way he carried himself, the curl of his light brown hair, his brown eyes and strong mouth, twitching a little in amusement. She felt the colour flare in her face, but quickly brought herself under control and put her chin in the air and gathered up her reins to ride at a trot.
‘Who was that?’ Teddy asked, catching up with her after her unexpected burst of speed. ‘Someone you know?’
She slowed down again. ‘Who?’
‘The fellow on the bay. A magnificent creature.’
‘You call him a magnificent creature?’
‘The horse, silly, not the man, though I own he looks top of the trees to me. Who is he?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘But you smiled at him.’
‘I certainly did not. Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘He smiled back and bowed, as if he knew you. Is that why you wanted to come riding today, so that you might meet him?’
‘Certainly not. I have no idea who he is.’
‘Oh, I knew all that preening in front of everyone would cause trouble. Strange men smiling and bowing, it is not the thing, Sophie, really it is not.’
‘I couldn’t help him smiling at me, could I? I didn’t ask him to bow.’
‘You encouraged him.’
‘I did not. Why would I do that? He is conceited if he thought that, and if I ever meet him again I shall make sure he knows it. Not that I wish to meet him again,’ she added hastily.
‘No, of course not,’ he said with heavy irony.
‘Well, I don’t. Let us go home and see if Aunt Emmeline is up and about. I might prevail upon her to go shopping.’
‘Beats me what you ladies find to go shopping for,’ he murmured following her as she turned towards the gate. ‘You seem to have all the fripperies you need.’
‘Much you know about it,’ she said. ‘But you will find out when you marry and have a wife to please.’
‘Then I don’t think I’ll bother.’
She laughed at that, and they returned to Mount Street in good humour.
* * *
Adam, who had recognised her as the girl he had seen with the soldiers, rode on, wondering who she might be. She was unaccompanied by a duenna or a groom, probably out clandestinely, unless her parents or guardians, whoever they were, did not trouble themselves about propriety. She was lovely, and when she smiled or laughed her blue eyes sparkled. Out secretly with her swain and enjoying herself, he did not doubt, but devoid of all sense of decorum.
He had seen her the day before in a carriage with an older woman—a relation or guardian perhaps? Not a very protective one to let her out to be molested by common soldiers. He smiled at the memory; she was a feisty young lady, to be sure, and by no means cowed, even when her clothes were wet and muddy and she had lost her bonnet. He turned out of the gate and made his way back to South Audley Street. He had better put her from his mind; he had more important things to think of than a slip of a girl, however fetching. He had a speech to compose.
The foreman at the mill had warned him that Henry Hunt, known as Orator Hunt, was planning another great rally, but he had no idea where it was to be. He had a great deal of sympathy for the plight of the workers, who subsisted on very low wages that his fellow mill owners had no compunction in cutting when profits went down. Wages for a weaver, which had been as much as fifteen shillings for a six-day week in the boom year immediately after the war, had now dropped to five. Their hardship was not helped by the Corn Laws, which kept the price of wheat, and therefore bread, so high they were hard put to afford it.
Sir John Michaelson, a neighbouring mill owner, was particularly insensitive to his workers, many of whom had left him to come and work at Bamford Mill as soon as they heard he had a vacancy. It did not endear him to his neighbour, who’d come to him in high dudgeon the last time it had happened.
‘Look here,’ he had said. ‘You can’t go paying exorbitant wages. It gives the men a false value of their worth and makes them uncontrollable. You’re making them soft and undermining the rest of us. A little hunger never did them any harm. Makes ’em work harder.’