The Secret of Pembrooke Park

by Julie Klassen



MAY 1817

I sat across the table from the man I most admired, feeling self-conscious. How I wished I’d taken more time with my appearance. But my meeting with the housekeeper had run long, allowing me barely enough time to wash my face and repin my hair in a simple coil. I had planned to wear a new evening dress—golden satin with red roses embroidered throughout the bodice—but instead I’d slipped into the plain ivory gown I usually wore. It had far fewer fastenings.

I glanced over at my beautiful younger sister, her hair curled and styled by Mamma’s lady’s maid. Louisa wore the emerald necklace I had planned to wear, declaring it looked so well with her new dress. She’d said, “You know you don’t care a fig about fashion, Abigail, so don’t fuss. You can wear my coral. It will look fine with the gown you always wear.”

I reminded myself it didn’t really matter how well I looked. Gilbert Scott and I had known each other since we were children. He knew what I looked like without a hint of powder, skin clear or with eruptions, with hair up or down or in need of a good brushing. We grew up as friends and neighbors through the awkward stages of adolescence and into adulthood. The time for first impressions had long past.

Even so, this was his going-away party. The last time I would see him for a year. And I’d wanted his final memory of me to be a good one. For I cherished a secret hope. Perhaps when Gilbert returned from studying abroad he would finally ask me to marry him.

For more than an hour, our two families enjoyed a lovely meal of several courses in the Scotts’ dining room. Warm and friendly conversation flowed easily around the table. But I barely noticed what I ate.

I turned to Gilbert’s sister and asked, “How goes the magazine?”

“Very well, I think.” Susan smiled, then looked at her brother. “Bertie, you ought to write an account of your travels while you’re away.”

“Capital notion, my love,” Susan’s husband said, adding his approval. “Send us a few sketches to accompany the piece and we’ll publish it.”

Gilbert shook his head. “I shall have my hands full with my studies, Edward, but thank you just the same. Susan’s the writer in the family, not I.”

Gilbert’s father spoke up from the head of the table. “But you will write to us, my boy, won’t you? You know I . . . your Mamma will worry otherwise.”

Humor shone in Mrs. Scott’s eyes. “That’s right, my dear. I shall worry. But not you?”

“Well, perhaps a bit. . . .” He gestured for the butler to refill his wine. Again.

Over my glass, I met Gilbert’s gaze, and we shared a private smile.

Mr. Scott addressed my father. “I say, Foster, did you not invest in that bank mentioned in the newspaper today—the one having some sort of trouble?”

“We . . . did, yes. My brother-in-law is one of the partners. But he assures us it’s only a minor setback. All will be well.”

Father sent me a guarded look, and I forced a reassuring smile. This wasn’t the time or place to discuss finances. Nor did I wish to cast a pall over Gilbert’s send-off.

When the meal concluded, the men remained behind to smoke and sip port, while the ladies retired to the drawing room.

Gilbert, however, did not remain with the other gentlemen. Instead, he asked me to join him in the library.

I did so, my heart tripping a little faster with each step.

Alone with Gilbert inside the candlelit room, I reminded myself to breathe normally. We stood very near each other at the high library table, necks bent to study the measured drawing of a church façade in classical style. Gilbert had won the Royal Academy’s silver medal for the drawing. And a gold medal for his design of a guildhall. For his achievements, Gilbert had received a traveling scholarship from the academy to study architecture in Italy. I was so proud of him.

“In the end, I altered the design to create a grander façade,” Gilbert explained. “With a Corinthian portico six columns wide, based on the Pantheon in Rome. And notice the steeple here? I designed its top stage to resemble a miniature temple. . . .”

He spoke with enthusiasm, but for once I wasn’t really listening. My interest had strayed from the drawing to the man himself. With his eyes on his prize-winning design, I felt at liberty to study his profile, to linger on his features—his jaw more defined than I had noticed before, his cheekbone framed by long, stylish side-whiskers, his lips thin but expressive as he spoke. I thought I might try to sketch him, though doubted my ability to do him justice. And he smelled good too. Bay rum cologne, I thought. And mint.

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