There were easily two-hundred identical cushioned chairs spanning the width of the majestic Pemberley ballroom floor, and yet there remained ample space for a broad aisle in the middle, as well as on either side. The raised platform at the distal end was decorated with colorful flowers in ornate vases spaced symmetrically between glass-encased lamps glowing softly. Normally a stage where a dozen minstrels gathered to play music for the dancers, the spacious area held only two pianos and one large harp.
Miss Austen absorbed as much as possible, mentally jotting notes, as she kept up with the brisk pace of the tall footman. He escorted her down the left aisle toward a concealed door at the far corner. A single knock was answered by a strong voice within, and the liveried servant opened the door into a small chamber cramped with an array of musical instruments and accessories. Later she would examine more fully, but the effusive welcome from the man she had come to interview, Mr. Sebastian Butler, captured all her attention.
“Miss Austen! What a tremendous delight to finally meet you!” He bowed fluidly. Then he deftly clasped onto her hand, lifted it for a glancing kiss, and laughed when she started in surprise. “A French greeting. I have dwelt in Paris for too long, perhaps?”
“No, no! Not at all.”
“Much better than a curt German bow, I always say. Please, sit Miss Austen. Be comfortable. The tea shall be here any moment. After the long ride from Derby, and then traversing the endless corridors of Pemberley and the entire length of the ballroom, refreshments are in order.”
She had opened the case containing her secretaire while he spoke, the paper already in place and quill being dipped into the inkwell. “Every mile and step was worth it, I assure you.” She pushed her spectacles further up her nose. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Butler. I have long hoped for the opportunity to interview you for the Derby Chronicle.”
“The pleasure is entirely mine, Miss Austen. I am delighted, and completely at my leisure. My wife and her brother speak highly of you, and insisted that I accept your request for an interview. Not that the request was one I had any intention of denying, you understand?”
“Thank you, although under the circumstances, with your concert scheduled for this evening, I would have accepted a later date. Should you not be practicing or engaged in a ritualistic calming measure?”
Sebastian’s gay laughter, she noted, touched his entire face. “Oh no! I know our pieces by heart, and, to my wife’s annoyance, am never nervous before a performance. Indeed, speaking with you is a welcome distraction from watching her fuss over perfectly coiffed hair in between pacing a hole in the carpet.”
A knock forestalled further comment. The same footman entered balancing a silver tea service. As soon as he sat it upon the low table between their chairs, Miss Austen set the secretaire aside and bent toward the table.
“Be that as it may, I do thank you for your time. Allow me to repay in this small measure.” The reporter commenced pouring the tea, her voice shifting into a professional tone. “When I interviewed Miss Darcy… that is, Mrs. Butler, as she now is… she spoke of you richly, and in detail. Nevertheless, for this article I will be asking questions from your point of view, so to speak. How do you like your tea?”
“Pick my brain as you wish, although I fear you have me at a distinct disadvantage in knowing so much about me already. Whatever shall we talk about then?” He winked, then gestured playfully at the steaming cup of tea. “I suppose how I like my tea is a logical place to start. Hopefully it isn’t too disappointing to learn that I am not particular. More often than not the tea cup is forgotten on the corner of the piano, only to be drank cold hours later. However, since that is unlikely to happen today, a small spoon of sugar only is preferred.”
Cups in hand, and initial sips concluded, Miss Austen drew the portable desk back onto her lap. Pen poised, she began the serious queries. “May I inquire as to the health of your family, Mr. Butler? I understand you have an abundance of sisters. Perhaps you could tell a little about them?”
“My family is quite well, Miss Austen. Thank you for asking. And since it will appease my father, the Earl of Essenton, on the off-chance he does read this, I will dutifully point out that although ‘Mr. Butler’ is a perfectly acceptable address as far as I am concerned, I am a viscount so should be addressed as Lord Nell.” He laughed again. “See what an obedient son I am? I have five younger sisters, which is an ‘abundance’ indeed! My life has never been boring, that is for sure. I adore them and consider myself blessed to have been surrounded by loving siblings, each of whom are incredible women and the joy of my youth. Of course now that I have said that publicly they shall use it to their advantage, finding some way to finagle favors from me.”
He paused to chuckle and sip his tea. Miss Austen glanced up from her deck, noting how his grey eyes softened and momentarily grew distant.
“One negative to my travels of late is that I miss them,” he explained. “Adele and Reine, the youngest of my sisters, are at our home in Staffordshire. Clarisse is now the Duchess of Tichbourne, so our paths rarely cross. My sisters nearest to me in age, Guinevere, who is Lady Rycroft, and Vivienne, who married my dearest friend Adrien, the Marquis de Marcov, are in France. That is fortunate. My wife and I are able to visit with them frequently.”
“And I imagine the postal service is kept busy with correspondence.”
“Indeed they are! Between the six of us, and our mother, I daresay we pay enough for at least two mail carriers’ yearly wages.”
“Moving on to the topic of music–”
“My favorite topic, after my wife, of course.”
For a moment she thought he was jesting. After all, the rumors of his passion for music and years of study abroad were widely known. Indeed his gray eyes were merry and gleaming with the sparkle she was beginning to suspect a permanent fixture. Yet there was a seriousness within that revealed the truth of his words. Clearly his passion for music was not as great as his passion for the former Georgiana Darcy.
More intrigued than ever, she echoed in agreement, “Of course. Before we discuss Lady Nell, and we will, may I ask about your childhood? When you first learning to play an instrument, what was it that attracted you to music?”
Sebastian crossed his legs and released a contemplative sound. “Hmmm… Now that is an interesting question.” He stared into his teacup for a spell before continuing in a bemused tone. “Perhaps some artists can pinpoint the precise moment when they discovered their aptitude. I cannot say. My earliest memories are of listening to my mother play the harpsichord. I assume it was she who first sat me on her lap and placed my fingers upon the keys. It certainly would not have been my father! Yet the truth is that I have no clear memory of learning to play. It as if I was born with an innate love of music and embedded skill for playing instruments.”
Abruptly he leaned forward, his face so intent that Miss Austen’s fingers jerked and the quill left a small splatter of ink.
“Forgive me, Miss Austen, for sounding arrogant. I do not account myself superior or particularly special. I can name dozens of others who are far more talented than I, including my wife. It is a gift to be sure, but one granted to me and not of my devising, although I do work hard to perfect my skill.”
“As an accomplished musician and composer, are there any pieces of music that you have a particular fondness for?”
“I know this will sound cliché and an obligatory response designed to curry favor, but the honest truth is that I am fondest of the compositions created in collaboration with or inspired by my wife. How could I not be? However, fondness for a piece of music is subtly different from saying what are my favorite pieces to play. The latter refers more to the skill required to perform or to the satisfaction engendered when mastering a complex, moving composition. In that case I prefer the works of Beethoven, especially his sonatas and most recent works, as well as Mozart, Franz Danzi, Cherubini, Hummel…”
He trailed off, laughing and shaking his head. “As you can see, my taste is eclectic, and that is a dangerous question to ask of a musician unless you wish to be here all day whilst I bore you to tears listing names impossible to spell and pronounce! Next question then, Miss Austen!
“I apologize if you find this question to be overly personal and impertinent, but I did warn you. What was the first thought that went through your head when you finally admitted to yourself that you had fallen in love with Miss Georgiana Darcy? I have heard her thoughts and version of the tale. Now I want to hear yours.”
“Oh my! You are hitting me with some tough ones! I stupidly denied my feelings for several weeks, not fully recognizing that my sentiments were shifting from ones of friendship to love. Not a great span of time, so it would seem, but when one is struggling with the emotions, it feels an eternity. To my dismay, the first thoughts when I admitted my love for her were ones of despair. I was sure she did not return my affection, for one, and was furthermore convinced she loved another.”
At this his face paled. He gulped the cooling tea with a hand trembling slightly. “Forgive me, but the memory is not a pleasant one.”
Remembering her job as a reporter, Miss Austen shoved aside her pity, and asked another pointed question. “In your whirlwind romance, with its many ups and downs, what was the hardest moment for you to bear?”
Lord Nell hesitated. When he replied his words were halting and voice hoarse. “Without a doubt it was seeing her with Baron Caxton. Fortunately I was not subjected to witnessing them together too often. That was a blessing or I am sure I would have gone mad. I nearly did lose all shreds of my sanity at the de Valday gala in Paris when she… No, I cannot speak of it! That is why I had to leave Paris and why I…. I am sorry, Miss Austen, but may we change the subject?”
Sensing she would get nothing further, and overcome with sympathy, she relented. “Of course. What is your opinion of novelists, Mr. Butler, er, that is, Lord Nell?”
He cleared his throat, drained the teacup, and answered with his typical musical gaiety. “Oh, I love an enticing novel and applaud writers who weave stories! Their genius is similar to a composer, is it not? An art form designed to entertain or induce emotion in those who listen, or in the case of an author, those who read, should always be appreciated. My wife and I read the popular novels together, taking turns picking the book. I am fond of Walter Scott and Defoe, while her favorites are Fanny Burney. We recently read Frankenstein and…” he grinned and lowered his voice, “…she pretended to be shocked and horrified, but I know that she loved it.”
Miss Austen laughed. “You may tell her that I did the same, and I also loved it. Last question, Lord Nell. I know you have a performance approaching–”
“You are staying, are you not?”
“I would not miss the opportunity to hear the famous Lord and Lady Nell perform. Heaven forbid! I am honored to be attending.”
“And will be taking notes?”
“Absolutely! So, mindful of the upcoming musicale, if you were able to perform with any musician at any venue, who and where would it be? And what song would you choose?”
“Performing with Lady Nell is my greatest joy, truly it is. I would not reject a chance to play in Vienna with Mozart, were he alive, or with Herr Beethoven once again. Yet neither they or any other would eclipse the pleasure of sitting beside my wife, on stage or in the privacy of our chambers. As for which song, well, that would be the songs we wrote for each other on our wedding day, particularly the one I first sang for her alone that night.” He flushed and shifted in the chair. Then he shrugged. “If I were naughty like my grandmother, Lady Warrow, I would frankly illuminate as to why I choose that song. But, I am a gentleman so will leave the reasons up to your imagination!”
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