A Breach of Promise
Book # 9 in the William Monk series, 1998
To Ken Weir for his friendship
Oliver Rathbone leaned back
He found himself smiling in anticipation of a most pleasant evening at Lady Hardesty's ball. Miss Annabelle Hardesty had been presented to the Queen, and had even earned anagreeable comment from Prince Albeit. She was launched upon society. It was an evening in which all manner of victories might be celebrated. It would be a charming affair.
There was a knock on the door, interrupting his reverie.
'Yes?' He sat up straight. He was not expecting anyone. He had rather thought he would go home early, perhaps take a short walk in the park and enjoy the late-spring air, see the chestnuts coming into bloom.
The door opened and Simms, his chief clerk, looked in.
'What is it?' Rathbone asked with a frown.
'A young gentleman to see you, Sir Oliver,' Simms replied very seriously. 'He has no appointment, but seems extremely worried.' His brow puckered with concern and he looked at Rathbone intently. 'He's quite a young gentleman, sir, and although he's doing his best to hide it, I think he is more than a little afraid.'
'Then I suppose you had better ask him to come in,' Rathbone conceded, more from his regard for Simms than conviction that the young man's difficulty was one he could solve.
'Thank you, sir.' Simms bowed very slightly and withdrew.
The moment after, the door swung wide again and the young man stood in the entrance. He was, as Simms had said, deeply troubled. He was not tall-perhaps an inch less than Rathbone himself-although his slender build and the squareness of his shoulders gave him an extra appearance of height. He had very fair skin and fine, regular features. Strength was given to his face by the width of his jaw and the level, unflinching gaze with which he met Rathbone's eyes. It was difficult to place his age, as it can be with those of a very fair complexion, but he could not have been far on either side of thirty.
Rathbone rose to his feet.
'Good afternoon, sir. Come in, and tell me in what way I may be of service to you.'
'Good afternoon, Sir Oliver.' The young man closed the door behind him and advanced towards the chair in front of Rathbone's desk. He was breathing very steadily, as if it were a deliberate effort, and when he was closer it was possible to see that his shoulders were tense, his body almost rigid.
'My name is Killian Melville,' he began slowly, watching Rathbone's face. 'I am an architect.' He said it with great meaning; his light voice almost caressed the word. He hesitated, still staring at Rathbone. 'I am afraid that I am about to be sued for breach of promise.'
'Promise to do what?' Rathbone asked, although he was all but certain he knew. That particular phrase held one meaning above all others.
Melville swallowed. 'To marry Miss Zillah Lambert, the daughter of my patron, Mr. Barton Lambert.' He obviously found difficulty even in saying the words. There was a kind of despair in his face.
'Please sit down, Mr. Melville.' Rathbone indicated the chair opposite him. 'By all means tell me the details, but I think it is quite possible I may be unable to help you.' Already his instinctive liking for the young man was waning. He had little sympathy for people who flirted and made promises they did not intend to keep, or who sought to improve their social and financial situations by using the affections of a woman whose position might be an advantage to them. They deserved the blame and the misfortune which followed.
Melville sat down, but the bleakness of his expression made it apparent he had heard the disapproval in Rathbone's voice and understood it only too well.
'I had no intention of hurting Miss Lambert,' he began awkwardly. 'Of causing injury either to her feelings or to her reputation…'
'Is her reputation in question?' Rathbone asked rather coolly.
Melville flushed, a wave of color rising up his fair cheeks.
'No it is not, not in the way you mean!' he said hotly. 'But if a… if a man breaks off an engagement to marry-or seems to-then people will raise questions as to the lady's morals. They will wonder if he has learned something of her which is… which has changed his mind.'
'And have you?' Rathbone asked. That at least could prove some excuse, both ethically and in law, if it could be proved.
'No!' Melville's reply was unhesitating. 'As far as I know she is blameless.'
'Is the matter financial?' Rathbone pursued the next most likely problem. Perhaps Melville required a wife of larger fortune. Although if her father was able to be a patron to architects, then he must be of very considerable wealth. A social disadvantage seemed more likely. Or possibly Melville could not afford to keep her in the manner which she would expect.
Melville stiffened. 'Certainly not!'
'You would not be the first young man not in a financial position to marry,' Rathbone said a little more gently, leaning back in his chair and regarding the young man opposite him. 'It is a common enough state. Did you perhaps mislead Mr. Lambert about your prospects, albeit unintentionally?'
Melville let out his breath in a sigh. 'No. No, I was very candid with him.' The shadow of a smile crossed his face, an unexpected light of humor in it, rueful and self-mocking. 'Not that there would have been any point in doing any less. Mr. Lambert is largely responsible for my success. He would be in a better position to estimate my financial future than my banker or my broker would.'
'Have you some other encumbrance, Mr. Melville? A previously incurred relationship, some reason why you are not free to marry?'
Melville's voice was very quiet. 'No. I…' He looked away from Rathbone, for the first time avoiding his eyes. 'I simply cannot bear to! I like Zillah… Miss Lambert. I regard her as a good and charming friend, but I do not wish to marry her!' He looked up again quickly, this time meeting Rathbone's eyes, and his voice was urgent. 'It all happened around me… without my even being sensible to what was occurring. That may sound absurd to you, but believe me, it is true. I took it to be a most pleasant acquaintance.' His eyes softened. 'A mutual interest in art and music and other pleasures of the mind, discussion, appreciation of the beauties of nature and of thought… I-I found her a most delightful friend… gentle, modest, intelligent…' Suddenly the desperation was back in his face. 'I discovered to my horror that Zillah's mother had completely misunderstood. She had read it as a declaration of love, and before I knew where I was, she had begun to make arrangements for a wedding!'