Deleted Scene: Lady Windermere's Lover

Much of what I wrote about Cynthia and Damian's early life and marriage didn't make it into the book. Here's a scene that ends with their first meeting.

Cynthia wasn’t often summoned to her uncle’s presence, a fact for which she was thankful. She respected George Chorley, and certainly owed him gratitude for educating his orphaned niece and then offering her a home as companion to his wife. But she could not bring herself to like him. She rather suspected that her Aunt Lavinia felt the same way.

“Let me help you into your new gown,” her aunt said, perpetual worry creasing her forehead and making her look a decade older than her thirty years. A string of unsuccessful pregnancies hadn’t helped. But marriage to George Chorley would depress a much stronger woman than the self-effacing Lavinia.

“Why?” Cynthia asked.

“Mr. Chorley is expecting a visitor from London he wishes you to greet. May will arrange your hair. We must hurry.”

As the maid plied the curling tongs, Cynthia wondered who the visitor could be. Not Wilfred Maxwell, she hoped with a sinking stomach. Her uncle’s London business partner had oily hair, a greasy smile and shifty eyes with which he seemed always to be seeking Cynthia’s bosom. But Mr. Maxwell’s visits had never merited special attention to her toilette.

Half an hour later she presented herself at the door of Mr. Chorley’s room. Her curls, stiffened with sugar water, itched her forehead. She hated the fussy hairstyle that her aunt’s maid considered modish. And while she lacked enough experience with fashions to define the problem, she sensed that her afternoon gown of expensive yellow sarsnet from one of the Chorley mills was neither elegant nor flattering.

“You look very well, Cynthia,” said Mrs. Chorley. “At least, I think you do. I hope Mr. Chorley will be pleased.”

“You and May between you have worked a miracle. I scarcely recognize myself. You were kind to give me such a beautiful gown.”

“It is Mr. Chorley’s gift.” 

“You are always kind to me.” Poor Aunt Lavinia seemed even more despondent than usual. “I shall miss you, Cynthia. Having you live with us has been a pleasure for me. I pray … if only I had done my duty. Oh dear! Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“My dear aunt! What do you mean?”

“Don’t keep your uncle waiting.”

In contrast to the rest of the well-furnished public rooms of the house in Old Square, the study was all business, as befit the center of  a web of business interests over which Chorley presided like a bloated spider. Buttons and books, glass and pottery, cloth and machinery. His wealth derived from a greater variety of enterprises than Cynthia could comprehend. The only certainty was that he had made a fortune, while his elder brother, her father, had lived and died an impoverished gentleman, leaving his daughter penniless.

“Uncle,” she said, curtsying deeply. 

“Come, don’t hover there,” he ordered. “Close the door and sit down.” Her uncle’s physique was as domineering as his personality, but for once Cynthia failed to be oppressed by his barrel chest, protruding belly, and bristling reddish whiskers.  She was terrified of what she would hear. 

“Maxwell is coming down and I have papers to look over, so I’ll straight get to it.” He spoke with the flattened vowels of the Midlands, an accent he always exaggerated when he wished to intimidate. “I’ve arranged a marriage for you.” 

Her heart sank. Not Mr. Maxwell. Please not Mr. Maxwell.

“I see,” she almost whispered. She dared not ask if she had a choice in the matter. She need not accept, she supposed. She was twenty-one years of age and he could not force her to do anything. Yet she had few illusions of what her future would be if she defied him. Finding a position as a governess without references would be hard, perhaps impossible. She had no idea how to go about it. “Who? Why?”

“Because it suits me. Go now, and wait with your aunt in the drawing room. I’ll be bringing him in to meet you as long as we can come to terms on a few last points.”

If he intended to wed her to his partner she would have to run away. She joined Aunt Lavinia trembling with anxiety.

Chorley hadn’t confided in his wife either. “I’m sure anyone your uncle chooses for you will be an excellent match,” was all she had to say. “My father arranged my marriage to Mr. Chorley.” Cynthia refrained from pointing out that her aunt was completely terrified of her much older husband. Mrs. Chorley fixed her attention on the embroidery that constituted her only pleasure. “I should speak to you of your marital … duty. The most important thing is to give your husband sons, as I have failed to do.”

Her poor aunt’s lack of fertility was a constant presence. The appearance of her monthly flow brought tears, its cessation whispered hope, and the ensuing miscarriage wild despair. “Will you tell me what happens?” Cynthia asked.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t do that. You will learn from your husband. You must never deny him, however disagreeable.”

Cynthia was only certain that this “duty” involved sharing a bed. Considering Mr. Chorley, she wasn’t surprised that his wife found it disagreeable. As for Maxwell, the very thought of him laying a finger on her made her stomach churn. 

“If I am to bear sons I think it would help to know what to do,” she persisted.

“These things are better not spoken of. The only advice I can offer is to lie down, keep still and pray for it to be over quickly.”

Poor Aunt Lavinia. Chorley had married her after his only son–and only child–died in an accident. Her experience was a depressing example of a woman given no part in her selection of a husband. 

“Your fire screen is coming along beautifully,” Cynthia said, not wishing to cause further distress. “You were right to pick those greens for the leaves,” she lied. Cynthia had drawn the design based on a Dutch painting for a flower arrangement but her’s aunt’s eye, as colorless as her personality, had selected silks that paled beside the vibrancy of the original. 

Mrs. Chorley looked up from the embroidery hoop, pleasure tempering the habitual anxiety of her expression. “I wish you could stay with me, Cynthia. Yet I want what’s best for you and a woman needs a husband.”

Was marriage, any marriage, preferable to spinsterhood? Cynthia was still pondering the question when Mr. Chorley brought in his visitor, a man–a gentleman–like none she had encountered. 

It wasn’t the beauty of his countenance that struck her most, though he was certainly the handsomest man she’d ever seen, but the refinement of his person. From cropped brown hair to the shining black boots, he was impeccable. While nothing in his neat, understated attire spoke of excessive vanity, she knew that his garments were the work of a master tailor.

He was a gorgeous creature, perfected groomed and eternally unruffled. Sleek was the word that came to mind and stayed there. He bore absolutely no resemblance to Wilfred Maxwell.

“Allow me to present Mrs. Chorley,” her uncle said in his gruff voice with the hint of a Midlands accent. “And my late brother’s daughter Miss Chorley. Ladies, let us welcome the Earl of Windermere.”

An earl! What would an earl want with her, especially one so young and fair? Her glance slid to the door to make sure a more likely husband, or the hideous Maxwell, wasn’t hovering in the background.

He greeted them with perfect politeness. As he bowed in answer to her curtsey she felt his eyes on her and raised her own to meet them. They were a grayish blue with darker rims around the irises, watchful and unreadable. She had an impression of self-contained reserve. But long thick lashes hinted perhaps deceptively, at an incongruous sensitivity beneath the polished exterior.

“My lord,” she murmured.

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Chorley.” His lips widened but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.