A Company of Swans

Eva Ibbotson

Isobel had never expected her life to turn out this way. She was supposed to have married Romain, to reign over Paradise Farm and turn it into the social center of the county – to have it all and many times more. She was supposed to have her happily ever after.

To possess beauty, wit, love, and wealth - was there anything lacking in such a package? Such a lucky girl, they had all said, and indeed, Isobel did not believe there could be a happier girl than she in all of England. It seemed to have been an extraordinary stroke of luck for her to have met Rom, the man she had no doubt would be the love of her life. Perhaps he could have been, would have been, but now she would never know.

Though her family was poor, she was of noble blood and a most ancient lineage. An alliance with the Brandons would not only grant her an illustrious love that could outshine that of Aphrodite's, but riches as well, and an opportunity to bring glory back to the Lexbury name. Rom was not the heir, therefore he would not have so much as his elder brother, but his mind, his soul – everything else was so much superior. And as the couple chased each other through the convoluted maze, gazed at the millions of stars bespeckling the soft, fragrant night, they were both filled with utmost certainty that they would never part.

Fate however, had decided to play it cruel, and after the General's death Rom was left without a penny. Isobel could see in his eyes that to him, it made the adventure all the more intriguing. But to Isobel, who had watched her own family crumble with the fall of the Lexbury estate, it was not so. While he had plans to hunt for treasures, to explore the wild, and accumulate wealth all on his own from scratch, Isobel was not so naive. She had heard the same impractical dreams from her own father as each investment collapsed, one after another, and knew with the wisdom of experience that those plans could only end in failure. Watching her own parent's marriage fail along with the Lexbury accounts, she vowed never to let it happen again to her. So was it so wrong of her to break off the engagement and choose Henry, his jealous, bitter brother instead? Surely not! One can live devoid of love, but certainly not of money. Love could support you only so long while money could do so all your life – hadn't her mother told her? And her mother, who had so been longing to be wealthy again, to be accepted by society once more without pity or contempt, what of her? No, Isobel could not marry for her heart alone.

Isobel's regretted hurting Rom so, but her own grief seemed to overlap that of his. Henry, always in his youngerbrother's shadow, had by now turned his envy into hate, and he hated Rom so much that he jumped at the chance to hurt him in any way possible – and what was better than stealing his one and only love. It was probably he who got rid of the General's new will, in which Rom and Isobel would receive Paradise and some outlying farms, so that Rom would end up with nothing. But Henry's sense of morality no longer mattered, as long as he had the money. So now, all Isobel had to do was profess her interest in the elder brother and all the Brandon's wealth would be in her grasps. Which is exactly what she did. And Rom, heartbroken and betrayed, disappeared never to be seen again.

Over time, Isobel became more and more recluse; her once youthful heart seemed to melt into stone. Her husband abandoned them for the countryside – gambling, drinking, and God knows what else (well actually, she did have an idea) – but Isobel had never been so relieved. Still, that leaden weight in her heart never did subside and the memory of Rom never did fade. She had a son, also Henry, but he could do little to soften her for by now; nothing could unwind all the knots that time had so cruelly tied. And with that, she started ignoring her little boy as well.

Isobel did have her money however, and that became her sole source of comfort. Shopping was the only thing that could soothe her mind, and she intended to shop to her heart's content. Those darling dresses, the adorable shoes – certainly she could indulge herself with the one thing left?

But with the letter informing her of Stavely's financial trouble, her husband's subsequent suicide, it looked as though her last pleasure too would vanish. How could she have paid so heavily and ended up with nothing? She had traded love for money, and now, she had neither. So Isobel, the lucky girl who had it all and more was no longer, left with nothing but a memory and an even deeper yearning for Rom and what used to be.