Authors: Mary Chase Comstock
When the trial was over, however, and freedom to move and stretch was accorded, they were well pleased with the morning's work, as well as the taste and ability of Miss Spencer, a good soul with a quick eye for accentuating the attributes of each to her best advantage. Moreover, Miss Spencer assured them that their first gowns would be ready in a remarkable two days' time so that some invitations might be accepted forthwith.
found Cat, Eveline and Lady Montrose engaged in a companionable coze in the library, their labors done for the day. Caesar and Brutus were assiduously performing such tricks as had won them treats in the past, all variations on begging winsomely (if persistently), and their little beards were disgracefully covered with cake crumbs and honey. Lady Montrose had entirely won Cat's good will by not only allowing the terriers to join their party throughout the day, but encouraging them in all their little antics as well.
More invitations had arrived with the morning's post, and with Lady Montrose's counsel, these were being considered both for the potential they offered of introducing appropriate acquaintances, as well as whatever chance of diversion they promised.
“Unless you enjoy close quarters, do not attend a crush, for they are aptly named,” Lady Montrose advised them. “There is but little opportunity for conversation—just great crowds massing to be seen. Besides, the refreshments are disgraceful. No good in those at all. This musical evening at Branwell's should be just the thing, though, for they are good souls, if somewhat dull.
We can't all be blessed with wit. It amuses them, however, to throw together such marriageable people as are of their acquaintance and observe the various stages of courtship. It is a near thing, perhaps, but your first gowns should be just finished in time. Now, I would avoid Almack's—indeed you may have no choice in the matter, for Mrs. Drummond-Burrell and I have had some differences over the years and my patronage would surely doom any hope of vouchers for you. In any case, I suspect you will be troubled enough by fortune hunters before we are done without seeking them out on their own turf, so to speak.”
At that, a footman entered bearing a card on a silver salver.
“What a lovely surprise,” Lady Montrose exclaimed, taking it up. “I had no idea they were in town yet! Show them in, Matey. These are two special friends of mine — I'm so glad you both can meet them straightaway.” Caesar and Brutus had pricked up their sensitive little ears and begun to bounce about zealously as the sounds of voices and footsteps drew near.
Lady Mouse,” came a familiar voice. “You are looking well indeed! Why Miss Mansard! I'll be bound, I had not looked for you here! And what's this? Caesar and Brutus! Champion!”
In recognizing one of the callers as Charles
Hazelforth, (the other gentleman was quite unknown to her) Cat's reaction hovered between pleasure and chagrin. Not only had she told that gentleman repeatedly that she had no intention whatsoever of visiting London, but she was also wearing that same muslin dress in which he had seen her so shockingly drenched at their last meeting. As soon as she encountered his eye, Cat felt her cheeks go scarlet.
A flurry of memories, both discomfiting and delightful, flooded over her as she stammered a moment in confusion when he warmly took her hand in his. Cat was quite content to allow Caesar and Brutus to momentarily divert Hazelforth's at
tention from her as they danced noisily around his ankles, but through her downcast lashes she was able to confirm that his merest glance in her direction was still able to produce a mysterious flutter of emotions.
Oh, you already know Mr. Hazelforth, Catherine!” Lady Montrose exclaimed. “What extraordinary luck! Do sit down, gentlemen, sit down. I shall order more tea and cakes and we shall have ourselves a nice little chat. Matey, take Caesar and Brutus here to the kitchen and tell Rene to fix them something special. Now, Hazelforth, do make Sommers known to the ladies.”
During the nice
ties that followed, Cat was able to regain her composure somewhat, and soon learned that Hazelforth and Mr. Sommers, a friend from Oxford years, had only lately arrived in town. This latter was an earnest gentleman who was saved from looking overly serious by a wayward lock of hair which persistently found its way down onto his forehead. This he pushed back every few minutes with an unconsciously boyish gesture which his new acquaintances found quite appealing. The two gentlemen, it was learned, maintained a longstanding friendship of some intimacy with Lady Montrose and were frequent visitors to her house.
Of course, it is always a pleasure to see our dear Lady Mouse,” Mr. Sommers began amiably, “but I hold myself fortunate indeed to at last meet Miss Mansard. Hazelforth has told me much of you.” In spite of Mr. Sommers' innocent tone and open manner, Cat could not help but wonder just what information had been shared and, much unnerved, searched her new acquaintance's face suspiciously for signs of irony.
We are discussing our calendar for the next several days, Hazelforth,” Lady Montrose informed them. “I am just advising Catherine about Almack's—a dull and dreary den if ever I saw one. She had much better avoid it, do you not agree?”
I am sure Miss Mansard's composure would be much overtaxed there, to be sure,” Hazelforth replied with a knowing smile, “for I seem to recall that she has but little patience with the 'sorry simulations of society.'”
And that is much to her credit you will agree, Hazelforth. However, I think we cannot avoid such encounters entirely, for the purpose of her visit demands a good deal of exposure. Pray, do not concern yourself, Catherine,” Lady Montrose continued, on hearing a sharp gasp escape from Cat's direction, “for my seeming lack of discretion. Mr. Hazelforth and Mr. Sommers are my trusted friends, and it surely cannot harm your interests to take them into your confidence.”
Cat could only sputter helplessly, and Lady Montrose, turning a deaf ear to such choking sounds as emerged from her flabbergasted goddaughter, launched on a detailed explanation of Cat's situation and the mortifying circumstances which had brought her to London. During this narrative, Cat could but look wretchedly at the carpet while Eveline, no less shocked, silently commiserated as best she could, and sent sympathetic glances in her direction.
So you see, gentlemen,” Lady Montrose concluded, “my Catherine has her work cut out for her, and I am enlisting the two of you to help.”
Lady Montrose, if you please!” Cat cried indignantly, at last.
Ignoring this outburst, her ladyship went on,
“Now, now, Catherine, you must surely see that the help of two confirmed bachelors will be invaluable to us, for they know far better than we the habits and characters of their fellows. Moreover, since they have steadfastly determined to maintain their single status, they have nothing to gain by either recommending or discouraging one alliance over another.
You see, ladies,” she went on, “I have worried myself no end these last two days: I have maintained some small position in society in recent few years, but not to the extent that I am able to advise you as to the character of any young man. I realize you must think me rash, Catherine, but I have a duty to not only promote, but protect your interests. Your situation makes you ready prey for the unscrupulous.”
Here there was an awful pause in the conversa
tion, filled only by the eloquent ticking of the mantel clock. Catherine and Eveline, who had already grown in their affection for the little lady, could hardly condemn her intentions; however, the mortification Cat felt (and Eveline felt for her) was overwhelmingly acute. Both Hazelforth and his companion, despite their gentlemanly polish, looked greatly ill at ease. Of the entire party, only Lady Montrose seemed in command of her emotions, and quite unperturbed by what she had done. The entrance of two footmen with the tea cart was, therefore, met with no small degree of relief, and the little party immediately made itself extremely busy with the passing of cups and plates.
The presence of the servants forced the conver
sation to confine itself to a stirring discussion of the weather, but the agitation of all parties, with the notable exception of Lady Montrose (who looked remarkably smug), was easily discernable on all their countenances. After a time, the gentlemen rose to take their leave.
It has been good to see you again, Miss Mansard,” Hazelforth told her with a bow.
And, as you and Sommers will be aiding us in our endeavor,” Lady Montrose reminded him, “I imagine we shall all be seeing a good deal of one another.”
Seeing the blush this brought to Cat's cheeks, Hazelforth drew her aside and whispered,
“Do not discompose yourself, Miss Mansard. Lady Mouse means well.”
Cat was unable to meet his eye, for this sudden disclosure of the galling details of her situation was almost more than she could bear, but she found the gentle pressure of his hand on hers strangely reassuring. Before their departure, the gentlemen sought and gained permission to call again on the following afternoon to take the ladies for a drive in the park.
No sooner had the door closed behind them, than Lady Montrose turned to Cat and Eveline and put her finger to her lips for a moment. Then she said, “Do not let's speak of this now, Catherine. I know you must feel that I have overstepped my bounds, and no doubt you are quite correct. However, I feel certain that time will see me vindicated. Now, if you will both excuse me, I have had an agitating morning and I shall have my nap.”
dy Montrose's quitting the room, Cat spent some moments in silent turmoil, alternately pacing the room, throwing herself down on the sofa, and shredding her favorite silk handkerchief. Eveline, who knew that Cat was too sensible to continue long in this occupation, picked up her embroidery and waited patiently for her friend to collect herself.
At last Cat gave a great sigh, shrugged, and poured them each another cup of tea.
“I can well believe now that Lady Montrose and my grandmother were ladies of a like turn of mind,” Cat began as she seated herself. “Such meddling, however well intentioned it might be, is of the very sort evidenced by my grandmother's will in the first place. I do seem to be plagued of late by having my intentions thwarted and my pride battered about. It is a most distressing pattern to see developing in one's life.”
'This is a sorry turn indeed,
Cat, but not, I think, ruinous. But what of Mr. Hazelforth? Are you unsure of his discretion?” Eveline asked as she threaded a new shade of silk onto her needle.
I have no fear. We have had our little differences in the past, but I feel certain he is my friend and, if Mr. Sommers is his, then I can surely have no cause for alarm on that account. Once again, I am much afraid, it is my wounded pride which causes me the most discomfort. Oh, I do wish he did not know of my predicament, though!”
Surely, Cat, Mr. Hazelforth can see that you have no choice in this matter,” Eveline reflected. “You did not seek this awkward circumstance.”
Nevertheless, it is humiliating to be found out. For some odd reason, I had so much rather he thought my change of heart stemmed from mere whim, that I suddenly tired of solitary country life, rather than having been forced into actions so peculiarly repugnant to me.”
Well, I must agree with you then, Cat,” Eveline told her candidly. “Your consternation does indeed seem to stem from hurt pride. Let us hope that that is all the harm this day brings.”
The events of the following days were among those that, had Cat been an ardent rather than an indifferent diarist, would well have served to have been memorialized. Since rising from an alto
gether unsatisfactory night, Cat had become deeply apprehensive of seeing Hazelforth again. Her acceptance of his invitation to drive out that afternoon had been granted more from a sense of general confusion than a true desire to be thrust again into his company after so perplexing a meeting. She did, however, cherish a faint hope of restoring herself to his good opinion, which she feared must surely have been jeopardized.
Cat spent the morning hours hopelessly tan
gling a piece of fancywork she had begun several days before. Such domestic undertakings had never held any fascination for her, and her characteristic lack of patience was responsible for her never having finished a single piece. Since coming to London, however, she had put her hand to one project or another in a more or less desultory manner as part of her attempt to project a conventional mien. Today's efforts were more disastrous than usual, for Cat's thoughts were quite taken up with what had passed the day before. From time to time, Eveline, who was quite dexterous with her needle, glanced at Cat's handiwork with a pained expression.
Lady Montrose did not make an appearance that morning, conveniently pleading some slight
indisposition which confined her to her rooms, and Cat was, therefore, saved the anxiety a meeting between them would very likely have occasioned. Eventually, it was time for Cat and Eveline to prepare for their outing. Cat dressed herself with more than usual care in a gown of green lawn caught up with moss velvet ribbons. That very morning Felicia had found herself the unexpected recipient of the muslin dress which her mistress had worn the previous day and on but one other memorable occasion. When she cast it off the day before, Cat had silently vowed to never wear the garment again, and wished Felicia better luck than she had had of it. Eveline, whose wardrobe was a good deal more modest than Cat's, of course, wore a simple untrimmed gown of pale blue.