Authors: Mary Chase Comstock
In spite of her headstrong ways, he admired Cat, and, yes, liked her a great deal. Damn it! he swore in
wardly. He had to face it: he had come to love her to distraction over the past few weeks. He and Sommers had joked often enough about the nonexistent woman of perfection, and now he found himself utterly charmed by this creature of a thousand faults. And he had, in spite of the warnings of his better judgment, fantasized about a marriage to her. A marriage like those one read of in books: a marriage that did not and could not exist. He knew his mixed feelings had caused his behavior toward her to be erratic and probably confusing, but, curse it all, so had hers.
When he at last turned again to face Lady Montrose, her expression was so significant, it was as if she had been reading his mind.
“I know well enough your feelings about marriage and I know as well how and why they were formed. Marriage is not for the faint of heart, Charles, but I had never before supposed that courage was lacking in you. Nevertheless, here you stand quaking before love and denying it. But ask yourself, in all honor, could you bear to see her united with someone who would crush her fine spirit? One who would marry her for reasons of estate and fortune? The question is, Charles,” she said in a stern voice, “can you bear to see her marry anyone else at all?”
Had Cat known the import of Hazelforth's closely closeted interview with Lady Montrose she would indeed have felt that lady's prior encroachments on her privacy but a trifling matter. When the two emerged from the morning room some three quarters of an hour later, however, their demeanors held no suggestion of what had passed between them. Hazelforth took his leave brusquely and Lady Montrose launched into a sudden discussion of the upcoming costume ball.
You have shown distressingly little interest in our plans, Catherine, and I am sure that poor little Cecily quite takes it to heart. She had planned, of course, for this little entertainment to divert you from your predicament.”
I am sorry, Lady Mouse. I know you both mean well. It's just that the prospect of yet another night's entertainment, another night of 'Fancy that' and 'Indeed, I'm charmed' shall surely be the death of me. I confess I had much rather spend a quiet evening with the characters of some new novel than encounter those who inhabit the mundane surroundings of the social realm.”
Why, Cat,” Lady Montrose remonstrated, “surely you value at least my judgment better than that. You have not yet seen the guest list, have you? Would it pique your interest to find that not a one of them is received at Almack's? Do not look so shocked, Cat. You know these people well, although, I confess they have probably never heard of you. Indeed, you hold in your hands a novel just lately published by one of them.”
Lady Mouse! No, really?” Cat exclaimed excitedly.
Yes, it is to be a literary and artistic evening. Out of concern for the propriety you must maintain, they shall, of course, arrive masked, but I hope the evening's conversation will be diverting. Now, as for your costume ...”
Oh dear,” Cat moaned contritely, “I have not given it a thought.”
Fortunately, I have. I have been through my trunks and found the very thing. Miss Spencer will fit it to your measurements in good time.”
Do tell me what it is,” Cat entreated, her enthusiasm growing now.
That shall be a secret until next Saturday night. Just trust me that it will suit your needs quite well.”
In the days that followed,
Cat found her excitement about the upcoming costume ball outweighed the annoyance of the social engagements she was forced to keep each night. She had long since abandoned the notion of looking seriously for a husband at these functions but was determined to simply fulfill the letter of her grandmother's will for this Season, in any event. Her feelings for Hazelforth continued to torment her, but at least the prospect of the costume ball afforded something pleasant upon which to focus her attention.
She now spent the greater part of each day with Cecily and Lady Montrose in preparation for the fes
tivities. Eveline's time was much engaged with Mr. Sommers' attentions, and it was now clear, even to Cat, that he would soon make an offer. Sadly, she reflected, their newfound companionship would be at an end. Whom she would ever find to replace such an ideal companion, Cat was at a loss to tell.
On the morning of the costume ball, Cat awakened early to the sounds of feverish preparation. She quickly dressed and went downstairs to find the various Birdies and Mateys, as she, too, had taken to calling them, busily engaged in draping the entire downstairs with swaths of deep blue velvet.
Beg pardon, miss,” one of the footmen apologized as a heavy bolt of fabric rolled past her toes, “you'll be safer in the conservatory if you don't want to be gathered up in the drapings here.”
Cat threaded her way through the bustling hall
ways to the conservatory where Lady Montrose and Eveline sat sipping their morning tea.
Good morning, Cat,” Lady Montrose greeted her. “Isn't this a glorious uproar? I am sorry, dear, but I have had to send Caesar and Brutus down to the kitchen. They were so downcast, poor little things — I know they'd dearly love to wreak some havoc here.”
Cat assured her godmother that the kitchen would be the very place the dogs themselves would have chosen had they be
en capable of voicing an opinion.
The ladies passed the morning as quietly as they could, reading, enjoying the gardens, and attempt
ing in general to stay out of the way as much as possible.
I have had this idea for some time,” Lady Montrose explained to them, “of creating an interior as deep and starry as the evening skies. The draperies will disguise the humdrum atmosphere of day-today life. And just a few candles will serve as stars. The very atmosphere for an evening of romance.”
As both ladies looked rather pointedly at her, she continued hastily,
“Oh, I meant romance in the sense of adventure—the literary sense, of course.”
Lady Montrose's butler entered. “I beg your pardon, ladies. The workmen are ready to begin on the conservatory at any time now. Would you prefer to delay them a little and have luncheon served here, or make some other arrangement?”
No,” Lady Montrose decided, “there is a great deal yet to be done. The candles, you see, Cat and Eveline, will be mounted near the ceiling to effect a starry night within the conservatory. There will be more down in the gardens and orangeries. Do you think the servants will mind if we join them downstairs today?”
I am sure they would be delighted, your ladyship,” he told her with a bow.
his turn of events, Cat could not help but feel she had been outdone in democracy, for she had rarely visited her own kitchen since childhood; however, she and Eveline followed Lady Montrose into the as yet unexplored lower regions of the house. On their arrival in the huge, airy kitchen, Cat noted that members of Lady Montrose's staff merely greeted them politely, set extra places at the table and went about their business. Her own staff surveyed her with marked surprise, which they soon suppressed, taking their cue from the natives of that domain. Caesar and Brutus, however, being true egalitarians at the heart, showed no awareness of any class differences whatever and begged morsels from whomever seemed likeliest to indulge them, regardless of their station.
Cat noted during the course of the meal that Betsy and Audrey sat at opposite ends of the long table and whenever possible darted venomous glances in the other's direction. Their animosity, however, had ap
parently lost its entertainment value for the rest of the staff, and she was gratified to hear Martin and Tom tell spirited accounts of their adventures in London thus far.
Martin had been several times to see the Tower of London, where an obliging Beefeater had told him horrifyingly gruesome tales of the various encoun
ters he had had with the headless ghost of Anne Boleyn. “Often, in the dark of night, Miss Cat.” he told her in hollow tones, “her spirit rises up and she walks the Bloody Tower, moaning and wailing, looking high and low for King Henry. You can see her plain as anything, they tell me. She holds her gory head up to talk to you and the lips…move!”
Not to be outdone by this thrilling tale, Tom told about his walks through London on his half day. Not only did he believe he'd caught a glimpse of Beau
Brummell, but the Prince Regent as well.
And he hasn't stopped fiddling about with his cravat yet,” Audrey snickered from her end of the table.
Now see here, Audrey,” Betsy cried. “You leave off teasing Tom. I think he looks quite nice.”
Well,” Audrey minced, “I suppose you have to be satisfied with whatever you can get.”
Really, girls,” Cat broke in. “We'll have none of this. You've been friends since we were all children. I want you to start acting like it.”
Sorry, Miss Cat,” Betsy mumbled.
Sorry, Miss Cat,” Audrey echoed.
Neither of them looked terribly chastened, but they managed to get through the rest of the meal with a semblance of civility. As they arose, Caesar and Brutus bounded up and made as if to join them.
“Oh, dear,” Cat sighed regretfully. “I'm sorry, fellows, but you'll have to stay down here today. Martin, can you watch them?”
Martin stood shuffling his feet, and Audrey broke in,
“He's too good a boy to mention it, Miss Cat, but our Martin has his work cut out today. Errands as would break a back, eh, Martin? I'll be glad to keep an eye on them for you, though, Miss Cat. I'll keep them well out of mischief.”
As Cat thanked Audrey with relief, she wondered if the girl's tendency toward idleness was not at last amending itself a little.
By late afternoon, all was in readiness for the fes
tivities, but for the lighting of the candles. Cat's costume had arrived the day before, but Lady Montrose had been quick to take possession of it so as not to spoil the surprise. The design of Eveline's costume had also been undertaken by the little lady and the two of them controlled their curiosity with more and more difficulty as the day wore on. Finally, Lady Montrose allowed Felicia, who was nearly delirious with anticipation, to take the costumes to their chambers with instructions that she should be summoned when the two were ready.
You go first, Eveline,” Cat urged, and with a little prodding the other complied, opening her box to find a snowy white chiton, edged in gold, accompanied by a wreath of gold laurel, sandals, and a spear.
Athena!” Cat exclaimed. “The goddess of wisdom—how appropriate!”
Eveline blushed and added,
“And how comfortable for a sultry evening such as this! Lady Montrose shall have my double thanks.”
Cat turned now to her own package. Inside, she found a gown made up of layers of filmy black silk whose folds sparkled as the light hit them.
“What in heaven's name is this meant to be?” Cat wondered aloud.
Eveline and Felicia were at a loss, as well.
“Let's see if we can tell from the accessories,” Eveline suggested. From the bottom of the box, Cat pulled a pair of black velvet slippers and a parcel wrapped in tissue. Undoing it she found a curiously wrought headdress set with tiny diamonds. “Try it on, Cat!”
Cat set it on her head and the light dawned in Feli
cia's eyes. “How wonderful, Miss Cat!” she cried.
Did you ever see such a thing, Miss Bartlett? Where on earth did she find such a creation?”
Cat turned to examine her image in the glass and met herself in a most surprising reflecting.
“A cat!” she exclaimed. “Of course!” The headdress did indeed rise up into two peaked ears, which sparkled as she turned.
And what is more, Miss Cat,” Felicia went on as she examined her mistress, “I believe you're meant to wear your hair loose with it. What a relief!”
Eveline retired to her chamber with Felicia, who had the pleasure of arranging more docile locks than those to which she was generally accustomed while
Cat set about trying on her costume. The voluminous fabric enveloped her in a gauzy cloud as she dropped the gown over her head. Contrary to current evening fashion, the sleeves fit tight to the wrist while the skirt cascaded from the bodice and fell rippling to the ground, shimmering at the slightest movement. Cat brushed her curls back and placed the headdress securely among them, then turned to look in the mirror. Cat was so entranced by what she saw there that she did not at first notice the degree to which the cut of her bodice crossed the line of decorum. As she attempted to adjust it, however, she found that matters were only made worse.
Do stop tugging, Catherine,” came Lady Montrose's voice as she entered the chamber. “The fabric is quite old. Now let me look at you. Aren't you a vision? You must forgive me for my lack of restraint, but I could not control my curiosity.”