Authors: Mary Chase Comstock
Thank you so much, Cat,” Cecily beamed at her when she had finally made her way back. “I feel much better now. Did you meet Mr. Hazelforth?”
I did indeed,” Cat fumed. “Annoying creature!”
Why Cat! Whatever is the matter?” Cecily asked, her eyes wide with concern.
Tut tut, girls,” Uncle Martin broke in hastily, “It's time to begin.”
It was all Cat could do in the seconds that re
mained to compose her countenance, if not her spirits, to avoid looking like a storm cloud as she preceded Cecily down the aisle. As the organist began to play a Handel largo, Cat prodded forward the three little girls in white dresses who were to scatter rose petals and lavender before them; then she gave Cecily's hand a quick squeeze and began down the aisle herself.
That pathway seemed suddenly miles long and indeed presented an exercise in self-control. At the foot of the altar stood John, with whom she was now quite out of charity, as well as his odi
ous cousin, who was smiling at her with insufferable good humor. Cat doubted that Mr. Hazelforth had ever met with any emotion or situation sufficiently unnerving to ruffle that smooth demeanor. It was galling that someone as provoking as he should look so collected. Rather than meet his cool blue gaze, Cat obstinately concentrated on the periphery of the scene and, by the time she reached the altar, felt not only ruffled, but rather cross-eyed as well. It was with no small amount of difficulty that she regained her equanimity and could turn to watch Uncle Martin hand Cecily to John as the ceremony began.
As Cat watched the bridal pair take each other's hands and repeat their vows, however, she felt her temper unbend a little. John and Cecily's love shone from their faces in a clear radiance. Cat's eyes grew uncharacteristically moist and she felt an aching catch in her throat. Would she ever know such happiness in the solitary life she had chosen for herself? Or, she wondered with a sniff of sheer self-pity, would the loneliness of the days to come overwhelm her and turn her into nothing but a disagreeable, lonely recluse?
Just then, she looked across the aisle to see Hazelforth smiling quizzically at her, as if daring her to call forth the wedding tears traditionally expected from her sex. Cat was determined to avoid them. She could not, would not, show any sign of female weakness to this loathsome man. Stubbornly, she pulled in her lower lip before it began to tremble. Then, her fingers sought out a thorn amid the roses she carried. Perhaps, she decided stoically, a little pain would allow her to master her unruly emotions. She bit her cheeks and stared straight ahead as the sharp pang stole focus. Impassively, she stood through the rest of the ceremony, almost oblivious to its content.
Before she knew it, Parson Tweedle had pro
nounced the couple man and wife, and Cat was suddenly forced to take Mr. Hazelforth's proffered arm and follow the happy couple out of the church. She stole a quick glance from beneath her heavy eyelashes, only to see him smiling at her with every appearance of good-natured innocence; only a slight crinkling at the corners of his very blue eyes, however, betrayed what she suspected to be a hint of mischief. She returned his smile coldly.
Looking more closely now,
Cat could see that he appeared to be a somewhat older man than John, perhaps even thirty, for there was the beginning of silver in his curling blond hair. He was actually quite good-looking, although rather old, she reminded herself. Nevertheless, she found herself wishing unaccountably that she had held her tongue in the sacristy and not ruined herself in his estimation so quickly. As they reached the church steps, he leaned over solicitously to protect her from stray grains of rice that some village children were throwing with reckless enthusiasm, and Cat felt a puzzling thrill race through her at his nearness. The pleasant scent of bay rum mixed with the fragrance of her own lavender in a heady swirl, as Hazelforth guided her through the crowds of well-wishers to a waiting phaeton that would follow the bride and groom back to Sparrowell. As he handed her in, she noticed to her chagrin that her wounded finger had left a spot of blood on the dove-gray of his sleeve. At her sharp intake of breath, his eyes followed hers to the offending stain.
Miss Mansard, are you hurt?”
I seem to have pricked my finger on my bouquet,” she stammered in confusion, the color rushing to her cheeks. “I'm so sorry.”
No matter, my dear,” he smiled at her, “but I should have thought that, as a rose with some thorns of your own, you'd be well aware of the hazards of seemingly innocent bouquets. I never trust roses myself.”
Nor should you,” Cat countered, bristling at him once again. He might at least have expressed some sympathy for her poor finger, which was now throbbing quite painfully. “Nor a Cat with its claws in velvet.”
Touché,” Hazelforth returned with a tip of his hat.
Cat, and indeed the entire household, had their hands full during the reception. On the surface, all went smoothly, for guests were greeted, introductions made and nuptials toasted with apparent ease. However, the day was punctuated by the minor crises of the kitchen and cellar which always arise just when one is sure that plans for the entertainment have been perfected. While a fluttering Aunt Leah made sure that John's family and other important guests were properly attended to, Uncle Martin saw to the butler's concerns, and Cat found herself summoned several times for short conferences with Cook.
Even though her little dogs were spending the day sequestered out of harm's way in her cham
ber, the pair had been accused of somehow making off with a tray of miniature cream pastries. In spite of any and all precautions, Brutus and Caesar were often able to make their presence felt in the kitchen and were frequently, therefore, suspected when any culinary misfortunes arose. Their honor, however, had been cleared after a brief search of the auxiliary pantry, but Cook predicted in dark tones that some evidence of their skullduggery would surface before the day was much older. This worthy had generaled a long-term battle against the two dogs, and only the inducement provided by generous bonuses (which coincided, of course, with the dogs' forays into her realm) convinced her to remain at Sparrowell. Cat breathed a sigh of relief as she looked up to her chamber window and saw their noses pressed against it. She realized with customary resignation that they once again trespassed, boldly climbing up on her favorite love seat in order to watch the festivities below.
The day had grown quite warm, and the inten
sity of the brilliant sunshine had forced the ladies to unfurl their parasols. Cat only wished that she might avail herself of her fan as well, but the necessity of shaking hands with all and sundry as they passed through the receiving line precluded this relief. The number of well-wishers and the length of their effusions had kept Cat from further conversation with Mr. Hazelforth who stood at her side throughout the proceedings. For this reprieve, she was glad. Her brief encounters with him thus far had left her feeling foolish, bad-tempered, and terribly, terribly young.
Cat had heretofore found herself the decided mistress of verbal sparring, but was forced to al
low that she had not met anyone who had proved a real challenge until now. She was not at all sure she liked the notion of an equal match. She reflected with some dismay that her experience was not broad and her estimation of her own prowess in such matters had undoubtedly been inflated. It was easy enough to come off the victor in contests with Cecily and others of her small circle, and indeed those foppish fellows in Bath, but this older man of the world was quite another matter. One withering glance from those blue eyes, however good-humoredly they now sparkled when she encountered his glance, would doubtless defeat her without his having to so much as rouse himself to a defense. Above all things, Cat could not bear to look ridiculous, and so long as she felt their score had been left even, she determined to have as little further contact with the gentleman as was possible.
Early on in the reception, however, Cat caught the disagreeable sight of Snagworth collaring two young boys in the rose garden and disappearing with them into the house in an apparent fit of rage. All she needed was another emergency! At her groan of irritation, Mr. Hazelforth cast his eye in that direction as well. Looking about to ascertain whether the disturbance had been more generally noted
, Cat quietly disengaged herself from the receiving line with as much grace as she could summon and made her way to the Hall with Hazelforth—uninvited, she fumed inwardly—following close upon her heels.
Just inside, they were met with the sight of a furious Snagworth shaking a pair of round-eyed, trembling youths whose torn and dirty party clothes revealed that they had indeed been up to some sort of rascalry. Snagworth's jowly face was trembling with dark fury as he snarled,
“If I ever again catch the two of you in that garden or any part of it, I'll cut your hands off and feed them to those villainous dogs …”
Snagworth!” Cat interrupted, appalled at such a speech. “Control yourself! Unhand those boys this instant!”
Ah, Miss Catherine, best let me deal with this pair. You'd not say that if you knew aught of their black knavery,” he retorted grimly without releasing his grip on their collars.
Do not vex me further!” Cat snapped, reaching forward and drawing the terrorized boys away from him. “This sort of function is tedious to the young, and it is only to be expected that they might seek out some mischief where there is no amusement. I am sure they were only playing.”
Playing, you say! Playing!” Snagworth continued to rage, his face growing even more livid. “They was not playing! They was digging! Digging and pulling at those rose vines with never a thought to nothing but their own devilish destructiveness!”
Watch your tongue, sir!” interrupted Hazelforth for the first time, in a tone that froze Snagworth where he stood. “James and Herbert, isn't it? I'm afraid you will have to excuse my young cousins. Miss Mansard. They appear to be depending on their new status in your family to overstep their bounds somewhat. Well, what is it boys? What were you about?” he demanded sternly.
James and Herbert hung their heads shame
facedly. Cat knelt down to their level and lifted their chins to meet her gaze. “No one will punish you, boys. I think I can guess what you were up to. Has Cecily been telling you stories about Sparrowell Hall?”
The boys nodded in unison. Then James, the elder of the two, spoke up with apparent brav
ery, now that the threat of punishment had been withdrawn. “She told us some wondrous stories, but we'd like to hear some more! Herbert and I were awake half the night to think we'd be coming here today and could look for treasure!”
You see,” Snagworth cried out, pointing his trembling finger at the dirty pair. “If they'd had a spade, who knows where it would've ended?”
Enough!” Cat interjected, not wishing Hazelforth to assert himself again on her behalf. She was quite capable of handling her own staff. “I am sorry to disappoint you, boys, but I am afraid that's all a legend. Oh, a pirate or two may have sought refuge in the harbor over the last four hundred years or so, but Cecily and I searched long ago for signs of them and found nothing. I'll tell you what, though. If you get yourselves cleaned up and have your tea, I'll show you something special and secret in the library. Would you like that?”
Very much, thank you.” The boys looked at each other. “You're sure about the treasure?”
Quite sure, unfortunately,” she told them. The boys took their leave, glancing daggers over their shoulders at Snagworth.
Cat straightened herself to her full height and looked sternly at the manager who was still fum
ing. “Snagworth, I suggest you confine your temper. We shall have no more outbursts. I have guests to attend to now, but I shall speak to you about this matter tomorrow morning.” With that she turned and withdrew to the garden once more, Hazelforth at her elbow. The receiving line had broken up by the time they returned, and Cat was now flustered to find herself strolling among the guests with the very man whose company she had determined to avoid. She had very nearly lost her temper with Snagworth and was gratified that, for once, she had maintained some control. She wondered, however, whether he would have backed down so quickly were it not for Hazelforth's presence.
What peculiar behavior all the way around,” he remarked when they at last sat down to their tea. “I'm afraid the boys' deportment today won't improve your opinion of our family, Miss Mansard. I recall your saying we were still under consideration.”
I sometimes speak before I think,” Cat said quietly as her color rose. “I hope you will forgive my sharp tongue and bad manners.”
Mine were no better, you will own, Miss Mansard. I fear that in society we often think too much before we speak—or laugh. One never knows for sure what's intended or what another person really thinks. I confess that your remark quite took me by surprise this morning, but I shouldn't mind being surprised more often. Forgive me my remark about the roses.”
There is nothing to forgive, for now we are even, I daresay. Shall we shake hands?” she asked smiling. He took her hand in his, and had she been more schooled in the ways of society, she would have known that he held it somewhat longer than was absolutely necessary. Suddenly agitated, she withdrew her hand and looked away as she attempted to regain her composure. Changing the subject, she went on, “I find your young cousins charming. I hope they're not too disappointed—all I have to show them is the usual priest's hole and the secret passage. After a day of controlled decorum, it's refreshing to see two dirty-faced boys in hot pursuit of a dream.”