Authors: Mary Chase Comstock
And your Snagworth in hot pursuit of them? You certainly put him to rout, though. I confess I'd no idea a lady could be so formidable!”
I hope you are not laughing at me, Mr. Hazelforth. I had every reason to take the man to task!” Cat was mystified. She had not, after all, actually hit the wretched man with her parasol as she had envisioned doing when first she had beheld his bullying.
Of course, you were entirely justified, Miss Mansard. I was not laughing at you, rather with you, I hope. But, really, have you ever seen yourself glower? The most alarming thing I ever saw! Why, you were even holding your parasol like a blunderbuss! I shall be surprised if the poor chap doesn't hand in his notice before the day's out.”
I will not have this,
Mr. Hazelforth!” Cat exclaimed, frowning all the more. Although she loved to tease and torment others, one of her many faults was the inability to bear any baiting herself.
There it is now!” Hazelforth went on recklessly, his blue eyes sparkling with an amusement, which Cat did not at all share. “That same glower. If I only had a glass for you to look into, Miss Mansard, you would be quite impressed with yourself! Most intimidating!”
Why, Cat, whatever is the matter!” In some consternation Cecily had run up to join them. By now she had changed into her traveling costume and Cat was amazed to realize how much time must have passed.
I am afraid your cousin has had her fill of my company for one day, my dear Cecily,” Hazelforth told her with a laugh, as he bowed and retreated into the assembled crowd.
How on earth did John ever come to be related to such an offensive man?” Cat fumed as she tucked her parasol discreetly under her arm. “I thought he had better taste!”
Oh dear, Cat!” her cousin pouted. “I had such high hopes you two would take to each other. You have so much in common!”
In common, Cecily! That man and I? What on earth can you be thinking of? Let me warn you, if you have had any of your marriage schemes in mind for us, you've quite outdone yourself in foolishness.”
Oh no, Cat! Marriage is quite the furthest thing I had in mind,” Cecily said as she took her cousin's arm. “Why, Charles is every bit as committed to remaining single as you, for all he's just as good a catch. Society has quite despaired of him for that. Oh no! I would never dream of considering him for you.”
Well,” Cat humphed, somewhat deflated. “Be sure that you don't.”
Now, John and I must be taking our leave in a few moments, for you know we plan to sail for the Continent tomorrow. I want to be sure that you come round front to watch me toss my bouquet.” With that, Cecily ran to take John by the hand, looking well pleased with herself.
Well, that was fine, Cat thought to herself. Let Mr. Hazelforth make himself exclusive. That was certainly just fine with her. Quite refreshing, in fact. She could not for the life of her, how
ever, determine why she should suddenly feel so dismal.
It seemed no time at all before there was a flurry in the crowd and the unmarried girls of the assembly hurried excitedly to the front of the Hall where John was already handing Cecily into his open coach. Just as Cat emerged from the front doorway, she heard Cecily call out her name. A half second later, she stood holding the bouquet
, which she had instinctively caught before she realized what it was. As the carriage pulled away, Cat found herself blushing self-consciously before the congratulations of the gathered well-wishers.
Best wishes indeed, Miss Mansard,” came the ironic voice of Mr. Hazelforth who had suddenly materialized at her side. “When may we wish you joy?”
Save your breath,
Mr. Hazelforth,” Cat snapped, as she tossed the hapless bouquet high into the air with all the pent-up energy born of an extremely trying day. It landed, much to the crowd's delight, on a spire atop Sparrowell Hall.
The days that followed the wedding were full with the business of setting things to order about the estate after the festivities, as well as helping Uncle Martin and Aunt Leah prepare for their re
move to the Lake District. While time consuming and more than a little tedious, the activity kept Cat from missing Cecily too badly, and she had both the arrival of Miss Bartlett and her birthday to look forward to.
Cat's first order of business on the morning after the wedding was to dispatch one of the grounds keepers to remove Cecily's ill-fated bou
quet from its perch atop the roof. She was soon forced to abandon this endeavor, however, when she was informed that a pair of larks had already set about establishing a nest in it. In spite of the blush it brought to her cheeks whenever she caught sight of it, Cat was softhearted with animals of all descriptions and she determined, therefore, that it must remain in its present location until the birds forsook it in the fall.
John's family had for the most part quitted the countryside for London immediately after the wedding, as the impending onset of the social sea
son made it impractical to return to their homes before its commencement. Once or twice as Cat and the terriers set off on their morning walk, however, she had accidentally come upon Charles Hazelforth. He had delayed his departure for some days, using the opportunity, he said, to conclude some unfinished business in the neighborhood. Their encounters had been brief, but generally pleasant; moreover, since he displayed a rare fondness for her pets, spoiling and cosseting them every bit as much as she did, Cat found her exasperation in his presence lessening somewhat. During one of these encounters, Hazelforth had asked if he would be seeing her in London in the coming months.
Cecily would have me there constantly,” Cat replied, “for she fears my tendency to be reclusive and shun society. It is true, though, that I find more contentment in my library than in the drawing room.”
And yet you needn't confine yourself to those sorry quarters,” Hazelforth reminded her. “I am surprised you do not go to the city if only to seek out the book shops. They are unsurpassed.”
The library at Sparrowell is adequate to my needs at present, but tell me—is that how you spend the entire Season? In bookstores?” Cat asked archly.
Well, I must own that I do find myself at the occasional social gathering,” he admitted, “but they needn't always be tedious or artificial, you know. I am afraid you have just had bad luck in the past. I go to London chiefly for the company, if you would know the truth. I have some particular friends there with whom I am sure even you would be delighted. And, as for the rest, they quite often make an interesting study. So you see, Miss Mansard, I share your feelings to some degree, but surely you cannot persuade me to believe you find amusement only in your books. Have you had no joy in the companionship of others?”
Why yes, of course, but you see they must be most particularly in tune with my humors and sensibilities or we are almost at once at odds with one another. Indeed, I do find the country somewhat solitary, but that part of society which I observed lately in Bath would drive me to a
Here, Mr. Hazelforth quite gallantly bit back his amusement at her ignorance of this word's double entendre. He was altogether charmed, he realized, by her
naiveté, particularly as it was clear she judged herself to be quite sophisticated. In fact, it was the first time in many years he had allowed a woman to charm him. It was also, he reminded himself, the first time he had met a woman whose mind was not inexorably bent on marriage. Yes, it was a refreshing change to feel as if he might be allowed to like a woman, develop a friendship with her, without fearing for his bachelorhood.
I know I express myself too freely,” Cat continued, “but tell me, Mr. Hazelforth, is there nowhere one can exercise one's wit and enjoy that of others without drawing censure? When I tried to talk of books in Bath, those fops looked me up and down with their infernal quizzing glasses as if I'd sprouted a second head!”
Yes,” Hazelforth agreed, laughing, “talk of books might well be thought outlandish by some of those poor louts. I wish I might have been there to witness their consternation. But, truly, was it merely talk of books that left them so dismayed?”
Cat looked down.
“I fear I may have remarked upon their dress as well. But I am sure you would not blame me, Mr. Hazelforth, had you seen some of them decked out in such brocades and silks and intricate cravats, and such colors as defy good judgment! Peach and primrose and puce all in the same costume! I am quite sure I do not suffer from want of their company. No, if any wish my company, they must repair to the country, for I've no intention of forsaking it for some time!”
If truth be told,
Cat had done more to become the topic of shocked conversation while in Bath than even she imagined. She not only disdained convention, but sometimes was altogether unaware that she had flouted it. She had appalled more than one family by inquiring closely into their business. Did they provide schools for the children of their estate workers? What did they do to ensure that the workhouses under their patronage were not guilty of the excesses of which she had heard? And what was to be done about the steadily growing number of orphans and homeless throughout the country?
Her aunt and uncle had remarked more than once in private that they felt Cecily's match was nothing short of miraculous, considering how of
ten she was forced to go about in Catherine's company. They had grown to love their niece, in spite of the difficulties they had encountered in their years with her, but they were relieved that their responsibility toward her would soon be less. They would leave her to Miss Bartlett's care with all their good wishes, as well as a sigh of relief.
Miss Eveline Bartlett arrived on the evening be
fore Cat's birthday and it was with delight she greeted this opportunity to once again be a part of Sparrowell Hall. It had been two years since Miss Bartlett had been at Sparrowell, being the last in a series of governesses who had one by one thrown up their hands in dismay at Cat's obstinate adherence to her unconventional ways.
During Miss Bartlett's brief tenure, she had seen both the heights and the depths of her career. In deportment, Cecily was all that she could ask for, while Cat drove her to distraction, questioning, deriding, and, finally, shrugging off the rules of propriety. Academically, the opposite was true, but for similar reasons. Where Cecily had been c
ontent to memorize submissively, Cat had constantly engaged Miss Bartlett in heated debates and the two of them often resorted to Sparrowell's well-stocked library to settle their disputes.
Miss Bartlett had been a good deal more successful in her de
alings with Cat than any of her predecessors, and when she was called away to care for an ailing relation, she left her employ with a good deal of regret. Now that her role would be less repressive, she thought with good humor, she felt sure that she would enjoy her life. At first, the idea of chaperoning Catherine was daunting indeed, but knowledge of the girl's inclination for the quiet country life had stilled her fears.
The carriage conveying Miss Bartlett arrived just as the skies were beginning to darken, and Cat greeted her arrival with clear anticipation and enthusiasm. Although the weather had turned an ominous gray and the storm that had threatened all d
ay had finally unleashed itself, Cat herself had run out with an umbrella and helped her new companion descend the carriage.
Let us get you upstairs at once,” Cat cried, out of breath, as the pair twirled in the front door.
Just a moment, let me see you, Catherine. Heavens, you've grown up, my dear!” Then she smiled with amusement in her warm brown eyes. “But are you really the young lady you seem?”
Often, Miss Bartlett, but I fear not always,” Cat admitted. “I am far better behaved than in the past, though, you may rest assured.”
Cat ordered tea ser
ved in Miss Bartlett's chamber, while Felicia unpacked for her. Soon they were cozily ensconced by a roaring fire, letting the rain fall if it would.
What a grand time we shall have, Miss Bartlett, for there are a dozen books of which I would talk with you! I am sorry you missed Cecily's wedding, but I must own it is good to have you all to myself.”
Yes, it is regrettable that I couldn't get away sooner, but I am sure I shall see Cecily when she returns from her wedding trip. There is one thing, Catherine,” Miss Bartlett continued hesitantly. “Our relationship has changed somewhat now. Moreover, tomorrow you will be twenty. You may not know that I am but six and twenty. I know it is undoubtedly deepest vanity, but I feel as old as a church when you call me 'Miss Bartlett.' Do you think I could ask you to call me Eveline?”
Reaching to take her friend's hand, she replied with a smile,
“If you will call me Cat!”
Cat arose early on the morning of her twentieth birthday and looked out over the hills, silver with dew. In the far distance, she could make out the soft haze rising from the gray sea. Storm clouds still hovered on the horizon, but it appeared that the day had a good chance of proving fair. On this auspicious day, which marked the beginning of her adult responsibilities, she needed a good omen. Cat drew in a deep breath, shut her eyes, and firmly resolved that this year she would try to live up to the responsibilities of her new position, conduct herself with decorum and make Eveline happy that she had decided to return to Sparrowell. And, she thought wryly to herself, if I remain secluded in the country, I might very well adhere to my resolutions through the week.