Authors: Mary Chase Comstock
Having made several lists of things which must be attended to in the weeks before her remove to Lon
don, Cat now turned her efforts to her letter to Lady Montrose. Cat had dutifully written to her each year, but had received responses somewhat erratically, particularly in later years. There had been an occasional gift from her godmother from time to time, but these were apparently sent according to whim, for their arrival never coincided with either Christmas or Cat's birthday. Also, these gifts ranged from the sublime to the decidedly ridiculous. Once there had been a pair of ruby-encrusted combs; another time an elephant foot umbrella stand; still another time a caricaturist's version of Lady Montrose and Cat's grandmother as young ladies.
There had never been any question that Lady Montrose was very high
indeed; it was, however, unclear whether her sponsorship would confer on Cat the sort of conventional aura that she now required. There was no one else, however, so Cat set about composing her letter. This task took some time, for the wording was difficult; it was necessary, Cat felt, to be clear as to the particulars of her visit, but subtle as to its importance and purpose—at least until Cat was able to meet the lady in person and make an assessment of her circumspection. There was also the problem of Lady Montrose's age and very likely diminished memory. Would she remember immediately who Cat was and why she felt she could draw on her sponsorship?
When Cat had finished that task with some de
gree of satisfaction, she rang for a servant to take her letters to the post and to summon Snagworth to her. She faced this last problem with some consternation. She did not feel entirely secure leaving Sparrowell Hall under Snagworth's sole administration for such a long duration, but there certainly was not enough time to engage a new manager and familiarize him with the property in the short time that remained.
Snagworth's behavior had certainly posed a puz
zle lately. Cat had mentioned her concerns briefly to Uncle Martin, but he had seemed untroubled by them. She could not help feeling a little foolish, after all, for what had the man actually done? Chastised some overly bold children and behaved oddly in the walled garden. There was some justification for his conduct with the boys, although the ferocity of his admonitions certainly went too far. Perhaps, Cat told herself, the real reason for her discomfiture with him was wounded pride on her part. He really did not treat her as if she were the mistress of the Hall. Perhaps he was right, she reflected dismally. Whether she would actually hold that title was in some doubt now.
Cat did, however, attempt to look as daunting as possible when Snagworth was announced. She fixed him with a dark stare as he came smiling and bow
ing into the room, rubbing his hands together in an unpleasantly servile manner.
Ah, Miss Catherine, so you're off to the pleasures of London so soon. Well, well, well. We can't hardly blame you for looking for a little excitement, a little diversion. You just go along to your fancy balls and operys and stay as long as ever you please, my dear, and don't worry your head a bit about auld Sparrowell Hall. Auld Snagworth's here, yes, indeed.”
Snagworth's manner and apparent anxiousness to see her gone did nothing to relieve Cat's appre
hension. She took a deep breath.
Snagworth,” she began, “I do not know how long I shall be away, but I have requested that Mr. Bagsmith look in on the estate from time to time during my absence. I myself may return at any time, so I would like the Hall to be held in readiness. I shall leave a number of the staff here for that purpose.”
Cat hoped that an understanding of Mr. Bag-smith's proposed visits and the veiled threat of her own imminent return would be enough to convince Snagworth her absence would not constitute an op
portunity for mischief. She wasn't quite sure what she suspected him of, but she always trusted her intuition. Snagworth, however, seemed unbothered by this little speech.
Yes, Miss Catherine, yes indeed. You'll find everything right as rain, just as your uncle would have it. No need to worry on that account …”
Snagworth,” she interrupted sharply, “I am the mistress of the estate. My uncle is gone now. The estate will be run as
would have it, and I will thank you very much to remember it.”
Is that right, Miss Catherine?” Snagworth smiled at her innocently. “And just what is it you would propose to change?”
Your manner to begin with!” she cried indignantly. Then mastering herself once more, she went on, “I am forced to be gone sooner than I had planned, but we shall discuss this matter in detail another day. If any problems arise, you will inform Mr. Bagsmith immediately. Also, I am going to ask that you attempt to curb your temper. I do not want a repeat of the scene I witnessed at Miss Cecily's wedding reception, regardless of what offense you perceive is being committed.”
Snagworth bowed his head and sighed in a much afflicted tone.
“Well, Miss Catherine, I was only doing my duty to you, protecting your property like, but there's some efforts that's just not to be appreciated. No, indeed. If they come after your walls with sledgehammers, why next time, I'll invite them to sit down to tea. I don't like to give offense, not at all.”
There's no need to be facetious, Snagworth. I think we understand each other quite well. That will be all,” Cat dismissed him in an even tone. As Snagworth backed out of the room, bowing and smiling all the while, Cat felt a chill go up her spine. She had the feeling that something was very wrong, but what? Once again, Snagworth had done nothing she could pinpoint to justify her anxiety. She hoped with all her heart that she was mistaken.
Between Eveline's surprisingly entertaining de
portment lessons and taking care of details for their stay in London, the days that followed passed quickly. Each morning began with Cat and Eveline's practicing a different dialogue: table talk with a tedious dinner partner; polite chitchat with a nosy matron who could not be offended; managing importunate rakes on and off the dance floor. These lessons soon became Cat's favorite portion of the day, for, as often as not, the two women found themselves overcome by the hilarity of their fictional situations. Cat found herself greatly diverted in Eveline's company, particularly when she contrasted the latter's current lightheartedness with the solemnity with which she had conducted the schoolroom only a few years earlier.
What a time you must have had to maintain your composure with Cecily and me,” Cat exclaimed one day during their exercises.
Indeed,” Eveline replied with a laugh, “it would have done my classroom's discipline little good had the two of you realized how often I was forced to retreat to my chamber convulsed in laughter. How liberating it is to at last acknowledge that life is a very amusing endeavor!”
You mean you were not departing in a fury?” Cat exclaimed.
Quite the opposite, I assure you,” Eveline laughed, her brown eyes now sparkling merrily. “Do you recall the time you dipped the kitten's paws in the inkwell so you could trace its movements?”
Well, if it had not chosen to walk across my Latin conjugations I doubt you would ever have known!”
Very likely not, except for the fact that it also made its way up the skirt of Cecily's new lawn dress without her knowing. She was always so particular about her appearance that the sight was doubly amusing”
It's a little embarrassing to own that I was up to such tricks at the age of sixteen!”
I shouldn't be a bit surprised if you were to try it again tomorrow,” Eveline laughed. “Oh dear! Do you think we need add some polite explanations to your repertoire to account for such doings?”
Very likely,” Cat admitted, only a little facetiously.
For the most part, though, their lessons were more than merely diverting, and, as a result. Cat was ulti
mately in possession of a variety of courteous evasions and the mistress of polite prattle. These verbal formulas would do very nicely, she felt sure, to guarantee her entrance to, and continued acceptance in, society.
Cat was determined, of course, to act and speak with greater honesty to those men whose romantic interest she engaged. It would be fair to no one to present an entirely false front, nor could she con
sider marriage to anyone who did not know her true personality. She felt certain that there must be someone who, beneath the false front enforced by society, shared her tastes and views. If she had to continue her visits to London for the next two or three years to find him, then so be it. It was not a terribly palatable prospect, she sniffed to herself, but there seemed to be little way around it.
Cat was too stubborn to admit even to herself that the excitement she felt rising daily was the result of anticipation rather than a case of nerves. Neither would Cat have been pleased were it generally known how often her thoughts were occupied by one Charles Hazelforth. She had imagined that as time went on her encounters with him would fade from her memory. On the contrary, each seemed to be etched indelibly: every word of every conversation, every intonation. Indeed, Cat had been caught off-guard on a number of occasions when Eveline or Fe
licia remarked on the deep blushes that rose to her cheeks when she suddenly found herself reliving the more embarrassing moments.
Cat was content to let observers imagine that it was mere consternation at her enforced participa
tion in the London Season which occasioned her agitation; however, it was with a great deal of perplexity that she more and more often caught herself envisioning meetings with Hazelforth in and about London.
All too often, the image of him walking toward her, his face suffusing with a smile as it so often had during the days after Cecily's wedding rose up before her. She had found herself looking forward to those accidental meetings during her morning walk. She wondered, too, if he had found them as gratifying as she, and if indeed their encounters had been as coin
cidental as they seemed. But this was foolishness, she told herself sternly. What on earth, she wondered, was responsible for such idle fantasies? It was altogether likely that she would never even see that gentleman in town.
Mr. Bagsmith's search for a suitable house was short-lived, for when Lady Montrose's reply arrived, it was soon clear that she would hear of no such thing. Cat and Eveline were to stay at Montrose House, and there would be no further discussion. Lady Montrose had kept a reduced household in re
cent years, but since she expected to do some entertaining during Cat's stay, she would welcome any of Cat's staff she wished to bring. This solved one of Cat's problems more easily than she had imagined, and she hoped sincerely that she and her godmother would suit. She was much comforted by the fact that Lady Montrose had been her grandmother's bosom friend in their girlhood, and she found herself looking forward to this aspect of her adventure with a good deal of anticipation.
Cat packed very little beyond what she would need for her journey, for, upon their arrival, an errand of primary importance would be a visit to the modiste. What passed for fashion in the provincial environs of Sparrowell Hall would never do for London society, which seemed to change its criteria for hats, sleeves, and waistlines with the phases of the moon. Something would have to be done with her compan
ion's wardrobe as well, for surely Lady Montrose's advanced age would necessitate the role of chaperon falling to Eveline more often than not. That sensible creature, too, it seemed would be forced to be a slave to the whims of style.
As the weeks went by, Brutus and Caesar fell vic
tim to an energetic nervous excitement as they watched their mistress's preparations go forth. They ran up and down stairs, were accidentally shut up in cupboards, barked for sheer pleasure, and generally made themselves even more annoying than ever. Cook, though, was in a good mood for once, for she was off to visit her sisters in Cornwall for the duration of Cat's absence. Since Lady Montrose employed the services of a French chef, it was generally concluded that the volatile territory of the kitchen could suffer but one ruler.
Cat's butler, Chumley, would stay on at the Hall. Although he was somewhat young for that position, his family had been part of Sparrowell's staff for more than a hundred years, and his own father had been butler before him. His presence would allay Cat's fears about Snagworth to some degree, and she was grateful that she could call upon him to do her this service, particularly since the prospect of spend
ing time in London was in all probability quite as attractive to him as any other member of the staff. She promised herself that she would make it up to him in some way.
* * * *
The day of their departure for the city dawned as fair and clear as any could hope for. The journey to London would take most of two days, barring accident, even in this fine weather. So it was that the sky was still changing from the pinkish lavender of sunrise to the unclouded azure of the day to come as the two heavily laden carriages pulled away from Sparrowell Hall.
The first party consisted of Cat, Eveline, and Feli
cia, packed in among an enormous number of pillows to cushion them against the bone-wrenching ride. Caesar and Brutus jumped blithely from lap to lap, and pressed their wet noses on the windows, clearly beside themselves with joy at the prospect of this rare outing. The second carriage held four servants: two parlor maids, a footman, and a boy of all work, in somewhat less comfort, but equal excitement.