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Authors: Joan Smith

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Perdita

BOOK: Perdita
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PERDITA

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

 

No
woman wants to be plain, but I am fast coming to the conclusion that to be
too
beautiful is almost worse. I am not plagued by any excess of beauty myself. It is that of my charge, Perdita, that caused us all the trouble. She is an exquisite little thing, like a blond, dimpled angel from an old painting breathed into life. She is dainty of stature, though her body is very well filled out for a lady of seventeen years.

Besides being young and beautiful, she is possessed of an embarrassingly large fortune. One cannot outline her situation without realizing she is a tailor-made heroine. She has a stepmother wicked enough to be pushing an unwanted match on her, a father too obedient to his new wife to say no, and before we had gone ten miles on our journey, she also had a rake hounding her. I ought really to be evil as well to complete her case, but I hope I am not. There is just one other thing lacking: a heroine ought, by rights, to be a biddable creature. Perdita, as you will see, is nothing of the sort.

My father was an army man. He adhered to the military principle of getting over heavy ground as light as you can. Well then, here is the background to the tale. I jawed Perdita’s father, Sir Wilfrid Brodie, into letting me take Perdita for a visit to her aunt when she dug in her heels and called her suitor an old goat, to his face. Sir Wilfrid, being no fool, felt a short absence was the best way to bring Mr. Croft back to his former state of infatuation. Lady Brodie agreed, because all she really wanted was such youthful competition as Perdita out of her house.

Naturally it was her mother’s sister, Mrs. Cosgrove, I had in mind, but in a fit of paternal propriety, Sir Wilfrid set on his own sister, Aunt Agatha, instead. This last-named dame is a dragon who has her lair in Bath, where she breathes fire and brimstone over those ancients who play Pope Joan for pennies, wear wanton gowns that show their wrists, and on the weekend may stay up till ten o’clock. If I were Perdita, I would sooner have married Mr. Croft. Really he would have made an appropriate match for her, a stern old Puritan with a heart black as pitch. She would have had trials and tribulations fitting her station for the next twenty years of her life. I cannot think he would have lasted longer.

She elected for Aunt Agatha, however. Letters were dispatched; we were to take the family carriage from Swindon to Chippenham, where Agatha’s chaise was to pick us up, thus obviating the need for either branch of the family to get into the expensive business of hiring teams. All went fine as far as Chippenham, though it was actually a thoroughly miserable trip. Perdita’s little chin fairly dragged the floor,
as she repined in her dramatical way about the cruelty of Fate, and her having been specially selected by God to bear these hardships.

"It seems a spiteful sort of decision to come from the Almighty. It sounds more like the work of Lady Brodie to me,” I answered gruffly. It does not do to show Perdita too much sympathy when she is in this mood.

“If she is too harsh, I shall run away,” she went on, glancing out the window.

I felt the rumblings of apprehension in my bowels, for this threat had been aired more than once since her father’s marriage, and she was willful and capricious enough to carry out the threat. "That would not accomplish much, would it?” I asked, with an air of indifference. “Where would you run to?” Her answer was of more than academic interest. In the not unlikely case that I would soon be chasing after her, it would be well to have an inkling of her destination.

“Why, to London, of course! Perdita Robinson played
A Winter’s Tale
there, at the Theater Royal. It is where she landed the Prince of Wales.”

“It is a great pity your mama ever named you after Mrs. Robinson,” I said wearily. “I cannot imagine what she was about, giving you the nickname of an actress, and one of such shady character as well.”

“They say I look like her, Papa’s old friends, who saw her when she was playing Perdita on the stage.”

“It is not a compliment, my dear. She was extremely plain, to judge by the pictures I have seen.”

“Everyone said she was beautiful,” Perdita replied, untying her bonnet and shaking out her golden curls. Gold light shone from them, bright as a new guinea. “If you say she was not as beautiful as I am, then . . ."

“I did not say so!”

“You meant it, so perhaps I could do even better than a Prince.”

“With luck you might become mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte, or King Louis of France.”

“Or Lord Byron,” she said, in her soft, drawling way. Lord Byron was this Season’s crush. The year before it had been the Duke of Wellington, and the year before that she was still more interested in her puppies and kittens. “Would it not be wonderful to be loved by a
poet,
Moira?”

“Marvelous, especially by one who has made himself the scandal of the country by carrying on with all the married ladies.”

“Oh but to tame a rake—such a challenge! I would love to do it.”

“Would he stay tamed? There is the question.”

“You have no romance in your soul, Cousin. What a very dreary life you invent for yourself.”

“Yes, I have contrived a remarkably dreary existence, minding
you,
but I had a little help from your nemesis, Fate. What would you expect me to contrive, with no money and no home?”

“You should have gone on the stage,” she answered at once, nonplussed at my lack of wits.

“My mama forgot to christen me Perdita. That was her mistake.”

“Poor Moira,” she said, patting my fingers. “Never fear
I
shall desert you. When I am married, or a famous actress, you shall be my faithful companion. When my lovers abuse me, when my career falters, when I am old and not quite so beautiful and another incognita steals my place, you will be there to look after me. I shall have consumption, and lie on a couch.”

“What a charming future to look forward to. Ah, here we are at Chippenham. I wonder which inn we were to stop at. The coachman will know. The George, I expect,” I said, casting an eye over the two establishments, kitty-corner from each other. The George, as we drove closer, was seen to be the more respectable of the two. The other, the Red Lion, had a seedy, run-down appearance. There were some undesirable types littering up the street in front of it too, men in poorly-cut, brightly-colored jackets, and females in gowns that should not have been on the street in daylight.

Perdita was much interested in these inferior persons. Her practiced eye picked out what had escaped mine. “They are
actors!”
she said, standing up inside the carriage in her excitement, and bumping her head against the ceiling.

I had taken the females at least for worse, but there was such a quantity of them that they could hardly
all
be lightskirts, assembled in the one place at one time. I got a firm grip on her elbow to lead her to the safety of the George, as the groom took our carriage around to the stableyard.

I was apprehensive to hear within that Aunt Agatha had not yet arrived. But upon consideration, I decided that she must be on her way, nearly here. We had left early, and set a brisk pace as Sir Wilfrid kept prime cattle. She would expect to find us in a private parlor. Anything less would set her hackles up before ever we left Chippenham. It seemed a dreadful waste of money, but Sir Wilfrid had given me twenty-five pounds, twenty-three of which were rolled up in the toe of a stocking in my trunk. I parted with some cash carried in my reticule for emergencies such as this, and hired the smallest parlor, leaving word at the desk where we were to be found when Miss Brodie, Aunt Agatha, arrived.

Before two seconds were up, Perdita had got the window raised and was sticking her head out to ogle the actors, who were having their accouterments of the stage loaded into some carriages to be on their way. The first carriage looked like a gypsy’s rig. It was painted bright blue, and bore the name of the troupe in gilt letters on the side. Tuck’s Traveling Theater it was called, obviously an inferior itinerant outfit that toured the counties, eking out a living by presenting bad comedy and worse singing and dancing, to amuse the farmers and villagers.

I stood behind Perdita’s shoulder, where I could see without being seen, for while I disparage her interest, I am not
totally
without imagination myself. After a quarter of a century on the planet, however, I had traced the line between phantasy and reality, and stayed on the latter side. Still, I can understand what in that life would attract a young lady who has led a dull, sheltered existence, unappreciated by the world at large. It would be exciting, interesting, fun, of a low sort.

With Peridita’s bent for admiration, the stage had always held a lure out to her. While we both looked, with myself keeping a sharp eye for the approach of the Dragon’s chaise, a monkey in a pink skirt with a bow pinned to its head joined the players. It just seemed to pop up from nowhere, but was soon being lifted on to the shoulder of a young man in the group.

He was the best looking fellow there, a fact which would surely not have escaped Perdita’s eye, as it  had struck even mine. "He must be the leading man,” she said, speaking over her shoulder to me, her voice soft with interest. "Isn't he handsome, Moira?”

There was a certain self-assured swagger to his movements that attracted the attention of the females. “Not bad, in a vulgar, tawdry sort of a way,” I admitted, with more attention to his wadded shoulders and nipped waist, his carefully curled locks and the monkey than to his face.

“Oh I think he’s ever so handsome,” she breathed, in her ecstatic voice. She had a whole range of voices, modulated to suit every occasion. She practiced them before her mirror, along with the manual and body gestures required for the stage. She had been at this for years. It gave me quite a turn three years ago when first I went to be her governess, to see her standing in a corner, wide-eyed, shouting at the top of her lungs. I thought there would be a mouse at least under the bed, but what was there was a copy of
Macbeth
on top of it, open at the sleepwalking scene. Later I learned the simulation of boisterous laughing, soft cooing sounds, tears and tantrums was all a part of her self-taught dramatic academy’s curriculum. The ecstatic voice presently in use was generally reserved for falling in love.

I could not say whether it was herself, the leading man, or the monkey who instituted the next step in our morning. I think the man saw the girl, saw the interest on her pretty face, and put the monkey up to it. In any case, before you could say "Out, out damned spot,” the monkey was hopping across the street to offer Perdita an orange, which she accepted with a smile to the monkey, and a long, calculating nod to the monkey’s master. He immediately got his shoulders rolling across the street. What should happen at that moment but a black chaise came round the corner, which I naturally assumed would be Miss Brodie, catching us out in an indiscretion. I grabbed Perdita from the window, and slammed it so fast and hard it rattled the glass. The leading man’s face was not visible. All we could see was the top of his blond curls, smeared with some grease. He stayed there, outside the window, for a few moments, while I explained my action to Perdita.

“He’ll think we are awfully rude,” she said, beginning to peel the orange.

“Put that down, you fool! It has been handled by a monkey. You’ll get hydrophobia.”

“I’m hungry,” she said, forgetting to use her abused child’s voice.

“There is no time to eat now. You aunt is here. I’ll go to the desk and remind them to send her in to us.”

Who dismounted from the carriage was not Miss Brodie, but a country vicar and his family, half a dozen noisy children. I ordered tea, to help us pass our wait. When I returned to the parlor, I was treated to a fine view of Perdita’s derriere. Her head and shoulders were out the window. She was flirting as hard as she could with the leading man. I pulled her in, using both hands to do it. “I hope you and your monkey will excuse us. We are busy. Good day,” I said to the suitor, then closed the window and slid the lock on top if it.

“He’s Irish,” was her comment when I turned a wrathful stare on her. "The Irish have lovely eyes, don’t you think?”

"I never noticed.”

"I am Irish, too—of Irish ancestry I mean. His name is Daugherty. He has such a sweet brogue. ‘Sure an’ your eyes are like a little bit of heaven,’ he said to me.” She had a pretty good imitation of the brogue already picked up.

"That sounds a nice civil introduction. I have ordered tea. It wasn’t Miss Brodie’s carriage after all.”

She kept glancing towards the window. With it firmly closed and locked, I saw no harm to let her look, but requested her to stay behind the curtains at least. We both watched the antics of the actors till the tea tray arrived, our prime interest being to select the leading lady from the half dozen females who were making eyes at Mr. Daugherty. Perdita thought the fulsome redhead in broad green and yellow stripes was the one, but as this female was obviously over thirty, I picked out a pretty little blonde instead.

BOOK: Perdita
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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