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Authors: Mira Stables

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“It’s a blessing those stains haven’t marked any of your other things,” she commented, “seeing as they’re still quite wet.”

Miss Tina would have snubbed her sharply at that point or ignored the remark completely. Miss Alethea only laughed, agreed that it was a good thing she hadn’t been wearing a gown that she was particularly fond of when the accident occurred, and poured out the whole story. Or most of it. If Hetty never learned exactly where the change of costume had taken place, it was doubtless because Hebe came in with the freshly pressed muslin and had to be thanked for her kindness. By the time that she had helped her new charge into her simple evening gown, Hetty’s first impressions were favourable. No beauty, but pleasant ways and good manners. Brushing out the fine silky hair, she volunteered the information that she remembered Miss Alethea’s mama as a young girl, not yet out.

“Very kind she was to me,” she explained. “It was my first place and me just thirteen. I was so homesick I cried myself to sleep every night. But then the mistress—your grandmama that was—said I should wait on the schoolroom. And Miss Verona and Miss Maria used to joke me and make me laugh and give me ribbons and sugar sticks and a kitten to cuddle up in bed. Never was two nicer young ladies. You put me in mind of Miss Verona with your way of talking, though you’re not like her in looks.”

There was a rueful twinkle in Alethea’s eyes. “No, alas! Susan is the one who takes after Mama. I am said to resemble Papa’s sister, but since she died before I was born I cannot venture an opinion on that. Both Mama and Aunt Maria were acknowledged beauties, were they not? And my cousin Tina is the loveliest creature imaginable. I am sure she shines all the others down at the ‘ton’ parties. It is really very disheartening.” But the cheerful voice belied the doleful words. Growing up with a pretty sister, even if Susan would never compare with the exquisite Tina, Alethea was well accustomed to the knowledge that she had no claim to beauty.

“Handsome is as handsome does,” retorted Hetty tartly. “For my part, if I were a gentleman, I’d rather settle for a good disposition than a pretty face.”

“So Papa was used to say,” said Alethea demurely, a dimple peeping and her straight little nose wrinkling mischievously. “
He
said I should study to make myself agreeable and helpful, and to mend my temper which is inclined to be hasty. But it would be so much easier just to be naturally beautiful without any effort, wouldn’t it?”

“Go along with you, miss,” said Hetty capitulating entirely. “Your Papa’s in the right of it as maybe you’ll find out some day. Now can you find your own way downstairs or would you wish me to show you?”

Tina, meanwhile, having left her cousin with Hetty, had hurried to her mother’s dressing room. Since kindly Mrs. Newton had lingered to assure herself that every attention had been paid to the comfort of even so insignificant a guest as Miss Hetherstone, she had some minutes to wait, and by the time that her mama at last hurried in she was fuming with impatience.

“What
have
you been doing Mama? You must have known I wanted private speech with you and that the matter was urgent. Send Hebe away.”

“But my love!” remonstrated Mrs. Newton, glancing anxiously at the dainty Louis Quinze clock that stood on the mantel shelf. “It lacks but half an hour to dinner. I shall never be ready in time. And your cousin’s first night with us. Can it not wait?”

“No. And by the looks of her, my cousin wouldn’t know the difference if you came down to dinner in your bedgown.”

Mrs. Newton nodded resignedly to Hebe, who went out of the room with something suspiciously like a flounce.

“But do, pray, make haste, my love,” she urged. “You know how unpunctuality annoys Papa.”

Tina’s eyes were huge and dark with barely suppressed excitement. “It is Skirlaugh, Mama. He is back in Town at last. I had it from Kit Grayson. Skirlaugh is to dine with him tonight. I want you to send him a card for my cousin’s party.”

 

FOUR

No
argument
would persuade Tina that it was quite impossible for any self-respecting parent to submit to her demand. Invite a gentleman whom she had never met to her party? And to a party so intimate and so important as a coming-out? No lady of principle would do so. The fact that the gentleman was heir to a duke only made matters worse. It would be to incur accusations of tuft-hunting and toad-eating, even from her friends. Worse! They might even suspect her of trying to entrap such an eligible matrimonial prize for her daughter’s benefit. Had Tina not thought of that?

Tina had. It was, she coolly announced, the very object that she had in mind. Did not Mama think that she would make a delightful duchess? As for never having met Lord Skirlaugh, did Mama not recall that he had been present at the ball that the Graysons had given for Marianne?

“But
I
did not
go
to the ball,” moaned her afflicted parent. “And I wish I had not permitted
you
to attend, and you only sixteen. Only they were old friends and close neighbours and you teased me so.”

Tina smiled. “As I shall tease you again, dear Mama,” she promised sweetly. “He was not particularly eligible then,” she explained kindly. “His brother was still alive. And married. Nor did he pay me a great deal of attention, being still besotted about Elinor Coutance. She jilted him, you know, when the brother’s son was born. How she must regret it now! I believe she eventually married a mere nobody. Wealthy, of course, but what is the use of wealth alone when one wishes to cut a figure in the world?”

Thinking of a daughter’s dress bills, Mrs. Newton might have said that it was a good deal of use. But the clock, at that minute chiming the quarter, she rang for Hebe, saying that it could serve no useful purpose to set Papa all on end by being late for dinner, and shooed her daughter away to her own hurried toilet.

Dinner began uncomfortably. Uncle Matthew was a trifle out of temper during the first course, glancing pointedly at the clock when his wife hurried downstairs and irritably enquiring the reason when his daughter made her even later appearance.

“Hetty had to wait on my cousin first,” explained that young lady with aplomb.

“And Alethea’s arrival was delayed,” supplemented Mrs. Newton swiftly, and launched into an animated account of the incident which had caused the trouble.

By the time that she had dealt faithfully with this absorbing tale her spouse was sufficiently mollified by the succulence of a portion of duck that he was consuming and the smoothness of the burgundy that accompanied it to remember his duties as host. He addressed one or two civil remarks to Miss Hetherstone, charging her with several messages for her employers and expressing the hope that her return journey would not be marred by any such unfortunate incident as had caused today’s delay. He then turned his attention to his niece, hoped that she would be comfortable under his roof and said he had no doubt she was longing to sample the attractions of London’s shops, coupled with a playful warning not to draw the bustle too freely.

Alethea assured him that she had been bred to habits of economy and would, moreover, have her aunt’s guidance to check any foolish extravagance. That provoked a slightly satirical smile, but he listened kindly enough as she told him how eagerly she had looked forward to this visit and how much she longed to see the famous and beautiful buildings which her father had described as being steeped in history. When the ladies rose to leave him to his wine he actually patted her hand and told her that she seemed to be a sensible little thing and not wholly given over to fashionable frivolities, a remark which his daughter took in bad part.

“Doing it a little too brown, cousin,” she said coldly, as they followed the two older ladies into the drawing room. “Your enthusiasm for a lot of mouldering old bones and stones was most affecting. Very credibly performed. But Papa is no fool. He can detect a sham with the best. So don’t overplay your hand.” And before Alethea, cheeks burning, could protest her sincerity, had strolled across to join her mother and very soon after announced her intention of going early to bed as she had the headache.

The week that followed gave Alethea little time for brooding over Tina’s unkindness and none at all for sight-seeing. Aunt Maria, having looked over her niece’s wardrobe, decreed an immediate visit to Bond Street.

“One or two dresses for day wear and another muslin for evenings you must have at once. I am not, in general, an advocate of such hurried buying, but to be honest, my love, you have nothing fit for Town wear. Then Denise shall measure you for the rest.”

The orgy of shopping that followed was sheer intoxication. As a schoolgirl Alethea had been dressed with appropriate simplicity. Mama, a prudent woman, saw no sense in frittering away her limited resources on girls who had not done growing. There had followed six months of mourning for Cousin Albert. As a result, Alethea had never before bought a gown simply because it enhanced her appearance. Joyously she feasted her eyes on the rich and delicate fabrics displayed for her approval and stood patiently to be fitted while Aunt Maria and Madame Denise discussed the draping of an overskirt or the fall of a sleeve. Then there were bonnets and slippers and gloves to be chosen and even petticoats of gauze and Indian muslin for evening wear, though Aunt Maria had conceded that her own linen shifts and petticoats would do very well for every day.

Remembering her uncle’s warning, Alethea rather timidly questioned the cost of all this finery, for nothing so vulgar as price was ever mentioned. Aunt Maria only laughed and told her not to trouble her head. It might be better, she decided, to ask Uncle Matthew how matters stood. After all it was Uncle Matthew who held the purse strings and he would soon tell her if she was in danger of outrunning the constable. An attempt to express her gratitude to her aunt for devoting so much of her time to, “rigging me out in prime style, as brother Charles would so elegantly phrase it,” met with no better success.

“Dear Charles,” said Aunt Maria affectionately. “A pity that he is not here to escort you to parties. How does he go on in Vienna?”

Had she but known it, Aunt Maria was extremely grateful for the distraction provided by a task that was so much to her liking. Distraction
and
protection. For not only did she delight in choosing clothes for one so appreciative as her niece, not only was it proving to be a surprisingly rewarding task, but also, when she was with Alethea, Tina left her in peace.

For Tina was driving her mother hard. Persistently she renewed her demand that Lord Skirlaugh should be invited to Alethea’s début. And this time Mrs. Newton was determined that she would not yield. She steeled herself against tirade and coaxing alike, but it made her miserably unhappy, and only with Alethea did she feel safe from attack, since Tina never mentioned his lordship’s name in front of her cousin.

Between them, unwittingly, Tina and Lord Skirlaugh served Alethea well. In indulging her excellent clothes sense to the full, Aunt Maria quite forgot that her daughter would scarcely look with approval upon garments that gave the little country cousin a new and unexpectedly charming touch. She threw caution to the winds. Alethea’s coming-out dress was almost finished. It was fashioned in the bergere style made popular by the French queen and Mrs. Newton had chosen for its creation a heavy silk damask, the cost of which would have supported a genuine shepherdess in considerable comfort for several years. Now, in a sudden access of decision, she decreed that its flounces should be caught up with tiny posies of red rosebuds tied with matching velvet ribbon.

Alethea brooded happily over the thought of the lovely thing as she sat sewing beside the drawing room fire. She and Aunt Maria were to sup quietly together, since Uncle Matthew was gone to Somerset House to a meeting of the Royal Society and this was the night of Tina’s theatre party. She was beginning, she decided, to understand Aunt Maria’s insistence on the importance of line, colour and cut, her scorn of meretricious ornament. In some inexplicable way the bergere gown lent its wearer a suggestion of added height and poise that made all the difference to her confidence. And at that moment, as if in striking demonstration of her mama’s theory, Tina came swiftly into the room wearing the new lilac silk. She had dressed early, since she was engaged to dine with the Graysons, whose party it was, and she had dressed in haste, since she had returned late from an expedition to the Botanic Gardens in Chelsea, an expedition which Alethea suspected to be merely a cover for some assignation which Aunt Maria would not approve, since she could not imagine Tina nourishing a serious interest in herbs and simples.

Perhaps it was the excitement of a secret flirtation that had put the delicate glow in her cheek, the mischievous curve to her lips, but not even the scrambling haste in which she had dressed could mar the perfection of Madame Denise’s creation. Yet the dress was severely plain, save for the foam of ruffles that fell away from the elbows to focus attention on slim white arms and dimpled hands. The great amethyst which glimmered at her throat was a perfect match for the silk. It was only her own rustic ignorance, decided Alethea, that gave her the uneasy feeling that the whole effect was a little too grand for the occasion, a little too old for its wearer.

Aunt Maria exclaimed in delight and began to examine and praise the gown in detail, but for once Tina was in no mood for compliments and shrugged them aside brusquely.

“Very true, Mama. So I am in my best looks—as my mirror has already told me. Of more import, have you sent Lord Skirlaugh a card for our party yet? Since it is but ten days off you cannot in courtesy delay any longer.”

Mrs. Newton’s happy flutterings and pattings ceased abruptly. She made a brave attempt to assert her authority.

“I wish you will not tease me to behave so improperly,” she said with dignity. “I am sure I have explained to you half a dozen times why I cannot do so. So vulgar! So coming! I am sure we may hold up our heads with the highest when it comes to breeding. We have no need to fawn upon anyone just because they chance to be of noble rank. And anyway”—coming down a little from this lofty note—“Byram is quite small—almost insignificant for a ducal seat—and his grace is by no means a rich man, while as for Lord Skirlaugh, I believe he was quite shockingly scarred in that tragic business when the baby was burnt to death. You could never endure the sight of such disfigurement—you, who sickened at the mere thought of being obliged to dance with Captain Goldthorpe who had had the misfortune to lose two fingers.”

“You under-rate my fortitude, Mama,” returned her daughter lightly. “As for Byram’s insignificance—here’s a high flight, indeed! There’s not an ambitious parent in the whole of the ‘ton’ would agree with you. No duke can be insignificant. And if Byram’s holdings do not compare with Devonshire’s, his title is almost as old. As for his son’s scars—he is heir to a duke and he is looking about him for a wife. Which two circumstances, dear Mama, would reconcile me to a degree of disfigurement that would surprise you!”

At the first mention of Lord Skirlaugh’s name Alethea’s lips had parted. Had opportunity served she would have mentioned her own slight acquaintance with his lordship, have assured her relatives that there was nothing in his appearance to disgust any reasonable person. But in the heat of their argument they had forgotten her presence. Short of interrupting them with downright rudeness it was impossible to intervene, and by the time that Tina had done speaking she no longer had any desire to do so. She bent her head over her sewing—the linen for Papa’s shirts had been replaced during one of her earliest shopping expeditions—and left the contestants to settle their own differences.

Tina’s shameless avowal of opportunism did nothing to advance her cause. Mrs. Newton held firm, and her daughter presently stalked away to her evening’s pleasuring in high dudgeon.

It was some time before Alethea could calm her aunt’s distress. To have her daughter so expose herself in front of her cousin! Soothing suggestions that it was just because it
was
all in the family, that doubtless she had not meant the half of it, eventually had a beneficial effect, and a happy reference to the lilac gown, which she could praise without reserve, eventually directed the sufferer’s thoughts into pleasanter channels. She dried her eyes, assured her niece that she was the greatest possible comfort, and was presently able to consume her breast of chicken cooked in white wine sauce with moderate appetite.

Worn out by excessive emotion she fell asleep in her chair after supper and Alethea was free to pursue her own thoughts. She pondered the ugly scene of which she had been an unwilling witness. It had needed only brief acquaintance to convince her that Tina was wholly self-centered and had little regard for truth, but to some extent the vivacious gaiety had blinded her to the girl’s innate
cold-heartedness
. Even in memory she sickened a little at the callous reference to a man’s disfigurement, the calculating evaluation of his matrimonial worth. So he was heir to a dukedom, was he? Perhaps that accounted for his arrogance. He had never fulfilled his promise to call in Berkeley Square, and under the circumstances she could only be glad of it. She wondered if they would meet again, and if he would recognise her in her smart new dresses. It would be awkward if he claimed acquaintance in front of her aunt. She wished she had made a clean breast of the whole story at the outset; then consoled herself with the thought that he was unlikely to notice her existence if Tina meant to make a play for him.

She was surprised to find herself feeling rather sorry for the gentleman. She had taken him in dislike at first meeting but he had turned out to be quite a useful sort of man after all. Too good for Tina’s machinations, anyway. She hoped he was able to look after himself but doubted if any man could resist her cousin when she set herself out to please. With a little sigh she began to fold up her work.

The tea tray was brought in and Aunt Maria had just announced her intention of retiring early—largely, Alethea suspected, in order to avoid another unpleasant encounter with her daughter—when that young lady herself walked in. Aunt Maria looked up apprehensively, but Tina was now, apparently, in the sunniest of humours.

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