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Authors: Mira Stables

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The evening had been perfectly delightful. No, she couldn’t recall the name of the piece. She rather thought it had been something of Sheridan’s. Or was it Shakespeare? Anyway, everyone was in raptures over it. But her own party had not stayed to see the last act. Mrs. Grayson had been sadly affected by the heat and had to be taken home. Oh, yes—she was perfectly recovered. It was just the heat, and the crush of visitors to their box. It seemed as though everyone they knew had come to exchange greetings with them.

She was a good deal better informed about the audience, listing in considerable detail all the notable members of the ‘ton’ who had been present, together with descriptions of the toilets and jewels worn by the ladies. Her own gown had been vastly admired. And was the tea still hot, because she was thirsty and would like some.

While Aunt Maria rang for fresh tea, Alethea studied her cousin curiously. How did one reconcile the fury of her departure with this present amiability? Had she been so easily diverted by an evening of innocuous pleasure? Alethea did not think so. There was an air of scarce-contained satisfaction about her as she sat sipping her tea and retailing the various compliments that had been paid her. Taken in conjunction with her tawny colouring it put Alethea strongly in mind of a tigress, full fed, an impression that was strengthened when she put down her cup and got to her feet, yawning unashamedly, with a display of strong white teeth.

“I am for bed,” she told them. “I am riding with Kit tomorrow, early. Oh, yes! That reminds me. He brought Skirlaugh to our box during the second interval. He remembered me perfectly well from Marianne’s party. So I begged him to come to my cousin’s—said you would certainly have sent him a card for it if you had known he was in Town and that Kit was already promised to attend. He made the usual polite protestations about not wishing to take advantage of your hospitality, but I told him you were never one to stand on ceremony and that it was to be quite an informal affair. And the long and the short of it is that he said he would be happy to accept.”

 

FIVE

Aunt Maria succumbed
to one of her worst spasms and took to her bed. She could not, she moaned piteously, endure the sympathetic murmurs of her friends, the malicious laughter of her enemies when the tale was spread abroad. As spread it would inevitably be since the incident had occurred in such a public place. Little wonder that poor Mrs. Grayson had felt herself so overcome that she had asked to be taken home. The consequences of Tina’s malapert behaviour would be far-reaching and unpleasant. And to have described her cousin’s coming-out party as ‘quite an informal affair’—the sort of function to which anyone could be given a casual last minute invitation! And that in the hearing of several highly interested bystanders.

When Aunt Maria remembered the meticulous care with which she had drawn up her list of guests to ensure that her niece should have the best possible start in her social career, she wept anew. What would they think—those awe-inspiring dowagers, those younger but still haughty ladies whose approval was so necessary to any aspiring debutante?

Tina laughed and said it was all nonsense. The arbiters of fashion were too consequential by half. A good set-down would do most of them a world of good. And if they criticised her conduct it was only because they were as mad as fire because she had stolen a march on them. Lord Skirlaugh had not yet put in any appearance at private parties. In securing his promise of attendance she had achieved a social triumph and Mama should really be grateful to her. She went off without a care in the world to keep her riding engagement next day and, in general, went about as usual, coaxing Mrs. Grayson into chaperoning her when it was essential and leaving attendance on her mother to her cousin and the servants.

She stopped laughing when the physician called in to prescribe for her prostrated parent spoke of a shattered nervous system, stressed the need for rest and advised withdrawal to some quiet watering place. What! Permit Mama to leave Town just now? Perhaps be constrained to go with her? Impossible! After careful thought and a hurried shopping expedition she descended upon the sick room and was so fortunate as to find her mother alone. She had just fallen into a light doze and Hebe had slipped downstairs to snatch a belated luncheon. Tina proceeded to make up the fire with quite unnecessary energy and a good deal of noise. Having successfully awakened the sleeper she bent to drop a light kiss on her cheek, seated herself in the chair beside the bed and opened her campaign.

“Dear Mama,” she murmured sweetly. “And looking so
very
much better. I really ought to scold you, you know, causing us so much anxiety, and all through wearing yourself out in dancing attendance on my tiresome cousin.”

Mama attempted a feeble protest at this distorted version of the case but was gently overborne. “Oh! I suppose she is not really tiresome. It is just that she does not understand the delicacy of your constitution and how your brave spirit drives you to maintain a cheerful front long after you should have yielded to your exhaustion. But you must not blame me for being the tiniest bit cross with her when she has permitted my dear Mama to wear herself to the bone in this ridiculous fashion.”

Mrs. Newton listened as one hypnotised. By the time that her pillows had been re-arranged so that she might try on the charming lace cap which her devoted daughter had brought to cheer her—and for which Tina had blithely pledged Mama’s credit with Madame Denise—she was, if not convinced that Alethea was the cause of all her troubles, at least prepared to believe that Tina thought so. To have her daughter fussing over her, dressing her hair so that the new cap should be seen to the best advantage, assuring her that there was still scarcely a grey hair among the abundant locks but adding severely that she would be the better for a touch of rouge, so pale as she was, exercised a highly beneficial effect. When Hebe slipped soft-footed into the room she was horrified to find the invalid established on the day bed in the window bay, the curtains, which had been kept close shut these past three days, flung back to admit the spring sunshine. Dressed in her prettiest negligee of a tabby silk that combined every shade of blue from soft azure to deepest turquoise, the lappets of the new cap tied in a fetching bow beneath her chin, Mrs. Newton was listening happily while Tina told her just how well the shimmering, changing hues of the silk accentuated the blue of her eyes, vowing naughtily that the garment was far too pretty to be wasted on a mere husband and that Mama must really think about setting up a cavalier servente who would truly appreciate it.

“Made me mad enough to bust a stay-lace,” the indignant Hebe told the select coterie in the housekeeper’s room that night, gentility of speech forgotten in her outrage. “There’s Cook nearly frantic with brewing possets and sending up gruel and jellies and panadas only to have them sent down again, and me and Hetty at our wits’ end to know what to try next. We bathed her temples with vinegar and lavender water. We massaged her neck and her hands and feet. We propped her up on pillows and fanned her and gave her a vinaigrette to sniff. Miss Alethea talked to her so kind and sensible she might have been a grown woman herself. And the only thing that did any good was the syrup of poppies that Dr. Philipson persuaded her to swallow. That
did
put her to sleep and gave all of us a chance to snatch some rest. But as soon as she woke up it was all to do again. Proper low she’s got, poor lady, all along of Miss Tina’s cantrips. And then, in walks young madam with her wheedling ways and fairly bewitches her Mama into being better. And she really
is
better, which I’m sure is a blessing, sending a message to Mrs. Grayson to come and bear her company a while this evening and vowing she’ll get up tomorrow. I’m sure I’m as thankful as anyone to see her plucking up again, but that Miss Tina makes me want to spit.” An inelegant avowal that was received in sympathetic silence.

Fortunately Mrs. Grayson was one of Tina’s admirers. Until Thursday night she had seen only that young lady’s party manners. Moreover she knew that her son was deep in love with the wilful beauty and since she was almost as doting a parent as Mrs. Newton herself she would do nothing to cast a rub in his way. Carefully primed by Tina she made no mention of certain cold glances and curious stares which had been directed at her charge when she had escorted her to Almack’s on the previous evening. Mama would only start fretting again, Tina had said. And while seizing the opportunity to point out to the girl the damage that had been done by her heedlessness, Mrs. Grayson was pleased to find her so thoughtful of her mother’s peace of mind.

So there was nothing to hinder Mrs. Newton’s complete recovery. A timely reminder from her thoughtful daughter that there was much to be done if Alethea’s party was not to fall short of the degree of hospitality expected of so notable a hostess hastened her resumption of her normal activities and permitted Miss Newton to discard the boring role of ministering angel. She, too, resumed her busy social life.

But with a difference. Patiently she set herself to win over those captious critics who had shown disapproval of her boldness. If report was to be believed the Byrams were among the ranks of the high sticklers and their son was probably cut from the same cloth. His bride would be chosen to please his parents and to fit the dignity of the position that she would one day hold. So there was a new gravity in Miss Newton’s expression. A gentle modesty informed her voice and bearing. She astounded two of her most virulent critics by declining—in their hearing—an invitation to make one of a party to attend a masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens, on the grounds that her Mama would not like it. The two ladies stared incredulously, but were visibly shaken. Tina maintained her demure front with some difficulty. But it was worth it. There should be no hint that she was ‘rather fast’, no suggestion that she was ‘not quite the thing’, to blemish the reputation of the young lady who meant to be the next Duchess of Byram.

Her most difficult task was preventing Kit Grayson from making her a declaration, an event which must at all costs be held off until she had secured her interest with his cousin. At present Kit was her only link with Lord Skirlaugh and she had no intention of giving him his congé while he served so useful a purpose. Unfortunately her pose of demure maiden modesty worked so powerfully upon the young man’s chivalrous instincts that even
her
skilful management was tested to the limit. She was obliged to fall back on excusing herself from riding or driving with him. The claims of her Mama, still sadly frail, she explained gently, and of her cousin—so homesick and so shy, poor lamb—served as sufficient reason, while in no way diminishing the young man’s adoring fervour. He perfectly understood her sentiments, could but honour her for them despite his own disappointment, and pressed a reverent kiss on her hand as he took his leave.

Tina studied his departing back thoughtfully. He would, she thought, make a very manageable husband. Wealthy, too, and so very good looking. She permitted herself a shudder of revulsion at the memory of Lord Skirlaugh’s scarred face. But
he
could make her a duchess. Kit was not even a baronet. She turned to more profitable considerations. It seemed that there was a good deal to be said for the charm of girlish shyness. Certainly it had driven Kit to the point of making her an offer. Perhaps it might have a similar effect upon his cousin. She must study to improve her portrayal.

Mrs. Newton, reviewing the arrangements for her party, decided that she would add champagne to the various beverages with which she planned to refresh her guests in the intervals between dancing. The supper she had ordered could not be improved upon, but the champagne would add a note of distinction. She went off to consult her husband over the choice of wines and then to supervise the decoration of the ballroom and the gallery where the musicians would be placed. Tina, still pursuing her fancy for the charms of simplicity, went off to consult Madame Denise. One must, after all, dress the part, if one hoped to play it convincingly.

Alethea found herself with a good deal of time on her hands. A preoccupied Aunt Maria suggested that Hetty should escort her to see some of the sights of Town. So busy as they had been with one thing and another, there had been no time for sight-seeing. The suggestion was much to Alethea’s taste, though Hetty was scarcely the companion she would have chosen. She was the kindest of creatures and Alethea had already grown very fond of her. As a guide for shopping expedition she was superlative, knowing just where to obtain whatever was required. But sight-seeing bored her. She had no interest in history, no respect for architectural beauty. Westminster Abbey, she said, would be all the better for a good clean. And if they couldn’t afford to buy new banners to replace all those dirty, tattered rags, why didn’t they, at least, wash them? The Tower of London would set off her rheumatic pains if she stayed any longer within its damp precincts, while as for the smell of the animals in the menagerie, it fair turned her stomach. She was moved to sentimental pity by the pathetic tale of the two little princes reputedly done to death within its walls, but said that anyone could see that it was just the sort of place where you could expect that kind of thing to happen. Why hadn’t their Mama had the good sense to keep them safe at home with her? She, Hetty, was thankful that she lived in more law-abiding times, but had a strong presentiment that if they didn’t go home soon it would be
her
bones that would be discovered in a secret grave, though
not,
she trusted, under a stairway with people tramping over her all the time.

Alethea laughed and gave it up, but she could not help wishing that Papa had been with her. He had the happy knack of bringing the past to life, of making the long dead protagonists seem vividly human and alive. He had promised to snatch a few days in Town before the end of the season if Mama could spare him. Perhaps they could revisit the Tower and she would be able to indulge her romantic imaginings to the full, freed from Hetty’s prosaic commentary.

There was no sight-seeing expedition on the morning of the ball, of course. Alethea had been strictly instructed that she was to rest quietly in her room till noon. The evening’s festivities would be long and arduous and it was important that she should look her very best. The thought of dawdling away a whole morning in such a wasteful fashion was irksome, but she guessed that she would be very much in the way among the bustle that was going on downstairs. She was smiling over Cowper’s ‘Diverting History of John Gilpin’ which she had just come across in an old copy of the Public Advertiser when Hebe came in to ask if she might try her skill at dressing Miss Alethea’s hair for the party.

“Hetty asked me herself, miss, knowing as she’s no great hand with the curling tongs. Only I’d have to do it early, before I do madam’s, if you didn’t mind.”

Alethea had no objection at all, well knowing that the offer was a compliment of no mean order. “But I don’t know about curling tongs,” she added doubtfully. “Nothing seems to make it
hold
the curl. I’m sure Hetty has tried everything she knows. Don’t you think it would be better just to dress it plain?”

“Well as to that, miss, and seeing we’ll be early and still plenty of time to use the tongs if you don’t like it, I’ve a fancy to try it in a Pompadour. Sadly old fashioned, of course, and should by rights be powdered, but I’ve a notion it will suit you. It’s a style that ’ud go with your dress, besides giving you an inch or two of extra height.” That settled it, of course, Alethea, at five feet three and a bit, having sadly decided that she would never, now, grow into one of those tall willowy females who adorned the pages of the fashion journals.

Lunch was a very sketchy affair, taken in the breakfast parlour, since the dining room was already arranged for the evening’s festivities. The afternoon seemed endless. Aunt Maria, supervising a dozen different domestic arrangements, said frankly that she preferred to do so unaided. She knew exactly what was to be done and it was easier to do it herself than to explain to an assistant, however willing. Having extracted a promise that her aunt would rest for an hour or two before dressing for the party, Alethea wandered into the library, selected one or two books almost at random, was hunted out by the servants who had come to set up card tables for such of the older gentlemen as did not care for dancing, and took refuge in her bedroom once more. After that things were a little better, for by good fortune, one of the books she had picked up was a copy of The Castle of Otranto which had been presented to Uncle Matthew’s papa by its author. Alethea, who had never been permitted to read novels, spent the next hour or two in a new world, a world so enthralling, if at times alarming, that she was able to forget the inexorable approach of the evening’s ordeal.

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