When Toby pulled up in front of Harrow house, the rain was a fine misty drizzle that reminded him of the spring he had spent in Ireland as a boy. But before he could even descend from the coach, Mrs. Dearson was emerging from under the marble portal of Harrow house and climbing up into his curricle. She was dressed in a hooded forest green carriage dress trimmed with ermine, and when Toby turned to help her onto the seat next to him, the deep green of her pelisse only served to accentuate her pale jade green eyes.
"Oh let us go find a spot in the park where we cannot see any buildings, only nature, and pretend we are in the country," Babs said impulsively as Toby set the curricle in motion.
"Are you missing the country, then, Mrs. Dearson?"
"No, not really. I do enjoy the excitement of London shopping and entertainment. It may seem odd, but I've spent more time in foreign cities than in London. Yet somehow today London feels oppressive."
"Too many callers from the ball last night perhaps?"
"No, rather, it was paying calls that has me wanting to get away into green fields," Barbara confessed, laughing at the memory of the "inquisition" of old matrons sitting under the peacock feathers in Lady Royston's drawling room.
"It sounds like your calls were more amusing than mine. I got cornered into helping a friend pass time at a dull-as-ditch water affair."
"And what sort of affair is that, Mr. Stacey-Brown?" Babs asked with a grin.
"Now your trying to get me in trouble with someone, Mrs. Dearson, it will not do. I shall not reveal the event which I am prejudging, for who knows what could happen at it. My predictions have been known to be wildly wrong."
"Oh I do love it when a social commitment you have been dreading turns out to be unexpectedly delightful. The preliminary dread gives the amusement so much more pique, don't you think?"
Toby turned his head to look into Barbara's eyes, and thought he could wish for nothing so much as this unfamiliar woman to bring pique and excitement into his life. "Yes, Mrs. Dearson, I do. And I must thank you for making last night much more exciting than I anticipated."
"My goodness, I would hardly think a bungled introduction on my part would constitute excitement, Mr. Stacey-Brown. Do you leave a terribly dull life?"
"Mrs. Dearson, you did not bungle any introduction last night," said Toby deciding to seize her opening. "I wanted to ask you dance and drive with me a few minutes after I first saw you in the ballroom." Glancing over, Toby felt suddenly more masculine and powerful at the sight of Mrs. Dearson's pale cheeks turning pink. She seemed so paradoxically calm and possessed yet fragile and vulnerable, and oh so feminine, as she had at the ball when he had stared at her so rudely. He didn't know why it was she brought out a barbaric streak in him, but the sight of her skin coloring up made him feel fiercely possessive. He wanted to be the only one she would color for, to examine and caress every inch of her pale white flesh and see how it would respond to his touch.
"We are almost at the park," Babs observed, changing the subject. "Do you think the rain will keep up?"
"I am not sure, but I do hope that the fog doesn't increase. It wasn't this foggy as I left Brown House today."
"Watch out! Oh My Goodness!" gasped Barbara suddenly as a dog dashed across the road in front of the horses as they neared the park gates. As Toby attempted to avoid crushing the dog beneath the horses, the carriage swerved on the wet cobbles of the street. Mrs. Dearson was thrown against his side, and then began to cry. As Toby brought the carriage to a stop, he realized she was not crying for herself, but the dog. The wet brown mutt was dead, blood matting its fur and running down on to the wet stones of the street. Toby felt ill, recalling the melting roses pouring like blood on the white marble floor in his dream.
"Mrs. Dearson are you hurt? Can you hold the reigns for a few minutes?" At her affirmative nod, Toby jumped down to examine the dog. He felt for the dog's pulse and gave a murmur of thanks to find the dog had died quickly. Reaching under the curricle seat, Toby took out a plaid lap robe and crouched down to wrap up the dog. By the time he had placed the bundled corpse gently on the side of the road in the blanket, Mrs. Dearson was sobbing. Her pain seemed more than even what a strong sensibility would warrant, and Toby felt an immense burden of guilt, despite the fact he knew he could not have prevented the accident. Toby started the carriage into the park, silent. As they drove deeper into the park, moving through the wet, green trees. Mrs. Dearson's sobs slowed and then ceased. Sniffing she careful wiped her eyes and then blew her nose quite loudly.
"I am sorry--"
"I am so sorry--"
Their simultaneous attempts to apologize, immediately reduced the tension. Toby continued first: "I am sorry about that, I will take you home now if you wish."
"No, I am all right. It wasn't the dog so much as the shock of a life ending so quickly. Well it was the dog also. I ... I have a cat, you see, a beautiful white Angora named Muff. Since my husband died, I have loved my cat much too much. I am sorry I let myself get overly distraught. I just suddenly was worried about Muff, and what if my darling pussy cat was run over and died all alone. I've been a widow now for two years and deaths still send me into shock."
Toby reached over and took Barbara's hand in his. "Just this afternoon I dreamed of my deceased father and grandparents, and when I woke up I felt all the pain of their loss again. I don't know that the pain ever leaves you, but that perhaps you learn to live with it as familiar as a old scar or a cracked tooth."
"Did you have a pet when you were younger? A pet that died?" asked Babs.
"Many. I've lost dogs, a monkey, a pet duck, and a pet cat."
"Oh how sad, I'm so sorry, that was a terribly rude question," Babs hurriedly apologized feeling guilty for having let the conversation grow so dark.
"No, not rude, just rather intimate," replied Toby lightly. "Now shall I tell you silly tales of my pet duck, Quacks, or will you tell me what made your morning calls so dreadful and yet amusing?"
"Quacks! What an adorable name for a duck! Did you name him yourself?"
"Of course I did, and at seven I was most proud of my duck. I was quite unique in my family in having a duck as a pet. My poor cousins only had dogs, cats, singing birds, and squirrels. Of course when I got my monkey that quite took the shine out of Quacks."
"Oh poor Quacks, out-ranked by a monkey! Do tell me more," asked Barbara with a smile, forgetting the shock of the stray dog's death. Toby found himself laughing as he recalled childhood exploits with past pets and his cousins. The time passed so quickly in the wet green world of the park that sunset seemed to come quite early.
As they turned out of the park gate, Toby asked "When shall we meet for our dance lesson? Will you set a near date for it, Mrs. Dearson?"
"How near is a near date, Mr. Stacey-Brown?" asked Babs playfully.
"Will you stay for tea?"
"I'd be delighted to," he replied.
And that, is that, thought Barbara with satisfaction. I think I am going to fall in love a bit tomorrow. I hope everything goes well. Suddenly the thought of the stray dog's death reoccurred to Babs, and she shuddered. Do not be superstitious, Barbara Penelope, she sternly told herself.
"Do hurry in out of the rain and cold, Mrs. Dearson. As beautiful is that green carriage dress is, it still seems a bit thin for this March weather. It is too bad that fur doesn't come in green to match your eyes."
"Green fur? How silly that would look," laughed Babs, letting herself forget any dark thoughts and basking in the admiration and attention of Toby.
Toby found himself forgetting worries as well. He was so engrossed in imagining how it would be to dance with Mrs. Dearson, his Jade lady, that he missed the turn into the Mews behind Brown House and had to turn around to his disgust. And if anyone at Brown house had observed this, they keep it mum when they saw how usually fierce the master looked as he strode up to change out of his wet clothes. Mr. Bartley, Toby's valet from his youth, however, took the liberty of observing, to Mrs. Pendleworst, his mother's lady, that he fancied "things would be a happening this season." Whether or not Mrs. Pendleworst took this portent seriously at the time cannot be determined, though months later she was to insist she had agreed.
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