In the breakfast parlor at Harrow House, the ladies were planning. What exactly they were planning, however, seemed to vary from moment to moment. Plans for next month's gala to held at Harrow house were rethought in-between the plotting out of this afternoon's tea menu and dance lesson, and the settling of next week's social engagements. Invitations this season to Harrow House came in much smaller numbers than last season, Lady Harrow observed, but was careful to keep this from her niece. Visions of settling dear Babs with a respectable husband by the season's end kept Lady Harrow from dwelling on the fickleness of some acquaintances.
"Of course my nephew Lewis and his Margaret will be up for the gala, dear. Now would you like Lewis to give you away if wedding bells should surface? Maybe I should hint at Lewis and Margaret saying longer. Perhaps I should redecorate the breakfast room and say I need Margaret's advice as it shall be hers when I go to my eternal rest ..."
"But you love this breakfast room, Aunt Julia," protested Babs temporarily ignoring her large objection to her aunt's plan
"Oh not this one, Babs, the old one. I wonder if Lewis would foot the bill for the redecoration. And the dining room hangings are getting quite dull, from that chimney flue trouble we had three years ago. I'm afraid the smoke quite darkened the silk ..."
"Aunt Julie, there will be no wedding here this season," Babs forceful interrupted. "You know many a debutante goes home single from a first season, and I am no match for a deb. It is enough of a coup you have gotten me invited out this season. Please don't go building up foolish dreams. You will end up breaking both our hearts and your pocketbook."
"Does this mean you will avoid hinting of any silly fantasies to Lewis and Margaret? Margaret is a bit of a gossip isn't she? I should hate to play the foolish dreamer for all your acquaintance."
"Aunt Julia, have you been listening to me?"
"Of course I have, I just choose to believe that any Rosemont can find a husband in a single season if she wants, and I have seen evidence that you have begun to want a husband. I shall lend you my jade and diamond set for the Duke of Reddingell's ball my dear in May. I wore Grandmama's jade and diamonds the night Lawrence proposed for me, and he had a most magnificent parure made for our fifth anniversary. Your older sister wore jade on the night she was engaged. It is your destiny Barbara."
"Aunt Julia, I don't have the Rosemont hair or the Rosemont nose. I dare say pale green eyes are attractive, but hair that is neither blonde nor brown has never rivalled raven's wing tresses. Nor have older widows ever rivalled young debutantes."
"Barbara Penelope stop being ghoulish. Rosemont women do not whine. Now what are you wearing to the musical party tomorrow night? Now that you are looking, we must not miss any husband-hunting opportunities."
Here Muff took it into his head to make a bold attempt to drink up all the cream from the cream jug so conveniently left uncovered, effectively ending the conversation as Aunt Julia scattered her lists and invitations in an effort to snatch the cream jug away from Muff's attentions.
That afternoon as the ladies sat in the drawing room awaiting Mr. Stacey-Brown's arrival, Barbara was aware that despite having denied any interest in dressing to attract suitors that morning, she had selected a white gown with green stripes the very color that Toby had admired yesterday in the rain. She was conscious of an excitement that she hadn't felt in a long time, the excitement of anticipating something both pleasant and unexpected.
When Wilkinson announced Mr. Stacey-Brown, Barbara felt herself quickly draw in her breath and then felt ashamed at being so affected by what would be merely a pleasant interlude in her life. But the sight of Mr. Stacey-Brown and his smiling brown eyes made her vow to enjoy what she could of this time that they would have. That was what death taught you, thought Barbara, enjoy the present for all it is worth. And the puritan-rake of the ball blurred in her mind with the dashing scamp of a boy with a pet ducks named quacks she had heard tales of in the park yesterday. Would he be the man with the eyes that seemed to caress her skin today or the friendly man discussing his youth? And which did she prefer?
She was looking lovely again, thought Toby, as he moved across the yellow and maroon drawing room towards her. Today in the fading afternoon light amid the golds, yellows, and reds of the room, her hair was a dark, rich blonde, not the dazzling shine of gold gilt, but the heavier color of brass keep polished by the continued use of hands. The thought of holding her in his arms to dance seemed like the most wonderful way to pass an afternoon. Surrounded by her aunt, her cat, and her workbox full of embroidery silks, Mrs. Dearson looked perfectly respectable, a portrait of the perfect domestic woman. To come home in the afternoon to such a welcoming smile, to sit and read and watch her sew, and think about holding her close ... it seemed impossible that she could have married the wild Dearson and jaunted all over Europe. Today she looked the perfect homebody. He let himself picture her sitting in his study in the brown velvet armchair across from his recamier. The brass andirons of the fire and brass trim on the desk and bookcases were the exact color of her hair this afternoon. A portrait of her as she sat in Lady Harrow's yellow drawing room would look lovely over the fireplace in the study rather than the portrait of his father's favorite stallion. But now was not the time for fantasy, but the time for action ...
In the music room, Lady Harrow smiled as she sat at the pianoforte playing a cotillion. The sight of her niece and a desirable suitor practicing the figures of the dance was immensely pleasing. In her mind she could see her beloved Babs and Stacey-Brown dancing at a wedding already. In her imagination, Babs' green and white dress was a ivory wedding gown and Toby's brown jacket replaced by a formal dress. Though in theď music room, the couple was not talking save about the steps, their smiles indicated to Lady Harrow that they were enjoying each other's company.
Lady Harrow had a fine view of the ormolu clock on a marble pedestal and could feel her hands tiring as she played cotillion, quadrille, and country dances. But she played on, her determination to see her lonely niece married again, driving her to ignore the mild pain in her hands and the rumbling in her stomach that wanted afternoon tea and cakes. The couple on the floor moved amid an imaginary floor of dancers, circling, meeting, briefly touching then parting again. They had fallen silent and seemed to move as if in a dream across the parquet floor. Lady Harrow felt a surge of triumph, for if this wasn't deep interest she didn't know what was. The look on Barbara's face was the sort of adoring look usually reserved for that dratted fluffy feline monster of hers, Muff. And the look on young Stacey-Brown's face made her recall her own days of dancing in the arms of a beloved husband.
The sudden opening of the door and the sound of a shocked gasp caused all three in the music room to stop what they were doing. Wilkinson, clearing his throat, announced "Lady Farroll and Lady Royston have arrived for tea your Ladyship. Would you like tea served now in the drawing room or will you be practicing more?" Darn it, thought, Lady Harrow as she noticed the stiff figure and frown on the face of Stacey-Brown, this has wrecked the whole mood. That Farroll harpy will scare him off ... But with all the aplomb of a well-practiced London hostess, Lady Harrow ushered her guests into the yellow drawling room, suppressing the awkward questions of the new visitors and covering the silence of Barbara and Toby by chatting about a new blend of tea that she wanted their distinguished opinion upon. Fortunately she was not lying about the tea, though she'd have been willing to brazenly declare plain black tea a new blend for the sake of her cause. But instead she could discourse on the mix of tea and spice she had acquired on a whim on a shopping spree before she'd taken ill.
The Baroness Farroll however had been a London hostess even longer than Lady Harrow, and she outmaneuvered Julia by seizing a pause in the tea discussion to inquire of Toby if he was to escort Miss Millicent Shellridge to Mrs. Chudwin's musical evening tomorrow night.
At the question, Barbara started and was unable to prevent herself from staring at Toby to see his expression as he answered. His brown eyes that had seem so full of words and meaning as they had danced were blank. The words of his calm reply affirming that he would indeed be escorting Miss Shellridge and her mother with his good friend Mr. Shellridge affected Barbara more than she was prepared for--to have to play before Toby and the young Miss Shellridge at her first musical in London seemed grossly unfair. And for that old cat, the Baroness to bring it out was, well only to be expected Babs concluded. At least she was warned.
The baroness, pleased at the shadows that were crossing Bab's face, was determined to put the wicked Dearson widow in her place. She prosed on about the Shellridge family's close relationship with the Stacey-Browns, delighted with the air of awkwardness that had settled on the whole tea party.
Lady Harrow was darting murderous looks at Lady Royston, who was endeavoring to act as if she had no idea of how she had disappointed her old friend Julia. Lady Roy's notion of acting ignorant unfortunately consisted of her seeming comatous and speaking only with sniffs, hmmms, and nods. Lady Harrow with only the tiniest twinge of guilt, interrupted Lady Farroll to express her concern about her dear friend's health and to suggest that perhaps she should take a nap after tea to refresh herself.
"Oh hmmm, hmmm," replied Lady Roy with a nod.
"Would you like to stay here after tea dear and nap?" responded Julia. "You are just not you usually brilliant conversational self, My Dear Roy. Why not one bon mot or drop of gossip has passed your lips. It is most unnatural is not Babs my love?"
"Indeed Aunt Julia, Lady Royston, does seem quiet today, but we must respect her health and let her enjoy her tea in peace," replied Barbara feeling sorry for her aunt's old friend who was looking more and more guilty. She turned to Toby and informed him brightly, "I should like to meet your friends the Shellridges at the Chudwin's. I shall be playing there."
"I am looking forward to making the introductions," replied Toby without any look of eagerness upon his face at all. Toby then turned the conversation to the new musical act at Vauxhall, which left Barbara out of the conversation as she had not yet visited that famous pleasure garden of London.
As the others discussed Vauxhall and opera singers, Barbara wondered what Toby's mood was. He seemed perfectly calm and disinterested, not warm and friendly as he had earlier. When tea was over she sighed with relief as the door shut behind the guests. A London season was full of such awkwardness, and both Barbara and her aunt were glad this one was passed.
Driving home in his curricle, Toby sighed as well. He was feeling trapped by the awareness that Lady Farroll had a voluminous acquaintance and was a known gossip. That he would be talked about in connection with both a widow of dubious repute and a young debutante was hardly desirable. To have eyes upon him at the musical judging his relationships with both would be disconcerting and uncomfortable. Toby sighed again. Introducing Mrs. Dearson to the Shellridges might be problematic as well. Not that Mrs. Dearson was unacceptable--yet--he cautiously added, but Mrs. Shellridge's tendency to worry, her strict sense of propriety, her not-so-carefully hidden interest in his making a match with Millicent could bring on an asthma attack. Damn! If he had only danced with Millicent at that ball, he wouldn't be forced to introduce the two women.
Somehow to see them both perform at a musical filled him with dread. It would be inevitable that he would have to compare the two women. Women! It seemed odd to even include Millicent in the category "woman." It was amazing how fast she had grown from just schoolgirl little sister, a person of no importance in his life, to a debutante burden. Why only last year she was going to look at the sights of London like any child in the schoolroom. How annoying it had been, being blackmailed by Peter into escorting a school girl about London. He'd have never agree no matter what trouble Peter had caused him, if he had realized he might be trapped into marrying the girl. Lord, thank heaven neither his mother or any of his aunts would be going to such a dull event as the Chudwin's musical evening. His mother would be sure to be pouring in his ear warnings and ugly rumors.
Rumors ... he recall those horrid things his mother had implied before he had actually been introduced to Mrs. Dearson. Her husband choosing her lovers. It couldn't be true. What kind of madman married a woman like that and treated her like the lowest kind of whore. Even Dearson who had been involved in a number of scandals and duels before his marriage surely wasn't that degenerate. It wasn't true, Toby told himself. She cries over dead dogs, over that no-good husband's loss, over her cat-- those tears weren't fake yesterday when they rode in the park. The memory of her big jade green eyes shining with tears, her beautiful white face framed by the ermine of her hooded pelisse made him bite his lip. He didn't want to give up his budding friendship with Barbara Dearson yet, rumors, gossip, and his mother be damned.
Hopefully some hideous flaws in her character would be revealed soon that would make him not want to look at her eyes and touch her hand. She had not said much at tea today, and had been most incoherent when they first met. The memory of her blush and the look of submission in her eyes when they had first been introduced, however, distracted Toby from his efforts to make a case for Mrs. Dearson as socially inept. He needed more time to be with her, talk with her, watch her with others.
He recall when he had first entered Harrow House today what an innocent picture she had made with her aunt with the same jade green eyes, her white cat, and all her shining embroidery silks spilt across her lap. His thoughts for once had been respectable ones, dreams of sitting with her enjoying the aura of peace that had filled the yellow drawing room around her. An urge to protect Mrs. Dearson from gossip filled him. If she was a little shy and retiring in company, it was no wonder with gossips like Lady Farroll deliberately trying to discompose her. How Lady Farroll had destroyed the air of peace in the drawing room!
A sudden feeling of satisfaction filled Toby as he thought about the implications of Barbara being disconcerted when Lady Farroll discussed Millicent Shellridge. She must be interested in me to be flustered by the mention of my commitment to escort Millie. The satisfaction Toby felt upon drawing this conclusion made him feel able to dismiss the topic from his mind, and think about the more mundane matters of business he needed to get done tomorrow morning. If his thoughts occasionally wandered back to the memory of a country dance with Mrs. Dearson and the fresh scent of her lavender perfume, it was not enough distraction to bring on fresh worries. He just enjoy the present while he could.
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