Toby shifted nervously on his feet as he chatted with Peter in the hall of the Shellridge townhouse. They were waiting for the ladies to descend. He had completely forgot to refresh his knowledge of musical small talk and the name of the piece that Millicent was going to play tonight. He keep wondering if Mrs. Dearson would be wearing the white roses he had sent her this morning with a thank-you for the enjoyable afternoon and best wishes for the concert. He wanted to see what color her hair would look with the roses in it--pale glossy brown or dark blonde. Thinking about Mrs. Dearson was getting to be to much of a habit, Toby though and forced himself to concentrate on Peter's story about his afternoon card game at his club. The drama of Peter's big win against Lord Finley in piquet was insufficiently compelling however.
When the Shellridge ladies finally appeared at the top of the stares, Toby was annoyed to discover that Millicent was wearing a wreath of white roses as a headdress. He hadn't sent them, why couldn't she have worn his pink roses? White roses looked bland on Millie anyway with her golden curls. He hoped that his jade lady--Mrs. Dearson that is--wouldn't wear her roses in her hair. It would be all Baroness Farroll would need to start making catty comments.
Mrs. Shellridge sighed with contentment at the sight of the piercing stare that Toby was giving her little Millie. She looked like an angel tonight. Toby was so reliable, so calm. He would look after Millie and do as he was told. She wouldn't have to worry about her son-in-law gambling away the food from her grandchildren or disgracing her Millie with his whoring. She sighed again delighted at his mild look of distaste at the white roses. A little bit of jealousy, she read in that look. How perfect! How wise she had been to insist that Millicent wear the white. Now perhaps she could hint to Millie to let him know that she had wanted to wear his pink roses. Perfect ... Mrs. Shellridge let herself be handed into the coach by her son feeling far more optimistic than she had since the opening of the season.
When the Shellridge party finally arrived at Mrs. Chudwin's home, Toby had to force himself to be gracious and not leave the them to try to locate Barbara. He reminded himself to think of Barbara as Mrs. Dearson, the name continually recalling her deceased husband and warning him from getting too intimate with her. As he scanned the blue and gold reception hall were the guests were lingering, Toby felt himself mechanically responding to Mrs. Shellridge's assessments of modern music. He found himself listening to a discussion of favorite pets swirling around his hostess, who was proclaiming the excellence of squirrels over monkeys as a pet. Toby found himself recalling the sight of Mrs. Dearson gently petting her cat whose fur was a white and pure as her own skin. He recalled the sound of her laughter as they discussed his pet duck in the park. A jab from Peter, recalled Toby back to the present, and to the need to offer Miss Shellridge his arm to escort her into the music room.
As the company began decorously filing into the music room to be seated on the uncomfortable little gilt chairs neatly set out in rows before the pianoforte, Toby felt an anticipation he never experienced at this little musical gatherings. But Mrs. Shellridge was insisting that they sit in one of the most forward rows. He wouldn't be able to look around discretely. He'd actually have to stare ahead. As he settled Miss Shellridge into her seat next to her mother, Peter suddenly declared "Oh there is old Duffington, I must go talk to him about a horse mother before this show starts. You'll look after the girls, eh, won't you Toby?" And before Toby could do more that look betrayed, Peter had fled.
Yet when Mrs. Chudwin moved forward to introduce the first performer of the night, Toby found himself staring in earnest. Evidently Mrs. Chudwin had taken the slur to squirrels in favor of monkeys in earnest, for she had set upon her shoulder swathed in a heavy paisley shawl, a very ordinary looking grey squirrel. The Honorable Miss Dudley was introduced to the audience and seated herself at the harp, positioning her long white arms in a pose that she knew to be most flattering--never mind how difficult it made to execute some of the notes. It was then that Mrs. Chudwin made her mistake, for in throwing her arm dramatically out to indicate her relinquishing of the small dias at the end fo the music room to the Honorable Miss, she failed to take into account that she very often would hold a nut in her palm with arm so outstretched to feed her pet.
The squirrel, however, did not forget this and scampered down her arm expecting a nut, and finding none, assumed it might be placed on that table just a foot or so away and launched himself to the delicate little fruitwood music stand set by the harp's side. The Honorable Miss Dudley, so absorbed in a concern about her first appearance as a harpist had failed to notice Mrs. Chudwin's pet on her shoulder. The spiteful remarks of her younger brother, the Honorable George, who gleeful informed her that better musicians that her had had dead cats and tomatoes thrown at them last summer at the Bull and Hog, reoccurred to the Honorable Miss as she saw a furry creature come flying towards her. With a shriek and swoon worth of the incomparable queen of tragedy, Mrs. Siddons, Miss Dudley of the white arms and her harp tumbled to the floor in a tangle of incredibly expensive white spangled silk.
Mrs. Chudwin, horrified, shrieked to her little "Peekie" to come to mama, but the combined annoyances of no nut, bangs and shrieks sent Peekie launching himself into the audience to the delight of half the audience who had not expected so much entertainment from the whole night and the horror of the other half who read into a scared little ball of fluff the ferocious force of a half starved wolf.
Turbans, fans, reticules, and quizzing glasses flew from the hands of startled ladies leaping to jump upon their chairs. More calculating mamas, urged daughters into displaying a fair ankle upon a chair or swooning into a convenient gentleman's arms. In short, it was a delightful mess.
In the front rows, a bit more decorum reigned as Peekie's leap from the music stand was prodigious and sent him flying clear over the first four rows of the little gilt chairs. Toby leapt to his feet, frankly primarily out of an instinctive desire to follow the little creature's flight, and secondly to see if his help was needed. He spun around and his eyes meet a pair of jade ones some five rows behind him, only to have contact broken as a solid gold bottle of smelling salts sailed out of the hands of a collapsing dowager like a cannonshot and hit Mrs. Dearson on her temple.
What happened next varied remarkable little in the assorted accounts that would circulate in drawing rooms, the clubs, and in the park. The hitherto eminently boring and unsporting Toby Stacey-Brown, who had no reputation to speak of as a boxer, fencer, hunter, or driver as all, had hurled himself over five rows of uncomfortable gilt chairs full of London's finest producing a sound that Lord McDowell insisted was the battle cry of the McGregor clan and Mr. Hinton, the distinguished antiquarian, felt was similar to what the ancient Saxons might have yelled as they clashed with the Romans covered in blue paint, but mostly everyone agreed was clearly bad ton, to seize and carry off into that scandalous widow, Mrs. Dearson. That Lord McDowell had sneered at Mr. Hinton's theory, only insured that the story would spread in the drawling rooms of those who typically never even knew who the latest toast of St. James, but instead kept abreast of ever twist and turn of debates over druidic rituals and the date of various things unearthed from barrows across England.
It was admitted of course, that Stacey-Brown had only carried her off to the library, but everyone knew he had forced strong spirits down her throat there. Not to mention his method of the leaving the party ... Moreover, he had seized her with such force that by the time she had been revived, her bloody temple bathed in lavender water and linen bandage bound about her head, and gawked at under the guise of well-wishing by every gossipmonger there, a set of five blue-green marks had formed on her arm above her white gloves and below the sleeve of her green silk gown.
As for Toby, he felt it was he himself who awoke, when Lydia Cawley shoved her own crystal and silver smelling salts under Barbara's nose. He was suddenly conscious that having accomplished his goal of removing Mrs. Dearson from amid the victims of Peekie's Run, he had made himself and his concern for her very much a conspicuous matter. Moreover he had abandon two women entrusted to his care, one of notoriously fragile health and had taken upon himself to cause lord-knows how much injury in his precipitate rescue. To his complete mortification, Toby realized that a purple-striped ostrich plume was caught on the buckle of his shoe and hanging from his watch chain caught on one of his fobs was a scarf of what must have been some very elegant netting. As Miss Cawley supported Mrs. Dearson in her arms, Toby was fervently hoping that between the Honorable Miss Dudley and her harp and the havoc of Peekie, his efforts to remove Mrs. Dearson to safety had gone relatively unnoticed.
Unfortunately the sneer of Lord McDowell at Mr. Hinton's theory about the ancient Saxons, so enraged Mr. Hinton that he had attempted to recreate the "primal battle cry of our ancestors." Mr. Hinton's high-pitched and nasal voice, however, in Lady Harrow's own words, resembled Toby's about "as much as a peacock's shriek resembles a war horn." Disastrously, this recreation occurred just as the Honorable Miss Dudley had been recouping from her collapse, and precipitate her into a another shriek and swoon.
Peekie also disliked this effort at recreating an ancient Saxon battle cry and tried to find a better hiding place than under the cozy warm shawl so like his Mrs. Chudwin's own. The owner of the cozy warm shawl promptly let out a cry that put Mr. Hinton's to shame.
The sound of the continued shrieks from the library reassured Toby, who discovered as he attempted to untangle the netted scarf from his fob that his hands were shaking and had blood on them from his pressing his handkerchief to her forehead. The emotions that had gripped him, when those glorious jade eyes had rolled up to the ceiling and red blood had run down her forehead came rushing back to him as he stared as the blood on his fingers. His dream about his jade lady as a bride and the bouquet that had turned to blood came rushing back to him. She would die, and he could not stand to see it. He had to get out of there. A door, a door there to the terrace. And he was gone. And the French window onto the terrace swung drunkenly on one hinge as if it would swoon too.
Barbara sat on the hard gilt chair and tried to pretend she wasn't the least bit interested in looking at the pretty little blonde next Toby Stacey-Brown. She could feel the Baroness Farroll's eyes on her neck and tried to focus on what her aunt was whispering to her about what she was sure was a wig on the old dowager Countess of Gastington. She tried to stiffle the tiny feeling of hurt that the tiny head of blond curls wore a wreathe of white roses. She was so busy trying to project calm disinterest that the first shriek and clatter, came as a shock. Her eyes flew to the very head of brown hair she had been so assiduously avoiding and as the deep brown eyes found hers she felt stunned. She was hearing bells, she was drowning in deep brown pools, she was floating in his arms. There was only one he now, only one, she thought as she slid out of consciousness not even aware of the blow to her head.
She was somewhere warm and safe. Somewhere happy. Somewhere ... cold? Yes, very cold. Not so safe ... hard ... noisy ... and smelly ... whew ...
Babs opened her eyes to a circle of faces above her and quickly shut them with a shudder. No she didn't want to find out. But Aunt Julia's voice full of worry was begging her "Babs darling, oh my Babs darling, wake up dear, wake up love ..." So Barbara opened her eyes again and tryed to match Aunt Jule's face with the voice. Aunt Julia, so pretty, so like momma ... Barbara let herself slip away again.
When she next awoke she was feeling much warmer. She was covered with three shawls in the most dreadfully clashing shades of puce, lavendar, and red. The mere sight would wake anyone up. Someone in the background keep shouting something in Gailic or was it Welsh? Mrs. Chudwin was sobbing, while the dowager countess of Gastington with her wig distinctly askew seemed to be begging her pardon and keep trying to force into her hand a gold, but rather dented bottle of smelling salts. The smell of brandy seemed extremely strong. Baroness Farroll was practically licking her lips and drooling on her like some hound in at the kill. Toby would like that metaphor thought Babs and looked for his face in the circle around her. Good lord, no wonder she was cold, the door was hanging off its frame ... it had been a squirrel hadn't it? She had a vague memory of something grey flying through the air to her right. Surely no one would panic that bad from a squirrel?
"Barbara, Barbara Penelope, speak to me," cried Lady Harrow in despair, as she watched her niece's eyes roll around in their sockets again. The jade green eyes steadied upon her face and Julia felt tears of relief forming in her own.
"I don't feel well, Aunt Julia," said Babs. The smiles that greeted this remark in all the faces around her seemed grossly offending, and Barbara sat up and opened her mouth to insist that they leave.
"Mrs. Dearson, I am so happy to see you recovered from this unfortunate incident," babbled the dowager Countess of Gastington at her before she could make a sound. "You must explain to your young man, it was the shock of that animal you know. So forceful he was, rather like that Antonio in that Gothic play running at Covent Garden last week. But you must keep this bottle of salts, Mrs. Dearson, I could never use it again. Really, wild animals and mad men--oh, I beg your pardon Mrs. Dearson ... Do come to tea next week on Tuesday ..."
Good lord, the poor old dear had lost it, thought Babs. She's cracked. No wonder Mrs. Chudwin's crying and dragging her off to the door. Good lord, I've cracked. Why am I lying here under all these shawls in, what room is this--the library? Am I the one reeking of brandy? To her relief, Lady Harrow, the sweet Lydia Cawley, and the odious Baroness Farroll helped her to her feet and began to push away all the well-wishing gawkers and move her towards the door in the wake of Mrs. Chudwin and babbling dowager Countess. Barbara let herself be sweep along in as in a dream and let all the troublesome questions she knew must be answered fade from her mind.
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