The breakfast room of Julia, Lady Harrow, nee Rosemont, was far from matching the calm decorous picture of two ladies in morning gowns over breakfast which was depicted in the open copy of fashion plates on the table. Yes, Lady Harrow and her niece were dressed in chic morning gowns with beribboned French cornettes on their heads, and yes, their table was set upon a richly colored floral rug and had upon it a silver coffee set, but there the similarity between the picture and reality ended. Lady Harrow had piles of mail, assorted newspapers, collections of fashion plates, and monthly reviews scattered not only everywhere over the table that there were not plates, but on several extra chairs in the corners of the small, cozy room. Moreover one wall of the room was covered with cork, and various articles, prints, handbills, and invitations were pinned up in such numbers that they overlapped each other in busy confusion. The room had long ago been Lady Harrow's study, but upon her husband's passing, she had taken to eating breakfast in it and the servants had renamed the room appropriately. The original breakfast parlor, too drafty and done in a once cheerful blue that had faded to a dull gray, was now used only when Lady Harrow had guests from which she wished to hide her clutter.
The conversation over the cluttered table was as random as the contents on top of it. Aunt and niece discussed fully the unpleasantness of Julia's upset stomach, the relative merits of assorted recipes for herbal teas and hot mustards, Lady Royston's ball gown and hair do, the question of whether the canary yellow and black lutestring could survive the disastrous spill of wine, the hazards of a crowded ball to one's toilet, the unforgivable sin of bad coordination in polite circles, the silliness of the nickname "Bitzer," and some two dozen other things, before Barbara brought up the topic that had keep her sleepless a good while the night before.
"I made a rather silly faux pas last night, Julia."
"How silly do you mean by silly, Babs? Shall I laugh or be dreadfully mortified and have to act the indignant aunt out in public--Good Lord, Babs, I am teasing and you are changing color as if you were the invalid this morning rather than I!"
The humor of her discussion--or non-discussion with Stacey- Brown--suddenly struck Babs, and she shrugged her shoulders with a grin and small chuckle. "Good Lord, Julia, I must have been sick myself to act so silly. I was not thinking about what was happening, but planning the future and somehow found myself accepting an invitation from an acquaintance that had not been issued--
"What! You forced someone to invite you somewhere? Who? To what? And--"
"I just said yes, Julia. I didn't say thank-you for your kind invitation to visit the Prince for tea or anything like that- -my word what a fiasco that would have been!"
"Barbara Penelope, finish your tale at once!" ordered Julia, banging the table and knocking a pile of invitations to the floor with her impatience.
"Let me pick those up for you, dear Aunt," said Babs with a provocative smile, only to laugh as her aunt's fierce expression. "It was a Mr. Toby Stacey-Brown, and he covered my sudden "yes" by saying we would go for a drive and have a dancing lesson. Of course I don't think anything will come of it, but it was nice of him to cover my minor faux pas ..." Barbara tried to let her voice trail off casually, but she was anxious to have her aunt's opinion of the incident. Was he the type to call? Was it mere politeness? Was she now in social disgrace or just again exaggerating society's interest in her doings?
"Do you want to drive and dance with Mr. Stacey-Brown, Babs? asked Julia quietly. "Are you ready to being socializing with potential suitors?"
"Yes, Julia, I think I am," Barbara answered without raising her eyes from her coffee cup, as if she was a fortune teller reading tea leaves.
After a discreet pause lengthened into neigh on two minutes, Lady Harrow no longer hesitated to become blunt, "Barbara pull your green eyes out of that tea cup and tell me if you have the faintest interest in Stacey-Brown as a suitor. If so, we have notes to write, plans to make, people to see, and dresses to order. I shall certainly host a party to forward the cause, if this is what you want."
"He may have only been making polite talk, Julia. And I really know nothing about him except that he has a lot of boring ancestors according to Lady Royston."
With a most unlady-like snort Lady Harrow expressed her impatience with her friend's genealogical interests. She began shifting through the piles of invitations on the table, and muttering the sort of unconnected sentences that indicated she was no longer aware of anything but her own racing thoughts: "A most dreadful singer ... red and white roses and ivy garland ... Tuesday next, Wednesday next ... not worth our time ... charming couple ... shrimp or lobster pates? ... champagne trough ... harp music ... sherry brown velvet with gold lace ... Admiral Cloughton ..."
Signing, Barbara poured herself another cup of coffee and rose to look out the narrow window overlooking the small courtyard that was considered "the garden." She had gotten used to Lady Harrow drifting off into a world of plans and forgetting the present. Her mother had done the same thing. Outside the window, it was a cold, dreary morning and the bits of green scattered over the grey stone made the view seem lonely and desolate. Morning fog obscured a glimpse of the fresh buds appearing on the trees indicating April and spring would soon follow a rather bleak March. Barbara shivered despite her warm pink cashmere morning dress and the hot cup of coffee in her hand. Being lonely in a huge city was much worse than being lonely in the country, where one expected solitude. Her memories of the hot, crowded ballroom of the Blandforths seemed almost a dream this quiet morning.
"Eeekkk!" Babs was jolted back to the present as was her aunt by the shock of reaching down unlookingly for the pile of dropped invitations and encountering a warm, moving ball of fluff. "Barbara, you have to control this cat of yours. I really cannot have Muff startling me this way. I'm too old for it."
Muff, lying on the pile of invitations licking his white delicate hair, looked so incapable of frightening anyone Babs laughed. She had gotten Muff, a beautiful white Angora with a spot of pale orange, via a captured French ship that was heading towards France with some Turkish luxuries abroad, including beautiful long Cashmere shawls and the exotic white long-haired Angora cats. Fashionable pets came and went in vogue, and that year monkeys, squirrels, parrots, and lap-dogs were out and exotic cats were in. Babs, putting down her coffee, picked up Muff and draped him across her chest, petting him and caressing him to reassure him that he was loved, and he could lay on her papers in her traveling desk, and, after all, wasn't a low flat box of paper so much more fun than Aunt Julie's invitations on the floor?
"Babs, you should have children. If you would give them half as much love as you lavish on that fuzz-producing feline, you will be called a doting mama."
"Dreadful fate, Aunt Jule," replied Babs with a smile, reseating her self still holding Muff in her arms and rubbing her chin through his long fluffy white hair. "Why I should be thought the biggest bore in town and all the debs would flee me worrying I'll tell them all about my darlings for the forty- ninth time."
"And aren't they already running away from you saying, oh lud, here comes the cat lady!"
"The cat lady! I should think not. The Duchess of York keeps over a hundred dogs. I hardly qualify as eccentric for one wee cat, particularly as he is the most beautiful cat in the world, is he not?"
But before Julia could do more than snort at this, Wilkinson entered to deliver a bouquet of white roses and a note to Barbara with the information a footman was waiting for a reply. Julia smiled somewhat maliciously as Muff was unceremoniously dumped down on the floor by her niece, as she broke open the note.
"Going driving this afternoon, Barbara?" she inquired as she moved the standish carefully around the sugar bowl towards Babs's right hand.
Without a word, Barbara handed her the parchment note, and reached for a blank sheet of paper. Lady Harrow quickly skimmed the note:
Brown-House, St. James's Square
To Mrs. Dearson
I must apologize for being dreadfully forgetful. Is it today that we drive in the park at 5 or not? Please accept this little bouquet in recompense for my forgetfulness. I am looking forward to our drive with great delight.
I have the honor to be,
Your most humble servant,
"Just the sort of note I'd expect from a Stacey-Brown, formal and old-fashioned. But those roses are lovely for this time of year, my dear. I must give them a sniff," said Lady Harrow leaning over to read the note Barbara was writing as she perfunctorily sniffed the beautiful hot-house blooms of a creamy, buttery-white.
"Formal?" said Babs with a quizzical stare over her shoulder to her aunt as she reached for the sand to dry her note.
"Your most humble servant, humbug, that is on the way out my dear."
With a smile Barbara handed her not to Wilkinson and thanked him. When the door was closed behind the striped livery of his back, Babs asked, her pale green eyes wide and his eyebrows raised, "Did you read the post-script?"
Lady Harrow fumbled with the note with such haste, it popped out of her hands. The note landed by her delicate coffee cup, with the post-script up,
I tried to find roses that could match the flawless white beauty of your skin, but alas, nature unlike the heart, cannot be forced on a day's notice--T.
"So esteemed aunt, is it Spanish coin or no? And what do you make of the humble servant closure?"
"You did accept the invitation, Babs, didn't you?"
"Well as I had last night I could hardly renege now, especially as it is perhaps an excess of manners that has guided Mr. Stacey-Brown's actions. It seems his family is a by-word for formality."
"Not so, Babs, really. I mean the older generation, his grandfather's was excessively so. It was said his wife was never permitted to call him by anything other than his title, and his younger brothers were equally formal. In fact I recall one wag joking the words mommy and papa had in fact never been uttered anywhere in Brown House or Stacey Manor save for the servant's quarters."
"And the new generation is laxer now?" asked Babs with a frown.
"Yes indeed, it would only be from old folks like Lady Royston and myself that you'll hear of the horrors of a visit to Stacey Manor."
"Did you go there once?"
"Oh no, not I, but a cousin of mine did when I was young and told me how exhausting it was to be forever summoned by gongs and conversation limited to the most stilted and formal of exchanges. But the new Lord and his wife are quite charming indeed. I take it you met them at the Blandforth's, did you not? What was your impression of them?" To her aunt's surprise, this innocuous question brought a vivid blush to Bab's cheeks. "My word, you didn't speak incoherently to them as well, did you? Goodness, you are pinker than your wrapping dress, if Stacey-Brown could see you now he'd not wonder what happened to that white skin of yours."
Coloring even brighter at this comment, Babs said with a shaky laugh, "I just realized Julia that I don't recall what I said to Lord and Lady Barston, nor Stacey-Brown's mother either, I was just so flustered. I know I would have remembered if I'd said anything particularly awkward. I don't even have a very clear picture of Lady Barston, though I recall how alike the uncle and the nephew are in coloring and how very unlike the mother and son."
"Unlike as in she dies her hair black, Babs, for when Clara Hiberton first made her bows she had locks of brown not black. But unlike most women whose hair lightens with age, hers gradually darkens."
"No, really?" asked Babs seeing a way to turn the conversation to less embarrassing waters, "It looked so natural and youthful."
"Hah! That's by candlelight, my dear, and you can be sure she keeps her bonnet and caps on it the daylight."
"Goodness, how do you ever find these things out?" "Who else dies their hair that I've met, for the only women I've suspected of such a thing are certainly not ladies I'd be introduced to!"
Barbara knew her aunt well and by the dint of asking several leading questions whiled away the remaining time before her Aunt had her morning meeting with her housekeeper, with engrossing tales of dyed hair, wigs, false wax breasts, cheek pads, rice powder, belladonna for the eyes, and other assorted tricks of the demimonde that ladies of the ton occasionally borrowed to augment their own charms. And when she finally retired from the morning room, she did not go work on perfecting the sonata she was committed to playing at Mrs. Chudwin's musical evening two nights hence, but rather to her room to arrange her ivory roses and pull out her three carriage dresses and decide which would show off her complexion to best advantage. While Babs was not one to fuss unduly over her clothes, she spent such a considerable amount of her time petting Muff and discussing with him the relative merits of the three ensembles, the joys and perils of public dancing, and her impressions of one Tobias Stacey-Brown, she was shocked to discover she had little time to change before heading out to pay a "morning" call on Lady Royston. As her ladyship never rose before noon, it was nearer one than twelve, when Barbara set out on her call.
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