Lady Royston lived in a suite in the Royston's town house. Her eldest son, in a serious of brilliant diplomatic moves, had managed to install a new staircase in a previously little-used antechamber to lead up to his mother's almost isolated rooms. That he had managed this without offending either his wife or his mother or any of the older servants, which Lady Royston wished to keep around her, said a lot for his intelligence. Given carte blanche to refurbish the suite her son had prepared for her, Lady Royston had indulged herself, creating an small, exotic haven in the middle of the severe neoclassicism of Royston house. She considered her son's arrangements as more directed towards granting her long-denied wishes of redecorating than in putting distance between his conservative and gentle bride and her more colorful and forceful personality.
As Lady Harrow and Babs, moved up the gilded, curved staircase towards Lady Royston's suite, Babs braced herself nervously for the visit. When Ribston ushered them in the peacock room, instead of the small Egyptian saloon in which Lady Royston usually received their calls, Lady Harrow gave Babs' hand a bracing squeeze. It was a sight to freeze any debutante's blood--a half-dozen of white haired matrons with gossip as their goal and enough knowledge of the upper ten thousand to write a comprehensive guide to the peerage of Britain, and a sketchy one of Ireland and Scotland as well.
As Lady Harrow nervously surveyed Lady Royston's guests, she would have been relieved to know her niece's thoughts. Having grown accustomed to her friend's decorating tastes, even assisted in the selection of some of the furnishings and fabrics, the peacock room no longer made an impression on Julia. Yet to Babs, the sight of these dignified peeresses sitting calmly before huge spread fans of peacock feathers, was a sight to be enjoyed. In their brightly-colored modish gowns and proud dignity, Babs saw Lady Royston's guests as no more than another sort of peacock, strutting and squawking in the pleasure garden called London. Thus she was able calmly to seat herself on gilded stool covered in peacock blue damask and smile easily as she was introduced to a dowager countess, a duke's daughter, two baronesses, and two well-connected matrons. The stiffening and disapproval that swept over the circle, amused Babs instead of frightening or depressing her, for in her mind, the ladies were acting like fickle peafowl feed unappetizing grain. How I wish I had someone to tell this too--it wouldn't be proper to make fun of them with Aunt Julie, for Lady Royston is her friend and theirs. Somebody to laugh with ... Somebody who isn't bitter and disillusioned about London like David was ...
A shock of guilt hit Babs as she realized for the first time she had admitted to herself she could want a companion unlike her first husband David. Thrown out of kilter by this realization, the dowager countess of Martenshaw's question nettled her: "Mrs. Dearson, how surprising to see you in colors today. Were you not in mourning at the Blandforth's ball last night?"
"No, Madam, I was not. My dress-maker assured me the silk of my ball gown was navy in color, but, indeed, in candle light it looks much darker than in a sun-lit workroom. I shall have to make a point in the future of looking at fabrics for evening gowns in candle light."
Lady Harrow attempted to shift the conversation away from Bab's widowhood to clothing, but to no avail. Babs was barraged with questions ranging from the most trite to the most personal. Finally, as she became flustered, Lady Mary Penshallow, the spinster daughter of the Duke of Reddingell, asked "Will any of your gentleman friends from Europe be rejoining you, now that you are moving about in society?"
Babs froze. The question barely concealed Lady Mary's contemptuous opinion of her. She turned her head slowly and deliberately to see if Lady's Mary's expression would reveal whether she was deliberately being insulting. Lady Mary's haughty glare under the waving fronds of the peacock feathers decorating her armchair brought a smile to Babs' mouth. What else can I expect from such a woman? Her conversation is as pleasant as a peacock's shriek. David would not have been able to tolerate even the introductions.
"You smile, Mrs. Dearson," Lady Mary observed with a sniff, "Does this mean you are expecting your friends?"
"Why no, Lady Mary, I am not, though I really cannot imagine whom you are referring to. New places, new friends, my David used to say," Barbara replied in a pious tone, but added with deliberate provocation, "Speaking of new friends, I am going driving today, and am afraid I must draw this delightful visit to a close."
"And who is this new gentleman friend you are driving with, Mrs. Dearson?" hastily asked the countess.
"How quickly you make friends, my dear" added the Baroness Farroll.
Barbara laughed and pretend to misunderstand the insinuation, "How kind of you Lady Farroll to consider me a friend on such short notice. You must visit me at my aunt's some day for tea."
Startled, the grey-haired baroness murmured something in a voice so muted Babs could not understand more than one or two words. In the flurry of Lady Julia and Babs departure, the name of Bab's driving partner was drawn out, but this paradoxically made the ladies more eager to have Babs go for the pleasure of discussing her life more freely.
On the way home, Lady Harrow was upset. "I cannot think what dear Lady Roy was thinking not to warn us that she would be getting a visit from the inquisition."
"The Inquisition--come Aunt Jule--surely they were not as bad as that!"
"I get one stomach ache, and look what happens, Barbara. You manage to entangle yourself with Toby Stacey-Brown and now imply to the biggest set of gossips that he is you lover!"
"What! I did no such thing my Lady Harrow!"
"They shall magnify that new friends into new lovers, Babs, and I shall be ill. That Lady Mary, oh! she is such a spiteful woman. I don't know why Lady Roy doesn't see it. Do you know she was jilted as a young girl? She has never gotten over it and does her best to blight every romance she can. I pity the poor girl who she ever tries to sponsor, for too many people will want to pay the duke's daughter back with her own coin. But on the bright side, Babs, this means my gala will be a success. Everyone will come to see if the gossip is true."
"Aunt! How heartless! My reputation in shreds--again--and all you think of is your gala!" exclaimed Babs in mock despair. "Speaking of which, what were those plans you were making this morning, more changes for the gala?"
"Oh, my plans! All ruined now! No I was planning your betrothal ball, but I daresay that it won't come off now."
"Betrothal ball," gasped Babs, bursting into laughter, "I don't believe it." But Julia had no reply or reprimand for her niece's laughter, having slipped into more planning dreams again. Barbara giggled to herself again, amused by her entrance into London society. Friends like the inquisition and one invitation to drive has my aunt planning a betrothal ball! No wonder David refused to come to London--it is so intense--and, yes, exciting! To think that the old peacocks think I could pick up a lover in one five minute conversation at a ball! My word, I would think even a professional lady-bird would need longer! How shocking! How wicked! And just a little bit fun to think of--not that I would do any such thing. And all this happening under a veil of propriety and gracious English manners. Take Stacey-Brown, Toby, for instance--those rakish gazes at me last night suggested he planned to ... well something wild. Yet supposedly he is extremely mild and conventional. Is he wild or not? With a smile on her lips, Babs let herself dwell on this train of thought all the way back to Harrow House.
At this moment, Toby Stacey-Brown, would no doubt have been classified as mild by anyone able to see him lying on the leather recamier in his study, eyes closed and a newspaper lying neglected upon his chest. He felt he deserved a rest after spending the morning finding out Mrs. Dearson's direction, hunting down ivory roses, sending notes and bouquets to his dance partners of the night before, and apologizing to his friend Peter for having neglected to dance with his sister. Yesterday morning spent working on the monthly accounts had been child's play to this morning.
The worst had been trying to explain to Peter why he had not danced with his little sister Millicent at the Blandforth's ball last night. It was not that Peter was offended that Toby did not want to dance with Millicent, but that he had failed to relieve Peter of his duty of watching over Millicent for at least a half of an hour as promised. Peter's mother, Mrs. Shellridge, was asthmatic, and trying to keep up with her lively daughter Millicent had in the past brought on attacks of asthma terrifying the whole Shellridge family.
While Millicent was no wild hoyden and was trying not to disturb her mother, Peter felt it his duty to give his mother extra support and assistance in keeping track of her during this her first season. He thus was enlisting friends that his mother approved of to spend blocks of time with Millicent, and Toby, typically reliable, was receiving being heavily pressured to help out. Toby had felt hurt that Peter believed he was deliberately trying to blacken his character to avoid what Peter admitted was a boring time, despite Millicent's pretty china-doll blonde beauty. To convince his friend he would stand by him in this season, Toby had agreed to go with Peter, Millicent, and Mrs. Shellridge to a musical evening in a few days.
"My mother lets herself get too worked up worrying about what Millicent will perform and when," Peter had said. "I am to go along and make sure she thinks I am looking out for Millicent, who can actually handle it all on her own. Neither my mother or sister really has any use for me at this recital, but for the sake of the family, I am to subject myself to some of the most mediocre music and shy debutantes of the season. I shall be cornered by some match-making momma and forced to talk to some embarrassed and disinterested young girl about ballads, harps, sonatas, and what-not. If you come, Toby, at least we can talk of something more amusing, and we won't have to pretend at least to each other an interest in either the music or the performers."
Toby had agreed, with the proviso that Peter send him word ahead of time what Millicent would be performing so he could make something more serious than mere small talk on the piece with the Shellridge ladies.
Millicent herself had seemed embarrassed at Toby's apology this morning, and had hardly said a word to Toby, her eyes continually moving from between his face and her brother's. Her discomfort had increased Toby's, making him feel like a chaperon. Not that he wanted to be a suitor, either. Or do I? wondered Toby as lay in his study later on. I am certainly acting like a man wanting to find a bride, taking a lady for a drive, escorting a lady to a musical. My life is tangled up with social commitments; there are annual parties I will be giving and going to once a year for the next sixty years, if I last that long. Will I be going to them alone each year, dancing with friend's sister, then daughters, then granddaughters? Already the young debutantes are almost half my age.
Such thoughts keep resurfacing in Toby's mind, making it difficult to read the latest news of parliament, and sending him drifting off into an afternoon nap.
He was at a wedding banquet. He didn't know whose wedding, but he recognized many of the guests ... his grandparents, his father and mother, Aunt Miranda and Uncle Bar, Aunt Gertrude and Sir Pinderston, the Chudwins, the Yearstows, the Blandforths, the Shellridges ... The banquet room was decorated with masses of ivory and white roses everywhere he looked. Millicent Shellridge, dressed in white and fading into a huge bank of roses, sang a ballad for the newlyweds. Peter and Jimmy and Richard, his friends from Oxford, were there with wives and daughters. Each of them came up and demanded that Toby dance with their daughters, faceless young women in white. Toby keep pushing through the dancers, looking for the bride. Then everyone was pushing towards the entrance hall, which was like the entrance hall at Stacey Manor, except that it was entirely white and ivory. The bride was coming down the stairs to leave for the honeymoon. Yet she was still dressed in a bridal gown and completely veiled. At the curve of the staircase, she paused and waved a startlingly red bouquet of roses at the crowd below. "Throw the bouquet," the guests were calling, "and the one who catches it will marry next." Somehow Toby was right at the center of the hall. He looked around as people pressed around him, and it seemed like all his friends and family were leaning far away against the white damask-covered walls and laughing. The room was a blur of white and ivory, and Toby was surrounded by a host of young faceless women in the white gowns of debutantes. They were waving their hands to the bride. Suddenly the bouquet was thrown, and the red roses swirled slowly down from the stairs to Toby's hands. He looked at the red roses in his hands and up to the bride. Her veil was back, and it was the Jade lady smiling enigmatically at him. Her eyes were pools of pale milky green. Then she was turning and walking up the stairs with Toby's father and his grandparents. Toby looked down at his hands again and the red roses began to melt into a thick red liquid, running through his fingers and splashing like blood on the white marble floor.
Toby came awake, suddenly alert, and knocked the newspaper on his chest to the floor. He needed to get that dream out of his mind. The pain of his grandparents and father's deaths was there again, a bleak reality like the March rain outside. Rain, damn it--I'll have to cancel the drive with the Jade lady, with Mrs. Dearson. I have to think of her as Mrs. Dearson not a dream lady. Pulling out his watch, Toby decided to call early on Mrs. Dearson, to see about how the rain would affect their plans. With a sudden feeling of panic, he wondered if this would be a gracious way for Mrs. Dearson to withdraw from their embarrassing situation. How she had looked when they had touched for the first time! Her hand had trembled in his, and her eyes had seemed enormous, beautiful and etherial, so pale and green. Her mouth of pink had opened, and he had wanted to hear her whisper some word of submission to him. He had willed her to offer herself to him, and when she had said yes, he had felt a rush of possessiveness and desire. Then when she had blushed so delightfully, coloring as rosy as her lips, he had been distracted, wondering how she would look flushed with pleasure in his arms. God, he had to stop dwelling on that moment. What could come of it? He didn't even know this woman. She could have a thousand personality traits that he would despise. And a thousand that he would love. A vision of her dressing in white throwing him a bouquet of red roses reappeared from his dream. Toby turned from the window's view of the afternoon rain and headed out of the study to prepare for his drive.
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