Authors: Vanessa Gray
THE WICKED GUARDIAN
A NOT SO PROPER YOUNG LADY
“I wish I were dead!” was Clare Penryck’s impassioned reaction upon hearing that Sir Benedict Choate was to be her guardian. She had known this elegant aristocrat for but one London season—but that time had sufficed to show her how insufferably arrogant he could be.
Benedict made it clear that he expected Clare to be a very proper young lady, to remain safe on her secluded country estate, to wait for a decent match—in short to be all and do all that Clare found intolerably boring and detestable.
Both Benedict and the law said she must obey him. But the exasperatingly headstrong Clare had no intention of accepting any such odious arrangement. First her outrageously independent mind, and then her scandalously impetuous heart, told her it was time to rebel.
Sir Benedict Choate was clearly unprepared for the lesson in love he was about to be given—by a maddeningly willful young girl who had so much to learn herself!
Characters: Sir Benedict Choate and Miss Clare Penryck
An old-fashioned traveling coach, well-kept but evoking memories of an earlier day, trundled majestically along the King’s Highway approaching London.
An expert might puzzle his brains to recognize the armorial bearings on the coach panel. Ostrich feathers quartered improbably with a rare leopard rampant and three wyvems—the Penryck arms had not been seen in London for ten years or more.
The arms on the door of the coach belonged to an old and onetime wealthy Dorset family of high courage and resolution coupled with an unfounded but invincible belief in the favor of the goddess of gaming. At this time, in 1811, the Penryck family was left with its ancient seat, a somewhat Gothic abbey near Blandford, surrounded by fields productive enough to assure a comfortable life for tenants and the family itself, but without means to indulge in the excessively expensive world of fashion.
It was clear that the coach had gone a long way. Coachman all but slumped on his box, and there was even a light coating of dust on the maroon coachwork. But it would take more than these visible signs of slackening of discipline to be sure that the occupants were right rustics.
There were two occupants of the coach, maid and mistress. The mistress, sitting bolt upright and wearing an air of tiptoe expectancy, disdained the support of the maroon squabs, pounded free of accumulated dust no more than three days ago. She was a very comely girl of perhaps fifteen years. Her curls, gold as florins, hung prettily alongside a charming face with an assortment of features that, while not of classic beauty, yet exerted a beguiling charm, which, unaware, she bestowed on any living being within range. Her traveling dress was of sober hue, and cut not quite in the crack of fashion, but of excellent material, and new. An onlooker might be puzzled to note that the young miss was dressed unexceptionably as a lady no longer in the first flush of youth, and then to regard the dimples, the frank, open countenance of a girl who ought still to be in the schoolroom.
This puzzling young lady was the Honorable Clare Penryck, sole descendant of the Penryck family. Sadly orphaned ten years before, when her father and mother had trusted, mistakenly, in her father’s ability to hold his spirited pair around a sharp corner, Clare was brought after their deaths to live with the Dowager Countess of Penryck, in Penryck Abbey.
The Tresillians of Devon, the wayward family to which Clare’s mother had belonged, could not be trusted, so the dowager said, to rear a Penryck, and communications between the two families lapsed.
As a matter of fact, Lady Penryck, an austere person who had lived through the tragic death of her only son and his wife, and the less tragic loss of her bibulous husband, and had constructed a shell of some hardness around her in order to survive, dared not let her heart be hostage to any family ties in the future.
The Penrycks, of course, presented no problem, since there were so few of them that they had to some extent been absorbed into other families, and only cousins at least twice removed remained.
But Lady Penryck’s own surviving family consisted solely of a vastly ancient man, her half-brother, Lord Horsham of Wiltshire, and that was all. He was of feeble health, and while he was expected to become Clare’s guardian in due course, supposing Lady Penryck to die before he did, yet the last letter he had written to her caused his sister slight misgivings.
But Horsham had been hale when Clare first came to live at Penryck Abbey, when she was five. Lady Penryck, although an invalid, had fulfilled her obligations, provided Clare with an unexceptionable governess from Bath, whose name, Peek, seemed appropriate for such a mild, almost furtive person. She had guided Clare’s first steps through the maze of Penryck Abbey and the loneliness of a suddenly orphaned child, and even had done a creditable job of educating the child, with the help of Miss Mangnall’s
Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young People
, which had fortunately been published just long enough to be current in Dorset.
Miss Peek had found her charge quick to learn, with an intelligence above average, and she was hard put to keep the girl busy. But as Lady Penryck declined in health, Clare was forced more and more to take over the management of the household, Miss Peek declining in a flustered flurry of half-sentences.
So it was that when Miss Peek left Penryck Abbey to remove to Bath, to share lodgings with her sister in Milsom Street above a milliner’s shop, Clare was an odd mixture of lonely child and precocious adult. Miss Peek left with mixed feelings, which she often shared with her sister, Sara, over a cup of tea, looking down into the street from their cozy living room over the shop.
“Mark my words,” she said, not for the first time, “that young miss is going to make her mark in the world. I wonder how she will do, for you must know that her grandmother is failing.”
Miss Peek shook her head mournfully. “Yes, failing every day.”
“She sounds like a spoiled child to me,” said Sara with reproof. She was, if truth were told, a bit jealous of her sister’s absorbing interest in the Honorable Clare Penryck. She was completely bored with the iteration of the young lady’s virtues, and even the glossed-over faults, of which there were astonishingly few.
“She sounds like a rash young lady,” commented Sara. “Does she never think first before she does something?”
“Oh, yes. She is a thoughtful child, much too thoughtful for her years,” said Miss Peek approvingly. “I’ve known her to spend hours in the long gallery, looking at the portraits of the family, you know. I often wonder what she thought about them.”
“Why didn’t you ask her?” asked Sara dryly.
“I did. And she said something nonsensical about ‘imagine having to live up to the appearance of those fierce eyebrows’! Such a child!”
Sara fell into a reminiscent mood. “When I used to see Lord Penryck—the grandfather, that is—here to take the waters for his gout, he had just such eyebrows. And a wicked disposition to match, I recall! That was the only thing I recall—and I was glad to see the end of him. Such a man! You remember him, don’t you?”
Miss Peek shut her eyes in shuddering recollection. “Yes,” she said flatly. “And I thank my stars that young Clare never had a chance to fall afoul of her grandfather. For she must have suffered, don’t you know!”
Dismissing the Penryck eyebrows and the Penryck disposition into limbo, Sara moved on to the far more important subject of what they would have for their tea, and Clare was forgotten.
Clare herself was not thinking about Miss Peek, to tell the truth, nor even about her grandmother, of whom she had been dutifully fond, but no more. It would have been strange had she been more than affectionate to a woman who appeared to need no one to love, and seemed only to have the desire to be left alone.
Clare had no way of knowing that the pain that walked constantly with Lady Penryck—both the discomfort of her illness and the gnawing pain of her son’s loss—made the dowager keep even her grandchild at a distance. Clare was thrown back on her own resources, which she found, over the years, more than adequate.
Clare and her maid had spent the previous night at the Anchor in Ripley, on the Exeter Road, a rather large establishment that had at first made a quelling impression on her, until her quality had been established by the impressive, if old-fashioned traveling coach, with coachman, footman, and two armed outriders.
Now, as she leaned from the window, she could discern the smoke of the capital in the far distance, a mere smudge on the horizon. “Budge, just think! In a few hours I shall be in London! That is,
shall, for I cannot conceive of going anywhere without you, dear Budge.”
“Like enough we’ll be slaughtered together in the streets, miss,” said Budge, a mahogany-faced Dorset girl, daughter of a Penryck tenant, pressed into service as a personal maid when young Clare Penryck first came to the abbey.
“Oh, Budge, you gloomy thing! My godmother, Lady Thane, will keep us safe. As though we’d be in any danger!”
Budge, whose natural gloom had been accentuated over the years by her mistress’s bright and often misplaced optimism, forbore to prophesy further. The journey had been a trial to one of her ample proportions, and she had thought the beds at one inn had not been sufficiently aired.
And she positively knew she was not going to like London!
“I have been trying to imagine just how Lady Thane will look,” Clare continued. “It will seem strange to have an
-relative to talk to, after all this time. Grandmama’s relatives are all gone, except for her brother, who will someday be my guardian. So Grandmama always said. She said there wasn’t anybody on the Penryck side who could serve. Just a boy, a third cousin. I’ve never seen him.”
“A boy?” echoed Budge. “I don’t mind any boy. Never saw one.”
Rightly paying no heed to her maid, Clare prattled on. She would not have admitted that the nearer London came, the more sinking she felt. How would she go on? She was, after all, much too young to come out into society. But Grandmama counseled a determined avoidance of birthdays, and had told her as forcefully as she could: “You must marry if you can. Now, child, I don’t mean that you should take the first offer that comes your way. Lady Thane will see to that. But don’t shy off for some missish reason.”
“But what, dear Grandmama, if no one offers?”
Old Lady Penryck surveyed her granddaughter with a pride she had never allowed to show. The girl fortunately had escaped the fierce Penryck eyebrows—taking more after the Tresillians—and her tip-tilted nose and her engaging ways would be winsome indeed, if ... Always that if. Lady Penryck wished fiercely she could give her granddaughter another two years of tutelage. But certain unmistakable signs had told her that those two years would not be allotted to her.
She was careful to make no complaint of her ailment to Clare. Instead, she simply said, “I should like to see you settled in life, my dear. And every young lady is entitled, they say, to one London season.”
“But won’t it be difficult for you to travel so far, Grandmama? You say that Bath is too far, but I should think the waters would help you greatly. Even the doctor says so.”
Lady Penryck dismissed the doctor’s opinion with a wave of her hand. She had no trust in doctors, based on her experience with them. They had not even helped her late, unlamented husband’s gout. “I am not going. I am sending you to your godmother, Lady Thane. She has a house in London, and I have written to her to ask her to take you in.”
Clare’s heart quailed. She had mixed feelings, suddenly, longing to cling to the known security of Penryck Abbey, where, to all intents, she reigned over the household. But London was a magnet of great potency, and the sudden glimpse of a wider horizon could not fail to stimulate her vivid imagination.
“She was a great friend of my mother’s, wasn’t she?” ventured Clare. She had not had any word from her godmother except for a succession of dolls at Christmastime, and even that series had ceased in the last few years. To Clare’s own recollection, she had never seen her. She told her grandmother so, but, adding fairly, “Of course I would not remember if I had been a child then, would I?”
Lady Penryck said abruptly, to cover her feelings, “You are hardly more than that now. And I should not send you so young. But—”
“Then please let me stay until you think it is time,” begged Clare, the part of her that was reluctant to leave uppermost.
Lady Penryck steeled herself. “I think it is time now. I have decided, and I shall not wish to hear any more about it. I have put aside sufficient money for this excursion. Lady Melvin is to see that you are properly dressed, and although I regret the necessity for depending upon a lady whose taste I do not quite like, yet I must believe that she is more aware of the fashions than I.”
Lady Penryck leaned back on her pillows and closed her eyes for a moment. The interview was taking too long, and her strength was ebbing. “Now, run along. Lady Melvin expects you this afternoon, and she will know how to go on.”
Clare tiptoed to the door, and turned. “Thank you, ma’am,” she said softly. Lady Penryck was already asleep.
That had been a month ago. And Clare had been caught up in the swirl of dressmaking, and the constant advice and warnings of Lady Melvin, until by the time she had left Penryck Abbey two days ago she was in such a state of excitement that she could have flown to London by herself.
But then, she thought with mischievous amusement, how could she have managed to convey her dear Budge, weighing probably eleven stone, along with the trunks that were strapped to the back of the coach?
Now the outskirts of London came into view. Clare fell silent as she stared from the window of the coach. Heedless of anything except the great size of the prospect, the narrow roads where carts jostled coaches, riders pressed against pedestrians who, more often than not, retorted with flying cabbages and hurled insults.
And while, like Dick Whittington, she should have seen opportunity spread out before her, she must take her lower lip between her teeth to keep from giving vent to the strong desire to be back at home at Penryck Abbey that very instant.
The feeling did not leave her until the coach, following directions obtained along the way, turned with a rumbling clatter into Grosvenor Square.
At the time that Clare was about to learn from her grandmother’s lips of her great good fortune, a certain house looking out on Grosvenor Square was beginning to face a new day, a day that was destined to rock the household to its foundations.
Lady Thane’s house in Grosvenor Square caught the midmorning light. The house was astir with its usual activities, more particularly in the kitchens, where Mrs. Darrin waited serenely for the bell to ring and the indicator for Lady Thane’s bedroom to drop, signifying that Lady Thane had roused from sleep and was, if not ready, at least willing to face the day.
“Not like the old days, is it?” grumbled Darrin, the butler, to his wife. “Not like when there was entertaining, twenty to dinner more often than not, and such a stir of carriages in the square outside as would make a cat smile.”
“And sorry enough you were at the time, Darrin,” retorted his wife smartly. ‘Too much to do, you always said. Although you had footmen enough, and maids, too, to do it all.”
The discussion was not a new one, and uncovered no new ground, and at length died of its own inertia. Hobbs, an angular, tart-faced woman who had tended Lady Thane since her marriage more than twenty years before, and therefore held a position of unquestioned superiority over the Darrins, hurried in, her handful of letters attesting that the post had just come.
“And not much in it, either,” said Hobbs. “A letter from Miss Harriet, I should say Lady Cromford, and we can guess that something has gone awry down at the Hall. But...” She stopped short to frown down at a letter that puzzled her. “I can’t make this out,” she muttered, and then, the bell ringing sharply, the letter was dropped on the morning tray, Mrs. Darrin made tea from the kettle already on the boil, and with practiced efficiency the breakfast tray for Lady Thane was borne up the service stairs to the floor above. Lady Thane was an indulgent mistress, relying more on the affection her servants had for her than to her management, and she was well-served. In fact, as Lady Thane’s daughter, Harriet, sometimes told her, “They have little else to do than to wait on you hand and foot.”
Lady Thane replied, “I do think we get along comfortably together. I am sure I want for nothing.”
Just now, on this April morning, she was propped up in her bed upon freshly fluffed pillows, the breakfast tray upon her lap, and Hobbs moving quietly around the room. The draperies were opened, and the sunshine poured in.
The stack of envelopes on the breakfast tray did not receive Lady Thane’s attention until after her second cup of tea. Truly, she thought, it takes longer and longer to wake up in the morning. The tea is too weak—she must speak to Mrs. Darrin about it.
Languidly turning over the envelopes, she indulged herself in her usual habit, trying to divine the contents from the outer appearance.
“This is surely a card to the duchess’s ball at Syon House. But Syon House is so removed, Hobbs, it quite oversets me to think of traveling that far. Especially at night.” She sighed. “I fear I must turn it down. And yet, if one continually turns down these invitations, one soon finds oneself out of the swim altogether. I don’t know what to do.”
Hobbs gave her no encouragement, correctly surmising that her mistress was communing entirely with herself. Hobbs placed the screen before the fire that struggled in the grate. Green wood—Hobbs scowled—and she would have a thing or two to say belowstairs about that!
An exclamation behind her made her turn inquiringly to Lady Thane. She was peering in a decidedly puzzled manner at the same heavy square envelope that had aroused Hobbs’s curiosity. The butterfly patch she wore to discourage lines between her eyebrows bent with her effort to decipher the writing on the envelope.
“Hobbs, what do you think of this?”
Hobbs chose discretion. “I really could not say, my lady.”
“No, of course not. But I wonder ... I haven’t seen this handwriting for years. More years than I intend to remember,” said Lady Thane with spirit. She went on to remember the years.
“This certainly takes me back,” she said presently. “This is from old Lady Penryck. The dowager, you know.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Elizabeth Tresillian’s mother-in-law. You must know, Hobbs, that Elizabeth and I grew up near neighbors and closest of friends in Devon. I was a Launceville, you know, and although there was a connection between our families, it was such a long time ago that it was of no account. But growing up together made the difference.”
She leaned back against her lace-covered pillows, her breakfast forgotten. “We came out together, presented at the same ball in London, you know. Elizabeth was the prettiest belle of the season. She had at least five offers in the first six weeks!”
Lost in her reveries, she was once again a girl, dancing at four different parties every night, after a round of afternoon outings, and riding in the park in the morning. Elizabeth had married Robert Penryck and gone to live in Dorset. And Helen Launceville, not quite so pretty but much more fortunate, married a pleasant, kind man of substantial wealth—not exciting, but, thought Lady Thane, much more durable, after all.
“Elizabeth and Robert were killed in an accident on the road to Exeter. Horses ran away and the carriage overturned.” Lady Thane shook her head. “Robert Penryck always thought he was a notable whip, you know, but in fact he was lamentably slow-witted. But one thing he did have—the Penryck
“I daresay it led to his demise—a frosty night, so they said, and the road not at all trustworthy. But they both died in the accident. I was godmother to their daughter, you know. But my own affairs were troublesome, and I let things go. When the girl was first sent to old Lady Penryck, I heard from time to time how she was getting on. But since then...”
She frowned once again at the letter. Had she been a woman of some sensitivity, one might have thought she was seized by a feeling of impending trouble, even disaster. But she was not, and Hobbs thought she was simply prolonging the delicious feeling of anticipation.
“What do you think, Hobbs?”
“I think, begging your pardon, my lady, that the letter might tell you what is going forward.
you opened it.”
“How commonsensical you are, Hobbs.” She broke the wafer and began to read.
“What dreadful handwriting!” she exclaimed. But the letter explained the handwriting, too.
“My dear Helen,” it began. “A long time has elapsed since I have had the pleasure of hearing from you, although I have kept myself informed of your circumstances as well as I have been able, living in the confines of Penryck Abbey, itself isolated to a degree from the world of society. I have heard of Thane’s death, for which I offer condolence, and, two years ago, of your daughter Harriet’s marriage. You have done well for your daughter, marrying her to such an unexceptional gentleman as Braintree Cromford. I confess it is partly your daughter’s felicity that prompts me to turn to you in what must be a dilemma that I cannot resolve alone.”
Lady Thane turned over the letter. There was much more—and already she felt a foreboding of more than trouble. With a sigh she turned back, found her place again in the crabbed hand, and set herself resolutely to make her way through the labyrinth.
“My dear granddaughter, Clare, is my deepest concern. I myself have been far from well for these ten years, and now I find that I cannot do even the smallest things that I once was able to manage with ease. I do not these days leave my bed.”
! thought Lady Thane. Even though she herself lay comfortably in bed just now, she could leave it at will. And even such a complacent woman as herself could see that pain racked the invalid whose handwriting was so bad.
“I have made my will, and named a guardian for Clare. The will is in the hands of my man of affairs, Herbert Austin. But there is not much longer for me. And I do wish to see my dear granddaughter settled in life as soon as possible. I want her to have a season in London, and a chance to make a satisfactory marriage, before she must go into mourning, which I am sorry to say will be inevitable, and quite soon. Although, for myself, I shall welcome whatever release is to come from my discomfort, I shall rest more easily knowing that my dear Clare has enjoyed herself a little.”
Lady Thane was a compassionate woman, even if her intellect was not powerful, and the words of the letter swam before her eyes.
Lady Thane dropped the letter on the counterpane. “Hobbs,” she directed, “I wish to get up at once.”
Hobbs stared at her, alarmed at Lady Thane’s abrupt departure from custom. “It lacks a quarter-hour of ten o’clock, my lady,” Hobbs pointed out.
“I do not wish, after all, Hobbs, to spend my entire
in bed. I think I shall wear the light blue tunic with the gold trim, Hobbs. It always makes me feel more cheerful.”
She read, presently, the rest of the letter. The child Clare was old for her age—sixteen in June—for she had been in her grandmother’s company for some years, and had taken over much of the running of the establishment She was much like her mother, Elizabeth. Thank goodness for that! thought Lady Thane. Elizabeth had been a beauty, and of a sweetness of disposition that was remarkable.
She could have taken after her father, mused Lady Thane. A man of mild enough character, but possessed of an unexpected stubbornness when it came to gambling away his fortune. The well-known Penryck resolution, while all very well on the battlefields of Europe, was sadly inappropriate at the gaming tables of the Dandy Club, combined as it was with a strong, if unmerited optimism.
If Lady Penryck wanted Clare’s godmother to launch her into society, the apprehension of a decided change in her way of living was daunting to Lady Thane. But no one had ever said that Helen Launceville did not do her duty, and no one ever should.
Referring once again to the letter, she deciphered the last paragraph. “I shall pray that you will take this charge upon yourself, and will be ever grateful. Clare would travel with her maid, two grooms, a footman, and the coachman, and I trust that you will allow Budge to remain with Clare. I would not have you put to the trouble...” There was more, but a cursory glance indicated that the rest of the letter was taken up with civilities, and not to the point.
Hobbs dropped the light blue sarcenet over her mistress’s head. From the folds Lady Thane’s voice came muffled. “I must write at once. Poor child. It will be pleasant to have a young girl around the house again. I must answer all those invitations that came this morning, begging the courtesy of bringing my goddaughter. And the bedrooms, Hobbs”—her voice was clear again as the maid straightened the folds of the skirt—“I think the Blue Room will be the best. There is a smaller room next for the maid. What’s her name? Budge? And there will be all manner of arrangements needed—I vow I don’t know what to do first.”
“Perhaps Mr. Darrin would know?” said Hobbs with a straight face.
“I should say not! I believe I know what is best in my own house. I shall tell Darrin what I wish done.”
The conference with Darrin settled Lady Thane’s mind, and she could rest assured that her goddaughter’s comfort would be uppermost in the minds of her household. Lady Thane could then turn her thought to confiding in a few of her very
friends, perhaps an even dozen of them, that her goddaughter—Elizabeth Tresillian’s daughter, you know—was on her way to London. Armed with promises of cards to balls, invitations to routs, and a general certitude that she had done what she could and all must wait now upon the arrival of the girl, Lady Thane declared to herself with unquenchable optimism that the girl must of necessity be biddable, very pretty, and sweet-natured. Lady Thane looked forward to an excessively successful season.
Casting her cares comfortably away, Lady Thane ordered her barouche and ordered her coachman, John Potter, to drive to the park. As usual, the pleasant motion of the carriage, the balmy May air upon her powdered cheeks, soothed her mind as she greeted her many acquaintances. Her matchmaking thoughts, stimulated by the faces she saw, came to the fore.
Ned Fenton, for example, bowing to her now. A splendid figure on horseback, and wealthy enough to overlook the lack of a dowry in a bride, if he could be attracted.
His great friend, Benedict Choate, riding there on a magnificent black—now,
had been the greatest catch in London, until last fall, when his engagement to Miss Marianna Morton had been announced in the
Fabulously wealthy, yet he was noted for a sardonic turn of mind and a daunting curl of lip, and Lady Thane, eminently practical, told herself that he would no doubt quell, with one word, a chit of a girl up from the country. No matter! She decided she would take good care to keep Clare away from Lord Benedict Choate!
Then there was Sir Alexander Ferguson, and Mr. Marriott—wealthy, but there was a whisper that his grandfather had been in trade.
She really must get to thinking about various schemes. All in all, she must wait, she decided, until the girl got here. And then, for the first time, foreboding struck her. If the girl was not yet sixteen, then...
Ominous whisperings came to her mind, a reflection of her long experience in the world of society. A girl, who had no polish at all, probably reared by an old-fashioned governess, living in her grandmother’s sphere with none of the amenities of modern-day living—what dreadful things might the girl do, or say? The possibilities went beyond description.
But in spite of herself, she grew conscious of a stirring of excitement as the time for Clare’s arrival drew near.
It would be fun to take a young girl again to all the
parties, to Almack’s—where she hoped the girl wouldn’t disgrace her. She could get vouchers. Lady Thane was adroit in her planning. There were several ladies who owed her favors, and she herself might give a ball...
And this time, Lady Thane thought with a flash of realism, it would be more fun than dragging that serious Harriet around, a sour-faced girl like her paternal grandmother. Lady Thane had blessed the fate that had kept her from meeting her husband’s mother often—but Harriet was as like her as two peas.
She must get home quickly, and accept the invitations that had come in, and get word to other prospective hostesses that her goddaughter was coming into town...
Lady Thane’s optimism bubbled once more to the surface as, with a lilt in her voice, she directed Potter to turn the horses and return to Grosvenor Square to await Clare’s arrival.
The carriage drawn up in front of the house facing the square looked horrifyingly familiar to Lady Thane. It could not be Clare’s carriage. But even though she allowed herself to hope for a moment that she was mistaken and that the carriage stood before another door, she knew with a sinking feeling that her first impression was right.
The coach had just arrived, clearly, for Darrin sailed down the steps of Lady Thane’s house, dispatching footmen in all directions, and Lady Thane’s daughter, Harriet Cromford, descended to the pavement.
“Now, what on earth is she doing here?” said Lady Thane under her breath. “She’ll spoil everything!”
But when Lady Thane in her turn descended from her carriage, and both vehicles were rattling away to find shelter in the mews at the back, she greeted her daughter as blandly as ever. “Do you come alone?” she asked dutifully. “How is Cromford? And the darling baby? You surely did not leave him alone in Buckinghamshire?”
“Yes,” said Harriet grimly. “I left him alone, for I had heard rumors that made me, I do not hesitate to tell you, very uneasy.”
“Rumors?” said Lady Thane, dismissing Darrin with a request for a dish of strong tea. “What rumors?”
“Do not pretend not to know what I am talking about, dear Mama. It’s all over town. That you are taking on some total stranger to foist her upon society.”
“Stranger? My own goddaughter? That is not the case at all!” protested Lady Thane. “Where did you get such a ridiculous notion? I am sure you cannot have had it from me.”
“No,” said Harriet grudgingly. “I heard nothing from you, so when Lady Cromford...”
Harriet stopped short. She had not intended to make her mother privy to the source of her information, for Lady Thane had little use for old Lady Cromford, considering her a great prattler with feathers for brains. She had pointed this out to Harriet many times before her marriage, mentioning, with deep feeling, that sometimes the grandchildren took after the grandparents—“and always just the qualities that one wishes they wouldn’t, you know!”
Harriet (the picture of the departed Lady Thane, her grandmother) had characteristically overridden all objections in favor of twenty-five thousand a year and a title. Nor, to give her credit, had she ever complained about living in the wilds of Buckinghamshire, her mother-in-law in the dower house, built distressingly close to the main house. But Harriet had sufficient sense not to mention her mother-in-law unless it was necessary.
Or unless it slipped out, as it had just done.
Lady Thane’s eyes kindled. “So you came to town at
behest to check up on me? I tell you, Harriet, I will not tolerate this!”
Harriet set herself to soothe her mother, with the same determination that had led her to hasten to London to protect her easygoing mother from the darkling designs of some rustic female who was so much a stranger to the family that Harriet had never heard her name.
At length, after two cups of very strong tea, Lady Thane’s indignation dissipated, and once more she felt in charity with her only child.
“But you know she has led a sadly restricted life,” said Lady Thane sometime later. “I wonder how she will go on. Although, as I remember Lady Penryck, she was a high stickler. But with her illness, I just don’t know what to expect.”
Harriet had been watching her mother closely, and now came to a conclusion. She was at heart extremely fond of her mother, and bethought herself of a way to ease her mother’s tribulation.
“I shall send word at once,” she said briskly, setting down her teacup and reaching for the last of the tiny cakes that Mrs. Darrin made so well. Answering her mother’s uplifted eyebrow, she explained, “I shall tell Cromford that I wish to stay here with you, at least until the girl arrives.”
“There’s no need,” said Lady Thane, knowing her protest was futile.
“You may be glad of my presence,” said' Harriet, conscious of a glow of pleasure at her own self-sacrifice. “She may be totally unsuited to company—if, as you say, Lady Penryck has been ill for years.”
Lady Thane had no time to repent of her incautious letter to Harriet, nor to wonder which of the carefully selected hostesses in London to whom she had confided the news of her goddaughter’s arrival had spread the news as far as Buckinghamshire so quickly.
Harriet said, “I shall write at once to Cromford.” She left the room at once on her errand, so Lady Thane was alone when the Penryck coach drew up in the square.
Lady Thane’s emotions had been badly cudgeled by her bout with Harriet, and now that the moment of Clare’s arrival was here, Lady Thane found herself momentarily unable to move. Pressing her snowy handkerchief to her lips. In a futile effort to stop them from trembling, she started to her feet and stared at the door.
Then, a lifetime of training impelled her forward, and she started across the Blue Saloon. She reached the foyer to see Darrin inviting in a slender girl not quite of average height, with gold ringlets and a modish traveling bonnet Her traveling coat was dark and of severe cut. But the smile trembling on her lips, the apprehension in her dark blue eyes, had already won over Darrin, Lady Thane noticed, and was conscious of a warm spreading feeling in the region of her own sensibilities.
“Clare, my dear!” Lady Thane hurried across the foyer to clasp the girl in her arms, kissing her on both cheeks, and wiping a tear away from her own. “How very welcome you are!”
London was as far removed from Penryck Abbey, Clare decided, as though she had unaccountably been flown to the moon. Penryck Abbey was an almost forgotten backwater in Dorset, the Penrycks long out of the swim, mostly, of course, because of the aging Lady Penryck’s painful infirmities, but even before that, because of the failing fortunes of the family.
The most excitement that Clare remembered was when the squire and his wife, Sir Ewald and Lady Melvin, came to call, bringing their house guests from Northumberland, a maiden lady of mature years and her inarticulate brother.
But London! It seemed to Clare that she had never heard such noise. When her coach had rumbled into town, over the cobbles and into the square, she had been too excited to notice, but now, a week later, as she stood in the square portico at the top of the front steps of Lady Thane’s house, she could hear in the far distance a hum as of innumerable hiving bees. Closer there were cries, rumble of carriages, sharp
of horses’ hooves—the immensely varied sounds of a busy city at work.
There was so much to do in London! Clare stood for a moment trying to realize that she was at last there. The hub of the universe—and although Clare’s education had been impeccable, including the elements of natural sciences and the use of the globes, and she was aware that there were other worlds beyond London, yet she was realist enough to suspect that the city would engross her sufficiently without worrying about the rest of the world.
There was much that she wanted to see. She had on her mental list the Tower, with its lions and certain other animals in the menagerie that she darkly suspected existed only in hearsay. A Greenland bear, for example—all white, so it was said. A small ant bear, too, and a creature listed in the guide as a “White Fox from Owhyhee.” Most intriguing!
There was the great river, that in her grandmother’s time had furnished much transportation for ladies and gentlemen, but was now populated mostly by freight barges.
There was the prince regent’s residence, Carlton House, looking out over St James’s Square, only a short distance from where she stood this moment And out of sight but not out of mind, lay the park, the rendezvous of the fashionable world, and the most exciting, colorful spot in the world!
She must remember, she told herself, not to give way to her enthusiasm. It was not quite the thing, she had already learned, to let one’s feelings show, at least very much. And Lady Thane’s strong injunctions to her to watch her decorum, lest she betray her extreme youth, had made an indelible impression.
She sighed deeply. There was so much to learn in the fashionable world, and she dreaded putting her foot wrong. Lady Thane’s advice had included the dire warning that one mistake could easily mean the end of her pretensions to a place in this world.
“But surely they are not so uncharitable?” protested Clare, unwilling to believe that such unkindness existed, particularly in the glittering world of England’s aristocracy.
“Fashion, my dear. That is all it is. But if you experienced a breath of criticism, you would be sadly out of fashion, and there would be nothing more I could do for you.”
But Clare’s misgivings, while lurking just out of sight in her thoughts, nonetheless had to give way to the tremendous activity that began to fill her days. She was used to riding, and Lady Thane’s stables provided an unexceptionable hack for her to mount With Wells, the groom, discreetly behind her, she rode nearly every morning in Hyde Park. The morning was reserved, so it seemed, for those on horseback, while the late afternoon found carriages of all descriptions joining the outing.
Lady Thane, usually rising just before noon, .managed to restore her vitality in time to ride out in her barouche, the top laid back, to allow the fashionable world to catch a glimpse of her pretty protégée. The tactics had worked when she was presenting Harriet three years ago, and while Harriet’s generous but meddling offer to stay and help chaperon Clare had been promptly and decisively vetoed by her indignant husband, Lady Thane was convinced she knew well enough how to go on without her daughter.
Lady Thane’s efforts were rewarded with a decided increase in invitations, and Clare soon found that the wardrobe that had been made and packed with such care to accompany her to London was not nearly sufficient for the round of parties that was her lot.
So, taking her small hoard of money with her, she and Lady Thane repaired to the silk mercer’s, the dressmaker’s, and the milliner’s, where she fell in love with a wide-brimmed bonnet of straw, the brim bordered with a ruching of pink satin ribbon, which extended to allow a big bow to be tied under her chin. On their way home, they passed by Covent Garden, where Lady Thane promised to take her to the theater one night.
Clare had not been in London above a week when she realized one of her childhood ambitions. At Penryck Abbey, the long gallery held portraits, of varying quality, of members of the family. They were by artists of uneven ability, but one feature all had painted clearly. The Penryck eyebrows.
Black and straight, like bars across the face of both lady and gentleman, giving the Penrycks as a family an air of stern foreboding. And Clare, from the time she had first glimpsed them, could not believe that such eyebrows existed.
“I shall believe them when I see them,” she had told grandmama brightly.
There were few enough Penrycks left, so Grandmama had once told her. “Your poor papa was the last. Except for a distant cousin, and she died young.”
This particular day, Lady Thane found she had exhausted her supply of reading material. Repairing to Mr. Lane’s library in Leadenhall Street, she explained to Clare, “I know I shall not have much time to read now that you are here, but I do like to settle down in the afternoon after lunch with one of Miss Burney’s novels. I have read all that she has written, I believe. And some, more than once. I do believe I have read
—one of her books, you know—three times. Do you read a great deal?”
“We do not have a bookseller near us,” said Clare. “But I did borrow from Lady Melvin a novel called
The Fated Revenge
.” She laughed a little, and added, “I have never cried so much in my life.”
Lady Thane nodded approvingly. “You show great sensibility, my dear. I do not blush when I say that I have wept more at Maria Edgeworth’s hands than I did when my dear husband died.”
The carriage turned into Leadenhall Street, to find they were not alone in seeking the latest from the Minerva Press. There were two barouches ahead of them, and by the time that Lady Thane’s carriage reached the door, and her footman, Charles, leaped to the ground and disappeared inside with his mistress’s list in his hand, the owner of one of the vehicles was emerging from the door of the library.
It was, so Lady Thane announced, Miss Marianna Morton, one of the brightest lights of society, betrothed a year since to Lord Benedict Choate.
But Clare had eyes only for the exceedingly well-dressed gentleman who followed Miss Morton toward her carriage. He was dressed in trousers of gray, a morning coat of impeccable fit and quiet cut, and a top hat. His “highlows” were polished till they outshone the sun, and, if Clare had known it, they were among Hoby’s newest creations.
The gentleman had a distinct curl to his lip, and the glance full of faint contempt with which he swept the street could have daunted the brashest person. But Clare bounced in her seat and said, “I know him!”
Lady Thane looked at her with unveiled surprise. “You do? Lord Benedict Choate? How can that be, child?”
The conversation had not taken into consideration the open window of the carriage. Clare’s voice had carried as far as the nonpareil standing on the sidewalk. Lord Choate turned in their direction, and then, recognizing Lady Thane, descended the steps and crossed the sidewalk to speak to her.
Somewhat flustered, Lady Thane managed the introductions, including Miss Morton, who joined her affianced husband.
“But then,” she said in a rush, “I needn’t have introduced you, should I? For my goddaughter, Lord Choate, tells me she knows you!”
Lord Benedict bowed civilly. “I fear I have the wretchedest memory,” he murmured.
“Of course you don’t remember,” said Clare, seeing that she had made a mull of things. “It is only your eyebrows...”
Lord Benedict lifted one of the items in question, and Clare rushed on. “In the long gallery at home, you know,” she stammered. “All the portraits of the Penrycks...” Her voice died away, as enlightenment dawned on Lord Choate.
“My mother was a Penryck,” he said musingly. “But I fear I am not acquainted with her family. She died, you must know, when I was very young.”
Clare thought of several things she wanted to say to him, but before she could decide upon one of them, she met the quelling eye of Choate’s betrothed. Miss Morton was dressed in a simple elegance that reduced Clare to dumbness. Her gown of gray, with the new full sleeves, was topped by a bonnet of primrose yellow, setting off her raven curls. Clare felt at once dowdy and awkward. Miss Morton’s kindling eye did nothing to put her at ease.
“So you are related to Choate?” said Miss Morton in a tone calculated to fob off pretenders to intimacy. “I don’t believe I knew much of your connections, Benedict. At least I do not know the Penrycks.”
Clare was moved, injudiciously, to fence with Miss Morton. “An old family,” she said innocently, “from Dorset. Of course, we prefer our own quiet life to the tumult you have here in this city. You don’t find London dirty? I must confess I am moved to dust everything I see.” Realizing that her words could be interpreted to mean that she herself plied the duster, she added, even more unfortunately, “My own staff at the abbey would be struck with horror.”
Lady Thane said with a suggestion of tartness, “I am sure, my dear, that you have not found a mote of dust in my house.”
“Oh, no, dear Lady Thane, but you have such hardworking servants.”
“But,” said Lord Choate suddenly, “this is your first season in London?”
“Yes,” said Clare languidly. “I wished not to come at all to London, but I was told that I should come before I grew too old to enjoy it.”
Miss Morton, who had decided at first that Clare was an importunate, childish connection of her affianced, whom she would make sure to see very little of in the next years, now decided that Clare must be older than she looked. Miss Morton, an only child, had little humor, and a strong tendency to take a literal view of all things.
Enough of this was certainly enough, she thought, turning to Benedict But her betrothed had a queer look in his eye, one that she had not as yet been privileged to see, and could not decipher.
“I must regret that our families have grown apart,” he said soberly. “Perhaps Lady Thane will permit me to call upon you one morning next week. I should enjoy pursuing the ramifications of our relationship.”
Lady Thane, overcome, said faintly, “Of course, Lord Choate.”
But Clare, conscious of a strong surge of dislike for the mocking light she discerned in his dark eyes, objected. “I fear, Lady Thane, that we will find it difficult for some days to come to find time. With much regret, Lord Choate.”
Miss Morton’s eyes took on a glitter. Benedict, catching sight of her tucked-in lips, thought better of baiting the girl in the carriage. She was far out of her depth, he realized, if she wished to tilt with Marianna. And he himself, surprisingly, did not wish the child to be publicly shamed.
And, he thought ruefully, Marianna could do it!
“Come, Benedict,” said his beloved. “I cannot think why we stand here on the street, when I have told you I wished to go to Botibol’s. Countess Lieven says he has a new shipment of ostrich feathers, and I must see them at once.”
Bowing civilly to Lady Thane and to Clare, Benedict followed his Marianna to the fashionable black barouche just ahead of them.
“For all the world,” said Clare, nettled, “like a small lapdog.”
Lady Thane was horrified. Even more, she was stirred to the bottom of her conventional soul. “Do you know who he is?”
“A cousin, I daresay,” said Clare. She was beginning to realize now that she had made an error: one of the ever-present pitfalls of the world of Mayfair had sucked her in. She would have, if she could, crawled into a small hole. But she was open to the world in Lady Thane’s barouche, and must of necessity put a good face on things.
“He is,” said Lady Thane in a stifling manner, “a nonpareil. A notable whip, an arbiter of fashion...” Words failed her, not surprisingly, and she fell back upon the cushions. “Well,” she said finally, as the coachman began to draw ahead, “perhaps all is not lost. I doubt that Choate himself will talk, and Miss Morton, I wager, has already forgotten you. But, child, do not be so
It does make you look very young, you know.”
In part, Lady Thane was mistaken. Marianna Morton had not forgotten Clare. She, like her late father, was well-versed in the ramifications of every family of consequence in the kingdom. She knew to the fourth cousin all of Benedict’s family, meaning, of course, the Choates. But she became conscious now of a lack in her information. The Penrycks had nearly dropped out of sight Nothing derogatory was known of them—in fact, little at all was known of them. Benedict’s mother faded gently from the scene, after presenting her lord with the heir, and the lord’s subsequent remarriage, to a Fenly from Derby, and the regular succession of additions to the nursery had obscured the Penryck connection.