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Lady Basinberry frowned. Her eyes strayed to the ormolu clock on the mantel. "And you say that our niece is to arrive this very afternoon, Edwin? But why ever did you not ask my advice previous to today if you had second thoughts on the matter?"
The gentleman to whom she spoke was rotund in figure, attired in a plain brown frock coat and breeches. His countenance, usually amiable, was just now puckered in an anxious frown. From his position at the grate, where he stood warming his coattails, Mr. Davenport patiently explained once more. "Beatrice, I could not very well turn down such a pathetic communication from Helen and Francois, could I? I mean to say, it quite wrung my withers to read of their dilemma with their daughter, Michele. Naturally I could do no less than agree to have Michele here for the Season. And too, she is of an age with Lydia. I had hoped Michele would prove good company for my daughter."
Lady Basinberry snorted. "A young woman suffering from a decline is not likely to be good company for anyone, especially for one as flighty as our dear Lydia. You have gone off half-cocked once again, Edwin, and now as usual you have turned to me to bail you out."
Mr. Davenport did not deny the truth of his sister's sharp words. When he had responded to his younger sister's appeal, he had not given sufficient thought to the difficulty of bringing out two young women into society when he was himself a widower and therefore without an established hostess. He sighed and rocked on his heels, causing his stays to creak ominously. "You know that I have never been able to deny" Helen anything, any more than you can, Beatrice. Why, even when she was in the cradle, we wereused to jump at her every burble. If Helen had applied to you, you would have done no differently than I."
"That is what has me in a puzzle," Lady Basinberry said, pursing her thin lips in irritation. "Why should Helen appeal to you over her elder sister? I find it passing strange indeed. After all, I am well-established in society and could be expected to bring this wretched niece of ours along quite nicely."
Mr. Davenport realized that this omission on their younger sister's part was the crux of Lady Basinberry's ill humor. He was a kindly man, and because he also had an interest in gaining Lady Basinberry's help, he quickly offered an excuse for their sister's laxity. "My dear Beatrice, you must recall that you have until recently been in mourning. Of course Helen would be sensitive to your situation. And perhaps also it was in Helen's mind that Lydia's high spirits could enliven her own daughter's solemnity. I gathered from Helen's letter that she and Francois are concerned that Michele will dwindle into an old maid if she is not brought out of herself."
"You neglect to mention Francois's influence on the matter. I am well aware of my esteemed brother-in-law's opinion of me. I have never understood why Helen, as delightful and clever as she was lovely, chose a Belgian over an honest Englishman," said Lady Basinberry sharply. But she was mollified up to a point by Mr. Davenport's analysis. "As for our niece, the young woman sounds an incurable romantic. Other young ladies lost their loved ones at Waterloo, but they have not worn the willow for nearly two years! No, they have all since done the proper thing and found worthy husbands. There must be something more to it than what Helen chose to tell you. Is the girl so homely that she cannot engage a new suitor?"
Mr. Davenport's eyes fairly started from his head. He was aghast at such an unworthy suggestion. "Beatrice! A child of Helen's homely? Surely you jest."
"I never jest over a point of such importance. Grant you, Helen was a raving beauty. But she did marry that quiz-faced little man. He always brought to my mind a bug-eyed frog,'' said Lady Basinberry with revulsion.
Mr. Davenport looked at his elder sister with the faintest hint of disapproval. "Francois du Bois is a very good sort, which you would know if you had ever deigned to accept Helen's invitations to visit them in Brussels." There was a spark in his sister's eyes and he realized that he was on the brink of an argument with Lady Basinberry, which would not suit his purposes in the least. He said hastily, "But that is neither here nor there. What am I to do with our niece? Her arrival could not come at a worse time, not with Lydia going on forever over that young captain. How I wish I had never taken her to that balloon ascension! She might never have met the fellow otherwise."
"I suppose that you at once informed Lydia that the young man was ineligible," Lady Basinberry said with a curling lip.
"Of course I did," Mr. Davenport said, surprised that his sister should ask.
Lady Basinberry laughed in derision. "What a fool you can be, Edwin. If you had not done so, Lydia would likely have forgotten him within the fortnight. As it is, you have made of this captain a romantic figure."
Mr. Davenport was driven onto the defensive by his sister's scorn. "I can hardly be expected to understand the convoluted thoughts of a young female. It would have been different if Mary had lived to show Lydia how to go on. Now I come to find out too late that those governesses of Lydia's filled her head with idiotic poetry and chivalric nonsense. What do you think, Beatrice? Not two days ago I discovered Lydia hidden away in the library with one of those cursed romantic novels. She said that it was a vastly pretty tale and she wished very much that she could be carried off in the same manner as the heroine! What rubbish. Then in the next instant a little smile appeared on her face and she began sighing over this Hughes fellow. Why, anyone could see what was in her mind. I tell you, I was never more put out with her in all my life." He bethought himself of the impending visit by his niece, and his sense of injury grew. "Yes, and now I shall have a moping miss as well as my own mooning miss on my hands. I do not mind confessing to you, Beatrice, that I am completely distracted over the entire business."
"So I apprehend. However, you have done the right thing in applying to me. I shall hold myself ready to guide Lydia's first steps into polite society, and we shall soon see how long she continues to rhapsodize over her soldier. As for our other niece, I hope that she is not one of those who take to their beds at the least thing, for there is nothing I so dislike as a person of weak character. Do not fear, Edwin. I shall see that Michele takes a turn about society, since that is what Helen wishes, even if I must drag the girl from her room."
"You greatly relieve my mind," Mr. Davenport said, speaking with truth. "I only hope that Michele is able to appreciate our efforts. Helen mentioned that Michele helped to tend the wounded on the streets of Brussels during the battle. I was never more distressed in my life to learn it. When one recalls the tales of shattered limbs and of men expiring of thirst--why, it will be a wonder if the poor girl's sensibilities are not permanently shocked."
Lady Basinberry shuddered. "How ghastly! I cannot imagine what Helen was thinking to allow a gently nurtured girl to witness such carnage. It was extremely unwise. I do not in the least doubt that is the true reason behind the girl's refusal to entertain another suitor. She must suffer nightmares at the thought of committing herself again." Lady Basinberry reflected a moment, then said, "Edwin, I fear that our niece will almost certainly be a pale thin creature possessing haunted eyes, quite incapable of getting about in society."
But when, a few moments later, the butler entered to announce the arrival of Mademoiselle du Bois, Lady Basin-berry's grim pronouncement was immediately seen to have fallen short. The young lady that stepped into the drawing room was fashionably attired in a bottle-green traveling pelisse that sported three cape collars and was rather mannishly trimmed with epaulets. The excellent cut of this dashing garment neatly skimmed a figure of pleasing proportions before falling to her kid half-boots, which Mr. Davenport noted at once showed to advantage a pair of well-turned ankles. Her bonnet was trimmed with saucy black feathers and was tied close under the chin, haloing an arresting face. Her large and heavily lashed eyes were her most striking feature, being of an extraordinary midnight blue. Her nose was short and straight, her mouth full.
Mademoiselle du Bois was not beautiful in the usual sense, but her elder relations were instantly struck by the mutual thought that she should have no lack of suitors wherever she found herself. "My word," muttered Mr. Davenport.
The young lady paused just inside the doorway, aware that she was an object of curiosity to the older gentleman and elderly lady who had turned their gazes on her. She put up dark brows and her midnight-blue eyes twinkled. "Have I perhaps torn my hem?" she asked, a thread of laughter in her throaty voice.
Mr. Davenport was shaken out of his bemused state. He surged forward, his portly form creaking in its stays. "My dear niece! Forgive us for staring, but you are not quite what we expected." He surveyed again his niece's lovely face and her graceful figure. There was nothing of the frail invalid in this dazzling creature, he thought.
Mademoiselle du Bois gave her gloved hand to him. She looked around at the elderly lady, who was staring down the length of a prominent nose with an arrogant air. She engaged the lady with a winsome smile. "Am I not, then? I am told that I look a little like my maman. But perhaps this is not so?''
Lady Basinberry's mouth curled in a reluctant smile. "You do indeed bear some resemblance to my sister, though Helen is perhaps paler of countenance and her eyes a lighter shade of blue."
Michele nodded. "Oui, I have my father's eyes. He says he bequeathed them to me from a pirate ancestor, though I cannot believe this. My father is the most respectable of gentlemen."
Lady Basinberry showed her teeth. "Indeed? How interesting, to be sure. I must be certain to quiz Francois upon such a flamboyant ancestry." At her dry tone Michele put up her brows in mild surprise.
Mr. Davenport threw a warning glance at his sister and adroitly stepped into the breach. "My dear niece, how delighted we are that you have come. I was just relating to Lady Basinberry the happy news of your impending arrival. She will be playing hostess for us during the Season, you know. And my daughter, Lydia, will be in transports that you will be staying with us. She will have someone with whom to compare notes and to discuss all the grand invitations."
Michele frowned slightly. "I do not wish to sound ungrateful, uncle. But I did not come to London to put myself into society. I shall be content enough to remain in the background while my cousin is squired about."
Mr. Davenport and Lady Basinberry exchanged swift glances. Mr. Davenport cleared his throat. "There is time enough to speak of that later. You have but just arrived! After such a long journey you must be famished. I shall ring at once for the tea tray." He pulled on the bell rope.
"Pray do not trouble yourself on my account. I enjoyed a substantial luncheon earlier, so I shall take only a cup of tea," said Michele.
Lady Basinberry patted the divan cushion beside her. "Come, Michele. Sit beside me and give me all the news of your dear mother. I have had letters, of course, but it is so much nicer when one can hear a firsthand account. She is well, I hope?"
Michele accepted her elderly aunt's kind invitation and gracefully seated herself. She began to draw off her fine kid gloves. "Quite well, ma'am. Indeed, Mama is so energetic that one despairs of keeping pace with her. And as for dear Papa, he has a hand in everything that goes on." She was soon launched on an amusing description of her family's activities in Brussels society.
When the tea tray was brought in by the servant, she offered to pour, which office Lady Basinberry was gracious enough to accede to her. Michele performed the social ritual to a nicety, thus earning Lady Basinberry's unspoken approval. Over tea, Michele gave lighthearted replies to the gentle queries posed by Lady Basinberry. At last Michele expressed herself completely dry of anecdotes. She set down her cup. "And I fear that I must add to my rude manners and inquire where I am to stay. I feel all covered in dust. It was a very long journey."
Mr. Davenport, who had said very little in several minutes, came to himself with a start. "Of course, my dear. How inconsiderate of me, to be sure. You will wish to freshen up before dinner.'' He rang for the butler and requested that Mademoiselle du Bois be shown to her room. Michele took her leave with a charming show of regret for quitting their company.
The door closed quietly behind her. Mr. Davenport looked at his elder sister. "What do you make of that, Beatrice? I was never in my life more surprised."
"Nor I. That was not the pitiful young woman I envisioned, Edwin. Quite the contrary! Our niece is an extremely self-possessed young woman. And nothing in her conversation would lead one to suppose for an instant that she harbors a debilitating and hopeless passion. I begin to wonder whether dear Helen did not exaggerate the urgency of the situation," Lady Basinberry said.
"And I also! Why, that dazzler could have any number of suitors with but a crook of her little finger," Mr. Davenport said.
"Still, Michele was not at all enthusiastic at the notion of a London Season," Lady Basinberry said slowly. She pursed her lips in her habitual way. "We shall see how things go on before I make any judgments. I venture to say, however, that it will be an interesting Season." She began drawing on her gloves.
Mr. Davenport saw this sign of leave-taking with misgiving. "I say, Beatrice, not going yet, surely?"
Lady Basinberry looked at him. "Of course I am, Edwin. I do have other calls to make."
"I hope that you are not engaged for dinner this evening, Beatrice, for I would like you to come back here. Lydia has not seen you this month past, you know. And certainly your presence must lend ease to what is essentially an awkward gathering," said Mr. Davenport.
"I do not deny that my curiosity still runs high. Very well, Edwin. You may expect me to join you for dinner," Lady Basinberry said as she rose. She gave her hand to Mr. Davenport, who managed to execute a slight deferential bow to her before she sailed out of the drawing room.
Posted July 11, 2010
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