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Midnight on a moonlit eve. A solitary job-coach lumbered along the Chelsea road. Within that coach an auburn-haired young lady cursed the laggard horses and listened anxiously for sounds of pursuit. She did not expect to escape so easily.
Nor did she, though nemesis appeared not in the form of a vengeful husband, but as a masked horseman emerging from a clump of trees. Moonlight glinted off his pistols. The coachman promptly reined in his horses. Not for the most generous of fares would he risk rousing the displeasure of a gentleman of the road.
The highwayman came closer, swore when he recognized the insignificant nature of his quarry. Still, the die was cast. "You, in there!" he said. "Show yourself. Stand and deliver. Your money or your life." His skittish steed nickered and pranced.
Slowly the carriage door opened, and she stepped out. Trembling hands clenched into fists at her side, she defiantly raised her chin. "You will hang for this, sir!" Her voice was not quite steady. "And I have no money with me, moreover."
No money but an even greater prize, perhaps. The highwayman well knew the sound of a well-brought-up young woman's voice. Her family was perhaps as plump in the pocket as she vowed she was not.
He urged his horse closer yet. Bravely she stood her ground. He looked down into her face, pale in the moonlight.
"No money!" he repeated softly. "Then I am very much afraid, milady, that it must be your life." He swiftly bent and grasped her arms, lifted her easily off the ground. She struggled and cried out. The coachman stood stupidly staring as his passenger was thrown over the highwayman's saddle and borne swiftly away.
Several years later a carrier's cart lumbered down that same Chelsea road. Within it rode no anxious auburn-haired damsel, but two elderly ladies clad in rusty black. They were as like as two peas in the same pod, comfortably plump of figure, with endearingly homely features, gray eyes and hair. Piled about them were numerous articles of luggage. Firmly clutched by one was a huge shabby portmanteau.
"Oh!" said the second lady, who differed from her companion only in the lace at her wrists and throat, the mourning brooch pinned to her plump breast, and the lack of an encumbering portmanteau. "How surprised our nephew will be to see us, Em!" Envisioning that reaction, she beamed.
Lady Emmeline also envisioned their nephew's response to the sudden intrusion into his bachelor existence of two elderly and unfashionable aunts, one with a strong disposition to meddle, and the other prone to be thrown into a pucker by any heedless word. "Yes," she responded wryly. "I make no doubt Vidal will be surprised."
But an unhappy thought had struck the second lady, who looked aghast. "Em! What if Vidal doesn't want us here? He has not invited us to his wedding, nor brought his fiancée to meet us--but I had thought it just an oversight. I mean, we are not important, and he could have simply forgot us in all the fuss. Oh, dear! I would not wish to intrude!"
Lady Emmeline had no such reservations. "Don't fret, Dimmy!" she soothed, as the carrier's cart lurched to a stop before an ancient mansion of black and white timbering, with brick facing and high narrow gables. "At any rate, we're here."
"Oh!" Lady Dimity stared at the picturesque, and somewhat dreary-looking, house. Truth be told, she had never liked Pennymount Place. "Malignant!" She wrinkled her brow. "Or do I mean malevolent? Papa was always used to say Pennymount Place was a very unhappy house and it flattened his spirits so--but of course he always stayed here when he came to London, because a hotel would have cost the earth." She sighed. "And it still makes me sad to recall how some people gossiped about Papa's little trips to London, as if there were something indecent about going to the races and looking in at Tattersall's! Why, Papa was as admired for his hunting skill as for his way with bishops. I have always thought a parson's private life should be his own affair, providing he carries out his public duties, which no one can deny Papa did. How dreadfully you are scowling, Em! Surely you must agree?"
Lady Emmeline, as she assaulted the front door. "Papa's been in his grave these past five years."
Briefly, upon this callous reminder, Lady Dimity's plump little figure drooped. Dimmy had been devoted to her father, a gentleman and scholar who had attended to his parish duties in a rather erratic fashion, church affairs ranking second in priority to his own amusement. The Reverend Vickers's interests had been many and varied, ranging from a keen appreciation of bees and butterflies and spiders to the local archaeology. Still, he had had a short and pithy way with a sermon--and with bishops--that had been much admired.
As Lady Dimity pondered the eccentricities of her Reverend papa, Lady Emmeline triumphed over the front door. As that portal swung open, she took firmer grip on her portmanteau. "It took you long enough! Have you grown deaf, man?"
The superior individual thus ignominiously addressed took no visible offense. Quite the contrary. The chilling expression that had sat upon his austere features when he first appeared in the doorway was replaced, if not by anything so unbutlerlike as a smile, by distinct signs of thaw--and this despite the carrier's cart that squatted in the street, which must offend any butler's notions of what was nice.
"I am pleased to report that my hearing remains excellent," the butler replied. "May I be so bold as to say on behalf of all the staff that it is a pleasure to see you once more in Pennymount Place, Lady Emmeline, Lady Dimity? The master will be sorry he was not here to welcome you, as assuredly he would have been, had you sent word of your impending arrival." As he spoke, the butler took Em's portmanteau. The contents thereof shifted abruptly, and distinctly growled.
"It is a very gloomy house!" Lady Dimity looked woefully upon her surroundings while Lady Emmeline issued terse orders for the unloading of the carrier's cart. "So sad! One cannot wonder at it, when one recalls--but it is folly to dwell upon the past! Vidal should have known we would wish to make the acquaintance of his fiancée. It is not every day that the Earl of Pennymount takes a bride! And Vidal was once very fond of us, although he cannot be blamed if his interests shifted as he grew up! Young men cannot be expected to dance attendance on a parcel of dowdies--not that an occasional sign of regard would be too much to expect. I am not complaining, mind! Even if thought of Vidal always recalls to me what Papa used to say so often about ungrateful children and adder's teeth. But it is my own fault for being so easily cast into the pathetics. I do hope this marriage will not result in further breakage being wrought upon our dear nephew's heart!"
To this outburst, Lady Emmeline reacted with a quelling glance, and the butler with a glassy stare. Thus reminded that it was a grave breach of propriety to discuss Vidal's ill-fated first marriage in front of his butler, Lady Dimity lapsed into rosy-cheeked silence. The butler probably knew more about Vidal's first marriage than either she or Em, Dimmy consoled herself; he had been in service with the family for innumerable years. It was a pity the strict dictates of polite conduct prohibited her from interrogating him, she mourned, as she watched an army of servants unload the carrier's cart.
The luggage having been unloaded and the army of servants dispatched with it to the appropriate chambers, the butler then escorted the ladies to the drawing room.
"You may scoff," said Lady Dimity, gazing somberly about her at the great hall through which they passed, "but I still say this house is very melancholy. Pennymount Place has always left me feeling sadly hipped, and you know Papa agreed! Do not bother to tell me it is just so many walls and roofs, albeit more venerable than most, as you were used to tell him, Em! While I would not wish to raise my voice in argument with my own twin, and while I would not go so far as to claim Pennymount Place is haunted, that it is excessively sad I must maintain!"
This effusion earned from Lady Emmeline yet another sharp glance, and from the butler a barely suppressed groan. He had just recalled Lady Dimity's last sojourn in Pennymount Place, when her continual laments about malevolent atmospheres and ancient tragedies had prompted half the domestic staff to turn in their notice. "Dimmy," said Em bluntly, "sometimes I think you delight in stirring coals."
"And who would know better?" Lady Dimity looked gently arch. "We are twins. Even though we are very different in temperament, as everyone knows. I am talkative and you are taciturn; you are decisive and down to earth and I am the impractical air-dreamer; I have all the sensibility, and you the common sense. Which is not to say, Em, that you are always right!" To this sally the taciturn Lady Emmeline returned no comment. It was not the first occasion on which she had reason to wish her sister were a great deal less prone to those precisely enumerated traits.
Up a staircase built solidly around an open well, the trio progressed; across polished floors, past paneled rooms and stained-glass windows. At length they arrived in the drawing room, or what served Pennymount Place as such: the Long Gallery. There the butler abandoned both ladies and portmanteau, with the explanation that he personally wanted to supervise the disposition of their luggage, good help these days being most difficult to come by.
Alas, this chamber was no more cheerful than the rest of Pennymount Place, despite the ceiling and deep frieze decorated with plaster panels enriched by heraldic designs, the wall panels inlaid with ivory and colored wood. A long narrow room, it had many windows, and on the inner side two fireplaces ornately carved in the Flemish mannerist pattern. Lady Dimity dropped into an exceedingly uncomfortable panel-back chair, and sighed.
"Try as I may to convince myself this girl will make Vidal happy, I cannot! From what we have heard she is an acknowledged beauty accustomed to gentlemen who administer to her vanity. By no stretch of my imagination--considerable as it may be!--can I see Vidal doing the pretty for anyone. Too, the chit is said to be a harum-scarum young woman whose manners lack polish. I think our nephew might have searched the world over and he would never find anyone less like Jess."
Lady Emmeline knelt on the floor beside the portmanteau. "Doing it too brown, my dear. Vidal's marriage to Jessabelle resulted in divorce, you may recall."
"How could I forget?" Upon demonstration of her sister's lack of fellow-feeling, Dimmy looked even more distressed. "The shame of it! Not that we care for such things--whatever one might say about poor Papa, one could not say he placed too much emphasis on worldly things! Even if he did ride to hounds! But I fear our nephew does not view the situation in a similar spirit of Christian tolerance."
In a somewhat exasperated manner, Lady Emmeline regarded her twin. "The Pennymounts have never cared to see their dirty linen washed in public, which even you cannot deny Jessabelle did. I do not excuse our nephew for handling the girl so badly; he should not have married a high-spirited child in expectation that she would immediately knuckle down, nor give her terrible trimmings when she rebelled. Considering the disagreeable turn-ups that we witnessed, I for one didn't marvel when the union ended in divorce." Having emptied the portmanteau of its contents, she grasped hold of a chest of drawers inlaid with bone and ivory, and wincing, drew herself erect.
"Poor Jess!" murmured Lady Dimity. "It is very sad that her name should be bandied about in so odious a manner, and that she has come down so far in the world that she must forever dwell under a cloud. Papa always said that Vidal should have somehow contrived to wrap the thing in clean linen--and doubtless he would have, were he not so furious with dear Jess for making him a laughingstock. Oh, it is such a wretched business! Hello, my darlings! At least you will not accuse me of having too tender a heart."
This last comment was addressed to the occupants of the portmanteau, who after pussyfooting gingerly around the circumference of the Long Gallery, and inspecting every inch of its various contents, had joined Dimmy in her panel-back chair. These worthies were by name Tom, Tab, Puss, Grimalkin, and Marmalade. They were of the feline persuasion. Currently, having all five been bundled willy-nilly into one portmanteau, they were in no sanguine frame of mind.
"I have accused you of nothing," retorted Lady Emmeline. "You do have a heart as tender as a chicken or you wouldn't be maundering on about Jessabelle. That débâcle is many years in the past. It is Vidal's second marriage that concerns us now, in case you have forgot."
"I have forgot nothing!" Draped about with mismatched cats, Lady Dimity looked as if she wore a singularly ill-conceived fur jacket. "There isn't the slightest thing wrong with my memory--or my heart! Really, Em: a chicken! You are most unkind! And you know how deeply I feel these things. But never mind! I have begun to wonder if we should have come to London. We know nothing objectionable about Vidal's approaching nuptials except that the girl's father is connected with trade."
"As if we cared a fig for that," retorted Lady Emmeline. "Think, Dimmy! Our favorite nephew is on the brink of contracting an alliance with an unexceptionable young female to whom we have taken immediate exception, if only on hearsay. We are afraid that Vidal has chosen his second countess for no better reason than her lack of resemblance to the first, and that as a result he will be made unhappy. We hope that closer acquaintance with the child will convince us of a compatibility that rumor has not revealed--not that I can think Vidal will be contented with any young lady so vulgar as to announce that marriage to him would suit her to a pig's whisker! And if not..."
There was no need to complete the sentence. Despite their differences in character, the Ladies Dimity and Emmeline were twins, and thought with two halves of the same mind--a process that frequently had disconcerting results. Said Lady Dimity: "I marvel at you, Em. Vidal is a grown man. You must perceive that he would be careful to choose as his second countess a young lady who won't plunge him into the scandal-broth. Poor Vidal, to find himself food for scandal. And poor Jess, who still is!"
"That," Lady Emmeline replied, "is entirely Jess's own fault. It is true that as a divorced woman she must endure a certain notoriety, and cannot hope to respectably wed again--but no matter how cow-handed Vidal was in his dealings with her, and no matter how shabbily he has behaved, it was ultimately Jessabelle who sunk herself beyond reproach."
"I have never understood it." Lady Dimity had to raise her voice to be heard above the purring of the four felines draped about her. "Even if Vidal was a thought high-handed--no matter how bad the terms on which they stood--I mean, I had always thought Jess was fond of Vidal, despite his crotchets! But then to elope with someone else! Even Papa admitted it was not the thing, and he approved of Jess."
That the eccentric Reverend Vickers's approval was indicative of no especial merits of character, but rather the ability to amuse, no dutiful daughter would point out. "I have never been convinced that Jessabelle was eloping," Lady Emmeline replied. "Rather, I suspect she was running away from Vidal when that highwayman waylaid her carriage and carried her away. It makes no difference. By the time Vidal paid her ransom, the damage had been done. Naturally people assumed the worst, including Vidal. He's never forgiven Jessabelle for making a cake of him. Although in my opinion it's Vidal that's made a Jack-pudding of himself! But all this is fair and far off. We have known for many years that Vidal and Jessabelle stood on bad terms."
"She even took back her own name. Which I have always thought was very sad, even though I do understand that if she hadn't it could have been very embarrassing for Vidal--especially once he has rewed. Which now that I think of it is very odd in her because it seems to have become Jess's sole purpose in life to put Vidal to the blush!"
Lady Emmeline turned Grimalkin over on his back, the better to rub his furry belly, which she had long ago discovered to be a sovereign remedy for all manner of malaise. "It is a wretched situation," she allowed. "I have not decided yet whether I approve this match of Vidal's--certainly I do not approve that he has refused to explain his first countess to the young lady who is to become his second! Of course she must be curious. And being curious, she must eventually learn who Vidal's first countess was. Indeed I was surprised to hear of her ignorance on that head--although Jessabelle cannot be said to move in the first circles these days."
"Poor Jess!" Lady Dimity consoled herself by scooping up the remaining cats. "To own the truth, I have always wished that we might do something for her. Vidal makes her an allowance, I know--but an allowance cannot compensate for the loss of a good name."
Looking very contemplative, Lady Emmeline tickled Grimalkin's chin. "It would be very callous of us," she admitted, "not to inform Jessabelle that we have come to town."
"Then you must be callous, aunts!" came a harsh voice from the doorway, so abruptly that both ladies shrieked, and all five cats leapt straight into the air, and chaos briefly reigned. Pandemonium enacted in his Long Gallery caused no change of expression to cross the dark and saturnine features of the Earl of Pennymount, who had in this especial moment--indeed in almost all his moments--very much the aspect of a thundercloud. "Not only will you not notify That Woman of your presence in London; so long as you remain under my roof you will not even mention her name."