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Lady of Quality
By Georgette Heyer
Copyright © 1944 Georgette Heyer
All right reserved.
Chapter One The elegant travelling carriage which bore Miss Wychwood from her birthplace, on the border of Somerset and Wiltshire, to her home in Bath, proceeded on its way at a decorous pace. This was dictated by her coachman, an elderly autocrat, who, having known her from the day of her birth, almost thirty years before, drove her at the pace he considered proper, and turned a deaf ear to her requests to him to 'put 'em along!' If she didn't know what was due to her consequence, as Miss Wychwood of Twynham Park, he did; and even if she was an old maid – in fact, almost an ape-leader, though he would never call her one, and had turned off the impudent stable-boy who had dared to do so, after giving him a rare box on the ear – he knew very well how his late master would have wished his only daughter to be driven about the country. He had a pretty good idea, too, of what Sir Thomas would have felt had he known that Miss Wychwood had set up her own establishment in Bath, a few months after his death, with only a squinny old Tough to lend her countenance. A mean bit, Miss Farlow, if ever he saw one: more like a skinned rabbit than a woman, and a regular gabble-grinder into the bargain. It was a marvel to him that Miss Wychwood was able to endure her bibble-babble, for she wasn't short of a sheet, not by any means she wasn't!
The lady thus stigmatized was seated beside Miss Wychwood in the carriage, beguiling the tedium of the journey with a stream of small talk. She was of uncertain age, but it was unkind to describe her as an old Tough; and although she was certainly very thin it was unjust to liken her to a skinned rabbit. She was a distant relation of Miss Wychwood, left by an improvident parent in indigent circumstances; and when she had received a visit from Sir Geoffrey Wychwood, and had grasped that she owed this unprecedented honour to his urgent wish to procure her services as chaperon to his sister she had seen in his unromantically stout person a Paladin sent by Providence to rescue her from a drab lodging, mean fare, and the constant dread of finding herself in debt. She was not to know that her prospective charge had fought strenuously against having her, or any other female, foisted on to her; but when she had presented herself at Twynham Park, nervously clutching her old-fashioned reticule, desperately anxious to please, and staring up into Miss Wychwood's face with frightened, pleading eyes, Miss Wychwood's heart had overcome her judgement, and she had had no other thought than to make the poor little creature welcome. Lady Wychwood, quite unable to picture meek little Miss Farlow as a companion, and far less as a chaperon, to the lively Miss Wychwood, took the earliest opportunity that offered to beg her sister-in-law not to accept Miss Farlow's services without careful consideration. 'I am persuaded, dearest, that you will find her a dreadful bore!' she said earnestly.
'Yes, very likely, but I should find any chaperon a dreadful bore,' said Annis. 'So, if I must have a chaperon – not that I see the least need of one, at my age! – I'd as lief have her as any other. At least she won't try to rule my house, or to dictate to me! Besides, I'm sorry for her!' She laughed suddenly, perceiving the doubtful look in Lady Wychwood's mild blue eyes. 'Ah, you are afraid she won't exercise any control over me! You are perfectly right: she won't! But nor would anyone else, you know.'
'But, Annis, Geoffrey says –'
'I know exactly what Geoffrey says,' interrupted Annis. 'I've known what he would say any time these twenty years, and I find him far more of a bore than poor Maria Farlow. No, no, don't try to look shocked! I daresay no one knows better than you that he and I cannot deal together. The only time when we have been in perfect agreement was when he assured me that I should love his wife!'
'Oh, Annis!' protested Lady Wychwood, blushing, and turning away her head. 'You shouldn't say such things! Besides, I can't believe you mean it, when you won't continue living with me!'
'What a rapper!' commented Annis, the laughter still dancing in her eyes. 'I could live happily with you for the rest of my days, as well you know! It's my very worthy, starched-up, and consequential brother with whom I can't and won't live. Yes, isn't it unnatural of me?'
'So sad!' mourned her ladyship.
'Oh, no, why? You would have cause to say so if I did remain here. You must surely own that life would be very much more peaceful without me provoking Geoffrey a dozen times a day!'
Lady Wychwood did not deny this, but she sighed and said: 'But you are far too young to be setting up your own establishment, dearest! I quite agree with dear Geoffrey about that!'
'You always do agree with him, Amabel: indeed, you are the perfect wife for him!' interjected Annis irrepressibly.
'I am sure I'm no such thing, though I do try to be. And as for agreeing with him, gentlemen are so much wiser than we are, and so much better able to judge of – of worldly matters – don't you think?'
'But indeed Geoffrey is right when he says it will present a very odd appearance if you go to live in Bath all by yourself !'
'Well, I shan't be all by myself, for I shall have Maria Farlow with me.'
'Annis, I cannot persuade myself that she is the right person for you!'
'No, but the beauty of it is that having chosen her, and foisted her on to me, Geoffrey will never acknowledge that he was in error. Depend upon it, he will soon be discovering all manner of virtues in her, and telling you that her meek disposition will have an excellent influence over me.'
Since Sir Geoffrey had already said something very like this to her, Lady Wychwood was obliged to laugh; but she shook her head as well, and said: 'It's all very well for you to turn everything to a joke, but it won't be funny for Geoffrey – or for me either! – when we have people thinking that you left home because we were unkind to you!'
'My dear, they won't think any such thing when they see that we are on terms of perfect amity. I hope you don't mean to cut my acquaintance? I expect to entertain you frequently in Camden Place, and give you fair warning that I shall always look on Twynham as my second home, and am likely to descend upon you without ceremony for long visits. You will be wishing me at Jericho, I daresay!' She saw that Lady Wychwood was looking melancholy still, and went to sit beside her, taking her hand, and saying: 'Try to understand, Amabel! It isn't only because Geoffrey and I rub against one another that I am going to set up a home for myself. I want – I want a life of my own!'
'Oh, I do understand that!' said Lady Wychwood, in quick sympathy. 'From the moment I set eyes on you I have felt that it was positively wicked that such a lovely girl as you should be wasting her life! If only you would accept Lord Beckenham's offer, or Mr Kilbride's – well, no, perhaps not his! Geoffrey says he's a here-and-thereian, and a gamester, and I suppose that would hardly do for you, though I must confess that I thought he was excessively charming! Well, if you couldn't like Beckenham, what did you find to dislike in young Gaydon? Or –'
'Stop, stop!' begged Annis laughingly. 'I found nothing to dislike in any of them, but I couldn't discover in myself the smallest wish to marry any of them either. Indeed, I haven't any wish to marry anyone at all.'
'But, Annis, every woman must wish to be married!' cried Lady Wychwood, quite shocked.
'Now that provides the answer to what people will think when they see me living in my own house instead of at Twynham!' exclaimed Annis. 'They will think me an Eccentric! Ten to one, I shall become one of the Sights of Bath, like old General Preston or that weird creature who goes about in a hoop, and feathers! I shall be pointed out as –'
'If you don't stop talking such nonsense I shall be strongly tempted to slap you!' interrupted Lady Wychwood. 'I don't doubt you'll be pointed out, but it won't be as an Eccentric!'
In the event, both were proved to be right. Annis had acquaintances amongst the Bath residents, and several close friends living in the vicinity of Bath, with whom she had frequently stayed, so that she did not come to Bath as a stranger. It was thought to be a trifle eccentric of her to leave the shelter of her brother's house, but she was well-known to be a very independent young woman, and as she was, at that date, six and twenty years of age, long past her girlhood, only the stiffest and most censorious persons saw anything to condemn in her conduct. She was possessed of a considerable independence, and it was not to be wondered at that she should avail herself of its advantages. The only wonder was that she hadn't been snapped up in her first London Season by some gentleman on the look out for a bride in whom birth and beauty were accompanied by a handsome fortune.
No one knew the size of her fortune, but it was obviously large: her family had owned Twynham Park for generations; and her beauty was remarkable. If there were those who considered her too tall, and others who could only see beauty in brunettes, these critics were few in number. Her admirers – and she had a host of them – declared her to be a piece of perfection, and from the top of her guinea-gold curls to the soles of her slender feet they could detect no flaw in her. Her eyes were particularly fine, being of a deep blue, and so full of light that one infatuated gentleman, of a poetic turn of mind, said that their brilliance put the stars to shame. They were smiling eyes, set under delicate, arched brows; and her generous mouth seemed to be made for laughter. For the rest, she had an elegant figure, moved gracefully, dressed herself with exquisite taste, and had charming manners, which endeared her to such elderly sticklers as old Mrs Mandeville, who pronounced her to be 'a very nice gal: none of your simpering misses! I can't think why she ain't married!'
Those who had been acquainted with her father knew that he had been dotingly fond of her, and supposed that that might have been why she had accepted none of the offers made her. No doubt, said the wiseacres, that was also why she had come to live in Bath now that he was dead: she meant to marry at last, and what chance of meeting an eligible gentleman could there be in the wilds of the country? Only one lady saw any impropriety in it, and as she was notoriously spiteful, and had two rather plain daughters of marriageable age on her hands, no one paid any heed to her. Besides, Miss Wychwood had an elderly cousin living with her, and what could be more proper than that?
So Sir Geoffrey was right too, and was able to plume himself on his wisdom. He very soon became reconciled to the situation, and found himself more in charity with his sister than he had ever been before. As for Miss Farlow, she had never been so happy in all her life, or enjoyed so much comfort, and she felt that she could never be sufficiently grateful to dear Annis, who not only paid her a very generous wage, but who showered every sort of luxury on her, from a fire in her bedroom to the right to order the carriage whenever she wished to go beyond walking-distance. Not that she ever did avail herself of this permission, for that, in her opinion, would be a sadly encroaching thing to do. Unfortunately, her overflowing gratitude caused her to irritate Miss Wychwood almost beyond bearing by fussing over her incessantly, running quite unnecessary errands for her (much to the jealous wrath of Miss Jurby, Annis's devoted dresser), and entertaining her (she hoped) with an inexhaustible flow of what Annis called nothing-sayings.
She was doing that on the journey back to Bath from Twynham Park. The fact that she received only mechanical responses from Miss Wychwood did not offend her, or cause her to abate her cheerful chatter. Rather she increased it, for she could see that her dear Miss Wychwood was a trifle in the dumps, and considered it to be her duty to divert her mind. No doubt she was sad to be leaving Twynham: Miss Farlow could well understand that, for she was feeling rather sad herself: it had been such an agreeable week!
'So very kind as Lady Wychwood is!' she said brightly. 'I declare it makes one sorry to be going away, not but what home is best, isn't it? We must look forward now to Easter, when we shall have them all to stay in Camden Place. We shan't know how to make enough of those sweet children, shall we, Annis?'
'I don't think I shall find it difficult,' said Annis, with a faint smile. 'And I fancy Jurby won't either!' she added, twinkling across at her dresser, who was sitting on the forward seat, holding her mistress's jewel-box on her angular knees. 'Little Tom's last encounter with Jurby was a very near-run thing, I promise you, Maria! Indeed, I am persuaded that had I not chanced to come into the room at that moment she'd have spanked him – as well he deserved! Wouldn't you, Jurby?'
Her dresser replied austerely:'Tempted I may have been, Miss Annis, but the Lord gave me strength to resist the promptings of the Evil One.'
'Oh, no, was it the Lord who gave you that strength?' said Annis, quizzing her. 'I had thought it was my intervention that saved him!'
'Poor little fellow!' said Miss Farlow charitably. 'So high-spirited! Such quaint things as he says! I'm sure I never saw such a forward child. Your sweet little goddaughter, too, Annis!'
'I fear it's useless to ask me to go into raptures over infants in arms,' said Annis apologetically. 'I daresay I shall like both children well enough when they are older. In the meantime I must leave it to their mama, and to you, to dote on them.'
Miss Farlow realized that dear Annis had the headache, which was the only possible explanation for her want of enthusiasm over her nephew and niece. She said: 'Now, why do you let me rattle on when I am persuaded you have the headache? That is not treating me as you should, or as I wish you to! There is nothing so irritating to the nerves as being obliged to attend to fireside chatter – not that this is the fireside, of course, though the hot brick I have under my feet keeps me as warm as toast – when one is not feeling in good point. And it wouldn't surprise me, my love, if it is the weather which has made your head ache, for a cold wind frequently gives me a sort of tic, and the wind is very sharp today – not that we are conscious of it in the carriage, which I am sure is the most comfortable one imaginable, but there is bound to be a draught, and we mustn't forget that you stood talking to Sir Geoffrey for several minutes before you got into it. That was what started the mischief depend upon it! I expect it will go off when you are safely home again, and in the meantime I shan't tease you by talking to you. Are you sure you are warm enough? Let me give you my shawl, to put round your head! Jurby will hold your hat, or I will. Now, where did I put my smelling-salts? They should be in my reticule, for I always put them there when I go on a journey, because one never knows when one may need them, does one? But they don't seem to be – Oh, yes, here they are! They had slipped down to the bottom, and were under my handkerchief, though goodness knows how they can have got under it, for I distinctly recall putting them on top of everything else, so that they would be handy. I often think how extraordinary it is that things move by themselves, which no one can deny they do!'
She continued in this way for several minutes, and when Annis declined the shawl and the smelling-salts, wished that they had thought to bring a pillow to put behind Annis's head, or that it were possible to make her a tisane. In desperation, Annis shut her eyes, and after drawing Miss Jurby's attention to this, and telling her that they must be as quiet as mice, because Miss Annis was just dropping off to sleep, she at last subsided.
Annis had no headache, nor was she depressed at leaving Twynham Park. She was bored. Possibly the bleak weather, though it hadn't made her head ache, had affected her spirits, making her feel, most unusually, that the future was as gray and as unpromising as the sky. Lady Wychwood had tried to keep her at Twynham for a few more days, prophesying that it was going to snow, but Annis could not be persuaded to extend her visit, even if it was going to snow, which she thought extremely unlikely. Appealed to, Sir Geoffrey said: 'Snow? Pooh! Nonsense, my love! Far too much wind for that, and nothing like cold enough! Naturally we should be happy to keep Annis with us, but if she has engagements in Bath we should neither of us wish to deter her from keeping them. What's more, if it did snow she will be perfectly safe with Twitcham on the box.'
Excerpted from Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer Copyright © 1944 by Georgette Heyer. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks Casablanca. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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