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To say that Sir Umphrey Long was a nodcock, as his wife's mother frequently did, was perhaps too severe. His understanding was just sufficient to get him through his life as a country squire without serious entanglements or difficulties. He was a big, handsome man, universally liked for his cheerful good nature.
His wife, Dulcinia, a feather-brained female, had been as pretty as she could stare, and had had, within a month of her come-out, several flattering offers. "Fortunately," her Mama often said.
Dulcinia chose Umphrey, and had, in due course, two sturdy sons the image of their Papa, and a daughter even prettier than her Mama. The exasperated Grandmother was often heard to remark that they were all beautiful, all cheerful, and all abysmally stupid. This unnatural acerbity upon the part of so fortunate a grandparent was not resented by the good-natured Longs, who admired Lady Delia's rapier witeven when they were its target.
And then a fourth child was born, a daughter. Dulcinia, whose favorite governess had once given her a book on Greek mythology (possibly the only book Dulcinia ever read), had intended to call her fourth child Theodora. After a few puzzled looks at the solemn little baby, she changed her mind.
"She is different," Dulcinia ventured to her doting husband and her long-suffering mother.
Umphrey took a closer look. "Well, my dear, she doesn't look like my side of the family -- nor yours, for that matter," he added, assessing the thatch of black hair and the tawny-brown eyes. "Aphrodite, Achilles, and Jason have golden hair and bright blue eyes, like yours, my dearest love. They also have bigger noses and smaller mouthsthan this baby. But we shall love her just as dearly as though she were beautiful like Aphra and Killy and Jase," he said gently, putting a comforting large arm around her shoulders. His wife accorded him a doting smile.
His mother-in-law took a closer look at the huge, golden-brown eyes which were staring at her with the cool intensity of a well-bred kitten's. A reluctant smile tugged at Lady Delia's lips.
"I like this one," she said decidedly. "She's got presence! Possibly even brains. She looks like my father."
Umphrey and Dulcinia appeared worried, but since Lady Delia made no further comment, they were soon happy to forget the odd remark about brains.
It was only as the little girl, called Athena at her grandmother's request, grew into a quiet, intelligent young woman, that her worried parents perceived that they had produced a changeling. Where her amiable siblings had to be hauled and pushed into learning to read, write, and cipher, Athena Long could read at five, and write a legible hand at six. Her alarmed parents, nobly refusing to assign blame to the Scottish governess Lady Delia had provided, informed her ladyship of the result. The grandmother, skeptical about the reports of the prodigy, came to scoff and remained to praise the brilliance and directness of the child's mind. Athena took to learning as an eaglet takes to the shifting currents of the sky -- with joyous competence.
For the next twelve years, Tina Long expanded her mind with quiet, if solitary, pleasure, while her golden siblings were very gentle with their little sister. For one thing, she didn't look like the family. Her hair, though long and lustrous, was black and straight. Her huge golden eyes had a solemn, contemplative stare. Aphrodite whispered to her dear Mama that so much study was making poor Tina near-sighted, and shouldn't they do something about it?
Dulcinia sighed. She was a little ill at ease with the quiet young daughter who tended to go off into some world of her own when the rest of the Family was happily discussing important matters like hunting and new clothes and the latest interesting on dits. Perhaps the poor child was beginning to recognize the difference between herself and the beautiful sister and brothers?
"We must all be especially kind and loving to poor Tina," was the best Dulcinia could come up with. So they all, even Killy and Jase, did their best to compensate for their little sister's differences. Dulcinia and Aphra insisted that she accompany them on social calls to all their neighbors to drink tea and gossip; Killy and Jase wheedled her into joining them when they went out with The Hunt. And the whole Family dragged the reluctant Tina to every ball and assembly the County hostesses provided.
It was a letter from Tina, detailing some of the rigors of her social life with wryhumor and a trenchant, if slightly bitter, turn of phrase, that alerted her grandmother to the dangers of the situation. She made one of her infrequent visits to the modest Long estate. Watching her granddaughter as the girl translated a poem from Frenchinto English, Lady Delia said, with grim warning, "Your sister has just received a flattering offer from Lord Marpole."
Tina raised glorious tawny-brown eyes and smiled at her grandmother. "I am happy for Aphra. They should suit very well."
"Since Roger Marpole is eager to marry a beautiful, well-bred woman who will be easily managed, and Aphra is eager to marry, period, they should have no problems," her ladyship said tartly.
"She cares for him as much as she is able, I think," offered Tina. "And he is a kind man."
"Oh, I've no doubt they'll make a comfortable match of it. Which brings me to something I must say to you, dear child."
Athena gave her grandmother a long, considering glance. "Do not tell me you have an itch to match-make in other quarters?" she teased. "You'll catch cold at that!"
"Wretched girl," scolded her grandmother, "that is the trouble! Your -- ah -- fame is growing, your Mama tells me, to such an extent that it has frightened off every eligible parti in the county! Have you not noticed that the local youths are shy of you? I have been informed that Lawyer Cope's carrottopped daughter Maddy was besieged at the last Assembly, whilst you, my poppet, sat out half the dances!"
"Closer to three quarters," Tina shrugged. "They are stupid and boring, after all."
"The Assemblies? Yes, I grant you they are, but--"
"The young men," Tina corrected her.
Her grandmother looked aghast at such plain speaking. "Never, I repeat never, let such words be heard from your lips, I beg of you! To be told they are arrogant, self-willed, hard to handle, delights the male sex, while to have it hinted that they are philanderers or libertines quite sets them up! But to state that you find them boring and stupid will drive them away faster than the threat of the plague!" Lady Delia fluttered her elegant little fan as she contemplated her Bluestocking granddaughter with grave concern. "I see I must take you in hand. I had thought to thank Heaven that you are not a simpleton like every other member of your family, but it seems I may have been mistaken. At least they have enough nous to value the really important things--"
"Such as?" Athena's attention was fully attracted now. She was smiling that devastating, heart-catching smile which Lady Delia privately thought irresistible -- and quite wasted upon one's grandparent.
"Such as Marriage -- and Men," she retorted, "since we cannot have one without the other."
"Haven't you forgotten love?" teased the girl.
"No, but I am afraid you have," riposted Lady Delia, regarding the piquant little face with a frown. After a moment she spoke again. "Have you thought of what you will be doing ten or even twenty years from now, if you continue in this fashion? Nose forever in a dusty volume, eyes straining and squinting to decipher fine print, shoulders continually bent over a desk --?"
Tina chuckled. "I'll have a dusty nose, red-rimmed eyes, and round shoulders," she suggested.
Lady Delia was not amused. "You'll be alone with your nose and your eyes and your shoulders -- and no one will care what you look like in any case!"
"My family would care," objected Tina, losing a little of her amusement when presented with this undeniably gloomy picture.
"Are you content to live with those amiable moon-calves for the rest of your life? I think I know you better than that, dear child," answered Lady Delia. "You must make a life of your own. And that means marriage, for a woman of our class."
Tina frowned. "What do you suggest, Grandmama? That I attend the next Assembly and try to charm some man by flirting like Maddy Cope?"
"You would not succeed," replied her grandmother succinctly. "In the first place, you do not know how to flirt in spite of, or perhaps because of, all your erudition. In the second" -- she overrode Tina's effort to interrupt--" in the second place, my poor girl, you have so terrified all the eligible young men with your learning and aloofness that you could not get near enough to any of them to flirt with him."
"You paint a dark picture," said Tina at length. "I must suppose that there are ways to overcome my handicaps, and that you have some such in mind already." She sighed. The idea of remaining at Malong Hall for the rest of her days was a daunting one. She loved her cheerful family, but had to admit that they were as stimulating intellectually as a litter of new puppies. She shook her head at the prospect. "I will do whatever you advise. I am thought to be quick to learn," she offered bravely.
Lady Delia nodded. "I believe it can be managed. But you must place yourself in my hands, girl, and you must work as you have never done before! And I must work," she added grimly. "I trust I shall be able for it."
Tina chuckled. "I would wager my blunt that you are capable of anything," she said with real admiration. "When do we start?"
"At once! First lesson: you must not use terms like 'wagering your blunt' and 'catching cold at something.' Such masculine cant from a young girl's lips must disgust a man of fastidious taste."
Tina frowned. "Exactly what did you have in mind for me, Grandmama? If it is to become a mealy-mouthed, niminy-piminy miss, sighing and languishing and flying up into the boughs at the slightest mention of anything interesting--!" She pulled a long face. "I could not, nor would I wish to. Better to wither on the familial vine!"
Lady Delia, who had been looking grim, unbent with a reluctant smile. "Devil!" she said affectionately, and ruffled Tina's thick silky hair with an indulgent hand. "Perhaps you are right. The worthwhile catches would probably scorn a prudish miss. I do have one Prize in mind, but he's been avoiding Parson's mousetrap for so long he's probably uncatchable." She sighed. "If only I were forty years younger--! Oh well, perhaps our first concern should be, as you suggest, to decide what sort of female you should be."
"I suppose I cannot just be myself?." asked Tina wistfully.
"Quite ineligible," said Lady Delia briskly. "A Bluestocking, mouthing French poetry and, I have no doubt, Latin maxims!"
"Omnia vincit Amor?" murmured Tina naughtily. She chuckled at her grandmother's shocked expression. "It just means 'Love conquers all,' " she explained. "I thought it appropriate to our discussion."
"Just as I said!" observed Lady Delia. "Completely ruinous!"
Tina's eyes began to sparkle. "I have it! A femme fatale! What I believe my brothers call a Regular Dasher!"
Lady Delia rolled her eyes heavenward. "We are not seeking to establish you as some rakehell's light-o'-love, my girl!" The elderly woman was, it must be admitted, a little in alt at the idea of creating a New Athena who should take the Beau Monde, and one member of it in particular, by storm.
"Then if not a female pedant, nor even a femme fatale, will do, what role do you propose I should play?"
"How about a Woman of Mystery?" suggested Lady Delia, eyes glinting. "Would a Man of Consequence wish to marry a Woman of Mystery? It seems unlikely to me," said Tina doubtfully. "He might be letting himself in for some unpleasant surprises."
"You are right," Lady Delia admitted. "I am permitting myself to be carried away by the -- er -- challenge. Make no mistake about it, my dear child, it is a challenge! Your father's estate is not such as will provide a dazzling dowry for two daughters. For one thing, he had to buy two commissions each for your brothers!" She frowned at Tina's gurgle of laughter.
"If you could have seen their faces when Papa came home to announce what he had done!" she chuckled. "Poor Papa intended Achilles, as the firstborn, to be the warrior, and follow in the illustrious footsteps of Papa's own father in the Hussars -- or should I say the horse-shoe tracks?" She was laughing openly, her eyes alight with mirth. "I had to point out to him that Killy invariably threw out a rash when in the company of his beloved horses! The hunting season, much as he loves it, is always a wretched time for poor Killy! Then Papa admitted to us that he had planned for Jason to follow Uncle Martin into the Navy, until Jase reminded Papa of our ill-fated trip to Brighton, when a boating excursion upon even a calm ocean invariably made Jason dog-sick. Papa realized that to condemn Jase to a life at sea would be excessively cruel!"
"Your father is a widgeon," stated Lady Delia. "One would have thought, however, that even the most totty-headed of fathers would have discovered his sons' unfortunate failings before attempting to launch them upon the only careers completely impossible for them to pursue," snorted their grandmother.
"Well, he has it straightened out now," the girl soothed her. "Jason is mad about horses, and Killy seems to be enjoying his life on shipboard. All's well that ends well -- as Shakespeare said."
"Shakespeare may have said it. You should not," criticized her grandmother. "Are you going to be sensible or not? Lacking a generous settlement, you must not flaunt your eccentricities!"
This was too much for the high-spirited girl. "I would not wish for a husband who had to be paid to take me," she said with the first anger she had shown.
"What kind of a husband would you like?" her grandmother asked with real interest.
Tina smiled. "An intelligent one who could talk to me about something other than hunting, gaming, and the latest mill between Prides of the Fancy." She hesitated, then continued steadily, "And one who loved me more than anything else in the world."
Lady Delia's eyebrows rose almost to her hairline.
"My poor child!" she murmured pityingly. "Your wits have been addled by all that scholarship! Don't you know that no persons -- female at least! -- of our order of Society marry for love?" She enunciated the word as though it were slightly obscene. "Oh, I grant you, if the woman is fortunate, a strong affection may in course of time develop. Your grandfather and I became quite good friends when he grew tired of gaming and pursuing his bits of muslin! But no member of the Haut Ton would admit to marrying for love. Quite mawkish! Absurd! Theatrical!"
"Then I must choose someone from the Bas Ton," retorted Tina grimly, "for I shall never marry for any other reason."
"A Romantic!" breathed Lady Delia with such an expression of horror that Tina was forced to laugh.
"Well, according to you and Mama, I shall never be able to get close enough to the local swains to find out whether I could love them or not! Do you dare to show your face in London with such an unlikely debutante?"
Lady Delia rose to the challenge. "I shall not only take you back with me to Portman Square, Athena, but I shall find you a suitable parti. And you had better be prepared to fall in love with him, for I warn you now, at the outset, that I do not intend to be wasting my time!"
Copyright © 1984 by Elizabeth Chater