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"If your papa suggests one more utterly stupid and unnecessary chore for us to do today, Nessie, I shall screech," Miss Simons declared, with a dangerous flash of her faded blue eyes. "Wrapping the silver flatware in oilskin and burying it under the floorboards! What can possibly be the point of it? And what are we to eat our mutton with in the meanwhile?"
"Everyone is hiding his valuables," Vanessa pointed out, but with very little enthusiasm. "In the meanwhile, we shall use the tinware from the kitchen. Come, let us get it done as quickly as possible, so that we can get back to my gown."
Together the two ladies, aunt and niece, laboriously wrapped each individual spoon, knife and fork in oilskin, the whole to be placed in a wooden tea crate and hidden under the floor, to keep it safe when the French invaded. The sooner it was done, the sooner they could return to their interrupted chore of sewing spangles on the white peau de soie underskirt of Miss Bradford's ball gown. This latter job had to be finished by the next evening, for the military ball was fast approaching.
The whole east coast of England was busy hiding valuable possessions from Napoleon, whose arrival on England's shore was considered imminent. What items were not concealed were packed up in carriages, ready to be taken to safety with the occupants when the great evacuation occurred.
There was scarcely an elegant home in the neighborhood whose walls were not denuded of paintings, and whose table bore real silver. Attics, cellars and secret passages were where these items were now to be found. Mrs. Whistler had her entire Sèvres tea service put down the well in a woodenbucket, while the Delons had gone through their famous library to sort out the valuable editions and hide them in the church, boarded up under the bench of their family pew.
"I hope he doesn't take into his head to make us bury our jewels," Miss Simons rattled on. "It will be the last straw if you cannot wear your mama's diamonds to the ball. How else should you attract Colonel Forrester?"
Vanessa lifted her eyes to the mirror on the far wall to assess her other attractions. She gazed with satisfaction on a crown of golden curls, cut fashionably short to frame her young face. Her eyes, green, large and lustrous, she thought might work some charm on Forrester, if only he could ever get close enough to appreciate them. The length and thickness of her lashes could not really be done justice from across the street, which was the minimum distance usually placed between Forrester and herself.
Colonel Forrester was the commandant of the garrison that had sprung up on the coast, ready to repulse Napoleon's attack. He was every inch the fine officer--tall, handsome, well mannered and, best of all, not averse to a flirtation. He was seen on the strut in the village, sitting as straight and stiff as a statue in his scarlet regimentals in church on Sunday, but it was generally agreed amongst the young ladies that he showed to best advantage mounted on his fine bay mare, riding amongst the tents that had grown up in such delightful profusion along the coast between Hastings and Eastbourne.
To see his underlings jump to attention, saluting and hopping to obey his orders, filled their hearts with joy. It was difficult to take the threat of Napoleon Bonaparte seriously when there was a Colonel Forrester standing by to protect them. Vanessa had first thought he would be frequently in the Bradford saloon, for her father was a retired colonel, but it had not proved the case. He had come once to pay his respects, and had his handsome ears burned for the dilatory manner in which he was preparing his defenses. He had come no more. Her father had offended him to such a degree that he did no more than bow, very stiffly, when they met in the village.
She knew the ball was her only chance to attract him. Forrester had hired the assembly hall in the village to toss a major ball, as a reward for his men's long vigil there on the coast. It was to be such a social event as rarely occurred in the quiet lives of the locals. Hundreds of officers were to come, from as far away as Portsmouth and Margate. Elaborate preparations were going forth at the assembly rooms, turning them into some exotic setting. Discussing these decorations, arranging their toilettes and discovering the names of the officers coming from afar had made up the main topic of conversation amongst the ladies for several weeks now. Miss Fischer had sent off to London to have her jewelry returned from safekeeping there. Miss Fischer, a lively brunette heiress, was the main contender for Colonel Forrester's hand.
It did seem hard that Vanessa must content herself with the company of mere majors or captains, or even platoon lieutenants, when a perfectly eligible colonel was to be had. He was not entirely averse to her green eyes either. He cast surreptitious glances in her direction when they met, but was shy to put himself forward after the scorching tirade her father had submitted him to during his one visit to Levenhurst. He had been known to say to Miss Condie that he feared Miss Bradford had a low opinion of him. Really it was enough to cast a girl into the dismals to consider it. Low opinion indeed! But at least her father did not plan to attend the ball. Next evening she would have the opportunity to correct Colonel Forrester's misapprehension about her feelings.
"I shall wear my diamonds," Vanessa said. "They are not buried, but locked in the trunk of Army papers Papa has got packed in his carriage to be taken away when--if we have to evacuate. Do you think we will, Auntie?"
Miss Simons clucked unhappily at the question. She preferred not to consider life's unpleasant side. She had more important matters weighing on her small mind. Should she have the large spangles sewed on Nessie's underskirt, or select smaller ones to go on top? Ought she to snip another quarter of an inch from the girl's curls today, or should this major surgery wait till after the ball? There was no saying with a new haircut; it might turn out superbly, but on the other hand, newly-cut hair was often recalcitrant, sitting out at odd and unattractive angles.
Nor was her niece's toilette the only matter to be considered. She had no notion of appearing dowdy herself. Though half a century old, she was always spectacularly elegant. Even to wrap silver in oilskin, she wore a fine green sarsenet gown with a crisp white fichu, highlighted by a silver filigree brooch. Her dark hair, distinguished by two white wings at the temples, was arranged in a seemingly casual fashion that took forever to achieve. Her measurements were still those of her girlhood. She ate little and exercised much, her physical activity generally taking the form of running from house to house in the neighborhood, discovering what petty schemes, spites and feuds were brewing between friends. As often as Colonel Bradford allowed, Vanessa accompanied her aunt on these outings.
"If an invasion really is likely, we should go up to London," Miss Simons stated hopefully. "It would be nice if Napoleon would hold off till the spring. The fall little season is not at all so fine as the spring. I made my bows in May. You ought by rights to have done the same, but your papa..." She did not complete her statement. They both knew well enough what the colonel thought of such frivolity.
"He is not well enough to undertake the exertions of a Season," Vanessa explained, quite unnecessarily. It was no secret the colonel had been returned home from India owing to a chest wound that still bothered him considerably.
"He would not have to come," Aunt Elleri said quickly. "Indeed we would go on much better without him, to insult all the gentlemen. He always takes it amiss that an able-bodied gentleman is not in uniform. As to calling that nice Colonel Forrester a frivolous dandy! I cringe and blush every time I think of it. His mama the daughter of a viscount. But then, what is to be expected of a father who beats his daughter?"
There was little enough closeness between the father and daughter, but she could not hear him disparaged without defending him. "He does not beat me. It was only a spanking, years ago, when I was a child."
"Only a spanking! You are generous. I shall never forget the tears welling up in your eyes and coursing down your cheeks. To beat an innocent child, hardly more than a baby! It is the military influence. It removes all sense of decency from a man if he does not beware. It is really a wonder how Colonel Forrester has retained his sense of refinement. It is his never having had to fight yet that accounts for it, very likely. There would be many like him in London, refined officers, who wear the uniform but perform mainly ornamental functions."
"Yes, what Papa calls tin soldiers," Vanessa answered with a smile. "But there is no point speaking of London. We cannot abandon my father when he is ill. He needs us."
"Pooh!" was the answer to this filial statement. "That disreputable batman, Parkins, is the only one he allows to tend him. There--we are out of oilskin, thank God. I shall have to nip into the village and buy some more. Come along with me, Nessie. No, you had better stay home and apply that bleaching lotion I have decocted. It is fermenting on the windowsill of my room. Excellent for the complexion."
"Oh, but it is green, Auntie."
"Of course it is green, goose. It is the cucumber pulp that makes it so."
"I cannot even wander about the house if I put it on. Someone might call--Miss Condie, or Miss Fischer..."
"Not a chance of it. They will be walking the streets in the village, the trollops, trying for a sight of Forrester. He is bound to be there this afternoon, I should think, with the decoration of the assembly hall to be seen to. Perhaps you had better come with me. You can apply the lotion this evening. We will not have any callers this evening. The whole world will stay at home to prepare for the ball. We can remain in our rooms and finish your gown."
"I had better see first if there is anything Papa wants in the village," Vanessa said, not eagerly, but as one willing to do her duty.
Miss Simons shook her head at this pandering to authority. Her niece returned ten minutes later, her shoulders sagging and her lips turned down. "I can't go with you," she said. "Papa wants me to oversee the packing of a cart for the servants. Dry foodstuffs and blankets, pots and pans. Oh, and you are to order a hundredweight of flour and a hundredweight of dried, salted fish, to be delivered as quickly as possible, to go in the servants' cart. Two dozen of candles, the tallow candles as well. Put it on his bill."
"Pest of a man," Miss Simons scolded. "Am I to waste my entire afternoon in the grocer's shop? I want to call on Mrs. Fischer. I know she is planning a dinner party before the ball. I thought she might invite us if she knew we are not having any party ourselves. It is very odd she did not ask us. You don't suppose she has inveigled Colonel Forrester to attend? That would make it imperative for him to stand up first with Clara, the lanky old hen."
"Papa has asked the minister and Sir Charles Newcombe to dine here," Vanessa replied, with a vexed expression that did not know whether it was angry or grieved.
"An ancient church minister and a married man? It is all of a piece," Miss Simons exploded. There was no confusion in her sentiments. She was out of reason cross with her brother-in-law. Henry Bradford was doing his utmost to ruin Nessie's chances of ever making a good match. If he did not find some excuse at the last minute to forbid her attending the ball, it was more than she dared to hope for.
"I have to go now," Vanessa said, adopting a pout. "Where are the winter blankets stored, Auntie?"
"In a chest in the spare room, the small green room at the end of the hall. They will have to be put out to air. I packed them in camphor, against the moths. Be sure to wear a sunbonnet, Nessie. We don't want you cropping out in freckles for the ball. Lemons--I must ask cook to bring us some lemons. I shall double the lemon juice in my decoction. Wear your gloves too, when you are having the blankets hung. I shall go on into town and discover whether the Fischers are having a dinner party, and whether they have trapped Forrester into attending. They are so sly I place no reliance on their behaving properly in the matter."
"Proper behavior" would leave Forrester for Vanessa, at least for the opening minuet. But there, the whole world was out to hamper the match. If the thing were to be pulled off, it would be herself who did it. She went to get her bonnet, to do battle with the world. Vanessa went to the green room to haul out the blankets and take her ill humor out on the servants. After she was actually out in the yard, wearing those defenses against Sol which her aunt advised, she was seduced into a softer frame of mind by the warming breezes and gently swaying trees. Her thoughts had soon wafted off to dream about being in the colonel's arms, hearing his excuses for being less particular in his attentions to herself than he wanted. She stared with distracted, unseeing eyes as the blankets were hung. How should she bother with blankets, when Colonel Forrester was proposing marriage to her, between impassioned embraces and declarations of undying love?