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Undoubtedly it was highly gratifying to be permitted to escort the season's most eligible Beauty about the town, with no other chaperone than her package-laden maid. However, the Honourable Julia Langston seemed to be on the friendliest terms with half the Ton. Their progress up Bond Street was interrupted constantly as she stopped to greet acquaintances, a large proportion of them admiring gentlemen of all ages.
Sir Tristram, though he was twenty-seven, equally admiring and generally envied, longed for the peace of his quiet library at Dean Park.
A glance at the cloudless sky disappointed his hope of an April shower to persuade his beloved to seek shelter in his carriage. When they were married, he vowed, he would keep her all to himself in Gloucestershire.
"Do you not think so, Sir Tristram?" enquired the matron with whom she was presently exchanging civilities.
"By all means, ma?am," he said hurriedly, wondering to what he was assenting.
Miss Langston, her pale gold ringlets dancing beneath her bonnet, looked up at him with the enchanting smile which had made him decide that if he must marry, this was the wife for him.
"Pray excuse us, ma'am," she said. "I have still one errand and must not try Sir Tristram's patience."
"Too late, child, I fear. But he will certainly forgive anything for the sake of your pretty face. My compliments to your mama." She acknowledged Sir Tristram's apologetic bow with a stately nod and sailed on.
"What did she say?" he demanded.
"That the new fashion for fuller skirts and quantities of ornament vastly become my figure," replied Miss Langston primly, her lips twitching. "Idaresay that she expected you to enlarge upon the compliment, not to pass it off with ?by all means, ma?am."
Sir Tristram flushed. "I beg your pardon. I fear I was woolgathering."
"No matter. I assure you I do not mean to tease. Why, here we are at Hookham's already. Now, what was the name of the book Mama desired me to borrow for her? I have it here somewhere."
Miss Langston paused before the bow window of the library to search her reticule. Sir Tristram watched her. The elaborate walking dress of cerulean blue Circassian cloth, trimmed with two rows of darker blue flounces about the hem, did indeed set off her tall, willowy form. He ought to have remarked upon it. He wondered momentarily whether some wool from his own sheep might have gone into the making of it, and whether he might turn a phrase upon the possibility.
A volume in the window behind her caught his eye.
"A new edition of the Georgics!? he exclaimed. "Shall we go in??
As the baronet opened the door, the pale spring sunlight flooded past shelf after shelf of books to illuminate the farthest corners of the room. Half hidden in an alcove, a plump young woman, dark-haired, in a gown of plain grey stuff, raised her head from the book in her hands and blinked brown eyes at the new arrivals.
Cousin Julia! she thought. With one of her beaux. I hope she will not see me, or I shall scarce have time to finish the chapter before I must go.
She watched as a pair of assistants vied for the honour of serving her cousin, then returned to her book. Engrossed in the adventures of Rob Roy, she did not look up again until she heard a clear soprano voice close beside her.
"Octavia, how delightful to meet you here!?
"Hello, Julia." Looking past her slim, elegant cousin, she saw that the young gentleman who had entered with her was deep in discussion at the counter. "Has your escort abandoned you??
"In favour of Virgil! Alas for my vanity!?
"He is handsome enough to have more regard for his own vanity than for yours. We are agreed, are we not, in preferring dark hair in a man, and those artful curls set off his broad forehead to admiration."
"Not artful, I think. Look at his dress. It is perfectly proper but without any of the latest quirks of fashion."
Octavia studied the young man's well-cut brown coat and buckskin breeches, boots gleaming but without white tops, and neat but plain neckcloth. "True. No dandy he. I noticed particularly when he entered that he is some inches taller than you."
"Is it not gratifying? Do you recall Lord Aldridge?" Julia giggled.
"Was he one of the gentlemen who offered for you last season??
"No, no, my dear. It is my belief he was never able to forget that when I danced with him I could not but see how his hair was growing thin on top."
"I remember now. We thought in kindness to revive the fashion for wigs! Has this gentleman yet made so bold as to ask for your hand??
"Not yet. But I am certain that if he comes up to scratch, Mama and Papa will favour his suit. He is rich enough to buy an abbey."
"Do you like him??
"Well enough, I daresay, to marry him. Papa was so indulgent as to let me reject several unexceptionable offers last year, but I am turned nineteen, remember. Last year I was known as an Incomparable. This season I am merely an acknowledged Beauty. I cannot wait forever to fall in love."
"No, indeed! As an elderly lady of twenty I can only commend your resolve. How shocking it would be to come unmarried to a third London season!?
"You are a great tease, Tavy, but I promise you I should not consider him as a husband were there anything about him to give me a disgust of him. There is not, which is more than I can say for most of my beaux. It is only that ..."
"Hush, he is coming. Pray do not feel that you must introduce us." Octavia was suddenly aware that the stain on her skirt was still faintly visible in spite of all her scrubbing, and that her bonnet was so unfashionable as to be positively dowdy.
"Of course I shall. Allow me to make known to you Sir Tristram Deanbridge. Sir, my cousin, Octavia Gray."
"Your servant, Miss Gray." Sir Tristram bowed politely. With a glance at the volume in her hand, he added, "I see you are a lover of books. May I beg you to plead with Miss Langston to forgive me for my disgraceful neglect??
"I will not, sir, for I can think of nothing to say in mitigation of so heinous a crime. And besides, I must be on my way." Regretfully she returned Rob Roy to his shelf and picked up her basket.
"You do not take your book with you? If it is too heavy a burden, pray allow me to take you up in my carriage. It is close by."
To her annoyance, Octavia felt her cheeks grow pink. "Thank you, sir, but I do not care to take the book today, nor to put you out of your way to carry me home." She knew she was being ungracious, but to acknowledge her poverty to Julia's rich suitor was more than she could bear.
"I shall see you on Thursday as usual?" asked Julia.
"Yes, cousin, if you are not otherwise engaged." She bobbed a curtsey to Sir Tristram and hurried past him towards the door.
A group of fashionable ladies was entering at that moment and she was forced to wait. She glanced back and saw Sir Tristram, head bowed, listening gravely to something Julia was whispering to him. Julia waved to her, and she flushed again as she realised her good-natured but sometimes indiscreet cousin was explaining her behaviour. She looked away quickly, dreading to catch the gentleman's eye.
The doorway was clear; she stepped outside into the bustle of Bond Street.
Octavia turned at the hail. A lanky young man, carelessly dressed, with yellow handkerchief knotted about his throat, was half running to catch up with her.
"Mr Wynn!" She smiled as he came up to her and bowed, removing his hat to reveal an unruly bush of reddish hair.
"Are you on your way home? May I accompany you? I am going to see your father about Brougham's speech."
"Have you written another? I understand your last was a great success. Papa said he had never heard a better in all his years in the House."
"Thanks to Brougham's delivery. What a speaker! I am proud to work with him."
"I am sure he values you as he ought. Have you not been promised a safe seat at the next election? There is certainly a great future ahead of you and I daresay we shall see you Prime Minister if ever the Whigs return to power."
"You are too kind, Miss Gray."
They were still standing outside Hookham's as they spoke. Octavia was about to suggest that they move on when the door of the library opened and Julia emerged with her suitor. They were too close to be ignored, and indeed Julia came straight up to her. Mr Wynn stepped back politely.
Octavia hesitated. Her father's colleague, though a gentleman, was by no means a member of the fashionable world. Moreover, he was not merely a Whig but a Radical Reformer, while Lord Langston, Julia's papa, had sat firm on the Tory bench since inheriting his viscountcy. It would not do, she decided, to introduce them.
Her cousin had other notions.
"Who is your friend?" she asked, regarding with interest his almost Bohemian dress and thin, clever face. "Will you not make us acquainted??
Reluctantly, Octavia performed the introduction. Sir Tristram bowed slightly, looking thoughtful.
"James Wynn?" he murmured. "The name sounds familiar." He turned to Octavia. "Miss Gray, I beg you will not be offended if I offer you a small token of my regard for you as Miss Langston's favourite cousin, which she assures me you are." He pressed a piece of paper into her hand.
Octavia looked at it in surprise. It was a receipt for the payment of a year's subscription to Hookham's Lending Library. Choked with embarrassment, she thrust it back at him, muttering, "I cannot accept this, sir!?
"You are not to consider it as a personal gift, if you please." His strong fingers closed her trembling ones about it. "If you cannot accept it as a result of my admiration for Miss Langston, take it as a small contribution towards the Encouragement of Literacy. Surely there must be a society for such an excellent purpose!?
"More likely, for the Suppression of Illiteracy, sir, for I have frequently noticed that the vast majority of charitable societies are more concerned with suppressing the bad than encouraging the good!?
"Come, that's better," Sir Tristram said with a laugh. "You will keep it then? Believe me, you do me a favour. It will be a source of satisfaction to me whenever I sit down to read, to think that through my agency you are able to do likewise."
"You are very kind, sir." She raised her eyes to his face, but he had already turned back to Julia, who was by now engaged in animated conversation with Mr Wynn. A wave of envy swept through her. Not only beautiful, wealthy, wellborn, her cousin was also blessed with an effortless charm, an instinctive interest in people which made all those she met her friends. The bemused look on the young politician's face made it plain that here was yet another conquest.
"James Wynn?I have it!" exclaimed Sir Tristram. "Did you not write an article lately in the Edinburgh Review? And that not your first, I think."
"I had that honour, sir."
"Brilliant, but inflammatory! Miss Langston, I have kept you long enough from your mama. My carriage awaits on the next corner. Your servant, Miss Gray."
Wistfully, Octavia watched them walk up the street. The maid followed a pace or two behind with her neatly wrapped parcels, doubtless containing kid gloves and silk stockings, perhaps French lace and velvet ribbons.
She shifted the heavy basket on her arm, and tucked the precious subscription into one corner, between the beetroot and the saddle of mutton. It was too late now to go back into Hookham's.
"Do you dine with us today, sir?" she asked Mr Wynn. "I have been to market myself this morning, since Betsy has leave to visit her sick mother."
James Wynn's eyes lost their glazed look as he returned to the present.
"Mr Gray was kind enough to invite me," he confirmed. "If it does not inconvenience you, with your maid away??
"Not in the least. You know that I am always prepared for a multitude of guests." She sighed. "If it is not Papa's political acquaintances, it is Mama's charity committees. Or simply family. You must know that I have seven brothers and sisters, most of them married and with families of their own."
"Let me carry your basket," offered Mr Wynn, abashed. "It looks to be heavy."
On the way to Holborn, he interrogated her about her cousin. By the time they arrived at the narrow terrace house he was despondent.
"She is too far above me in every way," he said moodily. "Even if her father were not the greatest reactionary alive. I must put her out of my mind."
"I own I should think it wise." Octavia's voice was gentle. "It was wrong in me to have made you known to her, when I am aware of the effect she has on gentlemen."
"She mentioned that you take tea with her on Thursday afternoons, and walk in Hyde Park if it is fine??
"I do. But for your own sake, Mr Wynn, I trust you will not lurk in the park on the next fine Thursday in hopes of encountering us. Julia is incapable of snubbing you, as I am afraid my aunt would think she ought, and another meeting could only add to your distress." She opened the front door, stepped into the dark hallway, and turned to relieve him of her basket. "Will you go up to Papa? I must take this to the kitchen."
He caught her hand and raised it to his lips in a gesture unusually graceful for him.
"You are right, Miss Gray, and kind withal. Yet I see her bewitching face still as though she stood before me. I shall go up."
Octavia repaired to the kitchen, buttered and ate a couple of slices of bread, and started peeling potatoes.
A few minutes later the doorbell rang. Wiping her hands on her apron, she admitted two Members of Parliament and a political agent.
It was very amiable of Julia's baronet to give her a library subscription, she thought, but what she really needed was time to read!