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Most families have a black sheep to boast or complain of--a relative who has gone astray from the path of respectability--but Daphne Ingleside felt unique in that their family's erring member was a female, a black ewe. Aunt Effie, Mama's only sister, had been a creature of much interest to Daphne for as long as she could remember. It seemed impossible to credit that plain, and really very ordinary Mama should have a sister who had set the whole of England and half of Europe ablaze with her affairs, but so it was.
Not content with marrying a very eligible earl during her first Season, she had served him false in the second year of their marriage and been caught in flagrante delicto with an even more prestigious gentleman, the Marquis of Ansquith, who was also married. Lord Standington, Effie's husband, who served as the villain in the Ingleside version of the story, had behaved in a most ungentlemanly manner and cast off his wife in a divorce trial that had rocked the country some thirty years ago, despite the fact that he kept a whole aviary of ladybirds himself.
The Black Ewe had been severely punished for what was then her one straying from the path of wifely devotion: divorced, publicly disgraced, made a mockery of by all her former great friends. Not one of them spoke to her and, with her head bent low, she had set off for the Continent, to live out her life in sackcloth and ashes.
But as luck would have it, Effie, who was allowed to retain the nominal dignity of Countess of Standington, no sooner set foot in France than she caught the eye and soon the heart of a certain Mr. Eglinton, a nabob who had made a colossal fortune with the East India Company. Shefelt it unbecoming to remarry, and in her deepest heart of hearts she still had a soft corner for her ex-husband. Indeed Effie's whole heart was a cotton ball of softness, according to Mama. Always the kindest, most generous of sisters. As she wended her penitential way from France to Italy, she picked up such a throng of admirers that it soon became necessary for her to remarry for her own safety, and she did so in Florence.
"The men wouldn't let her alone," Mama would sigh with satisfaction and perhaps a tinge of jealousy. Mama was not cursed with inspiring this sort of passion herself. Her husband, Sir James Ingleside, and no one else had found her irresistible. And to tell the truth, Papa was an old stick. One loved him, of course, but his whole discourse with his family was a series of complaints and commands. He was a very caring father, not only to his children but also to his wife. While poor Mama was told to eat up her peas and to stick a scarf into the neck of that low-cut gown, Effie enjoyed a foreign life of ease and recklessness. But in Greece, Mr. Eglinton had contracted a putrid fever while digging up a statue in a swamp, and with her head again bent low, Effie brought him home to England to be treated by the best doctors in the world, who soon had him in his grave.
There was Effie once more, Mrs. Gerald Eglinton now, her title relinquished, cast upon a friendless sea of money. When he divorced his wife, Lord Standington retreated to his estate in Ireland a broken man, according to Mama, gnawed by his guilty conduct towards his near-innocent wife.
With surprising alacrity, Effie's great friends returned to her. Her elegant mansion on Half Moon Street was the scene of many parties, where all but the highest sticklers attended on her. She ran a salon, an idea picked up in France, of no very high intellectual calibre, but enlivened by many gracious foreigners, much good-natured joking, and the best wine the late Mr. Eglinton's money could buy. Her open-handedness was a byword. A new acquaintance need no more than mention wanting to join the Army than he was handed a commission on a silver platter. When Lady Pamela Thurston pawned her diamonds to pay her gambling debts, it was Mrs. Eglinton who got them out of hawk and said "Pay me when you can." She put indigent friends' sons through school, lavished gifts on everyone, and thought money was only to be spent.
In the space of not too many years, she had done what she thought should be done with nine-tenths of Mr. Eglinton's fortune and found herself living on a small fixed income. The champagne salons dwindled to sherry conversazioni and the roomful of eminent guests to three or four down-at-heels gentlemen willing to call a plateful of macaroons and a glass of sherry "dinner."
Mama invited her to Wiltshire, but life held yet a few chapters for the beautiful Effie, still only in her late twenties and with enough looks to inspire one last passion. It was not the best of all possible partis who succumbed to her fading charms. Mr. Pealing was neither rich nor witty nor even very handsome, but he was available and Effie was lonesome, so she took him to be her third husband. He added nothing to the patina of the legend that had mushroomed around Effie.
Sir James had always averred she would come to no good end and was happy that her wayward life should stand as a warning to his own wife and daughter. Effie's letters now held no mention of salons or conversazoni. An occasional trip to Ranelagh or Vauxhall Gardens was remarked upon, but with increasing regularity the tone tended to be of the high prices charged for everything. The address changed from the mansion on Half Moon Street to Upper Grosvenor Square, with--horror of horrors!--an apartment number. The fabled Effie was living in rented rooms, complaining of the cost of green peas, not diamonds, and before too long complaining of the inefficacy of the medical profession. But with care Mr. Pealing held on for years, and it was not till Effie was in her fiftieth year that the long awaited card with its black edge informing of the death of Mr. Pealing arrived, throwing the Ingleside household into a pelter.
"She is all alone," Mama pointed out to Sir James with a tear in her eye.
James's heart was made of flint. No offer was extended to Effie to share the home of her sister. "If she asks, we'll let her come for a visit," was the best Mama could wring out of him, and Effie never asked. She had never asked them for anything.
It was twelve months before any request came from her, and when it came, it was not to be allowed to come to them but to send her niece Daphne to her to bear her company for three months.
"Oh, Mama, I should love it of all things!" Daphne said, her dark eyes shining. Really very like Effie herself at the same age, only the eyes were grey instead of blue, and it was a shame she should not have a crack at anything but the local beaux while her youth and beauty were upon her.
"I have always wanted to meet her," Daphne said.
An accusing eye was levelled on Sir James by his spouse. "Your father does not wish her to come."
"We asked her when Eglinton died," he pointed out. "She didn't care to come to us then. Oh no, she must stay and party with her so-called friends while the money held out. It would not do at all for Daphne to go to her. An apartment in Upper Grosvenor Square! She will meet no one there."
"She is meeting no one worth a second glance here," Lady Mary retorted with a steely look. "And if Daphne is not to be allowed to go to Effie, then I shall ask my sister to come to us."
Mama occasionally got her back up at Sir James's high-handed ways; not often, but when she did, she was a perfect mule. Faced with this ultimatum, James allowed his daughter to jaunter off to London, relying on her native intelligence to keep her from mischief. Though she had the beauty of her aunt, she had, as well, a pretty fair streak of common sense from the Ingleside branch of the family. It was shown in her conversation before leaving. Unlike her goose of a mother, she did not speak of balls and routs, when she was not going to make her debut, but of wondering whether Auntie kept a carriage so that they might drive in the park. She didn't even take her ball gowns with her. This caused James a wince of regret; Daphne dearly loved a ball, and how well she danced.
"You can always have one made up should the need arise," Mama said, and slipped a little roll of bills, saved from the milk money, into her hand. She hadn't a doubt in the world that her daughter would snare a husband on this trip, and how happy she was that he might be a real gentleman and not some local squire's son.
A shared smile with her father assured him that the daughter had a clearer idea of how her visit would go. "I shall take my paints," she said. "I might do a sketch of Aunt Effie to bring back to you, and one of myself for her to keep, if she likes."
It took a week to get Daphne's wardrobe ready for her holiday, for Mama would make a half-dozen trips to the village to buy her fans and ribbons and new patent slippers, all of which she warned her were not really fashionable enough for London. She also found a pair of elbow-length blue kid gloves that she could not resist, on half price, for they had such a cityfied look to them, and it was a great pity they didn't match any of Daphne's outfits. The ancient family travelling carriage was wheeled from the stable, brushed off, washed down, and a new coat of paint given to the wheels, which were covered with dust before they'd gone two miles. Mrs. Crozier, a neighbour going to London to visit her daughter, accompanied Daphne to lend respectability on her trip, and she was off.
It was Miss Ingleside's first trip to the Metropolis, and she enjoyed every minute of it. No worries of unaired beds, outrageously high prices at inns, of highwaymen or bad food came to annoy her. She wasted her time, in Mrs. Crozier's opinion, looking out at grass, trees and fields, at passing vehicles, churches and farmhouses when she should have been figuring out whether the George at Farnborough hadn't overcharged them a shilling for their breakfast.
On the third day Daphne arrived in London no more weary than if she had just gone a mile down the road, and again gazed from the coach windows at the sights. She was delighted by the busiest streets, the finest homes, the most luxurious carriages and the best-dressed people she had ever seen. This opulence was due to the fact that the coachman was also a stranger to London and not much good at reading the map Sir James had given him. He delivered his charge first to the more elite Grosvenor Square. The real estate deteriorated sharply once he found his way to Upper Grosvenor Square, but it was by no means contemptible--still perfectly respectable. Miss Ingleside felt no qualms upon entering the brick building which held her precious aunt. It looked a very common sort of a house, to be sure, to domicile Lady Standington, as Mama still frequently referred to Mrs. Pealing; but she knew her aunt to be in straitened circumstances and was prepared for it.
Within doors, Aunt Effie had been preparing for her niece for days, and all was in readiness.