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The late August sun was hot on the fields and orchards of the Shropshire countryside. Everything looked peaceful and serene at the country house of Mr. Obadiah Burnstead--everything on the outside.
Inside, things were in an uproar. Serving maids scurried from the drawing room as muffled roars of rage issued from its depths. The aged butler attempted to maintain his dignity in front of the footmen, but all of them felt ill at ease. Mr. Burnstead's moments of rage were not met with equanimity by his household.
Jeannie Burnstead, making her way down the front stairs to her uncle Obadiah's drawing room, wondered vaguely what scrape her twin, Jeremy, had fallen into this time. Whenever Uncle Obadiah summoned her and Aunt Desdemona to the drawing room in this fashion, it was because one of Jeremy's letters had arrived. "Begging letters," Uncle Obadiah called them, and Jeannie could not disagree with this. In his several years in London, Jeremy had never managed to live within his allowance, and sometimes he lived outside it so drastically that he needed Uncle Obadiah's help to avoid debtors' prison.
At the foot of the stairs Jeannie turned right and almost collided with her aunt, who came scurrying from the kitchen wing. "Really, Jeannie, I do wish Jeremy would get his affairs in order," Aunt Desdemona said. Affectionately named Aunt Dizzy by the twins, she was a tall woman with deep-set mournful eyes. Now she sighed dramatically.
"I know, Aunt. I do, too." Jeannie took her aunt's fluttering hands in her own and tried to calm her. "But there is really very little we can do." She sighed, too. "Perhaps, as Jeremy grows older, he will learn." She hoped that this time it wassimply a new horse, or even a new lightskirt, and not a large gambling debt. Jeremy seemed to be following in his father's footsteps. All the years until their father's death had not sufficed to teach him that gaming would never replenish his already weakened resources.
Aunt Dizzy did not seem particularly comforted. She sighed again more deeply as the two of them entered the drawing room. Though both women wore plain dark gowns, they presented quite a contrast:
Aunt Desdemona's gaunt, tragic look and the blond youthful freshness that even Jeannie's drab clothing could not quite hide.
"You realize why I have called you here," Uncle Obadiah thundered from beside the fireplace. He turned to face them, his pot belly giving his body a strangely unbalanced look. It strained at his striped buff waistcoat in a way that threatened its buttons. His face, as he regarded them, grew redder and redder, and his belly seemed to swell with indignation.
Jeannie nodded along with her aunt as she settled in a chair. She did not care to be present when Uncle Obadiah was thrown into one of these rages, but she always tried to obey his wishes. It was one of the few ways to show her gratitude for his kindness in letting her retreat here after Lord Atwood had left her for that scheming heiress. Of course, it was foolish of her to blame the heiress. Atwood was a grown man. If his partiality for her had been as real as he made out, no heiress would have lured him away.
Jeannie brought her attention back to Uncle Obadiah. "The boy has gone too far this time," he bellowed. "Too far. He will have to handle his own debts. Let him marry Lady Flighton as I suggested. Her estate should keep him in funds."
"But Mr. Burnstead, my dear." Aunt Dizzy's voice quivered and a single, unshed tear hung on her eyelash. "The boy cannot marry someone he does not love."
"Hogwash and poppycock," roared Uncle Obadiah in a tone that shook the bisque shepherdess on the mantel. "You have noddled your head with all those bird-brained romances. How many times have I told you? Life is not like that."
The tear slipped from Aunt Dizzy's eyelash and made its way down her wrinkled cheek, where it was soon joined by others. "I'm sure it's an awful thing when a woman's only solace in life is begrudged her," said she in a voice that broke several times.
"And it's not as though my romances cost you a thing," she continued with an aggrieved sniffle. "I use my pin money for them. And I rarely order a new gown. You know that, Mr. Burnstead. You know that well!"
One of the buttons on Uncle Obadiah's waistcoat gave under the strain and went careening across the room. "Now, now, Desdemona," he replied in a voice that was reduced to half a bellow, "no need to go into a tizzy. You know that I'd never deprive you of your books. You read all of them you want to. But you don't understand about Jeremy, that's all. The boy's been gaming too much. Shot his allowance for the quarter, and plenty more, I'll wager. What I say is--let the young buck stew in his own juices. I've warned him. Again and again I've warned him. He's got to be stopped before he grows into another Edward. And Lady Margaret's the one to do it. If he's in bad enough to the moneylender, he'll have to accept her. You know her father and I have been wanting their marriage these many years. Mark my word, she'll keep him in line."
Of that Jeannie had no doubt. Once, three or four years ago, Lady Margaret's father had brought her on a visit. When Aunt Dizzy made the two girls acquainted, Lady Margaret looked down her crooked nose and smiled derisively. In the whole three-day visit Lady Margaret had not made one nice remark to Jeannie.
Jeremy hadn't liked her either. "She's stupid, Jeannie, just stupid," he had said privately. "I detest the way she bats her eyelashes at me and simpers. And that cursed fan of hers. So help me, if she taps me playfully with it one more time, I'll break it and throw it in her ugly face."
Yes, there was no doubt in Jeannie's mind that Jeremy would hate being leg-shackled to such a woman. She couldn't blame him. What if Uncle Obadiah had forced her to marry someone she despised?
Since that dreadful moment at Lady Cholmondoley's ball when Atwood had told her that his parents had withdrawn their consent to the alliance, she had had no desire to consider matrimony again. The pain of Atwood's desertion had been deep, for she had formed quite a partiality for the fair, attractive young man. Added to that pain had been the agony of facing down the knowing looks of the dowager mamas and sweet young misses who had gloated over her misfortune. To avoid them she had retired to the country.
"There's nothing else for the boy to do," Uncle Obadiah was saying. "He must be made to see that."
Aunt Dizzy's tears were flowing copiously by this time, but to no avail. Uncle Obadiah was determined to ignore them.
"There must be some other way," cried Aunt Dizzy between sobs. "Give the poor boy one more chance."
"No!" The word issued from Uncle Obadiah's mouth like a thunderbolt, and Aunt Dizzy quivered as though she'd been struck. Then she set her thin lips firmly together in the pained expression of a martyr.
"You must understand, Desdemona, there is no other way."
Still wearing an aggrieved expression. Aunt Dizzy rose and stretched out a trembling hand for Jeannie's support. "Very well, Mr. Burnstead. I shall say no more." Leaning heavily on Jeannie's arm, she moved from the room.
"Jeannie, Jeannie, we must think of something. We simply cannot allow Jeremy to enter a loveless union like this," she said as soon as they reached the hall.
"But Aunt, what can we do?" Jeannie helped her aunt up the stairs to her room. "Besides, Uncle Obadiah is very upset."
"He will calm down," said her aunt. "He always does. And then he remembers when he was young." She turned to her niece. "It's just that he's very worried. He doesn't want your brother to go the way your father did. Such excesses!" Aunt Dizzy lifted her eyes heavenward in mute testimony to the extent of those overindulgences.
"I know, Aunt. Papa gamed far too much. I remember our poor mama begging him not to go to White's. But it was an illness with him. He could not help it."
Aunt Dizzy wiped at her eyes with her lace handkerchief. "Yes, my dear, I know. Your mama was in dire straits many times. But they are at rest now. I have tried my best to be a mother to you."
"You have, Aunt, you really have. No one could have been better to us," said Jeannie as she opened the door to her aunt's room.
"Well, never having had any little ones of my own," Aunt Dizzy sniffled again, "and with you coming to me half-grown as you did, I'm sure I've made some mistakes." She sighed heavily. "Like that young man--Atwood. I thought he was ideal for you. He seemed so charming. And how dreadfully that business ended. He left you--and practically at the altar. And now this trouble with Jeremy."
"Now, Aunt," Jeannie tried to soothe her, "it wasn't your fault--what happened with Lord Atwood. He was just--not trustworthy. In any case you know most men marry for money these days."
"Oh, Jeannie! What is the world coming to?" Aunt Dizzy groaned. "Is there no more romance? No more love? First Lord Atwood and now Jeremy." Her tears threatened to come again.
"Now, Aunt. You know things are not always as they appear in books."
"But Jeremy! And Lady Margaret!" Aunt Dizzy sank into a chair and fluttered her hands helplessly.
"Yes, I know." Jeannie found herself a seat. "We have to think. There must be something we can do."
"Yes, that's it. Think." Aunt Dizzy furrowed her forehead deeply and pressed a hand to it.
"It's money that Jeremy needs," said Jeannie. "If he could pay his debts, he wouldn't need to marry Lady Margaret."
"That's true, quite true," cried Aunt Dizzy. "But where can we get some money? My pin money is all spent."
"I have mine," said Jeannie. Since Atwood's desertion she had not bothered much with feminine niceties. "But I'm sure that it wouldn't be enough."
Aunt Dizzy sighed and absently fingered her opal necklace. "Money. Where can we get money?"
"That's it, Aunt! That's it."
"What's it?" her aunt asked in bewilderment.
"Jewels! I have my mama's jewels! The ones she kept back for me."
"But, Jeannie." Her aunt was plainly upset. "You can't give away your jewels. They're part of your dowry."
"Nonsense, Aunt. I've told you I'm not going to marry. And perhaps because of my sacrifice Jeremy will stop gaming. We cannot let him marry Lady Margaret. It would be sheer misery for him."
"Yes, of course. The boy cannot abide her, and she hasn't grown any sweeter through the years. Ahhhh! But your mama's jewels are here, and Jeremy is in London."
"Perhaps we can send them," Jeannie suggested.
"No, no. Mr. Burnstead would be sure to discover it. We cannot send a trusted servant off without his knowledge."
Jeannie nodded. If Uncle Obadiah found out what they were up to, he would put his foot down hard; but let them once accomplish their purpose, and Aunt Dizzy would be able to calm him down.
"Then I shall have to go myself." She said it firmly, but felt some concern.
"Jeannie! To London! I mean, you were so positive about staying in the country. I'm sure I quite understood. The ton behaved just dreadfully."
"But, Aunt," explained Jeannie patiently, "I shan't have to go about in society. I'll just take the jewels to Jeremy and come back to Shropshire again." Nothing, she thought bitterly, would persuade her to stay in that terrible city.
"Of course, of course. You must excuse me, my dear. This dreadful business has quite unsettled my brains." Aunt Dizzy pressed a trembling hand to her forehead. "I will send Villers along. We'll tell Mr. Burnstead that--that--" She paused helplessly.
"That I am going to visit my old friend Catherine Amesley. Surely he will approve of that. You know he has been after me to return to London, to be seen again in society."
"You must understand, my dear. Your uncle Obadiah is thinking of your own good. He cannot conceive of a young woman not wanting to marry. I've told him that your heartache will heal, that the right man will come along for you. But poor Mr. Burnstead is so impatient!"
"Yes, Aunt, I know." Jeannie did not try to explain to her aunt that she no longer felt heartache. That feeling had faded after some months. What she felt for Lord Atwood now was contempt. He had deceived her--young and naive as she had been--but she would not be deceived again. She would not trust another man. The rosy world of romance that Aunt Dizzy's books painted existed only in their pages. In the real world, exposing oneself to love brought only pain, not ecstasy. She did not intend to suffer that again.
"But now we must plan. I will leave tomorrow. We must pack a few things to make our ruse succeed. We can say I plan to buy more clothes in London. Yes, that's it." She rose and began to pace the floor.
"How very exciting," cried Aunt Dizzy. "It's just like an adventure in one of the novels."
"Now, Aunt!" Sometimes Jeannie felt that she was the parent. "You must not have such ideas. This is nothing like that. It's really a very simple scheme with no adventure involved--just a tiresome journey to London and another one back again."
"Still," said the unconquerable romantic, "you might meet some personable young man while you're in the city."
"Perhaps, Aunt. Perhaps." Again Jeannie felt it useless to try to talk her aunt out of her fanciful dreaming. "But come now. Why don't you lie upon your bed for a while and rest? I'll attend to my packing."
Posted March 4, 2011
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