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The traditional city residence of the Barons Chalmers was an elegant stone structure in a fashionable part of London. Built a century before, and incorporating within its weathered exterior all the myriad discomforts attendant upon antiquity, Chalmers House rose several stories into the air. Atop its massive cornice, rather like a rakish bonnet, was a hipped roof with dormers and crooked chimney pots. Great prominence was given to the windows on the lower floors, and greater prominence still to the decorative classical doorway.
Within, the house boasted a predominance of cedar, mahogany, pinewood. Plainly paneled walls stretched up toward plaster ceilings enriched by simple low relief ribs; polished wooden floors were adorned by the occasional rug; wooden staircases with finely moulded handrails and delicate balusters, barley-sugar twisted, climbed into the upper recesses of the house. The doors were wood paneled, the windows of sash design.
Behind one of those doors, looking down into the street, was the current Baroness Chalmers, a title which had been the reward, and reason, for her marriage some eight months past to the gentleman who among his vast and numerous possessions numbered Chalmers House. Unfortunately, from the baroness's viewpoint, the immensely wealthy baron was proving himself of a temperament she could only call nip-farthing, cheese-paring, miserly. What cared she for wealth preserved intact for hypothetical offspring? Surely she, as one whose efforts in the production of those offspring would not be negligible, was entitled from the Chalmers pounds and pence to derive some slight benefit?
In all fairness, it must be stated that the baronesshad not the least appearance of a lady whose husband kept her shockingly short of funds. Lady Chalmers was clad in the highest kick of fashion in a gown of sprigged muslin with sleeves drawn at the top with colored ribbons, a high-necked bodice and a skirt edged with flounces, both vandyked, the whole trimmed with broad-lace. On her feet were round-toed shoes slashed over the toecap to show a colored lining; around her slender shoulders was a Lyons shawl of flowered silk with deep borders, two and one-half yards square. It was an ensemble that would have overpowered any but the most stunning of beauties, another title to which Lady Chalmers could--and did--lay claim. At twenty years of age she was perfection incarnate, with a cloud of golden curls that clustered around her lovely face, and eyes of the purest blue. She had been, at various times and by various admirers, compared to Aphrodite, Venus, and a Dresden shepherdess, to the detriment of all three. Lord Chalmers's comments on his wife's beauty are not a matter of record, however--if comment he made.
But those who waxed loquacious about the lady's attributes might have had cause to doubt their judgment had they observed her standing at her drawing room windows, staring down into the street. Sullenness plays havoc with the most exquisite of features, and Lady Chalmers was looking distinctly petulant.
She did not do so without cause. It was a miserably dark day, if one unaccompanied by the eternal snow and hail that this April had brought, with the result that countless sheep had perished, a tidbit of information presented Lady Chalmers by her well-informed spouse, who she sometimes thought was more concerned with the condition of the country than with her own welfare. If she had married him for wealth and position--Lady Chalmers, as the beauty of her family, had had little choice but to marry advantageously, so that she might help her younger siblings--he had married her for the sole purpose of providing himself an heir. Having secured the requisite wife, he promptly and firmly banished her to the background of his life. To a young lady accustomed from the cradle to masculine admiration, such conduct was incomprehensible, and made more difficult to bear by the greatest of all her follies. In short, Lady Chalmers had fallen head-over-heels in love with her stern and rather disapproving spouse.
She turned away from the window and gazed in a very gloomy manner about the drawing room. Quite the finest chamber in the house, it boasted six-paneled doors with classical motifs in the carved panel borders, a white plaster ceiling richly decorated, a massive cornice that ran around the room. Four sash windows, under each a window seat with tapering legs and scroll ends, reached from cornice to wainscot, large rectangular panels in wood frames. The chamber was furnished with pieces from various historical periods, which somehow coexisted amicably, among them a gilt suite covered in convent-worked needlepoint. Lady Chalmers crossed the room to stand before the marble-faced fireplace. Chalmers House was afflicted with unpredictable currents of cold air.
At this point in her unhappy reflections, as she was wondering if it was Chalmers House or Lord Chalmers himself who caused her to feel as if she existed in some arctic zone, she heard the sounds of arrival that she had awaited so impatiently. Immediately the petulant expression vanished from Lady Chalmers's face, to be replaced by the haughty look of a très grande dame. She smoothed her skirts, adjusted her shawl, cast a quick glance at her reflection in one of the sconce-flanked mirrors that hung between the windows. Every inch the baroness, she decided, and arranged herself accordingly on a confidante to wait.
She had not long to do so, and her effect on her visitors was all she might have wished. Those visitors were three in number: a young lady who bore a marked resemblance to Lady Chalmers, possessing the same blue eyes and golden hair, and adding to these attributes a certain vagueness of expression that prompted intimates to refer to her as a lovely pea-goose; a second lady, rather more advanced in years and of an attitude which clearly indicated her practical disposition, who in such splendid company was completely overpowered; a young man who had a strong look of both his youngest companion and Lady Chalmers herself. The first two of these visitors Lady Chalmers had expected; the latter she had not. "Fennel!" she uttered, in some surprise, and then cast an anguished glance at her eldest, plainest sister. "Oh, Angelica!"
Miss Angelica Millikin, due to long acquaintance with her sister Rosemary--to long acquaintance, in fact, with a large number of siblings who possessed more hair than sense--understood perfectly that this utterance, if a trifle inane in nature, was indicative of great distress. The realization did not especially surprise her. So long as she could remember, Angelica had been called upon by her siblings to extricate them from the results of their empty-headedness. She gazed thoughtfully upon Rosemary, perched like major royalty on the confidante, and wondered what had possessed her to buy that absurd dress. "There, there, child!" Angelica murmured, as she ushered her charges, who were staring at Rosemary in a dumbfounded manner, further into the room. "What's amiss?"
But Rosemary was no child, and thus reminded of that fact, gathered around her her dignity. Was she not a married lady, a baroness, no less? Who was Angelica to speak to her in that patronizing tone? No more than a spinster of seven-and-twenty, without the slightest pretension to beauty save the blue eyes she shared with the rest of the family--the ugly duckling, not to put too fine a point on it, in a family of swans. Angelica might rule the country household from which they had all come, but Rosemary did not intend to allow her sister to similarly reign over Chalmers House. That she was not permitted to do so herself, her husband retaining firm hold of the reins, was entirely beside the point.
Rosemary patted the confidante. "Come, Lily," she said to the youngest of her callers, who was gazing in a bedazzled manner about the drawing room, "Sit here by me. Fennel, have you been sent down from the university again?"
The young man admitted that he had, due to an incident concerning a bearleader and a bear. It was an admission made with the unflagging good cheer that characterized Fennel Millikin; an astonishingly handsome young man of nineteen, he had not a care in the world, perhaps because a serious thought had never entered his handsome head. "Heard you was to give Lily her come-out!" he added, by way of explaining his unexpected presence. "Thought I'd lend your efforts my countenance!"
To this intimation that her prestige alone was not sufficient to insure Lily entrée into the haut ton, Lady Chalmers took justifiable offense. Since it was beneath her newly found dignity to fly into a pelter, she instead proceeded to deliver a subtle set-down. "As you wish!" she replied indifferently, and launched into a discussion of the treats in store for Lily, chief among which were prospective visits to modistes and milliners, due to the fact, reluctant as Rosemary was to mention it, that persons of the first consideration could not be expected to clasp to their bosoms young ladies who looked like dowds.
"Wasn't so long ago," remarked the unquenchable Fennel, while Angelica pondered the transformation of Rosemary from a creature all smiles and sweet good humor into this fashionable female who was so high in the instep, "that you was a country mouse yourself. Didn't stop Chalmers from making you an offer, did it? No, don't get up on your high ropes! And don't be pitching us any more gammon, either! Because if you're saying Lily's not at the very top of the tree, even if she ain't dressed bang up to the nines--and if it's bang up to the nines you are in that rig, I'm not sure she should be--you'll catch cold at that!"
Sternly Rosemary reminded herself of her position and her dignity, and contented herself with hinting to her outspoken brother that he was quite ignorant as concerned the ton. "Let me assure you," she said repressively, "that Chalmers would be most displeased if I did not go on in the best possible style!" Unfortunately, she added silently, Lord Chalmers was not at all eager to provide the outlay necessary to maintain that highest of all styles, a failing cruelly unfeeling in a man of such plump pockets and easy circumstance. But that did not bear dwelling on. "My dear Lily, you must expect to soon be racketing yourself to pieces. It is all very dull work, I fear, but one is expected to fatigue oneself to death."
Lily was not of a temperament to be stricken by this ominous remark with dread--Lily, in whom a limited power of intellect was compensated by unbounded imagination, which enabled her to see in the most mundane situations both adventure and romance, had never in her eighteen years been either fatigued or bored. "Oh, no!" she uttered, in a voice so melodious that despite the fact she never said anything of significance, everyone loved to hear her speak. "I promise you! Oh, Rosemary, you should have been with us, it was such a lark! Fennel was privileged to sit beside the coachman on the box!"
"So I was!" Fennel offered cheerfully, while Angelica wondered how Rosemary might possibly have engaged in a journey of which she was simultaneously the destination, and Rosemary stared at her brother in growing dismay. "Even tooled the ribbons myself, and don't mind saying I came coachy in prime style."
"Is that what you call it?" inquired Angelica, with a nice display of sisterly interest. "How foolish of me to have been in quite a fright! But I had no notion that your university career had endowed in you such expertise."
"Pooh!" Fennel was sufficiently quick on the uptake to know when he was being bamboozled, and sufficiently serene in nature to accept that bamboozlement philosophically. Too, Angelica was his favorite sister. She didn't go into fidgets or ring a peal over a fellow even when he'd once again behaved in a manner that even he admitted was demonstrably bacon-brained. "You were safe as houses, on the square."
Before Angelica could voice disagreement on this point, as she might easily have done, recalling not one but several instances when she had been convinced the coach would overturn, Rosemary spoke. She did so with combined consternation and outrage. "You didn't travel here in a public conveyance!" she wailed.
Lady Chalmers, with her newfound consequence and dignity, was fast becoming Fennel's least favorite sibling, a position generally reserved for the youngest member of the family, a cherub prone to such gay adventures as putting toads in his elder brother's bed. "Chucklehead!" he uttered. "How else would we get here? You're the one who's well-heeled, remember? Not us."
In point of fact, Rosemary was not well-heeled, one of the reasons for her current embarrassments. "I should have sent a carriage for you," she mourned, "but I didn't think of it. Oh, dear! I hope no one saw you arrive in a hack."
"Does it matter?" Angelica inquired reasonably. "The world must surely know already that the family is poor as church mice."
"Angelica!" Rosemary looked horrified. "I hope you don't mean to go around talking like that! Chalmers has already promised to do well by Lily--it wouldn't do to let people think she has no dowry."
"Nor," Angelica said very sternly, while the subject of this discourse stared dreamily into space, "will it do to noise about that Lily has a larger portion than is true. I will not permit that she is presented under false colors, Rosemary!"
By this justification of her fears that Angelica meant to behave in her usual strong-minded and managing manner, Rosemary was further depressed. "Well! As if I would! Of course I never thought of such a thing! Still, it need not be common knowledge that poor Lily has no more than a pittance. Consider, Angelica! You wouldn't want Lily to dwindle into a spinster left upon the shelf."
Since Angelica had attained precisely that unenviable position, her response was wry. "Better a spinster," she rejoined, "than engaged in an alliance devoid of either affection or respect." To her surprise, Rosemary flushed.
"Dear Angelica," said Lily, who compensated for a lack of native wit not only with rabid imagination but also with the kindest of hearts, "you must not worry about that! I mean to marry only for love, and in that case the gentleman I marry won't care that I haven't a penny with which to bless myself. Just to be certain, I shall choose a gentleman of property--perhaps even a duke!--and one with enough for all of us. So you see that your fears are utterly groundless!" She smiled, enchantingly.
Of the misapprehensions that Lily cherished--gentlemen of property, especially dukes, being notoriously disinclined to wed females unblessed by a single penny--she remained unenlightened, her siblings being too fond of her to cause her unhappiness. Angelica sought a change of subject. "Where is Chalmers?" she inquired.
Where indeed? Rosemary thought resentfully. Trust Angelica to thrust straight to the heart of the matter. Lady Chalmers might not have possessed the most brilliant of understandings, but she was shrewd enough to question whether matters of government accounted for all the time spent by her lord away from his fireside, as the baron claimed. A staunch Tory, Lord Chalmers was very much involved with matters of government, made even more complex by the end of the Continental wars, an event that in some incomprehensible fashion seemed to have plunged the country into economic disaster. Rosemary thought it typically callous of her husband to expect her to concern herself with manufacturers who, without war contracts, dismissed their workmen and closed their doors, or with farmers who suffered a peacetime slump in the prices fetched by their crops. Certainly it was all very sad, but what could she do? Rosemary had problems of her own.
But Angelica awaited a response, with an expression that Rosemary interpreted as frankly pitying. "Chalmers?" she echoed, absently, as if caught spinning air-dreams. "He's gone to confer with Lords Liverpool and Castlereagh--the chief figures in the government, you know! I suppose it has to do with the groups of radicals who are everywhere demanding reform, though what they think to accomplish by smashing machinery I do not know!"
Still Angelica wore that compassionate face, and Rosemary laughed hollowly. "Are you thinking he should have been here to meet you? Indeed, he wanted to be! But Chalmers is an important man, my dears, and his time is not his own. Frankly I'm glad of it; to be always living in one's husband's pocket is a dead bore!" If excuses she offered, they were no more than the very excuses provided her by her lord. Resolutely Rosemary engaged Lily and Fennel in a discussion of the gaieties of the metropolis.
Angelica listened without comment. She knew herself to be in truth the oddity that her family considered her, the possessor of the larger portion of the Millikin intelligence, and the least amount of the ravishing Millikin charm. But one of the family must be clever, where the rest were not: marriage had patently failed to inspire Rosemary with more prudence than she had hitherto possessed; Lily could not be expected, even with an advantageous match at stake, to desist from her usual vagaries, most recent among which had been an aborted elopement with an impecunious poet who had written incomprehensible effusions to her shell-like earlobes; Fennel, released from the restrictions of his university, was ripe for any mischief. Were not all three to land themselves in the briars, Angelica must contrive prodigiously. Such effort, she reflected ruefully, was the price demanded of her, the ugly duckling, for inclusion in their ranks. Not for the first time in her twenty-seven years, Angelica wished--oh, how she wished--she too might be a swan.