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"London at last!" enthused Lady Barbour, with a bewitching smile. "Aren't you just a teeny bit excited about making your come-out, my dear? If you are not, I wish you might pretend you are, because I would be very melancholy to think I had made this journey against your wishes! To say nothing of the trouble and the expense!"
On the plump, plain features of Lady Barbour's traveling companion, no corresponding excitement could be glimpsed. Quite the contrary, the young lady appeared to be in the dumps.
"How very blue-deviled you look!" Lady Barbour observed acutely. "I'm not surprised at it! Travel is so fatiguing! I'm sure I don't know how it could be otherwise! One is bumped and jolted all about until the teeth rattle in one's head! I do not see why something cannot be done about these wretched roads! I do wish you would say something, Callie!"
Thus abjured, Miss Whateley made a supreme effort. "I believe that the tolls we have paid will be used for the maintenance of the roads."
Delighted by this spark of interest, Lady Barbour sought to fan it into flame. It was excessively dull to be cooped up for hours on end with a young lady no more forthcoming than a clam. "The tolls!" she responded promptly. "In my opinion, the thing is odiously unfair. The more elegant one's carriage, the more one has to pay--and double on Sundays!--while foot-travelers pass freely through side gates. It only goes to prove what I have always said: life can be extraordinarily unfair!"
Miss Whateley could not argue with this assertion, being one whom fortune had not blessed. She regarded her companion somewhat ironically. Lady Barbour was possessedof a breathtaking blue-eyed blond-haired loveliness which invariably set masculine hearts aflutter, especially if the bearers thereof were advanced in years. Marriage to two such wealthy octogenarians, neither of whom had survived his first year of nuptial bliss, had left Sidoney one of the wealthiest ladies in the kingdom.
Again Lady Barbour smiled. "Not that I am a nipfarthing. I don't begrudge a single penny! But it is excessively annoying, don't you think?"
Lady Barbour's dimpled smile had little appreciable effect on her traveling companion; Miss Whateley was not a doting gentleman of advanced years. "Yes, Mama," she said.
A distasteful grimace passed across Lady Barbour's lovely features. "Stepmama," she reproved. "If you please! I should be ready to sink if someone heard you talk that way!"
There was some basis for Sidoney's indignation, for she was only a few scant years older than Miss Whateley, and that anyone should mistake her for Callie's true mother was patently absurd. However, it was not Sidoney's outstanding intellectual capacities which had lodged Cupid's dart in the breasts of her two elderly mates, to say nothing of the countless suitors who had been less blessed with worldly goods. Ashamed of herself for provoking her bird-witted Stepmama, Miss Whateley sought to atone. "I will not disgrace you," she promised recklessly.
She received an arch glance. "I hope you may not! And you might act just a little grateful for all my trouble on your behalf. As you yourself have said--not that you should have said it--my understanding is not great! Yet here I am, cudgeling my brain about how best to fire you off, and without a single word of complaint, even though the thought of what remains to be done does fatigue me half to death!"
Miss Whateley was similarly afflicted, not by the anticipated exigencies of her London Season, but by the conversation of her garrulous stepmama. Lady Barbour might be wealthy beyond reckoning, but in other areas she was definitely less well endowed.
Lady Barbour continued to grumble gently to herself, while her stepdaughter thus uncharitably ruminated. "Had I any notion of the difficulties we would encounter on our journey--and you cannot fairly say I should have known, my dear, because even though I have previously been to London, I have in the meantime been buried in the country for many years, and my memory is not long--well! I might very well have stayed in the country, where at least we were comfortable, even if it was very tedious!"
Miss Whateley withheld comment. She questioned whether anything could be more tedious than conversation with her addlepated stepmama, and this was the very reason she had allowed herself to be persuaded to endure an experience she must abhor. Plump damsels without charm or conversation or fortune to recommend them were not likely to cut a dash among the haut ton. Callie did not aspire to cut a dash, merely longed fervently that her stepmama's verbal maunderings might find a different audience.
Still Lady Barbour issued gentle lamentations, fidgeting with the fastenings of her close-fitting cottage bonnet, beneath which peeked a profusion of golden-curls. "Improperly aired linen! Dead mutton left dangling in the hallway! It would have served the rustics very properly had I cast up my accounts! And then to tell us no rooms were available even though I know I'd bespoken them--it is not wonderful I was thrown into a pucker! And it was very shabby of the rustics to act so prodigious tetchy when I ventured into the taproom!"
A shy girl, Miss Whateley was not given to expressing her opinions, except in those instances when her stepmama exasperated her beyond human tolerance. Such an instance rapidly approached. "Ladies do not commonly display themselves in rural taprooms, Mama. Perhaps you offended the local notion of the proper order of things."
So amused was Lady Barbour by the suggestion that she should not be welcome anywhere she wished to go that she dealt kindly with her stepdaughter's wrong-headedness. "Stepmama! You are the most aggravating creature, my dear. But I do not regard it! Travel at the best of times is perilous, and we have encountered more difficulties than most. It is a very good thing that the coachman's seat rests upon a well-stocked toolbox, else we would have been truly in the basket when the horses took to trying to kick over the traces. All in all, you cannot be blamed for feeling a trifle out of sorts!"
Miss Whateley's despondency was increasing by the moment, a circumstance she was strongly tempted to point out. She did not, nor did she explain that the difficulties so lengthily bewailed had resulted primarily from the fact that the carriage was sorely overburdened by her ladyship's luggage. No filial regard held Miss Whateley's tongue. Her stepmama's method of dealing with adverse comment was both unique and highly successful. Lady Barbour simply allowed criticism to pass unchecked in one and out the other lovely shell-shaped ear.
Nonetheless, Miss Whateley was growing very weary of Lady Barbour's ceaseless complaints. "The journey would have been a great deal more uncomfortable had we been unable to travel post chaise."
Lady Barbour looked blank at the suggestion that there was any alternate means of travel. In her experience there existed no such common conveyances as stagecoach and carrier cart. So far as her ladyship was concerned, all the world traveled post chaise. Of course, not all the world possessed a carriage so splendid as her own elegant rose-colored chaise--drawn by four horses ridden by two postboys, her coachman perched upon his seat in front, and her luggage piled in the dickey box behind. "My dear, what fustian you talk! As if I would consider traveling by any other means! The carriage is one of the last gifts Barbour made me, and as such I must treasure it. He was such a thoughtful man!"
Miss Whateley withheld yet another comment. Among her countless unaired reflections was the conviction that no man capable of rational thought would ally himself to such a cabbagehead.
Lady Barbour was also briefly silent, having had to pause for breath. She contemplated the interior of her chaise, done up in crimson and decorated with silk fringe and braid. Indeed, she did treasure the vehicle, if less for the fashionable detail-work which Barbour had known would please her--intricately carved mythological creatures that snarled and slavered from the four corners of the roof, pouncing griffins that leaped out halfway down the bodywork--as for the means it provided her of escape to town.
"I did not mean the carriage is uncomfortable," she continued, having got her second wind. "I am sure it is not, even if there is only room for two. Could Barbour but hear your unkind remarks, the poor man must turn over in his grave. Shame, my dear! And he was always so kind to you."
Miss Whateley was perfectly confident that she had said nothing about Lord Barbour, unkind or otherwise. "But I did not--"
"Do not argue with me, I beg!" Sidoney attempted to look stern. "Barbour tried so hard to please--almost as hard as your own papa! Oh, I should not have reminded you of your loss! Pray forgive me, Callie."
Impassively, Miss Whateley studied her stepmama's long-sleeved dress of India muslin, embellished with an antique stomacher of pink satin and a double lace ruff. It was not only the loss of Callie's aged parent that she recalled. "Do not regard it."
"As if I could help but do so!" chided Sidoney. "You will say that I should not blame myself because Whateley settled his affairs in that queer way, and indeed I do not, because I have nothing to blame myself for! Heaven knows I did not ask him to slight you in favor of myself. Good Gad, I disremember when I have been so surprised by anything! All the same, I cannot help but feel a teeny bit guilty about your lack of fortune, my dear!" Reflectively, she nibbled her lower lip, one of several mannerisms which wreaked adolescent havoc upon wealthy octogenarians. "It's not as if you were left penniless. Your portion must seem quite handsome, so long as one doesn't reflect that your papa was extraordinarily well heeled!"
Miss Whateley received these disclaimers in tactful silence. Avoiding her stepmama's beseeching gaze, she leaned forward and peered out the carriage window.
Lady Barbour's rose-colored chaise had breached the boundaries of the Metropolis. Street after street of handsomely proportioned brick houses presented themselves for Miss Whateley's inspection. She saw white-smocked milkmen, across their shoulders wooden yokes from which dangled pint and half-pint measures and large pails. Jostling the milkmen were sellers of watercress and crumpets and hot loaves.
A pity, mused Lady Barbour, squinting at the stepdaughter bequeathed her in addition to her first husband's wealth, that Callie was not the sort of damsel to rouse a gentleman's protective instincts--or, feared her stepmama, any other sort of instinct. "My dear," she said gently, "I wish you might strive to be a teeny bit more cheerful, because when I am around melancholy people, I grow melancholy also! And in your case it makes me doubly sad, because I am very attached to you!"
Only the most ungenerous of souls would have suggested that her ladyship's affections were only slightly less shallow than her intellect. Sternly squelching temptation, Miss Whateley settled back in her corner of the carriage, hands folded in her lap.
With a distinct twinge of annoyance, Lady Barbour regarded her uncommunicative stepdaughter. Absurd that at two-and-twenty she should be expected to retire into the wings while this pudding-faced damsel cavorted upon the stage. But once Callie was satisfactorily settled--Well. Sidoney was once more an unmarried lady, in very easy circumstances, and resolved upon one thing: there would be no more marriages to gentlemen verging on senility.
"Do display some animation, child!" she therefore begged. "You will attach the interest of no gentlemen at all by enacting the corpse, and one can hardly blame them for it! Indeed, it would be a distinctly queer sort of person who wished to take a corpse in to dinner or stand up with one at a ball! Not at all the sort of match I should wish to see you make! But if you go on in this morbid manner, it may be as high as we can aim."
Was Callie never to escape her stepmama's matchmaking schemes? Unaccustomed to long sustaining any train of thought, Lady Barbour had nonetheless allowed the matter of Callie's come-out to greatly exercise her brain. Truth be told, Callie had no great desire to wed. However, she had even less desire to remain isolated in the country with her talkative stepmama. "You are almost young enough to have a come-out yourself," Callie countered craftily.
"Stuff!" Lady Barbour accepted the compliment in the spirit it was intended and overlooked her stepdaughter's ungenerous use of the adverb. "I have already had my Season, you silly goose--and have been twice widowed! 'Twould hardly be seemly for me to re-enter the Marriage Mart! Besides, I'm not anxious to step again into the parson's mousetrap--not that you won't enjoy marriage to a man of substance! I did myself, both times! But one grows a trifle tired of being always married--not that I should say such things to you!" Vastly amused by her own wayward tongue, Sidoney laughed outright. "You will say I am a proper ninnyhammer, my dear! The way I do run on! But we departed the country in such a flurry--one must arrive in London before the Season properly commences to make all the arrangements, you know--" Again she paused for breath. Again Callie was silent, withdrawn into her own private universe.
Alas, the girl was marvelously dull, nor was she improved by her drab ensemble, done up in an unbecoming shade of Egyptian brown. "We must hire a seamstress," Sidoney continued. "There are bonnets and slippers to be purchased, gloves and reticules--you must not fret, my dear! Morgan will know exactly how we must go on."
This blithe assurance recalled Miss Whateley to the present. Years of exposure to Lady Barbour had taught that damsel that her ladyship's powers of discrimination were no keener than her intellect. "Morgan?" Callie echoed suspiciously.
Roused from visions of morning arid carriage and promenade dresses, frocks and robes and evening gowns, Lady Barbour blinked her huge blue eyes. "My dear! Didn't I say?"
Not only was Miss Whateley immune to her stepmama's dimpled smile, her stepmama's enactment of wounded innocence left her similarly unmoved. "No, you did not. I thought we were to visit your people. At Phyfe House, was it not?"
"You must not have been paying proper attention, and I'm sure it is no wonder, so busy have we been these past few days." Lady Barbour toyed with her square shawl of India muslin, worn folded across. "Naturally we are going to Phyfe House. Morgan lives there."
Explanations as rendered up by her skitterwitted stepmama made Miss Whateley wish to grind her teeth. "Morgan is the owner of the house? The what? Earl?"
"Oh no, my dear!" A more impartial observer, or a more elderly one, would have been guilt-stricken by Lady Barbour's frown. "I mean, he is an earl, but I cannot perfectly recall. I think this one's name is Charles, but it doesn't signify in the least, because I'm sure he's not in residence."
"Not?" Sometimes conversations with her stepmama grew so laborious that Miss Whateley simply conceded defeat. In this instance she could not afford to behave so cravenly. "Would you explain to me, please, why we're traveling to a house whose owner is elsewhere?" she begged through clenched teeth.
Lady Barbour's frown deepened as she wondered why her stepdaughter was grimacing in that horrid way. If the chit meant to go on in so abominable a manner, she'd end up on the shelf. "Charles--or whatever his name is--is almost never in residence at Phyfe House. It is kept open for the convenience of any member of the family who happens to be in town. Morgan is the only one of us who resides there year-round."
Still Miss Whateley grimaced, for she was in firm possession of that virtue her stepmama most noticeably lacked: common sense. Before she could express an opinion of her stepmama's latest start, the carriage jolted to a stop. Through the carriage window Callie saw a several-storied structure of rosy brick set behind ornately scrolled gates.