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"Poppycock!" Lady Easterling said bluntly. "You needn't try and pull the wool over my eyes. Georgiana is an old griffin. A gorgon! A Tartar! There is no use thinking to bamboozle me into believing you rub on tolerably well."
The target of these frank remarks, seated across from Lady Easterling in the elegant berlin coach, merely smiled. "You refine too much upon it, Jaisy, I promise you. Your aunt is very civil to me."
To this patent clanker, Lady Easterling responded with incredulity. "My aunt Georgiana ain't been civil to anyone in her entire life." Her huge blue eyes filled with easy tears. "My poor Sara! To have come down so far in the world that you must hire out as companion to an old dragon like Georgiana--oh! It is very sad."
"Jaisy!" Rather helplessly, Sara Valentine extracted a handkerchief from her reticule and offered it to her friend. "It is not so bad as all that! I was very fortunate, you know, that the dowager duchess took me in, else I might have had to go as a governess. You know that would not have suited me. Now dry your eyes like a good girl and let's have no more of these megrims."
Thus abjured, Lady Easterling complied. It was not that she was convinced her beloved Sara was not misused; Sara might say what she chose, she would not persuade Lady Easterling that an existence as companion to the shrewish Dowager Duchess of Blackwood could be anything but a cat-and-dog-life. But Lady Easterling was a volatile creature, and not in the habit of sustaining any emotion for more than moments.
"Still, it isn't altogether unfortunate," she said, "that things have fallen out this way. At last I am to have my Season, and you are to see that Igo on properly, because you know perfectly how to conduct yourself in society. We shall be merry as crickets! But how is it, Sara, that you are left on the shelf? You must be seven-and-twenty now because you are four years older than myself. Yet here I am a widow and you are at your last prayers! Life is an extraordinary affair. You are a well-behaved female, with your pretty profile--what was it Jevon used to say of you? A face like one might find on a Greek statue? Which I never thought particularly flattering, because who wants to look like a tedious old statue, but you know what Jevon is! I daresay he meant well--and your quiet ladylike manner. I wonder you failed to attract!"
To this spate of words, Miss Valentine responded with a laugh. "Your brother talks a lot of flummery, as do you. You will see a great deal of Jevon in London, Jaisy; he is quite your aunt's pet."
"More to the point," Lady Easterling said shrewdly, "he is her heir. Trust Jevon to feather his own nest!" Her blue eyes moved speculatively over her friend. "Have you still a tendre for my brother, Sara?"
On Miss Valentine's classical features--nicely embellished by a generous Nature with clear gray eyes and abundant black hair--bloomed a rosy flush. "Good gracious, Jaisy! What fustian you talk! Your brother has very great expectations; he is very much à la mode--"
"Flim-flam!" interrupted Lady Easterling rudely. "Next you will say you are a penniless companion and there is a great disparity in stations and you cannot look so far above yourself. It ain't at all like you to be talking such nonsense! Now you're looking at me in that disapproving manner and I wish that you would not, because it don't do the least good. I remember very well that you were used to follow Jevon everywhere. I also remember that he let you!"
"We were only children, Jaisy!" Miss Valentine's cheeks had grown pinker yet. "Don't make a piece of work of it."
"Have I put you in a tweak?" inquired Lady Easterling, with bright interest. She received no response. "I suppose you think I should not be so busy about your affairs. Lud, Sara! It ain't like you to fly into the boughs over trifles. But since you seem to wish it, I cry your pardon. There! Wasn't that prettily done of me?"
"I am not in a tweak!" Miss Valentine responded indignantly.
Since Sara, despite her protestations, was definitely in a miff, a brief silence fell upon the berlin. This elegant equipage was the property of the Dowager Duchess of Blackwood, a trés grande dame who claimed the privilege of employing Sara Valentine, and the much more dubious honor of being aunt to the volatile Lady Easterling. Drawn by four properly highbred and perfectly matched bays, upon which Lady Easterling had bestowed the accolade of "prime bits of blood," the ribbons tooled expertly by the many-caped coachman on his copper box, the vehicle made a sight as pretty as any that clattered along the London turnpike. On its exterior, which was laden down with trunks and bandboxes and portmanteaux, the berlin sported a coat of arms. Its interior--equipped with every conceivable convenience from secret compartments for valuables to a table with drawers, a crystal chandelier that hung from the ceiling, and an ormolu clock; the roof, doors and seats upholstered with white and sky-blue Pekinese silk--was correspondingly magnificent.
Disposed very comfortably on one sky-blue silk-lined seat was Lady Easterling. Across from her, Miss Valentine was surrounded by additional bandboxes, a large cosmetic case, a picnic basket and other feminine miscellanea.
Despite the luxuriousness of their equipage, designed expressly to alleviate the myriad discomforts of long-distance travel--in this instance a trek from London into the country and back again, so that Miss Valentine might fetch her employer's niece to town--the journey had not been without hardship. For this incommodation, the berlin must not be held at fault. Lady Easterling was not a good traveler, was inspired by the ennui attendant upon forced inactivity to issue continual complaint. Her aunt's berlin did not please her; the pace at which they traveled was either too slow or too fast; the coachman was determined to overturn them in a ditch--said comments had done nothing to ingratiate her ladyship with that superior individual, who fancied himself a first-rate hand. It was Sara who had to soothe his ruffled feathers, as it had been her lot to placate the landlord of the inn where they'd broken their journey; Lady Easterling had accused the man of being in league with highwaymen for no good reason save that she disliked his looks. Initially, Miss Valentine had looked forward to Jaisy's sojourn in London as a happy interruption in her dreary routine. Now she had begun to wonder if there might not be some virtue in uninterrupted dreariness.
"I don't know why you should be so devilish out of humor, Sara!" Lady Easterling said irritably. "I'm the one who'll have to endure Georgiana's incessant crotchets. She always rips up at me, even when I try and please her--or when I did try and please her, because I've given it up! It is the queerest thing that she should be so high in the instep, because none other of the family is so devilish starched-up."
Lady Easterling's marriage to an elderly gentleman of sporting inclination had left her not only a wealthy widow but the possessor of a most colorful vocabulary. Miss Valentine, whose duty it was to enlighten Lady Easterling as regarded the proprieties, so that the ton might be persuaded to accept her as the well-brought-up young woman that she so unfortunately was not, quailed at the prospect. Yet she was fond of Jaisy, who--for all her lack of delicate principles; her possession of such undesirable traits as selfishness, stubbornness and an appalling determination to have her own way--was as good-hearted a creature as Sara had ever known.
Perhaps that good heart might be moved on behalf of Lady Easterling's despised--and, Sara privately admitted, despicable--aunt. "It was very kind of Lady Blackwood," she offered, toward that end, "to invite you to stay with her for the Season, so that you might be presented to Polite Society."
Lady Easterling bounced several inched into the air as the carriage jolted over a particularly large pothole. "That wretched man means to overturn us, and you shan't convince me otherwise. It's just like Georgiana to hire a cow-handed coachman; I'll warrant she'd be pleased as punch if he did land us in a ditch because she don't like me above half."
"Jaisy, you mustn't say such things!" Miss Valentine, laden down as she was with bandboxes and picnic basket and cosmetic case, could not have risen from her seat even in case of dire emergency. "Just the other day your aunt spoke of you very kindly."
"Shame, Sara!" retorted her ladyship, grinning. "Such whoppers! I know Georgiana ain't in the habit of saying kind things. Moreover, it would have been much better of Georgiana to have given me a Season when I first wanted, because then I wouldn't have married Easterling right out of the schoolroom, and I wouldn't have had to spend a whole year in mourning. You are looking at me in a very speaking manner. You can't think I loved him--he was old enough to be my grandfather! Still, he did leave me well-heeled, so I shouldn't grumble."
"No, you should not." Without a great deal of enthusiasm, Miss Valentine embarked upon her task. "Jaisy, I hope you will not take it amiss when I say that you are going on in a very bad way. You should not speak in such a manner about Easterling, or use vulgar expressions, or do anything that will lead persons of the first consideration to adjudge you guilty of shockingly irregular conduct. All of your aunt's influence will avail you nothing if you go beyond the line of being pleasing, my pet."
Lady Easterling eyed her friend with frank astonishment. "The deuce you say!" She giggled at Sara's dismay. "Don't fly into alt! I'm only bamming you! Of course I am wishful of acquiring town-bronze--but you needn't put yourself out! I expect that I shall make an enviable match as quick as I can wink."
Miss Valentine, in turn, studied Lady Easterling. Not without some justification did her ladyship profess herself complete to a shade. Possessed of a fortune so large that she might without hesitation bedeck herself in the very highest kick of fashion, Lady Easterling on this occasion wore a wine-colored pelisse trimmed with ermine, black gloves and kid half boots, an ermine shako with orange beads and tassels, and held in her lap an ermine muff. "Just like that?" Sara inquired faintly. "Jaisy, eligible gentlemen do not grow on trees!"
"Perhaps not in your experience," Lady Easterling replied bluntly, "but that is because you act as if you don't have a ha'porth of spirit, which I happen to know you do! And I expect that you make no effort to be conciliating, which the gentlemen seem to like. Anyway, everyone knows you're a bluestocking." Having explained her friend's lamentable spinster status to her own satisfaction, Jaisy abandoned the topic. "I have thought about it very much, and I have decided that my best course of action is to immediately wed. I liked marriage very well, even with Easterling; certainly I liked it better than I shall like living with my aunt Georgiana, who is always cross as crabs! I'll wager we shan't be in the house above two minutes before she starts ringing a peal over me. One thing I'll say for Easterling: he never gave me the rough edge of his tongue!"
Miss Valentine, as a result of these airy confidences, was left without appropriate comment. While trying to assemble her thoughts, she moved the picnic basket, which had with the jolting of the carriage achieved an uncomfortable position against her ribs. "You ought to try it yourself," Lady Easterling offered. "Marriage, that is!"
Again, a flush stained Miss Valentine's cheeks. "I do not think of it," she said repressively, and with a profound disregard for the truth. "Since you do, who is to be the lucky bridegroom?"
"You ask such silly questions, Sara! How can I say when I haven't met him yet?" Lady Easterling stroked her muff. "At all events, only the best will do. He must be a particularly elegant, handsome man, most exemplary in politeness and manner; he must be trés sympathique. And he must dote on me à la folie, and be quite willing to expire at my feet!"
In one thing, Miss Valentine reflected, her friend had not changed: in moments of exuberance Jaisy still tended toward French, a language of which she fondly, if mistakenly, believed she had a sound grasp. "What would that accomplish, pray? You can hardly marry a suitor who has expired at your feet."
"I didn't mean that he should, you goose, only that he should be willing to!" Lady Easterling gurgled with laughter. "I see what it is, you're roasting me again! Oh, Sara, to be at last in London--I shall like it of all things! Covent Garden and Drury Lane, routs and fêtes and soirêes, Hyde Park and Almack's and Oxford Street!" She lapsed into roseate visions of the metropolis.
Miss Valentine's ruminations were, alas, a great deal less blissful, dealing as they did with curbing the excesses of a young lady who had been greeted with adulation in her cradle and thereafter never had it withdrawn; who had been petted and pampered and cosseted until she considered such treatment her just due. Were Jaisy to come to grief in London, to commit any one of the countless solecisms which would result in social disgrace, Sara would be held to blame--as Sara's employer had bluntly informed her, with the added promise that in such event she would have Sara's head on a platter and thenceforth carved to mincemeat. Nor was there anything in the dowager duchess's character to lead Sara to doubt the sincerity of this threat.
Yet how to go about it? How to fashion a well-behaved young lady out of a highly capricious damsel whose past career had amply demonstrated a tendency to run counter to conventional behavior at every opportunity? Sara was in the highly unenviable position of being obliged to fashion a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Of this assessment of her character, Lady Easterling was blissfully unaware--though had she been made privy to it, she would have cheerfully agreed. Jaisy nurtured few delusions concerning herself; she knew she was reckless and extravagant and wild to a fault. However, at this given moment, Jaisy was not contemplating her various little quirks. Instead she was plotting her brilliant entry into the haut ton.
She would be the cynosure of all eyes, anticipated Lady Easterling; a much-courted lady accustomed to moving in the highest circles of society, tormented on all sides for an approving glance. At least half the gentlemen in London would dangle at her slipper-strings; and she would find it amusing to keep them dangling until she decided in which direction she would toss her handkerchief. Having once sampled freedom from the shackles that hampered a single lady, Jaisy was not overly enthused at assuming those shackles again. It would not be for long, she consoled herself, and this time she would not throw herself away on an elderly gentleman. Actually, Easterling had doted on her, had made it his ambition to gratify her every whim, but all the same--And in the interim, she would make a stir in the world.
It was not without foundation that Lady Easterling cherished so high an opinion of herself. If she fondly believed that every gentleman who had ever looked on her had done so with the eye of love, she wasn't far wrong; if she expected to beat to flinders every other beauty present in London this Season, she had no reason to expect that she would not. Lady Easterling was an incomparably lovely damsel, with golden curls cropped in the current mode and clustering around her face, which was comprised of features so perfectly beautiful that they defied analysis. Various of Lady Easterling's admirers had tried to describe those features, impossible as was the task: lips so delightfully lush and rosy that they put the most glorious bloom to shame; skin so fair as to seem almost translucent, through which could be seen a faint and fascinating tracery of veins; a nose simultaneously adorable and sublime; huge blue eyes that teased and tormented--the list went on. The lady's dimples were roguish, her smile divine; her person was perfection, and her little ankles (although her admirers weren't so rag-mannered as to say so to her ladyship, not that Jaisy would have minded one bit) were very neat. In short, all of Lady Easterling's countless assets dwelt together in the utmost felicity.
Nonetheless, though such excesses of adulation were most gratifying to their inspiration, they failed to explain how so young a lady had already set so many hearts afire. This was more a result of expression than of inherent beauty, although of beauty Jaisy possessed a surfeit: she was a bewitching madcap, an arrant minx; and jaded indeed was the gentleman who could gaze upon that mischievous countenance, observe the merry twinkle in those huge blue eyes, and not realize first that her ladyship was a shocking flirt, and secondly that he wished nothing more in the world than to embark immediately upon a flirtation with her ladyship.
"And then," announced Lady Easterling, "I shall set myself up in the very latest mode, and you shall come and be my companion, Sara, and you may have as many bonnets as you please!"
Ruefully, Miss Valentine glanced at the bonnet on the seat beside her, a confection of large ribbon bows and ruchings and ostrich feathers perched atop the bandboxes and cosmetic case and picnic basket. In all else she had schooled herself to be the ideal servant, meek and uncomplaining, decorous and affable; bonnets were her one remaining frivolity and she indulged herself shamelessly.
Were she to continue to indulge that frivolity, by means of the generous wage paid her by her employer, she had best make an effort to reform the harum-scarum manners of her employer's scapegrace niece. "That would be very nice," Sara said diplomatically, "but first we must bring you up to snuff, my pet. Jaisy, I do not know precisely how to phrase this, but--"
"Give me the word with no bark on it!" invited Jaisy. "I shan't take snuff!"
Miss Valentine availed herself of a deep breath. "Though you were a belle in the country, you must not expect to have a similarly dazzling career as an acknowledged beauty in London. Things, my dear, are different in the metropolis."
There came a brief silence. Lady Easterling pondered her companion's remarks, and doubted very much if gentlemen anywhere were so different as all that, which is not an unreasonable viewpoint for a damsel who had all her short life had innumerable admirers in tow. She thought that perhaps her beloved Sara had grown a trifle bacon-brained as result of prolonged exposure to the Tartarish dowager duchess. Or perhaps Sara was remembering that she, too, had been an accredited beauty in the country, but in London had failed to attract.
"You are in a very teasing mood!" Jaisy responded generously. "I don't regard it! If bosom bows cannot speak without roundaboutation, I don't know who may. But you are all about in the head, Sara, if you fear I shan't take! I'll wager anything you wish that I'll be top-of-the-trees. How Friday-faced you look! Are you wishing me to the devil? Silly widgeon! On my solemn word of honor, we shall rub along together very well!" The carriage hit yet another pothole. Lady Easterling neatly fielded Sara's silly hat, then added in a burst of candor: "So long, that is, as you don't take the cork-brained notion that you may prevent me from cutting a dash!"