Fern, I am usually as mild mannered as spring time, but if you wear them . . . them . . .
to meet the marquis, it’s handin’ in me notice I am, and that be fact!”
Mimsy Garett glared defiantly at the little mistress. It was her grand title to be referred to as “dresser,” now, just as if she were living in London, and she took the title most seriously.
“How am I to arrange your hair, such a beautiful color, the color of spun gold even if it
curl the way it ought to? Bless me, we must order in some more curling papers. I must speak to Mrs. Fidget at once about that. . . . But I daresay I am runnin’ off me subject. . . .”
Fern, sitting docilely in front of the glass, was relieved. If only Mimsy would keep off the wretched subject of her spectacles, she could rest easy. But no! It was too much, of course, to hope. The dresser was rattling on again, playing with Fern’s short, cropped strands in front of the glass, just as if she were in short skirts rather than a lady grown. Her tone was heartily indignant.
Mistress Fern, am I to arrange your . . . your
hair if you persist in wearing them spectacles? It is not possible, and don’t you say otherwise! Oh, I
wish we had not called Jenkins in to cut it! Still, no one can quibble about its condition. . . . Now where was I?”
Fern muttered something inaudible and rather unladylike, but fortunately Mimsy was too distracted to hear.
“Oh! The spectacles. Remember the Addingtons’ ball. . . .”
Fern groaned. She
remember. It was a hideous occasion, chaperoned by Lady Winterton, for Mama had the fever, and it had been an unqualified disaster.
Somehow, Fern had landed behind a great potted plant all evening, squashed between the dowagers’ chairs and a large trestle of lemonade. She was certain it was the spectacles, for several unkind young ladies actually tittered behind their handkerchiefs and pointed them out to the gentlemen. Those who had subsequently scribbled their names in her dance card had been constrained, almost as if they were doing her some kind of huge kindness. Naturally, in the face of such condescension she had been defiant, though not actually rude, as Lady Winterton would have her mama believe.
Nevertheless, the whole sad matter was best forgotten. Fern had endured most of her first season in this excruciating manner, then returned shortly thereafter to the country, there to be buried in her beloved books and garden, with only the occasional scold to remind her of her folly.
Now, however, there seemed to be no way to forget the past as Mimsy hovered over her with a brush, easing out the classically cropped tangles with vigorous strokes that made her eyes sting but added incredible luster to the soft, shoulder-length lashings of spun gold. Unfortunately, of course, it was dead straight, sadly unmodish despite the new cropped style.
“I shall enhance this mass with a hairpiece and pile it high in a coiffure, just like Lady Winterton and Lady Ashleigh wear theirs in town. Now don’t you pout! You are too
to wear nothing but the odd ribbon; you don’t want Lord Warwick thinking you be naught but a country miss, or worse, a
The dresser clapped her hands to her mouth in horror. Fern merely sat obediently, offering no comment of her own. So Mimsy continued. “I might be old, like, but I am up to the rig, don’t you fear! I have studied all of them London fashion plates, I have, and I know
what is required! You shall borrow Lady Reynolds’s amethyst combs, along with the tiara, and I shall pile your hair up in coils, with just a few ringlets dripping down. . . .”
“Mimsy, your head is in the clouds! I don’t
ringlets to drip down, remember? And if you think curling papers in my cropped hair will help, they shan’t! Remember how we tried last summer. . . .”
“Now, now, Miss Fern, don’t despair! We shall prevail! Try and try again is what Mimsy always says! And there is no saying wot we can’t find a hairpiece wot have curls, there isn’t! But
with the spectacles! Don’t want the marquis to run off in fright before he has ever even met you!”
met me! Five years ago, when I was a scrubby little brat with a toothless grin and nothing to recommend me but my barley sugar, which I gave to his horses.”
“Mistress Fern! Was he very angry? Gennelmen don’t like nobody fiddlin’ with their cattles’ feed! Most particular they are that way!”
“He threatened to spank me, I believe, then gave me a tweak upon my chin and confided that Rascal—that was the horse’s name, though I believe it applied equally to the owner—had an infernally sweet tooth and that was why his pockets were always sticky—from sugar lumps.”
“A whopper if ever I heard one, for Lord Warwick is the greatest
of our time! Fancy him saying such a thing, when all of London knows him to be fastidious in his dress! Which is why, Mistress Fern, you are to look like a fairy princess. Nothing short of that will hold his eye.”
Fern thought it would take more than the absence of spectacles to hold the famous marquis’s eye. And why anyone should think
could, a little mouse from the country who was more bookish than bold, just because her mama and his were bosom buddies ever so long ago—not to mention the fact that his land marched upon their own, Evensides—she could not fathom.
But the whole household seemed to expect it of her, and everyone was murmuring and muttering here and there about bridals and trousseaus, just because Warwick had written a very polite missive to her father.
The contents she had not been fully apprised of, but anyone would think the man had offered for her, the way the household was topsy-turvy! And he could not have, surely, without at least conversing with her first, or paying his addresses, or even offering to stand up with her at any number of the country balls where he surely must have attended, though she had never actually
him very well.
Five years was a long time for a scrubby little child, and all she could really remember of him was whiskers, which he had apparently shaved off when entering the Sixth Hussars. This she knew from Mimsy, who made it her business to know all of London’s
and pass them on—sometimes with shocking candor—to the little mistress.
“Cook is making a grand feast, she is, with cockles and lobster, and of course a partridge pie, though Mrs. Fidget is inclined to think that rather plain, so she has added a perigord to the menu, and the gamekeeper is bringing in pheasant and such . . .”
“I shall not be able to eat a thing; indeed, my stomach is turning already at the thought,” Fern muttered. “Can I not say I have the headache and be done with it?”
“Mistress Fern! You must surely be funning, or else the most tiresomely ungrateful chit wot ever needed a great good dustin’ of the rear end . . . Now don’t look at me so. I’ve known you since you were in leadin’ strings. . . .”
“Mimsy! This is only dinner! What in the world do I have to be grateful
“Well! When a gennelman such as the rank of marquis, mind, offers for a country chit like you—not that you aren’t passing pleasing, mind, with a beautiful heart when you are not scowlin’ ’orribly, and a rare seat on a ’orse . . .”
“Mimsy!” But Mimsy was on a roll.
“Not wot, without those spectacles you have the finest, clearest green eyes I have ever seen, and the purest skin, though you refuse my lanolin and lime decoctions. However, me not ever bein’ one wot takes offense, like . . .
“Mimsy!” But Fern was, sadly, ignored by a greater force.
“I reckon you are rare beautiful, like, with those tanglin’ black lashes wot Lady Winterton would die for, and make no mistake. No need for them newfangled corsetry wot makes you breathe like a stuck pig . . .”
“Mimsy!” Fern practically bellowed now. Most unladylike, but she had little other option and just cause.
Mimsy blinked. “You ought not to yell like that, mistress. Be bringin’ the house down you will, and your mama with the headache . . .”
have the headache! What do you mean, Lord Warwick has offered?”
The dresser, for once, looked speechless.
“I know nothing except that the Marquis of Warwick is dining with us tonight and I am to wear this horrible flounced creation from Madame Audesley of Bond Street. Also, that I am to behave myself, to speak only when I am spoken to—though
as you know, Mimsy, is practically impossible—and I am to be gracious, but civil, if you have the foggiest notion what
implies! I did ask Mama, but that was before the headache set in, and she was obliged to seek her chambers with sal volatile and laudanum, I suspect. Oh, Mimsy! What does this mean?”
“It means, luv, that ’is lordship has asked for your hand. Comin’ to look you over like, before the matter is signed and sealed.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, Nancy, the under maid, had it from Stevens wot works ’cross the boundary, like. On ’is lordship’s estate. I don’t ’old with gossip from the lower orders, but Edgemont whispered it to me this morning, and he, I reckon, had it off the master, ’oo was frettin’ over ’is port and expectin’ Mr. Potters up from London, like.”
“Mr. Potters the lawyer?”
“Yes, and you can be sure it is about your portion, and such. Not that Lord Warwick needs anybody’s dowry, mind, but there it is. Now don’t get in a pother over it, love. Doubtless if Lord and Lady Reynolds have not told you, they ’ave their reasons. Maybe thought you’d be afeared.”
more like! This is outrageous!”
“It is better than a season, luv, where you stand around bein’ nothin’ but a wallflower! And as the Marchioness of Warwick, think of the
you will receive! And you will ’ave your own carriage, and Lady Willis and Lady Stonecroft and yes, even Lady Winterton, with ’er ghastly pug face, will ’ave to make their curtsies to you, and cede you precedence at table. Oh, Mistress Fern, a rare treat it will be!”
Mimsy, caught up in the excitement, almost made Fern laugh. She was too shocked to do so, however, so she chose a seat by the window and sat down, more to steel her nerves than to take a rest.
“Mimsy, you are sure?”
“Oh, as certain as anything, luv! Now do be a dear and stand still for me while I check those pins. The gown—see how it shimmers—needs some adjustment.”
“It needs to be burned, more like! It feels heavy with all these hoops—I can’t see why I need them; they are usually only required at court—and flounces. I look like a large green pudding. And I will
marry Lord Warwick!”
Fern!” Mimsy did not know whether she was more shocked by this outrageous statement or by Fern’s callous dismissal of the gown, which had taken hundreds of hours in the sewing.
“You are funning; ah yes, I see it now. But you really must stand still, luv, this material is thick, and the beading is difficult to pin. . . .”
Fern’s head swam. It was useless scolding Mimsy. She loved and adored Fern, as Fern was sure her parents did not, or at least, not in the ordinary way. They were civil, but not doting. Mimsy was strict, but Fern could twist her around her little finger and very often did.
No, she would save her wrath for her papa, or even for arrogant Lord Warwick, who had not even bothered to ask her opinion on the matter. It would serve them both right, she thought defiantly, if she flouted them at the aisle. But that was silliness talking. Fern, very well bred, would not
of making such a scandal. She would just have to see to it that Lord Warwick changed his mind, after all.
Lord Warwick, the object of this attention, did not seem to be aware of the disaster awaiting him. He threw the reins of a magnificent new stallion at Peters, the groom, and grinned. “She will be a rare goer, that one! Feed her some oats tonight, and we will test out her strength in the morning.”
“Aye, me lord. Anything else?”
“No. Just have the carriage sent ’round in an hour, when I am out of all this stable grime.”
It took Warwick and his valet precisely fifty-nine minutes to announce themselves satisfied. After a steaming bath, brought up hot from the kitchens, wherein Warwick had scanned the
with moderate interest, the ritual of shaving had occurred without incident. Then had come the donning of the doeskin breeches in the lightest shade of buff, and the corresponding matter of the shirt and coat, into which he had been eased with both care and consummate skill. In truth, Warwick preferred the formfitting accoutrements thus described to the more lax attire donned in the country. This might well be because such garments, unpadded as they were, were highly complementary to the marquis’s lithe and muscular person, but was probably more out of force of habit, as he spent the better part of his time in London.
Be that as it may, he looked, as always, a veritable marvel of understated masculinity in his wine-colored dress coat and his white shirt. This was complemented by a starched cravat that was whiter yet, if such a thing could be possible, and tied with Warwick’s usual visionary grace.
At his throat was a single, defining pin, an oval-shaped diamond that was almost legendary among the Upper Five Thousand, and a source of great envy to many of his friends and enemies. Yes, enemies Warwick had, since his rapier wit was matched only by his skill with the rapier itself. It was many a man who had felt the edge of his foil, and several who had been wounded for want of tact, or for libeling someone of the fairer sex.