Authors: Mary Chase Comstock
Lady Sybil Harroweby perched airily on the edge of a marble balustrade, a gauzy wrap draped carelessly over her lovely shoulders. From this vantage point, she could easily view both the flirtatious couples gathered in the crowded ballroom, as well as their more passionate counterparts in the secluded pathways of the gardens below.
Both scenes were exceedingly diverting. Lady Sybil had always loved the feverish atmosphere of a ball and all the romantic entangle
ments, both public and private, that blossomed there. The fact that she had been dead for more than a century dampened her interest not at all.
Lady Sybil had haunted Harroweby House with characteristic good humor ever since her untimely murder in the frolicsome years after the dull and sanctimonious Puritans had been supplanted by the restoration of Charles II to his throne. With the return of Charles
’s festive court, London had suddenly become as thoroughly debauched as it had formerly been devout.
With more than sufficient time for reflection on her ghostly hands,
Lady Sybil had thought more than once that she had, perhaps, thrown herself a little too energetically into the riotous spirit of the times. She could, perhaps, have practiced some restraint. She had been a rare beauty, though: a rose without a thorn, as a poet of her acquaintance had written; and if numerous bees had swarmed about her blossom, why, what was a helpless flower to do? Lady Sybil had blithely opted to enjoy their buzzing attentions.
Just who had murdered her, Lady Sybil did not know, nor, to be truthful, was she particularly interested. Between her husband
’s ambitious mistresses and her own host of jealous lovers, the number of likely suspects was embarrassingly large. Whoever was responsible, their poison had worked quickly and painlessly, and for this, she was duly grateful.
What Lady Sybil had ascertained was that the spirits of the murdered were required by some vague set of spectral regulations to haunt the scene of their demise until they were reconciled to their fates and had forgiven the author of their departure. The gloomy spirit of Sir Henry Harroweby, a fourth cousin several generations removed, had explained it all to her one day when he took a break from rattling his chains on the attic stairway.
“It’s all quite simple,” he had told her. “As soon as you forgive your murderer and turn your thoughts to everlasting peace, you will be quite free to go.”
Go where?” she had asked.
Why to your reward, of course,” he answered irritably.
She looked at him blankly. Lady Sybil
’s religious training had been scandalously neglected.
Heaven, you know. Angels, harps, solemn hymns. That sort of thing.”
Lady Sybil suppressed a shudder. The ghostly sphere had its drawbacks, of course, but thus
far, it certainly proved to be more interesting than celestial realms promised to be. “I think I see,” she said slowly. “If I persist in condemning my murderer I stay here?”
Yes,” Sir Henry sighed heavily. “I have very nearly overcome my own lack of charity. If my favorite nephew had not done me in, I would have been released some thirty years ago. However,” he continued with a self-righteous sniff, “family betrayals cut to the quick. Forgiveness comes slow indeed.”
I doubt very much,” she replied with measured calculation, “that I shall ever forgive the villain (or villainess) or tampered with
tea. In fact, I vow I shan’t.”
Careful!” Sir Henry hissed. “You’ve just added ten years to your stay.”
Never, never, never!” Lady Sybil cried fervently as she envisioned angels, harps, and solemn hymns fading obediently into the distance.
It’s your future,” Sir Henry had moaned with a gloomy shrug.
So Lady Sybil had entertained herself quite satisfactorily over the years, even though the family had abandoned the house for more cheerful settings for several decades. The escapades and affaires of the staff who maintained the residence were just as diverting as those of their betters. Lady Sybil not only observed, but often promoted, by various supernatural means, the romantic enterprises underway. Moreover, the house was now and then let to various families who wished to enjoy the London season, but had not purchased (or could not afford) their own establishment. Their presence allowed her to keep pace with the various
of the social realm so dear to her heart.
For the most part
, Lady Sybil’s ghost was confined to the house and gardens, but early on she had discovered that if any item which had previously belonged to her were taken off the premises, she was free to follow it. Opportunities for excursions into Town had been limited, however, and one occasion in particular had taught her that it was best to remain where she was. In this instance, she had followed a footman entrusted with taking a small ormolu clock in for repair. She had anticipated only a brief outing, but, much to her dismay, found herself confined to the clockmaker’s shop for two full weeks! Not only was the shop small and drab, but so was the clockmaker himself, and to make matters worse, his only romantic designs were on his own apprentice. Upon her grateful return, she was content to concentrate her curiosity on the denizens of Harroweby House.
* * * *
Lady Sybil now turned her attention to the two gentlemen who sauntered onto her balcony: the Earl of Slaverington and the Marquess of Bastion, two of the most disreputable and perpetually impoverished rakes of the ton. Within thirty seconds of an introduction, they could, if the rumors she had overheard were correct, calculate the size of an heiress’s fortune and the likelihood of their acquiring it by marriage or, failing that, lay odds on the chances of their deflowering the damsel. Their conversation, Lady Sybil determined with a knowing smile, should prove most informative.
Damnably slim pickings tonight, eh, Bastion,” Slaverington drawled. “If it weren’t for the champagne, I’d have left an hour ago.”
Fine champagne,” Bastion agreed with a resonant belch. “Any champagne is fine champagne. Seedy-looking crop of fillies, though. Not ten thousand pounds among ‘em, I’ll warrant.”
All but that little Harroweby chit,” Slaverington concurred, weaving slightly. “Where the deuce have they been hiding her these last months?”
’s attention was riveted. Harroweby? Why the girl must be some relation! She had realized in a vague sort of way that one set of tenants had been replaced by another in recent days, but she had paid no attention to their name. This was news indeed!
Gets the whole estate when she’s twenty,” the earl went on. “Just look at that pack queuing up to claim their dances. A fellow can’t get near her.”
Lady Sybil peered into the ballroom. Her newfound relation was a pretty little thing indeed, blushing as she lowered her abundant eyelashes, soft brown ringlets stirring gently as she escaped for a moment behind her fluttering fan. The ghost sighed nostalgically. The child was also the very image of herself at that age. Not more than six months away from her governess, she decided.
“Yes, Lady Selinda Harroweby. A tempting little piece of baggage, if ever I saw one,” Bastion leered speculatively. “Fortune, face and…”
... and a trio of suspicious Gorgons for chaperons,” Slaverington finished glumly.
That’s that, of course. They might be got around, though, you know,” Bastion mused speculatively.
Not likely,” his friend protested with an eloquent snort. “That oppressive aunt would skewer you with one look and serve you up on toast points. I wager twenty pounds you’ll never get near the girl. Fifty that you’ll never see her alone.”
No faith, Slaverington. It’s the curse of our age. No faith at all. Make it a hundred,” Bastion declared recklessly, downing his glass, “and I vow I’ll either wed her or bed her.”
You don’t have five pounds to your name, Bastion!” his comrade protested. “Let alone a hundred.”
But I shall in ten minutes. I see my cousin Waverly has just arrived.”
Ah, yes. The well-heeled Lord Waverly. You are fortunate in your relations, Bastion, if not your wagers.”
Lord Waverly,” the marquess amended. “Were it not for the fact that I sometimes find myself under the hatches, I am afraid that even I would be tempted to avoid his company. Fortunately, I am one of his many good causes. Are we on, Slaverington?”
For a hundred pounds? Why not, Bastion? I’m simply wasting for some good sport.”
Had Lady Sybil been capable of real physical violence, the two libertines would by now have been nursing their wounds. She would have dearly loved to have seen the railing on which they were leaning give way and send them tumbling into the prickly embraces of the rose bushes below! As it was, however, she was forced to content herself with several violent (and thoroughly unladylike)
curses, which manifested themselves in an exceedingly chilly breeze. Fun was fun, she told herself, but family, after all, was decidedly family. Trifle with her descendant, would they? Not if she could help it!
Smiling charitably at yet another in a seemingly endless procession of seemingly identical young ladies to whom he was being introduced, Roland, Lord Waverly, silently congratulated himself on his unparalleled ability to suppress a yawn. Moreover, he had already survived the ball’s first half-hour of tedium without either insulting anyone with his peculiar brand of wit or baffling them with his eccentric behavior. Such uncommon civility as this must certainly be tantamount to at least a year’s worth of other magnanimous deeds.
Surely, he thought to himself, an unmarried man in possession of an admittedly staggering fortune could not be so rare a commodity as such onslaughts would make it appear. It was dashed annoying that the size of his fortune was so widely known, for it seemed his acquaintance, however unconventionally he lived his life, was as eagerly sought by hopeful mamas as were vouchers to Almack
’s. It would not have been so bad, he reflected, had any of the bevy he had met thus far been able to triumph over the mediocrity of manner with which society seemed so taken these days. Most decidedly they had not.
As he looked about him, he suddenly realized there were few among the gathering whom he recognized. That was hopeful, at any rate, he acknowledged a little cynically. Of late, his Lordship had a
dopted a new stratagem in determining which of his invitations to accept that would have shocked and annoyed all of his acquaintance: every few days he took the accumulated pile and tossed them into the air. Those which landed face up he accepted. Now that he came to think about it, he was not at all clear how he had come to receive an invitation to tonight’s festivities, for he was certainly not acquainted with the family. How very odd, he mused with growing interest.
The young lady making her debut this evening was certainly one to capture his notice, though.
“Diamond of the first water” was the hackneyed phrase that had immediately come to mind, but somehow it fell short. Yes, Lady Selinda Harroweby was beautiful and her manners engaging. By all accounts, she was excessively wealthy. She possessed an indefinable sweetness that was neither cloying nor missish, but there was something else about her, too, that his Lordship was unable to identify. Her favor was much sought after, of course, and Waverly been able to reserve a dance with her only by surreptitiously scratching off the name of another gentleman (who, he laid odds, would have bored her to tears) when she handed him her card, and inserting his own. It had been a long time since he had looked forward with quite so much anticipation to anything so patently conventional.
While he impatiently awaited his dance, though, Waverly made a game of dutifully mirroring the manners with which he was presented: he bowed, smiled, met proper observations with proper replies, and finally made his escape, but only after having resignedly committed his name to yet another young lady
’s dance card. His relief was short-lived, however, for he suddenly felt his hackles instinctively rise and, turning, found himself borne upon by his scapegrace cousin, the Marquess of Bastion. This unsavory person was closing in with alarming speed and determination. “God grant me respite from family and friends,” Waverly whispered to himself with pitiable exasperation. Then he shrugged. At least an attack of the sort he now anticipated was somewhat easier to confront than the feminine offensive with which he had been faced all evening.
Roland, old fellow,” the marquess began with the forced congeniality that customarily accompanied his perpetually impoverished state. “I must say you’re looking in the very pink!”
Just see my banker in the morning, Bastion,” Waverly preempted him wearily. There was some minuscule entertainment, to be sure, in practicing polite rituals with hopeful misses, but hardly any whatsoever with annoying relations. “I’ve already authorized the advance.”
The absurd look of shock mingled with chagrin that suffused Bastion
’s features was one of the few benefits Waverly was able to derive from this otherwise oppressive connection. He took a few moments to savor his cousin’s gasping attempts at a reply. Indeed, he thought, the sleek marquess resembled nothing so much as a newly landed trout, floundering and gasping on the shore.
Well, ahem,” Bastion finally managed to sputter. “Er . . . Thank you, cousin.”
Ah, my dear cousin, as always, your eloquence is all the thanks I crave,” Waverly replied with an elaborate bow as he turned to go. “Good evening.”
Half a moment, Roland,” Bastion persisted desperately, grasping his cousin’s sleeve. “Not to seem greedy, but, er, how much did you advance?”
Greedy? Why of course not. Never entered my mind, old fellow. I thought perhaps two hundred pounds would be sufficient for now. One hundred for the debts I know about and another hundred for what you’ve likely incurred here tonight.”
Waverly had to admit, albeit internally, that Bastion
’s attempt to control his astonishment was little short of spectacular. How in heaven’s name did the fellow manage to bite his lower lip so hard without drawing blood? And why the devil was the fool always so flabbergasted to find that his requests were so easily anticipated? Waverly sighed inwardly and shook his head in polite consternation. Perhaps, he speculated, his cousin expended his meager mental gifts on the proper arrangement of his cravat. Hearing the music of the last set come to a close, he withdrew from his musings, and nodded to his cousin, “You must excuse me, Bastion. The guest of honor awaits me for the next dance.”
Lady Selinda!” the marquess exclaimed, his ordinarily slack features suddenly animated by a leer laden with blatant calculation. “What luck! You must introduce me, cousin. I fear I arrived too late to pass through the receiving line.”
Waverly scrutinized his cousin with an exceedingly cold eye.
“I hardly think so,” he replied. “I’ve a reputation of a sort to consider, so forgive me if I have an eye to yours. I must say I am surprised to see you tonight in any case. I thought you were no longer received.”
The marquess had, of course, wondered that very thing himself. It was quite true that he was no longer received in the best of homes anymore, and certainly not at coming out balls for innocent maidens. Although the invitation had come as a shock, his straitened circumstances alone compelled him to take advantage of any opportunity for tree food and drink. He had treated it as a fortuitous oversight on the part of some senile chaperon, but, upon his arrival, was delighted to see that a number of his more dubious acquaintances were in attendance well.
In reply to his cousin’s question, however, he was quick to feign surprise and sputter indignantly, “Well, whyever should I not have been included?”
Gads!” Waverly exclaimed with an expression of incredulity. “Never tell me insolvency and lewdness have come into vogue? I had not the least idea! I’m sure I must make a better effort to keep up on the latest crazes. I confess, I feel quite out of touch. However, you must excuse
now— unless deserting one’s partner is also in fashion.”
If the Marquess of Bastion viewed Lord Waverly
’s retreating figure with a glare of undisguised malice, another onlooker, although invisible, viewed him with a good deal of more kindly interest. To Lady Sybil’s spectral eye, Lord Waverly, whatever his eccentricities might prove to be, seemed to be as much a paragon as Bastion was a scoundrel. Figure, fortune, faculty—and damnably handsome into the bargain: a very likely fellow indeed. Yes, she would keep as close an eye on
as well, though for other reasons than his cousin warranted.
Lady Sybil wafted through the crowded ballroom just behind Waverly as he made his way toward her young kinswoman. What a lovely child Lady Selinda was and what a pair she and Lord Waverly made, the ghost thought to herself as the gentleman bowed and led the lady to the floor. A very good match indeed—admittedly more proper than
would have liked had her own heart been about to be engaged—but quite the thing for the young lady in question. Nevertheless, Waverly’s demeanor promised honor with just a trace of something . . .
Lady Sybil smiled complacently as she levitated above the pair.
* * * *
“A lovely evening, sir,” Selinda smiled as she dipped in a low curtsey. She smoothed her pink and white muslin and gazed up at Waverly with just a hint of sparkle in her intelligent green eyes.
Made all the lovelier by your presence, I’m sure, Lady Selinda,” Waverly returned, surprising himself as he realized that he actually meant his glib compliment. He swallowed hard. What, he wondered, lay behind those sparkling eyes? He took her gloved hand, noting somewhat irrelevantly that it was enticingly delicate and tiny, and stepped into the line of dancers.
How do you find London?” Waverly asked after a long moment’s hesitation. “You have not been long in Town, I collect.”
I am very much afraid,” she replied with a sidelong glance from beneath her perilously long lashes, “that I have not found London at all. That is, my dear Aunt Prudence has been plagued with the megrims a good deal since our arrival, and her companion Miss Snypish and I have made our attendance on her our only duty. Indeed, I feared my aunt would not regain her strength in time for the ball tonight and that we must postpone our gathering here. But,” Selinda continued with a curving smile that hinted at archness, “the dear thing recovered her health just in time for her last fitting.”
Then you must promise to ride out with me tomorrow and at least see Hyde Park.” Waverly again surprised himself. It wasn’t often that he saddled himself with young chits during his customarily solitary exercise. Still, as he recalled her aunt’s formidable countenance, he would perhaps count the outing as yet another act of charity. Before Selinda could reply, however, the twosome had reached the end of the dance line and were forced to weave intricately between some five or six other pairs until they found themselves together once again.
I am sorry, sir, but I do not ride. That is,” she corrected, “Aunt does not think it a proper occupation for young ladies. In any case, tomorrow is Sunday and I am certain Aunt Prudence will want my company at morning services.”
Waverly made an effort to contain his surprise and barely managed to ask calmly,
services? After a ball?”
Oh, yes, Aunt would hardly have sanctioned tonight’s entertainment had she thought it would interfere in any way with my spiritual well-being. Her son, my cousin Rupert, is in orders, you know, and very generously advises us all in religious matters.”
Waverly thought he might have heard the shadow of sarcasm in Selinda
’s voice, but when he encountered her wide eyes and innocent smile he was
sure he had been mistaken. Perhaps it was just as well that his invitation had been declined, however. He was no rakehell like his cousin, Bastion, but he cherished a firm conviction that virtue as much as vice should be embraced with moderation. Morning church services? After a late night? The idea very nearly made his head spin. But he was curious.
However will you face the morning, Lady Selinda?” he asked. “Balls, as you know, go on until dawn.”
Do they indeed?” Her brow furrowed delicately in the most fetching way, Waverly thought. “That must be why Aunt Prudence instructed the servants to remove all the spirits at eleven and set out only tea after that. I’m afraid there will be no champagne or punch to be found anywhere in another half-hour.”
Waverly suppressed a smile. If Aunt Prudence (an apt name if ever there were one) was hoping to launch her little ni
ece with this sort of entertainment, only the staunchest of suitors would stay on. Once the supplemental flasks in their walking sticks gave out, even these gentlemen would take flight.
I’m sure the good clergy of London will appreciate your aunt’s efforts and pray that she will be a leader among the
Waverly told her smoothly as the music came to a close. As he bowed over her hand, though, he was not at all certain he wanted to give it up.
Would you do me the honor of taking a stroll about the room? Surely your next partner can spare you,” he told her, deftly taking a peek at the dance card that hung from her wrist. “What good fortune. I see it is just your cousin. Surely a man of the cloth cannot, in charity, begrudge the pleasures of his fellow creatures.”
Selinda weighed the consequences of such a disregard of decorum for perhaps the amount of time it took her to bat her pretty eyelashes at his Lordship.
“The honor would be mine,” she told him with a dimpled smile.
Some champagne?” he asked as he steered her from the main ballroom.
I’ve never tasted champagne before,” she told him in a confidential tone. “Aunt always insists on orgeat for me. Is champagne good?”
My dear child, permit me to make you known to Monsieur le Champagne, a very welcome refugee from the excesses of our French neighbors,” he told her in tones that bespoke an exceedingly solemn subject indeed. Deftly, he removed two glasses from the tray of a passing servant. “I promise you, it is very much superior to that cloying syrup with which they so often torture the palates of young ladies. To your health, Lady Selinda.”