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Authors: Joan Smith

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Letters to a Lady

BOOK: Letters to a Lady
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LETTERS TO A LADY

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

“You must not worry your head about Ronald’s finding a position, my dear.” Miss Peabody smiled fondly. “Chuggie will be only too happy to find him something with the government. Always so kind and thoughtful. You have only to say the word and Chuggie will do it. He is the most obliging creature in nature, and so well placed, too, in the cabinet.”

Diana Beecham regarded her chaperon with a leery eye and smiled a noncommittal smile, wondering how a lady who looked so sane could be so foolish. Miss Peabody had a long, lean body and a long, thin face—the kind of face that looked intelligent and was frequently compared to a hatchet. Her eyes, too, were sharp and fast, but in the matter of Lord Harrup they were purblind.

Miss Peabody held strong and unique views regarding this selfish gentleman’s obligingness. The reason for this, as for the dame’s calling a thirty-five-year-old marquess and privy councillor “Chuggie,” was old and well known to her listener. Miss Peabody, Harrup’s distant cousin, had been his nanny. Having no babe of her own on whom to spend her maternal instincts and aspirations, she had lavished them with fine indiscrimination on her charge. Many a dull evening had Diana been regaled with Lord Harrup’s nursery antics: walking at nine months, talking a blue streak at fifteen, reading at three years. It was really astonishing it had taken his lordship the usual number of years to graduate from university, when you stopped to think about it. That this mental marvel got no better than a gentleman’s “C” was equally surprising. The professors, Miss Peabody had assured her, had all been jealous as green cows of Chuggie’s genius.

Diana feared the tales of Harrup’s obligingness were equally exaggerated. To her knowledge, all he had ever done for Miss Peabody was to pass her on to his neighbors, the Beechams, when he had no further use for her. There she had held sway over the Beecham nursery, later graduating to governess and finally to chaperon when Mrs. Beecham passed away.

Whether a young lady now in her twenty-fifth year required any other guide and protector than her father was a moot point. Diana considered Peabody a companion and friend. It was true Harrup called on Miss Peabody several times a year, often stuffing a fat envelope into her fingers. It was scanty enough reward from a gentleman who had ten thousand a year at his disposal, and lived in palatial luxury himself. But it was those envelopes, Diana thought, that really accounted for the high esteem in which he was held.

Whether he would be eager to find a position at Whitehall for Diana’s brother Ronald, just graduated from Oxford and wanting to get started in a political career, was another matter. As Lord Harrup was their most influential neighbor and friend, however, the matter would certainly be presented for his consideration.

“I told Ronald to call on him. I thought we would have heard by now,” Diana said, and rose to stroll restlessly about the blue saloon. The chamber, like the house, was comfortable and pretty without claiming much grandeur. Sun shone through the trees of the park, making patterns on the lawn. It was a fine day in late April—a shame to waste such a day indoors, when her mare would be champing for exercise. But Miss Peabody had ordered the dolly out, which meant Diana had to make frequent trips belowstairs to see the laundry was not being overbleached.

Unlike Lord Harrup, the majority of the world was in a conspiracy to plague Miss Peabody and thwart her every wish. The very weather itself had it in for her. Winds sought out her sensitive ears and caused them to ache with monotonous regularity. Servants purposely broke her favorite dishes. Indeed, any dish that hit the floor immediately became a favorite. Cook, knowing she liked her beef rare, burned it to cinders, and the laundress would certainly destroy her blue muslin with bleach if Diana were not there to monitor the application. Diana was another of the blessed ones. She and Ronald rated just a few notches below Harrup in the dame’s esteem.

“Oh, there is the postman!” Diana exclaimed, and hastened to the door. “There should be a letter from Ronald.”

The expected letter did not arrive. The new issue of
La Belle Assemblée
was there, the cover in shreds by the ill offices of the postman, but of greater interest was a letter franked by Lord Harrup and addressed to Miss Peabody, who blushed like a schoolgirl when Diana handed it to her.

“Dear me, what can Harrup have to say?” she exclaimed, and grabbed the envelope. Harrup was only Chuggie when she was extolling his virtue. She read the letter swiftly and said, “It is really to both of us. He writes, ‘Dearest Peabody’—he always calls me dearest—’Would you or Di be kind enough to send a footman to Hitchin to pick up some documents for me? They are with a Mrs. Whitby (map enclosed). I had hoped to pick them up myself en route to London yesterday, but Mrs. Whitby was not at home. I left a note requesting her to have them ready. They are too sensitive to entrust to the mail. Please take them to Harrup Hall. The next carriage coming to London can bring them to me. I thank you in advance, knowing you will not fail me. Sincerely, Harrup.’” She smiled dotingly at this businesslike communication and peered closely into the envelope to see if any folding money was included.

“I wonder what the documents can be,” Diana said, looking at the letter.

“Something to do with the government, no doubt,” Miss Peabody assured her. “Very sensitive. I wonder who this Mrs. Whitby can be. I don’t recognize the name. Very likely her husband works with Harrup at Whitehall. I shall be very happy to do it for him.” Even though the letter was the only paper to be seen, Peabody still smiled.

“He might have asked his own servants to do it,” Diana mentioned.

“His mama is not at home. He knows he can trust me to see the thing gets done.”

“Why, Peabody, we shall be passing right through Hitchin ourselves tomorrow when we go to London to help Ronald settle in. We might as well pick up the documents and take them to Harrup,” Diana pointed out. “He will get them more quickly that way. They’re probably urgent.”

Her chaperon knew by the twinkle in Diana’s blue eyes that the minx was up to something. “Ha, you are a caution, Diana!” She smiled. “You are thinking that Ronald can come along when we take the documents to Harrup, and that will help his cause along.”

“It won’t do it any harm,” Diana agreed.

“It is the very sort of special consideration Harrup likes.” This came dangerously close to admitting Harrup was a tad high in the instep, and Miss Peabody quickly spoke on to remove the notion. “It does no harm to be polite to someone in Harrup’s position. I’m sure he is so busy with meetings and Parliament and court that we must do whatever we can to help him.” She carefully folded up the map and letter and put them in her sewing basket.

With a helpless look at Diana she said, “Would you mind just nipping down and seeing Jennie isn’t pouring bleach all over my best blue muslin? I told her to dilute it first. I swear the girl is either simple or ruins all the colored wash from spite. I’d go myself but my knees are stiff today. These spring winds are piercing.”

“I was just about to go,” Diana said.

After ascertaining that the blue muslin was unmarred by their fastidious servant, Jennie, Diana went upstairs to begin her packing. She and Peabody were remaining in London for only two nights, but Ronald might take them out to the theater, so she would take an evening outfit. She took from the clothespress her two favorites—a deep blue satin that matched her eyes and a less fancy but more comfortable gown of glossy gold lutestring, striped with narrow bands of green. With a last longing look at the blue, she returned it to the clothespress. Its décolletage was too elegant for the sort of evenings they would have with Ronald. That gown would be more at home at a ball.

The extremely disobliging Lord Harrup could take them to a ball if he chose. Miss Peabody followed his activities closely via her connections at the Hall and reported his vertiginous social whirl to Miss Beecham. With the season in progress, Harrup would be out waltzing and attending plays and operas every night. He was top of the trees, but in the usual way of toplofty gentlemen, he did not deign to invite his country neighbors to visit him in town. Diana knew she must be polite to him, though—for Ronald’s sake.

She found being polite to Harrup one of life’s less pleasant duties. A lordly neighbor who continued calling a young lady “missie” into her twenty-fifth year is nor likely to inspire much affection. He ran quite tame at the Willows, taking potluck with her family three or four times for every invitation issued to Harrup Hall. But what really vexed her was that his invitations never coincided with the interesting parties at which he entertained his London friends. It was with the vicar and such local worthies that she and her papa were invited to dinner.

She put the lutestring dress on the bed and lay down beside it, looking up at the water marks on the ceiling. Seven of them, strung out like an archipelago right over her head, as unchanging as the continents and her life. They had been there, caught in plaster, turning from yellow to brown, for as long as she could remember. Would she go on looking at them all her life, turning dim along with them? Would she grow old and die here at the Willows?

Perhaps things would be different once Ronald got established in London. He was a brilliant scholar. He might advance swiftly at Whitehall. She fell into a delightful reverie in which Ronald was the mentor of cabinet ministers and kings, and she was his hostess—charming, well informed, suggesting a cabinet shuffle here, a war measure there, while fighting off the impassioned advances of half the government. Of course, it was all idle dreaming. She knew Ronald’s scholarly mind wouldn’t set Whitehall on fire. Ronald was the sort who would quietly and painstakingly do research for some more outgoing gentleman who would stand up and spout his words in the House and receive credit for them.

It didn’t seem fair that a lady’s hopes should ride on a younger brother whose social acumen was worse than mediocre. She was the firstborn; she should have been the man. Papa often said so himself. She was the better rider, the more spirited, the more venturesome of the two. She must bring Ronald into fashion somehow in London, when she finally got there. Ronald was only twenty-two—she felt a hundred.

How had she got so old? Where had the years gone? Life was pleasant at the Willows with Papa and Miss Peabody, but it wasn’t enough. There was no challenge in it for her. She had mastered the Willows and its limited society. She was the real ruler of the house. Diana longed to have a home of her own or a life of some sort beyond this provincial round of little doings.

She sighed and went to the mirror as she did at least once each day to check time’s ravages on her face, for other than the five thousand from her mama, that face was her fortune. A broad brow tapered to full cheeks and a small, somewhat pointed chin. Her nose was straight and imperious, not at all matching her lopsided smile. Simple living had been easy on her charms. No trace of crow’s feet encroached yet at the corners of her blue eyes. The eyes still wore the luster of youth, still tilted up at the outer rims. Her best feature. Surely those eyes were made for flirting over a fan, not for monitoring the application of bleach to the laundry. A pixie’s eyes, Peabody called them. Her hair was pale blond and lightly curled. Gray wouldn’t show in it easily.

Worrying about gray hairs, and she had never had a real beau yet! Just a few flirts like Mr. Henderson, who walked out with her two Sundays, then switched his affections to her friend Sukey Dunton. Diana hadn’t even had the solace of a broken heart. It was half a relief when Mr. Henderson defected.

The vicar smiled more warmly at her than at the other ladies on the church auxiliary. Dull little man with his dull little job. How did he stand it? How did any of them stand it, knowing there was a whole world out there to conquer?

Ah, well, tomorrow she was going to London to help Ronald set up his apartment. Perhaps Ronald would introduce her to someone, one of his friends or associates. All she needed was one ambitious gentleman, and she would be on her way.

The trip to London was the subject of conversation over dinner, and when Mr. Beecham had retired to his office, Peabody went to her charge’s room to see what she had packed, for they were leaving early in the morning.

“Not taking your blue satin, Diana?” she asked, lifting a brow.

“There’s no point wrinkling it. I shan’t need such a fancy gown, Peabody.”

“Take it,” Peabody advised, a twinkle in her dim eyes. “I’m taking my good black. There is no saying—Harrup might invite us to dinner.”

Diana thought this extremely unlikely, but with a hopeful thought to Ronald’s friends, she folded up the gown and added it, just in case.

Mr. Beecham saw them off early in the morning, counseling his groom what hotel to take the ladies to for lunch and where to bait the horses. Though Hitchin was ten miles away, Peabody already had Harrup’s map on her knee when they left, considering the best route to the Whitby house. “Tilehouse Street,” she said. “Yes, I know where that is. An excellent part of town. Salam Chapel is in Tilehouse Street.”

BOOK: Letters to a Lady
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