Authors: Jane Ashford
Copyright Â© 1982 by Jane LeCompte
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Originally published in 1982 by Signet, a division of The New American Library, Inc., New York.
“But, my dear, you must come to my ball,” said Lady Eliza Burnham emphatically. “All London will be there. And you cannot stay shut up brooding here forever, after all.”
Katharine Daltry smiled. “Eliza! You know I never brood.”
“Well, whatever you are doing, then. It can't go on.”
“Can it not?”
“No,” said the older woman, exasperated. “You must go out. Why, you are nothing but a girl still. And Robert has been dead these four years.” Seeing a shadow pass over her friend's face, she added, “I don't mean to sound heartless, Katharine, but it is the truth. I know you loved him dearly; indeed, you made that only too plain when you went off to India in that amazing way, in spite of everyone's warnings. I have never understood why your father agreed to take you along.”
Miss Daltry's lips curved upward again. “I told him I was in love. And his and Robert's regiment was posted to India for three years. We should never have been married if I stayed behind.”
“Well, you weren't married in any case,” replied her ladyship practically. “And why the general did not send you home directly Robert was so unfortunately killed, I don't know. But he always indulged you shockingly.”
This time, the sadness in Katharine's face was sharper. “I suppose he did. I told him I couldn't bear to be away from him just then, and he understood. And then, time simplyâ¦passed. It did not seem at all like four years. And now Father is gone, too.”
“And I am the greatest beast in nature to have mentioned him in that callous way. How can you bear me, Katharine? I'm sure I didn't mean to remind you of your bereavement.”
The younger woman smiled again. Eliza Burnham did indeed chatter heedlessly at times, leading strangers to conclude that she was as empty-headed as she was fashionable. But she had been a close friend of the mother Katharine had lost when she was barely nine years old, and she had to some extent taken Mrs. Daltry's place during Katharine's adolescence, when General Daltry had been much occupied with the war in Spain. Thus, Katharine knew rather more about her, including her extensive charitable works, and had long since judged her kindhearted and well-meaning. “It is all right, Eliza. I'm not still mourning Father. I got over that on the voyage home. And it has been eight months. I shall always miss him terribly, of course, but I amâ¦well, reconciled to it, I suppose.”
“Poor darling. But if that is true, there is no reason at all why you should not begin to go out. Of course, you may not wish to dance or anything of that sort for a while, butâ¦”
Miss Daltry shrugged. “My scruples are not so delicate, Eliza. If I wished to go to parties, I should. But I don't wish it. Father left me well provided for, and for the first time in my life I need consider no one but myself. It may be monstrously selfish of me, but that is precisely what I mean to do.” She dimpled. “Think of me as a disagreeable old cat, disappointed in love and left on the shelf.”
Lady Eliza looked at her despairingly. No one, she thought to herself, could possibly look less like an old cat than Katharine. She barely looked her twenty-seven years, and in any case, she was one of those women who merely become more beautiful with maturity. Her once-too-slender figure had filled out to perfection during her stay in India, and her piquant triangular face had softened. Her dark brown hair was as silken as ever, her skin had warmed to honey brown, and her sparkling amber eyes now held compassionate wisdom as well as spirit. Meeting those curious, almost golden eyes now, Lady Eliza saw a very characteristic glint of mischief. “Oh, I have no patience with you,” she exclaimed. “I give it up.”
“Good,” laughed the other. “Then we may leave this tedious subject and have a comfortable coze. Tell me all your news. How does Andrew like Cambridge?”
“But, Katharine,” wailed her friend, “what will you do? How will you live? You can't stay hemmed up here all alone.”
“Alone? Have you forgotten Cousin Mary?”
“That poor little woman is completely under your thumb.”
Katharine laughed aloud. “She isn't, you know.”
“Nonsense. Of course she is. She is so sweet and quiet that she could never stand against you. I know you!”
Katharine let this pass. “Well, if you do, you should know that I am perfectly content. I have my house. I see my good friends whenever I like. I can go to the theater or the library if I require amusement. I ask for no more, certainly not the ridiculous âgaieties' of the season.”
“But what about a husband, a family of your own?”
The corners of Miss Daltry's mouth turned down. “Those are not to be thought of. Now, I insist you tell me about Andrew.”
With a sigh, Lady Eliza gave in and began to talk of her eldest son, just gone up to Cambridge. And in retailing his doings, she soon forgot her firm resolve of the morning, to
Katharine promise to attend the ball she was giving in three weeks' time. Indeed, she left the house without raising this issue again, and it was not until she was removing her hat in her own bedchamber that she remembered it, and gave vent to a most unladylike expression.
At the same moment, Katharine Daltry was also expressing annoyance, though the cause was quite different. She had just finished reading a letter that had arrived with the afternoon post. “How unfortunate,” she said aloud.
“What is unfortunate, my dear?” asked her companion, a small thin woman with pale hair and clear gray eyes.
“Cousin Elinor,” replied the other curtly.
“Has something happened to her? She was perfectly all right when I last heard from her mother. Indeed, she was about to be married.”
“Nothing has happened to her. Or, that is, she was married, in January. And now she means to come to town for the season.”
“Oh.” Mary Daltry, for this was indeed Katharine's cousin and chaperone, looked doubtfully at her charge. “Is that unfortunate?”
“Well, I think it is. I haven't any wish to be saddled with a green girl.”
“But isn't her husband coming, too? What is his name again? Marchington, that's it. Thomas Marchington. He's Sir Lionel Marchington's son.”
“Yes, he's coming. But I understand that Tom Marchington is barely twenty years old, and Elinor isn't even that. They can no more look after themselves thanâ¦than babies.”
“Oh, no. I'm sure you're wrong. Gentlemen are taught all about that sort of thing.”
Katharine looked at her middle-aged cousin with amused exasperation. She did not know what she meant by “that sort of thing,” and she was tolerably certain that Mary didn't either. She was fond of her cousin, but she often found her own opinions at odds with those of a forty-year-old woman who had been reared very strictly by a clergyman father. “Well, we can only hope so,” she answered, refolding the letter. “But I think it is much more likely that they will expect me to squire them about and rescue them from all sorts of scrapes. I shall have to make it very clear from the beginning that I never go out.”
“Of course, dear,” murmured Mary soothingly.
that I do so by my own choice, not because I am not invited. Otherwise, I daresay they would be trying to help
Mary Daltry chuckled at this idea. “Surely not.”
“No? I have not seen Cousin Elinor since she was a grubby schoolgirl, but I have a very vivid memory of her. Don't you remember how she positively persecuted that poor curate? Mr. Ambley, I think his name was. He was not being invited in the neighborhood, and she insisted he was being horridly snubbed. It turned out he was trying desperately to find time to work on his book.”
Her companion appeared to be suppressing a laugh. “Well, but, my dear, her motive was very noble.”
“God save me from noble motives. Elinor suffers from an excess of sensibility. Or did, at any rate.”
Mary shook her head and looked down.
“Come, you must admit that Elinor's feelings are rather overenthusiastic. What about the spaniel she dosed with âtonic' until it actually bit her?”
The older woman made a stifled noise. “Katharine.”
“Well, she did. I could not invent such a story.”
Katharine burst out laughing. “You needn't try to humbug me, Mary. You think she is absurd, too.”
Allowing her smile to emerge, the other agreed. “But I insist that she acts from the best of motives.”
Katharine shrugged contemptuously.
“Yes, dear. And you know, I can't help thinking that you might perhaps enjoy getting out a bit with Elinor. I know you say you saw enough of the
during your own come-out to last you all your life, but Elinor is very young and would give you a new perspective on things you have seen before. And she would no doubt welcome a little guidance. I do thinkâ”
“Cousin Mary, are you feeling quite well?” interrupted Miss Daltry. “I had a notion that lobster might disagree with you. I said so last night, you recall. But I did not expect it would addle your wits.”
“You may mock, Katharine, but I still think I am right. You should go out and meet some lively young people. From what you tell me, you spent far too much of the last four years alone, and you need some company other than mine.”
Several emotions seemed to struggle with one another in her cousin's face. “I have all the company I require. And if I did not, I should certainly not choose Elinor to remedy the situation. I thought we had finished with this subject once and for all, Mary. I intend to do exactly as I please, and that means not going out.”
“Yes, dear,” replied her cousin serenely. “But I expect you'll change your mind. We have only been in London together for three months, after all.”
“Are you trying to goad me into letting you go back to Hampshire, Cousin Mary?” said Katharine in a rallying tone. “I see it now. You are weary of my airs and want to escape, but you are too nice to tell me so. Instead, you drive me to distraction in the hope that I will send you away. Well, I shan't do it. You will have to speak your wishes plainly, and then you may do as you like.”
Mary Daltry smiled. She had been closely acquainted with her much younger cousin only for the three months mentioned, but in that time she had learned to distinguish her teasing from what she called her “true” voice. Katharine Daltry had an active wit and loved to take a topic to outrageous lengths in its service. At first, this had greatly disconcerted her less-spirited cousin, but she had soon become, if not resigned, at least accustomed to these flights. She was in no danger now of taking Katharine's talk of Hampshire seriously. Indeed, Katharine would not have made such a remark even three weeks previously. She had rescued Mary from genteel poverty in the country and knew her cousin was sensitive on the subject. But they had gone a great way toward establishing a comfortable, close relationship since then, and Katharine was certain that her bantering would do no harm. On the other hand, she hoped it might do some good in diverting Mary from the subject at hand. Katharine had found joking very useful in this line before now; it was one of her most practiced weapons.
“Well, dear, you know best, I suppose. It is early days yet,” was Mary's only reply.
Katharine eyed her with a rueful smile. She had recently begun to realize just how deceptive her cousin's meek exterior really was. There were strong principles and clear common sense beneath her quiet, self-effacing manner, and Katharine was learning to respect her opinions more and more. Now she knew that her cousin had merely put off the issue of going out, not abandoned it.