Authors: Lynn Messina - Miss Fellingham's Rebellion
Tags: #Regency Romance
“It’s Perth, milady.” He stared unblinkingly down at her.
“Very good. She hasn’t gone too far, has she, Perth?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, milady.” His tone, if possible, grew even more chilly at the inquisition, and Catherine, who had always been a self-effacing girl, felt wholly intimidated by his disapproving demeanor. She could think of no worse person to practice one’s assertiveness on than a Mayfair butler, but she had no choice.
“It wouldn’t do any harm for us to sit in the drawing room, would it, Perth?” she asked, with an overly bright smile.
“Milady, I think Lady Courtland would rather—”
“Lovely.” Catherine brushed past the butler, who stepped back in surprise at the rough handling. “This way, Mama. Perth thinks we should wait in the drawing room.”
The dour butler looked quite taken aback by this turn of events, and Catherine thought she detected a change in his manner. Although Perth remained well within the boundaries of civility, Catherine felt he was struggling with his temper. Doubtless, he’d never dealt with such a pushy young lady before, which made her sympathetic to his situation, for she had never been a pushy young lady before and found the experience very unpleasant. If only the fate of her family’s fortunes didn’t rest on the forthcoming interview with Lady Courtland, then she could have left like the shy and retiring miss she was as soon as Perth had said her ladyship was not at home. But Catherine had had a hard enough time getting her mother there once; she doubted she could do it a second time.
After several moments, Perth’s face assumed its previous stony expression and he showed them the way to the drawing room. Catherine made herself comfortable on the settee as her mother stood awkwardly by the door. After a few moments of looking like a canary trapped by a cat, Lady Fellingham sat down across from Catherine.
Perth watched them take their seats and left, closing the doors quietly behind him. Then, not a second later, he opened the doors again, his professional dignity sadly overcoming his peevishness. “Would miladies care for some tea?”
Catherine was prepared to defer to her mother on this account, but since she gave no indication of her preference either way, Catherine acquiesced. “That would be lovely, Perth.”
He nodded and left.
“Tea will calm your nerves, Mama.”
“Nothing could calm my nerves now. Oh, this is so very wretched and well beyond the bounds of propriety.” Lady Fellingham looked around the empty room, rubbing her fingers on the arm of the brocade sofa as if trying to remove a stain. It was a nervous habit of hers. “We really should go home.”
Catherine felt a tinge of regret and wondered if she was doing the right thing. She hated seeing her mother so distraught, but something had to be done. She moved closer to the anxious woman and offered a comforting hand. “Look, you know what Shakespeare says. We shall do this quickly.”
Eliza Fellingham didn’t have a clue what Shakespeare had to say about intruding on one’s friends before respectable visiting hours, but she was sure that if he advocated for such vulgar behavior, his plays should not be performed for the edification of young ladies.
They sat in silence for several minutes before the door opened. Catherine expected to see Perth carrying a silver teapot but was confronted with Lady Courtland herself.
“Darling Liza,” she said, her hands extended in warmth to her old school friend, “whatever can the matter be?”
Eliza rose, met her friend halfway across the room and squeezed her hands. “Oh, it’s just so horrible. I am sorry to bother you like this, only Catherine would insist.”
Arabella’s intent, dark-blue eyes surveyed Catherine steadily for several long seconds. Catherine felt disconcerted by the attention and concentrated on not fidgeting. The woman examining her so carefully was petite and delicate-looking with fluffy blond hair and perfect features. She might have been well past the first blush of youth, but she was still an Incomparable.
Thoroughly intimidated by the cool appraisal, Catherine mustered all her courage and introduced herself. “Hello, Lady Courtland. I’m Catherine Fellingham, Lady Fellingham’s daughter. I don’t believe we’ve met.” She curtseyed politely but soon found herself enveloped in a warm hug.
“Of course I know you. When we last met you were but a little slip of a girl. I daresay you don’t remember me.” She placed Catherine at arm’s length. “It’s been so many years. Let me look at you now.” After some moments of examination, she said, “What unusual eyes you have. I’ve never seen that shade of gold before. How charming for you, Liza, to have such a lovely daughter.”
Despite the fact that it was Lady Courtland who had gotten her family into their present fix, Catherine found herself warming to her hostess. It wasn’t often that she was admired by a stranger, even if it was mere courtesy.
“Now, let’s do talk and get to the bottom of what has my friend so agitated.” She took a seat on the sofa. “Here, Liza, sit next to me. Perhaps I should— Ah, there you are Perth. And with tea. Perfect. You anticipate my every desire yet again.”
The butler placed the tray in front of Lady Courtland and bowed.
“Right, Liza,” she said after she filled all the teacups, “why don’t you tell me what has you so unsettled?”
“It’s our plan,” Lady Fellingham said hesitantly.
Arabella raised an eyebrow over her teacup. “Our plan?”
“Yes, our excellent plan has met with my family’s disapproval,” she explained with a censorious look at her daughter. “Catherine insisted that I come directly here and put an end to the whole thing.”
“I see.” Arabella placed her cup on the table.
“It’s just that Fellingham thinks that if it ever got out, it would cause quite a scandal,” her ladyship elaborated. “Of course I told him he was being ridiculous. How would it ever get out? But then it was through one of Freddy’s friends that he heard of it, so mayhap it’s not quite as ridiculous as it had previously seemed.” She fidgeted in her seat. “Not that that’s a reason to abandon such a worthwhile endeavor but merely a warning to be more cautious. Catherine, however, is involved now, so we might as well give up on it. She will never let us continue.”
Arabella looked at Catherine. “Yes, I can see that Miss Fellingham is an estimable young lady.”
“Lady Courtland,” said the estimable young lady, not sure if she was being maligned or mocked, “I and my family are worried about the damage this would do to our name if anyone should discover Mama and your scheme. I’m afraid that would put us beyond the pale socially and risk the wrath of the Duke of Raeburn, who, I’m sure from all I’ve read about him, would not appreciate such interference.”
“You have read about the Duke of Raeburn?” her ladyship asked.
“Of course,” answered Catherine.
“May I ask where?”
Catherine was annoyed by this line of questioning, which diverted her from her course, and sought to bring the conversation back to the relevant matter. “In a political journal, I believe, though I can’t recall which one. My concern is for my sister Evelyn, for what chance of finding a good husband would she have if we are in disgrace? Please believe that we are fully cognizant of the honor you do us by trying to help Mama. I know she relies on your good judgment. Perhaps you can convince her that stopping the scheme is all for the best.”
“Your daughter makes an interesting argument, Liza,” she said as she considered Catherine over the rim of her teacup for an extended moment.
“She does?” asked Eliza, taken aback.
“Yes, she does. You have three daughters, two of marriageable age. Perhaps we should devote our attentions to getting them married,” she explained. “If one of them married a wealthy gentleman, we would have no further need for excellent schemes.”
Lady Fellingham smiled brightly and let out the breath she had been holding. She had been afraid that Arabella would take offense at Catherine’s frank speech. “Oh, dear friend, you must know that that is my fondest wish, one that I have harbored these many years. I am sure that Evelyn would be very appreciative of any plan you conceive that would advance her on the marriage mart. She is a biddable girl with very pleasing manners, and I think she has a superb chance of making a brilliant match.”
“And Catherine?” asked Arabella.
“Catherine?” Liza echoed blankly. “I don’t know. I suppose Catherine also believes that Evelyn should make a brilliant match.”
Her ladyship shook her head. “No, dear. I mean, do you think she would accept my guidance?”
“Finding a husband.”
“Whatever for?” Lady Fellingham asked, still confounded.
“So she can get married.”
“But Catherine is an old maid,” exclaimed the girl’s fond mother.
“Liza!” exclaimed Arabella. “I’m shocked. How can you talk about your daughter like that?”
Catherine, who had been listening to this conversation with only absentminded interest, broke out into a hearty—and what her mother would call unbred—laugh. “Please don’t tease yourself about my feelings. At the advanced age of four-and-twenty, I’ve been quite on the shelf for some years, and my family has never made any attempt to put a pleasant face on it. I am a spinster.”
“Ridiculous,” Arabella dismissed. “You are young and pretty. We will see you engaged by the end of the season.”
“But, Arabella, Catherine has had
seasons and she has never quite
,” Lady Fellingham explained, a little embarrassed for her daughter now that she had said it aloud. Six years was a long time. She was not entirely unsympathetic to Catherine’s feelings, only it did seem to her as if her daughter had never really
“Pooh,” she scoffed, taking in Catherine’s bright eyes, her lustrous brown hair and her statuesque figure. “Handsome young men are always interested in pretty girls with conversation. Don’t worry, Liza, I’ll take care of it.”
Catherine’s amusement faded as she thought of this formidable woman taking an active hand in her life. “I appreciate your offer of help, Lady Courtland, but my mother is right. I simply never took. Men don’t like tall women.”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Short men don’t like tall women and why should they? They would look patently absurd standing next to a woman who had six inches on them, but I know for a fact that tall men like tall women. Now, don’t you worry about it a minute more. I’ll take care of everything.”
And indeed it seemed to Catherine as if she were already devising one of her excellent schemes. The thought unnerved her and made her not a little anxious. “Lady Courtland, I don’t think—”
“My dear, you simply must call me Arabella,” she said. “Oh, what a lovely surprise this has turned out to be. I had no idea why you had come to call so early in the day, and I will admit when I came in I was a little cross,” she confessed. “But now I am delighted. We needed a new project, anyway, Eliza. The other plan was beginning to bore me.”
Catherine felt as if the meeting had spiraled out of her control. Realizing there was nothing she could say at the moment to change her new friend’s mind, she changed the subject, something she still had control of. “So the plan of selling commissions in the king’s army…”
“What plan?” Arabella asked innocently.
“Thank you, Lady Cour—”
“Arabella.” Catherine smiled. “Well, since our business here is done, we shall leave you in peace. I’m sure you have other things you’d rather be doing.” Catherine got to her feet and offered her mother an arm. Lady Fellingham stood as well.
“Nonsense,” said her gracious host. “This has been a perfect diversion.”
“Arabella, will we be seeing you at Lady Sefton’s ball tonight?” Eliza asked as they approached the drawing room doors. Now that they were leaving, she was actually reluctant to go. The visit had gone far more pleasantly than she had ever imagined, and now she wanted to talk about her friend’s plans for Evelyn. Imagine—Evelyn married to a wealthy young lord! It was everything Lady Fellingham wanted for her dearest daughter.
“I hadn’t planned on going, but I’m willing to reconsider. Will you and Catherine be there?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lady Fellingham said, “and Evelyn, of course.”
Arabella nodded consideringly. “Perhaps I’ll see you there.”
“Wonderful!” F kissed her dear friend on the cheek and stepped outside. When she heard the door close behind her, she turned to her daughter. “There, you see, Catherine. When you are dealing with true quality, there’s never anything to worry about. Was my friend Arabella not the most gracious thing? Really, I don’t understand you, making such a big deal of all this. I believe in the end that Evelyn was right. It was nothing more than a tempest in a teapot.”
When they returned to the house in Mayfair, Catherine disappeared into the study. She picked up the book she had been reading,
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
. She had read it before, of course. It was one of her favorite poems, but for some reason she was unable to concentrate this afternoon. So much had happened in such a short span of time, and now, suddenly, passing the day in the comfortable room where she passed all her days felt confining.
told herself not to be ridiculous. She loved the solemnity of the space—the rich woods, the dark paneling, the heavy curtains—and the encompassing quiet. Nobody ever bothered her in the study, and she was free to read whatever she wanted: penny dreadfuls, scandalous novels, radical political tracts. She had the entire world in this single room and had never chafed before at the confines.