Read The Byram Succession Online

Authors: Mira Stables

The Byram Succession (6 page)

Hetty came in with a tray of food, scolded her for trying her eyes with too much reading and insisted that she eat something. “For it’s little enough of that fine supper you’ll be getting, what with dancing and talking to this one and the other, let alone the excitement. So you’ll just take a bite now, before I dress you.”

Alethea managed to swallow a few mouthfuls of food, though she could not have said what she had eaten, and submitted herself to Hetty’s ministrations, her heart beating fast, hands icy, cheeks burning, so that she wondered that it did not show. Hetty maintained a soothing flow of chatter, telling of events below stairs, especially of one or two minor crises, all happily resolved, helped her into her dressing gown and began to brush out her hair. “And remember, miss, there’s plenty of time for us to curl it for you if you don’t fancy this Pompy Door that Hebe’s so set on. Seems she saw it in a picture and said at once it was just the thing for you, with such a quantity of hair as you’ve got. But if you don’t like it you’ve only to say so,” she encouraged, and went to summon Hebe.

But when Hebe’s work was done and Alethea was permitted to look at herself in the mirror, there was no question of curling tongs. She looked—and stared. That was not Alethea Forester! Not only did the fashion give her that added inch of height. It gave her, besides, a quaint, youthful dignity, despite the well-worn dressing gown. And it did more. The very severity of the style, with all the hair drawn up and away from the face, revealed the beautiful modelling of the bone structure, accentuated the lovely set of the proud little head on the slim throat. As though aware of it, the girl drew herself up to her full height, tilted her chin a little, and smiled at herself in the mirror.

Hebe smiled too, well pleased with her handiwork. And Alethea, catching the smile in the mirror, turned and hugged her impulsively, kissing her cheek lightly and saying, “It’s all your doing! Dear, clever Hebe! Now I shall be able to hold up my head tonight, even beside my lovely cousin.”

Her two attendants exchanged a glance of private satisfaction. That was precisely what they had intended. There was even a hint of malice in Hebe’s eyes as she suggested, “Don’t let anyone see you, miss, until you’re all dressed and ready to go downstairs. Surprise them all.”

Alethea, absorbed in turning her head from side to side to study the effect from all angles, nodded absently, and Hebe went off to attend to her proper duties.

Hetty set the room to rights with swift competence and said, “I’ll be back in half an hour to help you into your dress. You’ll lock your door, won’t you, miss?”

To Alethea’s surprised enquiry she said woodenly, “To keep it a surprise, like Hebe asked you to.” And then, reluctantly, since loyalty to her former nurseling still lingered on, “And because if Miss Tina was to see you, she might say something to upset you. And we don’t want tears tonight, now do we?”

Alethea’s clear gaze met hers squarely. “You won’t get them, Hetty. Not for so paltry a cause. But if it will please you, I’ll lock the door.” And then suddenly she giggled. “It sounds like something out of this fantastic tale I’ve been reading, but I’ll do it. Unless I hear the cry of ‘Fire!’ I’ll stay close hid,” she promised, with mischievous solemnity.

 

SIX

In
general
Aunt Maria enjoyed giving parties. She was a capable organiser, her servants were well trained and Uncle Matthew never begrudged additional expense in the cause of hospitality. Moreover the house in Berkeley Square was admirably adapted for the accommodation of all but the very largest gatherings. The ballroom, which had been built on to the back of the house by Uncle Matthew’s papa, was of unusual design. Aunt Maria, while pretending to laugh at its oddity, secretly thought it both pretty and impressive, for the late Mr. Newton had been a friend and admirer of Mr. Walpole, and though the eccentricities of Strawberry Hill were a little too much for a strong streak of common sense, he, too, had indulged his fancy for the Gothic when building the ballroom. So the cavernous hearths that yawned at either end would not have been out of place in a mediaeval fortress and the long line of windows that pierced the outer wall were lancet shaped and ornamented with much delicate tracery of stonework. Since they gave on to a conservatory only a dim greenish light filtered through them, but this, thought Aunt Maria, served to enhance the romantic atmosphere. And when the great branches of candles set in the wall sconces were all lit, the effect was quite charming, she told her awed niece. Uncle Matthew, when out of humour, had been known to stigmatise the apartment as “a damned draughty hole,” and declare that one might as well give a party in the cellars, but his wife assured Alethea that it was most conveniently designed, for there was a gallery hung at one end for the use of the musicians, while at the other a massive oaken door gave access to the dining room, which much facilitated the serving of suppers.

“In fact it leaves only one thing to be desired,” she concluded wistfully. “If only it had a staircase!”

Since the ballroom was a single storey edifice on the ground floor, Alethea looked slightly startled. But Aunt Maria explained that nothing gave a hostess such confidence as to stand regally at the head of an imposing stair to receive her guests. Especially when, like Aunt Maria, the hostess was short and dumpy and apt to be overlooked when the room became crowded.

Staircase or not, Aunt Maria had need of all the confidence she could summon for this particular party. At least her new gown was very becoming, she decided, as Hebe set the finishing touches to her elaborate coiffeur, and the maid had assured her that Miss Alethea looked very nice, too. She turned to her jewel case to find the ruby pendant that she meant to present to the child to mark the occasion. She hoped Tina would not be too angry when she saw it. Tina, with her colouring, should never wear rubies, but it was a costly trifle and she might well begrudge its bestowal on her cousin. Her fingers closed nervously over it as a tap on her door heralded her daughter’s arrival.

But Tina, having won her way, was in her sunniest mood. She looked quite ravishing—and knew it. The sea-green gauze had always been becoming to her glowing locks and delicate skin. Tonight she had chosen to take the pearls that Papa had given her last year and wear them threaded through her curls. Mrs. Newton was horrified, for it was obvious that the pearls had been re-strung for the purpose, and what would Papa say if any had been lost or damaged in the process? But there could be no denying that the effect was delightful. The girl looked like some faery creature—a sea-nymph, perhaps—mysterious, elusive and tantalising.

When her mama timidly disclosed her intention of bestowing the pendant on Alethea, Tina said only, “I suppose I should have bought something for her, but I forgot. Do you think it would serve if I gave her the pierced ivory fan that Aunt Georgina sent me? I never liked it above half and I have several prettier ones.” And Mrs. Newton was so thankful to be spared reproaches for her own generosity that she approved this notion quite heartily and Tina went off to find the despised fan.

Alethea looked up shyly when Aunt Maria came in, magnificent in peacock blue brocade and exclaiming in warm delight at her niece’s transformed appearance. Hetty discreetly vanished. Having studied the bergere gown from every angle and praised the imaginative hair style, which was, she said, the perfect complement to the dress, she bent forward to fasten the ruby pendant about the slim throat. “A little gift from your uncle and me,” she said affectionately, “a keepsake to remind you of this important day in your life. May it bring you memories of a delightful evening.” And as Alethea stammered out her delight and gratitude and carefully kissed her aunt’s delicately rouged cheek, went on, “It puts the perfect finishing touch to your appearance. I do not in general approve of young girls wearing sparkling stones, but this is very simple, and the antique setting, you see, makes it so very suitable to your costume. The whole effect puts me strongly in mind of the painting on my Watteau fan.”

“And will do very well for a masquerade when she is tired of wearing it to parties.” Tina had come in so quietly that they had not heard her in their absorption; had missed the abrupt check, the slight narrowing of her eyes at this first sight of her cousin in festive array. Before they could recover, she was putting the fan into her cousin’s hands, praising the elegant draping of the damask and the rich glow of the ruby. The unusual hair style, too, came in for commendation. “Vastly becoming,” she pronounced. “I had not thought you could look so well. Mama must be very pleased with the result of her efforts. And with your courage, too,” she added thoughtfully. “I doubt if I could have summoned the confidence to wear so outmoded a fashion at
my
début.”

Perhaps because of Hetty’s warning, perhaps because at last she had her cousin’s measure, this unkind little speech, designed to undermine the neophyte’s confidence, wholly failed of its intent. “With your looks you would win admiration whatever you chose to wear,” retorted Alethea. “As for your hair, it would still look perfectly lovely even if you had just been caught in a rainstorm. I only hope this careful erection of Hebe’s doesn’t tumble down and disgrace me utterly as soon as I start dancing, though she swears it won’t. Plain people, cousin, have to study to be neat and soignée, which is a thing you’ve never had to bother about.” Then, feeling that the exchange had gone far enough, “Shall I carry my new fan, Aunt? It goes beautifully with my dress.”

“Slip the riband over your wrist,” advised Aunt Maria. “You will need your hands free for dancing. We must go down. Our guests will be arriving.”

In fact they heard the front door bell ringing as they went through the hall to join Uncle Matthew. Though the cards of invitation said nine o’clock, some people, he said bitterly, would be early for their own funerals. He mellowed sufficiently to smile at his niece and to tell her she looked very pretty. His daughter earned no such encomium. His gaze rested attentively upon the pearls in her hair, and it was fortunate for Tina that at this moment the first arrivals were announced.

At the end of half an hour, Mrs. Newton was able to dismiss any lingering doubts as to the success of her party. She was even brought to admit that there had been a good deal of truth in Tina’s prophecy that Lord Skirlaugh would prove to be a social asset of considerable value. Again and again as she moved from group to group or returned to her post to welcome newcomers, she caught the echo of his name. Whatever her guests might think of her daughter’s behaviour, they were not disposed to miss the opportunity of making his lordship’s acquaintance at a comparatively intimate party. One or two of her closest friends actually asked to have him pointed out to them.

His lordship obliged these interested parties by arriving only a little after nine in company with the Graysons. If Kit had had his way they would undoubtedly have been there sooner. As it was, there was barely time for the necessary introductions before another group of guests was announced. There was a brief discussion about dancing.

Alethea found herself engaged to dance with both gentlemen and to make up a set of quadrilles with them, but was called away by her aunt to meet the newcomers before she was quite sure which would be her partner. There had been no recognition in Lord Skirlaugh’s eye, no awkward disclosure. Like her aunt, she, too, forgot her anxieties and gave herself up to enjoyment.

She did not know above half the guests and those she did know were all recent acquaintances. But that only made conversation so much the more interesting. She had never before attended such a party as this, but during the past year she had frequently accompanied Papa when her mother’s delicate health had prevented her from fulfilling some engagement. During a winter of sober functions she had endured and outgrown the first paralysing pangs of shyness. Because she was least in importance she had usually been given the dullest of the dinner partners and quite unconsciously had begun to acquire that most useful of all the social arts—that of inducing people to talk about themselves. Tonight’s guests were very different from the church dignitaries, the forthright squires with their strong prejudices and loyalties to whom she was accustomed. She found them very interesting, even exciting. It was scarcely surprising that this appreciative attitude evoked a pleasant warmth in those who encountered it; that soon Aunt Maria was rejoiced to receive several compliments on her niece’s pleasant manners and charming appearance.

When the dancing began she was less at ease. She had been carefully taught and had a certain natural grace but she had danced very little in public. She was inclined to concentrate on the steps and the figures, so that conversation languished. Presently she found herself dancing the coranto with Lord Skirlaugh who, unfortunately, was no more skilled than was his partner. He did his best to accommodate his longer steps to hers, but by the time they had circled the room they were both a little breathless and Alethea, at any rate, was on the brink of laughter, for it was funny to find that the arrogant gentleman of the coach was so inept in the ballroom.

As they neared one of the Tudor style doorways that gave on to the conservatories he drew her a little aside from the dancers who now thronged the floor. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at this sort of thing,” he apologised gravely. “Would you not rather take a turn in the conservatories?”

She agreed to it willingly enough, for the conservatories were delightfully lit by strings of coloured lanterns and a number of the guests were already strolling there. As they left the brilliantly lit ballroom for the dimmer illumination outside, she put up a surreptitious hand to assure herself that her hair was still firm and neat, that the lofty erection had not tilted, ridiculously, to one side.

“Still worrying about your hair, Miss Forester?” enquired her companion, a teasing note in the deep tones. “You have no need, I give you my word. A charming style, and most becoming to you. And even after my lamentable essay in the coranto still silken smooth.”

“So you
did
recognise me,” she said, the words almost startled out of her.

“Of course. Though perhaps I should rather say that I was expecting to see you. And to beg your pardon for not having called upon you sooner, as I promised.”

She murmured something politely evasive about not making too much of a trivial matter.

He brushed this aside. “I found a considerable press of business awaiting me on my return to Town,” he explained briefly, “and, indeed, am still a good deal occupied. I did, in fact, call on your aunt about ten days ago, but was informed that she was seriously indisposed. And in my preoccupation I had foolishly left my card case at home. I fear your butler thought me a very queer kind of visitor.”

Alethea was aware of distinct satisfaction that he had, after all, kept his promise, for his failure to do so had sorted ill with her assessment of his character. But predominant at the moment was irrepressible amusement. All the fuss as to whether this particular gentleman should, or should not be invited to the party, and if only Tina had waited another day or two everything would have fallen smoothly into place.

“May I not share the joke?” asked his lordship.

“Joke, milord?”

“Yes. I do not have to stand on ceremony with you, do I, Miss Forester? The circumstances of our first meeting made us”—he hesitated for the word, then said—“comrades-in-arms,” saw her face light with pleasure and went on confidently, “so let us not waste time in conventional exchanges about the excellence of the music, the beauty of the conservatories, or, alas! the lamentable performance of some of the dancers. Permit me instead to point out to you that you are standing immediately beneath one of these artistically disposed lanterns, and since you have not yet had time to acquire the social mask that hides all natural feeling, your face is a pretty accurate reflection of your sentiments.” He smiled down at her quizzically as he marked off on his fingers, “First you were not sure that I had recognised you. Then you were quite pleased that I had, but far more pleased that I had kept my word about calling upon your aunt. And then”—he touched his third finger—“something occurred to you that amused you so much that your whole prim little face crinkled into laughter. Oh dear! I should not have said that! But so it looked. Forgive me, pray!”

She had to laugh. And what harm could it do to tell him? Just a little. And without giving herself further time for reflection she said, “It is only that my aunt and my cousin have been quite at outs over you. My cousin, remembering you from Marianne’s party, wished you to be invited to mine, while my aunt held fast by convention, insisting that to send you an invitation when she was not personally acquainted with you would be encroaching. Yet if they had only known of our meeting—of your intention to pay your respects in form”—she bubbled into laughter again.

“Did they not know of our meeting, then?”

The laughter snapped off. “Why yes! In one sense. But it so chanced that your
name
was not actually mentioned.” And then, shamefaced, but determined to make a clean breast of it, “And I did not tell about changing my gown in your coach. Somehow”—she pressed her fingers to burning cheeks—“it seemed so peculiar. Not the action itself, but the telling of it.” The serious brown eyes implored him.

He nodded gravely. “Yes, indeed. A most awkward situation to describe to anyone. And your gov—er—chaperone? Miss Heatherfield was it? She did not mention it either?”

“Miss Hetherstone. No. As I recall, we were interrupted. And she went home to the Wells next day, so there was no opportunity for explanations.”

There was a deep tuck in the unscarred cheek but his voice betrayed no hint of amusement as he said, “Then it seems to me we had best forget that bit of the story. It would be foolish to pretend that we had never met before, but so far as your relatives are concerned your knowledge of my identity might well begin tonight. I only hope,” he added reflectively, “that you did not paint me in too unchivalrous a light.”

She blushed, and stammered a little, remembering her first
opinion of
the gentleman who was now being so kind and helpful. “I do not quite like to deceive my aunt,” she hesitated.

“You are not deceiving her. You are telling the truth—and, I daresay, helping her out of an awkward situation. If it is known that you and I were already acquainted—that I had actually—er—been of some service to you on your journey to Town?” There was a mischievous grin for that. “Would not that make all smooth?”

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