Authors: Gayle Buck
Copyright ©1991 by Gayle Buck
Outside the frosted windowpanes the day was gray, lending steel-blue color to the low clouds and snow-covered grounds. Set against the January cold, a cheerful fire snapped on the hearth of the sitting room. It was a tasteful room, with nothing of the flamboyant to mar its quiet elegance, and it admirably reflected the personality of its mistress.
Lady Mary Spence was sitting at her cherrywood writing desk, reading a letter. She was attired in a long-sleeved merino day dress of a becoming shade of mauve, a shawl was draped about her shoulders, and a beribboned lace cap crowned her gleaming chestnut curls. Pinned to her breast was a cameo brooch bearing inside it the likeness of her beloved husband. She was to all appearances the respectable widow in half-mourning, unless the casual observer chanced to glance at her face and discovered a countenance that should never belong to one of mourning status.
Lady Mary's face was unlined, excepting the tiny laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. Her large gray eyes were set wide, giving her a pleasant openness of expression that was inviting. But at the moment her usual air of serenity was marred by the tiny frown between her feathery brows. She reread the particular lines of the letter that had perturbed her.
The sitting-room door burst open and a young lady of dazzling beauty rushed in. “Mama, here you are! I have looked positively everywhere for you. I have just returned from visiting Betsy, and you shall never guess what she says,” the young lady exclaimed, pulling off her velvet bonnet and shedding her cloak, muff, and gloves in quick succession.
As always, Lady Mary was gladdened at sight of her daughter's lively, cheerful face, and the slight frown of the moment before disappeared. She laid down the letter she had been reading and said with a smile, “I await with bated breath, Abigail. What does Betsy say?"
Abigail was too excited to acknowledge her mother's gentle teasing. “Why, Betsy has gotten herself engaged, and to a parson, no less!” she exclaimed. She watched eagerly for the effect of her announcement, and when she saw the flash of surprise that crossed her mother's face, she chortled. “I knew that the news must astonish you, Mama. I am certain that I never expected such a thing to happen. Betsy to be married, and to a stick of a parson! I should not want such a match for myself, I can tell you!"
"I am surprised, certainly. I had thought the engagement was to be formally announced in the spring,” Lady Mary said.
Abigail regarded her mother with astonishment. “Mama, you knew all along. And you never breathed a word of it to me! How abominable of you to keep such a secret."
"It was not my secret to freely bestow, Abigail. Mrs. Evesleigh confided in me a few months past that she and Mr. Evesleigh had agreed to the Reverend Coates making his addresses to Betsy, who I understand has shown a decided partiality for the gentleman for some months. I can only be glad for Betsy. She is a delightful girl and deserves every happiness,” Lady Mary said.
Abigail recovered from her astonishment. “But a parson, Mama! Why, Betsy has never been to London, and the only society she is used to is that of our own county,” she said, obviously marveling at the inexplicability of her friend's actions.
The slight frown returned to Lady Mary's face. For several weeks she had been disturbed by the emerging tack of her daughter's conversation, but never more than at that moment. Unlike her good friend Betsy Evesleigh, Abigail had been up to London on numerous occasions to visit with her grandparents. Abigail had been shown much about society and had been exposed to polite circles enough to have given her a bit of polish. Unfortunately, thought Lady Mary, Abigail had also acquired the knowledge that there was more to the world than the quieter society that she had been formerly used to and that Lady Mary Spence herself preferred.
Lady Mary regarded her daughter. She had known what a heady experience those last visits to London had been for Abigail, but she had hoped that important considerations would not be lost to sight in the excitement and glamour. She herself had renounced that grandeur and social ambition when at the age of sixteen she had fallen in love with a gentleman some fifteen years her elder who was of merely respectable birth. Her parents did not object to the difference in their ages, but rather to the gentleman's lack of social status. Viscount and Viscountess Catlin looked higher for their only daughter than a mere baronet. No amount of persuasion had been enough to sway Lady Mary's parents in the gentleman's favor, and the lovers had reluctantly resorted to a runaway marriage.
Lady Mary's parents had wholly disowned her during the period of her brief but happy marriage. After Sir Roger's untimely death, they had become willing again to countenance her existence. After all, Sir Roger Spence had had the good taste to die early and leave his spouse a wealthy widow. However, her parents had cause to regret Sir Roger's astute business sense and investments because Lady Mary was thus enabled to steadfastly refuse all their invitations and their suggestions for her remarriage.
But Lady Mary had not imposed her voluntary exile from interaction with her parents to her children. She had allowed William and Abigail to accept various invitations for extended visits in London so that they would come to know their grandparents and grow up familiar with the ways of polite society. Now, as Lady Mary listened to her daughter's prattle, she wished that she had not been so acquiescent.
"I shall make a splendid match to a gentleman as rich as Croesus, who shall grant me a positively enormous allowance and make me mistress of a large establishment. I shall be touted as the most popular hostess in town and everyone will vie for invitations to my lavish parties,” Abigail said, sinking down on the settee with a grand air. She pretended to ply a fan and accept accolades with a gracious nod. She abandoned her play for a moment. “Do you know, Mama, when I asked Betsy whether she meant to put off her wedding so that she could be presented at court, she snapped her fingers at me in the most offhand fashion! Why, I would die rather than miss my court presentation, and so I told her. She and the parson are to be wedded in February, of all dreary months. Can you believe it? Not even a fine June wedding, but a hurried affair in the middle of winter."
"I imagine that Betsy is so enamored that such considerations as a court presentation pale beside planning for her wedding,” Lady Mary said quietly.
"So she says, but I cannot credit it. I know that I could not relinquish it so easily,” Abigail said.
Lady Mary sighed, but she did not press the issue. “I am surprised the wedding has been moved up so early in the year. Are you certain it is to be in a month's time, Abigail?"
"Oh, yes, I am positive that is what Betsy said. Her parson has accepted a living in the next parish and he is to begin immediately,” Abigail said.
"How delightful! I imagine that must be a relief to Mrs. Evesleigh, who was naturally dreading Betsy's leaving. They will be able to visit often, I expect,” Lady Mary said.
Abigail was not listening, instead pursuing thoughts of her own. “Mama, I am expected to be Betsy's maid of honor, of course. But if the wedding should interfere with our removal to London, I would rather not do so. I do not wish to miss even one day of the Season. Grandmama has promised me such a high time, you see,” Abigail said.
Lady Mary was stunned. She wondered when her sweet, sensible daughter had changed so completely. Certainly Abigail had acted differently after the last visit to her grandparents, but Lady Mary had been able to shrug off her daughter's flashes of selfishness as temporary and harmless. Perhaps the news she had read earlier in the letter was come at a fortunate time after all, she thought. She said slowly, “I fear that I must rethink your come-out this Season, Abigail."
"Mama! How can you say so? Why, you promised that when I turned seventeen I was to come out!” Abigail exclaimed, abandoning her languid attitude and bolting upright on the settee. Horrified dismay enlivened her blue eyes. “Grandmama has told me of all the parties she has planned for me and the gentlemen I am to meet, and Grandpapa has promised me a carriage of my own with a tiny tiger dressed in livery of my own design and ... Mama, you cannot turn back on your word now, you simply cannot!"
Lady Mary picked up the letter that was lying on her desktop. “I am sorry, Abigail, but—"
Abigail leapt to her feet. Bright anger sparkled in her cornflower-blue eyes and indignation charmingly pinkened her cheeks. “It is because I said that I did not wish to be Betsy's maid of honor, isn't it? Well, I don't. I want to go to London. I don't care about Betsy's idiotic wedding or her stick of a parson or—"
"Abigail, sit down!"
Abigail had seldom in her life heard her mother use that particular tone of voice, and she instinctively quailed. She slowly sank down on the settee, her fearful eyes held by her mother's awful gaze. She said haltingly, “I ... I am sorry, Mama. I should not have ripped up at you so. It is just that I have pinned all my hopes on a Season, and it is so unfair that—"
Lady Mary flung up her hand. “That will be enough, Abigail. I am quite aware of your hopes. You have aired them frequently and far too publicly for my taste,” she said. Her haughty expression softened with regret. “But that is not what has disappointed me so in you, Abigail. You have been fast friends with Betsy Evesleigh since the cradle; but now, on the eve of Betsy's most important decision, you are willing to abandon all that you have meant to her for the sake of a few paltry parties. I am deeply ashamed of you, Abigail, and also I am saddened. I had not quite realized what a selfish and self-centered creature you had become. I had believed that you had grown up enough to be allowed to establish yourself in polite society, but now I must confess to grave doubts."
"Mama, no,” breathed Abigail. She folded her hands in her lap and sat up in the most demure posture of which she was capable. “Mama, I promise you that I am grown-up, truly I am. I did not mean to slight Betsy even by words, and I will be delighted to act as her maid of honor. Of course I shall be. Mama, pray do not look at me like that. Truly, truly, I never meant to distress you.'’ She leapt up and ran over to fling herself against her mother's knees and burst into tears.
Lady Mary sighed. She laid her hand gently on her daughter's bowed head and caressed her soft hair. “Oh, my dear girl. What trials we must all go through,” she murmured. She let Abigail cry for a little while before raising the girl's face and offering her own fine handkerchief. “Come, Abigail, blow your nose and take hold of yourself. There is something that I wish to discuss with you."
Abigail took the handkerchief and did as she was bidden. She dried her eyes and blew her nose delicately. “What ... what is it, Mama?” she asked.
Lady Mary again picked up the letter that she had dropped a few moments before. “I have received this letter from my dear friend Emily Downing."
Abigail nodded, not very interested. “Oh, your London friend."
Lady Mary sighed in exasperation. “Abigail, she writes that London is unusually thin of company for this time of year and daily becomes more deserted. The abdication of Bonaparte last April set off a marked exodus of the
to Europe that has not abated. London has been deserted while the peace negotiations are pounded out in Vienna; and in the Low Countries, where the Army of Occupation has been stationed and the festivities have begun upon the installment of William of Orange as the King of the Netherlands, Brussels has become one of the gayest capitals in all of Europe.'’ She had briefly referred to the sheets of paper, and now she looked up to catch her daughter's puzzled gaze. “Abigail, do you quite understand what I am attempting to convey to you?"