Lady Withers sat in her elegant Crimson Saloon, frowning into a glass of ratafia. She was still young and considered handsome. She had a doting husband, three children, and an active social life. She enjoyed good health and excellent credit, but still the frown was quite pronounced.
"What has got you in the hips?" her brother asked, not greatly interested.
"What am I ever plagued about these days? It is Lady Barbara, of course."
"What has the hellion done to set the town on its ear today?" he asked, with a little smile of anticipation that took the harsh edge from his face. As one of London's more eligible bachelors, Lord Clivedon was accustomed to hear himself called handsome, though he was not precisely so. He was dark of complexion, with features more rugged than refined, but when he smiled, he created an illusion of handsomeness. A well-cut coat was on his shoulders, a well-tied cravate at his neck, and blindingly polished Hessians on his feet.
"I don't know that she has stirred yet today?it's only ten-thirty, and after being out till four this morning, I expect she is still in her bed."
"Four, eh? A bit dashing for a young lady. Are you in possession of the sordid details, or must I wait and hear them at my club??
"Do they discuss her at the clubs? How shabby!" his sister exclaimed, with a tsk of annoyance. Lady Withers was an enemy to shabbiness?physical, mental, moral and most particularly social. She was every bit as elegant as her brother in her toilette, and somewhat more pretty.
"Regularly. I believe the bet currently on the books has to do with some Austrian colonel she is playing with. One of the riffraff who came over after Waterloo. Hasn't the money to get home, I expect. The odds are two to one she'll have him. I've placed a pony she won't. I've made a thousand pounds on her already this Season. She never does marry ?em."
"He is a perfectly wretched person, Larry. You've no idea. He ran off with some chit in Austria, which is why he is here. There was a regular brouhaha. I had it of Princess Esterhazy, the Austrian ambassador's wife, who had it of the Duchesse de Sagan in a letter from Vienna. It was Fannie Atwood's cracker-brained scheme of going to Paris after Waterloo that put her in touch with all these seedy foreigners she hangs out with nowadays. She seldom associates with Englishmen anymore, and naturally Lady Barbara meets them as well. The colonel you spoke of is not at all the thing, and you must do something."
"I?" Clivedon asked, astonished. "The girl is nothing to me. She is only a connection."
"She is a third cousin on her father's side, but more importantly, the relationship is known. I can't tell you how often some cat twits me about her doings. I am mortified ten times a day with her. And there is no forceful male relative to get a rein on her, you see. That is exactly the trouble. Her parents both dead, the mother's relatives, if she has any, are in France. It is that wretched French streak that makes her so impossible."
"And attractive," he added, with a maddening smile.
Agnes cast a curious look on her brother. "Of course she is monstrously pretty."
"No other male relatives, you say?surely old Manfred, her father's heir, is closer to her than we are."
"He is closer to the grave than anything else. He couldn't begin to manage her. The thing is, Larry, I have decided to take her myself. No, don't stare! It must be done. I am convinced we shall deal very well together, for I used to like Barbara amazingly before she started running wild. It is Fannie Atwood's foolish notion of treating her as if she were a forty-year-old widow like herself that leads the girl astray. Letting her set up that sky-blue phaeton and wild team you couldn't handle yourself, I daresay, and wearing such gowns. If Barbara had someone to take a motherly interest in her, she might be led to propriety. Anyway, Fannie is a perfect ninnyhammer, and why her father ever left her in the woman's care is a perfect mystery, except of course that he was sweet on Fannie himself and thought they might marry. Of equal mystery is why Fannie took her on."
"Not much mystery there. Fannie is forever outrunning the grocer, and needed the money. She won't agree to it."
"I think she will, and I mean to ask her, before Barbara's reputation is completely in shreds. If she runs off with this Colonel Gentz, for instance..."
"She won't. She's thoughtless, not mindless."
"She wi11 do something shatter-brained, and I mean to reclaim her before she does."
"It will never fadge. Fanny is her legal guardian, and closer to her than we are. You would have to wade through the courts and prove her immoral or something equally distasteful to us all, and harmful to Barbara as well. It cannot be done."
"Well, it can, for Fannie is marrying that Count Bagstorff person, and the upshot will be that she drags Barbara off to Austria with them on the honeymoon, and if that is not immoral, it should be. And once they get her out of England, you know, where none of us know what is going on, it is but an instant till they fleece her of her fortune by one means or another."
Clivedon's eyes flew to his sister, bright with interest. "I hadn't heard Fannie was leaving the country."
"I know, Larry, and that is why I asked you here today. I ran into Fannie at a rout last night, and she told me?I think she was hinting?that Barbara is not at all eager to go with her to Austria. I daresay Bagstorff has been rolling his eyes at the girl, for he is only after Fannie's money, of course, only she is too infatuated to see it. So it is the perfect time to do it."
Clivedon sat considering the matter a moment. "You couldn't handle her, sis. She is too hot at hand for you."
"Oh no?I am sure with tact and tenderness ..."
"Tact?" he asked, staring. "Tenderness? You're mad. She is not a child. She's been on the town for five years."
"Not that long, surely!" Lady Withers exclaimed. This came perilously close to shabbiness, to delay so long in nabbing a husband.
"At least five. I'm not sure it isn't six years. Of course she has traveled a good bit. She was in Vienna in ?14, and in Paris in ?15, and missed a few Seasons. She was here for the royal visit of the Czar and the King of Prussia, and that was not the year of her comeout either. She was already carrying on with the Czar and Metternich at that time, an accomplished flirt. She damned near stole Wellington away from Caro Lamb in Paris, and?well, she had a fling with Byron before either of those events. She's been out since ?13 at least."
"I didn't realize you kept such close track of her," Lady Withers said.
"Oh yes. Did I not mention she is a good source of income from betting at the clubs?"
"Tell me, Larry, was there ever a wager to the effect that Lord Clivedon might be brought up to scratch? About two years ago ..." Agnes asked, with a searching look.
"As a matter of fact, there was. I made five hundred, illegally, by getting Hobson to lay a wager for me," he answered, with a pleasant smile.
She sighed wearily. "Perhaps you're right. She is past reclaiming. She spent a year at Devonshire House before ever she did make her bows, and that cannot have done her any good. If she is a quarter of a century old, there's no point of thinking of finding her a match."
"She is well-dowered too. I think I will try my hand at it."
"No, I'll take her," he said, in a voice that was firm yet nonchalant.
"You! You cannot mean..."
"No, Widgeon! I am not such a fool as you seem to take me for. In my position, I will hardly marry a lady who has made herself the talk of London?and several other cities."
"I shouldn't think a little scandal would bother you much. I seem to recall hearing rumors of a duel not too long ago."
"Unfounded. We settled the matter at Jackson's Parlor," he replied, slightly pink around the collar.
"Still, matters that require settling in such a fashion usually involve a little scandal."
"Babe does not deal in little scandals. She causes Gargantuan ones. Lady Angela tells me she has lately been seen at Mrs. Duncan's place gambling, and that is no better than a dive nowadays. Next thing we hear she'll be opening her own den."
It was, strangely, the only decent name in this account that caused Lady Withers to complain. "Oh, dear! It's true, then. You are dangling after Lady Angela."
"Do you women never think of anything but marriage?" he asked petulantly. "You will not see me caught by either a prude or a hellcat this season."
"I confess it is a relief," she confided. "Not that I have a word to say against Lady Angela. How could anyone? She is perfectly charming and gracious, and of course, totally moral. Almost excessively so. But how shall you take Barbara, if not in marriage? How shabby that sounds. Somehow, one always ends up sounding horrid when the girl is discussed. You cannot take her to your house?a bachelor's establishment."
"I wouldn't let her anywhere near it. She'd have the saloon full of rackety foreigners and bailiffs. We have an unseemly quantity of relatives, however, every one of them except Babe tiresomely respectable. I'll think of someone. When is Fannie marrying this foreigner?"
"Not for a month, but she leaves for Dorset for a house party soon, in company with Bagstorff and likely Colonel Gentz as well. The pair of them run tame at Portland Place. It was Gentz Barbara was with last night at some embassy party, and Fannie not even with her. My husband was there."
"Till four?" Clivedon asked her, with a teasing smile.
"Certainly not, but she was still going strong at two, and you may be sure she wasn't home till hours afterward."
"I'll see what I can do. Fannie may be happy enough to be rid of her. Folks usually are."
"Yes, when she was with the Harrows last year, while Fannie made a dash to Paris, you know, and left her behind, Mrs. Harrow was delighted to see the last of her. But of course she has those two long-toothed daughters of her own, and I expect that was what her complaints were all about. It's rather sad, really. So spoiled in so many ways, with her looks and her father's fortune, and yet no one to take a lasting interest in her. Really, I wouldn't mind at all, Larry, to try my hand at it."
"I would mind for you. Three squawlers are enough for you to see to. I'll handle Babe."
"I couldn't take her immediately. Boo has thrown out the measles, and Nickie will be bound to follow, but in a week or so I could do it." Her brother arose. "Larry?handle her gently," she suggested.
"With Tact and Tenderness," he agreed blandly, then added in a livelier tone, "and of course a chair and a whip, for my own protection."