"Marry the curate?" gasped Tess, and dropped a parboiled onion. "My dear Clio, you must be mad!"
Mistress Clio retrieved the onion from the stone-flagged kitchen floor and tossed it back to her sister before seating herself at the huge elm table. "You must admit," she said reasonably, "that he is extremely persistent. One can only conclude that you have encouraged him."
Tess bent over the huge coal-burning range, absently splashed cognac into a rich barley-sugar sauce, efficiently arranged the onions in a shallow pie dish, and poured the sauce over them. She eyed this culinary masterpiece, known to the household as Lady Tess's Buttered Onion Pie, added yet another dash of cognac, then popped it into the hot oven. Only then did she wipe her hands on the voluminous apron that protected her simple morning dress, which was so far from being fashionable that it was unadorned by so much as a piece of lace or a single flounce, and turn to regard her sister.
"You know very well," Tess replied, rather severely, "that I have no intention of marrying anyone. Let alone the curate! I cannot think why you should suggest such a thing."
This might seem an absurd remark for an attractive young woman of five-and-twenty to make, particularly when that young woman possessed a glorious abundance of hair so pale it appeared silver, perfectly sculpted features, a patrician nose, a graceful slender neck, and eyes of a pale blue-green like fine turquoise set off by dark lashes and flyaway brows that gave their owner a look of perpetual surprise; and it was rendered further absurd by the fact that Lady Tess, the Countess of Lansbury, was worth nearly a million pounds, all assets included, with an income of some 80,000 a year. Her sister, however, did not argue the point; indeed, that damsel saw no reason why she should.
"Good!" Clio grinned, rather mischievously. "Then there is nothing to keep you here."
Lady Tess frowned, as well she might, for the "here" to which her sister referred so unappreciatively was the ancestral home of the Earls of Lansbury, a gracious and ancient edifice with a rosy, gray-pilastered I and surrounding parks where deer browsed in the shade of tall trees and peacocks strutted on the grass. "Where else should I wish to go?" she inquired. "I think you had better tell me, Clio, what maggot has got into your head!"
But Mistress Clio was a minx, and not disposed to reward this question with the straightforward answer that it deserved. "Poor Tess!" she said instead, in a commiserating manner. "You have been buried here on your estates for over a year. I fear it has made you very dull."
Lady Tess looked reproachful and pushed pale wisps of hair back from her brow. "Must I remind you of the reason for that seclusion? One does not go racketing about the countryside when one is in mourning." She did not add that, for herself, country life was ideal. Only once, as a schoolroom miss, had Tess been treated to a taste of city living, and that sojourn had hardly been felicitous.
"Yes, I know you think me unfeeling!" Clio pouted, quite enchantingly. "But all our combined laments will not bring Mama back." She lowered her gaze to the tabletop. "Besides, you know she always favored you, even though I was her own daughter, and she was only your stepmother! So did Papa, though that is quite understandable, since you were a constant reminder of his beloved first wife."
This graceless remark might bring down upon Mistress Clio's flighty head the unvoiced censure of the kitchen staff, all of whom--from the rotund cook, keeping a watchful eye on the pie bubbling so merrily in the oven, to the little ten-year-old kitchenmaid, polishing the countless copper cooking utensils that adorned the whitewashed walls--adored their countess; it might earn for her a vulgar utterance in French from the abigail who was engaged in concocting a batch of Roman Balsam from bitter almonds, barley flour, and honey, to be applied to the countess's sadly sun-browned complexion; but it brought the countess herself away from the stove and limping, with the aid of a cane, across the flagged floor. Lady Tess, thus engaged, was shown to be tall and slender of figure, a noblewoman from her untidy head to her dainty toes; and her halting progress was, to those who loved her, most painful to observe. The little kitchenmaid, who thought it a great tragedy that so kind a lady should be crippled, was forced to continually repress sniffles, lest the countess hear. Pity, as her servants well knew, sent the usually gentle Lady Tess into a terrible rage.
Fortunately, Tess had no notion of her various retainers' thoughts. She reached the table, seated herself awkwardly, and touched her sister's hand. "Our parents," she said carefully, for there was a great deal of truth in Clio's remarks, "only wished to make up to me what they felt I'd been denied! It was not a matter of loving one of us better than the other, I assure you. Nor did Papa revere the memory of my mother to the exclusion of yours. He had a very real affection for Mirian, as did I. In truth, she was the only mother I ever knew."
"He left you his fortune," Clio murmured, still refusing to meet her half-sister's eyes. "And he went to no end of trouble to ensure that you would inherit the title when he died."
There was little Tess could say to this, since it was undeniable that her father had arranged her succession through some complicated legal maneuver connected with the absence of male heirs. Nor did she care to further explain, within earshot of countless doting witnesses, that these acts of seeming favoritism were merely meant to compensate her for being lame. She might remain a spinster, an ape-leader, and an antidote, but Tess possessed sufficient wealth to render the situation a great deal more palatable. "Oh, Clio!" she said helplessly. ''You have Mirian's fortune and are far from penniless! If it is a title that you covet, child, then you may marry one."
Perhaps. Clio knew herself to be as dazzling a damsel as one might ever hope to see, with eyes of a sapphire shade, an enchanting slightly retroussé little nose, delightfully coy dimples, and a mop of short and fashionable black curls. However, it was deuced difficult to marry to advantage when one had never been privileged to set eyes upon an eligible and titled gentleman. She sighed.
"What is it?" asked Tess, so worried about Clio that she'd forgotten even her favorite pie. The cook, less dilatory, whisked it out of the oven in the nick of time and set it to cool on a windowsill. "What troubles you?"
Clio only briefly considered that she was behaving abominably. It was said of the Mildmay sisters that while Tess--who suffered the effects of a classical education, having been introduced by her papa to various branches of learning totally unsuited to a female--might be justifiably called a bluestocking, no great accolade in an age when brains as such were rather despised, Clio could be given credit for no brains at all. This was not only unkind, but untrue: Clio might excel at nothing more scholarly than piano-playing and needlepoint, but she was as scheming a minx as ever drew breath.
"Well?" demanded Tess.
"Cedric has made me an offer of marriage." Clio, a tremendous flirt, thus named the foremost, and the most raffish, of her innumerable admirers. "He has promised to take me to London, where I may go to balls and the theater."
"Cedric!" Lady Tess wore a face of perfect horror. "Child, you cannot think of marrying him!"
"He'll take me to London," repeated Clio and turned her head properly sideways so that her audience, if any were so inclined, which they unanimously were not, might admire the fine lines of her profile. "I think I would fancy London, Tess."
Truly Ceddie would take himself to Town, thought Tess grimly, and speedily dissipate his bride's fortune in extravagances and gaming. Cedric, scion of a local squire, had gained little favor with the countess. "A wish to go to London," she observed sharply, "is hardly a reasonable basis for marriage! I beg you will reconsider."
Clio might have pointed out that Tess was hardly an authority on the matter, being rendered ineligible by a handicap for which even her great wealth could not atone; but, though selfish and thoughtless, Clio was not consciously cruel. She wrinkled her pretty little nose. "In truth, I do not like Ceddie all that well! But I should dote on London, I know it, Tess!"
It was obvious to the various auditors of this artless speech that Mistress Clio was again cutting one of her wheedles. It was also growing obvious to Lady Tess. "Think!" said she, somewhat craftily. "What if you should go to London as Cedric's bride and then--too late!--find your titled gentleman? How unhappy you would be! I think if you are to go to London, it must be without a husband in tow."
"Then I may go?" Clio's glance was sparkling. "You will let me? How good you are, Tess!"
This excessive exuberance caused the countess's dark brows to snap downward in a stern line. "Cut line, child!" she demanded. "And explain."
"You won't like it," Clio confessed bravely, "but truly, Tess, it is for the best, as you must see! The Dowager Duchess of Bellamy will have me with her, and will see to my coming-out, and I shall have my London season, and you need not worry about me."
"The Dowager Duchess of Bellamy," repeated Tess, looking quite ferocious, when her devious sister paused for breath. "How came you into contact with the Dowager Duchess of Bellamy?"
Clio had the grace to blush, an enchanting act that she performed at will. "I wrote to her." She eyed the countess's irate countenance. "Why should I not, after all she is a connection of mine! It is not seemly that the duchess should not even know that I exist."
It was with no small effort that Tess contained her growing wrath. No use to rip up at Clio, who despite her earlier complaints had been from the cradle spoiled and fawned upon, and who as a result was entirely too accustomed to having her own way in everything. "Did you not consider," she ventured merely, "that your mother must have had some reason for never informing us of her connection with the grand Bellamys? Have you not thought it odd that Mirian never spoke of her past or of her family? Or that she refused to go to London when she had relatives there?"
Clio shrugged. "You're the one with a nose for mystery. The duchess is all graciousness, I vow." She dropped a sadly crumpled letter on the tabletop. "As you may see."
Reluctantly, Tess picked up the missive and perused its contents. The Dowager Duchess of Bellamy, seemingly a woman of few words, had truly invited Clio to London with a view of formally presenting her to Society. It was an invitation that caused Tess's thoughts to whirl. Unfair, of course, to deny Clio the opportunity--yet Tess could not but fear that her sister's love of excitement would carry her almost unconsciously into the company of the idle and frivolous, if not the truly depraved. Nor could one be sure that this unknown duchess would be of sufficient strength and enterprise to ensure that a certain madcap damsel conducted herself with a decorum and propriety suitable to her rank and tender years. She put down the letter. "You wish to go."
"I do." Clio rose and smoothed her elegant sprigged muslin skirts. "And I shall! If you will not accompany me, dear Tess, I'm sure Ceddie will!" With this Parthian shot, she skipped from the room.
Mildmay Manor was not an establishment in which strict lines of social demarcation were observed, and the Countess of Lansbury was not a lady to demand obsequiousness from her servants. No sooner had Mistress Clio made her blithe departure than the cook abandoned the pièce de résistance that she was perfecting for that day's dinner, a lighthouse made of rout-cakes standing in the middle of a tempestuous sea made of trifle, with a distressed mariner in colored sugar clinging to a rock of meringues à la crème; the abigail deserted the paste that she intended to apply to her mistress's sun-tanned complexion, by force if need be; and the little kitchen maid left off polishing the copper and inched, wide-eyed, closer to the huge elm table where her superiors gave every evidence of engaging in a council of war.
Tess looked at the various concerned faces that were turned toward her, and sighed. "Abominable chit!" she said ruefully. "It is no more than one should expect from her, I suppose."
The abigail gave vent to an expressive snort. "An enfant gâté, that one, a spoiled child!" She pursed her lips. "You must not be blaming yourself, ma cocotte."
Lady Tess also frowned, not at the abigail's temerity in addressing her as a "little chick," but at the notion that she was blameless in the matter of her half-sister's shortcomings. "I should have paid more attention to what was going on," she protested. "Had I not had my nose forever buried in a book, I would surely have seen that Clio was growing shockingly hot-at-hand." The abigail opened her mouth and received a severe glance. "Don't argue, Daffy! That I am at least partially at fault for Clio's waywardness is as plain as the nose on my face."
Delphine regarded that charming appendage, which was adorned by a dab of flour. Even the countess's detractors--and these were not inconsiderable, due to her ladyship's tendency to discuss with authority not only Napoleon's deprecations against the English and the economic ramifications of his Continental blockade, but also the progress of the war in the Peninsula and the repercussions of the newly passed Regency Bill--had to admit that she had a beautiful, refined appearance and a deceptively demure manner. Delphine barely repressed another rude expulsion of breath. Lady Tess might claim an awesome amount of book learning, but she didn't know the first thing about dealing with a determined miss like Clio.
"I fear," said the countess gloomily, "that my sister possesses a strong streak of the Mildmay stubbornness."
At this prodigious understatement, Delphine did snort, but the untimely sound went unheard, the cook having chosen that moment to thwack down on the table a cup of tea so strong that a cat could trot on it, laced with cream and barley sugar and a liberal, if surreptitious, dosage of cognac. "She'd create a regular sensation," announced that worthy, squeezing her ample bulk into a chair, "if she was to have her debut. 'Tis a proper shame Lady Mirian--no disrespect intended, my lady--didn't see to her come-out."
"True," sighed Tess, who had never even briefly entertained a longing for a come-out of her own. "I often wondered why she did not, for Clio is of an age, and can only conclude that Mirian did not wish to resume relations with the Bellamys. Apparently she did not even care to visit London for fear of encountering one of them! And now Clio is determined to be clasped to the Duchess of Bellamy's bosom. What a wretched state of affairs!"
"Voyons!" Delphine had a strong aversion to conversations that merely belabored the obvious. "You might as well bow gracefully to defeat. That one will go to London, with or without your consent--and with or without your escort! Me, I suspect that she would prefer it to be without, lest you put a damper on her style."
"Daffy!" Lady Tess was horrified. "It would be disastrous if Clio were to go alone to London and be suddenly thrown into the whirl of fashionable life. She hasn't the least notion of how to go on."
"Then you'll have to guide her, won't you?" suggested Cook. "And see that she doesn't take up with a fortune hunter, or worse! Drink your tea, my lady. And wipe your face, if you please!" It was Cook's private opinion that Lady Tess was wasted in this bucolic setting. For all the mistress's lameness, she was far from an invalid. Sure and wasn't the Countess of Lansbury the finest horsewoman this countryside had ever seen?
Lady Tess swiped ineffectively at the offending flour with her apron, then laughed. "How absurd you all are--for I must assume you are hinting at the same thing, Daffy! If truth be told, I have little more notion than Clio of how to go on in Society."
"No," agreed Delphine, then added, with the assurance of one whose parents had been so high in the domestic hierarchy that they had gone willingly with their aristocratic master to the guillotine, "but I do. There's nothing for it, ma cocotte, but that Mistress Clio shall have her trip to London, and we shall accompany her. Else you will have the little wretch running away."
Since London was equated in Tess's mind with the accident that had left her lame, it is little wonder that she greeted her abigail's announcement with less than enthusiasm. "You have a damnable habit, Daffy, of hitting the nail on the head. I suppose I must allow Clio her debut." The countess propped her elbows on the table and dropped her chin into her hands. "I will admit to you, my friends, that the prospect fills me with dread!"
It was a prospect, judging from her sour expression, that inspired the abigail with little more enthusiasm. Not so the little kitchenmaid, whose somewhat hazy notions of the metropolis included such disparate elements as jewel-encrusted aristocrats and pumpkin-shaped coaches and circus elephants. "London! What larks!" she breathed.