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"Aunt Cathie, Aunt Cathie, letters from India!" Theodore shouted, rushing into the library as fast as his short five-year-old legs could carry him and waving two stained envelopes in his pudgy hands. "They're from Uncle Freddie and Ned," he added unnecessarily.
Cassandra looked up from her reading and smiled at the bundle of energy which had interrupted a morning spent rereading select passages of Homer. The small white terrier at her feet cocked his head expectantly at all the commotion. Fond as he was of Cassie, he had found life sadly flat since the departure of her rambunctious twin Freddie two years ago, but Theodore's eruption into the library promised some interest. Theodore was still too young to provide Wellington with as much excitement as the twins' adventures had brought the little dog, but he did appear to be cast in the same mold as the twins and therefore had a great deal of potential, which, if encouraged, was sure to bring activity again to a household that had become, in Wellington's opinion, far too orderly and serene.
"What do they say? Read them to me, pleathe, pleathe," begged Theodore, his eyes shining with anticipation as he plopped himself at her feet. Cassie opened the envelope that was nearly totally covered with her twin's disorderly scrawl. Knowing her nephew's bloodthirsty nature, she felt sure he would prefer the catalog of tiger hunts, elephant rides, and narrow escapes from murderous thugs certain to be in Freddie's letter to the probable discussion of the Hindu religion and its effect on British/Indian relations in Ned's. His letters, filled with descriptions of temple architecture, Hindu customs, sculpture and painting had piqued hercuriosity, stimulated her thoughts, and relieved much of the boredom she had suffered in the absence of her best friends and most constant companions.
"Does he say anything about any more tiger hunts? I wath hoping he would get a tiger at the next one tho we could have itth head here over the fireplace," Teddy announced, indicating the spot now graced by the portrait of a venerable ancestor which would be much improved by such a replacement.
Cassie looked down into his earnest chubby face whose missing front teeth only added to its endearing expression. "I'm sorry, Teddy, my wits were wandering. Let's see what is the latest news.'' She picked up Freddie's letter and began to read.
If Freddie were to be believed, India existed solely to challenge the skill and daring of adventurous young Englishmen. His wild scrawl related one colorful episode after another, the most important of these apparently having to do with a signal service rendered to the Nabob of Bhopaul, whose gratitude had been effusive and rewarding beyond their wildest dreams. Having amassed a vast sum and, as an aside, having accomplished what they had set out to do, he and Ned were heading home hoping to see everyone at Cresswell and Camberly in the not-too-distant future. At this last piece of news, Theodore let out a whoop and went running in search of his mother. "Mama, Mama, Uncle Freddie and Ned are coming home. Mama, Mama..."
Cassie listened to his voice echoing down the hall, remembering the day several years ago when Freddie's voice had echoed much the same way, "Cassie, Cassie, we're going to India!" How she had missed them! Her thoughts strayed back to the other letter and its writer. If she had missed Freddie's joie de vivre and his penchant for tumbling them into one mad scrape after another, she missed even more Ned's insatiable thirst for knowledge, and the smile that lurked at the back of his eyes as he teased her and challenged her to think and question as well. If Freddie had been exuberant at the thought of high adventure in the fabulous Indian subcontinent, Ned had been subdued over their departure--subdued and determined to overcome his unhappy memories and to change that part of his personality that had occasioned them in the first place.
Poor Ned. Cassie's image of her dejected friend remained as clear as it had been the day his misery began. She had been sitting reading, much as she was now, when he strode in, his blue eyes dark and hurt in a white, set face. "She won't have me, Cassie," he had groaned, throwing himself into the nearest chair.
Knowing full well who "she" was, Cassie had heaved a mental sigh of relief before urging him to pour out his tale of woe. Privately, she thought Ned well rid of the vain and spoiled Arabella Taylor, who had, in Cassie's opinion, remained as selfish and obstinate as she had been when she had insisted on tagging along after them as children and then refused to play any games that had not been proposed by her. But Cassie knew that she was the only person in the entire neighborhood who continued to retain these unkind thoughts in the face of Arabella's flashing dark eyes, riotous dusky curls, bewitching dimple, and lilting, childlike voice that only added to the enchantment of a mouth too often compared to a rosebud. Everyone, even the studious Ned, had been overcome when Arabella reappeared on the local scene, polished to perfection by an exclusive seminary for young ladies of gentle birth and high expectations. Even Freddie, inclined to dismiss all women except his sisters as useless and helpless creatures, seemed to have forgotten completely the whining, crying child who had always insisted on being the center of attention. She was no different now, Cassie reflected, just more practiced and charming at claiming that attention. But Cassie loved Ned nearly as much as she loved Freddie, and she felt his pain intensely, so it was with real sympathy that she heard him out.
"She wouldn't even listen to me, Cassie! When I"--he paused and gulped for air--"when I told her how much I admired her, she laughed me off. But when she saw that I was serious and wouldn't be fobbed off, she told me straight out that she was looking forward to a brilliant Season and was not going to be deprived of it by someone she had known this age. And then"--his fists clenched at his sides as he continued--"and then she said that we should never suit anyway because: she had to have gaiety and parties and that everyone knew I was"--he drew a deep breath--"a prosy old bore."
And that, thought Cassie, is the only intelligent observation Arabella Taylor has ever made. Empty frivolity is all that she understands and someone of Ned's intellectual capacities would be bored silly within a fortnight. However, she concealed her true feelings about her childhood playmate, generously defending her instead. "She's young, Ned, and very pretty. Of course she wants to go to parties and be the reigning beauty. For her, the idea of settling down and giving all that up would make her reject even the most dazzling of Corinthians."
He brightened somewhat, "Do you really think so?"
"I am certain that it is more the loss of a brilliant Season than a distaste for your company that turned her against the notion," she reassured him.
"But she called me a prosy old bore. Am I a prosy old bore, Cassie?" he asked anxiously.
Cassie smiled and stretched out her hand. "No. You are our own dear friend who enlivens the dullest conversation at assemblies and parties and keeps them from being a complete waste of time."
He stared fixedly out the window until what seemed hours later, when in a hard voice devoid of all emotion, he announced, "No. She's right. I am a prosy old bore, but I shall change that. If Freddie can go to India, so can I! And when I return, I shall immerse myself in so many ton parties that no one will recognize me."
Cassie could happily have killed Arabella for causing his brave smile to go awry. She was overwhelmed by a great rage at Arabella in particular and the type of women in general who seemed to have nothing better to do than dress for one social occasion after another so they could chatter empty-headed nothings and enslave as many luckless swains as possible. It was true that most of these victims were equally busy with their tailors and valets preparing to do exactly the same thing in return, so why couldn't it have been one of these fops dying for love of the toast of their Hampshire society that Arabella had rejected instead of poor Ned, who had so much greater a heart to lose than the squire's son and his would-be Corinthian cronies? Cassie knew there was very little comfort she could offer. In time he would bless Arabella for having been so blind to his good qualities, but for the moment it was best to put her out of his life and his mind.
"It would relieve me no end to have you with Freddie in India. He's a dear and he means well, but sometimes his enthusiasm gets the best of him and he doesn't think," Cassie remarked. This was a patently obvious observation, as the impetus for Freddie's departure had been an ill-judged prank at university. The master of Balliol had not found it amusing to return to a sow and six piglets rooting around his rooms and lapping up his best sherry, spilled from what had been a precariously placed decanter. So Freddie had been sent down. He wasn't repining, school never having been his strong point. When his attention was engaged, he was as good a student as the next man, but Oxford had offered too many distractions for a young man possessed of an abundance of high spirits and conviviality.
Rustication soon palled on someone as active as Freddie, and he began to toy with the idea of purchasing a cornetcy, having made up his mind he wasn't cut out to be a student, nor was he interested in taking up politics or any of the other occupations people took up. Before he could take more drastic measures to occupy himself, his brother-in-law hit upon a plan that offered an exciting alternative. Many years ago Lord Julian Mainwaring had inherited the fortune and far-flung concerns of a childless uncle who had been one of the Empire's first nabobs. For a long time Lord Mainwaring had looked after these interests himself, but his brother's untimely death, which had brought the burden of running several estates and the guardianship of his children, coupled with his subsequent marriage to the twins' sister, Lady Frances Cresswell, and his involvement in politics had left him with little time to do more than glance at the reports submitted by the agents appointed to administer these establishments for him. Julian Mainwaring liked Freddie and knew him for a decent and intelligent, if rash, young man. He seemed the perfect representative to send to remind the agents of Lord Mainwaring's continuing interest in their effectiveness in discharging their duties. Such a task would provide an outlet for the restlessness natural to an active young man, who had, since the beginning of their acquaintance, evinced a singular knack for tumbling from one scrape to another. As he had also demonstrated an equally strong propensity to overcome every mishap and emerge unscathed, Julian felt confident that Freddie would acquit himself admirably when challenged by truly adventurous situations.
So it had been decided that Freddie was to spend a year in India, or however long it took to visit and oversee Lord Mainwaring's operations. He had been preparing for an imminent departure to that mecca of every young man bent on winning his fortune when Ned had suffered his unhappy setback.
Ned, unlike Freddie, was a student--a scholar in fact--if enthusiastic masters were to be believed. Raised in a quiet household which, after his parents' death and before Lord Julian had taken over his guardianship, had been dominated by women, he had withdrawn to his grandfather's abundant library for companionship. He loved his effervescent sister Kitty dearly, but she had always turned to Lady Frances Cresswell for friendship, and the twins had been a little wary of one so quiet, well mannered, and clean as Ned. It wasn't until he'd accompanied Kitty to London for her come-out that he had really become acquainted with Cassandra and Frederick Cresswell, though there was little more than two miles between the gatekeeper's lodge of Camberly and the drive to Cresswell. In London, deprived of their normal pursuits, the neighbors had been thrown together more often while Lady Frances accompanied Kitty and lent her moral support at social functions. The exuberant twins had taken to riding in the park as one of the few permissible ways of working off excess energy. It was during one of these rides that Ned had caught their interest. Oddly enough for one who was naturally quiet and reserved, he was a bruising rider and disported himself with ease on a mount that the twins admitted would have been too challenging for them.
When they had returned to the country, they had remained riding companions and friendship had blossomed. Freddie discovered Ned to be a far more expert judge of horseflesh than his louder, more boisterous acquaintances. Ned also possessed a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of history, which was, at least the military and exploratory part, one of Freddie's true interests. Cassie liked him better than anyone else Freddie spent time with because he accepted it as natural that she should do everything her brother did--sometimes, as in the case of climbing trees, with much greater skill and daring. To her, their five-year difference in age made him practically an adult and she was flattered that he shared his thoughts with her as though she had been grown up. On his part, Ned had found Cassie to have a mind that exhibited all the curiosity and adventurousness of her tomboyish spirit.
The twins' parents. Lord and Lady Cresswell had been scholars of some note. They had traveled extensively with their family in Greece, haunting the important spots of the world until "that barbarian Bonaparte," as Lord Cresswell was wont to call him, had driven them home. In fact, they, along with their good friend the Comte de Vaudron, had been of inestimable service to Lord Elgin in ensuring that his priceless marbles were brought to England. Of all the children, Cassie had inherited her parents' scholarly turn of mind. Frances had put her excellent if unusual education to good use as an authoress of children's histories and continued to exercise an excellent mind as a brilliant political hostess and helpmeet to her husband, whose healthy respect for her intelligence made him bring his ideas to her for criticism and advice before he advanced them to the world at large. But it was Cassie who was the true intellectual, and her appetite for knowledge was as insatiable as Ned's. She was as well versed in the classics as he, and her more daring nature led her to question established opinion more readily. She did not hesitate to argue with him and challenge his opinions. To Ned, who rarely found anyone to share his interests, much less discuss them, this was as novel as it was refreshing, and they became fast, though occasionally argumentative, friends.
As time went by, some of the Cresswell exuberance rubbed off on Ned and he became more relaxed and ready to enter into new things. He, in turn, with his greater foresight and more levelheaded approach to life, kept the twins from falling into scrapes so disastrous that adult assistance was required to extricate them. They greatly appreciated this freedom from embarrassment and rewarded their new companion with their respect and occasional requests for advice.
But those busy happy days, for Cassie at any rate, had vanished with the boys. She and Lord Mainwaring had ridden with them up to London, where they had made some final purchases at S. Unwin's General Equipment Warehouse in Lombard Street before stowing their belongings on the ship that was to take them to Bombay. The captain was an acquaintance of Lord Mainwaring's, and Cassie had been glad to think that Freddie and Ned would have at least one friend on the long voyage. She had watched and waved as they sailed with the tide and then returned home, feeling lonelier than she ever had in her entire life. Freddie had always been more than a mere brother. He had been her constant companion, while Ned was the one person in the whole word who truly understood and appreciated her. It was true that Lady Frances encouraged Cassie's studies and her brother-in-law discussed them with her. Both of them included her as an equal in their conversations, but no one took the place of Ned, who teased her and delighted in challenging her ideas and stimulating her mind.
At least she had the mail, but it was slow and unpredictable. It could take ages for her replies to her letters to arrive--letters she had filled with thoughts on her reading, reflections on life in general, and questions about his experiences--but she reveled in his responses when they did come. His style, so very like him, made Ned seem present at the moment she was reading his letter. His reflections and comments, fashioned as they were to address her particular interests and tastes, made what could have been a mere traveler's description spring to life before her eyes. Thus, even though she sorely missed his companionship, she continued to feel the strength of his friendship. He had never mentioned Arabella again, but Cassie knew his sensitive retiring nature too well to think that she had been forgotten. For her part, Cassie had found it extraordinarily difficult even to exchange the politest of commonplaces with Arabella and was quite relieved when the girl had quit the neighborhood for what had been a predictably brilliant Season. Of course she had been hailed as an incomparable. How could anyone so devoted to herself and her toilette have become anything less than a diamond, Cassie had reflected cynically.
A belle who had enjoyed such success could not be expected to leave the scene of such triumph to bury herself in Hampshire, and many of those attending assemblies around Cresswell and Camberly that summer bemoaned the loss of their brightest star. Cassie, however, found such events to be much more enjoyable without Arabella's disturbing presence--a presence that seemed to have fostered nothing but dissension and jealousy as much among her envious female competitors as among vain young men.
Having seen what misery beauty, unaccompanied by heart or wit and bent solely on pursuit of its own pleasure, could cause, Cassie was not inclined to want a come-out of her own, but here she was having some difficulty. Her ordinarily levelheaded and sympathetic sister, who had suffered one miserable Season herself, was adamant that Cassie at least experience the world of the ton before condemning it out of hand.
"But Fanny," Cassie had wailed, "how can you, of all people, insist that I waste my time in society when you were so unhappy there yourself? You thought most of those routs and balls excessively silly. And I daresay that I am less inclined to society than you."
"Yes, love. You are entirely in the right of it. I was desperately unhappy, but that was my first Season when I was under the aegis of Lady Bingley, who was as feather-headed a female as you could hope to meet. Directly on bringing me to a gathering she would retire to the card room, leaving me to gaze around the room and wish intensely that I could become part of the nearest pillar or bank of flowers. But when I helped Lady Streatham chaperon Kitty, it was altogether different. Lady Streatham's acquaintances were not the empty-headed dowagers that comprised Lady Bingley's coterie; she made every effort to put me as well as Kitty forward and make us feel comfortable. And then the Comte de Vaudron made me see that dressing beautifully and fashionably could be as much an exercise of one's aesthetic sense and taste as any other sort of creative expression and it need not be merely empty competition to see whose dressmaker can make one resemble the most stunning fashion plate in La Belle Assemblée. Besides, Julian and his friends are in the ton and they certainly discuss more serious subjects than the cut of their coats or their own favored ways of tying a cravat."
Cassie recognized the truth of this, but while she admitted that Lady Frances Mainwaring and Lady Elizabeth Streatham had found men who could carry more than one thought in their heads at a time, she remained skeptical about the possibility that there were enough such people to make a trip to London worthwhile, especially since two of the few intelligent men were at present on the high seas heading home.