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A decided hush hung over the table when Mrs. Herbert concluded reading the astounding letter to her family--at least those who were still there. Two daughters had previously left the bosom of the family for other parts; three remained for the moment. And it seemed highly likely that another daughter would be gone in a matter of days!
Cautiously, Priscilla, the one affected by the letter, voiced her thoughts. "I am to go? To London? But why?"
"Your father's sister, your aunt Mercy Herbert, does not precisely say, love. I suspect she wishes to entertain her goddaughter since she has no children of her own." If Charlotte Herbert thought it would help were Mercy to find a splendid husband for Priscilla, she didn't say so. After all, her husband's income was modest, and with so many children any help at all was appreciated.
"London," the other girls at the table breathed with proper reverence.
"Indeed," Mrs. Herbert seconded. She rose from the table to be followed by her daughters. Left at the table, the Reverend Mr. Herbert, Esq., and his only son, Adam, shared a look of understanding before turning their attention to other matters.
In the small front parlor where most concerns of any importance were handled, Priscilla wandered to the window, staring out at the main road that cut through their small village as though she might conjure up her aunt at once.
"I can scarce believe that letter to be real. Mama. Out of the blue like this, and so soon after Nympha went north to be with Great-Aunt Coxmoor. You will be almost alone with three of us gone." Priscilla smiled at her mother. Claudia had fortunately married well, a prosperous gentleman who lived not too faraway. With Nympha up north, life had altered its pattern. And now this change!
"I imagine I will cope. Drusilla is practicing household management very nicely, and Tabitha is always a help to both me and her father. She has done a commendable job with his study. He can actually find his books now that she finished organizing them." She nodded to her younger daughters, then turned back to Priscilla. "But you, dear child, must have the opportunity offered. You will go with your aunt Mercy and do as she instructs. She may be a single woman, but she knows simply everyone, it seems. And she is wealthy--she has carefully managed the money bequeathed from your father's mother to her, as well as the dowry she received when she reached twenty-five and was still unwed. You should learn household management from her, I would imagine. I fancy that money and excellent family connections can overcome a great deal." The Herberts might be gentry, but without money a name meant little.
"We must consider our good fortune at being the grandnieces of none other than the Earl of Stanwell, with his son, Viscount Rawlinson, an active member of London Society." Priscilla didn't sound as sardonic as she felt. The connections were excellent, true. But little good it had done them to this point in time. Her father was no better paid, although he earned more than many rectors of country churches. But, oh, to have him a bishop! Why had not the Earl of Stanwell seen to that, pray tell!
"We had best get busy organizing Priscilla's clothes." Drusilla rose from the chair by the fireplace to study her older sister. "Not that what you have is the least presentable in London, love. However, we shall wash and mend what you want to take with you. Even if Aunt Mercy buys you a new wardrobe, it may be comforting to have old, familiar garments for quiet times." She paused a moment before adding, "Just think of all you will see!"
The three girls hurried from the room, mindful of the letter that indicated Aunt Mercy could arrive at any time. Their excited chatter drifted back to the parlor.
Mrs. Herbert settled back in her chair, wondering what had prompted this invitation, but thankful it had come when it did. There was little prospect of finding a husband in their village. The only presentable man was Baron Rothson, and she doubted he was around long enough to know a pretty girl of proper lineage existed here. She smiled at the memory of the letter she had written to her husband's sister some time ago. Perhaps it had some influence on the invitation? Charlotte Herbert was not one to sit quietly back and let nature take its course.
It was two days later that Miss Herbert arrived in a post chaise with her personal maid, Rose. Her modest assortment of baggage promised a brief stay, but the warmth of her greetings to her family was all one could wish. A delicate scent of honeysuckle clung to her, and her clothes might seem unassuming until you realized the high quality and subtle blending of color that bespoke a superior knowledge of style. And stylish she was. Enthusiastic, too.
"My dear Charlotte," she cried, "how well you all look, and such charming daughters." She immediately picked out the oldest of the trio. "This must be Priscilla--the blonde with enchanting blue eyes. Hmm, she has a neat figure, pleasing face, and promising hair. I shall have a most interesting time with her in London. I have such plans..."
Priscilla absorbed the understated elegance of her father's sister, and quaked at the very thought of going to London in her country garments. However, practical to her core, she knew that her aunt understood the restrictions of the rectory family. Living in a very rural society was not conducive to high style! And why should her hair be promising?
If Priscilla had experienced any qualms about her aunt's company, they vanished at her kindness, especially about the paucity of Priscilla's wardrobe.
"Dear girl, I expected nothing less. I know full well how it must be for you. We shall get you a fine wardrobe as soon as may be once in Town." She waved her hand over the humble collection of garments awaiting placement in a small trunk. "Take what you please and do not worry about a thing. As your godmother and aunt, I feel compelled to do my most for you."
That said, she ordered the maid the girls shared to pack the dresses and all else set out on the bed.
Her words filtered through Priscilla's mind, leaving her to wonder what the "most" involved.
It took three days to organize Priscilla's things to suit Aunt Mercy and to indulge in a pleasant bit of visiting. She was generous, encouraging Priscilla to bring along little treasured items, favorite books, and an old stuffed toy--a cat with a dubious heritage. The time she spent with Charlotte Herbert was private, but appeared highly satisfactory to both.
When the post chaise returned as she had ordered, it took a little time for the luggage to be stowed--some behind, some on top, and the trunk fitted neatly above the front wheels. Rose perched on the seat up behind the body of the chaise while Aunt Mercy and Priscilla settled inside.
Before she knew it, Priscilla had waved her last to her family. The neatly dressed postboys were astride their horses, urging them to a fast and steady pace, leaving her village far behind.
Priscilla was breathless. It seemed so sudden, this miraculous change in her life. Yet she was eager to sample all that London offered a young lady--a young unmarried lady. Hope rose within that perhaps she might find her heart's desire, a gentleman of worth who could care for her. She and her sisters had often discussed the topic of marriage, all agreeing that love for a husband was to be ardently desired by both parties.
If her aunt intended her to wed some worthy cleric, Priscilla would thwart that notion. Not that she felt above such a match. But she had lived in the rectory all her life, and couldn't imagine spending the rest of her days in a like situation. She was not cut out to be a vicar's mate. Just whom she might marry, she didn't know. But not a cleric.
The trip seemed endless, cooped up as they were inside the swaying, bouncing chaise. Fortunately, the weather proved excellent, and Rose seemed to enjoy being in the fresh air. When she remarked on this to her aunt. Mercy Herbert chuckled.
"Rose would not thank you to be brought inside the carriage. She becomes dreadfully ill if confined within."
Once the city loomed on the horizon, Priscilla peered from the window, trying to see everything at once. Aunt Mercy tolerated her curiosity until they entered the Town itself.
"Contain yourself, dear child. It is not seemly to be too curious. You will become familiar with London before you realize it. Come, relax, for we are almost there."
Relax? How impossible! But Priscilla leaned back against the cushions, curbing her impatience as her aunt wished. It would not do to be taken for a country miss, even if that was precisely what she was.
But her curiosity overcame prudence, for when they reached the better part of Town, she once again gazed from the window to better see the imposing houses. And they were most impressive, rising several floors in great splendor.
She was about to draw her head inside when she spotted a fine gentleman leaving his house. She was no stranger to men's fashion, having seen such before, but this man was perfection personified. Every item of his apparel was so right, she knew he must be of the supreme ton to be in such style. Those superbly fitting dove-gray breeches topped by a dark blue coat over what appeared to be a subtly striped waistcoat of some richness could never have come from a provincial tailor. Her brother had once remarked he would like to have a hat from the superior shop of Lock's. She would wager that is where this unknown gentleman's hat was made. He appeared true quality from his polished boots to that smashing beaver hat. She exhaled a wistful sigh.
The coach moved so quickly she had little chance to retreat. His eyes met hers for a moment. Priscilla blushed at her forward behavior. She deserved his casual dismissal of faint scorn. But, oh, how she would like to meet this sample of male incomparability.
The chaise stopped only a few doors along the street. Was this, then, where she was to live for the next few months? In one of these grand stone houses with their fine windows and lovely ironwork?
"Here we are. Come, let us get inside, for there is a chilly wind." Aunt Mercy left the chaise, motioning the forward postboy to follow her while the other kept an eye on the horses and chaise.
Once paid they were impatient to be off. Aunt Mercy's footman swiftly unloaded the chaise, and the carriage swept away with a flourish of the postboy's whip.
Priscilla paused at the door, looking to the neat park in the center of the street, a rectangle of green. At least she would have a tiny bit of country nearby.
"Come, come. We will have a spot of tea, perhaps a light supper before we head for bed. I'll wager you are near exhausted with this traveling. I am." Her aunt bustled along the passage to a tasteful dining room furnished simply in great style.
Priscilla agreed as she felt expected, thinking she would have a hard time falling to sleep. London! She was here! There was so much that could be seen and done. Her excitement bubbled through her. What would tomorrow bring?
Aunt Mercy's notion of a light supper was substantial. Once Priscilla had eaten the delicious food on her plate, drunk several cups of the finest Bohea tea, she felt more than ready to find a bed.
Her room was a delight, although it would seem strange to have a bedroom all to herself. Decorated in willow-green and rose, and rich walnut furniture inlaid with satinwood trim, it was far and away the loveliest bedroom she had ever beheld. The four-poster bed with artistically draped rose hangings proved as welcoming as the house. She was soundly asleep a few moments after her head touched the plump feather pillow.
Morning brought the discovery that Aunt Mercy put a whirlwind to shame. She had the day organized to the last minute.
"First, we go to Madame Clotilde's. She will be in alt to have an ash-blonde possessing melting blue eyes as well as excellent posture. And such skin--delicate rosy pink such as you seldom see. You have a good figure, child. Use it to best advantage. Oh, I do not mean you flaunt it. Indeed, not! Rather be guided by Madame in finding the look that suits you best, shows off that delectable shape in the nicest possible manner." Aunt Mercy shooed her niece up the stairs to her room with the admonition to be ready in a trice.
Silenced by her aunt's surprising compliments, Priscilla donned the prettiest of her gowns and her best bonnet before joining her aunt in the entryway.
"Well, you are so pretty that no one seeing you will notice your gown. Come." She beckoned Priscilla to follow her from the house into a carriage that while it looked plain was of the highest quality. Even though Priscilla knew little about such things, she could appreciate the excellent leather seats and other fine appointments.
Priscilla soon learned that "come" seemed to be one of her aunt's favorite words. In the ensuing hours she heard it often. Only when sequestered with Madame Clotilde did her aunt retire to one side, allowing Madame full sway in the selection of materials and styles.
With the promise of an awesome number of gowns to be delivered as soon as possible, they left the elegant salon for the happy prospect of choosing slippers, reticules, and bonnets.
Then she saw him again, the man she had observed when they arrived. Although dressed differently, she could not forget that poise, that air of assurance such as she had never seen before. Again, his garments were impeccable, his taste the most refined she could imagine. He truly was a handsome creature, well-built, with obvious polish.
They were on Bond Street, intent upon reaching the tempting environs of Grafton House, a shop where Aunt assured her the finest ribbons, gloves, and other feminine fripperies could be found, not to mention muslin of the highest quality.
He was on the other side of the street and had paused to chat with a gentleman, a man Priscilla at once dismissed as a dandy. His wine coat had excessive padding, and those knit pantaloons looked as though he'd never be able to sit down in them. Her brother had informed her that while a good fit was desirable, it was helpful to be able to sit down to dinner!
Fortunately, Aunt Mercy had paused to study a display in a shop window so Priscilla could stand at her side, innocently looking around her. She watched him, wondering who he was, if he was married, if she would ever meet him. She had never before desired an introduction to a man, but she did now.
"What has your attention, girl? It is clear I don't." When Aunt noted the direction of Priscilla's gaze before she could transfer it elsewhere, Aunt Mercy cleared her throat. "I believe that is Lord Latimer with your cousin, Viscount Rawlinson--the gentleman in the wine coat and gray pantaloons. Perhaps when you are properly gowned, your hair suitably trimmed, and so forth, you might encounter him at a party to make his acquaintance. I am well-known in London, having lived here for so many years--so we shall receive many invitations. Your cousin is the highest ton, and I daresay will be of help one way or another. Anyone I do not know, he does. I know little about Lord Latimer, as our paths have not crossed. I know who he is when I see him--that is all. Come."
Priscilla obediently trotted along at her aunt's side, wishing she dare glance back at the handsome Lord Latimer. She knew better, of course. That didn't make her stop desiring otherwise.
The lure of the treasures found in Grafton House swept Lord Latimer and her cousin from her mind. What young lady did not find lace-edged handkerchiefs, gloves in every subtle color and length imaginable, lace ruffs to flatter a face, and beautiful ribbons of every hue and design intriguing?
At last, after handing countless parcels over to the groom. Aunt decreed a pause at Gunter's. "You will find this a most acceptable little shop. Every hostess seeks his wares to complete parties and dinners, and I do so enjoy a dish of his pineapple ice. Come."
Priscilla smiled and went.
It was over an orange ice that her thoughts returned to the distinguished gentleman who was acquainted with her cousin, that is her unknown Lord Rawlinson.
"What is Lord Rawlinson's Christian name?" she inquired. "Is it likely that we will encounter him?"
"Aylwin. I shall send a note around to where he lives so you might meet him. He has rooms at the Albany--that is a residence for single gentlemen," she informed Priscilla. "He will come, as I have money and he has hopes to be named in my will. Come, I wish to arrange for your hair to be cut and styled."
Priscilla marveled that her aunt could be so matter-of-fact regarding her will, and the wishes of someone to inherit from the same. But if one had a great deal of money, she supposed it was not surprising that there would be relatives wanting to benefit from it.
When the hairdresser came later in the day, Priscilla was glad to find her tresses needed no more than a bit of trimming to look au courant.
The following day was another surprise. Rather than shop, her aunt suggested she put on that same simple gown to join her in visiting a charity school she helped finance. It proved to be an eye-opening experience.
Located in a modest brick structure, the school was clean, simply furnished, with scrubbed wooden floors and a small stove in the corner of each schoolroom.
"Fireplaces waste heat," Aunt Mercy lectured. "I found these in Germany. They have proven effective. I'll tolerate no half-frozen students in these rooms. Who could learn when chilled to the bone?"
Priscilla nodded, while looking everywhere about her. The children were simply dressed in plain, but clean, garments, faces scrubbed, hair neatly combed. "They learn their letters and numbers?"
"Indeed, and a few Bible verses as well. They will be able to get a better job if they have a smattering of education--even the girls."
Priscilla eyed her aunt with growing respect. She had heard the same from her father, so she wasn't too surprised to hear her aunt was of the same opinion. It boded well for an agreeable visit that they would concur on matters like this. It was comforting to know that her aunt was not solely given to entertainment, but worthy causes as well. She was using her money wisely, in Priscilla's estimation.
The trip back to the house on Hanover Street was accomplished in silence. Once there, the following had to be planned. It seemed that shopping was not the only item on the coming agenda; there would be interesting sites to see as well. Priscilla could not contain her pleasure at the thought of actually seeing the Tower of London and all the other sights of curiosity.
Having sent off a note to her nephew. Miss Herbert regaled her niece with tales of Society over the ample tea she considered proper. Priscilla had not expected her to be quite so fashionable. That is, to be interested in worthy causes as well as balls and dinners, and attending the most desirable parties. Her time at Hanover Square promised to be both entertaining and enlightening.
Not too many streets away, Lord Latimer, known to his closest friends as Felix, left a fashionable address in a state of frozen politeness. His family! He, the heir to the Marquess of Silverstone, rejected because of his family! The girl whose hand he had thought to seek in marriage was pretty, an empty-headed bit of fluff that would have been pleasant to escort about and entertain his friends, but he assuredly had not been more than faintly fond of her. She possessed a decent pedigree, passing good looks, and from all he had heard, an excellent dowry. He'd been rejected.
His family! He could scarce take it in. His family was deemed too improper for an alliance with Miss Anne Bolsolver. And who was she? The daughter of a viscount who ought to be thrilled to marry an earl who had the prospect of inheriting a marquessate. Not only did he have a title, but his careful management of his estates ensured him a tidy income, unlike his many relatives who seemed to be in perpetual need of funds. Except his Aunt Beatrice. She never approached him for money, thank goodness. Not that he saw her all that often, for she was still in disgrace after all these years.
Disgraceful relatives seemed to surround him, parading their scandalous behavior for one and all to enjoy. Felix winced at the recollection of the scathing words from Lord Bolsolver. No daughter of his would align herself with the house of Sutton. He uttered the words as though the very name of Sutton was beyond the pale.
Felix burned with the thought of all the various Sutton family members scampering about London in gaming, chasing women, turning up their collective noses at Society.
"What ho, Latimer?" a familiar voice inquired.
"Renshaw! Just the chap I wanted to see. I can do with a bit of cheer." Felix matched his stride with that of his friend, heading toward White's and a bottle of comfort.
"Never say he rejected your offer," Chauncy Renshaw inquired in horror after Felix revealed the source of his annoyance. "But Bolsolver is only a viscount. Surely he'd not pass up an earl destined to be a marquess? And you with a handsome income to boot!"
"It seems he finds my family highly objectionable." Felix was careful not to allow his distress to show. Even Chauncy was not to know the full depth of Felix's embarrassment over the Sutton family foibles. Just when he thought the peak of nonsense had been achieved, one of them reached a new height in scandal. But, by heaven, he wasn't like that! He lived a reasonably proper life by London standards.
They reached White's in due time. Before entering, Felix paused to caution his good friend. "Not a hint of this to anyone, mind you. I'd not have my dirty linen aired in public, if you know what I mean."
Renshaw nodded. "I know only too well. A juicy bit like this gets around, and you might as well head for the country."
"Not I," Felix countered. "I have yet to find a person I can't stare out of countenance, but it would be easier if I didn't have to bother."
They settled down over a listless game of cards and a bottle of fine claret. Chauncy tossed a card down on the table, studying his friend. "So what do you intend to do?"
"I'm not sure," Felix admitted. "It is time and more that I wed. My father reminds me every now and again that I am not getting any younger."
"He should know," Chauncy said with care.
"I have a mind to find me the most proper girl in London and marry her regardless. That would show all these prattle-boxes that the Sutton family can lay claim to fine manners. I shall restore the family name!"
"And where would you. find a truly proper woman, one who would marry you if word of this rejection gets around? I suspect it is far too juicy a tidbit for Bolsolver to keep to himself."
Felix acknowledged the truth of that remark, then called for a second bottle of claret.
"Well, look who is here," Chauncy murmured. "If it isn't Rawlinson. Thought be was planning to rusticate."
"He is usually under the hatches," Felix replied, turning to study the elegant dandy who had just entered the room. "We are to be favored with his conversation, it seems."
"Latimer, Renshaw, how does it?" Lord Rawlinson eased himself into a chair, taking care not to crease his coat of the wildest shade of peacock green to be found. That he had to lounge back to consider the tight fit of his pantaloons didn't surprise anyone.
"Tolerable," Felix replied quickly. "And you? I thought you planned to leave Town."
"M'aunt returned. Summoned me to her house to meet a cousin of mine. Girl stands to inherit a bundle from what I gather. Gentry--parson's daughter. Probably as plain as a pikestaff, but with a lot of lovely money, who's to care?"
"Not you, I gather." Felix knew a moment of pity for the parson's daughter, whoever she might be.
"Hadn't thought of tossing the handkerchief, but if enough blunt is on the line, why not? I can always leave her in the country." Lord Rawlinson gave his audience a pleased smile as though he was the first man to think of such a scheme.
"True." Felix wondered how such a blockhead as Rawlinson managed to get through life without being strangled.
"She might prove to be a fetching wench." Chauncy gave Rawlinson a grin that allowed the gleam in his eyes to shine without suspicion.
"Hadn't thought of that," Rawlinson admitted. "See her tomorrow. Promised to call on them. Girl has to get her hair properly cut and be outfitted in the latest fashion, of course. Bound to be provincial."
"Naturally." Felix concealed a yawn behind a raised hand.
Chauncy rose from the table, glancing at the clock on the far wall. "Best to take our leave now, Latimer. Remember you wanted to inspect that horse at Tatt's?"
"How could I forget!" Felix rose with the languid grace that other men--like Rawlinson--could admire but rarely emulate.
With Tatt's as an excuse, the pair hastily left the haven of White's to saunter along the pavement.
"That was good thinking. I pity the poor girl who is to be leg-shackled to Rawlinson." Felix deftly spun his cane, glancing at his friend, a pronounced twinkle in his eyes.
"Tatt's is always a good excuse if you want a reason to leave in a hurry." Chauncy thought a bit, then added, "So where do you intend to meet your paragon of virtue?"
Felix stopped to stare at his friend. "Are you serious?"
"I thought you were."
They resumed their stroll in the vague direction of Tattersall's, where horses could be viewed with the possible thought of purchase. "Maybe I am. Could I find a truly proper young lady of decent background and acceptable appearance, I would wed her and begin the restoration of the Sutton name!"
"I should like to see that." Chauncy gave Felix a considering look. "And do you know, I believe you might just do it."
"I will. See if I don't." Felix figured it would be a simple matter to find a truly proper young miss of presentable birth and background. Why, there must be any number of them perched on pews.
"Where will you find her?" Chauncy frowned.
"Where do you see a proper lady? In church, of course, or one of those worthy institutions catering to the unfortunate, the sort some women find so appealing to their better natures."
"You, in church?" Chauncy cleared his throat of a sudden obstruction. "I'll join you. I'd not miss this for the world."