Chapter One, Coughing at the Enemy
When one does not have a mother and is raised by a gruff absentee father and a partially senile grandmother, one is not much prepared for such things as frilly tea parties and gossip.
I tugged uncomfortably at the rigidly high collar of the puce ruffled number my Nan insisted I wear for the occasion and attempted to smile politely at my hostess, the widow Mrs. Macabee.
“Are you quite alright, miss Bane? For surely you do not look the thing.” Mrs. Macabee asked me.
I stifled a yawn and assured her I was quite alright, which of course was a patent lie, and while I tried to be a good, well behaved woman, for my country, for my father, I am sure god allows lies such as those, otherwise we’d all be going to hell. Smiling through my discomfiture, I nodded and plodded along with the rest of them.
“Well, I say, Mrs. Macabee, you looked simply marvelous at the ball last night.” Said Miss Dallyweather in a tone that suggested Mrs. Macabee had, in fact, looked completely untoward.
I rolled my eyes, Miss Dallyweather was the most insufferable type of company, with opinions much too high of herself, and yet, not enough class to fill a thimble. Somehow, she was always tolerated at the best parties, something I could not make out.
If Mrs. Macabee noted her sarcastic tone, she made no mention of it, and only smiled before replying, “Oh! Why thank you, my dear, you are too kind. It was nothing but an old ballgown I had remade.”
“It seemed to have an aire of vintage about it.” Agreed Miss Dallyweather dubiously.
“It was quite a lovely ball, wasn’t it?” Suggested Miss Canarie, who, like myself, was in her first season and hadn’t yet attended enough balls or parties to have an actual opinion on the subject. But, as was Miss Canarie’s usual way, this did not stop her from having said opinions.
Miss Canarie had by far the lowest social standing among them, something most would never let her forget, but her mother had come from a decent family, and despite the fact that she married a barrister, was still well loved within many social circles, and so her daughter was tolerated though would be continually absent from the most prestigious of this season’s events. Something I regretted most profusely. Not only was it an injustice to Miss Canarie, for I thought it undully unfair for her, and to all the other miss Canarie’s of the world, but it was also an affront to me. As that it meant I would be forced to attend such functions alone.
Or, as alone as a eighteen year old girl with a perpetual chaperone could ever possibly be.
I stole a look at my chaperone for good measure, she was drowsing by the window, her head resting against her chin, and her hands wrapped up in her shawl.
Seeing my jailer so incapacitated would have normally sent my mind scrambling for some way to take advantage of that fact, and that I wasn’t doing exactly that did not bode well.
I tugged once more at the collar of my gown and took a few deep breaths. Miss Canarie was simpering, after all, and it was rude to look distressed during a bout of well meant simpering.
Miss Canarie’s family’s townhouse was very near to my own, which is how we first met, some five years ago now. Not the best of neighbourhoods, to be sure, but only silently disreputable, on the whole. My father, the ridiculously rich and extremely eccentric man that he was, could afford to take such a house in such a neighbourhood with no real ill effects. And had, in fact, raised the rents by a good measure just by taking the old townhouse. Something met with both admiration and resentment, depending on who you asked.
Not that the man himself ever had to suffer the townhouse overmuch, for he spent most of his time at our Manor house several hours north of London.
Consequently, I hardly ever saw the man. I had been closeted away in London at the tender age of eleven, where I’ve been biding my time under the tottering tutelage of my grandmother, who, bless her heart, is already halfway into the nutter house.
Biding my time for what, I could not tell you, but I can say it certainly wasn’t frilly high necked dresses and insipid tea parties. I ceased to follow the conversation around me, occasionally nodding politely in agreement with only god knows what.
It was my Nan’s idea. All of it. The horrid dresses, the parties, the balls. She had been insisting I have my season ever since my fourteenth birthday. My father, bless his cantankerous soul, had disinclined to give his permission, much to my relief, for the last four years. Battles were waged, silently. My peers moved on some even found good matches. I read books.
Until suddenly, after my eighteenth birthday a few months ago, my father unexpectedly acquiesced to Nan’s half-hearted attempt to sway his favour, much to my abject horror.
I never had any intention to be initiated into high society, for I never had any intention of marrying. I was wealthy enough that the spinster’s life held much higher prospects for me than that of a married one. While I may not be knowledgeable in all the ways of womanhood, no thanks to Nan, who seemed to lack both sex and mystique, I was observant enough to note that married women, as a rule, so far as I could tell, lived lonely miserable lives full of disgustingly confining corsets and dangerously dull social gatherings, and were always at the whim of their equally miserable husbands.
Not I. So far as I am concerned, I’d rather be dead than married.
I had, of course, objected to my season most abhorrently, but neither of them could be swayed. And so it was with ill grace that I sat in Mrs. Macabee’s drawing room taking afternoon tea with various society ladies that could be counted on to attend most, if not all, of Mrs. Macabee’s social engagements.
The lady herself was in fine social standing, at least, in as fine a social standing as a slightly eccentric, but respectably wealthy widow with a Scottish last name could ever be.
Her husband, the personage responsible for such a last name, had been born and bred a London gentleman, despite his Scottish roots, and provided enough throughout his life that his wife had been seen among all the elite circles.
And even though he had up and died a few years back, leaving the Mrs. Macabee with considerable debt, the lady in question showed austere planning and business aptitude when she sold their manor properties, took a smaller, less extravagant townhouse, and invested in several ventures, that had, so far, been successful.
This graceful social coup was met with distaste in some circles. A woman, in trade! It simply could not be abided by some. But I for one, thought it all quite daring and admirable.
The Mrs. had, after all, averted catastrophe, paid care to provide for herself, came out wealthier than she had started, and retained most of her esteemablility and prestigious contacts in the process.
Overall, I felt she rather enjoyed her widowdom, I liked her, and it was only on the condition that she took the role of my sponsor that I had agreed to meet high society with relative amiability.
She was not a bad choice, as it were, for behind that lace and taffeta was a quick intelligence and a fierce instinct for survival.
She had as much social contact as I could ever care for, and more, and enough money to ensure my coming out ball would be of the highest tastes and entertainment. Something I did not look forward to. And she had enough sense to make decent intellectual conversation, when she wanted to.
Social coups and tea parties aside, she was her own woman, something I had to respect. She was also younger that most matrons prepared to sponsor, despite being a widow, and had a good deal of energy left to her.
I began to ruminating on the possibility of investing into commerce myself, amused at the thought of what my dear papa would say on the matter & so did not realize that the conversation around me had stopped, nor that the entire assembly’s attentions were turned toward me.
I was quickly brought up to speed by Miss Dallyweather’s vain voice.
“Why, Miss Bane, are you sure you are alright? I was just asking if you had decided on a date for your ball, and you completely ignored me! What ever could have possessed you to be so rude?”
“Huh?” I puzzled out loud. “Oh, I must apologize!” I quickly grappled for something that would save me. “I do feel a bit off. I would never mean you slight, Miss Dallyweather,” I lie, “I assure you, you must forgive me.”
Miss Dallyweather peered down her nose at me. “Very well.” She concluded after a moment of imperious thought, if you could call looking like a constipated lap dog thinking, “And so have you?” She asked.
“Have I what?” I replied. Really, I was feeling a bit odd, balmy and slightly achy. Though I blamed the company of such frivolity — for I never got ill, literally, never.
“Just a couple of months more, Miss Dallyweather.” Jumped in Mrs. Macabee. “We’ll be sending round invitations soon enough, wont we Miss Bane?”
“Oh yes, the ball.” I finished lamely, sweat breaking out beneath the heavy sleeves of my gown.
“I am quite excited,” exclaimed Corrine, “I just know it will be fantastic!”
“That is will.” Said Mrs. Macabee with decided confidence and a small smile.
“Then,” began Miss Dallyweather in her usual condescending way, “you should be sure not to schedule it the same day as mine, I should hate to steal away your guests.”
I had to snort at that one.
Mrs. Macabee, who knew me well enough by then to smell trouble brewing, cleared her throat and said judiciously, “Miss Bane, perhaps you should retire, you seem so very pale. Your grandmother would not appreciate it if I let you fall ill under my watch.”
Mrs. Macabee and I both glanced over the the sleeping grandmother in question.
“Yes.” I said, seizing the opportunity to escape. “You are quite right, Mrs. Macabee, I am feeling exhausted. Nan!” I cried a little too loudly for a girl of such delicate breeding, and Nan gave a snort of her own, her head popping up from her chest and her bleary eyes blinking in the scene before her.
“Nan. We must leave at once. I am afraid I am falling ill.” I added in explanation when Nan made no move at all.
“Heavens me!” Cried Miss Dallyweather, “I do hope you are not contagious! I am to attend Madam Enclair Tomorrow, it would be most unfortunate if I were detained by illness.”
“I shall summon the carriage, my dear.” Said Mrs. Macabee, ringing the bell as she spoke.
I coughed in Miss Dallyweather’s direction, which I gaily report resulted in an absolutely nasty and unbecoming look from the incorrigible miss, gave my secret smile to Corrine, bowed to the company and parted with Mrs. Macabee and Nan, truly pleased to be on my way, and followed Nan out into London’s late morning drizzle.
I calculated I’d have two extra hours of daylight in which to finish the current novel laying next to my bed.
As it were, the novel went unread. By the time the carriage had pulled up to my townhouse, I was in a dastardly state to be sure.
I felt hot and cold at once. I was sweating profusely, and sticky, and had a headache something awful. Nan had me securely deposited into beds within moments of our arrival. The doctor was called as night fell and Nan sat silently by the bed while we waited for him to arrive.
I was not so silent, actually. The fever had taken my quickly, I was dreadfully thirsty and I couldn’t seem to focus and all I can remember is babbling. The room was full of moans & whimpers which I realized with some considerable shame were issuing forth from me.
A fever like this, they said, had taken my mother the night she brought me into the world.
No one spoke of that night, save Nan, and only on rare occasions. My father absolutely forbade any talk of my mother. I often speculated whether it was because he truly was a cold heartless bastard or if he couldn’t bare the thought of her loss.
The small romantic part of me relished in the latter. But that small part was really very small indeed, and the rest of me tended toward the former.
I couldn’t help but to imagine her, dark curls splayed messily about the pillows, brow sheen and pink cheeks. I wondered if she had the chance to see me before she went.
Half delirious, half congnent I looked to Nan through the gloom, “Was this what it was like, when she died?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but she was interrupted by the arrival of the doctor.
Only it wasn’t the doctor, it was my uncle, Sir William.
“Oh no.” I croaked at the ceiling. “I really am hallucinating. You are the doctor, aren’t you Sir William?”
Sir William laid his calloused hands on my forehead. Really, Doctors didn’t have calluses.
“It is time.” Nan told him cryptically.
“I expect so, yes. A little late…but no matter.” Sir William nodded grimly.
“Is it really you, Sir William? Whatever are you doing here?” I asked, “You are not a doctor.”
“Ah,” He hesitated, “No, not exactly.”
He turned back to Nan. “Unfortunately, Lord Bane cannot be reached. He’s attending to matters in the north. We cannot expect him until the moon.”
“The moon!” Cried Nan. “But that is near on four days hence. She hasn’t got that long, not with the way it had taken her.”
I knew it. I was dying. I closed my eyes and tried to accept it.
I. Was. Going. To die. Simple as that. At least I wouldn’t be attending anymore dratted balls.
I began to fade and found the latter thought quite satisfying. I felt myself let go of consciousness and only caught a few more words from Sir William. “We must get her to the manor, at least she’ll have the forest.”
My last thought before I blacked out was, oh how nice, he wants me to die in the woods.
…to be continued.