Title: Folly and Follicularity
Disclaimers: The characters portrayed herein are the inventions and properties of others more powerful and wealthy than I. I intend no infringment of their intellectual domain, and profit only in having, as I hope, brought some small pleasure to one or two readers. The voice I have adopted, no doubt poorly, is intended as a tribute to Miss Austen and as a salute to Miss Heyer. It is my sincere hope that neither great lady now frowns down on me from authorial heaven.
Category: Humor, AU
Notes: At the end
Summary: Curricle accidents, scandalous behaviour, informative letters, curly-brimmed beavers, an assembly ball, a garish emerald necklace...may Jane Austen forgive me and Georgette Heyer have mercy on my soul. Amen.
Feedback: Praise, censure, argument and conversation of all sorts most warmly welcomed by the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Folly and Follicularity
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of..."
Miss Chloe Sutherlin, writing a letter to her friend Miss Lane, bit the end of her pen thoughtfully. "Well, he must be in want of something, Louisa, for what otherwise could draw the scion of the Luthor family, Mr. Alexander Luthor himself, away from the metropolis to occupy the drafty, vacant old manor house here in the wilds of Littleton?"
Chloe, having removed to Littleton with her widowed father from the metropolis at just the age where a young lady might begin to be fascinated with its temptations and follies, had learned in the intervening years that the only cure for the ennui of village living was to be actively interested in the doings of all its denizens. She wrote long letters about life in Littleton to her friend Louisa Lane, a fashionable young woman some years older than she, who resided in Curzon Street and was in the foremost social circles.
From the first day of her education at Miss Towers' Select Seminary for Young Ladies, Chloe had idolized the older, richer, and more glamourous Miss Lane, a fellow student who was nearly ready to leave the school and make her dbut in Society. For her part, Miss Lane had discovered in little Miss Sutherlin a surprisingly keen intellect and ready wit for a young girl not yet out. The two ladies, so disparate in age, had formed a lasting friendship in their year together at school, and that friendship had been afterward borne forward principally by means of a lively correspondence. From Chloe's missives on country life, Miss Lane received amusement and a refreshment of jaded Town tastes and spirits; from Miss Lane's replies, Chloe received a taste of scandal and sophistication that set her most satisfyingly apart from her rustic neighbors.
Thus it was that when Miss Sutherlin heard from her father the news of young Mr. Luthor's imminent arrival from the metropolis, she had instantly begun a letter to her friend, determined to learn more about the distinguished new resident.
After describing the arrival at Luthor Manor of some forbidding, haughty servants from the metropolis, and repeating the speculations of her neighbors about what style of elegance the new resident would adopt while in the country, Chloe concluded:
"I have learned what I can from Papa about Sir Lionel, but about Sir Lionel's son he is silent. I believe much scandal attaches to the young man, but I can learn nothing more from my own investigations. You know, dearest Louisa, how much pleasure I take in being the first among my acquaintance in Littleton with all the news, so I beg you will tell me* everything *you know about Mr. Alexander Luthor.
"In anticipation of your most welcome reply, I remain, as ever,
"Your rusticated friend,
The running of Mr. Sutherlin's household had fallen originally to the superannuated relative he had employed as Chloe's chaperon, but as Aunt Cassandra had grown blind with her advancing years, Chloe had increasingly taken on this duty. She thought of herself as a good-natured mistress to the small staff Mr. Sutherlin employed. When she had to snap at the maid for disordering her collection of newspaper clippings and fashion plates, she always apologized handsomely afterward. Her training of the cook as to the preferences and tastes of the household had consisted of nothing more complex than insisting that she learn to prepare coffee in the Italian manner. Otherwise, whatever Cook wanted to put on the table was sure to meet with Chloe's approval.
On a morning only four or five days after having posted her letter to Miss Lane, Chloe was inclined to to approve of everything in the Sutherlin household: the coffee sent up from the kitchen was as hot, as milky, as strong, and as sweet as Chloe had ever wished it; the toast surpassed her expectations; the autumn sun shone in through the double doors; and she found in the day's post at the breakfast-table a most welcome response from Louisa.
Her friend wrote:
"My dear Chloe, I dare not tell you everything I know about Mr. Alexander Luthor, for you are too young to hear it."
Chloe sighed. For Miss Lane to admit that her young friend was of marriageable age would have been to own that she was herself no longer a gay girl in her first season. Though beautiful and amusing, Miss Lane had left her twenty-first birthday far behind, still deeply engaged in the vagaries of metropolitan society, and still unmarried.
"I shall nonetheless tell you a few things that will prepare you to meet him as civilly as I could wish you to meet the only child and heir of Sir Lionel. He is bald, my dear. Bald as an egg. Bald, I say, as a billiard ball. It is the most extraordinary thing you ever saw in a young man. There! Now you are prepared. But however, his manner is such as must generally please, and one soon very nearly forgets his unusual appearance. He is wanted by every hostess in the ton and no party is quite a success to which he is invited but does not come.
Chloe reflected uncomfortably on what her first, unstudied reaction to Mr. Luthor might have been had Louisa not warned her of his peculiar affliction, and she felt a moment's real gratitude to her friend. She had thought frequently of how she should creditably conduct herself when she was finally presented to the noted--not to say notorious--son of Sir Lionel. Now she felt well-prepared for that exciting event.
The letter continued:
"In dress he shows real taste, always attired in the first style of elegance without the least trace of that dandyism which one must, sadly, deplore in his papa (although when one has purchased the opera house, I suppose one may wear whatever freakish coat one pleases to attend the opera). And unlike Sir Lionel, the young Mr. Luthor does not generally seem to be above his company, though there is no question that he is as rich as Golden Ball in his own right and will inherit his father's fortune. If he should choose to exert himself to please, I think you will not find him wanting as a neighbor. Indeed, I envy you a bit. We shall miss him in the metropolis.
"But, dear Chloe, are you thinking of dances, and beaux, and conquests? For if his eye were to light upon you--and no matter his preference, he must marry eventually for the sake of the family name--the comforts of the life you would enjoy as Mrs. Luthor would certainly outweigh any little scandals that your husband might cause. It is sheerest folly for me to say it, but you might do worse than to seek a match at Luthor Manor. Whatever brings the young Alexander to Littleton, it is unlikely to be marriage, and you would have to play your cards just so, for that gentleman is simply not in the petticoat line. I would stake my next quarter's pin-money on it. Let a word suffice, for I may not say more without putting you to the blush."
Chloe Sutherlin took pride in her upbringing among the ton; she felt complacent in the accomplishments conferred upon her by her education among the daughters of society at Miss Towers'. That she did not entirely understand Louisa's obscure hints about Mr. Alexander Luthor's character caused her a moment's doubt, but she quickly set her own mind at rest; for no matter how young and innocent Miss Lane persisted in thinking her, Chloe felt certain that there were few sorts of gentlemanly misbehaviour she had not witnessed in Town or in Littleton, or that she had not at least read about in novels. She yet to meet a real libertine, and from Louisa's veiled words, Chloe imagined she might finally meet one in Mr. Luthor. She smiled in happy anticipation.
When Chloe had folded up this most satisfactory letter from her friend, she donned her straw bonnet, snatched her parasol from the stand near the door, and flew out into the lane, determined to sow curiosity among her neighbors that she might reap news later.
The home of Miss Lavinia Langford was her destination. Lavinia lived with Miss Eleanor Potter, the aunt in whose care Lavinia had passed most of her childhood and to whom she owed what Chloe felt was a considerable want of wit. A year older than Chloe, she stood sometimes in the role of friend, though there was lately some rivalry between them over the attentions of the young gentlemen of the village. Nevertheless, the neighborhood boasted few young women of good family, and since Chloe could no longer properly follow after the young men on their adventures as she was used to do, she was careful not to close the door on Miss Langford.
Lavinia enjoyed the particular favor of Mr. Fordman, a handsome and rugged youth whose sole aspiration was to purchase a commission in the Blankshire regiment and follow in the military footsteps of his father, Colonel Fordman. It was generally felt throughout village society that Lavinia would become Mrs. Fordman. The young Mr. Kent, however, also dangled after her, and Chloe saw signs that a shift in the wind was now turning the weather-vane of Miss Langford's affections in Mr. Kent's direction.
In response to her elderly Aunt Cassandra's knowing smiles, Chloe protested that she had no more than sisterly regard for either gentleman. She declared that if she had any complaint to make, it was simply that Lavinia's selfishness in attracting all the eligible young men of the neighbourhood was to that young lady's discredit. Only in her own heart did Chloe admit that she would be unhappy if Mr. Kent's shy admiration of Lavinia blossomed into something more serious. Chloe hoped that Mr. Fordman's appearance in a dashing red coat and sword would seal Miss Langford's affections for him. She feared, however, that Mr. Fordman's going away to the Blankshire would remove the only thing obstructing Miss Langford's clear view of the appealing face and fine form of Mr. Kent.
Chloe reflected with pleasure on the forthcoming arrival of a new gentleman, both rich and single, on the scene: it might have the effect of diluting Miss Langford's affections farther, and if it did not, it would certainly provide Chloe with a fresh source of interest.
Her happy expectation of being first with information from Town about the new occupant of Luthor Manor was to be disappointed. She was announced to the ladies in the morning room, and in her excitement to tell something of what she had learned from Louisa, was already broaching the subject of their new neighbor before even putting off her bonnet.
"Oh yes, dear," Miss Potter said with a gleam of victory in her eye. "I'm afraid you are behind-hand, for the news precedes you! We are already all a-twitter to see Mr. Luthor. He is Sir Lionel's son, you know, and Sir Lionel is an acquaintance of ours."
"You know Sir Lionel?" Chloe repeated.
"I knew him well, Miss Sutherlin, once upon a time," Miss Potter replied as coffee and cakes were brought in. Her eyes appeared to look into the past with some complacency.
Chloe swallowed her disappointment and resolved that if she could not surprise her acquaintance with new knowledge about such an interesting topic, she would gather what more she could learn and write it all down for the amusement of Louisa. She took from her reticule the small pocket-book and pencil she was never without. "I am so very interested, Miss Potter. Do go on."
"Well, dear, when I was a young woman, I was fortunate enough to have a season in Town with my elder sister Laura. Laura, of course, took immediately, and came home to Littleton triumphant, engaged to Lavinia's dear papa. I was, meanwhile, quite the favorite of Sir Lionel, who distinguished me with every mark of esteem. Orchids, my dear! Only fancy!"
Miss Potter's love of flowers was well-known in the neighbourhood, and Chloe now thought she perceived why. "...esteem...orchids," she said, finishing her note and looking up again at Miss Potter. "How very exotic. Pray, continue."
"It is not to be thought that I expected a match in that direction," continued she, "for of course one is quite beneath the serious notice of a baronet, and when he later chose Lady Lillian as his bride, I am happy to say that I returned heart-whole to Littleton, none the worse for...well--"
Chloe looked up from her jottings. "None the worse for what, Miss Potter?"
Miss Potter returned sharply to the present. "How very inquisitive you are, child! I know that with your city ways, you must think us terribly backward here in Littleton, but really! Such a question!"
Chloe repressed her desire to retort that Littleton must boast a more daring social set than Miss Potter let on, for few respectable women of Miss Potter's advanced years would be seen in the girlishly low-cut morning gown she was presently wearing. Instead, Chloe smiled and began a fresh leaf.
Lavinia, apparently feeling the need to turn the subject slightly--perhaps more toward herself--said, "You must know, of course, Chloe, that I had the honor of seeing Sir Lionel when I once went to Town."
"...honor...Sir Lionel..." Chloe licked the point of her pencil, reminding herself that an amusing tale to augment her correspondence with Miss Lane must take precedence over any small irritation she felt in learning that Lavinia, too, had met Sir Lionel. She prompted Lavinia by saying, "And was this before or after the passing of Lady Lillian?"
"Oh, after. Well after, to be sure. The family had put off black gloves some time before. That is, Mr. Luthor never put off black gloves, for I never saw a gentleman favor black gloves so much--but they had ceased their mourning."
Chloe made a short note about gloves in her book, repressing her chagrin at learning that Miss Langford had seen the mysterious Mr. Luthor as well as Sir Lionel.
"You cannot know what Mr. Luthor's habits were, Lavinia, dear, for you did not meet him. You must not be so whimsical as to pretend otherwise," Miss Potter said in a petting tone, giving a girlish laugh and favoring her niece with a smile undoubtedly meant to seem fond. Miss Langford's eyes grew wide and she protested, "Oh, but Aunt, I did! That is, I was not introduced, but I did, indeed, see him."
Turning pointedly toward Chloe, Miss Potter said, "As I was saying to Miss Sutherlin, when a small matter of business required my presence in Town, Lady Hardwick was kind enough to invite Lavinia and me to stay with her. You must know of Lady Hardwick, Miss Sutherlin. Dear Victoria! So kind, and widowed so young, poor thing. Quite the stylish young matron, you know, but of course everything that is proper. And she is a distant relation of Sir Lionel's. Well, Sir Lionel called on her--I flatter myself that he wished to pay his respects to me as an old friend, you see--and was even so condescending as to notice dear Lavinia, though she was not yet out."
"Was he quite formidable?" Chloe asked, turning to Miss Langford with real interest.
"Oh no, Miss Sutherlin!" Miss Langford replied. "Sir Lionel was the pattern card of propriety! All that was gracious. All that was charming. So very rich..." Miss Langford's voice trailed off and she seemed to contemplate the satisfactory size of Sir Lionel's fortune. "But the son--" Miss Langford's look faded to one of uncertainty, and she turned her gaze down to her folded hands, further exciting Chloe's curiosity.
"The son? You saw Mr. Luthor, you said a moment ago?" Chloe felt that the object of her investigations was at last drawing into view.
Miss Langford only nodded.
Miss Potter said with one of her cold, wide smiles, "It may be that the young Mr. Luthor accompanied his papa on that call, but for some reason did not come into the morning room, having the freedom of dear Lady Hardwick's house. Why, I believe he ran quite tame there."
"Oh, no, Aunt!" Lavinia said. "I have told you for ever that Mr. Luthor was in the house before his papa arrived." She frowned a little and added, "Though I do not know how early he could have come, for I remember thinking it odd that he should be in the house before Lady Hardwick had even come down."
As Miss Potter's tight smile caused her lips to turn quite white, Chloe remarked the twitching of a muscle in her jaw. "That is not possible, my dear," she said.
"Pray, dearest creature," Chloe said before Miss Potter could administer another repressive set-down, "what is it that you do not say?" Chloe waited, her pencil poised. She wondered if Mr. Luthor's strange appearance could excite such disquiet in Miss Langford, and concluded that even Lavinia could not be such a very poor creature as that.
Miss Langford drew breath to speak, paused, and seemed unable to find words. Her Aunt looked on as if waiting to pounce on and destroy any unbelieved or unbecoming word. Chloe still waited, biting back the urge to prompt her friend farther for something that, to judge from its ability to tax Miss Langford's power of speech, might truly be a tidbit worth writing to Louisa about.
After a moment, the young lady collected herself and said, "Sir Lionel, as I say, was all that one could wish. His son, however, was at Lady Hardwick's house without him that day, for I saw him before Sir Lionel had drawn up in that magnificent coach of his." Here Miss Langford cast a look of blended apology and defiance at her Aunt, who looked back, her eyebrows raised. This seemed to shrink Miss Langford's courage, for she continued with some difficulty, "Well, though I was looking about the house as perhaps I should not have, I saw Mr. Luthor, and he saw me, and he quite ignored me! It seemed terribly ill-bred to me. I am now and was even then unaccustomed to be treated so ill by gentlemen of my acquaintance, however short." She wrinkled her brow. "That is, however short the acquaintance. The gentleman may be of any height. Mr. Luthor, I believe, is of a good height for a man. At any rate, when his papa had left, young Mr. Luther did not leave with him, Aunt Nell. I know what I saw, and it was most puzzling. He took his cousin Lady Hardwick away from the morning room, leaving you quite alone--you must recall it, Aunt Nell. Well, later, in wandering from my room to the conservatory--for I declare I was not attempting to follow--I witnessed between him and his poor widowed cousin the most shocking..." Miss Langford trailed off again, a blush rising to her cheeks.
Miss Potter looked on in growing astonishment.
"...conservatory...widow...shocking..." Chloe made a dot and prepared to put her pencil back to work. "Pray, Miss Langford--dear Lavinia--do not leave me in suspense. Am I to guess what you mean?"
"No, of course not, Miss Sutherlin. I will tell you, though there was never anything so calculated to put an innocent girl to the blush! That is, well, perhaps Mr. Luthor did not fully realize the extremity of my youth at the time, for if he had I am sure he would not have allowed me to see...that is, I was used to be mistaken often for a much older girl. I have heard that some ladies in the metropolis do--well--that is to say that frolicking with gentlemen in fountains while wearing--" Miss Langford's blush deepened "--while wearing no petticoats is quite fashionable..."
Miss Potter went pale and appeared to have trouble speaking, from which circumstance Chloe surmised that the older lady truly was hearing her niece's tale for the first time. Though wishing heartily to giggle, Chloe repressed the sudden glee she felt at her friend's disclosure. She satisfied herself for the moment by wondering if Mr. Luthor's actions might be the sort of thing Louisa had meant in writing that he was not in the petticoat line.
Before Miss Potter could find her tongue, Chloe improvised quickly. "No petticoats? Oh yes! I have heard of such a thing. It is rather fast, to be sure, but not unheard-of. You know, a lady of sufficient social standing may be forgiven much that would ruin an unknown country Miss."
"Yes, of course," replied Miss Langford. "I know you were raised in society in Town, and that you have no doubt seen and heard things that I, reared in the country, cannot imagine."
"Perhaps," Chloe acceded, "but make no mistake, Miss Langford: I have seen and heard more unusual things here in Littleton than I ever encountered in Town. Do not believe that our retired situation exempts us from what is queer and strange in life! But tell me, if this dashing young matron was frolicking in the fountain en deshabille, dare I inquire what Mr. Luthor was, er--doing?"
"Oh!" cried Miss Langford faintly, looking down at her clasped hands. "No! I could not say. I dare not repeat...I do not understand what the poor footman...Oh, pray, Miss Sutherlin, do not make me speak of it more!" Tears started to her eyes.
"...damp...Luthor...footman.... Why, my dearest creature, of course not," replied Chloe, constructing for herself a picture of the events of that long-ago day and feeling mightily amused. Allowing a footman to assist a lady out of a fountain, as she imagined to have been the event whose memory still had the power to overset Miss Langford, was hardly the act of a hardened libertine. Footmen were hired to be discreet. Chloe was sometimes surprised at the delicate sensibilities of one who had lived all her life in the natural world of Littleton. "Do not upset yourself, Miss Langford. Please, put the matter out of your mind." Chloe tapped her pencil against her pocket-book.
Miss Langford smiled through her tears, and Chloe was forced to admit to herself that it was, as her friend young Mr. Kent frequently pointed out, as if the sun had come out from behind a cloud. Mr. Kent generally waxed on a bit longer about it, though. "Oh thank you, Miss Sutherlin, for not inquiring farther! Let us speak of the present."
Chloe nodded. She put her pencil away and looked up. "Yes, the present. Well, I shall tell you what I have learned that may be of use in becoming acquainted with our interesting new neighbor." She leafed through one or two earlier pages in her pocket-book, then said, consulting them, "His father, Sir Lionel Luthor, is as you seem already to know, as rich as Croesus, with large estates in the West Country and vast interests in the mills and factories of the North. His son Alexander, well-known Bond Street beau and noted whip-hand..."(and, Chloe reflected wryly, infamous fountain-frolicker--she wondered for a mere instant if she could somehow amuse Louisa with a clever juxtaposition of the words "frolicker" and "follicle," but could not pursue the thought at the moment), "...was sent down from Oxford for some sort of scandal that his father covered up--undoubtedly with a great deal of money--and is now taking an indefinite repairing lease here in Littleton, where he is expected to manage the estate. And that," she concluded with only a little prevarication, "is everything I have been able to discover."
"Then you do not know about Mr. Luthor's--appearance?" asked Miss Langford.
"Lavinia!" protested Miss Potter weakly, finding her voice at last, though still a bit pale from her niece's earlier disclosure. "A lady does not mention such things!"
"She doesn't? But Aunt, I mention gentlemen's appearance all the time. It is very important to me, as indeed, mine is to them."
Before Miss Potter could reply to this, Chloe turned to Miss Langford and said, "His appearance? Why, forgive me--do you refer to his famous, er--follicular condition?"
"No! I mean that he has no hair whatsoever!" Miss Langford crowed, clapping her hands like a schoolroom miss. "And nobody knows why!"
"Lavinia!" snapped Miss Potter briskly, having now recovered from her previous shock. "You will not speak of such things! Skulking in conservatories! Petticoats! Fountains! No hair, indeed! Your poor mama would turn in her grave to hear you speak so common. Why, what will Miss Sutherlin think of us? What do you think, Miss Sutherlin? A gentleman's hair, or the lack of it, cannot be quite a proper topic, even in Town."
"One can hardly blame Miss Langford for making an exception in such an extreme case," Chloe replied, adding kindly, "Indeed, I ought to thank her for apprising me of what might otherwise have caused me unbecoming surprise on meeting Mr. Luthor. But no, Miss Potter, in general, speaking of it cannot be called truly proper." Chloe closed her pocket-book, confident now that, with the exception of his interesting attachment to gloves, no one knew anything of substance about Mr. Luthor that she had not already learned or suspected from Louisa's letter.
Miss Potter said, "There, you see, Lavinia? Depend upon it, dear: a gentleman's, er, follicles (Miss Potter blushed slightly) are not what a young lady should be speaking of. And as to the rest of your shocking tale, I beg you will never speak of it again! I cannot imagine what your cousin Harry would think to know that such a thing had been spoken of by a Potter woman, with him advancing so fast in that exclusive school--what is it? Begins with an H. Dear me..."
"Harrow?" offered Chloe.
"No, dear. It will come to me in the middle of the night, I am sure. What would your cousin Josephine think, who has so courageously grown up in the wilderness of New England and yet still writes to us from time to time? She knows what is expected of a Potter woman, I can assure you, Lavinia."
Miss Eleanor Potter had paved her niece's path from orphaned girlhood through perfect social debut with a wealth of such admonishments, and, given a chance, would continue doing so up to the threshold of Lavinia's matrimonial chamber, and even after. Chloe had heard most of Miss Potter's advice before, and was able to let that lady's words wash over her while she ordered her own thoughts about their new and distinguished neighbour. A fascinating blend of scandal, mystery, and misfortune attached to him, and Chloe was already making up her mind to be in love with him if she possibly could.
She attempted at the same time to enjoy a sip or two of the unappealing coffee which seemed to represent the height of Miss Langford's household management. Lavinia was generally accounted a pretty-behaved thing, not unhearable at the pianoforte, a middling horsewoman who was as happy to cheer the hunt on as to attempt to ride with it, and reasonably clever at sketching. (A prospect of the village of Littleton with its prominent coaching house, the Falcon's Talon, stood framed against the mantelpiece, demonstrating an endearing love of home, if not a mastery of the charcoal stick.) Beyond these products of a genteel and undemanding education, Chloe had not in three years' exile to Littleton from the metropolis witnessed in Miss Langford any real merit. Her shining brown hair, her readiness equally with a smile or tears, and a modest fortune (fast dwindling, it was said, since Aunt Nell had sold family land to Sir Lionel and was living off the principal) that kept her in pin-money and provided the expensive, outmoded dresses Miss Potter chose for her, all served to contribute to the general feeling in Littleton that Miss Langford did not need actual accomplishments.
"Well, my dear," that young lady said to Chloe when at last the tide of Miss Potter's admonitions had ebbed. "My aunt's acquaintance with Sir Lionel, though once quite intimate, is not today of such a nature that we could presume upon it with his son. So, how ever shall we go about obtaining an invitation to dine at Luthor Manor?"
Before Lavinia's Aunt could resume her lecture on good manners, Chloe laughed as lightly as she could and said, "As he has no hostess, he cannot be expected to invite us. But let me see what I can do. Mr. Luthor will be dining with my father and me on Tuesday week."
A soundless moment of astonishment passed before Miss Potter could collect herself enough to say, "Lavinia, dear, you know you must not leave your mouth hanging open like a fish."
"In--indeed?" Miss Langford managed to reply at last to Chloe's announcement, in which Chloe was taking a pardonable degree of inward delight and satisfaction. "Indeed? And how--? That is to say, what--?" Miss Langford, appearing to realize that every question in her mind was improper, lapsed into piscine silence again.
Chloe took pity on her. "Dearest creature, my father is Mr. Luthor's man of business in Littleton. Our removal to this--" she looked out Miss Potter's parlor window into the dusty village street and took a breath, "--this dear, dear, leafy little hamlet was in the service of some of Sir Lionel's interests. Sir Lionel has entrusted his son with the running of the Littleton estate, which, to be sure, is one of his lesser holdings. It is natural that Papa should invite him to dine, and natural that Mr. Luthor should accept."
"I--I see," Miss Langford answered faintly, although Chloe felt certain that she had seen very little at all. "And so, Miss Sutherlin, how do you suppose--?" Miss Langford glanced at her Aunt, swallowed, and passed a hand in a small gesture over her head, leaving her most pressing and impolite question unspoken, but not unasked.
"I do not know how a young man loses all his hair," Chloe replied sweetly. "Syphilis, perhaps?"
She rose, put on her bonnet, and took her leave while Miss Potter fanned herself vigourously in titillated outrage, ignoring Miss Langford's entreating looks. As Chloe accepted her parasol and gloves from the maid stationed outside the parlor door, she overhead Miss Langford saying, "Please, Aunt Nell. What did she say?"
Chloe spent some pleasant hours over the next two days composing a report of her interesting visit to Miss Potter and Miss Langford, in a letter to Louisa. The letter, both dutiful and gleeful, was, she hoped, quite sufficiently long and entertaining to help Louisa while away a pleasant half-hour. She was carrying the letter herself to the village post-office, her maid in tow, when she espied her foster-cousin Mr. Ross across the street. He raised his curly-brimmed beaver when he saw her, and made his way across the street at her civil nod.
From the first day of her own exile to Littleton, Ross had proved a friend to Chloe, being very often at hand with a bit of news and an encouraging word. As Chloe had scarcely ever known him to provide more than that, it was sometimes wonderful to her that they maintained the fast friendship they both liked to claim, for generally she sought more wit and substance in those she called friend. Littleton providing very little selection, she supposed she took society where she might respectably do so, and longed inwardly for the return to Town that would place her in a more stimulating circumstance.
"My dear Ross! Why, how pleasant to see you," she said, extending her hand. Mr. Ross smiled and raised it to his lips in the salute that he knew perfectly well was always just a fraction too lingering. He was wont to use the advantage of their distant familial relationship to forward what Chloe felt was a harmless flirtation. Indeed, without the same advantage, he flirted with every other young woman of the village as well.
"Good day, Chloe," he said. "You're looking charmingly as always."
"Thank you, sir," she replied, withdrawing her gloved hand and wiping it surreptitiously on the side of her pelisse. She regarded his pleasant, open countenance and beheld there a certain eagerness. "And you, Master Pete (for she sometimes still called him by his childish name) are looking likely to burst with news. I can always tell. What is afoot?"
"Only this: Kent saved the life today of Mr. Luthor."
"Mr. Kent? Clark Kent?"
"The very same."
"You astonish me, Ross! I must know more. Will you walk with me to the post-office?" Chloe, who a week ago had believed Lavinia Langford's confession the apotheosis of all interesting gossip, fished frantically in her reticule for pocket-book and pencil. "Dear Ross--have you a pencil about you? I'm afraid mine has quite worn down." He withdrew a slim, silver-bound instrument from an inner coat pocket and handed it to her, rolling his eyes.
"I'd upbraid you, Chloe, but the news I have to tell takes precedence."
"...takes...precedence," she muttered. "Do go on."
"Seems Kent was on the bridge when Luthor came flying up the road in a pale-blue curricle drawn by the most bang-up pair of perfectly-matched greys you ever saw--right out of Tattersall's, they must have been...getting all this, Chlo?"
Chloe drew her partner to a halt in the street. "Ross, you know I do not care for the details of sporting vehicles. I am interested in the folly of the young men who drive them. That is what is worth writing about."
"Oh very well," he replied. "Then here is folly for you: Luthor's bowling along at an amazing clip, clearly about to overtake a farm cart in the road ahead of him, just before the bridge, when a bale of hay slips from the cart and obstructs the road. Kent, daydreaming and looking out at the river, now has his attention drawn by a loud curse from Luthor. Luthor is attempting to control his pair, but to no avail. They rear, they slip their traces, damned thing overturns--"
"...slip...traces...damned..." She looked up in mock outrage. "Mr. Ross!"
"Forgive me, Chlo. Deuced thing overturns, sliding straight towards Kent, who is too stunned by surprise to move out of the way. He is thrown into the river, along with Luthor. Curricle is shattered, dangling off the bridge in sticks and slivers, held above the water only by a few bits of harness still attached to the horses, which are in a state of terror by this time, as you can well imagine."
"Oh, Ross!" Chloe cried, nearly forgetting to take notes in her anxiety for the well-being of the most interesting thing to happen to Littleton since the influenza epidemic of '89. She was also concerned for the safety of her dear old friend Mr. Kent, who always seemed to be in accidents, and who was always, by some miracle, unhurt.
"Never fear, Chlo. Kent saved the day. And by some miracle, he was himself unhurt. He pulled Mr. Luthor from the stream, laid him out on the bank, and gave him the kiss of life--"
"He did what?"
"He blew breath back into Luthor's lungs. Oh, never mind, Chloe. It's something men do. Shouldn't have mentioned it. Suffice it to say that Kent's heroic actions saved Luthor from almost certain death. I mean to say, Luthor's a famous whip, don't you know--raced Viscount Wayne himself once down the High Street and won, top-of-the-trees driver and all, but the man's mad to drive like that on a country lane. Curricle's for the highway. For these lanes, what's wanted is a chaise-and-four..."
"Ah, yes. Well, Kent assured himself that Luthor wasn't going to stick his spoon in the wall anytime soon, then climbed back up to the bridge and calmed the horses, untangled all the harness, and rode one bareback to Luthor Manor while leading the other. And they not even saddle-horses. Remarkable fellow, really, when you think about it, is Kent. Riding Luthor's carriage horses--probably never seen a saddle in their lives. Dashed daring--"
"Peter Ross, continue the story this instant or I shall scream in frustration!"
Mr. Ross cleared his throat, chastised. "Sorry, Chlo. Can't think what's come over me. To hear me prose on, you'd think I never had a chance to speak before. Odd.... Well, to resume: Kent rides back to Luthor Manor and orders some of the servants to go see to their master. Then he returns to the bridge--gets there before the servants can arrive with the big barouche-landau to take Luthor home--collects all the parts of the blue curricle and attempts to glue them back together."
"And Mr. Luthor?"
"Relatively unharmed. Dazed, of course, a bit battered, quite rightly upset over the loss of his spanking new curricle, worried about harm to his blood cattle..."
"...and mighty grateful to Kent."
"I daresay! Good God, Ross, this is astonishing news. How is Clark? Shall I call on his mama? Can he see visitors?"
"Certainly. You know Kent. I'll wager you five guineas that if you were to go out to the Kent place this morning, you would find him up and about already. Never stays down for long, does Kent, when you think of it."
"He never stays down at all, Ross," Chloe rejoined. "I will wager you ten guineas that he has not had a moment's discomfort from the rescue."
"Done!" cried Mr. Ross. "At any rate, don't see why you shouldn't pay a call on Mrs. Kent and inquire. Old friends, no harm, all that."
"I believe I shall," Chloe replied. "Thank you, Ross, for accompanying me, and thank you for telling me this most inter--that is, this most troubling thing."
"My pleasure, Chlo," Mr. Ross replied, tipping his hat once again. "Since this tale ends well, I knew it wouldn't overset a spirited girl like you. Know you like a bit of news."
On Tuesday morning, Chloe wrote a brief note to Mr. Ross, which she sent around with her footman.
"My dear cousin, you own me ten guineas. Mrs. Kent let slip, quite inadvertently, that her darling Clark had not taken a moment's rest from saving Mr. Luthor's life.
"What is more, Mr. Luthor seems to have made a gift of a very fine carriage and four horses to the Kent family. Clark returned it with thanks the same day. My friend Louisa once told me of returning a gift of diamonds from a gentleman other than her father, as is only proper, since his intentions were not honorable, but I do not see how the gift of a carriage-and-four from one gentleman to another can possibly be seen in the same light, do you? The elder Mr. Kent was adamant, however. I suppose it is pride. Or perhaps they do not have the place to stable four horses.
"Tonight I dine with the new master of Luthor Manor himself. Wish me luck!
*"I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal."*
Chloe, on Wednesday morning following a most successful and satisfactory dinner party the evening before, was once again writing to Louisa Lane, hoping that the amusement afforded by her news would offset the burden her friend would bear in franking such long letters.
Chloe continued her missive: "Thus I was disagreeably surprised to find Mr. Alexander Luthor most agreeable, and therefore most demanding of the trouble I must now put myself to. I liked him, in short, Louisa, a great deal indeed. And, what is more, I believe he liked me.
"Mr. Luthor, my father told me, makes it known that he has left the wildness of youth behind, and intends to begin a respectable new life in Littleton. I expressed my disappointment at this turn of events. I am nearly grown up, but I have not yet lived long enough to witness anything so interesting as ladies in insufficient undergarments, frolicking--in fountains or anywhere else--with dissolute gentlemen, and I had existed for the whole of the period between my visit to Miss Potter and my father's pronouncement about Mr. Luthor's reform in the happy fantasy that perhaps on Tuesday evening my innocent state would change.
"But alas, I remain untouched by any such goings-on. I know you will be relieved! Once past the startlement one must always feel upon first seeing such a young gentleman with so very little need of a barber, I was quite at ease. I intend to make Papa bespeak a coat of Mr. Luthor's tailor, for I have yet to see anything so elegant as the corbeau-colored evening coat he wore to dine with us. Such refinement of taste and manner cannot but please.
"The Kents were easy, as they seem to be in every circumstance, in their countrified clothes and natural manners. The young Mr. Kent always shows to advantage in evening attire, being a handsome large boy whom I may be in love with--were he half as attractive as he is, I would probably decide to do so anyway, for of course he has nothing to do and I have hardly anyone to love. Mr. Luthor, being entirely in the debt of the Kent family now, was of course all graciousness and warmth toward them.
"There was that in Mr. Luthor's address--a certain raking glance, a certain lingering touch--that made me feel quite daring and grown up in his company. That those little looks and gestures were reserved principally for Clark is something I would like to understand better. I suppose that when one's life has been saved, one may become quite interested in one's savior. Clark, quite silly enough, I think, to mistake interest for a sympathetic spirit, was complacency itself, accepting Mr. Luthor's attentions with an open and friendly air. I observed the elder Mr. Kent more than once gritting his teeth and being soothed silently by Clark's mama. I do not know why he should object so to such an advantageous connection for his son. Perhaps I shall find out.
"But however, it is too bad of Mr. Luthor to be so agreeable and to reserve the principal of his agreeableness for another gentlemen, when we have so few. If he and Mr. Kent are to make each other their chief preoccupation, then Lavinia and I shall have nothing left but to cast lots for Mr. Fordman and Mr. Ross, one a-piece. As Mr. Fordman is already well in Lavinia's pocket, and as Ross has no more sense than to hang about mine, there is no sport in it, and I declare I shall be quite in a pout.
"Nevertheless, dear Louisa, I will own to you--and to no one else--that my longing to return to Town has been assuaged by Mr. Luthor's appearance on the Littleton scene, so I cannot pout so sincerely as I should wish. It is all too interesting! And now I must dash to my dressmaker, for of all things wonderful, Mr. Luthor has undertaken to give an assembly ball, and I shall need a new dress. A pink one, I think.
"I remain, yours &c."
Although Luthor Manor boasted a fine ballroom, its long disuse and the absence of a proper hostess argued successfully against its employment in the cause, and so the public assembly-rooms at the Falcon's Talon were chosen for the proposed assembly-ball.
Chloe could not heartily approve Mr. Luthor's choice of Miss Potter to lend propriety to the occasion, though she had to admit that his father's long-standing acquaintance with the lady gave the choice a certain inevitability. Indeed, Miss Potter was an enthusiastic lieutenant in Mr. Luthor's campaign to make himself agreeable to Littleton society, and brought to the task no little experience in giving parties. Miss Potter's preferences ran to what was missish, white, and showy, as Miss Langford's wardrobe sometimes attested, and with Mr. Luthor's carte-blanche, she happily indulged that taste in preparing how the ballroom should be decorated and the guests fed. Chloe, who had attended some few such entertainments in her life, could not but feel that Miss Potter's want of taste would offend Mr. Luthor's more refined sensibilities.
When the great evening arrived at last, Chloe and her father settled Aunt Cassandra comfortably at home with one of her elderly friends, and drove to the assembly-rooms in varying states of anticipation: Mr. Sutherlin professed pride in his pretty daughter's elegant dress and bearing while worrying what sort of impression Littleton society must make on the son and heir of his benefactor; while Chloe, in her turn, hoped that her own toilette would appear to advantage next to the much-vaunted beauty of Miss Lavinia Langford.
Her first hint of social triumph came almost at once. She entered the rooms on the arm of her father and was received by Miss Potter, whose low-cut gown in palest cream was of a style and fashion better suited to the young woman who had once caught the eye of Sir Lionel than to the patroness of an assembly ball given by his son. When she saw Chloe's own elegant ensemble, upon which Chloe had expended much thought and nearly all her allowance, her eyes flew to her white-gowned niece and back again in a rapid comparison from which Chloe emerged superior. "How very...very much of Town you bring with you this evening, my dear," Miss Potter managed to say as she sketched the smallest possible bow.
Chloe smiled. "Thank you, Miss Potter. Allow me to compliment you on the decor of the rooms. Indeed, I have never seen anything to surpass it in the expression of your taste."
Mr. Luthor, standing next to Miss Potter to receive his guests, listened to this exchange with a look--one would almost say a smirk, she thought--of open amusement on his face. "Miss Sutherlin," he murmured in his turn, bending over her hand. Chloe could not be sure that the gentleman did not wink at her. "Witty and elegant! You would be an ornament to the ballrooms of the foremost hostesses in the metropolis, and you are certainly a jewel in the crown of our little assembly."
Chloe curtseyed and hoped she did not blush too fiercely. Speech, for the moment, was beyond her. In a haze of happy victory, she passed into the rooms to join her assembled friends and neighbors. Her father, having made his bluff courtesies to Miss Potter and Mr. Luthor, hurried after her and whispered, "Well, my girl! You seem to have taken the fancy of Sir Lionel's son. Well done! Well done, indeed."
Cringing lest her father's loud whisper be overheard, Chloe finally found her voice. "Now Papa," she said, patting his hand, "Mr. Luthor was only trying to undo Miss Potter's waspish comment. I should be a silly goose indeed if I allowed myself to be flattered!"
The young Mr. Kent was already present, and already paying court to Miss Langford, although hanging back from her slightly behind Mr. Fordman and several other young gentlemen. Miss Langford, spying Chloe, waved from behind this veritable wall of masculine attention, and said, as Chloe drew near, "Dear Miss Sutherlin, do come and share in my bounty, for I certainly cannot amuse all these gentlemen by myself."
Chloe joined the small throng of young people with an ironic smile, wondering if any amount of flattery from gentlemen of Mr. Luthor's stature could ever produce in her the vain confidence that allowed Lavinia to speak of "bounty" in referring to her admirers. She concluded with some pride that it probably could not. Still, she had not often had occasion to appear to such advantage before Mr. Kent, and now that Mr. Luthor had endorsed her toilette with the considerable power of his own good taste, she was anxious to see what effect her modish appearance might have on that sometimes obtuse young man.
"Good evening, Miss Sutherlin!" he said at once with a friendly bow. He looked from her to the primary object of his interest, and back again. "I say! I do not know which of you is the prettier tonight."
Chloe gritted her teeth and bowed in acceptance of what she did not doubt had been intended as a compliment. Miss Langford's jejeune white gown, which had clearly been chosen by her Aunt Nell in memory of a somewhat earlier era of fashion, was at odds with the garish family emerald that dangled at her throat. She looked over the head of one of her shorter admirers at Mr. Kent, and gave a small pout as she said in a teasing tone, "Why, Mr. Kent! Not a moment ago you were declaring me the prettiest girl in the room! What shall I do to secure my standing now that I have a rival?"
Mr. Kent, looking momentarily stricken and confused, hesitated only briefly before giving one of the brilliant smiles for which he was noted by all the young women of the neighbourhood and their mamas. The radiance of that smile seemed to rise from a deep well of simple goodwill, eliciting forgiveness from even the most satricial observer, and mollifying any who received it. Chloe had chastised herself on more than one occasion for surrendering to it.
"Dance with me?" Mr. Kent suggested in response to Miss Langford's playful query.
"Very well, I shall," she replied, "after I have danced with Mr. Fordman."
Mr. Kent turned to Chloe, who looked up at him expectantly. She set aside her hopes for a similar invitation, however, when she observed some pallor in his face, and thought that perhaps overcoming his shyness to ask Miss Langford to dance had cost him a good deal of effort. She was about to express her concern when the orchestra struck up a boulanger. Mr. Kent's eyes followed Lavinia and her red-coated partner, Mr. Fordman, out onto the floor, and the moment when he might have repaired Chloe's feelings was lost.
Chloe looked on as Mr. Luthor took his place in the dance with Miss Potter. His bearing and elegance, while superior to everyone around him, was alloyed with a willingness to be pleased that was greatly to his credit. Chloe noted that Miss Potter, in her youthful gown, moved to her place in the set with a haughty and vain stiffness that did not accord well with the easy grace of her partner. She reflected that poor Papa might indeed now blush for Littleton society, and wished she might take out pencil and pocket-book to scribble a note without exciting unwanted comment herself. Instead, she tried to memorize her thoughts for later recording, and passed a moment or two wondering how it was that her own beautiful and modish new gown and upswept hair did not secure her a place in the first set. Mr. Kent stood by dumbly, and Chloe began to wish that he would at least move away from her so as not to draw the attention of all the world to her undesirable plight.
"Evening, Chlo, evening, Kent." Mr. Ross, having made his hurried way across the room to her side, approached with a smile and a bow. "I do beg your pardon," he continued. "Meant to bespeak the first dance with you, but I see Kent is before me."
"Not at all, Cousin," she said. "I would be pleased to dance with you." She placed her gloved hand in his and resisted the temptation to look back at Mr. Kent as she allowed herself to be led to the floor. She was aware that she and her cousin made an interesting couple. They were much of a height, but were otherwise a study in contrasts, he with his black hair and saturnine complexion and satisfyingly broad shoulders set off by a snowy neckcloth and black evening clothes; she all slim fairness and bright hair and pale pink silk. Through much practice, they danced effortlessly together, and so had provided pleasure for the old ladies looking on at more than one private dancing-party and assembly ball. She noticed a pair of such dames looking at them with smiles, gesturing indiscreetly with their old-fashioned fans.
"Couldn't help noticing, Chloe," Mr. Ross said as the music began and they circled in the figure of the dance, "Crossing the room toward you earlier--that's a dashed pretty dress. Superior by far to everything else I see here this evening."
Chloe smiled in genuine gratitude. "Thank you, Mr. Ross! It is kind of you to say so. Certain others did not find it worthy of notice."
"Kent not awake to your charms?"
"It would seem not, though do not suppose I mean to let that diminish my enjoyment of the evening."
"Of course not."
The dance separated them, and Chloe found herself next opposite Mr. Luthor. With a knowing half-smile, he said, "And dances delightfully as well," as if simply continuing his earlier compliments.
"Mr. Luthor, you will turn my head," she protested before the dance carried him down the line.
When the music ended, Mr. Ross accompanied her off the floor and went to obtain refreshment. She observed Mr. Kent sitting alone on a banquette some way around the room, and felt a moment's compassion for a young man who was so overcome with shyness around the prettiest girl in the village that he must sit quietly by himself after speaking to her.
"Don't worry about Kent."
Chloe turned to find Mr. Luthor at her elbow.
He continued, "I have it on good authority that he is overcome with repugnance at the Potter family emerald."
"Mr. Luthor!" Chloe said, her eyes wide, feeling torn between laughter and shock. Louisa had told her that sometimes the only amusement to be had at a dull party was to abuse the company privately with a friend. For Mr. Luthor to share this scandalous pastime with her was a strange distinction. She could not like the ease with which he insulted Miss Langford's taste in jewellery, but she could not honestly say that the same thought had not been in her own mind earlier. On balance, she was rather more amused than offended by his words.
"It is a very large emerald, to be sure," she conceded after a moment. "One cannot but see it."
"Indeed, and that is unfortunate, for one must then fail to see anything else at all for several moments while one's eyes reaccustom themselves to daylight," he rejoined.
Mr. Luthor gave a slight bow as if to acknowledge a compliment. "For myself, however," he continued, "my faith in humanity is quite restored."
"I do not know whether to beg you to tell me what caused you to lose that faith, Mr. Luthor, or to demand to know what power the Potter family emerald has to restore it."
"As to the first point, Miss Sutherlin, the very existence of such gaudy baubles in this world--particularly around the necks of young ladies still in white, quite vanquishes my faith, at least my faith in good taste. As to the second, if a young man of Mr. Kent's...unstudied...tastes finds such a thing overwhelming, then my faith must be restored, for there is hope."
"Hope, Mr. Luthor?" Chloe could not help saying. "I wonder what you now have cause to hope for." Mr. Luthor's gaze flickered briefly over Chloe's shoulder to where she knew Mr. Kent was sitting. "Or perhaps I should wonder if there any hope for you, sir."
Mr. Luthor returned his gaze to her and gave a slight smile, saying "My reputation in Town is such that no one who heard of it would think so, Miss Sutherlin."
"Oh, but I have heard of it, and I do not think you are as wicked as all that."
"Then you have not heard it all, Miss Sutherlin. I shall choose, however, to find your faith in me uplifting," Mr. Luthor replied. "Foolish, perhaps, but kind, and I thank you for it." Before Chloe could make a satisfactory rejoinder, Mr. Luthor said, "Tell me, Miss Sutherlin, do you waltz?"
Thoughts of scandalous behaviour involving fountains and petticoats rose up in Chloe's mind as she rapidly considered the implications of this most provocative question. That one's first public waltz might be with a rake--not to say an out and out libertine--was a prospect both tempting and terrifying. Mr. Luthor's gaze did not leave her face, and he seemed to see how much she was thinking about her reply, for his expression became sardonic. Quickly then, before he could withdraw his question, Chloe answered, "I have not waltzed publicly, sir, but I believe I would be quite safe in doing so with you, if you are asking."
Mr. Luthor laughed. It was the first time she had seen him do so, and she found it nearly as pleasing as Mr. Kent's brilliant smile. "I am asking. And pray, Miss Sutherlin, do not carry your kindness too far in thinking me safe, for I assure you, I am not."
Mr. Ross returned at that moment with a glass of lemonade for her. Mr. Luthor, after a few remarks of a much safer and more civil nature than those he had exchanged with Chloe alone, soon bowed and excused himself, saying, "I shall look forward to our dance, Miss Sutherlin."
This mark of distinction from Mr. Luthor left Chloe with such a thrilling sense of daring that any portion of the evening that must lapse before the waltz threatened to be quite dull. She was asked to join in the next country-dance by Mr. Arkin. This young gentleman had recently returned from Town having undergone that remarkable transformation that sometimes occurs during a year's absence: he had grown up. From being an awkward, clumsy boy in ill-fitting clothes, he had acquired that instantly-recognizable quality Chloe knew as town-bronze. If he was overconfident in his approach to Chloe, he was at least a creditable dance partner. Chloe did her best to disregard the odd, skittering sound produced by the multitude of fobs and seals he wore on his waistcoat in imitation of the dandies he had seen in the metropolis. Her general enjoyment of the country-dance was marred only by Mr. Kent's stumbling rather heavily into her when the set brought him and his partner Miss Langford together.
She observed Mr. Luthor speaking to Miss Langford alone afterward, and hoped uncharitably that he was not conversing with her in the same daring way by which he had so distinguished Chloe. For an unpleasant moment, she wondered if he found something to abuse from across the room in her own taste or appearance, but as she observed only earnestness and not shock or humour in Miss Langford's expression, she surmised that the conversation was of a more tame character. Miss Langford left the ballroom immediately following the conversation.
So engrossed was Chloe in her observation that Mr. Kent's approach startled her. "Miss Sutherlin, may I have the honor of the next dance?" he asked with a sketchy bow. Though Chloe did not relish being stumbled into again, of such long standing had been her wish for this very offer that she accepted it without a second thought.
"You may, indeed, Mr. Kent," she said, "though the honor will be mine, in having as my partner the brave man who saved the life of Mr. Luthor."
"Please, Miss Sutherlin," Mr. Kent said in a lowered tone. "I beg you won't mention that."
"Very well, if that is your wish."
"It is, and I thank you." He smiled brightly. "It was Mr. Luthor, though, who assured me that you would forgive my earlier clumsiness and consent to dance with me."
"Mr. Luthor is a strangely perceptive gentleman," she replied, looking about and discerning him immediately among all those more hirsute and less elegant than he--in short, among everyone. He caught her eye and gave a slight nod and a sardonic half-smile in salute as the musicians began once again to play.
During the course of the long dance that followed, Mr. Kent, though not a graceful dancer, did not give himself or Chloe any cause for shame. Chloe supposed that a moment's unwellness had made him clumsy in his earlier dance with Miss Langford, and that his more customary ease had now reasserted itself. It was not to one's own discredit, either, she thought complacently, that one did not fluster the poor boy to absurdity. When their hands met in the dance, he smiled or laughed, seeming pleased with himself for not stumbling and frankly happy to be dancing with his old friend. He was so dear, and so terribly handsome, Chloe reflected, that one must really forgive all else, even his unflattering preference for the insipid Miss Langford. As he led her, slightly breathless, from the dance floor, Mr. Kent said, "I say, Miss Sutherlin, I beg your pardon for not saying so the moment you came into the room, but you are looking especially beautiful this evening, and your gown is very elegant."
Chloe was amused to think that she had hoped for just such an unlikely compliment from him. "You are very kind, sir," she said. "Is it possible that Mr. Luthor influenced you to say so?"
"No!" he cried. "That is, dash it all, Miss Sutherlin, he only pointed out my stupidity to me in failing to notice what's in front of my eyes."
"I see. Well then, I have much to thank him for. His influence would appear to be far better than his reputation would suggest. Pray, Mr. Kent, let me recommend that you spend more time in his company, for it seems to have a salutary effect on you."
"I think I shall," he replied thoughtfully, looking across the room to where the bald gentleman was speaking to some one or other of his guests. "Certainly Mr. Luthor seems to wish it."
Sometime during Chloe's dance with Mr. Kent, Miss Sutherlin had come back into the room. It took Chloe a moment to realize that she had removed the Potter family emerald. Her curiosity on this point was short-lived, however, as the first strains of the long-awaited waltz brought a buzz of excited voices from those denizens of Littleton society who had not been aware that the daring new dance from the Continent was to form a part of the evening's entertainment. Chloe's heart beat rapidly and she did not dare look down at herself for fear of seeing there the flush that she felt from her neckline to her ears. Having engaged herself to Mr. Luthor for the waltz in a moment of recklessness that now seemed very far away, she could not cry off without appearing missish to him, and, what was worse, cowardly in her own eyes. The truth was that she did not have the permission of her father or her Aunt Cassandra to dance the waltz, but it was too late now to consider that, as Mr. Luthor was already at hand.
"Mr. Luthor." She curtseyed. Whispers arose as people saw which very young lady Mr. Luthor was about to whirl around the room in his arms. Miss Potter's face wore an expression of outrage; Chloe's father's eyebrows went up; and she observed her cousin Mr. Ross looking shocked. Chloe repressed her nervous agitation with force of will and smiled as brightly as she could up at her intriguing dance partner.
"Ready, Miss Sutherlin?"
She took a deep breath and nodded. The waltz began.
"And so, dearest Louisa, I have waltzed with Mr. Luthor! I think I am becoming a scandal. Shall you be proud of your little friend? Of course, when Mr. Kent led Miss Langford out onto the floor a moment later, much of my scandalous thunder was stolen, and soon all the young people and not a few of our elders were trying the waltz. It is quite a wonderful sensation, is it not, twirling about in a gentleman's arms. And Mr. Luthor dances so very gracefully that I do not mind having given my very first public waltz to him, though from the moment I first learned the steps I have dreamed of dancing them with Mr. Kent. He seemed quite at ease waltzing with Miss Langford, but I fancy I did not detect anything lover-like in his demeanour toward her, and so there is yet hope for me.
"What a goose I am becoming, Louisa, over these silly things that I have so long disdained!
"After the waltz, everything seemed quite tame, and we soon took our leave. Papa tried to admonish me for the liberty I took in dancing the waltz, but he could not hide the fact that he was proud of me.
"Oh, my head is full of so many things, Louisa! How I wish you were here to discuss them with me. The distinction Mr. Luthor accorded me both in conversation and by waltzing with me must be gratifying to a person of my temperament and situation, and yet I cannot but feel a little frightened by his allusions to his own wickedness. There is something about him--a quality that I'm not sure dare call seductive--that quite disorders my senses. I take some comfort in knowing that I am not the only one thus affected, for as we were leaving the assembly rooms, I saw him speaking again with Mr. Kent, and Mr. Kent seemed also a little bit disordered.
They were in an alcove not readily visible from the ballroom, and it was evident that some privacy was intended, for Mr. Luthor leant very close to Mr. Kent, I presume to impart some farther counsel that he would not wish another to hear. Mr. Kent very nearly sprang away from him, quite flushed, I believe. Whatever Mr. Luthor was saying, Mr. Kent clearly did not find it comfortable. Indeed, Louisa, I did not feel comfortable at all in seeing what I saw. If this quality of Mr. Luthor's affects men as well as women, then I suppose it cannot properly be called seductive, can it? But however, they were out riding together this morning near Luthor Manor, so I suppose that any little misunderstanding between them has been mended.
"Mr. Luthor showed real kindness and discretion in prompting Mr. Kent to dance with me; he exercised a very delicate solicitude, I think, in instructing that silly boy to compliment me on my gown--and, I must say, in somehow persuading Miss Langford to remove the offending family emerald so that Mr. Kent might more comfortably dance with her as well. He seems to care very much for Mr. Kent's happiness, as I suppose is natural in one whose life has been saved so recently. They seem to do one another a great deal of good, Mr. Luthor making Mr. Kent aware of the wider world about him, and Mr. Kent offering to Mr. Luthor, as I suppose, a certain innocent refreshment from that same world. Though it is vexing that their growing intimacy deprives the ladies of Littleton of as much of their company as we could wish, I cannot after all find any real fault with it.
"So, dear Louisa, I have decided, perhaps quite foolishly, not to mind about Mr. Luthor and Mr. Kent. The one intrigues and amuses me so mightily and the other is so very handsome and kind that one must welcome that portion of their society that they deign to share with the rest of us, or pine for ever in so confined a place as this. I do not yet despair of attaching one or the other of them. I will keep you apprised of all the news from Littleton. Do do so is my calling.
"I remain ever,
"Your affectionate friend,
Author's notes: Great beta help from Tavia and Yahtzee, who reign supreme at the SVfanficworkshop. A special thank-you to novelist Margaret Westhaven, who lent her vast Regency-era expertise and from whom I borrowed Miss Towers' Select Seminary.
I wove this story around three of Jane Austen's most enduring quotations:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice--one of the great opening lines in all of literature.)
I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal. (from her collected letters)
Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love. (Persuasion)
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