“Mary! There you are! I haven’t seen you in weeks! Where have you been keeping yourself, my dear?”
Mary turned around, smiling broadly at Charlotte. “I’m so sorry that I haven’t been able to visit you, Charlotte. I’ve just been so busy. We’re redecorating the house, you know, and when we’re not doing that, my parents are dragging me to all sorts of balls and plays. I barely get a moment to myself, much less time to spend with friends. How have you been?”
“I’m well. And yourself? Not run too ragged by everything?”
“Oh, no!” Mary laughed, “I’m quite well. In fact…can you keep a secret?”
“From you? Of course.”
Mary led Charlotte over to a quiet corner and opened her fan, to make doubly sure that no one heard her. “I’m being courted by Lord Abernathy.”
“Oh, Mary!” Charlotte gasped, delighted, “Are you quite sure?”
Mary nodded excitedly. “He’s been at every event I’ve attended, and always makes sure to drop by to say hello. I’ve caught him looking at me a few times, and he gives me a little smile before turning away. And just today…well, come along with me.”
She led Charlotte through the ballroom and into the small antechamber where everyone’s cloaks were being stored. Sifting through the rows, she finally pulled out her dark blue cloak and pointed proudly at the corsage of flowers she’d pinned to the shoulder. “He sent these along for me this morning, with the hope that I’d wear it at the ball. Mama insisted I limit it to wearing it on my cloak, just to keep tongues from wagging too much, but I made sure that he knew I’d received it.”
“It’s beautiful!” Charlotte said, carefully touching the petals, “I daresay you allowed him to sign your dance card after that.”
“Three times!” Mary said wickedly, “Properly spaced out, of course, so as to limit the gossip, but enough to signal my interest. Perhaps I’ll be able to get a few moments alone with him afterwards to encourage him still further.”
Charlotte squeezed Mary’s hands. “You must keep me updated. I want to be the first to congratulate you on your engagement.”
“You have my word,” Mary said, returning the cloak to its place and giving the corsage one last caress, “But for now, let’s return to the ball. I don’t want to miss one of Abernathy’s dances, after all!”
Two weeks later, Mary was in a state of heightened anticipation. Lord Abernathy’s intentions could not have been more plainly stated at this point. He had sent a few more gifts of flowers, always sat at her table during card games, and made sure to dance with her at least once at every ball. One night, he accompanied her and her parents to their carriage after the opera, and had placed a kiss on both her hand and her palm before helping her inside. At this point, all that was left was to officially request a courtship, first from her, and then from her parents. She just wasn’t sure when the request would come.
At last, Georgiana came into the room one morning with a letter. “From Lord Abernathy, ma’am.” she said, smiling. Mary ripped open the envelope at once and scanned the contents. Abernathy was inviting her out for a walk in the park “to discuss a matter of urgent importance.” Mary put a hand to her mouth to prevent herself from squealing in delight, but she couldn’t stop herself from quivering with delight as she pointed to her armoire. “I will draft a response presently, Georgiana. In the meantime, lay out my new dress. The white and gold one.”
With her parents’ blessing, Mary had ordered a new dress from the dressmaker when it had become clear Lord Abernathy had taken an interest in her. They had all had the implicit understanding that it was to be kept in reserve for the moment when he made the courtship official, and was not to be brought out until then. Well, that moment was now, and Mary couldn’t wait to make it just perfect for the occasion.
Georgiana pulled the dress out and rested it against the chair, admiring it. “Such a beautiful dress, ma’am. I’m sure you’ll look like an angel in it.”
“I appreciate that, Georgiana. I hope Lord Abernathy feels the same way. Leave me for now; I’ll call you again when I’m ready to get dressed.” Georgiana curtseyed, giving her mistress a warm smile, and exited, leaving Mary alone with her plans.
Mary was almost too excited to finish her breakfast, but managed it anyway; it wouldn’t do to faint in the middle of Abernathy’s declaration. Once she had finished, she set the tray aside and moved to her desk, where she quickly jotted down her response to Abernathy’s invitation (“Miss Prowse would be delighted to accompany you on a walk. She will meet you at the park entrance at one this afternoon.”) and folded it into an envelope, sealing it with a kiss before she applied the wax. Then she crossed to her mirror, where she brushed and played with her hair until she was certain that she had removed every tangle or unruly strand. Only then did she ring for Georgiana to return.
After she’d been helped into the gown, Mary sat at the vanity, going through her jewelry while Georgiana did her hair, tucking it up securely at the back while allowing two strands of hair to hang in the front, framing Mary’s face just so. Mary gave her a dazzling smile when she finally looked up. “It’s perfect, Georgiana. You’re wonderful.”
“Just doing my duty, Ma’am,” Georgiana said modestly, “Though I won’t object if you drink a toast in my name at the wedding.”
Mary laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.” she promised, before returning to her toilette. She powdered her face carefully, but left her cheeks be; the cold air in the park would allow them to redden naturally, to say nothing of her inevitable blushes. Then came the jewellry. Nothing too elaborate, just a pair of gold earrings and a gold chain with a single sapphire hanging just above the neck of the dress. At last, she slipped on her walking shoes, a pair of soft yellow gloves, and draped a white knitted shawl over her shoulders. She looked at herself in the mirror from every possible angle, squinting carefully, until she was sure it looked right. Now all that was left was the waiting.
She tried to sit on her window seat and read, but her excitement meant that she couldn’t focus on the words, and gave up after struggling through a chapter. Finally, after another half-hour of sitting and fiddling with her ensemble, she rose to her feet and went downstairs. “Call for Georgiana,” she told the butler, “and have the stablehands prepare the carriage. I will be heading out to the park.”
“Very good, Miss,” the butler said, before adding with a slight smile, “And the best of luck.”
The winter air was crisp but unquestionably cold; Mary still felt a bit cold even with the shelter of the carriage roof and a blanket across her lap. She knew the dress and shawl were a bit thin for walking out in the open air, but she wanted to show the dress off to Lord Abernathy. After all, it had been made specially for him. Perhaps she’d be able to convince him to come along with them in the carriage to officially ask her parents permission, and thus minimize the amount of time she was exposed to the open air.
Even though she begged the driver to go slowly and take the most circuitous route to the park in order to make the time go faster, there was still an hour to go by the time they arrived. Danny obligingly circled the park two times, but Mary didn’t want him to look too out of place. So as he reached their starting point once more, she rapped on the roof. “That will do for now, Danny. You can let me and Georgiana out here. Go on and have a little something to drink to warm yourself up. Come back at around one-thirty; hopefully that will be enough time to settle the matter.”
“Thank you kindly, Miss Prowse. One-thirty it is, then.”
Danny helped them out of the carriage, nodded respectfully, then drove off. Mary watched him go, quivering from both anticipation and the chill in the air. Georgiana, wearing her heaviest cloak and a shawl besides, glanced at her hesitantly. “Ma’am, would you like to exchange shawls for a while? Just until Lord Abernathy gets here? It’ll keep you a lot warmer.”
Mary shook her head. “What if he comes early himself? I want him to get the full effect right away.”
“If you say so, Ma’am,” Georgiana said dubiously, “Let us at least take a turn around the park. That way, we can locate the most romantic spot, and orchestrate it so that Lord Abernathy asks you at that place.” Mary laughed at that and started down the path.
They had just finished exploring the various paths and were just taking a tour of the boundaries of the park when Mary heard her name being called. Looking up, she saw Charlotte passing by in a carriage, bundled up in a warm fur cloak. “You look beautiful, Mary!” she said, when Mary approached to say hello, “But isn’t it a little thin for this weather?”
“Oh, it won’t be for long!” Mary assured her, before lowering her voice conspiratorially, “It’s for Lord Abernathy’s sake.”
Charlotte gasped in excitement. “He’s to ask you?”
Mary nodded. “He should be here at One O’Clock. I’ll meet you for tea tomorrow and tell you all about it.”
Charlotte pressed her hands. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Best of luck!” With another smile and wave, she drove off. Mary waved until the carriage had disappeared, then returned to walking with Georgiana.
At last, just as Mary’s teeth started chattering from the cold, Lord Abernathy’s elegant barouche drew up, and a moment later, Lord Abernathy descended. His feet had barely touched the ground before he froze in his tracks, staring in amazement at Mary. Mary smiled broadly and drew herself up, allowing him to take in every inch of her dress. “Hello, Lord Abernathy,” she said, speaking carefully to keep her teeth from chattering, “I’m so delighted to see you.”
“My goodness, Miss Prowse,” Lord Abernathy said, stepping forward and kissing her gloved hand, “Never have I seen such a gorgeous vision of loveliness as I do at this moment. Even the finest painter would be unable to capture your beauty.”
“Thank you, my lord. I wished to wear it especially for you.”
“I’m deeply flattered, my lady. Now, shall we take a turn around the park? I have much I need to speak to you about.” Mary nodded and slid her arm through his, partly as a gesture of affection but mostly in an attempt to absorb a little of his warmth.
They walked down the nearest path, Georgiana lingering behind at a respectful distance. After a moment, Lord Abernathy said;
“My dearest Miss Prowse…you will undoubtedly have noticed that I’ve been paying you a fair amount of attention as of late. The time I have spent with you has been an utter delight, I assure you.”
Mary turned her face up to his, heart beating widly, waiting for him to say the words. Instead, the smile dropped off her face as he continued;
“Alas, I will be unable to see those attentions to their full fruition.”
“Wh-what?” Mary said, unsure she had heard correctly, “But…your invitation…”
“I thought it would be kinder if I explained it to you personally, rather than discovering it yourself at the next ball. I’ve recently been introduced to Lord Foster and his family, in particular, his daughter, Miss Sonia. I was smitten with her at once, and after spending a few days in her company, I realized that I had truly fallen in love with her. I intend to ask to court her in a day or so, but I wished to settle things with you first.”
Mary was at a loss for words. It felt as though everything was crumbling around her. She started shivering, unable to keep them at bay any longer. Lord Abernathy pulled away from her, clasping her hands. “I am terribly sorry to have to do this, but sometimes, we cannot control our heart. I do hope you’ll be able to forgive me, in time. Give my best to your parents.”
With another quick kiss to her hands, he turned and walked back up the path, making his way back to his carriage. Mary put her hand to her mouth, trying to keep her sobs inside. She wouldn’t cry while he was still in earshot, she wouldn’t!
Georgiana ran up to her, throwing her shawl around Mary’s shoulders and pulling it tight before draping a comforting arm around her. “That absolute rotter! How could he do this to you? It isn’t right!”
Mary just watched Lord Abernathy’s retreating back, the tears leaking from her eyes despite her best efforts. Once he had disappeared, however, the floodgates opened, and she would have slumped to the ground had Georgiana not caught her. She buried her face in Georgiana’s shoulder, muffling her sobs. “Come on, we’ll track down Danny and bring you home at once.” Georgiana said, gently leading Mary down another path.
Mary nodded weakly, body shaking. The tears streamed down her face and over her nose, causing it to prickle. “Ih…Ih-hishh!”
Georgiana quickened her pace. “Bless you, Ma’am. We’d better hurry, in case you catch cold on top of all this.”
“What does it matter?” Mary wailed, “No cold could be as bad as this!”
A gentle rap on the door caused Mary to flinch and burrow still further down into the covers for protection. “Ma’am?” Georgiana’s voice was gentle, “You have a visitor.”
“I don’t want to see anyone!” Mary said, wincing at the blocked state of her voice and putting her handkerchief to her nose. It would be too humiliating for anyone to see her in such a state, overwhelmed with shame and a miserable head cold, besides. If her swollen eyes didn’t put them off, her bright red nose most certainly would.
“It’s Miss Charlotte, Ma’am,” Georgiana continued, “When you didn’t come for tea, she became concerned, and came round to see you. Your mother informed her of what happened, and now she’s insisting on seeing you. Please, Ma’am? Just for a moment? It might do you some good.”
Mary sniffled wetly, considering. Well, she did owe Charlotte an explanation for missing their arranged tea. “All right,” she said weakly, wiping at her eyes and nose in an attempt to be presentable, “Send her in.”
The door swung open at once, and Charlotte flew into the room, coming to rest next to Mary and enfolding her in her arms. “Your mother told me everything. I’m so very sorry, Mary.”
Mary felt fresh tears welling up, and pulled away from Charlotte to keep from staining her dress. “Th-thank you for coming, Charlotte. T-tell me, is my humiliation the talk of society? H-how many people are laughing behind their fans at…ah…Apshh!”
“Bless you,” Charlotte picked up Mary’s handkerchief and tended to her nose, “No one knows a thing about what happened. I hadn’t heard a single thing about this before I came here. You needn’t worry about that.”
Mary swallowed and wiped her eyes. “The story’s going to come out one way or the other. As soon as Lord Abernathy arrives at a ball with Miss Foster on his arm, everyone who knows my family will realize what’s happened, and then…”
“Miss Foster?” Charlotte repeated, “The daughter of Lord Marcus Foster?”
“I believe so. But what does that have to…”
“Of course!” Charlotte said, “Now I understand everything. Mary, you have absolutely nothing to fear from the gossip.”
The sneeze allowed Charlotte time to explain. “Lord Foster is incredibly wealthy. He earns at least forty thousand pounds a year. And he dotes on his children. Therefore, Miss Foster’s dowry is going to be quite a pretty sum. Don’t you see what that means, Mary?”
Mary’s eyes widened. “Are you suggesting that he…”
“And why not? Your dowry is quite substantial, but it would seem small compared to hers. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that Lord Abernathy suddenly breaks it off with you the moment Lord Foster appeared in London.”
“He said he was smitten with her…” Mary said faintly, not wanting to believe such a mercenary thing of Lord Abernathy, cad though he may have been.
“Smitten by her coin, more like,” Charlotte said disdainfully, “No doubt he’s over at the Foster estate even as we speak, wooing her with honeyed words.”
That brought a wave of fresh tears to Mary’s eyes, and Charlotte embraced her again, rubbing her back. “I’m sorry, Mary. But take comfort in this; you’ve no need to worry about being shamed.”
“I don’t see why,” Mary choked out, “I acted like a fool.”
“We all act like fools in love,” Charlotte said, “No one will hold that against you. No, once the story gets out that Lord Abernathy threw you over the moment a bigger purse came along, all their ire will be focused on him, not on you. When it comes to light that his actions were so callous that you fell ill, his reputation will crumble still further. When you’re well enough to go out again, you’ll be greeted with nothing but sympathy. I’ll make sure of that.”
Mary burst into tears and threw her arms around her friend, too overwhelmed with gratitude to worry about damaging the fabric. “Thank you, Charlotte,” she said, “You really are the dearest friend I could ever have. I don’t know how to thank you.”
Charlotte stroked her hair. “Think nothing of it. You’d have done the same for me. All that matters right now is getting the truth of the matter out there.”
Mary sniffled, the soft cloth of Charlotte’s bodice tickling her nose and coaxing a massive sneeze out of her. “KITSHH!”
Charlotte pulled away and laughed, handing Mary a fresh handkerchief from the pile on her nightstand. “Well, perhaps that’s all that matters to me. All that should matter to you is getting rid of that dreadful cold.” She rose to her feet. “I should go. You need your rest, and the sooner I can start spreading the news of Abernathy’s behavior, the better.”
Mary nodded. “I could use some sleep. But…will you come back to visit? I’d…I’d like the company.”
“Of course I will!” Charlotte said, “You need to know what’s being said about Abernathy, after all. I intend to keep you fully informed.”
Squeezing Mary’s shoulder, she left the room. Mary settled back on her pillows, feeling herself smile for the first time since that awful moment in the park. Perhaps things weren’t quite so bleak, after all.
Charlotte was as good as her word. She came to visit every afternoon, reporting on the various activities Mary was missing because of her cold…and mentioning that she had told everyone she ran into about Lord Abernathy’s hideous behavior. Everyone who heard the tale, Charlotte assured her, was horrified by Abernathy’s callousness and were quick to tell Charlotte to pass along their well-wishes for Mary’s health. Though her feelings were still deeply hurt, and this cold of hers had turned her into a sneezing, dripping mess, Mary felt a little better each time Charlotte visited.
Five days after the disastrous park visit, Mary’s cold finally seemed to be abating. Her fever was gone, and she had the energy to get out of bed and sit at the window seat, watching the world go by. The only real symptom left was the sneezes, and even they were softer and less messy then they had been at the start of all this. With luck, her family would allow her outdoors again by the end of the week.
She was sitting at the window seat, bundled in a blanket and dressing gown and sipping tea, when Georgiana knocked at the door. “Miss Charlotte is here, Ma’am.”
“Send her in.” Mary said, turning towards the door with a smile. For once, she was ready to talk about things other than Lord Abernathy.
The door opened, and Charlotte entered, smiling and making her way to the window seat. “You’re out of bed! That’s so good to see!”
Mary cocked her head at the sound of Charlotte’s voice. It didn’t sound right to her, somehow. It was simultaneously softer and deeper than normal. But she left it be, pressing Charlotte’s hand and gesturing for her to sit down. “I seem to be recovering my strength. Hopefully my remaining symptoms will pass in…in…Ishh!”
“Bless you,” Charlotte said, sitting down, “I’m sure they will. Just keep resting, and all should be well.”
Now that Mary could get a good look at her friend, she could tell something wasn’t right. Charlotte looked pale, though she didn’t seem to be wearing any sort of powder, and her nose was tinged pink, even though she was out of the winter air. She leaned forward and put a hand on Charlotte’s arm. “Charlotte? Are you quite all right?”
“I’m fine,” Charlotte said, looking at Mary with a puzzled expression, “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“It’s just…you look and sound a bit out of sorts.”
“Nonsense!” Charlotte said, “It’s probably just from being out…”
She paused, a glazed look coming into her eyes. “Out…out…” she repeated, stumbling over her words as she fumbled for her bag. Finally withdrawing a thick white handkerchief, she held it to her face, closing her eyes. “At-tishh!”
“Bless you!” Mary said, shifting guiltily in her seat, “Oh, no, you’ve caught my cold, haven’t you?”
Charlotte lowered her handkerchief and sniffed, looking a touch embarassed. “I’d been hoping I could keep it from you. I started feeling a bit run-down and chilled two days ago, but I convinced myself it was just the winter air and all the running around I was doing to tell your story. But I woke up sneezing this morning, and, well…” She trailed off, dabbing at her nose.
“I’m so sorry, Charlotte!” Mary said, “After everything you’ve done, you don’t deserve to get sick!”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Charlotte scolded, “I brought it upon myself, coming to visit you so frequently. I won’t have you feeling guilty for this. Besides, my cold’s nowhere near as bad as yours.” Even as she said it, her nose twitched, and she had to clap the handkerchief over her face. “Hit-pff!”
Mary chuckled. “Bless you. What a fine pair we make right now.”
Charlotte smiled. “Oh, perhaps we’re not fit to be seen by society, but I doubt anyone will begrudge two sick friends comiserating over their misfortune.”
Mary squeezed her hand. “Indeed not. I’ll ring for Georgiana to bring another pot of tea. I gave you this cold; the least I can do is try to help cure it.”
Four days later, a salon was held at Lady Bannon’s house, and Mary’s parents deemed her well enough to go. Despite their assurances that all would be well, Mary couldn’t help but feel a few flickers of apprehension as she waited for their family to be announced. Perhaps they would not blame her for what had happened, but would they pity her? Treat her like glass? In many ways, that would be worse than outright scorn.
She had nothing to fear. As soon as she entered, Lady Bannon came to her and pressed her hands, her smile genuine. “It’s so good to see you up and about again, Miss Prowse. We’ve missed your cheerful presence at our various gatherings.”
“Thank you,” Mary said, curtseying, “I’m glad to be able to see my friends again.”
Lady Bannon led her to a seat near the fire, lowering her voice conspiriatorially. “Besides, now that scoundrel Lord Abernathy won’t be able to ignore the rumors any longer. He’ll have to admit what he’s done, one way or the other. That is, assuming anyone will give him the chance.”
Mary’s curiosity got the better of her. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“He’s been ostracized, my dear! Completely and utterly. Almost everyone’s stopped inviting him to gatherings, and those that do barely speak to him! I’ve heard that Miss Foster told him she never wanted to see his face again! He’ll have to exile himself from London if he wants any chance of making friends.”
Mary’s heart rose, banishing her last remnants of shame. Perhaps in a few months time, she would reach out the hand of friendship to Abernathy, in exchange for a sincere apology. For now, however, she would allow him to stew. “I hear Wales can be lovely this time of year.” she said mildly, arranging herself on her chair. Lady Bannon laughed and moved to greet the next guest.
A few more guests trickled in, including, to Mary’s slight surprise, Charlotte. She had taken herself off to bed after leaving Mary’s house, but apparently she was right that her cold had been less severe, for she looked and acted like her normal self, apart from the occasional sneeze. She immediately sat herself next to Mary, and the two of them were quickly wrapped up in a conversation about the books they’d read while convalesing.
They were just discussing which was the best Shakespeare sonnet when someone cleared their throat. “I do beg your pardon, ladies, but may we join you? There aren’t many other people our age to talk to.”
Mary and Charlotte turned round, coming face to face with a pair of handsome gentlemen. “Of course,” Charlotte said, gesturing to the seats across from them, “I’m Charlotte Wells, and this is Mary Prowse.”
“A pleasure,” one of the men said, bending over their hands before sitting down, “I’m David Avery, and this is my brother Joseph.”
Joseph, who had inexpertly powdered his hair for the occasion, likewise bent over their hands. As he did so, some of the powder shook loose, floating into the air and directly into Mary’s nose. She managed to wait until Joseph had seated himself before pulling out her handkerchief to catch the sneeze. “Heshi!” Beside her, Charlotte did the same. “Ah-kchht!”
“Bless you both!” Joseph looked chagrined, “Damned powder. I never know how much to use.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mary assured him, “Charlotte and I are getting over a cold. Our noses are still somewhat sensitive.”
“Oh dear,” Daniel said, “I hope it wasn’t a bad cold. I feel like absolute hell when I’m sick. Though in my experience, women are much more graceful about illness than men. And may I say, both of you have recovered beautifully. I wouldn’t have known unless you’d mentioned it. You two look marvelous.”
Mary and Charlotte glanced at each other before smiling and asking the brothers their opinion on Shakespeare. Well, after everything they’d been through, they deserved a little bit of flattery.