Chapter 1: The Percys
The Percys were very good people. Forty years ago, they had been among the first families of Upper Canada, and they still moved within the finest social circles of Toronto. Family legend had granted them something of ancestral rank. The Percys were a younger branch of the Lancashire clan whose wealth was in cotton and textiles, but what speculations, sweat and blood had been invested was as good as anyone's guess.
It was said that the Percys' earliest relations came from France, a band of brothers that had crossed the English channel with the Normans. Sometime in the reign of George III, Percival Percy, a younger son of the family patriarch, had been lured across the Atlantic Ocean by the prospect of free land and adventure. Percival Percy brought with him his wife and three children up the St. Lawrence River and settled in the colony. Two more generations of Percys had been born and raised in the county of York, had ingratiated themselves with the Bishop of the colony, had lived through a tumultuous war (one family member had seen action at Lundy's Lane), and defended the land against the Irish and threats from the south. Lately the family had even produced a Member of Parliament. This MP was a stocky, middle-aged man of medium height, small dark eyes and a cheerful smile, a Sir James Percival Percy who took great delight in bearing his ancestor's name.
Sir James was a Tory, a great believer of constitutional monarchy, and an even greater believer in the young confederation. He had only praise for the Prime Minister, and was proud to have once wagged jaws with the Tory leader over a generous tipple of whisky noddy at the official residence. From time to time, he would speak warmly of "when last I dined with Sir Marcus..." as though the encounter had happened but a week ago. Theirs had been the sort of meeting where the subject of discussion was of little consequence compared to the impression it had left. The only topics to pass Sir James's lips more frequently than mention of the dinner were: first, his knighthood (which, to be more truthful than not, had come as a matter of chance rather than of action), and second, the future of the railway.
"Mark my words, the prospect is in the west, and the money will be in railroads," Sir James was fond of saying. "The Spencers were exceedingly clever to buy into those stocks while they could still afford to."
"But you have done the same, have you not?" asked his wife. Lady Percy had not a head for business, but she trusted her husband's decisions with a loyalty that was much admired by genteel circles.
"That goes without saying, my dear. That goes without saying. Where the future goes, the Percys go too."
When not residing in Ottawa during the Parliamentary session, Sir James joined his wife and daughter in the family home, situated in a quiet and lovely neighbourhood of Toronto called Bloomvale. The Percys lived in a large house of red bricks, built in the modern style. It had a garden to the south, stained glass windows to east, and a turret in the west that was the envy of the neighbours. The late father of Sir James Percival Percy had built the Turret House in the winter of his life, and had passed it onto his son without ever having lived in it. Because of its history, Sir James would not hear of giving up the house in favour of transplanting his family to the capital of the Dominion. He would much rather take rooms in Ottawa, and come home whenever the sittings in Parliament allowed for it. "What are a few miles of good road and good rail?" he said. "The journey back and forth shall be made quite easy with a book, a little cheese and a glass of wine."
Because the Percys fancied themselves to be an antiquated family bearing all the culture, dignity and respect of the old world, they fashioned their existence after the perceived lifestyle of their distant Lancashire cousins. Their household was large, as was required of a gentleman's home. They hired a lady's maid for Lady Percy, and one for Miss Elspeth Percy. They had a housekeeper. They had a cook and a scullery maid. They kept a manservant, who had a boy, who was put in charge of their horses. They sent their eldest child, a son, to the finest college in the province and paid for his room and board. They kept their daughter at home, under the supervision of a governess named Miss Castigan, to be raised with all the advantages and splendours that became a fine lady.
The Percys called Miss Castigan "the jewel of their household" for they could not do without her. In matters that required a sympathetic ear and a sensible tongue, the Percys more often than not appealed to their dear, indispensable Miss Castigan. That was how Sir James came to run for a seat in Parliament at the last election. That was how the son of Sir James was persuaded to attend university, rather than to pine at home for a girl who would not have him. That was how Lady Percy came to choose the white muslin curtains, instead of the heavy brocade ones, for the front parlour ("for as Miss Castigan points out, muslin is so much easier to clean than brocade"). The Percys were proud to say that Miss Castigan was more than a mere governess. "We look quite upon her as one of our own," Lady Percy was wont to say. "We can hardly manage without her, while Sir James is in Ottawa" (though in truth, he was only away for six months of the year, and never six months in their entirety) "and Rick is away at university" (which was but several minutes' drive away from home). What could be more commendable than a compliment issued from the finest family of the town set?
Miss Castigan was just what Sir James and his wife had wanted in a governess. While her history remained impenetrable to the Percys, there was no doubt that Miss Castigan was something special. The young woman was talented: she painted and embroidered screens, sang like an angel (or so Rick Percy said), read Shakespeare, spoke three languages, and she knew her place. She was never heard to utter an offensive word, could be relied upon to pass fair judgment on any dispute, and was sometimes diplomatic to a fault. There was also no question of losing this governess, unlike the previous governesses that the Percys had tried to secure for their daughter. No display of sauciness from Miss Elspeth ever ruffled her. Even the housekeeper could not help but like her: Miss Castigan was frugal (she could not afford not to be), yet generous to the poor.
One thing in particular about the young woman was met with the Percys' approval. While Miss Castigan was not unpretty, she had never had a suitor, nor was she, now at age of six-and-twenty, ever likely to entertain one. "It would have been intolerable," Mrs. Percy once confessed to her neighbour and friend, Mrs. Fenella Cowan, "quite intolerable, had Miss Castigan taken it into her head to marry, for what would Elspeth have done? You know how capricious my daughter can be. It has been exceedingly hard to find a governess like Miss Castigan."
Although Lady Percy called her daughter capricious, a more accurate description would be that Elspeth Percy always had her own way. And why should she not? A pretty girl with doting parents, born into wealth and connections, and possessing a fine appreciation for all good things could hardly be expected to yield in anything. It was not to be thought of, to submit to the wishes of others that were not one's own. If there was a vice that the Percys disliked beyond all vices, it was dishonesty, and pretense was close enough to that to be insupportable.
Miss Castigan's predecessor, a sour little thing who had only enough passion for her own chignon, had once called Elspeth "dastardly spoiled" and was consequently furnished with a dismissal. In the last six years since Elspeth had come under the guidance of Miss Castigan, Elspeth had begun to reform. In truth, this improvement in her character may have had less to do with Miss Castigan, and more to do with Elspeth's growing awareness of her ambition. Elspeth wanted to be thought the belle of Bloomvale, and to have a string of beaux all going mad for her. Those two things could not be brought about without learning the etiquette and fashions of a lady. At sixteen, she already knew the powers of a blush, a pair of curled lashes, and a well-timed hesitation; she had read enough novels to believe in their charm.
What the young beauty wanted more than any instruction that a governess could give, however, was the intangible. Miss Castigan had about her such an air of dignity, betraying the fact that she had not always been a governess, and that she could very well have been as high born as the Percys of Bloomvale. It was this air of dignity---and with it, the alluring whiff of mystery---that young Miss Percy longed to emulate. Only then could Elspeth consider her toilette complete.
And then, there was Elspeth's brother, Rick, who was desperately in love with the governess. His affections for Clara Castigan had come on rather gradually. At first he had thought of her as another girl soon to be driven mad by his sister's audacity, yet, as Clara weathered the first year, Rick steadily grew to admire her. At home, he would find himself chatting with Clara on all matters of things. He loved hearing her questions about his studies, and watching the light of understanding flit across her face, the look of delight in her eyes, and perhaps even the expression of longing for an education that she did not have. She had encouraged him to attend university four years ago, to become the doctor that he had dreamt of becoming. She had been the one to persuade Sir James and Lady Percy of how noble a profession medicine was. He felt he owed so much to her that, like all foolish young men when first in love, he misguidedly attributed to Clara the making of his character.
Thus far, Rick had confessed nothing of his feelings except to his sister. Poor man, it was not for want of trying that he had made no headway with Clara. Though she was a steadfast friend, she was severe upon expressions of romance. She had once laughed at Rick for suggesting that she would one day play Ganymede to some man's Orlando, or Cesario to an Orsino. "No, Rick, what would be the usefulness of giving him leave to make a willow cabin at my gate, or to cast feeble sonnets to the wind?" Clara had answered. "If he had any spirit, he would put his energy to better use than to overindulge his sensibilities."
And then there was the question of Sir James and Lady Percy. A governess for a governess was all very well, but a governess for a daughter was quite another thing!
Ever since Rick had confessed to his sister the state of his feelings, Elspeth had decided that she could have no better or worthier sister-in-law than her dearest Clara. Elspeth was a girl who enjoyed the company of clever people, and to be known to commune with those who were clever, and it became natural that she should want Clara to be even dearer to her than their present connection allowed. True, Clara was four years Rick's senior, and neither a woman of means nor of connections, but what were such surface differences? Could Elspeth, with all her advantages in society soon to come, not bring Clara up with her? It would be something, to have such influence on society, and to be able to congratulate oneself on exercising such power. Moreover, there was not a love story that Elspeth did not enjoy, and here was one verily laid down at her feet, submitted for her approval. She would do what she could to unite the two dearest to her, for however indiscernible Clara's feelings may have been towards the brother, there was no question that Clara was loyal and caring towards the sister. There would never be rivalry with Clara, as there currently was with Miss Adela Spencer of number 5 Castle Crescent, the insipid girl who made no secret of setting her cap at Rick. Perhaps a little helpful nudging, thought Elspeth, would bring her governess on the right track. Thus did Clara become aware of Elspeth's plans for her, and thus did Clara learn not to be left alone in the company of Elspeth's brother.
But nothing fair in the Percys' world ever remains fair for long. The occasion of Elspeth's seventeenth birthday elicited the first wind of change.
It was acknowledged by Sir James and his wife that Elspeth would soon be officially "out". They were going to bring her to Ottawa to be to the Governor General himself. Upon Elspeth's eighteenth birthday, a governess would no longer be needed. The Percys would be devoting their energy to engineering a good match for their daughter, not to minding whether Elspeth knew the difference between der, die and das, or whether she could point to Naples in an atlas. Of course Sir James and Lady Percy were a little saddened by the thought of letting go of Miss Castigan (for who would not shed a few tears over the loss of so perfect a governess, whose thoughts had been so important to informing their own?) but such was the way in life. Did a certain bard himself not write that parting must always be a sweet sorrow? Besides, governesses were becoming quite a thing of the past: the Percys were among the last families of Castle Crescent to retain one.
Clara was not ignorant of her employers' intentions, however tacitly made was their decision. She accepted it, though she could not help dreading the search for new employment. She hoped that Sir James and Lady Percy would help her advertise for a new position, though she was certainly too proud to ask for assistance. She would not hear of Elspeth's schemes to prolong her stay with the Percys. To be made a lady's companion was equal to living a life of idleness and excess. That was how her aunt had treated her upon the death of her uncle: a mere guest that ate away her aunt's inheritance, even though her uncle had asked on his deathbed that Clara be honoured as their own daughter. Clara did not wish to repeat the experience with the Percys, no matter how many young women in Toronto would have died for such a privilege. Nor did she wish to become Mrs. Rick Percy. Such a proposition was untenable.
"Why ‘untenable'?" asked Elspeth, who disliked the word. It was not the first time that she had heard it used in relation to the topic of becoming sisters.
"You know it to be impossible," said Clara. "I have never devised such grand designs of myself. It is not only impossible, but it is incredible---and mad."
"I wish you would view it from a kinder light," said Elspeth. "You know my brother loves you dearly, and for myself, I could wish for nothing better than to call you Mrs. Rick Percy."
The two women were taking an afternoon stroll through the garden, the younger woman having linked her arm through that of the older woman so as not to let the latter escape. Clara felt herself to be in some difficulty.
"I know nothing of the kind," said Clara, "and you must not speak of it again. You do your brother an injustice in presuming to speak for him when he is not here to put you to right."
"No, Clara, I speak for him upon his wishes. He will be back as soon as the term has ended, and then you shall see that I have presented his case fairly. Will you not give him an answer through me?"
"I wish you would not ask me to," said Clara.
"But why ever not? Would it not be perfect? You would be so happy, and you would make Rick happy. We shall all get on famously together as we always have."
"It would not be the same."
"It would be better."
"I do not quite mean that it would be better. I mean that it would be a great deal more awkward. I am four years his senior. I have known him since he was a boy and looked after him as I would a brother. How am I to change my way of thinking after all these years?"
"Why, with your heart, of course. Do not think. Merely put aside your cleverness for a moment."
"You speak of the heart as though it were disconnected from the rest of the body, but you know that mortal beings love with the mind as much as they think with the mind. It is only in romance that the mind and heart are set apart."
"You protest too much against romance," said Elspeth. "Rick was nearly eighteen when you met him---not a boy by that time---and now he is to be such a man as to make a good husband for a very lucky woman." When Clara failed to respond, Elspeth pressed on. "You have had the privilege of knowing him better than any lady, excepting his mamma and sister, and you know his advantages---and the plain fact is that he is quite swept away by you and will never love another as he loves you now."
"Don't please speak of ‘love' to me, not after that fashion."
"You must hear me out. When Rick comes home this weekend, you must---you must---allow him to make his suit. He is wild for you and will go mad if you continue to hold him at a distance."
"Let us all be practical, and he will grow civil."
"Sir James and Lady Percy will have other plans for him. It would be wrong to ask them to accept a governess as their daughter."
"But when you are their daughter, you shall no longer be a governess."
"Before then, they will object."
"And I will persuade them against all objections. They have never denied me anything."
"Supposing you succeeded. Do you think that the neighbours will not talk?"
"But you have never been one to hold idle gossip in esteem."
Clara could think of no stronger protestation at that point but that she did not love Rick Percy. She was not even sure that she could if she tried. How strange, how odd, that she should receive a proposal, and from a gentleman, and through his sister! She knew what a compliment it was to be thus singled out, and yet it gave her little pleasure beyond the acknowledgement of that compliment. Perhaps this would be the only offer she would ever receive, but Clara found the idea of contracting a marriage of convenience appalling and distasteful. A lifelong connection ought to be built on more settled foundation than a boyish infatuation on the one side and expediency on the other. She simply did not love her pupil's brother in that way, and that was that. "I can give no answer to satisfy you," said Clara with as little stubbornness as she could manage. "Do not bring up the subject again, Elspeth, I beg you."
"If you push me to give an answer, you will drive me to go away sooner."
"Surely you know me well enough to know I could never want that."
"But if your fancies are heard by anyone else, they will injure your brother as surely as they injure me, and I shall have to leave Castle Crescent. Even if the gossips of neighbours matter not a jot to me, they will not leave Rick or your parents untouched. Rick has a career to establish, and you have aspirations that have been hardly set into action."
"Pray tell me, of what aspirations do you speak?"
"Sir James and Lady Percy hope you will marry well. It is no secret."
"I know it's not a secret. I hope for the same, but that's not of any importance to this conversation. Tell me this, is there someone else?" asked Elspeth. This was a question that Elspeth was sure her governess could not answer in the affirmative.
"No," said Clara. "There is no one else."
"Then Rick has a chance, has he not? No, very well, I'll say no more [for Clara had frowned]. From this time forth, my mouth is shut on the matter." Elspeth's impish smile betrayed the fact that she did not intend those to be at all the final words on the matter. No woman could long refuse to unite herself with the Percy name, she reasoned. It was known far and wide that the Percys were very good people: they were the very best family on Castle Crescent.
Chapter 2: Showing how a visitor was received at the Turret House
Nothing more could be said on the matter, no sharp retorts could be given, for Elspeth and Clara were called in by Elspeth's perpetually nervous maid. As Clara watched poor Lettie, the image of a frightened stray animal came to mind---which, even without considering Lettie's wiry yellow hair, was not too far from the truth. Like Clara, Lettie was without parents and had been raised by a widowed aunt. By the age of ten, Lettie had been thrust into the strict care of Mrs. Beadnell, the Percys' housekeeper, and at the Turret House, Lettie had remained, never having found ease to be her lot in life.
"Please, Miss," said the girl, "you're both wanted in the library by the mistress."
"Thank you," said Elspeth. "We will be right along."
"Is anything the matter, Lettie?" asked Clara, before the maid could trip away.
"N-no." The girl faltered for a moment. "That is, Miss Castigan, Lady Percy has a visitor with her and because of that, she has sent for both of you."
Lettie was thanked again and sent ahead. Turning to her governess with an expression of amusement, Elspeth said, "I cannot believe that Mamma would sit in the library of her own accord. She hardly ever picks up a book unless she is receiving one of Pappa's distinguished colleagues."
Elspeth's tone was not wholly unappreciated. "Perhaps," said Clara as sensibly as possible, "these are friends of Sir James who have come to pay a visit."
"While Pappa is in Ottawa? Ought his colleagues not to be in Ottawa as well?"
"Well, I did say ‘friends', not colleagues. Let us hope that the visitors did not have far to travel."
"I hope they did not themselves come from Ottawa. That would be so ridiculous. Do you suppose that perhaps they are not here to see Pappa at all? But what could it be but business that brings Mamma to receive her guests in the library?"
There was indeed a visitor, who had indeed been hoping to speak with Sir James. Lady Percy had spent but three minutes alone with the stranger before she felt she could not remain enclosed in a room alone with him. He was an odd little man, with round hazel eyes so light that they were nearly the shade of amber, and a great large moustache that protruded and curled wildly above his lips as though to compensate for the thinning wisps of auburn that crowned his head. His suit was of a brown checkered material that was not at all fashionable and it was left unbuttoned; underneath it, his cravat was badly tied and he wore no waistcoat as far as Lady Percy could tell. An unfashionable guest was always an affront to her senses, not unlike her response to clashing decor. And then, his speech---it was something objectionable! He had come, he said, on business that must be imparted to Sir James, and it must be imparted that day. There was no pointing out to him that Sir James was still in Ottawa, and was not likely to return to Bloomvale until the week was out. The man seemed not to understand, or else he refused to. At last, Lady Percy rang for Mrs. Beadnell and asked that someone send for her daughter and Miss Castigan. They would know what to do, and how to deal with this odious man. Thus it came to be that Lady Percy appeared as Andromeda rescued from a great sea monster as the young ladies stepped into the room. Their presence gave her strength.
"This is my daughter, Elspeth, and her governess, Miss Castigan," said Lady Percy, rising with as much grace and dignity as she could muster.
The visitor made a low bow. "How do you do, Miss Percy. How do you do, Miss Castigan. A pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said, though there was not a great deal of satisfaction in his voice.
"This gentleman here," said Lady Percy somewhat desperately, "Is Mr. Augustus Steele. He is a business acquaintance of Sir James."
Clara wondered that she had never heard the name before, but she supposed that a gentleman such as Sir James was not obliged to reveal all his business activities to others, however transparent he usually was about his affairs.
"How do you do," said Elspeth, sitting down on one of the armchairs with the hauteur of a Prussian princess. "What brings you to this part of town?"
"I've come with urgent news to impart to Sir James, and I hope that you will do me the honour of sending for him." Mr. Steele added, a little ironically, as though he could not bear to give a full-fledged apology, "I did not think that Lady Percy would call upon her daughter and her daughter's governess to receive me, and it was not my intention to alarm the entire household. You must understand it is only Sir James that I wish to see."
Clara had the impression that Mr. Steele was the sort of man who never said sorry.
"But surely," said Elspeth, "you must know that my father is away this moment. You cannot and will not see him here."
"Does he refuse to receive me then?" asked Mr. Steele, looking a great deal affronted.
"You see, my dearest," said Lady Percy, addressing her daughter, "I have said the same to Mr. Steele, yet he refuses to believe that your Pappa is not at home and will not be until Friday at the very earliest."
"You see, Lady Percy," said the man, "I have been all the way to Ottawa, only to be told that Sir James was not there and that I may as well try my luck here as anywhere else."
"I am sorry to hear that you have travelled such a distance, but there is nothing I can do."
"Ay, a great distance, and in this heat too," added the man. "I took great pains to be here."
None of the ladies answered.
"Is a gentleman not to be rewarded for his persistence?"
"Please understand, this is not about persistence," said Lady Percy.
"Do you understand, my message simply cannot wait," said Mr. Steele. "Please, I urge you, whatever instructions Sir James may have given regarding his decision not to receive visitors, you must overlook this one case. He shall thank you for it in the end."
Again, the ladies did not know what to say.
"You have a very comfortable home here, very comfortable. It is almost luxurious, I might add, is it not?" These words struck his listeners as most inharmonious with what had come only a moment before.
"Yes," said Lady Percy hesitantly. "It was built by my father-in-law."
"It has not been long in the family then?"
"To what end do these questions tend?"
"Again, Lady Percy," said Mr. Steele, "I wish merely to point out the obvious."
"It is not at all obvious what you are pointing to."
"Merely this: by not receiving me, Sir James commits a grave error." He paused for effect. "Believe that I have his best interest at heart. Believe that I do not come to antagonize and that you would do well not to shield him. I will be plain. I am a gentleman and dislike unpleasantness, but I must warn you that if he goes down, so will his family, I'm afraid."
"Mr. Steele, if I may be so bold," interrupted Clara in a gentle, but unyielding voice, "you do wrong to imply that Lady Percy and Miss Percy are telling you an untruth, and no force or coercion from you can make the truth other than what it is."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I mean that they cannot admit you to see Sir James because it is as they have said: Sir James is not here. If your message is very urgent, you must send a telegram or take the first train to Ottawa, for there you will find Sir James, or else you must be satisfied with conveying the message through us."
"Who are you to speak in that manner for Lady Percy?"
"Please, I have not yet done, Mr. Steele. Since you have desired to speak plainly, you must allow for me to speak plainly also. You say that you have come hither not to alarm us, but do you not see you only cause distress and confusion by coming here? You accuse Lady Percy of fabrication, of obeying false instructions, and yet you speak of deserving reward for your pains?"
For a moment, Mr. Steele's face held the expression of infuriation, but this was soon overtaken by a struggle towards neutrality. "I suppose when a gentleman's wife and daughter resort to cower behind a governess, I must not doubt the verity of their words."
"Miss Castigan is more than simply a governess," said Elspeth, rising from her chair. "She is our loyal friend and has our trust---and I would request that you not express contempt towards her."
"Of course, I beg your pardon," said Mr. Steele, taking Elspeth's example and rising also. "It was never my intention to insult. I apologize for having taken up your time."
"But will you not at least convey the nature of the message before you take your leave?" asked Elspeth.
Mr. Steele stood close to Elspeth and scrutinized her for a moment. "Does your father keep secrets from you?" he asked. "Is he in the habit of disclosing his business affairs to his daughter? As a handsome young woman may keep secrets from her father, so he must keep his from her until he sees fit to reveal them." He surveyed all the ladies now. "His avoidance of me is but proof that he is not ready to share his confidence, and I would not wish to be accused of breaking a young girl's heart. After Miss Castigan's review of me today, I would loathe to add another grievance to my list of crimes."
He was shown to the door by Lady Percy, but he would not pass the threshold without shooting a final bitterness towards her. "I hope Sir James will not regret the failure of today's meeting."
All three ladies had felt the chill of Mr. Steele's exiting monologue and were glad to be rid of him. "What a disagreeable man!" exclaimed Lady Percy once Mr. Steele was gone. "What an odious man, to have come all this way to threaten us with heaven knows what, knowing we are but unprotected, defenceless women. If only Rick were here!"
"What could Rick have done?" asked Elspeth. "He could have done nothing. That man would have continued as he did, and behaved as he did towards us."
"But perhaps he would have restrained himself from such violent words."
"Or Rick would have punched him in the nose," said Elspeth.
"Are you all right?" Clara asked Elspeth.
"Oh yes, I'm well enough now," said Elspeth. "But I don't understand Mr. Steele's meaning. Oh, of course Mamma must be right that he came to threaten us with something, or rather, to threaten Pappa with nothing, but what is ‘it'? That is what I would like to know. Mamma, has Pappa ever said anything?"
"No, my dear." Lady Percy shook her head. "I have not heard him mention Mr. Steele before."
"Nor have I," said Elspeth.
"Nor have I," added Clara.
"Whatever it is that Mr. Steele has alluded to today, I am sure it was nothing but delusion," declared Lady Percy. "There have been many jealous men who envy Sir James, who have stirred up trouble when they could, and no doubt Mr. Steele is one of them."
"Do you believe then, that he is not, as he claims, Pappa's business acquaintance?"
"How could Sir James ever find himself shaking hands with such an unfashionable, rude man?" asked Lady Percy. For her, disbelief was proof enough.
"Would it not perhaps be wise to write to Sir James regarding this visitor?" asked Clara.
"But no," said Lady Percy. "If Sir James is to travel home on Friday, I am afraid he will have set off before the letter's arrival. We will wait until he has come home before we tell him."
"And yet Mr. Steele expressed such urgency," said Elspeth.
"Perhaps we ought to send Sir James a telegram?" suggested Clara. "It need not be long. Simply state that a Mr. Steele visited and requested an interview with him as soon as is practicable."
Lady Percy agreed to the idea and rang for the manservant. As soon as that matter had been dealt with, Elspeth spoke.
"What business could Mr. Steele have with Pappa?" asked Elspeth. "Pappa has given all that up since the election. Would he not have done better to speak to Mr. Venerate?" (Mr. Venerate was Sir James's lawyer and advisor.) "And Mamma, what could ever have possessed you to receive that man in here? Did you not feel he was a danger?"
"I regretted it soon enough," said Lady Percy. "But as this was the only room tidy enough to receive visitors of business at this hour..."
"Would not the parlour have sufficed?"
"Dear me, no, not with the curtains taken down for cleaning and the knick knacks all topsy-turvy!" Lady Percy had only that morning taken it into her head to have every room thoroughly washed and cleaned in preparation for the weekend arrival of her husband and her son, and a dinner that she was to host the following Monday evening. The library she had asked her staff to leave untouched, for she understood how Sir James liked to leave his space the way it was when he had left it, but now she felt as though she had sinned in allowing Mr. Steele to trespass upon it.
"Miss Castigan, do you think there is anything in Mr. Steele's threats worth worrying over?" asked Lady Percy.
"We mustn't assume the worst," said Clara. She did not trust Mr. Steele any more than Lady Percy and Elspeth did, but on the other hand, Mr. Steele's seriousness had made an impression on her. She wished not to alarm Lady Percy by sharing this concern without making some inquiries first. It could not be anything but of the gravest nature that the visitor had wished to disclose. She could not remember all the business affairs Sir James had to manage---as Elspeth had pointed out, Mr. Venerate took care of all that---but she sensed that the business that Mr. Steele referred to was not of the sort that a gentleman could boast of loudly.
No sooner had the thought been formed did Clara berate herself for her suspicions. Sir James engaged only in the most proper business ventures, and they more-or-less had to do with railroads, she told herself. Railroads were, after all, Sir James's raison-d'être. There was nothing to hide in them. Even in the daily papers, railroads were a constant headline. Sir James was always cautious when it came to business and politics and would not do anything ill-advisedly. He was considered as clever as a prophet in predicting that the future of the Dominion would stretch westward towards the Pacific, that trains would be built for the purpose, and that the tracks would take people and goods across the land, generating honest fortunes for those courageous enough to accept hard work. Sir James called it the Dominion Plan, and the papers liked it immensely. There was nothing to hide there.
Clara would have liked to dismiss the Dominion Plan as a caprice, but somehow, she could not persuade herself to believe it.
Chapter 3: Sir James's Displeasure
Since the telegram had been sent, the three women at the Turret House had waited daily for a response from Sir James. None came, and at the commencement of the weekend, Sir James himself arrived, with no acknowledgement of the missive ever made. Clara knew her place well enough not to inquire, though she was curious and wished that Lady Percy was more so. Rick had come home for the holiday, and Elspeth had at the first instance shared the details of the visit with her brother, but Lady Percy had no one to share the details with but herself, feeling that Clara's example of discretion was one that she ought to follow. As Lady Percy helped her husband remove his riding coat and boots, and instructed the manservant to remove the master's luggage to the master's chambers, she felt determined not to be the one to broach the topic though she nearly felt herself bursting with curiosity.
"You have had a tiring journey, James?" she asked, accepting a kiss from him.
"My sweetheart, you don't know how peckish I have felt all week in the little rooms in Ottawa. An Englishman's home is indeed his castle."
"Where are you going? Not to your library already? Will you not come and have something to eat first?" Lady Percy held her hand out to him. "It is too early for dinner---we never dine now until five---but I have requested Cook to prepare extra soup and sandwiches for luncheon and there is ham newly cut from yesterday."
"Then I must go to my room and change out of these clothes," said Sir James.
"Well, you may wash up, but never mind about your clothes this time."
"Are you quite, quite certain that you won't mind the dust?" he asked, knowing what a fine lady his wife to be. He tried to smile, to show that he was only teasing her.
"Your ease is all I care about."
Sir James had to admire her for believing in her own earnestness.
"Has Rick come home already?" he asked, some minutes later as he washed his hands.
"You will find that the children have been waiting for you. They would not begin the meal without you."
"Well, this is royal treatment indeed," said Sir James. "Am I to be served like a king as a reward for my hard work during the week, or is it that the children want something?"
"The children have missed you."
"And I have missed them---yes, I have missed even Rick. Sometimes I do believe that all this coming and going takes away from the enjoyment of seeing them make something of themselves in this world."
"Do you mean you no longer wish to be in Ottawa?" asked Lady Percy with a slight note of alarm in her voice, from which she could not recover.
"My dearest, I love Ottawa too much to give it up."
"But it wears you out, all this coming and going, and with your business affairs to mind as well..."
"Now, my dearest, I know what you are alluding to," said Sir James. "We might as well not dance around the matter. I did receive that telegram you had dispatched."
"Why did you not say anything? Why did you not send a reply?"
"What, and agitate you and Elspeth over a trifle?"
"I did not think I said anything about my agitation in my instructions to the manservant."
"No, but I know what Augustus Steele is, and I can see it in your expression now that you were agitated. Admit it."
"I cannot deny that Mr. Steele's visit was most unpleasant."
"To put it mildly, Augustus Steele is a scoundrel," said Sir James gently, "and you would have done better to turn him out without saying two words to him."
Lady Percy did not know how to react. "I could hardly have been expected to know his character before I received him. He introduced himself to me as your friend, and that there were messages of some importance to impart. I told him you were not here. He answered that you were expecting to see him, but that very likely you had changed your mind about the meeting."
"Then he told a bald-faced lie," exclaimed Sir James. "I was not expecting him, and I shall have never have messages to expect from him. How is it that he gained any admittance at all when I was not at home?"
"He had already been shown into the library, for he came looking first for the lady of the house."
("Ah, so he suspected he might not find me here," Sir James observed triumphantly.)
Lady Percy continued, despite her husband's interruption. "I had instructed the housekeeper that we were not to receive visitors in the parlour while we were cleaning that room, and the library was the only place that was not in disarray."
As Sir James and Lady Percy left their rooms and walked towards the dining room, Sir James could not resist asked how long Steele had stayed, and what exactly had been said.
"I did not give him a chance to say anything after the way in which he insulted our daughter."
"Insulted? How so?" asked Sir James. His eyes now glittered with a darkness akin to anger. "I would never have thought he would go so low..."
"Mr. Steele suggested that there were---" (she hesitated) "secrets which you wished to keep from us, and that a young woman as pretty as our Elspeth ought to learn not to pry into business that did not concern her." These had not been Mr. Steele's exact words but Lady Percy felt that her paraphrase did not do any harm against her, and rather expressed Mr. Steele's case more accurately. "He cannot be a good man. What dealings could you have had with him?"
"None. None at all." After a pause, Sir James added, "You do believe me, don't you?"
"When have I ever doubted you?" Lady Percy returned, which satisfied her husband. He knew not to suspect her faith in him, and reminded himself that he held her love in higher esteem than even his own name.
"But the children will wish for an explanation," Lady Percy pointed out.
"Have you told them? But of course, you did say that Elspeth was present and took offense at his remarks."
"I could not prevent Elspeth from recounting the whole tale to her brother when he came home."
"You might have asked her not to speak of it until further instructions from me."
"But you had given no instructions! You did not even acknowledge the receipt of the telegram. It did worry us so. I have not slept well these four mornings." And it was true that Lady Percy had gotten up at an unusual hour that very morning, though of the previous three, little could be said.
Sir James felt his heart soften towards his wife. He could see that Lady Percy was distressed and he could not find it in his heart to be hard on her. "Steele once came to see me with a business proposition," said Sir James, "but I turned him down, and he has been bitter ever since. It got to the point where he would pester me at my office in Ottawa and at last I instructed my secretary not to admit Steele again until I specifically permitted it."
"What a nuisance! Could you not send for the police?"
"What, and bring with it all the bad press and journalists who would be more than eager to destroy a Tory politician? There are Grits and their sympathizers everywhere in Ottawa, merely because they are the underdogs, and they would be more than willing to crush one Tory backbencher's reputation for the sake of tarnishing the career of the whole party."
"But surely they would understand when a man is upright and noble and innocent, that accusations made against him by a deceitful nobody [who could not even tie a cravat, Lady Percy almost wanted to add] cannot be credited."
"You do not understand, my love. Journalists are vicious animals and will do anything that falls within their power, rightly or wrongly. You had an uncle at Westminster, surely you understand. However, let us say no more on the subject now---at least, not in front of the children."
The "children" had taken their places at the table, with Miss Castigan at Elspeth's side, waiting impatiently for Sir James and Lady Percy's arrival. While they had been waiting, brother and sister had been discussing the mysterious visit from Mr. Steele, and Miss Castigan had listened, sometimes contributing her observations.
"Steele is a familiar name, but I cannot recall the reason," said Rick, who upon hearing the tale in as much detail as his sister had been able to provide, had been by turns inquisitive, then indignant. "Is there no other information to go by? Surely he left a calling card with both his names imprinted?"
"His Christian name is Augustus," said Elspeth. "I kept his card in my pocketbook. I shall fetch it for you after luncheon."
"Could he have wished to speak to Sir James of railroads?" asked Clara. "He spoke of business while he was here."
"I thought perhaps a bank," said Rick. "Why ever railroads?"
"Only that Sir James is so fond of them and so proud of his knowledge of them. You remember how he advised Mr. Spencer on taking those shares."
"Pappa is interested in more than just railroads. I think it more likely that this affair has to do with Ottawa," said Rick.
"Mr. Steele came from Ottawa," said Elspeth. "He was upset that he had come all the way here only to be told that Pappa was still in Ottawa."
Clara frowned. "But he did not say at all that he resided in Ottawa. From what I recollect, he said only that he had been in the city looking for Sir James, and having been told to come to Toronto, had done so."
"Are you quite certain that this Augustus Steele said nothing else, alluded to nothing, gave no hints at all regarding the subject matter of his communication?" asked Rick.
It was Elspeth's turn to frown. "I truly think his purpose was to be a nuisance."
"To stir up trouble for its own sake?" said Rick. "Do you really think so? The man did quite a bit of traveling for that. He could have spared all that expense had his only intent been to bother respectable people."
"Oh, hush," said Elspeth quickly. "I hear Pappa's voice." She was right, as Sir James and Lady Percy entered the room.
Father, son and daughter exchanged pleasantries, the ones between father and daughter being more affectionate, and the ones between father and son being somewhat stiffer, for Sir James and Rick Percy had not seen each other for a few months and had not parted well last time they had been home. No one said anything about Augustus Steele, or railroads, or Ottawa. To fill the silence, Lady Percy chatted long about the upcoming assembly that they were to attend on Saturday.
"Rick, are your studies are going well?" asked Sir James, after waiting patiently for Lady Percy to run through the course of her monologue.
"Yes, sir. Very well indeed."
"Are you still set on becoming a doctor?"
"Yes, as you know from our last conversation."
"I know how our last conversation went, but I had to ask. We did not part too happily last time."
"No, upon my word, we did part happily, only we were not in complete agreement with one another upon my career."
Sir James looked slightly affronted. "Must we spar on every occasion, Rick? I merely point out that I wish to do better this time around. You must allow your old man a little space to express his regret at having been a boor at your last visit home."
Rick coloured like his father. "I am sorry, Pappa. I don't know what it is with me these days."
"I know very well what it is: you study far too hard, and for what? Your only ambition is to become a country doctor."
"Would you have preferred it had I entered politics like you?"
"I don't---No, Rick, we must not go back to that. I have listened to Miss Castigan and she is right, medicine is a noble profession and... you will go far."
"But it is not the same, is it? It has not the allure of politics. It is true, I can hardly bring much to the name of Percy by retiring to the countryside, but you know I could never stand up in the House, or pat the Prime Minister on the back, or run for elections."
"You have much more talent for public life than you think," said Sir James proudly. "You are not my son for nothing."
"No, I know myself, and I know I am not cut out for that kind of life. I would much rather languish in the country than grovel after landowners' votes." Rick could not have chosen his words more ill-advisedly. Everyone in the room felt them hang ominously in the air.
Lady Percy cleared her throat. "Hush, Rick. Please let us not speak of such serious matters while we are having our luncheon. Elspeth, do tell us about the garden you and Miss Castigan have been working on together."
"I am not done yet," said Sir James loudly. "Rick, do you mean to say that I grovel?"
Rick turned a deeper shade of red. "No, you know that I did not mean you particularly, Pappa."
"What did you mean then, Rick?"
"Only that politics is not the life for me. I could be spending my years more usefully as a doctor."
"You imply that my being an MP is not useful?"
"Pappa, you're being deliberately obtuse."
"I said ‘hush'," exclaimed Lady Percy. "Now you will both behave like gentlemen and speak not another harsh word with regards to the other's chosen profession, or else I shall have to ask you both to leave the table. Is a mother and wife not to have a meal peacefully with her family all gathered round her after many months of separation? You will do me the honour of keeping your peace this one time at least."
"I beg your pardon, Mamma. Please excuse me," said Rick. He stood, tossing his napkin on the table.
Elspeth and Clara exchanged wary glances, and Elspeth at once excused herself too, apologizing to both her parents.
"Have I done wrong, Miss Castigan?" asked Sir James, kneading his brow with his left hand. He had hitherto said nothing to Clara except the perfunctory greeting. "Have I spoken too harshly to Rick? You understand his temperament well. Tell me what I have done wrong this time."
"Rick loves you and respects you above all others," said Clara gently, watching Sir James's gold cufflinks catch the light. "Please you must believe he bears you no ill will. He wishes merely to be acknowledged."
"Do you think I have not acknowledged his capabilities? What were my attempts just now meant to be, if not to acknowledge him?"
"You must try again. He is proud ... and stubborn."
"If I say more, the damage will be great. I will undoubtedly regret it."
"But you do believe in him? And in his choice?"
"How can I not?" Sir James looked gravely at Clara. "Much as I would rather he followed in my path, do I have the strength to say I do not believe in my own child? You opened my eyes with the strength of your argument last time. I am sorry that Rick does not realize I have changed. He still harbours the memory of what I said when I was less enlightened."
"Then you must try again."
"His grudge is greater than mine."
Clara shook her head. "Rick does not bear grudges. It is only that he has just come home, and the remembrance of his last row with you is still fresh. Give him time. He is---idealistic. He believes in the goodness of people, he does not think ill of others for long, where censure is not deserved."
"It's all the travelling that has done this evil," said Lady Percy.
"It's this damned business with Augustus Steele," Sir James corrected her. "It's all this pestering from him that has set me on edge. I might have had the forbearance to be kinder to everyone if I were not continually bothered by that man."
"Might you do better to ignore him?" asked Lady Percy. "We all know what a nuisance he is. He is a fool who can do us no harm."
"Greater fools than him have brought down greater men."
"Do you mean to say that he seeks to bring you down?"
"What could his purpose be to come all this way? Merely to harass us?" Sir James looked again at Clara. "Miss Castigan, I am sorry that you had to be mixed up in all this. You should not have to bear all this with us. Why should you be concerned for us?"
"But you are all the family I have," Clara answered simply.
Though they tried not to show it, Sir James and Lady Percy esteemed her for her loyalty, for having the strength to say those words. How could they have thought of letting her go? Lady Percy knew very well that she could not let Miss Castigan go---not so soon, not now. She looked over at Sir James and understood that he felt much as she did. If only Clara had been one of their own! Lady Percy did not think it disagreeable to call Clara her own, but she wondered whether her son would opine against the idea. Rick was getting, these days, to be so contrary.
Chapter 4: Showing what happened later
Clara found Rick in the garden. He had with him a book, and was, for all appearances, studiously absorbed in it; but she suspected that he was merely putting up an appearance. She sat down beside him on the grass, saying nothing, remembering only as an afterthought that her frock was white and would stain. She wondered how many minutes would pass before Rick acknowledged her presence. It did not take long.
"Has my father quarrelled with you too?" asked Rick, closing his book.
"No, but you seemed in need of a friend."
"What, and nothing more?" He sighed.
Clara ignored the meaning of his sigh. "Where has Elspeth gone?" she asked. "I thought she might have been with you."
"Only for a moment. A note arrived by a hapless messenger, and she has been swept away by its content."
"The messenger being..."
"...No other than the mercurial Harry Quentin. He's come back from Boston for the summer. He did not stay long---only long enough to deliver a note from his aunt, and for me to exercise my brotherly authority." The family knew all about young Quentin and Lady Percy's objections to him.
"And Elspeth is now nowhere to be seen."
"She has gone up to her room. Never fear---everything was done properly."
"That is, without Lady Percy's knowledge."
"She could not have withstood another scene, not after what has just passed. Elspeth wished for Quentin to stay but I sent him along on his way."
"I hope Elspeth will forgive you."
"Oh, she was not pleased, but she understands that it was my duty to do it."
After a pause, Clara asked him what he was reading. She looked at the cover that he held up: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
"A true Stoic would not be so easily irked by his father," said Rick.
"Take care, there is bitterness in your words."
"And why ought I not to be bitter?"
"Well, it seems to me that the Stoics choose not to display much of their emotions to others out of necessity. With them, it is all about logic, and every warm feeling is held in distrust."
"I thought you were rather fond of the Stoics."
"And so I am. Any statesman who could advise himself to throw out the cucumber when it has gone bitter will always earn my respect," said Clara with only the slightest curl of a smile.
"Are you serious?"
"You have not reached that book of meditations yet, I can see. You have barely read this."
"There is nothing like a little philosophy to make me turn away from big thoughts and words," Rick admitted. "Life would be simpler if I could retire with a pipe in hand to a cottage in the country."
"You haven't taken up smoking, I hope! Come, I know you better than to suppose you have taken up that habit. You've never enjoyed the smell of tobacco."
"Nor will I ever, as I promised you before."
"I did not ask you to make any promises."
"But you disliked the smoke."
"Of course I did, but that is hardly extraordinary. I am not alone in my disapproval of tobacco."
"I wish you would be," was the sullen response.
"I also know that you are not a Stoic," said Clara, "nor a philosopher, nor do I hope that you will go on bearing a grudge against Sir James over a squabble of words."
Rick frowned. "You have come to find me only to persuade me to beg for my father's forgiveness, despite the fact that we will never reconcile ourselves to each other's profession."
"Would you choose to have it any other way? He is still your father and you are still his son no matter how many disagreements you may have."
"I would speak to him again, but on one condition."
Clara looked questioningly at him.
"That you agree to dance the first dance with me at the Assembly hall tomorrow night."
"I cannot do that," said Clara. "You know I do not dance, and moreover, it is an unfair request, as your reconciliation with Sir James has nothing to do with me."
"Nothing to do with you?" Rick looked straight at her. "Yet you have come to play diplomat between us."
"Because it hurts Lady Percy to see this breach between you and Sir James."
"I wish you had come for other reasons." Rick quickly held out his hand, to stop Clara from leaving. "Don't go---I will not tell you what those other reasons were, not if they offend you."
"You have not offended me, but I think it is important that I make myself very clear on one thing."
"I will accompany Lady Percy and Elspeth to the Assembly tomorrow night, but as to dancing, I cannot," said Clara.
"I have never danced at an Assembly before, and if I am to begin, which I do not intend to, it cannot be the opening dance with you. We are too much brother and sister for that."
"Am I to understand your meaning?"
"I mean for us to remain friends."
"And is there no promise beyond friendship?"
"You have better things to think about than my friendship. You have your degree to take, your practice to establish, your duty to your family and to yourself. Do not be sidetracked by your fancies; they never last."
"It isn't a fancy."
"By next year, you will have forgotten all this, or if you have not, you will blush from the memory of it and work twice over to forget all that has passed."
"Supposing I couldn't: what would you have me do in the meanwhile?"
"I won't let you suppose that you ‘couldn't'. Go to your father. You need not give him a full apology. Be just to him, but be kind, and gentle. He is more afraid of the loss of your respect than he is angry with you."
"And you really cannot...?"
Rick pretended to accept Clara's answer, but as he lay on his back, his face turned towards the summer sky, he could not reconcile himself to the thought of giving up. He knew that Clara had an aunt to whom she owed her early livelihood, but who had much maligned the niece once Clara's uncle had passed away. Rick remembered once learning of Clara's intention to repay everything that her aunt had ever given her, not as a sign of thanks, but as the final act to end all ties of family and obligation between them. This, he had understood (though it was never confirmed), to be one of the reasons a woman such as Clara had been obliged to seek employment. Was he not, then, the most expedient way for Clara to fulfill her wish? How could he think of letting go of his desire now?
The servants at the Turret House were discreet. That is to say, they discussed the latest fracture between Sir James and son and the mysterious Mr. Steele amongst themselves alone, and if perhaps one or two (strictly reliable) friends beside themselves heard the tale, they could not help it that walls had ears. By Saturday night, something of Mr. Steele's visit had been volleyed amongst the families of Castle Drive, but general opinion was that it was indeed Mr. Steele who was to blame, if there was blame to be assigned anywhere. No one really knew what "it" was, though, and of course no one was going to ask about it at the assembly.
Sir James took his role as MP very seriously. Short of allowing "His Honourable" to precede his name, he enjoyed having his attention sought and the knowledge that his name held influence in the higher circles comforted him. When required to assist in making introductions, he had always Lady Percy by his side, as much to say, "This is the woman who has been the making of me," as it was to prevent himself from being lambasted by some unmarried woman for a dance---which was, in fact, not an impossibility or a vainglorious figment of the MP's imagination.
A few circuits round the assembly hall with Lady Percy hanging onto his arm, and Sir James would have nearly forgotten about Mr. Steele, but for a slip from a Mrs. Albert Lamy that brought Sir James back to reality. It had happened rather casually. Mrs. Lamy had at first been asking Sir James to give a word of commendation on her younger son's behalf, in the Bloomvale constituency office where the youngest of the Lamy family worked as a clerk. "One kind word is all my Peter needs for advancement," she had said.
"Certainly," said Sir James with much enthusiasm. "It would be my pleasure, seeing as Peter is a hardworking lad." He remembered Peter Lamy as the quiet sort, but always cheerful. Peter Lamy had about him a modesty that was easy for Sir James's staff to get along with; the young man did everything as though he was apologetic for reminding his colleagues of his presence, but he was efficient. Such a contrast to Mrs. Lamy's eldest son, Sir James often thought.
"How can I ever thank you for the trouble?" said Mrs. Lamy, much pleased. "We are most indebted to you for your goodness."
"First, Mrs. Lamy, there is no need to shower me with thanks," said Sir James, preceding his words with a chuckle. "Second, it is right that the hardworking should be recognized and promoted."
"Especially above the undeserving," agreed Mrs. Lamy. "I have always admired your ability to set things right. I wish more people could see as I do."
"Now, that is too much praise, Mrs. Lamy!" exclaimed Sir James. "You could make a saint blush with that kind of talk."
"I only speak the truth. I hear that you have been harassed by an absolute fanatic. It must have been unpleasant. I don't believe anything of what was said."
"Fortunately Sir James was not here to receive him," Lady Percy interjected.
"But do you mean to say that Mr. Steele has not been to Ottawa as well?"
"Have there been rumours of that?" asked Lady Percy.
"I beg your pardon," said Mrs. Lamy, colouring as she finally realized her faux-pas. "Merely the idle tongue of my maid. You must forgive me, for I do so admire you, Sir James. I tell my eldest, Emile, that he mustn't go into politics unless he has your strength." This, Mrs. Lamy had meant to be a compliment to the MP, but instead, she was visited with a frown.
"Your eldest son is---what do they call themselves---a Grit, is he not?" Sir James asked.
"Well, I---I suppose he is, rather like his father was."
"I had the greatest respect for the late Mr. Lamy," said Sir James, "But politics was a matter on which we never agreed. He was in the Liberal party."
"Oh, but I would have voted Tory had I been allowed to vote," exclaimed Mrs. Lamy, with great effort to remedy her mistake. "Indeed, I often tried to persuade my husband to my view, but he would have none of it. He even said that it was not my concern how he voted! Not that I am advocating female suffrage, you understand---though my Emile is in support of universal suffrage..." Poor Mrs. Lamy now felt herself to be in some difficulty.
"I am only sorry that Mr. Lamy could not find it in his mind to see the Tory way. Certainly I do not blame him. His dissension was most refreshing, and as I recall from my reading of John Stuart Mill, without debate, there is no liberty. However, I am sorry your eldest son is not a Tory."
"He is a journalist. He must write as his editor wishes."
"Writing for the Observer still?"
"He must be faring well," Sir James allowed himself to say. "He has his own column now; I have read it. [He wished that he had not read that rag.] Quite an achievement." Young Mr. Lamy was not too favourably disposed towards the government, but Sir James would be magnanimous. "Yes, a capital achievement," he added.
Sir James's daughter seemed to have an easier time forgetting the mysterious visitor. Elspeth was enjoying herself immensely, for Harry Quentin was vying for her attention and claiming every other dance from her dance card. Harry Quentin was the messenger who had visited her briefly at the Turret House on the pretense of delivering a note to her from his aunt. The note itself had turned out to be nothing more than a recipe for his aunt's chiffon cake, wrapped in Quentin's own note asking Miss Percy for the honour of at least one dance. Elspeth could hardly refuse the man after such a novel overture.
Harry Quentin was not from Bloomvale, or even Toronto. He was an articling student with the firm Larraby and Thackeray in Boston, and came every summer to visit his ailing aunt, a resident in the neighbourhood. His aunt had pronounced herself to be dying for the past ten years, and as it was not Fate's intention to hurry her, it was very likely that Old Mrs. Quentin would go on dying for the next ten. Her deathbed, being a protracted one, did not prevent her from being brought in a chaise to the Assembly hall and indulging in a siesta to the performance of the hired orchestra.
She had made it no secret that her nephew would be her sole heir if the young man would be obedient to her wishes, and she had certainly encouraged him to fawn over her. She did not think anything of Miss Elspeth Percy mainly because she had never met the girl. "You know whom I have picked for you," Old Mrs. Quentin had said to her nephew. "You know I will expect you to do your duty. It was the least that Nelson expected of his men at Trafalgar." The allusion to Lord Nelson had amused her nephew, and it was the cause of Harry Quentin observing aloud to Elspeth that Miss Percy was fortunate in her birth, for "everyone else must endure their ailing aunts of the deep-purses and pinched hearts."
"You ought to oblige your aunt's heart if she really has the strings of her purse held for you," said Elspeth equally lightly.
"Oh, I do oblige her. She has designs for me and a young heiress from Oregon. (You need not laugh, Miss Percy, for I am serious! My aunt would have me betrothed to be betrothed, if she could.) But as for my aunt's purse, there is to be no talk of purse strings and deep pockets and such. I mustn't alert my aunt to the idea that I love her money. She says I adore her because I aim to inherit everything, but deep down, the old sweetheart believes I love her for her sake."
"But you do love her chiefly for her money, isn't that the fact?"
"Never! I am not such a cad."
"Ah, so you do call yourself somewhat a cad on occasion. It's just as I thought."
"I hope you have never talked to a cad before. How would you know what a cad was unless you had met one?"
"From what I gather, they generally go by the name of George Wickham."
"It is a relief that George isn't my name," said Harry Quentin with a grin.
"Ah, but you don't know! Perhaps I call you George Wickham in my mind."
"So you confess that you do think of me?"
"I never said..."
"But you just alluded to the fact."
"I alluded to nothing and pronounced no fact," said Elspeth, trying not to laugh. "I said ‘perhaps'."
"Which is good enough in my mind."
At this point, Quentin would have taken a great liberty had Elspeth not looked over his shoulder and stopped him. Elspeth's brother, on whose face was written the look of dejection, was approaching them. Having persuaded himself to try again for Clara's hand, Rick had sent her fresh-cut begonias from the hothouse to carry with her to the assembly; but the governess would not accept the flowers until Rick had promised to present a similar gift to his sister. This he had done, yet at last, Clara had accompanied Sir James and Lady Percy without the bouquet in hand. The message was all too clear to imagine away. Elspeth tried her best to cajole her brother out of his gloominess but Rick would reward none of her efforts.
"Did you speak to Clara while I was gone?" Rick asked rather despondently.
Elspeth asked Harry Quentin to excuse them, which the articling student did as obligingly as a gambler swindled of his boon might, before she answered her brother. "Of course I spoke to her. Is there a day goes by when I do not speak to her?"
"Oh, you know very well that I refer to a specific subject matter."
"You wished for me to approach her."
"Indeed, but gently, gently. I did not want her to be revolted by the very thought of dancing with me!"
"Perhaps had you not asked her for a waltz..."
"It had nothing to do with the waltz."
"If that is what she said, then it has everything to do with the waltz. A woman does not waltz with a man unless she is his wife, his mistress, or his acknowledged sweetheart. Does she say that she is revolted?"
"No, she is the paragon of tact. She simply pleads that she is in no mood to dance at all and that she must not be persuaded to change her mind. Pray, then, why did she come to all? Because she would keep you company, she said, yet here you are far removed from any such need. What did you say to her?"
"I told her of your feelings. I presented your case most flatteringly."
"I did not want you to flatter me. I wanted you to be fair."
"Is this really the place and time to speak of such things?" asked Elspeth, fanning herself. "The Adela Spencers of the world will instantly pounce on you if you are not careful."
"You know that I care not for what the Adela Spencers of the world think and how they carry themselves. I am not her brother, least of all, her keeper."
"She would very much envy Clara's position, if she knew."
Rick turned away in disgust. Talk of Miss Spencer's supposed jealousy was most disagreeable, particularly when he found her manners rather more repulsive than not. There was not a single aspect of Miss Spencer's character that did not remind him of Clara's superiority. He made every effort not to note that Miss Spencer was simpering at him from across the room. Unfortunately, this was made rather difficult by the fact that Miss Spencer's brother was standing up with Miss Spencer and another young woman; Adam Spencer had been two years ahead of him in university and a dependable friend. Rick could not cut him. He would have to suffer one for the sake of the other. Miss Spencer was even now gathering the train of her gown and gliding towards him, with one of her bosom friends following closely at her heel.
In his quest to avoid Miss Spencer's gaze, Rick caught sight of his other neighbours, Mrs. Cowan and her daughter. Mrs. Cowan was Lady Percy's intimate friend. The daughter, Miss Katharine Cowan, with whom the Percy children had long acquainted themselves, was lately engaged to the son of a respectable entrepreneur. Miss Cowan had come to the assembly without her fiancé and looked somewhat lonely, although she smiled and responded to everything that her mother had to say to her. Rick made up his mind to be of use to Katharine Cowan, for it was clearly doing him greater harm to stand alone doing nothing. Brooding over Clara Castigan in his solitude may have been achingly pleasant, but in the presence of Miss Spencer, brooding portended imminent danger.
Katharine received Rick Percy kindly and asked after his mother, father and sister, and Miss Castigan, as was her way. "Elspeth looks very well," she said once the formalities had been done with. "Do Sir James and Lady Percy still hope to bring Elspeth to Ottawa to be presented at Rideau Hall?"
"It is almost completely written in the rocks. Elspeth will enjoy herself immensely. Every ball and every dance is a pleasure for her, and there is nothing she will like better than to be in Ottawa at the height of the winter ball season."
"Will Miss Castigan accompany her?"
Rick tried not to feel the pang, for he knew not how long Clara would remain with them. "It has not yet been decided. Elspeth hopes, of course, to be able to bring Miss Castigan with her."
"I gather then, that Miss Castigan is of an indifferent mind?" asked Katharine.
In more ways than one, Rick almost answered. He felt that Katharine, with her large, soft eyes and quiet manners, would understand, but he was loathe to make her his confidante. He thought: when a girl is engaged to another man, however discreet she is, she is bound to tell her lover everything. And Rick Percy did not want his personal affairs known and discussed by a stranger. Instead, he asked, "But how are you? We have talked fully five minutes about me and nothing about you. How is your mother? How is Mr. Small?"
"We are all very well, thank you. Louis has a bit of cold and I assured him that it was better he rested at home."
So that was Louis Small's excuse for not accompanying his fiancée to the assembly! Rick did not know very many gentlemen who absented themselves from their intended's side on account of "a bit of a cold". There was a kind of pride in being recognized an engaged man, especially to a young woman of beauty and virtue. One would suppose that any fiancé would be jealous to keep watch over her. On the other hand, Rick thought further, Katharine Cowan was as innocent of vice as any young lady could be, and as steadfast in her principles as Clara. Perhaps this was what had assured Louis Small of the safety in absenting himself tonight.
Miss Spencer approached them and attempted to exercise her charms, to no avail, and soon after left with her loyal shadow in tow. Mrs. Cowan abandoned her daughter for a moment to speak to a friend she saw from across the room, leaving Rick and Katharine to pass a pleasant quarter of an hour chatting about Rick's studies, Katharine's latest readings, and the plans for the wedding. Katharine confessed that the plans had barely begun. Her mother had, however, taken the liberty of writing to an uncle in England who had written back with gusto that he would come to give her away at church on the day of the wedding.
"I did not know you had an uncle," said Rick. "I thought your father hadn't any brothers or sisters."
"It is an uncle from my mother's family. My mother's brother, to be exact." Katharine looked pensive. "Have I really never mentioned him to you?"
"No, but you may tell me more about him now."
"My uncle Theophilus is nearly twenty years my mother's junior. They had different mothers. My uncle's mother died very young. Before my mother married my father, she looked after Uncle Theophilus with as much tenderness as his own mother could have."
"And he is like a father to you?"
"Oh, we have hardly met, that is the dilemma!" Katharine smiled and shook her head. "He writes that he remembers me from the time that I was a little baby, but I remember nothing of him. Mother declares that I shall be as fond of him as she is, but that is not at all the same."
"Your uncle will like you, or he is a pompous fool," Rick assured her.
"Do you think so?" asked Katharine, her expression full of hope.
"He would hardly deserve to be your uncle if he did not."
At that very moment, a quadrille was started by the orchestra. Rick noticed that Katharine had not yet danced, and neither had he. It was obtuse to deny himself a little levity just because Clara would not stand up with him. Dancing would ease the pain of rejection, and Katharine would never force him to talk if he chose to be silent. Holding his hand out to her, he asked whether she would like to be his partner.
"Thank you, I would love to," Katharine answered, content to know that she could rely on him. She had not wanted to sit out the whole evening either. Hand in hand, they moved towards the formation of couples at the centre of the hall.
©2006 Copyright held by the author.