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Laura Evans 1-3

March 27, 2018 09:45PM
as promised, the first of the novellas based around the love interest from Jane and the Sins of Society; in which Laura Evans is found to be more interesting than expected by the Marquess Falkrington

Chapter 1

“One is so full of ennui with the season, before it even really begins,” the dark haired man was saying to another man. Laura knew that the speaker was a real marquess, though he was not especially old like she had always thought lords must be. He could scarce be more than four and twenty, and if she had not seen him smile in delight at something his friend had said, she would have thought him quite ugly. The smile, however, had made him into the most handsome man in the room, thought Laura. The Marquess of Falkrington went on, “I wish I had not come, now; tell you what, let’s make our escape and go to White’s. Once more into the breach, dear friends, as you might say.”
His companion agreed, enthusiastically, and Laura wondered what the attraction the gentlemen’s club had which might not be found at a soirée, and how anyone could be bored. Even if, in a way, being bored might be preferable to being miserable.

Laura wished, for perhaps the twentieth time, that she had not been so content to embark upon a Season in London, even coming up early to become accustomed to the town and its permanent habitués before the season fully started. It was not the fairy-tale of glittering pleasure which one was always led to believe, but rather a round of misery and humiliation.
Such men as the Marquess would not dance with someone like Laura.
Laura knew she was not pretty, being short in inches, short-waisted, plump, and rather inclined to high colour, with ordinary brown hair which hated staying confined, refused to take a curl, and which needed frequent washing to avoid being greasy, never pleasant in winter. One must choose to risk a cold in the head in order to have clean hair, or let it sit and gather grease until it was a warm enough day to risk washing it. There was always the expedient of filling it with fuller’s earth to take out the grease, and brushing it hard enough to remove the powder, but not so hard as to make it greasy again, but this had its disadvantages. Fuller’s earth left it looking dull and lifeless. A cold wet February was not the best time for her looks, her hair lank, and her skin pink from the cold. And such weather seemed not to affect either Miss Fielding or Miss Welbeloved.
She smiled at Cora Fielding, who was sitting next to her.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” Laura asked.
“I am not sure yet,” said Cora. “Knowing that I have to sing is a bit nerve-wracking! But Mama says that Lady Lieven has asked a Lady Armitage to play for those who need it; it is awfully kind of a real lady to play, instead of having to rely on a governess.”
“I wonder if she would play for me?” asked Laura.
“You can always ask; you are such a nice person I should think anyone would want to help you,” said Cora, warmly. “Even Mama likes you, and she does not like people readily.”
“Oh, it is you who are the sweetest of people,” said Laura, meaning it. Cora might have an outlandish name, and a rather formidable mama, but she was kind and gentle, and her mama was happy for her daughter to be friendly with Laura. If Laura privately suspected that this was because Mrs. Fielding considered Laura no rival to her lovely daughter, it was certainly not a thought which had crossed Cora’s mind. The unkind might say that for any thought to cross Cora’s mind it would require a ship of the line and a navigator of legendary skill, but nobody could accuse Cora of ill-nature.
“It would be nicer if Miss Welbeloved were not here,” said Cora, worrying at her lip with a perfect white front tooth.
“Don’t do that, Cora, you’ll make it bleed,” said Laura, absently.
“I cannot like her, try as I may, and I don’t think she is always very kind,” said Cora.
Laura had to agree. She could not think of a single instance when they had met up that Miss Welbeloved had not said something to disparage either Cora or herself. Cora did not always notice, and it was in appointing herself as Cora’s protector that Laura and Cora might have been said to have become friends, over Jenny’s unkind remarks.
“I don’t know why she has to feel that she must disparage all blondes,” said Laura. “She is cast in a different style to you, and there is no comparison, for you are both beauties, but in different ways, she so fashionably dark without being unbecomingly black-haired. Her eyes are as blue as yours and she has pretty rosebud lips which suit her better than they would suit you.”
“I think her lips pout,” said Cora. “Mama says they do. Mama says she looks like a fish, which is not true, and not very nice, but she does push her lips forward. ”
Laura giggled. Cora was observant enough, and spoke her observations without malice, but with occasionally devastating effect.
“Am I an awful cat, Cora, to wonder whether Miss Welbeloved colours her cheeks with a judicious amount of lip salve, or whether she uses some preparation to darken her locks? I have rarely seen anyone with dark hair to have such light blue eyes.”
Cora considered.
“I think she colours her cheeks,” she said, “But Mama says that her hair is natural.”
Laura felt that at least pretending that Miss Welbeloved had to take her beauty off overnight, like a cartoon she had once seen, helped to alleviate the hurt the girl caused, but much of it passed Cora by, which was just as well. Jenny Welbeloved had made a particular effort to humiliate Laura as well, when Laura had stepped in to defend Cora. She compressed her lips, remembering the incident.

Jenny Welbeloved patted her own smooth, dark head, complacently, running a finger down the ringlets that fell each side, and positively smirking at Cora Fielding, whose golden curls Laura admired.
“I am so glad not to be a common blonde,” Miss Welbeloved said. “I take it you enhance it to be so brassy in colour?”
“Mama says I need no enhancement,” Cora replied, her eyes wide in incomprehension.
“I suppose it would draw unwelcome attention to such common looks,” Miss Welbeloved sneered. It was plain enough what she was implying, even to naive Laura; fortunately it passed Cora by. Laura felt a surge of anger at such unkindness.
“Cora is beautiful,” Laura declared. “And more importantly, she is nice, which is more than you are.”
“Good grief, are you one of her servants? Surely you are not a guest, looking so drab?” asked Jenny Welbeloved.
Only the arrival of Mrs. Fielding had prevented Laura from slapping the girl.

The horrid girl had even sent Laura for a glass of lemonade at one soirée, and Laura’s governess insisted that it would be rude to refuse to do so. Laura’s face burned at the memory of Jenny’s smug smile when she returned with lemonade, and the dismissive wave of the hand as to a servant. Laura had ached to pour the drink down the arrogant girl, but she knew she would be taken back to Wiltshire if she did so. Great Aunt Agnes, who was hosting her season, was a stickler for good manners, and held the view that one should always display impeccable manners, regardless of the way others acted towards one. She was not sure if Aunt Agnes would have agreed with Miss Loring, her governess, but Aunt Agnes was not near enough to call as an arbiter of good manners and it was better to be safe than sorry.

At least Aunt Agnes had agreed with Laura when she protested that pink was not flattering for a girl with high colour. Miss Loring, had trotted out the old adage of blue for a blonde, pink for a brunette, and Aunt Agnes had told her that if everyone dressed by foolish formula, most people would look more like guys than most of them already did, going out in the evenings in what she called nightgowns. Great Aunt Agnes still wore panniers, albeit of modest size, brocades, and a fully powdered head, despite the outrageous tax on hair powder. Hence, Laura was at a musicale wearing a round gown of white muslin, with a satin stripe woven into it, over a figured slip of jonquil sarsenet, and trimmed with tiny yellow silk rosebuds and matching ribbons at her bosom and as knots on her fully puffed short sleeves. Laura was very pleased that this was a private musicale and the invitation had stated specifically that half-mourning for Queen Charlotte was to be relaxed for the evening; she did not look well in the subdued colours deemed suitable for half-mourning.
Laura watched Lady Armitage, who was to play, approach the pianoforte and seat herself with a kind of grace which made her feel gauche. It was with savage satisfaction that Laura also concluded that it made even Jenny Welbeloved look gauche. Lady Armitage was perhaps better described as serene than beautiful, and yet she made Jenny Welbeloved look quite plain, having similar coloured hair, fine, dark eyes, which were full of life, and an expression Laura somehow associated with the angelic choir.
Cora approached the piano when she was named, well-trained in grace and elegant movement, and handed her music to Lady Armitage, before striking the graceful attitude with which she was to commence singing. Laura sighed; it was no good wishing to have been taught how to strike an attitude, even if Miss Loring had known how, in order to teach her, for what worked with a willowy creature like Cora would look like caricature from Laura.
Lady Armitage kindly played for Cora’s rather breathy rendition of ‘Lass of Richmond Hill’, and somehow managed to make Cora sound better than she usually did. Laura, who was to sing next, shyly approached.
“Oh, I pray you, ma’am, may I ask if you will play for me, also?” asked Laura. “I can play for myself, but when I do I either forget the words, or manage to lose my fingers,”
“I’d be delighted, it is quite a skill to learn to do both at once, and one I am not fond of myself,” said Lady Armitage, smiling at Laura.
Laura smiled back, shyly. It would be much easier, not having to think of her fingers as well as her singing. She breathed carefully, as she had been taught, and sang out confidently but without forcing her voice, her rendition of ‘Greensleeves’, which was a favourite of hers. The pianoforte was a true accompaniment, not playing the tune at the same time, as it was when Miss Loring played for her, and it inspired Laura to sing her best. Laura had no idea how impressed her accompanist was with her golden contralto voice. She knew she sang well, but was too modest to recognise it as anything out of the common way. However, Laura knew she had sung particularly well, and set off for the seats in some elation.
Her elation melted when she came face to face with Jenny Welbeloved, in a rose-pink gown with a startling amount of beading and embroidery on it.
“You look like a fat little daffodil,” said Jenny. “And how low not to accompany yourself; I shall be playing the harp, a superior instrument for those of us who are more able.”
Laura could not help herself, she felt herself wilt. She made her way to her own seat, turning to sit just in time to see the gracious lady at the pianoforte frown at something Jenny had said. Surely even Jenny Welbeloved could not mistake such an elegant lady for a governess, and even if she did, could she really have the bad manners to insult someone else’s governess? Jenny tossed her head, and said something with that sneer she affected towards those she considered inferiors. Laura winced as Jenny stalked over to her harp.
She jumped as a loud chord on the pianoforte sounded. The lady seated at it was plainly furious, and was not about to demean herself to follow Jenny to remonstrate over whatever the girl had said. Laura was torn between cringing, and enjoying the show. It would be nice to see someone call Jenny to book.
Jenny had not reacted well to having that loud chord played, leaping furiously from her harp stool. Laura shook her head in wonderment. Was she really so spoilt that she would not recognise a rebuke
from someone with the right to give it?
Apparently she was. Jenny rushed over to the pianist.
“How dare you!” she screeched.
The pianist showed again that she was a true lady in answering quietly.
Jenny slapped her.
Laura winced again. Jenny had really spoiled her chances now; Lady Lieven, who was hosting this musicale, was moving over towards the musicians, and Laura wondered what Lady Armitage would do, indeed, could do, without impropriety.
Fortunately Lady Lieven asked,
“Lady Armitage, would you mind explaining what is going on?”
Lady Armitage spoke in a voice which now carried, even though it was not raised. Laura was impressed.
“Not at all, my lady. I found myself addressed rudely by this chit, who ordered me off the pianoforte as though I were the cat’s mother putting pawmarks on the keys. I ventured to give her a hint that I expected an apology and she refused. I wished her to understand the depth of my disapprobation. I will not, however, stand to be slapped by a little girl with no discipline. Were there not gentlemen present, I must have surely put her over my knee to administer the spanking such a nasty little girl plainly deserves. I suggest you might hint to her mother that if she is not old enough to behave in company, she should be left in the nursery.”
Jenny fell to screeching again.
“Well, how was I to know you were a Lady anything? It’s governesses and menials who do the accompanying!” she yowled.
“Enough!” snapped Lady Lieven. “Miss Welbeloved, I see that Lady Armitage is quite correct, and you are not old enough to appear in public; your mother will do well to keep you in the nursery for another year.”
A tremulous looking woman had come forward and Miss Wellbeloved cast herself on her.
“I’m sorry, Lady Lieven,” the older woman said.
“Yes, I am sorry that you cannot teach your stepdaughter better manners,” said Lady Lieven.
A brief exchange and the beautiful Lady Armitage began to play again whilst people settled down.
Laura knew that Jenny had lost her real mother when she was a child, and could only assume that her stepmother, unlike the stepmothers of fairy stories, dared not deny her anything. Others had said that Jenny resembled her mother, so perhaps her father would hear nothing against her.
He would hear plenty about his daughter from society, however, and Laura hugged herself in glee that if Jenny really was taken home, she might never have to listen to another barbed comment from her again, and nor might Cora, who did not even know when to defend herself, let alone how.
As soon as they broke up for refreshments, Laura went in search of Lady Armitage. She was talking to a tall, well-knit man, with the air of an army officer. When he had left to circulate, Laura went over and embraced Lady Armitage.
“Oh, thank you so much for not giving in to the gazetted beauty,” she said.
“There, Miss Evans, I had the first hint that she was an unpleasant creature in her manner towards you,” said the lady.
Laura was amazed that the exchange between her and Jenny had even been noticed. She beamed, and went in search of Cora.

Chapter 2

The next few entertainments were certainly much jollier for the absence of Jenny! Laura felt a passing sympathy for the girl, ill-prepared for society, and used to getting her own way, boasting of crying until her mother turned off a governess who tried to control her behaviour. Laura considered that she and Cora were lucky, Cora in having a formidable, but plainly loving, mother, who was ready to check any bad behaviour, but who handed out caresses. Laura herself was fortunate in both Miss Loring and Great Aunt Agnes. Miss Loring was indulgent without permitting any bad behaviour, and Great Aunt Agnes was a stickler. Normally Laura lived in the country, in the house where she was born, with Miss Loring a guardian to the young orphan, but Great Aunt Agnes demanded a visit to London four times a year, to see how Laura was doing. Laura loved the metropolis for a visit, but would not like to live there. Aunt Agnes was generous with her allowance to her great-niece, and Laura usually returned from her visit to London with several books, as well as fabrics for any new garments she might need.

Laura was invited to afternoon tea before helping to set things up for a soirée which Mrs. Fielding was hosting, and they were to play all kinds of parlour games.
“But not Blind Man’s Buff,” declared Mrs. Fielding, as Laura helped her and Cora to arrange things before the soirée was due to start. “It can lead to a far too frolicsome and vulgar behaviour, especially in young men, who are quite likely to cheat, in order to corner a lady they wish to know better, in some cases contrary to the wishes of the young lady. I have a trumpery bracelet with noisy charms depending from it, which will be noisy enough for a game of ‘Steal the white loaf’ , and we may play ‘move all’, as a good way of getting breathless with less opportunity to misbehave with members of the opposite sex, rushing about to find an empty chair to choose who is next ‘it’ to call out to move. And Lady Armitage is to play for dancing later, and I wager she’ll be very good at ‘musical magic’, playing louder or softer to denote how close the person who is sent out is to achieving their goal.”
“I have never really played parlour games, ma’am,” said Laura.
“Oh, you will soon get the idea,” said Mrs. Fielding. “Now, my dear, take off your apron; it is time to make ready.”
A mere ‘Mrs.’ might not decree a relaxation in the mourning, where Lady Lieven might; but the younger girls might wear white muslin without censure, as was always permitted as mourning when no formal mourning had yet been purchased. Laura was wearing a white muslin gown with four layers of vandyking in gathered muslin, to make a lattice, for weight at the bottom of her skirt, knots of Esterhazy-grey with amber ribbons set at the meeting points of the lattices, and on top of her sleeves, the ribbons sewn side by side in a lattice on her bodice. Cora had narrow ruches of Mazarine blue for her skirt trim, a Mazarine blue bodice, partially concealed with white blonde lace, and slashed puff sleeves with the same blue lining.
Laura was a little nervous of playing parlour games with strange men, but without Jenny there, it had to be less nerve-wracking than if she had been.

Laura found herself looking over the young men with more interest than Miss Loring would have thought strictly seemly. There were some spectacularly handsome young men amongst them! Laura knew there was no point in even hoping to have a dance with someone like the beautiful Russian, Alexei Ivanovitch Kiasov, who looked like a Greek god, with chiselled features, golden curls and a beautiful voice. On the other hand, Laura had spoken to Miss Elizabeth Elliot, who was quite besotted by him, and he sounded like a dead bore. The other truly beautiful young man she could think of was Gerard Falk, Marquess Falkrington, who was more rough-hewn than chiselled, and who wore his dark hair unfashionably long. It suited him, and when he was relaxed, he was remarkably handsome. More often, however, he wore an expression just short of a sneer. Since almost every mother of a daughter was trying to scrape an acquaintance with the young marquess, Laura could appreciate his point of view, but someone should tell him than an immobile look of bored indifference would be less likely to either cause offence or spoil his looks as he aged. However, he was not her problem; she did not move in the sorts of circles which included marquesses.
There might be some point attempting to get to know Mr. Montgomery or Mr. Grey, perhaps by asking intelligent questions about their sport of Draisine racing. Laura knew nothing about Draisines, other than the fact that some people called them pedestrian curricles, and others called them hobby-horses, and they were wheeled contraptions which one sat astride and propelled with the feet, bowling them along at prodigious speeds. The sport certainly seemed to promote development of the legs, and both young men had excellent calves and thighs, thought Laura, blushing to find herself noticing how closely their nether garments clung.
Miss Elliot was attempting to monopolise her handsome Russian, which was a little difficult in parlour games. She stood scandalously close to him as they played an opening game of Steal the White Loaf, and Laura tried her best to creep up to Cora, who had a bracelet laid behind her as a token to ‘steal’. Laura was quickly ‘out’ as Cora turned and pointed at her! A Mr. Lawrence finally succeeded in taking up the bracelet, and taking Cora’s place.
“Your left shoe squeaks,” said Cora. “I remarked it earlier, that is how I caught you so easily.”
Laura laughed.
“You have sharp hearing,” she said.
“Yes, I do, don’t I?” said Cora, in naive pleasure in having a skill which was all her own. “It’s why I never satisfy my pianoforte teacher, I find it so hard following the music so I make it up as I go along, and she gets so cross. But I enjoy it, and I can sing to it, so I don’t see why she and Mama get so cross about it.”
“When you are married you will be able to play as you choose,” said Laura, comfortingly. “Lady Armitage plays by ear, as well, I believe, at least she has played things for which there has been no music.”
“She’s tremendously good,” said Cora. “But then, I’m not interested in being good, just in pleasing myself.”
“And why not?” said Laura. “If we learn accomplishments only to impress a possible husband, how tedious it would be! It is why I have never wanted to learn the harp-lute, for though it is a most pretty-sounding instrument, it seems a shame to me that it can never be played outside the home once a girl is married. And if I have had to learn an instrument, I fully intend to both enjoy it for myself and inflict my playing on anyone else.”
Cora giggled.
“You play well enough, it’s hardly inflicting your playing on people.”
“Have you never sat in a parlour watching the ill-concealed looks of boredom on the faces of most of the people whilst the hostess insists on playing a few airs?”
“No, I’ve always watched the person playing.”
“I watch everyone else. Many people, especially gentlemen, are not enamoured of listening to the performances of those of us trained to produce a pretty air with more or less accuracy. Why, the Marquess of Falkrington positively sneers!”
“I don’t like him, he is rude and not convivial,” said Cora. “And I don’t understand half of what he talks about.”
Laura flushed, having eavesdropped on the Marquess when she might.
“He appears to be much addicted to word play, and to literary reference,” she said.
“Oh, that will explain why I do not understand him,” said Cora. “I do not see what pleasure people find in reading, it is such a chore, and my mind wanders when I try to follow a written story. It is not like a play when you can see what people are doing.”
Laura kept her tongue firmly between her teeth, since she enjoyed reading. Poor Cora! Her understanding was severely limited.
There was to be a change of game, and Lady Armitage moved to the pianoforte as servants placed chairs in a circle. Mrs. Fielding declared a game of ‘Move All’ was to be played, and though music was not needed, it made it more jolly, thought Laura, than running about without anything but the sound of hasty feet in dancing pumps. There were chairs for all but the girl in the middle, a girl named, Laura thought, Anne, who had been the last person caught in the previous game, and when she called out “Move All!” they must get up and run and try to find another seat. Whoever failed to find a seat became the next person in the middle. It was great fun, and Laura felt her hair descending, and did not care, as she rushed desperately to snag a seat from a young man. She tripped over someone’s feet, and fell headlong, only to be caught by a pair of strong arms before she could land on her face on the ground.
She looked up into the laughing eyes of the Marquess of Falkrington.
“Well, that, at least, was a genuine fall, and not a cynical attempt to land on my lap,” he said, with a smile of genuine amusement.
“I thank you sir, for your support,” said Laura, blushing furiously, “But I am no hoyden to aim a fall at a gentleman. At least I have not ‘fallen like Lucifer, never to hope again’, and offer the quote as the only apology I can make for hurling myself headlong at your feet.”
“Oh, there are plenty who would make themselves hoydens enough,” he sneered. “Shakespeare, Henry VIII; not a common play.”
“I have read more of Shakespeare’s plays than I have seen,” said Laura. “In truth, I have only seen ‘Midsummer Night Dream’ acted, and that by a most inept troupe of players who scarcely knew their lines. My great aunt does not go to the theatre when I am in London, so I have seen but rural entertainments. But I keep you from your chair, and hold up the game; I am out quite fairly.”
“I pray you, madam, take the seat; the game bores me now, in any case, for your accident has given other girls the ideas to suffer a purposeful accident, and I feel their eyes boring into me with the calculated precision of an auger.”
“That does not augur well for your peace of mind, sir,” said Laura, unable to resist the pun.
He gave one of his genuine smiles.
“Oh, very nicely done, Miss Reads-Shakespeare,” he said. He took her hand to place on his arm, and led her to the vacant chair.
Laura was to see that the marquess was quite correct about girls indulging in hoyting behaviour; for Elizabeth Elliot contrived to sit on the lap of her Russian poet, calling down censure on her head from her mother.
“I believe I will sit out,” said the Poet. “This game has no dignity or beauty. I go elsewhere for a while.”
“And take your chair with you,” said Mrs. Fielding, sternly.
“I? I am of royal blood, I do not carry chairs like a kulak, a peasant. Let the footman do it.” With a dismissive wave of the hand, he wandered off. Laura had to suppress a fit of the giggles at his ridiculous airs. What Miss Elliot saw in him, she could not fathom!
A footman hastily retrieved his chair, and Miss Elizabeth Elliot discovered that she was ‘it’ by default of not having found a proper chair.
“I don’t want to play any more, either,” she said.
“You’ll play one more turn until another person is chosen,” said Mrs. Fielding, annoyed at having been deprived of one player who should have been ‘it’ when the marquess had adroitly slipped away without giving notice; and sulkily, Miss Elliot complied.
Laura was also finding the game a little flat, but she acknowledged to herself that anything would seem flat after having had conversation with an acknowledged heartbreaker, and come away unscathed, but for the burning sensation on her arms where he had caught her. Doubtless it had bruised, but Falkrington could scarcely be faulted for that. And the way that it felt as though he still held her was not unpleasant.
Laura wondered whether those young ladies he had led to believe his attentions were serious had deliberately engineered a situation like falling at his feet, and had broken their hearts as punishment for chasing him down like the hare. Or perhaps he was just cold and hard.
Lord Falkrington was nothing to her, and why he might do anything was of no interest to her. Laura threw herself into the next game, which definitely needed the skills of Lady Armitage. Musical Magic required one person at a time to exit the room while the rest decided on a task that must be performed. When the person came in, the pianoforte would play louder if close to fulfilment of the task, and quieter if the player was getting the wrong idea. Laura was chosen early on, and found herself led to the mantelpiece, where picking up a taper had loud music playing, and a thunderous crescendo as she lit the taper from the fire and set the flame to one of the candles. Cora did not do well at this and needed encouragement to put on a shawl as her task; but on the whole, a good time was had by all, before heading in to supper.

Chapter 3

“Insipid, was it, Ger?” asked Mr. Levington, as his friend came into White’s.
“Insipid would be a compliment by comparison to the experience,” said Gerard Falk, Marquess Falkrington. He paused. “Apart from the young lady who fell at my feet entirely by accident, since it was thoroughly graceless. She quoted Shakespeare and made a pun.”
“Good grief! And you left this paragon?”
“She has bad skin and a worse figure. Knows how to dress, though,” said Falkrington. “Not a poor relation but not an heiress. Probably hoping for a respectable husband. I wouldn’t suit her, even if I could face her over the breakfast table. Now if she’d had the looks of her bubble-headed friend as well as the bookishness, I might have been interested. As it is, not tempted. Is it true that Cavendish bet that he could train a team of rats to harness to pull a coach?”
“Not Cavendish, but it’s probably in the book of wagers,” said Mr. Levington. “I say it can’t be done.”
“No; rats are too intelligent to be coerced into it,” said Falkrington. “Only thing worse would be cats. It’s what I like about cats; they do what they want, and don’t give a damn who wants them to do what.”
“You’ve a touch of the feline about you, at times, Ger,” said Levington.
“And you, my good friend, with the scorn in his voice of a dog lover, are more like a good basset hound.”
“Why a basset hound?”
“You don’t give up on a scent, and you keep your ears close to the ground,” said Falkrington. “Found out why the Prince’s tame gentleman Bow Street runner is in town with his lady, yet?”
“I suspect he’s looking into why several people have inherited a little earlier than might have been anticipated,” said Levington.
“Huh, well that makes sense,” said Falkrington. “His good lady could play professionally; very impressive musician.”
Levington shrugged.
“One tinkling female is much like another, to me,” he said.
“Yes, but then you’re so tone deaf you couldn’t tell the difference between Handel and a sea shanty,” said his friend, rudely.
“No, probably not,” agreed Levington, equably.

Back at the soirée, Laura noted that someone else had noticed Lady Armitage; the Russian poet approached her as she played a waltz air to entice people away from the table and into the ballroom. Lady Armitage looked startled and most uncomfortable, and Laura was relieved to see Sir Caleb Armitage tap the poet on the shoulder and speak to him severely. The poet retired, dabbing his eyes as if he had been reduced to tears.
“Dear me, is he crying?” asked Cora. “I hope Sir Caleb was not too harsh to him!”
“A man should never cry in public,” said Laura, scornfully. “Not unless it is at the funeral of a loved one, or similar. A few harsh words for the man’s presumption should not reduce him to tears; I cannot see why Miss Elliot is so enamoured of him.”
Cora smiled blithely.
“Oh, Elizabeth is not in the least bit enamoured of Alexei Ivanovitch, which is what he told Mama to call him, so don’t blame me that it’s not his last name,” said she. “Elizabeth is in love with being the muse of a poet who also happens to be a beautiful as a Greek statue.”
“And to have as many brains, I wager,” said Laura. “Dear Cora, I have shocked you; and you were having one of your moments of insight. I swear if anyone else had put it the way you did, it would have sounded quite old cattish, whereas with you, it’s just the way you see things.”
“I didn’t mean to be old cattish,” said Cora.
“No, I know! You couldn’t be,” said Laura. “Unlike me, for I meant to be, and was.”
At that moment, Cora was claimed by one of her swains, and Sir Caleb came over to Laura.
“Will you honour me with this dance, Miss Evans?”
“Oh! Yes, thank you,” said Laura, who had not been sure she would get an invitation to dance. It helped that her partner was moderately accomplished, with a natural grace, despite a slight limp.
“It is very early for the season, I believe,” said Sir Caleb. “Are you hoping to attend Almack’s?”
“Yes, sir, my Great Aunt says she has enough on all the patronesses to make sure they fall into line, and I think she was joking, at least, I hope so! But apparently I am to have a voucher.”
“I suggest you take at least one night off each week from dancing and dissipation, in order to recover with one early night, at least,” said Sir Caleb.
“Yes, Miss Loring, my governess, gave me similar advice,” said Laura. “Of course, I do not know how many invitations I am likely to get.”
“I am sure you will have sufficient to be able to pick and chose,” said Sir Caleb. He was easy to talk to, like a favourite uncle, and Laura chatted happily until the dance ended. She curtseyed.
“Thank you so much for treating me like a beautiful lady,” she said.
“My dear Miss Evans,” said Caleb, “You are a lovely young lady. My wife is beautiful, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes, Sir Caleb, she is so lovely, and gracious, and graceful! I was not flirting with you, indeed I was not, I could not compete even if you were not married!” Laura was aghast in case she had been unintentionally forward. He smiled reassurance.
“I know that, Miss Evans. But you see, when my wife was your age, she was an awkward and gawky girl, who was certain she was plain, and uninteresting. I am certain she was neither plain, nor uninteresting; and neither are you. Presently you will grow into knowing where your feet are at all times, and you will learn to smile without worrying about what impression you are making, and to present as serene and gracious an appearance as Lady Armitage does.”
“Oh, do you really think so, Sir Caleb?”
“I know so, child. Now, run along, and flirt with someone your own age, who is unattached, because learning to flirt is a skill as much as dancing, and you might as well enjoy it.”
“Oh, yes sir!” said Laura, determined to practise being serene. She watched Sir Caleb solicit a dance from a sulky-looking Elizabeth Elliot, who had danced twice with her poet already, and watched as he spoke calmly to the girl. Maybe he would give her some timely good advice.
Laura enjoyed herself dancing, and made quite an impression on Mr. Grey by asking if it was true that he would be racing with his hobby-horse. She could not recall the proper name.
“It’s properly called a Draisine, or pedestrian curricle,” said Mr. Grey. “But I know you ladies do not commonly take much interest in such things.”
“I cannot say that I would enjoy riding one,” said Laura, “but plainly you do, and are looking forward to racing, and I wish you the best of luck.”
“Why, thank you!” said Mr. Grey. “And thank you for being a good chap and talking about Draisines, I never really know what to say to girls, because most of them want to talk about the oddest things.”
Laura laughed.
“And some even boast that they have never read a book all through,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever read a book all through,” said Mr. Grey, “But then at least I read the paper and the Gentleman’s Magazine.”
“Ah, I cannot admit to the latter,” said Laura.
She was not displeased when the dance ended, for Mr. Grey was quite hard work to speak to, without being knowledgeable on the subject of Draisines, which she was not, and had no desire to be so. A Mr. Clarke claimed her next, a short young man tending to embonpoint already, with spectacles, and an air of sobriety, which was belied the moment Mr. Clarke opened his mouth and began to discuss the more conventional subject of the latest performances at Covent Garden.
“I am sorry to have missed ‘The Marriage of Figaro’,” said Laura.
“Oh, it will return, no doubt; too much music in it for me,” said Mr. Clarke. “Give me a good farce, any day! Nothing exciting at the moment, though, just ‘Evadne, or The Statue’, which is a tragedy, followed by ‘Alladin and his wonderful lamp’, the pantomime, you know.”
“What is a pantomime?” asked Laura.
“Ah, it derives from the Greek, pantomimos, meaning all-acted, in that one actor took every role to tell a story. However now it is a musical comedy,” he added hastily. “Usually with dancing and clowning, and characters like Harlequin from the old commedia dell’arte. It split from ballet in the middle of the last century,” he added. “It’s usually played around Christmas and Easter, and it’s a suitable entertainment for children, like the spectaculars shown at Astley’s, though my papa says it certainly wasn’t for children when he was a boy.”
“Things change, I suppose,” said Laura. “And what of the tragedy? Can that be suitable for children?”
“Lud, I doubt it, but people don’t always come until the first piece is over anyway,” said Mr. Clarke.
“I have to say, I would prefer my three shillings’ worth,” said Laura. “Or seven shillings’ worth if I was in a box.”
“You want to be in a box; you wouldn’t like being in the pit,” said Mr. Clarke. “Not as bad as the gallery, but still! Not for a gently-born lady.”
“I have not yet been to the theatre since I have come to London,” said Laura.
“My dear Miss Evans! An oversight! Most remiss of your parents!”
“Hardly, sir, as they are dead; my great aunt is an elderly lady and does not go about much. I am dependent on the good will of the parents of my friends, for my governess can hardly accompany me to the theatre as a chaperone,” said Laura, with some asperity.
“No, quite. My commiserations! I will speak to Mrs. Fielding about making up a party.”
“Why, thank you!” said Laura.
“All young ladies ought to have experienced the theatre,” said Mr. Clarke, earnestly.
It would be a new experience and Laura firmly crushed the part of her which whispered that it would be more entertaining to see Shakespeare performed in the company of the Marquess of Falkrington. Mr. Clarke was a pleasant young man, and very kind. However, Laura was coming to the conclusion that, like Mr. Grey, he had one topic of conversation, about which he was knowledgeable, and that was comedic theatre. Whether it was an advantage that he could demonstrate his passion to a lady, and invite her to partake of it, which obviously a Draisine enthusiast could not, Laura had yet to decide. It was perhaps easier to smile, and nod with regards to the pronouncements of a Draisine rider, than to manage a conversation without argument if a pantomime did not live up to the expectations Mr. Clarke plainly held for it.

It took only a couple of days for Mr. Clarke to organise a theatre party and hire a box, with a party consisting of Mrs. Fielding and Cora as well as Laura, a Mr. Andrew Brasenose, and his sister, who was the girl called Anne.
“And you want to go to the theatre,” said Great Aunt Agnes.
“Yes, Aunt Agnes; it is not considered fast these days,” said Laura.
“Bless you girl, I don’t disapprove of it because it’s fast, I disapprove of it for the evil miasmas of disease from the great unwashed who attend. You’ll likely be well enough, and not catch anything, now you’re fully grown and still young, but at my age you can’t be too careful. Make sure you strip and wash all over when you get home, before greeting me, and have whatever you wear put out to be laundered. I didn’t get to eighty years old by taking foolish risks.”
“I see, ma’am!” Laura was enlightened.
“And see that the maids iron the seams of your gown, killing any lice,” said Aunt Agnes.
“I expect they know to do that anyway if you have told them so,” said Laura.
“Knowing and doing are two different things, my girl, and maids can be flighty pieces,” said Aunt Agnes.
Laura was much heartened, now that she knew that her aunt’s objections to taking her to the theatre had been prompted by concerns for health not any disapproval of the morality of such a visit.
“I believe children are taken to see pantomimes,” said Laura.
“Then the more fool their parents,” said Great Aunt Agnes. “Children die readily enough as it is, without exposing them to more risk of disease. Though I can see the attraction of Astley’s, for them,” she said, with a sigh. “Perhaps robust children might not be at risk. But I could not subject you to any risk, for a guardian is in a different position to a parent, since it is a sacred trust from your parents, and I am responsible to them, bless their memory, for your safety.”
It showed her stern aunt in a new light, and Laura embraced the old woman.
“Thank you for caring,” she said.
“Tush, child! Go out and enjoy yourself, stay away from the general crowds and if any young man who calls himself a gentleman attempts to handle you in the darkness of the box during the performance, you know where to jab your fan.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Laura, who had been embarrassed but much enlightened by her aunt’s instruction on how to use a fan before she had even embarked on a season.
Thus, an excited Laura was waiting for Mr. Clarke’s coach to collect her and Miss Loring. Half mourning was still de rigeur in public, but Aunt Agnes had sent for Mrs. Gill, of Cork Street, to bring fabrics for an opera gown, and Laura found herself dressed in a rich shade of violet which did not make her look sallow, trimmed with bunches of white and violet violets made of hand-painted silk, and Mrs. Gill’s seamstresses had worked hard to have the gown ready in time. It was something Laura thought almost profligate, but which Aunt Agnes insisted on! A bunch of real violets completed the ensemble, and Laura felt that she was as fine as fivepence until she saw Cora and Anne, and compared herself to them. However, she knew she was looking well enough, considering her short waist and rather dumpy figure, and Mrs. Gill had suggested combing almond milk and rose water through her hair, and using rosewater on her face, and her hair was much glossier for it, even if there had not been time to brighten her complexion.

Laura Evans 1-3

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