When I woke up that morning I fully expected to be in the same place as I was the night before. Therefore when I realised that what I was lying on was damp and cold I naturally assumed that I had been rained on through my window during the night. This was incorrect, at least in as much as it could not have rained through my window, as my window was no longer where it had been the night before. In fact, my whole room had somehow been misplaced. I was lying at the base of a tree, on some very thick moss. That at least explained the damp.
I must confess to being something of a fantasy fan. Thus, when I realised that I was somewhere other than I should be, my first thought was that I was the victim of some magic. Then I woke up fully, and the only difference was that I could see more trees around me. Waking up had done two things; it had made me realise that my first reaction was total and utter nonsense, and it made me suspect that my first reaction had in fact been accurate. That contradiction was too much for me that early in the morning, so I stopped thinking about it.
I stood up. On the way up I realised that something else was wrong. When I went to bed the night before I distinctly remembered not having anything on. Now, I observed, somewhat to my horror, that I had a skirt and a blouse on. Immediately following that came the realisation that the hair falling to below my waist was attached firmly to my head. Either I had slept for some time, or there was some other explanation that could shed some light on my situation.
The theory that was edging it's way into my head was not amazingly pleasant, or even particularly plausible. And yet, it explained everything. Put simply, I was a female. This is, of course, not my usual condition.
How the mind works is one of the great mysteries of our time. Having explained one thing to it's satisfaction it then raised the matter of where I was, unwanted distraction though that was at the time. The problem of position was not so easily solved, as there were lots of trees in whatever direction I looked.
I decided to do something. I looked around, picked a direction, and started walking. Quite by chance I picked the right direction, and found myself at the side of a road.
There is one very commonly believed fallacy that I would like to lay to rest here and now. Roads do not automatically lead somewhere. I know this from long experience living somewhere where dirt tracks have murderous intent, leading unwary travellers to their doom.
Still, there was very little that I could do at this stage, except try to find some people and learn something about were I was, and the only sign of any civilisation was the road. So I decided to pick a direction and follow it.
It was not a very spectacular road, about three metres wide, not paved in any way but quite level and seemingly well maintained. There were no potholes, no gullies, no corrugations, few rocks of any size. It felt as if it were used quite often, not by wheeled vehicles but by feet. The forest canopy on either side extended out to meet in the middle, so that it was still cool. The sun could be seen through the leaves, high up, around noon. I strolled at a leisurely pace towards the horizon, with no real plans as to what to do. I didn't know where I was, what this place was like, not even what I looked like at the time. There would have been little point in arguing that I was not in a fix.
Right at the time that I decided I was in an insoluble mess, along came the first piece of traffic that I had seen. It was an open carriage, with an escort of several men on horseback. They proceeded at a steady pace down the road in the opposite direction to me, seemingly out on an afternoon stroll. When they saw me the horsemen moved out to meet me. One of them said: "Young lady, may I be so bold as to ask what you are doing walking through this forest?" I winced at the reference to gender, and said: "I'm afraid that I really don't know. I woke up out in the forest, and found my way to this road half an hour ago." They digested this, and then offered to take me to the nearest town. I accepted without thinking, and when I did start to think that it might not be a very good idea to climb into a carriage with a group of people that I knew nothing about, in a place that I knew nothing about, it was too late to rescind my decision.
The carriage was not overly ornate, but it was comfortable and in good condition. The leather upholstery was not worn, the finish on the wood was good, and it had a general air of quality about it that was hard to dispute. The people that resided in it also had an air about them, of wealth, self assuredness and complacency, that I found in general very comforting; people such as these would not be very likely to pick up an unwary traveller and murder him. Or her, as the case may be.
The occupants of the carriage were three women, one maybe sixty years old, one thirty five to forty, and the third possibly seventeen or eighteen. It was probably a family outing, as they looked alike enough to be three consecutive generations. The two younger women were quite beautiful, with moderately long brown hair, smooth skin, straight features and brown/green eyes that were quietly stunning, and the old woman looked as if she, too, would have been beautiful in her younger years. They engaged in light conversation, about nothing at all, and didn't attempt to include me in it. That was fine by me, as I had decided not to discuss myself at all, so that I wouldn't have to tell either the truth or some lie that I could not possibly maintain.
We had been going on like that for some time when the youngest of the three said to me: "Excuse me, but I don't think we know your name?" I was tempted to say "No you don't" and totally ignore the implied question, but I found it impossible to be so rude to strangers. So, instead, I hurriedly said the first female name that came into my head: "My name is Anastasia." Don't ask me why I picked that name, because I have no idea, but that was the one that came up at the time.
The young woman looked a little surprised at this, and her mother smiled and said "Well, Anna, go on, say it 'That's my name, too.' Actually, both of us are called Anastasia. It's something of a family tradition."
Very bad choice of name, that. Oh, well, I could hardly go back on it. "If you don't mind me asking, how do you hold an intelligible conversation?"
"Anna is Anna," said Anna's mother, "I am Anastasia or mother to Anna, and mother is Beatrice. It could be worse!"
I laughed and relaxed, expecting the conversation to end there.
"Where are you from?"
The question that I would find most difficult to answer. What could I say? I knew nothing about this place, nothing about the people; in short, I could not say anything without it being realised that I was not normal in any way, shape or form.
"I can't remember. I can't remember anything from before I woke up in the forest." That seemed a most satisfying answer. With it I could pass off any ignorance about this place, and any reluctance to disclose my past. All three women looked rather put out at the thought of not knowing anything of your own past, and immediately offered any service that they could provide me to make life any easier, and to find out about my past. I began to like this family.
After about an hour of steady travel we came to a town, with cobbled streets, terraced houses lining either side, and a bustling market square. It looked almost identical to a typical small, wealthy English town, and as such began to arouse my suspicions. How would two different worlds finish up so very similar? The most plausible explanation to that was to assume that I was dreaming it all, rather than it really happening. I generally pride myself on the fact that what I see is there, and in the form that I see it. I don't hallucinate. All this so far felt exactly like the real thing, like real life. So, if this really was a dream then I would have to start doubting my judgement. I didn't like the sound of that at all.
I looked around me with interest as the carriage rolled through the streets. "What is this town called?" I asked.
"Anastasia," I had made a very bad choice of name. "The town grew on the site of the original estate, when my great grandfather encouraged weavers to set up here to use the wool that we produce. We hold hereditary title over thirty thousand acres of the surrounding lands." Anastasia was conspicuously proud of her situation. We stopped outside a rather grand looking townhouse, and were shown inside by a friendly looking man I assumed to be the butler.
The interior of the house was not grand, but was rather warm and welcoming. It seemed to be a house used to live in, rather than rule from. The butler (his name was, surprisingly enough, not Igor, but Richardson) was appraised of the situation concerning me, and left to see to a room for me to sleep in. And then the fun began.
I was offered a drink (lemonade), some food (a sandwich), a chair (many thanks), another drink (no thankyou), and finally, at a loss for things that they might do for me they suddenly remembered that they had not properly introduced me to all of them. The first of the men was the one who had spoken to me first when we met. He was a tall, well built, strong man with a hard face and a rather brusque manner, whose name was Joseph Wenton. He was the husband of Anastasia, father of Anna, and the head of the family.
The second man was markedly dissimilar. He was short, somewhat round, a little red in the face, and comical in his gait. He was also Phillip Wenton, younger brother of Joseph, and a noted intellectual. I liked him from the start, because he laughed at everything. He laughed when his brother gave his little speech of introduction, and was told off for his levity. When I asked him what was so funny, he said "Joseph here is being overly pompous. I was laughing at the contrast between today's formalities and last week's drinking songs. Forgive me Joe, I should not reveal such things, but you must admit, you are being too much the statesman. Our guest will have much more respect for you if you act like a human being rather than a politician. Am I not right, young lady?" I could but nod agreement, as I would have broken down into fits of laughter at the look on Joseph's face if I had opened my mouth.
The third member of the party was the youngest. He was neither large and strong, nor small and fat. He was probably about five foot eight, lightly built, with short black hair and brown eyes, a square jaw supporting a wide mouth and a half serious, half humorous expression lending an air of self confidence. He was Joseph Wenton's son, a year older than Anna, and heir to the estate. His name was David, and he looked every bit the part, standing next to the Goliath of his imposing father. He had a rather cynical expression on his face, lightened by a touch of humour that suggested he had inherited some of his uncle's outlook. He had sat in one of the comfortable arm chairs and watched the rest of the family flitting about looking after me, eyebrows raised and a slight quirk to his mouth, saying nothing but conveying a tolerant contempt for all the goings on.
When all the introductions had been made Anastasia suggested that I might like to go up to my room and clean myself up for dinner. I would find some clothes that hopefully would fit me, and a maid to assist me to dress. I was relieved to hear about the maid, as I was not too confident that I would know how to put on any of the clothes, at least not if they were anything like the ones Beatrice, Anastasia and Anna were wearing. Richardson the butler showed me to my room, on the second floor of the house, and inside I found the maid, several mountains of material, and a mountain of a bed. It suddenly occurred to me that I really did know nothing of this world, and especially of the clothing worn by women.
"I'm afraid I really don't know how to put on one of these dresses." I said. Limp. Pathetic. Surely you could come up with something better than that!
"That's all right, love. Someone your age could hardly be expected to be able to wear clothes for someone five years older than you. Why, you're a good five or six inches shorter than Anna, and a good deal smaller in the bust. I'll have to get one of Anna's older dresses; it should fit you. You could wash up while I'm gone. The bathroom is just through there, it's easy enough to run everything. Just leave your clothes on the bed, there's a robe hanging in the bathroom that'll suit you."
The maid bustled out of the room, leaving me to look after the problem of getting myself clean. I opened the door indicated and found a bathroom. It was a normal bathroom, to all intents and purposes. The floor was tiled, most of the walls were tiled and the rest were panelled, there was a mirror, a bath tub with taps, and a shower head, also with taps. There was even soap! Positively civilised! Remembering the situation at hand I looked in the mirror. I almost looked over my shoulder to see who it was behind me, but I checked the movement just in time to turn it into a quick shake of the head. The image in the mirror shook her head at the same time. Reality, if you could call it that, had hit me. This was me.
When in Rome. . .
The image in the mirror was probably about fourteen or fifteen years old, rather less than five feet tall, slender, lightly built but quite well muscled, like a ballet dancer, an excellent figure with a slender waist and a very nice ass, too. The face, well, to be quite frank, the face was beautiful. The eyes were a very deep brown, that you could look into all day and not get bored with. The nose was small, rather pointed, and very well suited to the face in general. The mouth wasn't wide, the lips were not full or red or anything like that, but there was a curve, a slight smile perpetually lighting the face that meant that whatever happened it would make you feel good to see it. There was rather a lot of hair, masses of it, curled and the colour of oiled jarrah. It hung right down to below my waist and was actually some of the most beautiful hair that I have seen. Altogether, whatever had brought me here had dealt me a most interesting hand, and had not even told me what game we were playing.
Undressing was an interesting experience. I was at first a little reluctant to remove any of my clothes, almost as if I was undressing a total stranger. In many ways I was, but I was also in need of a shower, so I finally started to undo the buttons. The blouse came off first, and underneath that was a lacy and very attractive bra. I decided to leave that on for the moment. I felt around the skirt for a fastening of some sort and found a hook at the back. I undid that and let the skirt fall to the ground. Underneath was a petticoat, again rather lacy and again held by a hook at the back. Underneath that was a pair of shorts. Actually they were French Knickers, but my first reaction was 'shorts'. I almost laughed at finding something so normal as shorts in all this oddness. I looked at myself in the mirror. Well, I could hardly complain, could I?
I took off the bra and knickers and showered. It was something of an anticlimax. I had been expecting some sort of sensual experience, as if there were twice as many nerves in this body than in my old one, but instead it was normal. There were different curves, different textures, but nothing particularly special. I finished the shower and dried myself. There was an enormous towelling bath robe hanging behind the door and I wrapped myself in it's luxurious thickness. Then I went out into the bedroom and found the maid back and sitting on a chair doing some repairs to a dress.
"Hello," I said. "How long was I?"
"Not more than half an hour, my love."
"Oh. I didn't mean to be that long, but I really love long hot showers."
"That's not very long. Young Anna sometimes showers for a whole hour, and only then gets out because the hot water runs out. Now, put on these underthings, there's a screen behind you, and then we'll see about this dress."
The 'underthings' were essentially the same as I had on before, and I didn't have any problems with them. When I came out from behind the screen I found myself being eyed up by the maid. "This'll fit you, my love." The dress that she was holding was thankfully quite simple, and certainly better than the alternative had been. It slipped over my head, and with a bit of twisting and some very interesting arm actions I got it on properly. Finally I was tied in at the waist, a little too tightly for my liking, and then I got to survey the end result. I was clad in a soft maroon that clung to my upper body and flared out from the hips, hanging almost, but not quite, down to the floor. The overall effect was very pleasing. "We'll have to do something about the hair, dear, so sit down here." The maid indicated the chair in front of the dresser, and I sat down, shaking my hair out and down the back of the chair. The maid got a brush and a comb and began what I could only describe as a grooming; she would run the brush through the hair, and every so often stop and untangle a knot or something of the sort. Throughout the process she maintained a running commentary, mumbling on about the "beautiful hair" and "such a nice colour" and "so long" and every so often "so damn unmanageable" in a much quieter voice. I sat through about half an hour of this, and then was proclaimed finished, at least, well enough for a simple dinner.
When I left the room and stepped out onto the landing at the top of the stairs I met David, also on his way down. He greeted me with a rather mocking air, saying "Good evening my dear. Would you care to be escorted down to dinner?" My first reaction was to decline, but I had no idea how that would be taken, and I didn't want to offend anyone. David sensed this and said "You needn't worry about appearing forward. My family is very tolerant about such things. Take for example the way that we aided you in your hour of need, with no thought for the possible scandal attached to taking in an unknown and quite probably disreputable young girl found in the middle of a wood."
I looked at him curiously and took a breath to ask why they had helped, but was interrupted by a laugh emanating from my companion. I was surprised by this, to say the least, and said "What's so funny?"
"You looked so like a little bird then, with your head to one side, interrogating me with one eye. I am sorry if I startled you, but please don't fly away."
"That I won't do. But please, why did you stop to help? I mean, you've given one good reason for not doing so, now give one good reason why?"
"Would you prefer to have been left?"
"That question doesn't even deserve comment. Please answer."
"And if I don't? No, do not bother to answer. You will merely snub me for ever after, I am sure. The truth of the matter is that we all tend to act on our whims, all except my good Father. You were lucky enough to strike our fancy. Hardly truly charitable, I know, but sometimes it passes for goodness."
"I'm not sure I really believe that. You are all so nice, and you seemed to me to be genuinely concerned for my welfare."
"Of course we were genuinely concerned! What do you take us for? Heartless fiends?"
"It sounded rather like that was what you thought of yourselves, from what you said."
"I said that we acted on our whims, not that we didn't care for anything other than ourselves."
"You also suggested that I was lucky to have been the recipient of these whims, as if you would not have done anything otherwise."
"We wouldn't! That is the nature of whimsy, that you do something you would not normally do. In any case, does it make us heartless fiends that we should be reluctant to take in a completely unknown young woman, who may, for all we know, be looking to cause some great scandal, or to be a parasite to our goodwill?"
"Do you know what I'd call that? Paranoia." We had stopped halfway down the stairs to give our full attention to the discussion, and at this point Anna came to the top of the stairs and interrupted us. I am sure that I looked like we had been caught red-handed at something we shouldn't have been doing, and Anna did not fail to notice that. She stood at the top of the stairs and looked down on us with a distinctly stupid grin on her face, as if she had caught two innocent young lovers at play. Lovers! The thought terrified me. For a start, David was an arrogant prick, and secondly, despite my changed circumstances I was not interested in men. After about half a second of contemplation I caught myself and said to Anna "Good evening. Thank you for the loan of your dresses, but they did not fit." I turned and stalked down the stairs, with David following a step behind; he had kept his composure admirably.
The dining room was very large by comparison with anything that I had seen before, but it was made to seem perfectly reasonable by the massive table that filled it. David showed me to my chair, between him and Anna and we sat. Within a minute everyone else had turned up, and all had taken their places. Then in came Richardson and placed the first course in front of us. Soup. I sort of looked at what everyone else was doing, and followed it as well as I could. Fortunately things were roughly the same as I was used to, and I didn't commit any great social solecisms. At least I don't think I did. The conversation was light and friendly, with all the Wenton's trying to make me feel at home. They were surprisingly successful, but I hardly contributed my bit to the general conversation. I was too busy trying to watch that I didn't say anything that was out of the role that I had taken upon myself.
After a while the talk strayed around to what would be done in the near future. Anastasia announced that they would all be going to London in three days time, rather to the surprise of the rest of the family, and to the complete astonishment of myself. It would never have occurred to me that there would be a city, let alone that it would be called London.
I had to be dreaming. How else could this be explained? Given that, I might as well play on, and see what happened. Maybe I would get some insights into my personality. Stranger things have happened!
The next two days were quite dull. It rained. Not proper rain, with lots of thunder and lightning and wind, but the most depressing drizzle, that stopped you from doing anything. I found that the house was equipped with a very good library, and I spent some time looking through it, before finally setting down to read. The books were quite interesting, and were useful in providing me with some instruction in what went on in the society in which I found myself.
The day of the trip into the city dawned, and inevitably it was perfectly dry and sunny, warm, and altogether perfect for travelling. The party set out in four carriages, one carrying a mountain of baggage and the other three carrying the family and the immediate servants. We rolled through the streets of the town, and out into the countryside around it. It was farming country, made up of a myriad small fields, with every so often a lane stretching out towards the horizon, and the odd farmhouse amongst them all. It continued this way for another four hours, with the occasional stretch of woods and a village turning up periodically. After a while the villages became larger and more frequent until we reached a point when they seemed to meet each other at their outskirts, and we were in the city. It was, once again, depressingly normal. At least, it was too much what I expected. Still, I had decided to wait and see what happened to me, and I might as well do that here as in the country.
At length we reached another townhouse, this one much grander than the first. We were greeted by an elderly and most distinguished butler, who informed m'lady that everything was prepared.
Half an hour after our arrival I had been taken on a tour of the house by Anna, who seemed to be unaccountably concerned with pleasing me. "You needn't go to all this trouble for me," I said to her. "I can explore the house on my own perfectly well."
"Oh I could hardly do that. Mother charged you particularly to my care, and I mean to do my duty by you." was the reply.
"You all really are too kind to me. What if I should prove to be someone totally unworthy of your notice?"
The thought obviously had not occurred to Anna, but she gave it little thought anyway. "I hardly think that is likely." she said, and waved the matter away, continuing on her tour.
The day after our arrival in town Anastasia resolved to pay a visit to her oldest friend, Lady Jane Siddenby.
"You must come, my child," she said to me. "I am sure that she could help you find out about yourself."
"Oh, don't be so disagreeable. Jane knows all the gossip, and is sure to know about any lost children."
"That assumes that I am from hers and your society, but that is not particularly likely."
"When we stumbled upon you, you were wearing a quite modish outfit, very much the thing for one of your age, and very much too expensive for anyone who was not quite well heeled. Your manners are quite up to scratch, and you have an air about you of assurance and quality." Anastasia firmly pronounced this, with a rather forbidding look, as of one who would not allow any argument with her expertise. I sighed and found that I could not get out of this visit without being rude to a woman who had been exceedingly kind. Thus it was that I found myself being handed down from the Wenton's carriage at the door of Lord and Lady Siddenby's townhouse, along with my companions. We were greeted at the door by the butler, a forbidding person, who seemed to find it an unpardonable insult to have to open the door to anyone, let alone a group of ladies. We were shown in, and taken into a parlour where, we were assured, Lady Siddenby resided. Anastasia entered first, followed by Anna, and finally I entered. What happened then was one of the biggest shocks that I have ever received in my life.
When I walked through the door I saw Anastasia introducing Anna to a small slender woman, who had dark eyes, long, deep red curls, and an excellent figure. She turned to greet me, and as she saw me the colour drained from her face, and she seemed incredulous. Then she rushed towards me and embraced me passionately, saying: "My darling, my darling Kate! Where have you been?" To say that I was embarrassed would have been the understatement of the millennium!
Anastasia came up to her and led her to a couch, taking me by the hand and drawing me with her. She said to me: "Child, though you do not remember, this is your mother. I recognised you soon after we met you, and resolved to take you home. I am truly sorry that you should be unable to recognise your mother, but I hope your memory may be restored in time."
This revelation understandably set me in rather a spin. No matter how many resolutions I might make, it was all too real for me to treat as a simple fantasy. A large part of me rebelled, saying that this was impossible, that my mother was not this woman, and the rest of me was for some reason revolted by everything. I pulled myself up short, and analysed my emotions, reminding me that this was all simply a dream, and that therefore this had no importance. This calmed me, and allowed me to see the funny side of it all.
After a brief interval for Lady Siddenby to recover her composure she engaged me in conversation. "What happened to you? Where have you been for so long?"
"I woke up in a forest four days ago, and was found by Anastasia and taken in. Then we came to town, and she brought me here. Evidently she recognised me from the start, and when I revealed that I had lost my memory endeavoured to help me. I have a lot to thank her for."
"No more than I, for restoring you to me! Oh, Kate, are you sure you can remember nothing before that morning?"
I felt slightly guilty saying no to this, but I could hardly have said to my supposed mother that I was quite sure that before that fateful morning I had been living in a far more advanced society, in another world, and, what is more, was nobody's daughter! Still, it seemed that I was much like Kate Siddenby in manner and personality, so I was even more certain that I was dreaming.
After a short discussion with Lady Siddenby it was decided that she and I would return to the family seat in the country, with the hope of stimulating a return of memory. Things happened very quickly now, and within two days I found myself in yet another carriage driving up a long avenue, lined with tall and graceful trees, towards a massive great structure, which looked like someone had cobbled together half a dozen different styles of architecture in one building. It was obviously a very old building, or at least parts of it were very old. Funnily enough the avenue reminded me of a similar one I had seen in Tasmania, leading up to some historical ruins that were being restored for the tourists.
"This is Turnton house, Kate. You were born here, and you have spent most of your childhood here. You always said that you love it more than anywhere else in the world; we all do, I think." Lady Siddenby turned to me and said, in a pleading, almost heart rending tone: "Please remember, Kate." I held her eyes for a few seconds and looked away, with a slow shake of my head.
When we reached the house I was even more impressed by its size. I found myself wondering how much it would have cost over the years to build all the myriad extensions, wings, improvements and so on. Probably this family was rich enough for it not to matter.
Before we stepped down from the carriage I had one question: "Mother," I said, though I was sure I would never get used to saying it, "How long have I been missing?" She looked at me, tears forming in her eyes, and said "Six months."
We were shown into the house by a friendly, middle aged man who smiled warmly and welcomingly to Lady Siddenby and said "Welcome home Miss Katelijne." Evidently we had been preceded by news of my remarkable deliverance, as we were met by the rest of the family; A large, friendly man with a bristling moustache and a warm smile in his eyes, and two young men, one a schoolboy, probably two years younger than me, and the other a tall slender young man of nineteen or twenty. I was literally crushed by Lord Siddenby in a massive hug, and received a smaller version from the schoolboy, and a considerable slap on the back from the elder son. Then, most excitedly, the schoolboy said to me in a rush: "Kate, Kate, is it true that you can't remember a thing? What's it like?" I nodded and grinned ruefully at all three, and said "I'm sorry, but I really can't remember anything about you all." I was conscious of the fact that this rather dismayed the elder members of the family, but the youngest took it in his stride, and said in a matter of fact voice: "Well, I am James Charles Martin Joseph Siddenby, this is Christopher George Edward Henry Siddenby," indicating his older brother, "This is George... , um, George, and I forget the rest, but we just call him Father, and this is of course Mother. Our butler is called Mr Charleston, but we all call him Charleston, I don't know why. Um..." At this point he was cut off by his father, who told him to be quiet and let someone else get a word in. Lady Siddenby offered to take me to my room, where I could find a change of clothes and somewhere to rest from the journey. I was led off through seemingly half a mile of hallways and stairs and the like until we came to what appeared to be the living area, in one wing overlooking a partially enclosed garden and lawns that stretched away to a wooded area. My room was large and airy, with a massive set of windows that opened out on to a balcony that looked out over the garden. There were massive great curtains, thick, lined, and almost light proof, hanging on either side of the windows. There was a massive bed, a four-poster, with deep green curtains pulled back and a marvellously embroidered spread on the bed. A wardrobe and dressing table stood near the bed.
"I like it. It's nice."
"You always did. Your clothes are in the wardrobe." She stepped over to the dressing table and pulled on a rope that dangled unobtrusively there. "Your maid will help you dress." She looked at me with an almost puzzled expression on her face, as if she did not quite believe that this was all true. I could sympathise with those feelings. "Kate, it really is wonderful to have you back. We were all so afraid for you, and you were gone for so long, it seemed as if we would never see you again. And then you couldn't ... couldn't remember anything, and ... " She looked and sounded as if she was about to burst into tears, but I couldn't think of anything to say that would console her, and she rushed out of the room with whatever she had intended to say unfinished.
I sat on the bed and looked back over it all. When you looked at it dispassionately you could see the funny side to it all. The problem was that it was rather difficult to be dispassionate, because these people were nice, kind, generous, and above all made you feel part of the family. When Lady Siddenby looked at me in that hurt way I felt it too; I would have had to have been heartless not to. Well, I was playing it as it came, so I would have to just live with that.
Everyone at Turnton house was wonderful. They were kind, understanding, and everyone was quite prepared to accept that I would not remember anything about them or the past. In fact, they seemed so overjoyed to have me back that everyone went around grinning inanely at everything. Another thing was that they accepted everything that I said or did, all my personality traits, weird little habits and so on as if this was what they had expected. In fact, when I asked people, they all said that I was exactly like I had been. This, combined with their reaction to me, puzzled me rather. Everyone behaved as if they had had restored to them a paragon of virtue, a wonderful person, lovable, kind, generous, unselfish, understanding, funny, everything you would want in a friend. The problem was that I knew for a fact that I was not like that. I was petty, nasty, selfish, self centred, and above all I rather disliked myself. And yet all that I received from these people was love. Funnily enough it was that which got to me most, the thought that I was not what they thought I was, that I was deceiving people who in no way deserved to be deceived.
Life at Turnton house for me basically involved lots of leisure, and a little education, in things like geography, languages, etcetera, with some mathematics, botany, and so on. It was a breeze, and rather amusing to me to be learning basic maths when, in my past life I had studied mathematics at university. It was quite difficult to hide that knowledge, and after a while I began to wonder if it was worthwhile. Of course, suddenly knowing far more than I had would require some explanation, and I doubted my ability to come up with a self consistent lie to cover it. That was my greatest difficulty, and things like riding came easily to me, so life was generally easy. James was my mentor in all things to do with the family and household, showing me around, telling me lots of stories about the past, things that we had done together, and a lot of little things that revealed the person that I was replacing to me.
In this family I was considered a child; indeed, at fifteen I was a child. James and I were given great freedom to do what we liked, within the bounds of safety. We would hold horse races, play all sorts of games in the woods nearby, climb trees, fight, argue, and in general make the biggest nuisances of ourselves imaginable. Only rarely were we stopped, once when we attempted to make a firecracker out of Father's gunpowder, and another time when Christopher caught us trying to parachute out of a tree. I settled into this new life with surprising ease, finding it a simple matter to put the past out of my mind. Within a month I was calling Lord and Lady Siddenby Mother and Father in my mind, and not giving it a second thought. I was happy, I was loved, wanted, cherished, and oddly enough I found that the most humbling experience. I wanted to live up to the expectations that everyone had of me, desperately needed to. I discovered that this love and companionship were the most incredible thing in the world; to know that whatever happened, there was a place for me, where I would meet with kindness and care, gave me a certainty and a confidence that I had never known before.
My seventeenth birthday fell some three months before the start of the season. To commemorate it my parents gave me a set of jewellery, a beautiful green stone pendant and matching earrings. As I was unwrapping them, Mother said to me: "These, Kate, are a gift for you. They should give you confidence as you face the world in your first season." I was to be launched, with all due pomp and ceremony like a ship of the line, into the Polite Society of London. The thought of this rather terrified me. Not so much because I was not what I seemed, because two years of it had shown me that in almost all matters I was what I seemed, but because the thought of parties, balls, and above all masses and masses of people gave me what could be described as stage fright. That the main aim of the whole thing was marriage was something that did not occur to me until quite later.
Over the next three months almost everything happened to me. I was measured in ways that could hardly be imagined, fitted, prodded, squeezed in the most unpleasant manner by corsets that seemed almost ridiculous, and in general made to look my best. I was kitted out with literally scores of gowns, dresses, riding habits, hats, shoes, anything and everything that could be draped on a female body in an attempt to make it attractive. I was given last minute lessons in deportment, dancing and etiquette, among others. When we finally uprooted ourselves to go to the city I was in a fever of anticipation and nerves. Given the history just recounted the nerves were understandable. The anticipation was simply hoping for new friends, new experiences, new activities. At the time I can remember looking back at the two years that I had lived, and considering them. I had enjoyed them, had enjoyed the way of life, the freedom from responsibilities and cares, and above all the people around me. Despite all that I thought that I was still much the same person as I was when I woke to find myself under an oak. I was two years older than that person, but still five years younger. I was still rather cynical, while at the same time incredibly naive. The world was in some ways infinitely more wonderful than it had been, but it lacked many of the things that made my old life interesting. The one thing that I found when I reminisced about this was that any regrets that I had were transitory. I was so much happier here, in this funny little world that at first seemed almost impossible, that any little inconveniences or slight discomforts were all forgotten or accepted as the price of that happiness. What astonished me was not the price that I was prepared to pay for happiness, but what made me happy in the first place.
When we arrived in town the season had not yet started, but there were enough members of the ton for people to begin entertaining. Mother allowed three days for us to settle in before organising our first party, a small but very select soiree, which would be the medium for introducing me to some of the most influential hostesses of the day. I discovered quite quickly that my mother, while not astonishingly wealthy, was used to moving in the highest circles, and society was studded with relations and bosom friends, all of whom exchanged invitations and morning calls, and who were capable of making or breaking my social career. At the soiree I felt that I was being watched from all sides by potentially hostile eyes; I was not, because those invited were all friends of my mother, and had attended with intent to approve. Indeed, Lady Morton, a gracious looking and quite elderly woman with a tongue like a poison dart, was heard to compliment Mother on my unaffected nature. "She has an air of calm consideration that one finds pleasing." When Mother relayed that to me after the guests had gone I could not contain a shout of almost hysterical laughter. My air of calm consideration had been the result of an absolute terror of saying something that would be disapproved of. I had originated no conversation that night, and when spoken to had answered, after consideration, with the most non-committal and uncontroversial answer that I could think of. Had I not been quite so pretty I would probably have been rated insipid.
A ball had been planned for the first week of April, two weeks from the date of the soiree. In that time I attended fourteen parties of some description or other, performing for far more hostile audiences than my first. Oddly enough an actively hostile matron considering me down the length of a well formed nose did more to put me at ease than anything, because I could not see the haughty expression and that particular tilt of the head without realising just how ridiculous it all was.
My mother and I were escorted to these entertainments by Father and Christopher. Christopher at a party was a most amusing sight to one who knew him elsewhere. The first time he squired us I found that if I stopped suddenly in my perambulations around the rooms, there came a rustling, as of a terrified animal disturbing bushes in an endeavour to hide, or of an unusually clumsy brother colliding with my skirts. He followed me for most of the night, stammering terrified greetings to all those that were introduced to him, and in general displaying about as much panache as a beached whale. A very little experimentation showed that it was the women that got him, and at these parties there seemed to be more women than men by an alarming factor. Eventually I found a small group of youths who seemed in much the same predicament, and removed my unwanted passenger by the judicious application of a little salt. "Christopher, I had no idea that you had such Thespian aspirations!" He looked at me as if I had suddenly developed large green spots all over my face. "You are playing the part of the devoted pet dog with an admirable degree of authenticity. Pray desist." He blushed in embarrassed anger, and found it within himself to stand still as I strolled away.
At this party I made a most interesting discovery. Sitting on her own on a sofa was Anna. She was watching some couples getting together a set for a country dance, and so did not notice my approach. I stood over her (only just, even though she was seated) and held out my hand, saying "Hello, Anastasia. I don't know whether you remember me, but I am Kate Siddenby. You found me after I had gone missing two years ago." She looked up, slightly startled by the interruption to her thoughts, and smiled to me gracefully. "Of course I remember you, though I don't know that I shouldn't call you Anastasia, for that was how you introduced yourself." I blushed at that, and sat down next to her, wondering what I could talk to her about. She saved me that worry, by asking me how I had settled in, and whether I had regained my memory. I made a civil reply, with little relation to the truth, and then asked after her. She smiled her most genuine smile yet, and said "Oh, things have been going wonderfully for me. I was married last year, to the most wonderful man! The Earl of Manton!" To say that I was taken aback would have been an understatement. I asked what he was like, and was rather astonished by the answer I got. "Oh, he is the most wonderfully wealthy man! And so kind! He gives me such an allowance that I doubt I could not spend it all!" I couldn"t help thinking to myself 'By a man's purse shall ye know him'. At this point a rather short, round man strolled over to us, carrying two glasses of something. I had by this time gotten used to the way that the men dressed, though sometimes I still found myself forced to laugh, but this gentleman could be described as distilled essence of dandyism. I would swear that he rattled as he walked, so hung was he with chains and seals. Underneath those he wore a coat of a fine green material that I had no doubt fitted him almost more tightly than my corsets, with an embroidered waistcoat in five colours that Joseph would have been proud to have been seen in. He wore Lime green pantaloons with rather impractical looking boots on his feet, and above all that had a somewhat bleary, but wholly good-natured face framed between two pillars of a white material that must surely have been pure starch. When this figure of fun came within earshot Anna called out to him, saying that Jenny had been dragged out to join the dancing, but Kate would surely relieve him of one of the glasses of lemonade. I smiled up at him and said "Hello. I am Kate Siddenby, and I knew Anna some years ago." I held out my hand to him, and he took it, with his eyes glowing in a way that I found rather distasteful. He then held it to his lips with more fervour than I liked, and said, with some emphasis: "Most charmed." He then proceeded to hold my hand a moment too long, and by the time the introduction was over had succeeded in greatly discomposing me. I took the lemonade and asked an innocuous question of Anna, and as I was listening to the innocuous answer saw my mother on the other side of the room. "Anna, I really must go," I said. "My mother wants to introduce me to someone, you know how it is. It was nice to meet you again, and to hear your good news. Goodbye." We both smiled at each other, I smiled at Lord Manton, and then walked away hoping that my expression was more genuine than theirs had been.
London society was not all like this, by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the people that I met in that fortnight were truly nice, kind, generous and honest. With some I found that they took me as a friend from the moment that we met, whether I liked it or not, confiding in me, joking with me, and in general amusing me. These were all females, of course. Men, it seemed, were only good for dancing or flirting, and as opportunities for the latter were greatly restricted only a very small amount of amusement could be got from them.
For me the culmination of that fourteen days came with the ball that signalled my launch into society. It was to be held at our house in Berkeley Square, where, hopefully, some four hundred people would be squeezed into the grand ballroom and adjoining saloons. A small orchestra had been obtained to provide the music, and a lavish dinner had been organised for about twenty of the guests, to come before the appointed time for the ball to begin. The dinner guests were mostly family and friends of the family. They included Lady Morton, who happened to be mother's godmother, and the Wenton's, without Anna and her husband, who were in the country at the time, but with David Wenton. I could not help liking Lady Morton, who had managed to survive for nearly sixty years and five children while all the time maintaining the most delightful sense of humour. It was not obvious to most people, who were put off by the disconcertingly direct way that she had of looking at people who had the impertinence to be alive while she was in the vicinity. She tended to get rather grumpy when in company because of this, which resulted in an even more painful glare, and even more cowed victims. I had the good fortune to find myself next to her while waiting for the next dance, and turned, all unawares, to meet the Glare. She was so obviously aggravated that I could not help but raise one eyebrow in interrogation and glare back. I was slightly annoyed to be met with such hostility, and reacted in kind. After five seconds or so the Glare had gone in my mind from being hostile to simply sulky, and after a moment of that thought I had to choke back a laugh, but could not stop myself from smiling slightly. Now it was her turn to coldly raise an eyebrow, and I found that this stopped my laughter. Then I mentally reviewed the situation and smiled warmly to her, held out me hand and said "Peace? Please don't think me impertinent but you looked like you could do with some company." The eyebrow remained raised for a moment, then was lowered, and the haughty expression was wiped to make way for one of good natured acceptance. She smiled slightly ruefully to me and said "You found me marinating in my own juices, and you are right, I need company!" She indicated that I should sit next to her, and I arranged the skirts of my ball gown with some difficulty to do so. When this was done I looked up to her, and found that she was looking at me with a surprisingly kind smile. "You are not yet completely accustomed to full ball dress, but it shows your charms to perfection. No doubt by the end of a month it will have become second nature to you." I smiled sadly at this, and shook my head. "I fear that it will never be so."
We sat in a companionable silence for a few moments, and then I said "Lady Morton, why does no one like you very much? Or perhaps I should rephrase that, and say why do you not let anyone like you?"
"It would be an excellent idea if you did." I grinned, and found to my surprise that Lady Morton had not forgotten how to do so either. "It is quite simple; I cannot abide fools. I never could, and that gave me a reputation, from which I have never recovered." She sounded embittered, and I found a momentary grain of pity in my heart for her. Then I grinned again, and said "You must have enjoyed glaring any fools into a stammering silence. I imagine that would provide rare enjoyment!" That achieved a laugh, which was cut off suddenly when Lady Morton saw someone on the other side of the room. She somehow achieved an even straighter posture than she had had and held her hand up with a most graceful wave, designed to attract the attention of someone without seeming too enthusiastic. It succeeded in attracting the attention of a gentleman, who responded by approaching. He was quite tall, well built and rather muscular in the style of a sportsman. He was dressed well, though not with any of the extravagance one saw in many gentlemen, and had about him an air of... something, probably a natural assumption of authority, that was very much a part of him. As he reached us he smiled mischievously and bowed slightly to Lady Morton, saying "You desired conversation, ma'am?" She smiled in response to the mischief, and said "Charles, this unfortunate child has nothing better to do at the moment than to take up my valuable time with impertinent chit-chat. Please relieve me of this burden." She looked at me down the length of her nose, with the most comical expression I had seen all day, conveying to me somehow the incredible extent of her disdain and the difficulty with which she lowered herself far enough to snub one totally unworthy of her notice, and with a teasing glimmer almost hidden in her eyes. How she managed to keep a straight face I will never know; I could not.
I took my leave of Lady Morton most graciously, I thought, and followed her son as he led me away. I looked sideways at him and said "Now it only remains for you to find some entertainment suitable for one newly launched into society. I should warn you now that dancing holds very little attraction for me, so if that is your idea you will have to reconsider. In any case my hand has been solicited for all the dances tonight, and it would be very rude of me to renege on a promise."
"My task will obviously be one of great difficulty. What, then, do you find amusing?"
I considered this for a moment. "I think I find people amusing. The things that they say and do, the clothes that they wear, anything that is ridiculous. Take for example that gentleman over there." I pointed to a young man standing with some friends, whose clothing was ridiculous in the extreme. "You would have to be very unusual not to find him hilarious."
The gentleman beside me laughed, and said "I think that you will find that he is in the first style of fashion. He belongs to the dandy set, all of whom consider their clothes to be of paramount importance. Personally I consider my horses to come first, but that by no means belittles the importance of clothing."
"I could never wear something as loud as that. I should feel that everyone around me was looking at me all the time."
"I believe that is the intention."
I laughed, and said "I consider your attire to be infinitely more fitting a gentleman of taste."
"Yes, but then, we were discussing the dandy set, not gentlemen of taste."
I smiled and was about to reply when a young man brought himself to my attention by a slight cough. I turned to him, and saw David Wenton, to whom I had promised the next dance. "Hello David!" I said. "Is it time for the next dance already?" I turned to Charles and said "Lord Morton, allow me to introduce Mr David Wenton. He has come to claim me for the next dance. Thank you for a most amusing conversation. You seem to have succeeded in your aim."
"I rather thought you amused yourself without any help from me. It has been nice to meet you, Miss Siddenby. I hope to have the pleasure of continuing your acquaintance at some more convenient occasion. Goodnight!"
David led me off onto the dance floor, saying "My dear girl, how did you make the acquaintance of Lord Morton? He is a hardened flirt, besides being all of five and thirty."
"I don't really think he can help being five and thirty." I said, with an air of consideration. "Furthermore, Lady Morton is my Mother's godmother. What could be more natural than for her to introduce me to her son? And he didn't flirt!" I looked challengingly up at him as he guided our steps around the room.
"He may be an amusing companion, but I can assure you that at no time does he entertain any thoughts of marriage."
"Neither do I, so I cannot see what that has to do with anything."
"The polite world might accuse you of setting your cap at him, which is something that no well brought up girl could wish to happen."
"I have a suspicion that you are merely saying this to be disagreeable. Could you be afraid that you would be cut out by him? David, you could not possibly be dangling after me!" I laughed rather too loud for his tastes, and received a slightly angry look for my pains.
"I see that you are not quite as well brought up as I had imagined."
"You, on the other hand, are far more amusing than I had thought you to be. I congratulate you!"
I behaved much better than that for the rest of the evening.
After the ball life went on just as it had before the ball. There were parties almost every night, balls every week, breakfasts, plays, opera, riding in the parks, and above all company. Nothing was done on one's own if it could be at all helped, and when one was a Siddenby help was ever at hand. I discovered that I could amuse myself quite simply by sitting down on my own and refusing, politely but firmly, to dance. Gentlemen would approach, some mincing their way over on ridiculous shoes, some strolling confidently towards me, most walking slightly nervously and very hopefully into my vicinity, and all leaving with a few feathers out of place. Unfortunately, as soon as Mother found out about this she sternly ordered me to dance, and I found myself dancing with the first gentleman to approach. He was a most humble and very nervous young man, new to town, and a rather uncomfortable dancer. I found him most amusing, but I could not see his nerves without feeling some pity, so I spent the dance putting him at ease, joking, teasing and befriending him, even going so far as to offer to lead for him, to relieve the strain on his meagre dancing skills. His name was Pelham Warner, which I found most amusing in itself, as it was the name of a prominent English cricketer of the early part of the twentieth century.
The most amusing place that I had yet discovered was Almacks, the most exclusive club in London, and very probably the world. To get in one required a voucher, given by one of the six patronesses, who were all sticklers of the highest order. Obtaining these vouchers was a matter of the greatest ease for Mother and I, and once in I could sit back, when not dancing dutifully, and watch people behaving with the utmost propriety and manners, generally being ridiculously obtuse and pompous, often never satisfied with one word where ten would do. Mother, sitting with me, was quite exasperated by the way in which I viewed everything; "Please try to take this seriously, Kate! You need to create a good impression with these people if you are to be accepted, and to do that you must behave well." I found this impassioned plea rather amusing, but promised that I would do my best not to disgrace myself and her.
My friends were all quite different people to me. I found everything in life funny in some way or other; my friends were mostly far more serious than that. Anne Russell, a tall, slender girl who was also just out, and considered to be a diamond of the first water, was earnest, looking on my fits of laughter as slightly disturbing, and felt that in some way they should be corrected, or somehow made less improper. She had a kind, modest heart, and took this upon herself, always attempting to make me see the serious side to things, and succeeding only in making me laugh more. She did not find this disturbing, but persevered, with such real concern that I could not help but like her. Jane Cowan was Anne's opposite in stature, being almost as short as me and decidedly stout. She spent most of her life with her head in a novel, generally something romantic and quite improbable. When she returned to the real world she was astonishingly realistic, only betraying her passion for all things romantic in rare and gusty sighs, generally at nothing that anyone else could see. She was a decidedly sanguine and tolerant person, not in any way disturbed by the world, laughing with a rather languishing air, and always joining in when others laughed, often without knowing what the joke was. Jane could be relied upon to find some excuse for a person that would allow the fault, without condemning it.
Whenever possible at Almacks I sat with my friends, Mother far enough away to be out of our minds, but close enough to ensure our toeing the line. We would sit and talk about things, look out on the polite world, and in general amuse ourselves. Jane would sit back, make herself as comfortable as possible and listen to Anne telling me that I should not laugh at a gentleman who was dressed in the height of fashion, because it was not kind, even though he was slightly ridiculous. Jane would then say that it might be kinder to laugh some dress sense into him, at which I would give it as my considered opinion that men wore such clothes for the express purpose of being noticed, so they should not be spared the results.
Our group was all too often broken up by the need to do our duty on the dance floor; Anne was quite beautiful, and an excellent dancer, Jane was heiress to an astonishingly large amount of money, and I was the only daughter of the Earl of Siddenby, so it did no end of good for the consequences of our partners. When a gentleman approached I would indulge in a little speculation as to who he wished to dance with. If he was young and romantic he would invariably request the company of Anne, if he was strapped for cash he would look to Jane, and I seemed always to get the dregs. I complained about this to Jane one day and was rather affronted when she burst out laughing. "What is so funny?" I said. "It is true!"
"You call Lord Morton and David Wenton the dregs?"
"Maybe not Lord Morton, but certainly David Wenton. And in any case, that is only two out of however many. I always seem to end up dancing with boring middle aged gentlemen or people too short to suit anyone else."
"Kate, you have more money and more titles dangling after you than the two of us put together."
This thought rather surprised me. I enjoyed associating with people who enjoyed life the way that I did, or who could be counted on to amuse without being fools, but the thought that the dull gentlemen who I dutifully danced with might be dangling after me was slightly disturbing. Life for me at that stage was simply enjoying myself in the moment, with no thought of the future. It occurred to me then that, for women, the whole thing was an attempt to get hitched to the most promising man possible. That is all very well, but where did it leave me? I had no desire to marry anyone; I had, in fact, a very lively desire not to marry anyone. I had not fallen in love at any stage of the game, no matter what the sex of the participants, and did not think that anyone I did fall in love with would be likely to reciprocate, due again to the small problem of sex. And yet it was an absolute assumption that women married and, horror of horrors, had children and heirs for their husband. That night I talked to Mother about the subject of marriage.
"Mother, you expect me to marry someone, don't you?"
She blinked, and said "Of course I do Kate. Not just yet, but some time, when you receive an offer that suits, you will marry."
I took a deep breath, held it for a moment, let it out and took a much smaller breath before saying "Mother, does love come into it anywhere?"
She glanced at me with a slightly worried look. "Are you in love with anyone, Kate?"
"No, and that is just the problem. I have never been in love. I donít think that I am capable of loving someone!"
"Don't you love us?"
That took the wind out my sails in a quite infuriating way, because I did. "Of course I do, but what I am talking about is different." I fell silent for a moment, trying to think of a way of putting the dilemma without causing more problems than it would solve. I gave up. "I can't explain it Mother. Forget I ever spoke to you about it." I went to bed feeling frustrated, and found myself unable to sleep for thought, but could see no way of avoiding the problem. It would have to be left in the lap of the gods; hardly the safest place to put my future, but it could not be helped.
The season continued, and I continued to enjoy myself, though it was occasionally disturbed by thoughts of the future. As the weather warmed and the city became rather sultry the polite society dispersed, people returning to their country seats or visiting friends who were doing so. Mother and I received an invitation from a friend to spend some time with them at their hunting lodge in Leicestershire. We would be part of a large party, including many of our acquaintances. On our arrival we were greeted by our hostess, and shown to our rooms, where we were told to rest after our long and tiring journey. As I was not in the least tired I changed into clean clothing and went out to investigate the grounds. These were quite extensive, including a small wood with several nice walks through it, and a stream well stocked with trout. It was the wood that took my fancy that day. The air was cool in the shade, the ground was soft and damp and the wood life was active, making it a really pleasant interlude. After about half an hour I found myself at the stream, and began to walk along it, intending to lose myself for a while in it's pleasant sound. About twenty metres from the path I found that this would not be possible, because someone was sitting by the stream with a rod beside him, reading. At my approach he looked up, and I saw that it was Charles Morton. He sat up and greeted me, Saying "My dear Miss Siddenby, hello. I did not know you would be arriving so soon, or I would have ensured that I was present to greet you."
I smiled and replied "It is no matter. Lady Stanton did a very commendable job without your aid. Tell me, are the fish biting?"
"Alas, no, or you would have found me engaged in a duel to the death with some poor trout."
"I don't think that I like fishing very much. I find that I cannot ignore the thought of the poor fish eating the bait, thinking to get a perfectly nice meal, and then finding that it has a great big hook stuck in its mouth and someone pulling it out of its element with no thought as to wether it might prefer to stay." My companion laughed, and said "On the contrary, the trout makes its wishes felt at every turn. They fight, Miss Siddenby. They resist in the most strenuous fashion. That is what makes the sport so enjoyable; the fight to stop the trout from breaking free of your entanglements."
I looked at him in a slightly distant fashion, and said "I still find that I cannot like the sport."
"What sport do you like, Miss Siddenby?"
"Oh, all sorts of things. Fencing, riding, shooting," At this point Charles broke in saying in an incredulous voice "Shooting? Riding is understandable, fencing, though hardly ladylike, I could see you enjoying, but shooting?" He considered me with a mocking air. "Do you not find it a sore trial to your nerves to be subjected to the shock of having a gun let off near you?"
I was understandably annoyed by this slight to me courage, and said in freezing accents "You speak from personal experience? My nerves are evidently hardier than yours if they are upset by the mere noise of gunfire. I am quite capable of discharging a gun by my own hand." My contrary companion infuriated me further still by breaking out laughing at a speech which should have had him apologising abjectly. I glared at him in my best imitation of his mother's expression while he calmed himself, and then, just as I was about to utter a withering speech, he said "You can have no idea how ludicrous you looked when you made that speech. You, a seventeen year old girl, just out, standing appreciably less than five feet tall and with a most enchanting and good natured face, doing your utmost to appear a fierce dowager of three score years with a gaze like the medusa. Picture yourself, and I am sure that you will agree!"
I could not help but do so, which resulted in a desperate attempt to stop myself from grinning, which would have been an unacceptable sign that he was right. It was of course an unsuccessful attempt, and I collapsed onto the bank beside him, thinking ruefully to myself that I should take care not to make the very mistakes that I found so funny myself. I remembered what it was that had caused this altercation, and said in an exaggeratedly aggrieved tone "You should not have mocked my courage so."
"I was curious to see wether you could stand a form of the treatment you mete out to others."
"I never mock people to their faces!" I said, back on the offensive. "I may laugh at some, but I treat them with perfect civility to their faces."
"It was not the mockery, but the ridicule that I was talking about. I am perfectly ready to accept that you are a famous shot, and I apologise for seeming to doubt you." He spoke with a sincerity that made the atmosphere suddenly serious, and, responding to that I asked a serious question.
"You sounded like you were testing me. Why?"
He smiled, and said with a mischievous gleam in his eyes "Such matters must wait for a more propitious moment than this. We should be getting back to the house. I have been here for too long already, and I don"t doubt that you went away without a word to anyone of your destination." As this was nothing but the truth I did not argue with this dictum, and we strolled in silence back down the path, Charles in a rather jaunty mood, and I positively sombre.
The company we found with the Stantons was varied and quite interesting. It was mostly made up of those people who indulged in hunting as their favourite pastime, with just a smattering of less sportingly inclined souls. We hunted, and when this was finished for the day we played billiards, cards, some fished, some read, and we all somehow managed to enjoy ourselves. This was enjoyable to me in a very different way to that of society, because these people were not ridiculous or pompous, but intelligent and sensible and friendly. I was enjoying the activity and the company rather than the ridiculous. It was nice to be able to laugh with people rather than at them.
I made some new friends in that group. They were different to my other friends in that they were men, and also they were friends because they shared my interests, rather than my emotions. It is difficult to describe the distinction, but when you are there to see it in life, it is very obvious. My favourites were Montgomery Cameron, heir to Scottish land and money, and the son of our host, Darcy Stanton. Monty, as he was called, was an exuberant fellow, energetic, enthusiastic, prepared to throw himself into anything that suggested itself. He was a friend to anyone and everyone, particularly if they were sporting mad and reckless to boot. Darcy Stanton was a very different man. He was reserved, though sometimes he would hold forth on a subject with surprising vigour. He was also one of those people who store up information about anything and everything, little bits of facts and figures gleaned from every source and recalled for no obvious reason, often when its recounting would be of little or no interest to anyone. He was uncomfortably aware of this fact, and tried to remember not to tell us things if they were dull. Unfortunately, he could not work out what we thought dull or not, and was further confused by the way that sometimes what he said would be received with the appropriate reaction, while at other times people would look sideways at him as if he was odd. He was incredibly sensitive to peoples snubs, and when he was unsure of his reception he would sit slightly out of the conversation, listening in, but not prepared to risk an opinion. He was terrified of social activity, but when he was out riding, driving, shooting, indeed any physical activity he was not only talented but almost fearless, with a controlled cool that was sadly at odds with his stumbling uncertainty in company. I liked him because sometimes he could be wonderfully funny, producing wickedly comical comments, and also because I felt sorry for his uncertainty.
One of the attractions on offer during our stay was the ruins of an old Norman keep, about an hours ride from the Stanton estate. Mother had suggested we have a picnic there, and a group was organised. It included Lady Stanton, her son, Monty, and Charles, along with a few others. We started out at around eleven in the morning, with Monty jokingly complaining of the unreasonably early hour, and, travelling at a very leisurely pace, reached our destination by twelve thirty. I had decided to ride, and had been given the use of one of Darcy's horses, a spirited little mare that I loved at first sight. When we arrived we left the horses in the care of a groom and began searching for a likely site for the picnic. I strolled off on my own towards the keep, thinking to look through the ruins. They were rather boring, being only fragments of walls, with grassy spaces in between. It was situated on a slight rise, and when I was in amongst the walls I found myself alone, cut off from the sounds of the picnic outside. I climbed onto a section of one of the walls, going all the way to the highest part. It was rather exposed, with a brisk wind blowing my hair out behind me in a way that boded ill for my scalp when I tried to unknot it that evening. The view was marvellous, and well worth the trouble. I was looking out from a point above almost all the surrounding land, and I could look out on a great green vista stretching out to meet the sky at a point that was just further than I could see. I stood there for five minutes, breathing in the space that surrounded me, and revelling in the mass of living air that pulled at my skirts with a teasing and joyous hand.
"You'll catch your death of cold if you're not careful, Miss Siddenby."
The voice took me totally by surprise, and I started in a way that was not pleasant when standing on a narrow wall ten feet up from hard ground. I looked down to see who it was, and found Monty looking up at me with a friendly grin on his face. "I don't think that I need to worry about that, Monty! Not with you almost scaring me off my perch, at any rate. Have they set up lunch yet? I have been too busy enjoying the view to think about mundane things like lunch!" I turned and began climbing down. I was standing on the lowest stone, about three feet from the ground, and about to jump down when Monty plucked me off my feet, and set me down on the ground. I was amused and a little annoyed at this, as I was quite capable of getting down from what I had climbed in the first place, but nothing would have prepared me for what happened next. Monty had not taken his hands from my waist when he set me down, and I suddenly found myself drawn towards him and into a tight embrace. He then attempted to kiss me, but failed rather dismally, as I refused to present my face to him. He got instead a mouthful of my fringe, and came up spluttering for air, but did not let go of me. I was saved from a repeated attempt by a cry of "Kate! Where are you?" coming from just outside the walls. Monty let go and I backed myself up against a wall, hoping that I did not look as foolish as I felt. Monty was, meanwhile, looking as sheepish as anything that is not actually a sheep can look, and I thought that probably nothing could look more hilarious than the sight which met Charles' eyes as he came upon us. Contrary to my expectations he did not collapse in a fit of hysterical laughter, but merely raised one eyebrow at me, then turned this daunting expression on Monty. I tried as hard as I could, but I could not suppress a small shout of laughter as Monty turned a bright red, and this brought the disapproving gaze back to me. This was too much for me, and I collapsed against the wall, laughing so hard that I almost missed the smile that passed fleetingly over Charles' face. It was very quickly mastered, and he said in a voice that hid amusement behind an icy formality "Lady Stanton and Lady Siddenby are expecting your company. The luncheon will not be served until then." He turned abruptly and left us. I laughed a little bit more, and then got up, saying "Monty, you can apologise for that at some more convenient time. We have a picnic to attend to." and walked off purposely in the direction Charles took. Monty came about five minutes later, thoughtfully from another direction, and we sat down to a marvellous meal.
That evening I got the apology that I had required of Monty. I had retired to the library to read, and after about an hour of this I was disturbed by a knock on the door. Immediately following the knock Monty entered, in what I could only call a state of high agitation. He strode up to me, and with no ceremony or preamble asked me to marry him. I looked at him for a moment, looked away, looked back, glanced at my book to record the page number and closed it. Then I took a deep breath and said no. He stalked (I could only call it that) to the window and sat at the window seat, rocking his foot in a manner that I would describe as threatening, all the time breathing deeply and at a faster rate than normal. After a short period of this he sprang up and said "I am sorry for forcing my attentions upon you, Miss Siddenby. You will forgive me when I explain that it resulted from the force of my feelings for you, and was in no way intended to discomfort you." I listened with incredulous ears. The man was starting again, as if what he started with had not happened, and I had not given him a definite answer. He continued: "I will discuss the matter with your father, and speak to you again on this subject at a later date." he said this with an attempt at dignity that was almost hilarious. It struck me that he was actually twenty nine, but was acting like he was nineteen. He turned away, and was about to leave the room when I called out to him to stop. "Please, Monty, don't talk to my father. I know that he will not force me into a marriage that I would not like, and I would not like to see you suffer the mortification that anything more public would bring upon you. I like you well enough, but no more. I am sure I would not make you a good wife, and one day you will thank me for not agreeing." I felt rather ashamed by this pathetic and melodramatic speech, but it tallied well with Monty's air at the time, and it succeeded in stopping him. He looked at me with a most troubled face, and seemed to be bravely containing a war within his breast, but eventually he agreed. He then took leave of me most graciously, saying that his sentiments could not ever undergo any change from their current state, but he would respect my refusal. I thought it most sporting of him, but of course could not say so. So ended the first offer of marriage I ever received. Thinking back on it I doubt that Monty was possessed of anything beyond an infatuation, but it was quite disturbing while it lasted. The remainder of my stay with the Stantons was punctuated by looks of utter devastation from Monty, interspersed with the most soulful looks I have ever seen, which seemed to be aimed at conveying the knowledge that though he seemed to be the same man he was before, he was in fact only a shadow of his former self. All this merely fuelled my humour, meaning that when I was in company with Monty I seemed to be full of laughter, a fact that I am sure pained the poor man to the point of distraction.
Before it happened, I had been quite worried about the thought of someone offering to marry me. When it actually happened I was so amused by the farcical nature of it all that I could not be concerned about what it really was. Afterward I did not think about it in any way but as a funny occurrence, and an interesting development in a friendship that I was desirous of continuing, and in this I was probably at fault. I found that I could not take an offer of marriage very seriously, because it would always conjure up an image of Monty looking a very devil that evening, and could be relied upon to lighten my mood at the most sombre of moments.
After a month with the Stantons Mother and I returned to Turnton house, to spend the rest of the summer. We were entertaining no guests, and lived very simply and quietly for a while. It was a relief to get away from the crowds of people and the constant noise, but it was also slightly lonely without my friends to talk to, and without the freedom that I had enjoyed as a child life was rather duller than I would have liked. But, I was allowed to ride, and fence, and do many things that would keep me amused, and so the time passed.
When winter came we uprooted again, and returned to London. The town was still rather empty, but it was preferable, in Mother's opinion to being entombed at Turnton house when the old place became more uncomfortable than she could bear. Turnton house had none of the luxuries that more modern houses had, and became cold and rather damp when winter set in. London was an escape.
With few people of ton to entertain life in London was made up of small parties where you would meet all the same people, most of whom you could not like as you should; for me the only relief was the company of Charles, who was in London for some obscure reason and who was in a mood that allowed us to laugh together at the world. It was a novel experience, as everyone else that I knew well had a different sense of humour, and often thought that what I laughed at was not in the least funny. With Charles I only had to meet his eye when something happened to know that he was sharing the joke; this simple fact easily doubled the enjoyment that I could get out of a party. Charles was also prepared to ride with me, and go to interesting museums and the like, and in general succeeded in making life enjoyable for me that winter. We were walking in Hyde park one day, and it occurred to me that this was unusual behaviour in one who was normally interested only in his own enjoyment, and I asked him why he was taking so much trouble over me.
"I find your company agreeable." was all the answer that I got.
"I am very sure that you do not find my entertainment enjoyable, so why are you making it your business?"
"Do my efforts not meet with your satisfaction? If so I will relieve you of my unpleasant presence."
I laughed and said "You must, indeed you do know that your presence is in no way unpleasant. What it is is inexplicable. Why should you, a man renowned for taking only his own pleasure, often at the expense of others, suddenly be dancing attendance on a seventeen year old of no great beauty or wealth or any of the things that make men of your type interested." The obvious thought occurred to me, oddly enough for the first time. "Charles, you cannot be in love with me!" I had turned to look at him as I said that, and was astonished to see him laugh. I could see nothing particularly funny in the idea.
"Is it necessary to love someone to find their company to be more enjoyable than most other activities?"
"I don't know. I've never been in love before, but I have known people who were more fun than anything else, so I suppose the two are not necessarily linked." I was not completely happy with this line of reasoning, but I was a little reassured that he had not declared himself to be madly in love with me. I had no idea what to say next, but that burden was taken off my shoulders almost immediately.
"Have you never been in love before, Kate?" I nodded. "You are a most singular girl." This was said in most thoughtful tone, with a hint of mockery. I thought to myself 'You don't know the half of it.' This made me laugh. It was the first time I had thought of that fact for some time; Monty's proposal had been so ludicrous that I would have refused without a second thought whatever the circumstances.
"Well?" I looked up at Charles inquiringly. "Do you intend to share the joke that occurred to you, or am I to be forced to guess?" I laughed at that, and shook my head in a most definite fashion.
"In that case, I shall guess." He looked ahead at nothing in particular for a while, and I thought he had forgotten about it when he said to me "You find the idea of anyone being in love with you to be humorous? Is that the joke you keep to yourself?" I laughed at that, with a hint of 'You'll never guess my secret' in it. He realised that and tried again. "Then, Monty proposed to you at the Stanton's, and you were remembering how ludicrous that was?" This time I laughed with genuine humour, and he sensed that he had guessed right. He was only partly right, but I was not going to reveal that. "How did you guess Monty offered for me?" I said.
"He spent most of his stay there moping about, looking at you like you were some avenging goddess, and you spent most of your stay laughing at him in a way that suggested he had been even more ridiculous than normal. There was also the incident at the picnic." I grinned at the prim way he said that, and said "How did you keep a straight face then? I would have broken down in a fit of laughter if I had come upon two people like that."
"It was most difficult, but worth it to see Monty go that beautiful beetroot colour." We both laughed, and continued on our way. A few minutes later Charles said "Did Darcy Stanton ever offer for you, Kate?" I looked up at him quickly, startled by this. He looked down on me with a slight smile at the corners of his mouth. "You really have no idea how many hearts you have upset, do you? That in itself is probably part of the attraction. And you are quite wrong when you say you have no great beauty. You may be a little on the small side," I interrupted here: "Only a little?" in incredulous accents.
He laughed, but continued without pause. "But you are one of the most beautiful women to come out this season."
I curtsied to him, and said in the most serious tone I could achieve "Many thanks." He laughed, and said that it was true.
"It may well be true, but I cannot think of myself as being anything more than me. It sounds rather silly, but I am me, and therefore cannot be beautiful." He looked at me with a grave expression which inadequately hid the laugh in his eyes. I smiled, and said "I knew you would find that diverting. I sometimes feel as if I was a girl in short skirts aping my elders. Is it any wonder that I don't believe I am beautiful if I think like that?" My audience shook his head gravely, and then grinned at me like a mischievous schoolboy. "You certainly act as if you were a girl in short skirts aping your elders. You have no manners, you cannot stop yourself from laughing at the most inopportune moments, and you seem determined to make yourself a figure of fun." I grinned back in the same manner, and we continued our walk in a most companionable way.
A little further along Charles caught my attention again, saying: "You said that you had known people who were more amusing than anything else, Kate. Who?"
I looked up at him speculatively. This could be a case of fishing for a complement, but I did not think that Charles was prone to that sort of conceit, so I treated the question seriously. I considered, and said "My younger brother, James, for one. He has so much energy, and can be so odd that he is always fun to be with. Then there are those people who are so ridiculous that they make me laugh whenever I meet them, but they probably should not count, because they are not funny people, just funny clothes or manners. There is of course you, Anne Russell and Jane Cowan, and Darcy Stanton to some extent, who all share jokes, which makes them better. Monty makes jokes, and sometimes they are funny." I lapsed into a contemplative silence, thinking. I said: "There really aren't very many, are there. Most people are too pompous or conceited to make good friends, and those traits are encouraged by society, so there is very little change." I sighed, and suddenly remembering Charles' existence smiled at him, saying "At least there are some. I don't have to spend my life totally alone." The deep and important meaning of this kept me silent in rapt contemplation of the situation for a few moments, then I reviewed what I had said in my mind, and laughed. I looked up at Charles and saw that he was grinning at me, and I said "How could you be so unfeeling as to let me run on like that! You should have been able to see were that talk was leading, and nipped it in the bud. I desire to be returned to my home!" I stuck my nose in the air and attempted to look down it at Charles, but he was too tall, and I leant into him and laughed till I was quite out of breath. Then he took me home.
I guess I should have seen it coming, but when Father told me I was more surprised than anyone. He came to me one evening about two weeks after that excursion in the park, and said that he had a matter of importance to break with me. He led me into his study, and sat himself down in his chair. I took a small wooden chair he had by his desk and seated myself on it. Then Father said to me: "Kate, I have just spoken with Charles Morton. He has requested my leave to ask for your hand in marriage. I did not know your mind on the matter so I told him to come back in the morning, when I had discussed the matter with you." I was glad that I had seated myself, because I felt as if I had had all the air knocked out of my body. The only thought that came to my mind for several seconds was that he had lied to me, the bastard. Father was meanwhile looking at me in a rather worried way, and said "Are you unwell, Kate? Would you like me to call your mother?" I shook my head, saying nothing but getting up a good head of anger to get me going. Finally I said "Did Charles give any reason for this sudden desire to marry me?" Father looked a little uncomfortable, and said "I had not thought it to be at all sudden. He has been dancing attendance on you since we came to London, and you have not seemed to have any reservations about accepting his company." This was said in an almost accusatory tone, as if it was somehow my fault that Charles had seen fit to stick to me like a leech. Of course, this thought made me laugh, which confused Father even more, but it made me see the situation in a more rational light. I would see Charles, and I would say no, I am very sorry, but I would not like to marry you. Seeing me become composed again calmed Father, and he said "I am glad you have recovered. It really is a very good match, and it comes at a very good time for us financially." This phrase was enough to chill me to the bone. I looked at Father, saw the sadly apologetic but still hopeful look on his face and said in a dead voice: "What do you mean?" He had the grace to look uncomfortable, and as he explained I could see why. It turned out that the family was heavily in debt. Father had inherited the property just a few years ago, though he had lived on it all his life. His father had been a very ramshackle character, heavily into gaming and horses, and had managed to run a rich estate almost into the ground, and to mortgage the house and lands to pay some of his debts. Father had managed to bring some order back into the estates, and was working hard to pay off as much of the debt as he could, but it was hellishly difficult to bring the land back up to scratch when there was no money to put into it. Charles was of course an astonishingly rich man, and would certainly be prepared to come down handsomely in the event of marrying me. I would be the saviour of the family fortunes, it seemed as my father began to wax lyrical on the subject.
I listened to all this with half my mind, while the other half thought 'This was inevitable. It had to happen this way. I would of course be forced into a marriage of convenience because the family was in danger of the sponging house. What a bitch!' I could not help wondering where my sense of humour had gone, and tried an experimental laugh. It was the most dismal failure that I had to laugh again, this time far more enthusiastically. Soon I was laughing at everything that had happened to me, and I was seriously worrying Father. I calmed down eventually and to an anxious inquiry from Father replied "I am fine. I was just restoring the natural balance of my mind. Father," I said, suddenly serious. "How desperate are things? I mean, if I did not marry Charles would we be in danger of losing everything?" I looked very seriously at him, willing him to be nice enough to lie if he had to. He did not. "If we do not pay off the worst of the debt, my fear is that we will be, if not thrown onto the streets, at least placed in very difficult and uncomfortable circumstances."
I sighed, and smiled ruefully. "Charles may just get what he desires, though surely not for the reason he wishes." Father looked at the same time relieved and grieved by this, and said that if I did not wish it I should not marry Charles. This was said in a tone of such determination, with such a will to make any sacrifice if only I should not have to suffer that I smiled, rather sadly, and said that I should like to discuss the matter with Charles in the morning. Father, looking slightly guilty, stood up to open the door for me. I said that I should like to go to bed early, and would not come down again that night. Then I went to bed and, strangely enough, to sleep almost immediately.
The morning came very quickly for me, and with it came Charles, looking as suave and self assured as he always did, with no suggestion of the agitation natural to a man in love. I don't know whether this thought made me feel any better, but it certainly made it easier to meet him. I had eaten a small breakfast, and was whiling away the time with a book in the drawing room when he arrived, and met him thus by placing my book to one side and coolly greeting him. He smiled at this obvious attempt to gain some control over the interview, and greeted me just as he should if he were a friend on a social visit. This was too friendly for me, so I responded to his offer of a hand by shaking it and immediately withdrawing it, then returning to my seat. I then suggested that he should take a seat; he responded that he would take it anywhere that I should desire, and I was forced, by my unruly sense of humour, to laugh. Charles grinned, sat down, and said That's better! I had thought that you had not recognised me, and thought me a stranger, but then I remembered that your excellent butler introduced me in a way that would preclude that mistake." These absurdities had the desired effect of removing any pretence of formality from the proceedings, and he continued, getting on to the matter of the discussion. "I am sure that your father would have informed you of my request, Kate. I realise this is quite sudden, and is not a decision to be taken lightly, but I am sure that you could have come to some conclusions over night. Would you share them?"
Charles was being a little too managing for my tastes, but his request was reasonable. I said "I will assume that you know something of my families financial difficulties. As a result of them, it has become clear to me that the only way to resolve them in any way would be to accept your very flattering offer." If there was anything that would put a man off in an offer of marriage it would be a speech like that. I was quite proud of it when I came up with it, but when it came to actually saying it I felt that it was totally inadequate, and what is more, quite embarrassing. I finished it, but with a distinct tailing off towards the end, and found that I had been looking down at the floor throughout it. I looked up, and was infuriated to find that Charles was looking on with a grin of unholy enjoyment, quite at odds with the serious nature of the matter. I frowned at him in a most quelling way, with the result that he broke into a fit of laughter. I waited impatiently for him to stop laughing, and when he had done so said "What, may I ask, do you find so funny?" Charles grinned again and said "You, sitting there, terrified that I intend to declare an undying passion for you, and doing your utmost to kill it. You needn't worry, I was not intending to do anything of the sort, as I have no intention of making myself food for your ridicule. I was merely going to say that I have been instructed by my mother to find a wife and settle down, and in particular to ensure the continuation of the line by begetting an heir. This seemed to me to be reasonable, as I cannot be said to be getting any younger, so I thought for a bit, and hit upon you." He grinned again at my look of incredulity. "Well I could hardly have said that I have been madly in love with you ever since I met you and could not live without you, because that would be rather more improbable! You know my mother; that is just the sort of thing she would say, and in all seriousness, too." He looked me straight in the eye and said "Well, what is it to be? Will you consent, or will I have to kidnap you?" He smiled, and waited as I thought. I did not actually think, as such. Thoughts flitted across my mind, but made no particular impression; it took an irritating rocking of one of Charles' feet to bring me back to a sense of the world. "Please stop jiggling your foot around, Charles," I said slightly distractedly. Then I said, in a firmer tone: "You have already had an answer to your offer."
"Was that an answer? I thought it was simply a planned speech that you used to put me off. I feel I should warn you that any more of that sort of thing will be met with the same reaction. You have a way of delivering a line that is quite hilarious. So, will you marry me?"
I sighed, and said resignedly "Yes, I will. Though how you could have decided I would do for you I will never know."
It was decided, though I would never know how, that the wedding would take place in a months time. In that time I found that I had become the envy of all the young ladies in society. Some of them suddenly became quite sickeningly ingratiating, some seemed to find me almost revolting, but most seemed to be more surprised than anything. I was considered to be lucky to have achieved such an advantageous marriage, though these sentiments were mostly expressed behind my back. Mother's reaction to this sort of thing was to say that a Siddenby could look wherever they desired for a marriage, and the fact that the lucky man who would marry her daughter was one of the wealthiest men in the country had nothing to do with that.
One of the duties that were my lot during the month was to wait on Lady Morton. I did this with Mother one afternoon, and was met with great civility by the butler. I had the feeling that he was looking me over somewhat, and realised that this was inevitable. It was also inevitable that he would look down on me, but the fact that his expression bordered on the friendly suggested that this was only due to my height, or lack thereof. We were conducted into a drawing room that surprised me with it's friendliness and it's air of use, as if it was lived in. We were met by a tall, handsome woman who informed us that her mother would be down shortly. She introduced herself as Miss Mary Woolton, Charles' elder sister, who looked after her mother to the exclusion of all else. She invited us to sit, and quite soon we were joined by Lady Morton.
"Kate, my child! Welcome!" was her astonishingly warm welcome. Mother looked momentarily taken aback, but recovered her composure quickly enough to respond correctly to Lady Morton's greeting to her. I was the only one in the room, except Lady Morton, who was not surprised by this warmth, and my smile was all the wider for the expressions on those faces. Lady Morton sat down next to me, and engaged me in close conversation.
"I am so happy for you and Charles, Kate. I had almost given up hope of his ever falling in love, let alone marrying, but it seems I was premature."
I looked at her, wondering what I could say to that. I could of course disabuse her of her false notions about the marriage, but that would surely come as a blow to her, considering her reaction. I liked her too much to be that cruel, so I said "I had not looked for anything like this to happen, either." with a little laugh. It was perfectly true, mind. "I am glad that you are so happy." I paused, then said "Did Charles speak to you about it, Lady Morton?"
"Yes. He came to me some time ago and said that he was considering marriage, and with you. I think I might have put the notion into his head, because I told him he should settle down and get himself an heir not long before. I was afraid that he might offer for some girl in cold blood, and make it a marriage of convenience, but when he told me it was you, I felt sure he was in love. I thought you two would suit, almost from the start, though I never really hoped. I know I will love having you as my daughter." She smiled at me in a way that would have made me the happiest person in the world at that moment in other circumstances.
The interview ended a while later, with many wishes of future happiness, etcetera, and left me with the conviction that Charles was definitely in love with me. Lady Morton was no fool, and she knew her son quite well enough to tell, and she was sure of it. I decided to ask him straight out, and requested a meeting with him to that end. He came round the next morning, and was ushered into the library. I decided to get to the point immediately. Before he could say anything more than "Good morning" I said "Charles, do you love me?"
He grinned, and said, without a moments hesitation: "Why? Isn't it enough that I like you quite well?" This of course totally ruined my game; it put the emphasis onto my feelings, rather than his. I sat there almost spluttering for a few moments, and then took myself firmly in hand. "Charles, yesterday I talked with your mother. She is absolutely certain that you are in love with me. Now, I admit that she could be wrong, but you must admit, she is hardly an idiot, and she does know you quite well. I would not have thought that she would be wrong about something like this."
The revolting man had the perfect answer to that too; "But then she also thinks that you are in love with me." His grin could not possibly get any wider. "She could be wrong, but I would not have thought it likely." I sat looking at him, grinding my teeth in frustration. If I said I did not love him, then my evidence went bung. I could hardly say I did, but I was still pretty sure that I was right, and I did not want to leave the matter. That was obviously apparent to Charles, because he said, in a much kinder voice: "Does it matter so much to you?" I don't know why, but I pulled up short at this, even though I was probably closer to a declaration than at any other time that morning. This was a rather confusing reaction, and was one that I did not want to investigate while Charles was there. I switched on my cool society manners (I was quite proud of these) and managed to entice him to go. Then I thought. I thought, but with not much success, because I found that I could not really consider the important matter. It is difficult to describe what went through my mind; I would ask myself why it did matter so much to me whether Charles loved me, and the obvious answer was that I loved him. But, this was not true. I liked him, I would miss him if he was not there, I would seek out his company given a chance, but this did not mean that I loved him. My heart did not go pitter-patter when I saw him. The thought of him did not make life seem suddenly better. If it was anything that worried me it was that we had a good thing going, and if he loved me that would change. I really would miss that.
I might have been clutching at straws when I found that this made me feel much better, but the effect was real. I looked at myself, and smiled a little ruefully. You are an idiot, I told myself. Don't let this worry you so much, it isn't really important, it's all a dream. I laughed again, this time a little bitterly. Is that supposed to make this any easier?
The wedding fell about a week after my eighteenth birthday; I had thought that it might be an idea to celebrate the two together, but someone else had made the final decision. My birthday party was small, with only around twenty guests invited. Charles and his mother came, of course, and managed to turn what would probably have been rather less fun than I would have hoped into a marvellous romp. The problem was that Monty and Darcy had both been invited, on the premise that they would be their usual selves. They were not, and in such a way that they were annoying rather than amusing. Monty started drinking from the moment he arrived, and although he held his drink well, he became slightly too talkative, and managed somehow to say most of the worst things that anyone can say to a man who is about to get married. Charles listened to these attentively, and only betrayed his amusement in a momentary meeting of eyes, which somehow turned his expression from serious and grave to quite ludicrous, to the point that I had to apologise to the people that I was talking with for my outburst of laughter. Darcy, on the other hand sat on his own at one side of the room, participating in nothing, and spending his time looking at me from the corner of his eyes, trying hard to hide from me the fact that I was under surveillance. I found this constant watching quite disconcerting, and was amazed when Lady Morton approached him and engaged him in conversation about seemingly nothing. A short while later she left him, and he suddenly changed from sitting on his own to being the first to suggest new activities, trying hard to tell good jokes, and in general being as close to a good party goer as he could ever become. When I thought about it I realised just how ridiculous the whole thing was, not only the party, but the way that Charles and Lady Morton were busy trying to make it good for me. I could not but be grateful for this solicitude, but permitted myself a small smile at the thought of Lady Morton telling Darcy Stanton off for being such a killjoy.
A week later I married Charles. I had insisted that it be a reasonably small ceremony, and had achieved this goal despite Mother's impassioned plea for reason. In the end it was Lady Morton who decided it, saying "Oh, if the silly girl wants a small ceremony, let her have it. It is her wedding, after all." Mother grumbled a bit under her breath, but seemed to take this decree as an order.
When I walked down the aisle on Father's arm I almost lost my nerve. I looked into the church, and there were more people than I had thought thirty could ever make, and I thought: "Why are you doing this?" Because, if I don't, then my family will go down the drain. But none of this is real. It is as real as anything I have ever known, so why should I believe something else over this? But why this man? He asked, and I said yes. Is that enough? It's all the reason you will ever get!
I gave myself up to the flow of things. Where required I spoke, when the ring was exchanged I obediently held out my hand, and when we were pronounced man and wife I felt relief that it was all over. I was wrong; the priest then said: "You may now kiss the bride". Charles smiled slightly, and then kissed me. It was the first time I had been kissed thus, and it was odd. I cannot and will not describe it, except to say that I would have submitted to more without any great argument. And then that was it. The deed was done, now I would have to live with it. And Charles.
During our engagement Charles had organised everything for us; he had selected a house, furnished it, staffed it, and provided it with provisions. It was to this house that we went after the wedding, and to this house that rather more than the guests that had been at the wedding came for the reception. I acted as hostess for the first time in my life, and found it to be exhausting; when all our guests had finally gone I retired to my bedroom and lay down on my bed without any preamble, intending to rest for a moment before undressing. I fell asleep, and woke up to find myself tucked up in bed, with the morning sun shining on my curtains. There was a knock at the door, and my maid came in, bearing a breakfast tray which she placed on my bed.
I thanked her, and said "And thank you for putting me to bed, also. I had not intended to go to sleep, but I was exhausted. So much so that I did not wake up, which must surely be remarkable." I smiled at her, and picked up a muffin. She smiled back, and said "You have his lordship to thank for much of that. He helped me, and was very useful too." I put down the muffin. She looked at me, sensing some slight trouble. "It was all right to have him help, wasn't it? I mean he is your husband." I laughed slightly, and smiled at her, nodding. She left soon after that, and I could get down to the business of being seriously annoyed with Charles. He had taken advantage of me, and had probably laughed at me while he did it! I tried to think what to say to him, and then laughed at myself. I had married him, so I would have to put up with him; it would be much easier if he was funny than if he was annoying. As I was laughing there was a second knock on the door, and Charles came in. I had assumed that it would be the maid, and got a small shock when it was Charles; I felt slightly guilty that I had been annoyed with him for being kind enough to put me to bed when I needed it.
He smiled warmly, and said "Good morning, Lady Morton." Hearing that sent a slight shiver down my spine. I rather thought I liked that shiver. I smiled, and replied "Good morning, Charles Woolton. I imagine you find being called that equally as strange as I find being called Lady Morton. I guess I need to get used to it, though. You don't."
"I have to get used to calling you that, though."
"You could just call me Kate as you always have done."
He smiled again, and came over and sat on the bed. "Did you sleep well last night, Kate?" His smile was only very slightly mischievous.
"I slept like a log from the moment I went to sleep fully clothed to the moment I woke up this morning in my nightclothes. I believe I have your gentle handling to thank for that."
He frowned slightly, and said "I had hoped you would not find that out."
"Because I did not want you to think that I took advantage of you."
I grinned, and said "I did think that, but only for a moment. Then I felt that I should thank you for your kindness, but now I think that I should just laugh at both of us." I did so, and was joined by my partner. I began to eat my breakfast, and found myself the subject of close scrutiny. I raised my eyebrows inquiringly. "You eat in a most interestingly single minded way. You seem determined to consume the meal as quickly as is possible, regardless of the sensibilities of those around you."
"Only when I am starving. At most other times I eat quite normally."
He took his leave of me then, and I ate my breakfast as fast as I liked.
We had no engagements that day, and no plans for a honeymoon, so we spent the day in each others company. It was pleasant not to have anything to do, not even laugh; we both read, every so often exchanging amusing anecdotes from each book, and both enjoying the day in a way that was unusual for us. We reluctantly put our books down at lunch, and I laughed, saying "Ah, the pleasures of married life. To be able to sit together doing absolutely nothing, and enjoy it so! I should recommend it to my friends."
Charles looked at me inscrutably. He said "Now, why would we enjoy that, Kate? You once told me that you found people the most amusing thing in your experience, and yet you have enjoyed a day almost devoid of them." I thought about this, but could not explain it. He sighed, and returned to his lunch.
Am I obtuse? Not normally, but sometimes I make the effort.
We returned to society after that first day. I was the subject of many slightly embarrassing congratulations, by still more people who thought that either I had managed to compromise Charles in some way that forced him to marry me, or that it was a love match. The general consensus was that nothing short of one of those circumstances would have induced the Earl of Morton to relinquish his single state. I thought the first rather ridiculous; if some girl had been stupid enough to try to compromise Charles he would probably have left her to the fate she deserved. I avoided the other possibility assiduously.
Life after the event was much the same as life before the event; we went to the same parties, met the same people, did the same things as we had before. Indeed the only difference that I could see was that we lived together. There was of course more money, as Charles was one of the richest men in the country, but that did not really make any difference. It did not occur to me that Charles was attending every one of the parties, balls, routs and so forth, or going with me to Almacks without a breath of complaint, when I knew that it had been his habit to avoid such dreary things. I simply accepted his company, and enjoyed myself, with not the least pricking of my conscience. The thought that he might prefer to be out gambling or drinking or whatever was obviously preposterous; he was enjoying himself. He certainly looked like he was enjoying himself.
And then one morning Lady Morton called. She came round in a cloud of good humour, smiling, laughing, telling jokes, and being the delightful companion that I knew she could be. And then in the middle of the conversation she said "You have been a marvellous influence on Charles, you know. I imagine he has saved a fortune already, through attending you rather than the cards. He has always shown a regrettable tendency to lose at cards, and the most incredible optimism in the face of all experience. It is odd, for he is most quick witted about anything else." She shook her head in bemusement at her only son. I smiled, and filed that piece of information away for future use. Then, quite unexpectedly, to me as well as to Lady Morton, I said "Do you really think that he loves me?"
I knew I shouldn't have as soon as I said it, but it was out, and could not be retracted. Lady Morton simply looked blankly at me, and said, in a voice of utter bewilderment "Of course he does. Why else would he have asked you to marry him? Don't you love him?" The last words were spoken without the least hint of malice, as if she was asking me to confirm what we both knew. I squirmed. I think I managed not to show it, but under the controlled exterior I was squirming as I had never done before. I took a hold of myself, and said "Do you know, he has never actually said so. He told me when he offered that he was proposing a marriage of convenience, that you had brought him to a realisation of his need for an heir, etcetera, and he had looked to me because my family was in dire financial straits." I said it all in a matter of fact tone, with my eyes on Lady Morton's face. She looked for a moment to be crushed, as if her whole world had collapsed. Then she seemed to take stock, and sat up, with a determined look on her face. "No. I know my son, and I know that whatever he has said to you, he loves you as he has never loved a woman before. Kate, tell me truthfully, did you accept Charles because of your family's finances? Do not worry about my feelings. I am made of sterner stuff than would shrivel at the truth."
"Yes. I agreed to marry Charles because my family was on the point of bankruptcy." Strangely enough this seemed to relieve Lady Morton. She said "Have you ever been in love, Kate?" I shook my head. "That is odd. I would have said that you and Charles were very much in love. So would your mother, your father, and most of the world. Can you explain that?" I shook my head in silence. "Can it be that you are mistaken?"
I managed to achieve an exasperated expression, and said "I would have thought that I would be the one who would know."
Lady Morton smiled benignly on me. "Why? How should you know? You are obviously different in the way that you love. I too. I loved my husband very much, but not once did I go weak at the knees." At that point Charles came back from a ride in the park, and was shown in. Lady Morton stood up and greeted her son. "Kate and I were just talking about your father, Charles."
"A most remarkable old gentleman, and sorely missed." Charles came over to me and kissed my hand. I retrieved it, and stood up. Charles said "We have been invited to a ball of Lady Stanly's in two weeks time. I said we should be delighted. I hope you have no complaint?"
"None. Charles, could you speak to your mother. Lady Morton, please tell Charles about what we discussed. I am sorry to leave you, but I find that I am more of a coward than I had thought possible." I smiled rather sardonically, and left, followed by a look of amused bewilderment from Charles. I went and hid in the office, poring over household accounts, doing nice simple sums to relieve my tension.
Charles found me there half an hour later. I had forgotten myself and started to do some physics, of a kind which would be understood by absolutely no one where I was, and when he entered I hurriedly turned over the sheets I had been writing on, looking guilty and feeling a fool. Charles smiled, and said "I will never understand the delight you take in numbers, Kate. Could I speak to you in the library?" I hurriedly piled documents into a draw of the desk, and stepped out through the open door, followed by Charles. " I entered the library, and proceeded towards a chair. I heard the door shut quietly behind me, and then found myself turned round, held firmly, and then kissed, with an almost alarming degree of efficiency. I am sure I would have struggled, if only I could have convinced myself that I was not enjoying it. After a little while Charles came up for air, and released me. I turned and stepped, a little too quickly, over to the chair, where I turned and sat. Charles was looking at me with a most amused smile, and if I was as flushed as he was, and looked as deranged as I felt then it was no wonder.
"Charles ..." I began, rather uncertainly. I was stopped by Charles. "Kate, I love you. Now you can't say that I never told you. Though why it wasn't obvious I am sure I will never know. You are normally so perspicacious that I cannot help but wonder if you did not want to be loved."
I took a deep breath and said "Um ..." Then I laughed. "This is ridiculous." Charles agreed, and said "Why are you so reluctant to accept me?"
"I wasn't very reluctant earlier." I said with a haughty look, which promptly broke down into laughter. Charles was smiling, and said "I can hardly argue. But Kate, please, take this seriously. Do you love me?"
I looked at him helplessly. I tried to think about it, but found I could not consider it properly. Charles seemed to see that, because he came over and knelt by my chair. "Please, tell me." So I did.
By the time I had finished he had moved over to another chair, and was looking at me with an amused expression on his face. He said "So you think that all this," and he waved his hand vaguely to indicate our surrounds, "All this is a figment of your imagination. You yourself are a figment of your imagination. Well, it seems to me that if that is the case then imagination is somewhat better than reality. You were lonely, you lacked confidence, you were unloved, and now, here you are a truly wonderful person. There are any number of people who love you, you have the confidence to make your way in the world, and you are most definitely not lonely. Why complain?"
"Because this is not real. Any moment I might wake up, and I would be back where I started. If I really settled down, then think how I would feel!"
He looked at me shrewdly "There is more to it than that, though. You don't think that you should love a man, do you? It would be wrong, and you could not feel comfortable with that." I nodded, and said "Not wrong, exactly, just . . . not me. So, yes, that has something to do with it."
"Why should that worry you, though? Whatever you may have been, you are a woman now. You may have inherited the instincts of a woman along with the body. Even if you did not, you could hardly be blamed for falling in love. That happens to the best of us."
"But I am me, not some woman. I am still the way that I was born, or at least I think I am. Isn't that all that matters? How can I be the person that I think I am, and still love you? It simply doesn't fit."
"You argue that the world exists as a function of the observer. In that case, what is wrong with this world you have created in your imagination? Why not live it, and get what you can out of it? After all, if no one risked pain, no one would try to make friends, or fall in love, or do anything. Why not take the bad with the good? Or do I give you such a disgust of the bad that you will not consider it?"
I paused and thought. Not so much as a result of anything Charles said, but because I had suddenly thought of what I must seem to someone else. It occurred to me that I would have laughed at anyone else who was so stubbornly holding to an argument that could be reasoned both ways with such ease. I thought: What the hell, reality can only ever be in your mind, so why fight it? I laughed.
"Charles, I don't know whether I love you or not, but I would miss you enormously if you were not here. I hope that will do." I said it lightly, but as I saw his expression change to one of almost ludicrous dismay, I felt a pang of guilt. I walked over to him, and sat on the arm of his chair. Then I leaned over and kissed him. I had misjudged the friction my skirts would exert on the arm of the chair, though, and I found myself slipping backwards. I finished sitting on Charles' lap, laughing myself silly. "Charles, I think I could do worse than love you. You have a wonderful sense of humour." He had laughed just as hard. "I had no idea you were so wanton, Kate." This time he kissed me, and we were only stopped by our butler's entry. He opened the door and paused as he saw us, coughed very discreetly, and frowned on our redoubled fits.
"Charles, you have finally convinced me. I could not possibly not love someone with such a marvellous butler!" It occurred to me that I was finding any number of excuses to allow me to love him, and concluded that I didn't need any. I doubt that I have ever been more happy than in that moment.
Charles was a gentleman in almost every way imaginable. In particular, he was not prepared to force an unwilling wife to consummate the marriage. The morning of our second night of marriage I woke up unmolested, having spent a rather restless night worrying what would happen. At breakfast I broached the matter with Charles. "Um, Charles, are you intending to give me grounds for divorce?" He looked up in surprise from a plate of bacon. "I believe non-consummation is a grounds for divorce. I could not help noticing that nothing happened last night, so I couldn't help wondering." I smiled at him sweetly, hoping like anything that he would take it as a joke.
"I am not accustomed to forcing my attentions on unwilling women." was all he said in a tone that boded ill for anyone trying to raise the matter again. I took the hint and thanked my lucky stars.
Things were a little bit different at this later time. I will not say anything about that evening (such coyness!), beyond a biblical quote: "It was good"
I woke up next morning to find myself in a strange bed, alone, and of a masculinity undeniable. I was finally awake.
Then I remembered, and laughed.