"It is hopeless," said Mr. Harding irritably. "Do stop fussing, Elroyd."
His clipped accents made his annoyance sound worse than it was, but his valet had been in his service for many years and was not cowed. "You are not yet beyond hope, sir. Allow me."
Mr. Harding's response was something like a growl. From the chair on the other side of the room, where Mr. Harding's best friend, Mr. Frederick Winborne, was comfortably ensconced, came an amused chuckle. "Not yet beyond all hope? That is lucky, Richard. And to think I had about given up on you."
Both the valet and Mr. Harding ignored him. Elroyd said, "Sir, this is going to be a most important day for you. On this of all days, you should look your very best."
"I should just forget the whole idea."
Mr. Winborne grinned. "Cold feet already? You haven't even left the house, never mind proposed to the chit."
"It is easy for you to sneer." Mr. Harding turned to his friend, pointing a finger. "You wait until some girl gives you a leveler, and then I will get the chance to sneer at you. I will be able to do better, in fact, since I have no doubt you will make a bigger fool of yourself than I." The valet clucked reprovingly at him, and he turned back to the mirror. "Blast. I might just change my mind and go fishing instead, after all."
Elroyd's lips pursed in disapproval. "We would all be disappointed if you did so, sir."
"Oh, you would, would you?"
Correctly attributing his master's snappishness to a case of nerves, Elroyd said evenly, "I think I can safely speak for the rest of the staff in saying that Miss Rowland is a fine young lady whom we would be pleased to serve."
They knew her well enough, too, Mr. Harding reflected. Georgiana had run tame in Five Oaks almost since she had been old enough to run at all. He had helped to raise her, although he was only eight years her senior. His had been the hands to place her on her first horse's back, and it had been he who taught her to drive to an inch. He had been the person called on to partner her in her dancing lessons, and his had been the honest opinion she had sought on her sketches. However, whether this long familiarity would be a help or a hindrance to a proposal of marriage, he had no idea. Georgie was unpredictable, even to him.
He looked at himself in the mirror and sighed. He could see nothing about himself to induce Georgie to accept him. Yet he was generally considered an eligible match. He was of a good Sussex family, was quite well off, and at eight-and-twenty could be thought to be stable in his habits and inclinations. He had inherited his ancestral home of Five Oaks and a small but elegant town house in London on the unexpected deaths of his parents several years ago. He was an excellent whip and a light-handed rider, and had a fine stable that included several carriages. His vices were few, did not include gambling, and were all done in moderation.
His manners were not always agreeable, true, for he had a sardonic sense of humour and an occasionally acid tongue. Still, he was received everywhere, and was quite popular with hostesses because he never arrived late nor left early, nor refused to dance with a girl who had been introduced to him simply because she might be plain. And on the plus side of his mental ledger, Georgie actually found his sarcastic wit funny, and often joined with him in enjoyment of caustic observations on their neighbours and the polite world in general.
On the negative side of the ledger, he was no Adonis. He was not ugly, exactly, but there was no denying that his fair hair tended to the unruly rather than the picturesquely curled, and his features seemed too large for his narrow face. He had good bones, his mother had always assured him, but he would have preferred if those bones had limited themselves to his strong jaw and high forehead, and not added an overlong and aquiline nose to the mix. Even his eyes, grey and well-shaped and definitely his best feature, were overshadowed by heavy brows. As for his mouth, it was far too wide. He was not petty enough to envy the good looks of his friend Mr. Winborne, since that young man's undeniable handsomeness had as much to do with his open, candid good nature as any blessings of birth, but a little of Winborne's evenness of feature would have been helpful.
Still, Georgie had been looking at his face for the past twenty years, and it had not frightened her away yet. And his figure (while again suffering in comparison with Winborne, a noted Corinthian) was trim and broad-shouldered, with a good leg that showed to advantage both in the usual country garb of boots and fawn-coloured breeches, and also in the pantaloons and Hessians or the formal breeches and stockings that were de rigueur in town.
He was honouring this occasion with a mulberry coat made by Weston, which he knew set him off at his best, and into which Elroyd was now trying to squeeze him. This task accomplished, Mr. Harding was ready. Elroyd smoothed a wayward wrinkle on a sleeve and bent to rub away an infinitesimal speck of dust from the shine he had put on his master's boots. Then master and valet looked at each other in a moment of male commiseration. "Well," Mr. Harding said. "Wish me luck."
"I most sincerely do, sir."
Mr. Winborne jumped to his feet and offered a hand. "Good luck, old chap, and all success." He then clapped Mr. Harding on the shoulder. "Buck up! You look as if you are floored already, and you have not so much as given a jab."
"Do not drink all the brandy while I am gone," Mr. Harding said dryly. "I will need it, win or lose."
The Pink Bedroom at Rowland Hall, domain of the younger daughter of the house, was in utter chaos. Open bandboxes and trunks were scattered about, in the process of either receiving or disgorging their contents. Gowns of muslin were laid out across any appropriately-shaped piece of furniture, as well as all over the bed, obscuring the pretty rose-embroidered coverlet. Bonnets, trailing their ribbons, were tossed on top of the gowns. Across the floor, small satin slippers jostled against boots of kid and jean in no particular order.
Into this disarray strode Miss Georgiana Rowland, to stop and stare about her, the expression in her dark eyes one of wrathful astonishment. "Puddles! What is the meaning of this? We leave in an hour!"
The lady thus addressed, Dorothea Puddleforth, winced at being the target of Miss Rowland's wrath. But she was not fearful of being dismissed on the spot, as someone might who had not, like Miss Puddleforth, been with the family for nearly twenty years. She had originally been brought to Rowland Hall to be nanny to the infant Georgiana, but she had made herself so useful, in many more ways than just as a nanny, and was so willing to learn new tasks, that by the time Georgiana entered the schoolroom, she was prepared to take on the position of governess, with a corresponding rise in salary. But that had not been the limit of Miss Puddleforth's ambition or skills, and now, with her salary doubled, she was Georgiana and Cecilia's very superior dresser.
However, none of this meant that she was always equal to the task of keeping after both girls at all times. Now, standing upon no ceremony, she threw her hands into the air in defeat and despair. "Miss Cecilia has been helping me."
"Helping," Georgie repeated.
"I was just filling the last trunk when Miss Cecilia became convinced that I had left her pink gauze ball gown behind, which naturally necessitated an instant unpacking of several trunks." Miss Puddleforth drew breath. "Despite my assurances that the gown was indeed packed and in the largest trunk."
Miss Rowland glanced at the largest trunk and saw a wealth of pink gauze tossed over its open lid. "I see it was found. Or was it unearthed?"
"It was unearthed from precisely where I said it was. However, Miss Cecilia then bethought herself of several other items she considered of absolute necessity."
Laughing, Georgie held up both hands in surrender. "Enough. So where is she now?"
"In the attic, looking for pink velvet ribbon that she swears will exactly match the ball gown that I did not forget to pack."
Georgie's face registered instant and rueful understanding. "Dear me. Was I this much trouble to you when I went to London for my first Season, dearest Puddles?"
Miss Puddleforth's stern face softened at this. "No, you were not, and you know it."
Georgie grinned. "I am sure I was not, for I recall leaving all the packing in your capable hands and not lifting a finger to help."
"Which, if I may say so, is exactly what Miss Cecilia should do."
"Has Mama not told her we will be buying her a proper wardrobe, all new, when we are settled in town? I am sure she has!--for I recall Cecy's raptures. Why, then, does she think she will need all these gowns?"
"I am sure I do not know," Miss Puddleforth said ominously.
Georgie stared all around her. "Never mind. I will send Cecy to the Dower House with a basket of fruit for Great-Aunt Honouria, and while she is there, you will pack exactly what you think needful. When she asks about any particular item, simply say it is packed, and do not tell her that it is packed right back here in her room, where it belongs."
"And when she wonders how I managed to get everything into one trunk?"
Georgie was a girl of mercurial moods and a keen sense of the ridiculous. With this dry comment, her frown cleared and her merry giggle broke out. "When she does, I will marvel at what a model of efficiency you are, and swear that you did just the same for me!"
Miss Puddleforth smiled grimly at this, then set back to work, sweeping up an armload of gowns from the bed to be transferred back to their original places.
A footman at the door bore a summons to attend her mother, so Georgie left Puddles, content that now at least one part of the packing would be done smoothly. Georgie's own packing was already finished. A natural inclination toward organization and the experience of three Seasons made her efficient, even when she had surrendered Puddles' services to Cecy for the time being. She knew she could count on Miss Jericord to have her mother's trunks at the door no more than an hour or so later than the planned time of departure. But there was still discord for her to face, because her mother, who would never dream of contradicting her very superior dresser, did not have the same reserve about Rowland Hall's butler.
Riddle, grown old in the deceased Lord Rowland's service, had never completely relinquished control of the household to his master's widow. Lord Rowland had been a bachelor for so long that most matchmaking mamas had given up on him. By the time he had suddenly fallen madly in love with Miss Maria Becknall, some twenty years his junior, married her, and brought her home, Riddle was quite set in his ways.
Lady Rowland's and Riddle's conflicting ideas about what was absolutely necessary for a few months' stay in London always provided much entertainment for the girls and their elder brother Charles, who had succeeded to his father's title on Lord Rowland's death some years ago and was now living in town. Georgie herself tended to side--tactfully--with Riddle on most issues, and never more than in their annual removal to London. Still, she could not help but wish, when she came downstairs to find the entrance hall as chaotic as her sister's bedroom, that the butler could find some other way of protesting his mistress' folly.
Riddle's method was crude, but effective. He would set out every single thing Lady Rowland considered essential, then stand back with a lugubrious expression, letting her see the sheer impossible volume of it and allowing her to make her usual half-hearted and disorganized attempt to sort through it all. Then he would gracefully, if somewhat smugly, accept the charge she would lay on him to do the best he could with it. Georgie knew that Riddle would eventually whittle the enormous mess down to something manageable, but, with a sigh, she acknowledged to herself that she would have wounded feelings to soothe yet again. There was no chance they would arrive at the Red Lion any earlier than seven in the evening. She had bespoken rooms, and the inn was long accustomed to Lady Rowland's fits and starts, but that did not make Georgie any more comfortable with forcing the inn's servants to wait up late and be put to such additional trouble.