You May Kiss the Bride(2)

By: Lisa Berne



“Too, too kind,” Aunt Bella murmured, evidently with real, if muzzy, gratitude. She took a sip from the delicate crystal glass on the little table at her elbow. In it was her cordial which, Livia knew, was heavily laced with laudanum.

Lady Glanville nodded serenely, and the peacock feathers in her elaborate silk turban waved gently, as if in agreement. “While in Bath, we had occasion to observe Mrs. Penhallow in the Pump Room. I distinctly noticed her looking at Cecily but, naturally, would not have dreamed of encroaching upon her. An earl’s daughter is as nothing compared to her. The Penhallows came to England with the Conqueror, you know, and it’s said that the Conqueror bowed to them. Thus, imagine our gratification when she sent the Master of Ceremonies to us, so that he could escort us to her and perform the introduction.”

“My knees were positively shaking!” Cecily put in. “But I curtsied quite well, didn’t I, Mama?”

“Creditably so. I had no occasion to blush. I must plume myself on my foresight in having you practice curtsying before we left for Bath. An hour a day works wonders. But I digress. Mrs. Penhallow and I spoke for some fifteen minutes, and at the risk of seeming boastful I must say that she was condescension itself! We discussed the weather and the dreadful state of the roads. I happened to mention Lord Glanville’s gout, and she recommended a treatment which—”

Her ladyship went on to recount further details of her conversation with the redoubtable Mrs. Penhallow, a personage of whom Livia knew nothing and cared less. Bored, she stopped listening and instead she looked at the rapt, lovely face of Cecily as she hung on her mother’s every word.

Not for the first time, Livia thought how uncannily Cecily resembled the china shepherdesses Aunt Bella had once collected—it was that shining hair of hers, the color of new straw, those cornflower-blue eyes, that pale, creamy skin. Today she wore an exquisite long-sleeved gown of the finest, whitest cambric, which set off her willowy figure to perfection; from underneath its lacy appliquéd hem peeped dainty kid slippers with pretty little pink rosettes. Livia resisted the urge to glare at her own slippers, very old, very run-down.

Instead she looked over at Aunt Bella (her slippers weren’t much better), who kept her sleepy gaze fixed on Lady Glanville as she droned on, occasionally murmuring “Indeed” and “How delightful.” She lay half-reclining on her sofa, draped in innumerable shawls, some of which puddled forgotten on the floor. Aunt Bella suffered from an extensive variety of ailments, none of which she ever openly discussed, all of which she treated with her cordial which she described, nebulously, as a superior medicinal. She spent a good deal of her time dozing in this room, with only a cage of small birds to keep her company.

Livia glanced at them now, huddling on their perches. Their cage was set near the window, but because Aunt Bella had an aversion to sunlight at all times, the heavy greenish-black drapes were drawn as was her custom and the drawing-room was gloomy and dim. It felt like she was underwater, Livia thought. Drowning. At least she would escape this room, for eventually this epically awful morning-call would end, but those little birds were trapped.

Quietly she stood and went to them. They looked at her without moving, their eyes dark, soft, pitifully dull. Livia inched the drapes apart and a welcome beam of sunlight illuminated the cage.

“—and after kindly informing me that my color was a trifle high, Mrs. Penhallow advised a diet of dry toast with a small quantity of pickled onions to stimulate the juices of digestion, for which she very generously divulged the receipt.”

“How delightful,” said Aunt Bella. “Livia, close those drapes at once.”

Sulkily Livia obeyed and returned to her seat.

“In short, it was a most gratifying exchange,” said Lady Glanville, “and concluded with Mrs. Penhallow actually offering two fingers to shake. I don’t know when I’ve been more pleased! You may therefore envision with what transports I received a letter from Mrs. Penhallow just a few days ago.”

She withdrew from her large beaded reticule a folded sheet. “My dear Bella, rejoice with us! Mrs. Penhallow writes that her grandson, Gabriel Penhallow, is in London, having returned from several years abroad. ‘He and I agree that it is high time that he marry and ensure the succession,’” Lady Glanville read aloud. She took a deep breath, causing her already prominent bosom to swell prodigiously.

“Only listen! ‘Your daughter, Cecily, seems to me to be a most suitable candidate. Her demeanor is ladylike and her movements graceful. I perceived, too, that her teeth are good. Following our propitious meeting at the Pump Room, I of course had my man of business thoroughly examine your situation in life and your family lines. Your fortune is sufficient and, aside from a slight taint of trade arising from mercantile activities during the time of Queen Elizabeth, I find your ancestry to be acceptable.’”

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