Lady Catherine's NecklaceJoan Aiken
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Also by Joan Aiken
The county of Kent, famous for its abundance of flowers and fruits, possesses an equally well-earned reputation for the Siberian severity of its winters, and for the arrival of sudden unwelcome spells of arctic weather even when the season might justify quite other expectations.
A gentleman and lady travelling in a coach along the turnpike road between Canterbury and Ashford, on what had earlier seemed a balmy April day, were abruptly overtaken by such an unlooked-for blizzard. Their horses, blinded by whipping sleet, had veered off the carriageway and dragged the vehicle into a ditch, so that it was half overturned and had suffered some damage. Furthermore, the lady passenger, extracted from the carriage by her companion, who scrambled out first, had the misfortune to slip in the freezing slush as she alighted on the ground.
She let out a sharp cry of distress.
‘Oh! Oh dear! My ankle!’
The driver, cursing and wrestling with his team, showed no intention of going to her assistance; but the male traveller, looking around him for other possibilities of succour, appeared greatly relieved to descry through the flying snowflakes, across a swell of rising ground, what looked to be a substantial mansion.
‘That will be its lodge, no doubt, at the end of the lane that runs down to the highway,’ said he. ‘Do you think, my dear, that you can manage to hobble as far as the lodge? The people there, I dare say, may be willing to send up to the great house for help.’
But even as the lady was vehemently protesting that she could not stagger a step, not one single step, and also that she would die sooner than sit herself down on that odiously snow-covered bank, two respectable-looking men, gardeners or gamekeepers, came hastening out of the lane to offer their services. A chair in which to carry the injured lady was speedily provided, and she was transported to the lodge.
This, being very tiny and grossly overpopulated by squalling children and their harassed mother, besides numerous lines of wet, juvenile laundry, proved no great improvement on the situation out of doors, but a servant despatched to the mansion soon returned from it with offers of hospitality and medical advice. The injured lady was carried thither, while her companion remained behind to superintend the removal of his chaise to the nearest farrier.
‘What is the name of this place?’ inquired the lady, as she was borne up the neatly hedged driveway towards the house, which, on closer inspection, appeared of imposing size and magnificence. It was a large stone building, evidently of recent construction, and remarkably well-endowed with windows.
‘’Tis Hunsford village here by, ma’am, and yonder house be Rosings Park.’
Her bearer spoke with some surprise, as if everybody might be expected to know this.
‘Ah, indeed? I believe I have heard of it. Does it not belong to a Sir Lawrence de Bourgh – some such name?’
‘Ay, ma’am, Sir Lewis de Bourgh – but he be dead and gone these fifteen years. ’Tis his lady, Lady Catherine, that you’ll be seeing. And her daughter, Miss Anne. A grand fine lady she be, Lady Catherine, surely.’
The grandeur of Lady Catherine’s establishment was amply confirmed, as the injured traveller was carried through a spacious entrance hall, handsomely furnished and embellished with marble statuary, across a large, circular antechamber and on into the magnificent salon where Lady Catherine herself was to be seen, seated, attended by two other ladies, presumably her daughter and her dame de compagnie.
Her ladyship did not rise to greet the newcomer, perhaps choosing to delay her welcome until she had established exactly what quality of consideration might be appropriate for this chance arrival.
‘So, ma’am,’ she remarked, ‘I understand that you have suffered a mishap to your carriage? That was unfortunate – or was it carelessness on the part of the driver? Hired coachmen can be abominably reckless. The manner in which they dash about our lanes is often quite disgraceful – I have frequently been obliged to issue a reprimand. Is the damage to your equipage of a serious nature?’
‘We hope not, ma’am – a cracked wheel may be the worst of the business. My brother is attending to it. But, your ladyship, allow me to introduce myself, and pray forgive the informality of my arrival in your presence—’ for the rescued lady’s two carriers had abruptly dumped down her chair in the middle of the carpet and then beat a swift retreat from their mistress’s presence. ‘I am Priscilla Delaval, and my brother, Mr Ralph Delaval, will be with you shortly to pay his respects. We are immensely grateful to you for your hospitality, and wish to apologize unreservedly for this intrusion on your privacy – indeed, were it not for my injured ankle, we might have made shift—’
‘Delaval, eh? Humph,’ remarked her ladyship, who appeared a trifle mollified either by the civility of her visitor’s manner and apology, or by the name. ‘Would that be the Somersetshire Delavals, or the Flintshire branch of the family?’
‘Neither, ma’am. We are from Wensleydale.’
‘Indeed? You are a very considerable distance from home. How comes it that you are travelling in this part of the country?’
‘We are on our way to visit a recently widowed aunt who lives in Salisbury.’
‘Salisbury? In that case, you are entirely out of your direction,’ Lady Catherine commented with disapproval tinged by a certain satisfaction.
Lady Catherine was a tall, massively built woman, well past her first youth, very handsomely attired and adorned with a profusion of impressive jewels. Disapproval appeared to be the predominant expression of her countenance, as evidenced by deeply marked grooves running from nose to mouth, and from her brows upward over her forehead. Her eyes, pouched and heavily lidded, of a muddy, opaque brown, tended to focus on their object in a direct, raking and somewhat discommoding stare.
The visitor, however, remained calm under this hard scrutiny and bore it without dismay. Although at that moment a trifle damp, muddy and dishevelled from the accident, this lady, too, was attired with impeccable correctness in a dark olive travelling costume of silk taffeta pinstriped in yellow, with a fur tippet and hat. Perhaps in her mid-twenties, she could not be called beautiful, but had a countenance enhanced by animation. Her hair – what could be seen under the fur hat – was dark; so were her eyes.
Undisturbed by Lady Catherine’s brusque reception of her, Miss Delaval responded with a smile, directed equally at the other two ladies in the chamber, who were both gazing at her with open interest. When she smiled, a dimple was revealed.
‘Ah, but you see, ma’am, we could not – at least my brother could not – travel to the southern counties of England without taking in its most beautiful and distinguished ornament, the cathedral and city of Canterbury.’
‘Ah. So. You stayed at the Chequers, I presume?’
‘No, ma’am. An old servant of my father’s, long since retired, supplied us with rooms.’
Lady Catherine nodded her turban slowly as if, while failing to meet with her complete approbation (not havi
ng originated in her own suggestion), this course of action might nevertheless pass muster.
‘And you have suffered some injury to your foot?’
‘Yes, ma’am. The sudden snowstorm, you see … the icy slush underfoot … But I hope that the injury will prove to be a trifling one, only, just at present I find myself incapable of walking on that foot.’
‘Let the surgeon be sent for directly. Mrs Jenkinson, pray attend to that without delay. And – hmm, yes, have rooms prepared for Miss Delaval and her brother.’
‘It is surpassingly kind of you, ma’am; indeed we are most reluctant to trespass on your benevolence,’ began Miss Delaval, and Lady Catherine’s look suggested that she found herself of a similar opinion; but fortunately at this moment the footman announced, ‘Mr Ralph Delaval,’ and the gentleman traveller walked into the room. His appearance at once militated in his favour. Like his sister, he could not be termed handsome, but his lively expression and bright, dark eyes were immediately prepossessing, and his manners, air and travelling costume appeared unostentatious but elegant. He made three rapid, accomplished bows to the ladies of the house.
‘Your ladyship – ladies – we are abashed indeed to derange you in this shocking manner. Permit me to introduce myself – Ralph Delaval at your service – and to proffer my most humble apologies.’
It could be seen that Lady Catherine was, in spite of herself, impressed. A wintry smile flickered over her face. Mrs Jenkinson, flitting agitatedly from the room in obedience to Lady Catherine’s order about the surgeon, paused a moment to cast a glance of timid appreciation at the gentleman. And Miss Anne de Bourgh, a pale, dull-looking girl of perhaps seventeen, kept her dim brown eyes fixed on his face throughout the ensuing scene, as if she had seldom in her life encountered so much charm, ease of manner and address combined in one person.
Mr Delaval at once embarked on a lively recital of the difficulties and obstacles by which he had been afflicted in his attempts to find a reliable carpenter or farrier. But here he made a tactical error, for Lady Catherine at once gave him to understand that she would by no means tolerate any disparagement of the abilities and talents to be found in her demesne, and the gentleman was soon made to realize that, had he applied to Rosings House in the first place, all such problems would have been at an end. He acknowledged his error with rueful humour, and succeeded eventually in allaying her displeasure.
‘Had we but known where we were, and that the two characters I mistook for bearded savages were in fact the leading proponents of the farrier’s art and the joiner’s craft in the whole county of Kent—’
‘Bearded savages, forsooth! Josiah Muddle and Wilfred Verity! Hah!’ Lady Catherine emitted what would, in a lesser person, have been a snort. ‘For many years the trusted servitors of the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh and before him of his father Sir Matthew – bearded savages, indeed! Young man, if you are no better a judge of character than that, I advise you to return to your native Wensleydale.’
Mr Delaval excelled himself in protestations and recantations. He had been completely mistaken in his first judgements – had almost immediately seen the error of his view – was now wholly convinced that the two men in question were past masters of their trade and would in the shortest possible time render his chaise entirely fit for the road again. Hastily quitting this inflammable topic, he made a skilful transfer to another more acceptable. He had heard so much from friends and acquaintances of the wonders of Rosings Park, and in particular of its exquisitely laid-out pleasure gardens; now cherished a humble hope that, since Fate had been so capricious as to deposit him and his sister with a broken wheel in the vicinity of these glories, Lady Catherine would of her benevolence and graciousness grant him a glimpse, however brief.
Had either Lady Catherine or her daughter chanced to cast a glance towards Miss Delaval at the moment when her brother was giving voice to these sentiments, they might have observed a flicker of amusement or surprise, quickly suppressed, pass over that lady’s countenance. But, remaining unobserved, she composed herself instantly, and in another moment was displaying no more than a proper degree of interest.
Mr Delaval by now was ingenuously confessing a passionate fondness for gardens, and enumerating the great estates he had already been privileged to visit: Thorpe, Kenilworth, Chatsworth, Beaumain. In some cases, he modestly averred, he had been so fortunate as to be able to make suggestions for improvement, which had been remarkably well received by the titled proprietors and even put into execution.
‘Humph!’ remarked Lady Catherine. ‘You had need to be an enthusiast indeed to wish to inspect even the grounds of Rosings in such conditions as these.’
She cast a dour glance at the great windows, which, at present, displayed no more than a kaleidoscope of grey and fluttering snowflakes. ‘And I misdoubt your sister, just now, is in any state to be walking about pleasure gardens.’
‘But ma’am, what we are experiencing is no more than a momentary spring shower! Why, in no time at all, I dare swear, we shall see the sun shine again, this little flurry will be over and forgotten, and, I am quite certain, your skilful medical man will be able to make short work of my sister’s bruise, or sprain, or whatever it proves to be.’
In fact, at this moment the surgeon himself, a Mr Willis, was announced, and Miss Delaval was carried off by two footmen to a chamber where her injury might be inspected in privacy and propriety. Mrs Jenkinson accompanied them.
When they returned, Mr Willis informed his august patroness that the sprain – for sprain it proved to be – was a tolerably severe one, and that Miss Delaval would be foolish indeed to resume her travels before two or three days at least had gone by.
By this time Lady Catherine was in such charity with the wit, knowledge and good sense of Mr Delaval that she felt not at all averse to having the brother and sister quartered at Rosings for that space of time.
‘At this season we do not expect to see many visitors here at Rosings,’ she observed to her daughter. ‘Since Darcy married that encroaching girl, there is only FitzWilliam who may be looked for to entertain us and keep us in spirits – and until his arrival next week, we are not certain of receiving any but local callers, particularly in such unfavourable weather; our company may be confined to the Collinses.’
She spoke as if such hardship were thoroughly undeserved.
‘And with dear Mrs Collins so very close to her time,’ pointed out Mrs Jenkinson, ‘it is not likely that we shall be seeing any more of her, just at this present.’
Lady Catherine threw her companion a censorious glance, indicating that the topic was an unsuitable one while her daughter Anne was within earshot. But Anne de Bourgh had not attended to what her mother was saying; she had been completely absorbed in a close and apparently critical study of the new arrivals.
At this moment, however, she chanced to turn her gaze to the great window, and remarked in a small, colourless voice:
‘Here comes Mr Collins now, Mamma, making great haste. He is walking across the grass. I wonder that he does not go round by the driveway…’
‘Oh, mercy!’ cried Mrs Jenkinson apprehensively. ‘I do hope that nothing has gone amiss with poor dear Mrs Collins.’
Regardless of Lady Catherine’s frown of reproof, she ran out into the ante-room, ejaculating as she went:
‘Dear Charlotte, poor Charlotte – oh, gracious, what can the matter be?’
Agitated voices were now to be heard from the anteroom. Towards these sounds Lady Catherine directed a look of decided disapprobation and impatience.
‘Let me hear what is being said!’ she called. ‘I must have knowledge of what has occurred!’
Three people hastily entered the room: Mrs Jenkinson returning; a footman, who, in vain, attempted to make himself heard announcing the arrival of Mr Collins; and Mr Collins himself, a tall and portly clergyman, at present scarlet-faced and streaked with wetness from hastening through the wintry weather, who cried out, before he was half through the doorwa
‘Oh, your ladyship! Oh, dear Lady Catherine! Such news! Such tidings! I wished to make certain that your ladyship should be the first to receive the intelligence, as would be properly due your elevated position. So – so as you may see, I have come hastening across the park despite great discomfort and inconvenience resulting from the present unseasonable climatic conditions—’
Not at all impressed by his exclamatory manner, Lady Catherine demanded sharply:
‘Well, man, what is it? What has transpired? Come to the point, pray! Is all well with Mrs Collins?’
‘Oh, Mrs Collins, yes, yes, matters are going on more or less as they should, or so I am informed by the maidservants and other females; her sister Maria has arrived from Hertfordshire to bear Charlotte company through the time of travail.’
‘Indeed?’ Lady Catherine pounced on this item of information with the vigour of a sparrowhawk swooping on a leveret. ‘And, pray, why was I not informed that Miss Lucas was expected so soon? Has she come all the way from Hertfordshire unattended? I cannot in any way bestow my approval on young ladies who travel such distances unescorted. It is wholly improper. I never permit my own daughter, Miss Anne, to ride even as far as Tunbridge Wells without the escort of at least two manservants. I would certainly have expected Sir William Lucas to afford his daughter more care than that.’
‘No, no, my lady, indeed, indeed you are wholly mistaken. My sister Maria Lucas comes only from London, where she has been visiting a cousin of Sir William, a Mrs Jennings, who, with her accustomed benevolence and solicitude, sent Maria on to us in her own coach with two manservants and a maid. Mrs Jennings is a lady of large fortune, and I assure you she is most attentive to such observances.’
‘Well then, why did you not say so, sir?’ said Lady Catherine shortly. ‘Of course, I remember Miss Lucas perfectly well; she is quite a genteel, pretty-spoken young person. In fact she will be quite welcome here at Rosings House when Mrs Collins can spare her; she will provide company in some degree for Miss Anne de Bourgh. She has a pleasing voice, I recall, and is proficient on the pianoforte, almost as proficient as Miss Anne would have been, had her health permitted her to learn the instrument. But is that all you came to tell us, Mr Collins? Surely there was no occasion to come hasting through the snow just for that?’