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The Five-Minute Marriage, Page 2

Joan Aiken

  Philadelphia was extremely touched, and said everything that was proper. She would have loved to visit Paris, which in 1815, was the gayest city in Europe. But with considerable regret she informed Mr. Browty that it was quite out of her power to leave London at present, since her mother, who had had a sharp illness during February and March, was still far from well, much pulled-down, and in no condition to be left.

  Both Lydia’s and Mr. Browty’s faces fell very much at this information.

  “You are quite sure, Miss Carteret? You couldn’t leave her, even for a couple of weeks?”

  “I am deeply sensible of your kindness, Mr. Browty, and more sorry than I can say to be obliged to forgo such a treat. But indeed, I cannot leave my mother. It is not only that she is ill and weak. But, since her illness, her—her good sense has been somewhat affected, so that she cannot be relied upon not to do exceedingly odd and awkward, not to say even downright dangerous things. Last week, for instance, while I was away giving a lesson in Hampstead, she somehow contrived to slip out, went to Fordham’s Stores, and ordered enough provisions for an Assembly Ball, which she seemed to be under the impression that she was about to hold! Fortunately she had neglected to give them our direction, so when I learned what she had done, I was able to countermand the order before they had discovered where to send the things.”

  Mr. Browty laughed heartily at this disclosure, and said,

  “But could you not hire some reliable person to look after your mother, Miss Carteret? It is too bad that you must be burdened with such an anxiety while you are teaching as well.”

  “I am afraid that would not be possible,” Philadelphia replied in a dispirited manner. “You see, for a start, my mother will mind no one but me—though indeed, she does not always mind me either.”

  She had been about to explain, also, that their circumstances did not permit of such an expense, but, glancing at Mr. Browty, she decided to remain silent on that head. He was so good-natured that it was quite possible he might offer to assist them, and Delphie, who had inherited considerable family pride, as well as her distinguished good looks, from her mother, could not bear the idea of accepting charity.

  “Excuse my asking this question, Miss Carteret, but have you no friends—no relatives—who could give you assistance during your mothers illness?”

  “No,” Delphie answered firmly. “We have not, sir. My mother and I are alone, and are supported solely by what I can earn from giving music and singing lessons. That has hitherto been quite sufficient—but—but my savings were somewhat depleted by her illness. Now she is recovered, matters will soon be in a better train, however.”

  “Your father, I take it, is no more?”

  “No, sir; he was a captain in the Navy, and died in the Battle of St. Vincent, when I was only four years old. I do not remember him very well.”

  “He had no kinsfolk—no parents or relations?”

  “No; he was an orphan, making his own way in the world. That is why when—when my mother fell in love with him, her family forbade the match. It was a runaway affair—an elopement. And in consequence of that, my mother’s family quite cut her off, and have refused to have anything to do with her, ever since.”

  “Can you believe it!” exclaimed Mr. Browty. “What a currish set of hardhearted skinflints they must be! There’s your aristocracy for you!—for I’ll be bound, from the cut of your jib, that they are aristocracy, amn’t I right, my child?”

  “Yes, sir,” she replied, somewhat reluctantly.

  “What was your mother’s maiden name, if I may make so bold, Miss Carteret?”

  “Papa!” exclaimed Lydia, blushing. “You are distressing Miss Carteret. It is the outside of enough! She may not wish to tell you these things!”

  “Fiddlestick, Puss! Hold your tongue! Miss Carteret knows I only mean well by her, don’t you, my dear? I’m just wishful to find some way to assist her, that’s all. Nor I’m not going to thrust alms down her throat unwanted, she knows that too! Miss Philadelphia’s got a head on her shoulders worth two of yours, Lyddy!”

  Encouraged by this statement, Philadelphia said,

  “My mother’s name was Penistone, Mr. Browty. My grandfather was the Fifth Viscount Bollington, and had estates in the Peak district, and in Kent, which was where my mother was brought up. But of course I never met my grandfather. He died when my mother was quite young, and was succeeded by his brother, the Sixth Viscount, who, I understand, was of a very arbitrary and tyrannical disposition. He also quarreled with my uncle, my mother’s brother, who went into the Navy and was killed in the same action as my father; they were great friends, which was how my mother happened to meet my father, when he came to stay at the family home.”

  “Indeed? There were no other sons, besides your mother’s brother?”

  “No, sir; as I said, the title passed to my great-uncle. I presume he is still living. I do not know if he has children of his own. My mother has always been very reluctant to talk about her family. She felt it so deeply when they cut her off that she would sooner die than be beholden to them.”

  “Do you, also, feel as deeply as that?”

  “N-no, not quite,” admitted Delphie. “It did seem to me—since my mother would, in the natural order of things, have been able to expect a handsome competence at her majority—that it was monstrously unjust and unnatural that her family would not assist her in her illness; and so—and so when she was in very bad case I did venture to write off—”

  “Aha, you wrote off?”

  “But only received the briefest of curt notes back, rejecting my appeal as a piece of imposture. So I resolved to demean myself no more in that direction.”

  “I dare swear I’d have done the same,” nodded Mr. Browty. “But—there’s a wicked, hardhearted, clutch-fisted set of penny pinchers for you! What did you say the name was, again?”

  “The family name is Penistone, and my uncle is Lord Bollington, the Sixth Viscount.”

  “Bollington—the name is familiar,” mused Mr. Browty. “Didn’t we meet a Lord Bollington—somewhere abroad, Puss? It sticks in my nodbox that we did—where would that have been, now?”

  “Was it at the baths, Papa? At Bad Reichenbach?”

  “Ay—that’s it—that’s where it was! I mind him now—a queer, sad old stick, full of odd freaks and fancies, like a cudgel with a hank of white hair atop, forever with some odd notion in his attic, and set on maudling his innards with every kind of medicine, always fancying himself at death’s door. I mind him well. Right, and I was able to do him a good turn that he needed sore, for his bankers’ drafts hadn’t come through, and my name on a bill’s as good as gold from here to Constantinople.”

  “I’m sure it is,” Delphie said politely, glancing at the clock on the marble mantel. “But—excuse me, Mr. Browty—I promised to return to my mother as soon as might be, and I am somewhat anxious about her—”

  “In course you are! But, listen, my dear; write again, and this time, give my name as reference. I know you are no imposter, and Browty’s word is as good as his bond. Or no—better still—where does the old cull keep himself?”

  “I beg your pardon, sir?”

  “Your uncle, child—great-uncle—whatever he be?”

  “Oh, Lord Bollington? He has several estates; but I believe that his main residence is in Kent, where my mother was brought up, at Chase Place.”

  “Ay, Chase—that is it. I mind him referring to it now. To be sure, Chase—that was it. Ay, he and I grew to be close as birds of a feather, lying in those mud baths together—he’ll recall the name of Josiah Browty. Chase Place—very good! My sixteen-mile-an-hour grays can spank down there in four hours, or I’m a Dutchman. I’ll give you a note to the old curmudgeon that will make him sing to a different tune, I’ll warrant you!”

  “But—” said Delphie, taken aback, “I beg your pardon, my dear sir, but what are you proposing?”

  “Why, that I lend you my posting-chariot, supply you with a note of reco
mmendation, and that you drive down to Chase yourself and beard the old put in his den! Take the bull by the horns, that’s my motto, and always has been, and a fair pile of feathers it’s fetched me!”

  “But, sir!”

  Although this plan did have considerable appeal to Delphie, who was herself of a forthright and enterprising character, always apt to act rather than repine, she could see many objections to it.

  “In the first place—I cannot be so beholden to you! What have I ever done to deserve such distinguished—?”

  “Pish, my dear! The chariot will be here, and the grays eating their heads off, for I’ll take the bays and the bigger coach to France with all the gals’ gear—I was about to offer the use of the chariot, in any case, for you to take your Mama for an airing, now and again. And as to deserve—I’m well aware of the pains you’ve spent on Lyddy and Charlie, who’ve neither of them a note of music in their brainboxes—besides all the other things they’ve picked up from you in the course—all your ladylike ways and elegancies of behavior—”

  “Nonsense, my dear sir—certainly not enough to earn the use of your carriage for at least two days!” said Delphie, blushing and laughing.

  “Say no more, Miss Philadelphia—my mind’s made up to this plan and I’ll hear no argufication! Why would that old skinflint loll there on his millions—ay, now I recall, he owns the coal under half Derbyshire—besides a hundred and fifty thousand in the Funds—he’s one of the warmest men in the country, my dear! Why should he sit there while you and your mother can hardly scrape ten guineas together?”

  “Yes, it is the injustice of the situation that really puts me in a rage!” Delphie could not help bursting out, and Mr. Browty said approvingly,

  “Ah, I knew you was a lass of spirit! Now we’ll say no more at this present, for I know you’re itching to be off to your Mama, but I’ll write a note to his ludship and have it sent around to you in Greek Street, and I’ll tell Bodkin, my under-coachman (who is as steady a man as you need hope to find), and the postilions to be ready to wait on you whenever you say the word. And think nothing of coaching-inn fees or any other such expenses, my dear”—as she opened her mouth—”that will all be found, I promise you.”

  “But, sir, how can I ever repay you?”

  “Why, as to that, my dear—if you and your Mama come into your rights, you will be able to repay me with the greatest ease! If it weighs on your mind, as it certainly does not on mine.”

  “But if I don’t come into my rights?” Delphie could not help saying.

  “We’ll concern ourselves with that another time!”

  Delphie endeavored to render suitable thanks—her head was somewhat in a whirl with the suddenness of all these plans—but Mr. Browty indulgently told her to run along and save her breath for arguing with Lord Bollington.

  Lydia bade good-by to her preceptress with a warm hug and a little skip of excitement, crying,

  “Oh, it is the most romantical plan imaginable! I wish I might go along.”

  “Much help you would be, Puss!”

  “I wish we might be here to learn what comes of it! Can we not stay in England another fortnight, Pa, till Miss Carteret has been to see her great-uncle?”

  “Nonsense, Puss! We have all our hotel reservations, and my man of business in Paris waiting on my arrival—we shall hear soon enough how Miss Carteret has sped. I daresay she will be good enough to write us a note about it.”

  “Indeed I shall!” said Philadelphia. “And I am very much obliged to you.”

  With that she collected up her music and left, for she had already overstayed her time by more than a quarter of an hour, and she was becoming momentarily more anxious to return to her mother.

  “Ah, there goes a lass in a million,” said Mr. Browty, gazing after her with unmixed respect. “Strong-minded—clever—and real high-class looks into the bargain! You’d have to beat over half England to find her equal. It was a lucky day for our family, Lyddy, when I picked Miss Carteret to be your singing teacher.”

  “Yes, Papa,” said Lydia.

  Philadelphia hurried home, stopping in Brewer Street market to buy the promised neck of lamb, and again at Mme. Lumiere’s for the almond cakes. Mme. Lumiere, like many of the residents of Soho, was an émigré Frenchwoman who had left Paris during the Terror, and had prospered so well with her pastrycook’s business during the following twenty-odd years that she had long since abandoned any thought of returning to her native land. It was from Madame’s brother, Christophe Lumiere, that Delphie had learned her music; he was a distinguished composer and conductor who, since he stood in high favor at the court of Louis XVI, had been obliged to escape with his sister. For many years he had been the lodger of Mrs. Carteret, whose husband had left her just sufficient money to buy a small house in Soho and rent out most of its rooms to support herself and her child. The rents had also sufficed to send Philadelphia for a period to an Academy for Young Ladies in Chiswick. But M. Lumiere had died and misfortunes had then overtaken the Carterets; debts had piled up, and Mrs. Carteret had, in the end, been obliged to sell the house and move to their present accommodation. The money from the sale, which would, in the normal course, probably have provided for the mother and daughter’s needs for several years, had been almost entirely consumed by the expenses of Mrs. Carteret’s illness, and a frighteningly small sum now stood between them and complete destitution.

  Philadelphia sometimes trembled, waking in the night, at the thought of what would become of them should she herself, through any mischance, lose her capacity to earn. Suppose she too were to fall ill? Or be run over by a carriage or abducted in the streets of London—such occurrences were not unknown. What would Mrs. Carteret do then? Even before her illness she had been somewhat feckless, and wholly lacking in any qualification to earn her own living; her only accomplishment was the cutting out of very beautiful paper spills, but the sale of such articles would barely suffice to keep the pair in candles.

  Mrs. Carteret herself had never been troubled by anxieties as to the future.

  “My dear child, pray do not be forever fussing and fretting and spoiling your looks over these trifling considerations! Of course you will presently make an eligible match, and then all our troubles will be over. For I will say this—although you have unfortunately inherited your father’s cautious, prosy, down-to-earth, pinchpenny temperament, you have luckily taken from me the Penistone family looks, and those are not to be sneezed at; you must be worthy of the first consideration in any circles in the land!”

  “But, dearest Mamma—we don’t move in any circles in the land! We don’t even move in a segment of a circle!” said Delphie, who had learned a little Geometry as well as the Use of the Globes at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy in Chiswick.

  “Never mind that, child! It is true—if only you could be presented at Court—how advantageous that would be. But still, I do not despair of some gentleman of breeding and discrimination observing you as you pass by in the street. So do not let me see those desponding looks, any more—but hold your, head up straight, and walk with elegance. You will see, all those hours that I made you spend on the backboard will presently bring their reward! In fact it would do no harm if you were to lie down now upon the backboard for half an hour!”

  “Never mind the backboard, Mamma. I am more likely soon to be upon the shelf! Do not forget that I am three and twenty!”

  “No, impossible, how can you be? I am sure you must be mistaken. Though it is true,” sighed Mrs. Carteret, “that I was only sixteen when I eloped with your dearest Papa. In any case, Philadelphia, your looks are in the bone, and not such as will fade in your twenties; I by no means despair of your forming an eligible connection, even now.”

  Philadelphia herself had no such certainty; nor was she even sure that she wished to marry. Certainly she had never, among the respectable tradesmen, exiled French, and down-at-heels gentry who formed the Carterets’ principal acquaintance, encountered the man whom she felt she would be
able to love. Her main ambition was centered on saving enough to start a small music school by which she could keep herself and her mother in modest comfort. But with Mrs. Carteret’s frail health and awkward propensity for disbursing money and running into debt, such hopes were slender indeed.

  Passing swiftly through the Baggotts’ millinery establishment, Delphie stopped to make the promised purchase of pale-gray jaconet from Jenny, who greeted her with a beaming smile.

  “There you are back then, Miss Delphie! I just stepped upstairs, half an hour agone, with a bowl of bread-jelly, and peeked through the crack, like you said, but she was fast; I could just see her blessed head on the pillow; so I didn’t disturb her, but came right down again. She hasn’t stirred once, not all the while you’ve been out; not a whisper have we heard from her.”

  Much relieved at this news, Delphie thanked Miss Baggott, paid for the jaconet with some of her fee from Mr. Browty (who always settled on the nail), and ran upstairs. Opening the door softly, she laid her purchases on a small table which did duty as both kitchen and dining table, then stole into the farther room to see how her mother did.

  For a moment she, too, was deceived and thought Mrs. Carteret lay sleeping on the bed; then, approaching closer, she saw with deep dismay that the lace nightcap had been cunningly drawn over a rolled-up nightgown, and the bedclothes pulled together to make it appear as if a sleeping person lay under them. But the bed was empty; and also cold; it must have been unoccupied for at least an hour.

  With speed born of experience, Delphie scanned her mother’s wardrobe, and her anxiety was greatly aggravated by the discovery that Mrs. Carteret must have gone out in her tabby silk and an embroidered India-muslin shawl—very insufficient covering for a barely convalescent invalid on a cold April day.

  Trying to quell her agitation, Delphie ran down the stairs again. Both Miss Baggotts were now in the shop, and, addressing them in somewhat desperate accents, Delphie informed them that her mother had gone out.