A Regency Short Story of an Inelegant Young Woman
by Celia Jolley
Matty sighed, while her best “friend Judith tried to cheer her up.
“It could be worse…” she began.
“You must be not seeing the same arrogant man I’m seeing,” Matty interrupted. “My parents are so close to making a marriage agreement that would doom me to be with that pompous man the rest of my life, that I feel sick.”
“At least we are not aware of any vices he partakes in. For example, we’ve never heard that he has any gaming debts,” Judith tried to reason.
“Just because we are not aware of any, does not mean a thing. How could we be aware of what goes on in those gentlemen clubs. I just know that most of his married friends have mistresses set up in their own houses. Their vows are only good until they have an heir, then they stray. How do I know he will not do likewise. I’m afraid he is without a soul.”
“Have you ever asked him about his faith?”
“I tried, and he just huffed and claimed that he was a proud member of the Church of England and was adamantly against upstarts like John Wesley and Whitfield and hated the music of Charles Wesley. He looked down his nose at me like I was a failure on how a proper lady should comport herself.”
“Oh well, but have you ever seen him deep in his cups?”
“Actually I have. It was at the Chesterfield’s ball. He danced with me only once, then disappeared into the gaming room. When he finally came out, he was walking like a crab scooting sideways, first one way then the other. He never saw me standing there as he wove past me.”
“Hmm. Hopefully, that was an unusual circumstance.”
“I do know that he thinks himself quite the connoisseur of French wine and loves nothing better than to opine on that subject. I don’t think I could stomach being attached to such a puffed up peacock.”
“But what can you do?”
Matty, threw herself back on her bed and stared at the ceiling watching a cobweb float back and forth in the breath of the wind. Suddenly she sat up and clapped her hands. “I know what to do! I will use sabotage.”
“What? Tell me?” Judith exclaimed.
“I will embarrass him. He will be easily mortified, I’m sure. The key will be to make it all seem like innocent clumsiness.”
“But what will you do?” Judith began biting her nails.
“For starts, tonight when I come down to dinner, I’m sure he will be waiting at the bottom of the stairs. I will stumble and just catch myself before falling all the way down.”
“Won’t you hurt yourself? What if you are unable to stop yourself until falling all the way to the foot of the stairs?”
“Let me see my slipper. She jumped up and grabbed her sharp letter opener.”
Judith nervously handed it over. “What are you doing?”
Matty began pulling the heel of her slipper loose by inserting the letter opener, using it like a knife. Finally, the heel was only holding on by a few little hobnails. “There! It will look like an innocent wardrobe mishap, but my stumbling will nevertheless embarrass the arrogant man who prides himself on his own perfection. Any deviation from that, including the comportment of the lady on his arm, will alarm him.”
“Surely he will not count such a thing against you.” Judith held her hands in horror on her cheeks.
“That is only the beginning. I’m sure I can easily think of other ways to embarrass him as well.”
“I don’t think I like this plan,” Judith began shaking her head heartily back and forth, so hard that a few hair pins fell to the floor, and a lock of hair came loose.”
“See, just like that. I can pull a few pins out so that my hairstyle will fall as well. It will be another proof that I am not the perfect one to walk on his arm.”
“Oh, Matty. This is terrible.”
“Said the young woman who isn’t about to be promised to the ostentatious man.”
Judith sighed. “You must be desperate.”
Their maids arrived to finish preparing the ladies for dinner. Matty squeezed Judith’s hand. “Trust me. I will be able to run him off in one single evening. Just watch me,” she said. Then after the maids left, she began slipping out several of the pins that held her coiffure in place.
“Oh, Matilda, you worry me.”
“Here we go. Wish me the best.”
Matty stood at the top of the stairs gazing below to make sure that Richard III, Earl of Gothmere was watching and waiting for her. Unfortunately, another gentleman was waiting beside him who was likewise staring up at her. Nevertheless, she held onto the rail with her gloved hand and began her elegant descent. She was going to fake a stumble, but the loose heel on her slipper caused one before she was ready, and she almost did in fact fall all the way down. She heard Judith scream as Matty grabbed the rail with both hands though she was almost unable to stop herself. She could feel her hair falling down around her shoulders and was herself in disarray.
A gentleman took the stairs two at a time to come to her rescue. “Are you alright, miss?” She looked up to find it was not Richard, but the other one who had been standing at the bottom of the stairs.
Finally, Richard was beside her saying, “What an appalling misfortune, Miss Horn!”
Matty shocked him further by lifting her gown up displaying her ankle to take her slipper off in front of the gentlemen. “Look, the heel came loose, see. Please excuse me, gentlemen, while I change my footwear.”
She saw that Richard was successfully affronted while the other gentleman’s concern turned to amusement. She sniffed and put on airs as if he had insulted her as Judith helped her limping back upstairs. She heard her mother nearly weeping downstairs saying, “It’s her maid’s fault. How did she not notice that the slipper was coming apart, or mayhap it was the shoemaker since those were brand new!”
Matilda had a twinge of conscience over passing the blame of her slipper onto others. Besides, she was in a little pain having incidentally twisted her ankle.
Once in her room, Judith exclaimed, “Oh, Matty, that was horrible! I thought you were going to fall all the way down.”
Matty stiffened her back and pretended to be less affected than she was. In truth, she had scared herself to death. “Didn’t you see me grip the bannister? So, have no fear. I was safe from a perilous disaster.” She examined her slippers. “I just wish I had thought not to use my new slippers and should have pulled the heel off one of my older pairs. Oh well, I’m sure we are keeping them waiting. Betty should be here at any moment to fix my hair again.”
This time Matty was able to make a less notable entrance doing her best to hide her limp even with the pain increasing in her ankle. But her mind was already planning her next ploy to distance herself from the all too perfect Richard. Too bad that other gentleman would have to witness it. Oh well, she thought. It can’t be helped even though he seemed to be a good sort judging by the way he came to her rescue on the stairs.
It was during the soup course when Matty looked over to ask a seemingly innocent question to make sure that Richard’s eyes were on her. Then as he waxed eloquent, and she appeared to be delicately sipping a spoonful of soup, she suddenly spit it out all over the tablecloth, just missing Richard’s intricately tied cravat. He jumped back with a yelp as she exclaimed, “A fly! There was a fly in my soup!”
Her mother made the cry she always made right before she fainted, which she did as her father called for smelling salts. One of the servers speedily swept her soup away with eyes full of horror. She hoped he would not be blamed and be let go. It was enough to have her almost question her strategy.
In order to protect the server or the cook from being blamed, she asked the company, “Did anyone else see that fly buzzing around before it landed in my bowl? I thought I had waved it away, but it decidedly wanted a taste of my delicious soup.” Matty noticed that nobody else wanted any more of their soup having lost their appetites as waiters swiftly whisked their bowls away. She saw that Richard was practically as white as the tablecloth as he carefully examined his cravat to make sure it survived unscathed from the spray. He patted himself down as if making sure he was still all in one piece. It was enough to make her laugh, which she had to swallow, of course.
However his friend who was seated on her left, a Lord somebody or other, whispered, “You must have swallowed that pesky fellow for neither was it in your soup nor was it evident in what you spewed across the table. So I must ask, are you feeling alright, Miss Horn?” He looked totally amused and barely able to keep from laughing at her.”
“How observant,” she replied primly as she began patting her napkin to her lips. The insufferable man seemed to be closely watching her still as his gaze fell disconsertingly on her lips before he chuckled and turned away. It was more disturbing than if there truly had been a fly in her soup. It was too much, even if he was the one who had rushed up the stairs when she had fallen.
Now her mother was revived and glaring daggers at her. Matty made a very, very tiny shrug of her shoulders so as not to appear more indelicate than she already was. Her father was straining to maintain a facade as a gracious host when she was sure he was actually fighting to keep the dark thundercloud he was quite capable of, from gathering upon his countenance.
After the dessert of raison pudding, which somehow made her think of flies, the ladies followed her mother out. As good manners dictated, the men rose as well. Maddy failed to hide a groan while attempting to stand on her sore ankle causing the gentleman on her left to help her up.
He again whispered, “Are you alright, miss? Perhaps you should prop that shapely ankle up on a cushion and put some ice on it.”
Her face bloomed a blush. How dare the man speak of her ankle, an unmentionable topic for any true gentleman. “No thank you, sir. You may remove your hand on my arm now.”
He grinned and made a slight bow further incensing her. She did her very best to hide her limp even if her ankle was now shooting pain enough to take her breath away.
Once in the parlor, her mother grabbed her arm, shook her and harped, “Matilda! How dare you embarrass your father and me like that! I can’t imagine what your suitor must be thinking.”
That was music to her ears and worth the pain she was feeling. But their butler appeared at her side saying, “Excuse me, Miss Horn. Someone requested ice for your, um, your injury.”
“Thank you, John.” But she knew exactly who had requested the ice. However, there was no delicate way to put ice on her ankle without causing her mother to faint again. So as soon as the men entered, Matty plopped her leg up on a cushion and placed the ice on her swollen ankle. Indeed, her mother did faint again, but aroused herself before smelling salts could once again assault her.
“Matilda!” her mother gasped. Put your um,” her mother struggled knowing it was unacceptable to mention any body part of a lady beyond noting her rosy cheeks or sparkling eyes. “Put it down!” she finally commanded after settling on a proper way of saying it.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I believe your daughter has injured herself in her slip on the stairs.” It was the bold stranger again. “I am the one who suggested she needed ice.”
Matty finally had a moment to gaze across the room to see Richard sitting stiffly with his back neatly turned so as not to look upon her.
Her father ordered, “John, come help my daughter up to her room. It seems she is unfit for company this evening.”
The faithful servant came, took up the ice packet and gently helped her to her feet. She limped away much to her satisfaction. Matty was in real pain and was relieved to not have to suffer the company, Richard most of all, any longer. But she would have to brace herself for when her mother would arrive in her room later this evening after all the dinner guests had left.
Her maid came apologetically to help ready her for bed. “I am so sorry, Miss Matilda. That shoe seemed fine to me when I brought it out of your closet earlier today when we planned what you would wear, and here you are with an injury.”
“It most certainly was not your fault, Betty. The shoe just caught on a step and came loose. It seemed perfectly fine earlier.” Matty had a twinge of conscience for the little white lie. The shoe was perfectly fine before she purposefully loosened it. She shuddered at the thought of how she nearly tumbled all the way to the foot of the stairs. Then she smirked imagining what if she had rolled down to land at Richard’s feet all inelegant with her skirt undoubtably a picture of indecency. “Do you have that ice packet, Betty?”
“Yes, miss. Let me put your foot up. Here you go, Now let’s hope the ankle is better in the morning. But I don’t like the way it is so swollen and turning purple. Perhaps I should send word to your father that you need a doctor?”
“Please, let’s not, Betty. I say we should wait until morning and see if it’s better. But perhaps you could bring me the cup of tea I missed by being dismissed from the parlor. No, I think I would prefer a hot chocolate, if cook doesn’t mind. I do get sick of tea betimes.”
“Right away, miss,” she said before scurrying away.
Discouraging a suitor was a difficult business and was truly only for the stout-hearted. Matty hoped it had indeed run Richard off, but wondered if she would have to improvise more clumsiness to come.
In the morning, she had to admit, at least to herself, that the ice had helped. Matty was enough better to be assisted down to the parlor. Rather than coming up and giving her a set down last night, her mother chose the silent method of punishment. It was always Matty’s favorite.
“Look, someone sent flowers. Do you know who, Mother?” She groaned thinking that it had to have been Richard.
Her mother only sniffed and went back to her embroidery.
Maddy hobbled over to the bouquet and read the note. She was shocked. If she was the fainting type like her mother, she would have been laid out on the floor. It was Lord Astor. “Goodness me!” she exclaimed. “I can’t imagine why he would do such a thing.”
Her only acknowledgement from her mother was a crooked eyebrow, but the woman kept her eyes down on her embroidery stitch. Maddy plopped upon the sofa and put her angry ankle up on the cushion. Now both of her mother’s eyebrows were cocked in displeasure, but she still refrained from speaking. Just then someone was knocking at the door. They could hear John’s droning voice in answer to another’s deeper one.
Before she could pull herself up and her foot down, their butler was announcing the arrival of Lord Astor.
“Don’t get up on my account, miss. I’m sure it is still troubling you to stand on.”
Her mother did not have to pretend a smile until she realized Richard was not behind his friend. She recovered enough to be gracious, fortunately because Maddy was shocked speechless.
“Have the maid bring us tea, John,” her mother instructed as was proper.
Maddy’s head was spinning and could not think of a thing to say, so he once again came to her rescue. “I see you are sensible and are keeping your injury elevated.”
“The ice you suggested did help last night, so thank you, Lord Astor. It was very kind of you.”
“Yes, very kind indeed,” her mother tried to smile but failed dismally. Matty knew she wished that the whole affair could be put behind her.
Matty finally managed to put one thought in front of another and said, “It was kind of you to send the flowers as well. Thank you.”
It was her turn to be embarrassed when her mother asked, “Have you seen Sir Richard this morning, my lord?”
“Actually, I passed him a little while ago. He said he was going to call on Miss Gundor.”
Judith? She almost exclaimed it aloud. Richard was calling on Judith. Matty was sure her mother would faint at any moment.
Instead her mother was declaring with certainty, “I’m sure he will be by later.”
Lord Astor looked around acting surprised. “Did he not send you flowers?” Then he did the unconscionable thing and winked at her.
She covered her gasp with her hand and glanced over to where her mother was furiously attacking her embroidery.
As was proper, the gentleman did not stay long and took his leave. Her mother was fuming. “To think, Sir Richard is calling on Judith!”
“But isn’t it a more distinct honor to have received a call from Lord Astor than a Sir Richard?” Why did Matty enjoy seeing her mother squirm?
Indeed she gaped saying, “I do believe you are right. I just never considered Lord Astor’s attention on you as anything more than being polite. But your father was so close to finalizing the marriage arrangement with Sir Richard that I hardly considered it. Oh do pursue him, Mathilda!”
Now her mother was quite gleeful while Matty was in horror. Pursue him? He was quite beyond her and was merely being decent coming to visit due to her injury. Besides, hadn’t she made enough of a fool of herself to scare any gentleman away?
The next day while she and Judith sat discussing the most recent publication by the unknown author of “Emma,” John announced visitors. It was Sir Richard and his friend Lord Astor. Judith smiled graciously, her mother looked like the cat that ate the canary while she could only pale in shock. However, Lord Astor caught her looking and seemed amused.
Sir Richard asked, “We were wondering if you ladies would care to join us for a ride through Hyde Park. It is quite a lovely day out.”
Judith being her excitable self clapped and exclaimed, “Yes, yes, of course we would!”
Sir Richard was about to take Judith’s arm until he glanced at Matty’s mother, and offered it to Matty instead. Lord Astor escorted Judith out to their landau. The ladies sat together looking forward, while the gentleman sat across from them. Matty looked everywhere else except at Lord Astor, but couldn’t help but wonder how the two men were friends. They were certainly quite different.
She found herself blurting out, “So, how did you become acquainted with one another, if I may ask?”
Of all things, Sir Richard nervously picked non-existent lint off his coat sleeve. Lord Astor grinned and said, “Shall I tell them Richard, or would you prefer to toll the tale?”
Richard huffed and said, “No, you go ahead. It seems to give you pleasure to speak of it.”
Lord Astor threw back his head and laughed before saying, “Indeed it does. Well, prepare to be shocked, ladies, but one day I found Sir Richard hiding in our field in a hay mound. It seems that one of our tenant farmers was not as charmed as his daughter with his attention. But we were yet young lads wet behind the ears.”
“Quite young, hardly sixteen, I believe,” Richard sniffed. “I have not been able to tolerate the smell of hay without sneezing since.”
That was enough to set Lord Astor to laughing again. “Yes, we were both very young. I had just come back from school in Oxford, while he was home from school in Eton. Our paths had not crossed before then, but we might have had a few escapades after that, I confess.”
“Do tell,” Matty leaned forward excitedly.
“Don’t tell, James. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to shock the ladies sensibilities further.”
“Oh, but we would like nothing better, right Judith?” Matty was on the edge of her seat.
Lord Astor chuckled, “Alright, I won’t shock them with the worst of our mischievous deeds. But are you aware that one can tip a cow? The farmer was quite put out when he caught us, was he not Richard?”
“Truly?” Judith exclaimed.
“Quite, but I’m sure they do not wish to hear…” Richard said try\ing to stop his friend from telling more.
But Lord Astor went on, “Then we went fishing and caught a trout and put it in my sister’s chamber pot. You should have heard her scream in the night!” He went off in peels of laughter punching Richard in the shoulder who couldn’t hold back a grin.
“Quite so. It was all jolly fun,” he admitted.
Judith was aghast while Matty was practically snorting in laughter. Her corset constricted her, however, making her feel faint as she gasped for air. So she waved her hands in front of her face calling, “Oh, stop, stop. It is too, too much!” But her face told otherwise.
Richard became once again a stuffed shirt and checked his cravat down to the pleat in his pants. “I told you, James, the ladies sensibilities would be too shocked.”
Lord Astor was grinning with a gleam in his eyes. “Oh, but there is so much more!”
Sir Richard was saved when another carriage stopped alongside them and greetings and introductions were called out. The gentlemen seemed familiar, but Matty could not be sure if she had once danced with them or had been offered refreshment at one ball or other.
When they rolled off, Lord Astor’s face looked grim. “Good men. The best. Sir Ashford, a second son, fought against Napoleon in France. He was dreadfully wounded there, and it is a miracle he made it home. The other is his friend who lost an eye in battle and thus, the patch. We were all best chums while in Oxford. I prayed for them most decidedly while they were away serving.
“Oh, dear!” Judith exclaimed while Matty wondered at herself that she had not even noticed the man’s eye patch. It did dampen the company’s mood, however.
Sir Richard and Judith made small talk, a little fluff here and little tittle there. But Lord Astor seemed lost in thought so deep that Matty did not want to disturb him. Fortunately, the park was wearing its finery with the trees in lacy gowns of blooms with slippers of flowers at their feet. It was not just the view, but the gentle swaying of the ride and the fresh air of Spring that relaxed her making her sigh.
“I hope that sigh is one of pleasure, Miss Horn. I hope I did not disturb you with the tale of woe of our soldiers,” Lord Astor asked. It seemed that Sir Richard and Judith were busy in witless conversation and did not seek to involve themselves in theirs.
“Oh no. I don’t know when I have enjoyed a ride as much as this. Thank you for inviting us along.”
“If your injury was further along in its healing, we could have stopped and walked a pace. Perhaps next time, unless that is, you have a further mishap.” His gaze was warm upon her, but still with a glint of humor.
“I do try to keep my mishaps down to one or two at a time. I would hate to shock another’s sensibilities beyond the pale too often,” she tried to say with a straight face, but could not hide the grin quivering on her lips as she glanced over at Sir Richard.
Lord Astor followed her gaze and raised an eyebrow. “So, I see. It is mostly done in certain company, I take it.”
“Perhaps.” She certainly did not intend for him to know with certainty her intent of scaring Sir Richard off from his courtship, but he seemed to have guessed it. She asked, “Was it the stumble or the fly that gave it away,” she whispered glad that Judith and Sir Richard were absorbed in each other’s company.
He chuckled. “I perhaps was a little suspicious with the first, but was certain after the second, especially as they both succeeded in cooling a certain gentleman’s ardor.”
“Precisely,” she admitted. “It was like pairing a peacock with a barnyard chicken. It never would have worked, but my parents thought otherwise.”
“Hmm, I never thought of describing him as a barnyard chicken…” he mused, but she swatted his knee, quite improperly.
“I meant him as the peacock, as you well know. You are quite impossible, sir!”
“Well, I could never compare you to a barnyard chicken, Miss Horn, that is for certain. You demean yourself.”
“Hardly, but I do hope you can keep this revelation a secret. I would rather he keep his attention elsewhere, if you know what I mean,” and she glanced over at a beaming Judith who was absorbing all the assumed grandeur of Sir Richard.
“Be assured it is quite safe with me,” he grinned catching her gaze with his a mite too long, enough to cause her to blush.
“You are not often in London, are you? I don’t recall seeing you at any of the social events this season.”
“No, I studiously avoid the larger gatherings and only occasionally attend small dinner parties like yours the other night,” he replied.
“How fortunate you are, sir.”
“Do you not enjoy them, Miss Horn?”
“As much as a turkey can enjoy being trussed up and served on a platter. It is a woman’s obligation to offer herself up to be so devoured. I believe the beautiful gowns we wear are not sufficient reward for such suffering.”
Sir Astor was beyond belief at her description, then let out loud guffaws causing by- standers to stare. “Oh, Miss Horn, you are too much, too much indeed.”
Matty did not know if that was a good thing or not, but assuredly, her mother would deem it a most awful thing for certain. “I’m glad to amuse you, sir.”
With Judith and Sir Richard staring aghast, Lord Astor regained control over his laughter. “That, miss, was the most enjoyable thing I have heard in I don’t know when.”
“But must you cause a scene, James?” Sir Richard was looking nervously around.
Judith whispered, “What on earth did you say, Matty?” But Matty only shrugged and looked away upset that she had so embarrassed herself again in front of this man.
By then they were in front of her house. Lord Astor practically leaped down before the footman could step up to assist the ladies. Instead, he did perhaps hold her gloved hand a little longer than necessary. “Let me walk you to your door, Miss Horn. I would not trust your injury to allow you to walk unassisted quite yet. So saying, he tucked her hand in his arm and gallantly escorted her to her door.
“Thank you for a lovely afternoon,” Judith cooed.
“Quite so,” she agreed without meeting the gentleman’s eyes.
Once inside, Judith spoke in raptures over their excursion.
Her mother could not decide if it was a good sign or not, especially as Matty kept quiet as Judith went on and on.
“And how was Lord Astor,” she finally inquired.
“Oh, he’s a jolly sort of fellow,” she replied before going upstairs to her room knowingly leaving her mother confused. She was confused herself not knowing if it was a good thing or not to have caused the man such amusement. She’d never thought herself a comic before. It made her wonder.
The next morning she came down to find her mother in ecstasy. Lord Astor sent you another bouquet! He must be quite smitten.”
Matty could not hold back exclaiming, “They are asters. They must be hothouse ones as they are out of season.” She took a deep breath of their herbal scent.
“Truly?” her mother exclaimed. “That does seem a bit intimate, if you know what I mean, sending flowers representing his name.”
“I doubt it, mother. His name is an Astor with an ‘o’ while the flower aster has an ‘e.’ It is just a coincident that these were chosen.”
“Oh posh! But I don’t know how you’ve accomplished it, especially after your initial meeting. He must have already ignored your first unfortunate accidents. Your father investigated him yesterday and finds him to be quite the catch with vast holdings and wealth besides being a lord. Make sure you do everything in your power to catch him, dearest. It would make your father and I extremely pleased.”
“Mother, I don’t believe I can boast of such charm. I am merely a convenient pairing since Sir Richard is quite captivated with Judith at the moment, and he is his friend, and I am hers.”
“Nonsense. A man does not send flowers unless he intends to signal an interest. Make sure you are fittingly attired in case he comes calling this morning. Perhaps you should go change now.”
But he did not come that afternoon or the next. She did see Judith being spirited about with Sir Richard. She seemed to be so enraptured that Matty felt sorry for her.
By the third day, Matty had enough with waiting around for a caller and dressed in her oldest dress to go work in the garden. Her hair was still in the braid she had slept with it in. Tending the roses was something she enjoyed which tended to infuriate her mother. However, her mother was out shopping for a new pair of gloves. She had asked Matty to go with her, but she had made the excuse of her ankle still being sore.
So, it was extremely perturbing when John found her and announced that she had a caller. She could only hope it was Judith. Matty smoothed down her fly away hair that had escaped her braid and made her way inside. Of course, it was Lord Astor along with Sir Richard and Judith.
Sir Richard seemed fittingly shocked, while her friend only sighed, “Oh, Matty.”
“I was not expecting company,” she managed to sputter. “Please excuse me while I go make myself presentable.” She laid down the roses she had not realized were still in her hands and hurriedly left the room. but not before seeing the amusement in Lord Astor’s eyes.
Once in her chamber, she urged, “Betty, hurry! Lord Astor is waiting with Sir Richard and Judith. I can’t believe I let them see me like this!”
It took a little more than a few minutes before Matty reentered the parlor. Judith began bouncing on the edge of the sofa and clapped her gloved hands, “Guess what, Matty! The gentlemen have asked to take us walking in the park and share a picnic lunch with them.” Judith was in raptures.
But what did surprise her was the way Sir Richard looked adoringly at her friend. Fewer of his peacock feathers seemed to be displayed. Matty glanced over at Lord Astor. He was looking at her questioningly
“Is it too soon, Miss Horn, for you to be walking about?”
“No, for as you know, I was able to walk about my garden with ease earlier. As you can also be certain, I do enjoy being out enjoying nature. I am ready if the rest of you are unless, you would prefer to have tea first?”
“I don’t believe any of us will faint before we partake of our picnic lunch. After you, Miss Horn.”
Judith followed them giggling as she leaned on Sir Richard’s arm.
This time Sir Richard sat beside Judith leaving Sir Astor to find his seat next to her. She tried to tuck her dress in, but still managed to accidentally brush up against his leg. As the carriage swayed, she was thrown against his shoulder causing him to smile down at her as if she had planned to do so. She looked away blushing thinking of the audacity of the man! He most assuredly was used to ladies fawning all over him and falling at his feet. Matty had no idea why he singled her out except that he seemed to be constantly in Sir Richard’s company, and she was required to keep a foursome.
However, the loveliness of the Spring day soon had her relaxing as they strolled along. Her gloved hand was in his proffered arm until she spied some fish in the pond. “Oh, look,” she cried. “Are they koi, do you think?”
But suddenly a flock of geese took exception to her being there and surrounded her honking. She backed up until she found herself teetering, then with a loud splash she fell in. Matty came up sputtering with pond scum dripping from her bonnet. Sir Astor stood offering his hand, which was barely managed with him hooting with laughter. She swatted his hand away and crawled up the slippery bank on all fours before standing and glaring at him with muddy water dripping down her nose.
“Sir, you are no gentleman!”
“And you, miss, are the most glorious disaster I have ever beheld! Here, we need to get you home. Perhaps we will have a picnic another day,” he tried to say it with a straight face, but was unable to do so without a snicker.
Of course Judith was looking on with pure unadulterated horror crying, “Oh, Matty, just look at you!”
Indeed, she had created quite the spectacle that drew other spectators. Only Sir Richard was speechless looking around to see who of note might have seen such a horrendous disaster hoping it would not reflect upon him. He began edging away to put distance between Matty and himself.
“Don’t worry, Sir Richard, I believe the only ones to have seen me are mostly nannies and grooms holding their masters’ horses while they sneak the boldest of maidens into the trees to steal kisses,” she huffed while walking unassisted to where the footman held the carriage door open.
“Would your parents find it scandalous if we left you in the care of Sir Richard while I escort Miss Horn back to her home, Miss Gundor. I could return for you shortly,” Sir Astor asked her friend.
“I believe they would find it quite appropriate considering Miss Horn’s unfortunate circumstances. I gladly defer my reputation for her well-being,” she said while smiling sweetly at Sir Richard without once looking Matty’s way.
Once seated and leaving a growing puddle upon the floor, she refused to look at the detestable man and kept her gaze out the window. Actually, she had never been more humiliated in her life. Matty could only hope that her mother would not be home to see her disarray.
“Truly, Miss Horn, I do hope you are uninjured?”
Matty only sniffed, which she most urgently hoped was in disdain and not the beginning of tears. She would not, could not cry. At least the man would not be able to tell if she was shedding tears or if it was more dripping off her bonnet.
I am perfectly fine, as you can tell,” she said tartly. Matty still refused to look at him sure she would find disgust written upon his countenance. Indeed, he had seen her at her worst, her most incredible, terrible, horrible, unthinkable worst. She was sure that was the last she would ever see him, which gave her an unexplainable pang.
As soon as they stopped, Matty leaped out and ran ahead of Sir Astor as fast as her wet skirt allowed, not even knowing if he cared to follow her. Of course her mother was there to scream and faint upon seeing her. John was busy appropriating smelling salts while Matty escaped upstairs.
“Oh, miss! Whatever happened?”
When Matty burst into tears, her maid was all sympathy and tried to calm her. “There, there now. You will feel better soon. Just let me heat your bath.”
In the meanwhile, Matty added to the brown puddle upon her carpet with her salty tears. How very demeaning this day had been. Add to that the disappointment of the missed opportunity. It would have been her very first picnic with a gentleman. Those stupid, stupid geese ruined everything!
Once Betty helped her out of her wet clothes, she dared to ask, “Perhaps when you are more comported, you could tell me how your tragic circumstances came about.
While she soaked and Betty pulled pond weeds out of her hair, she told the sad tale., practicing for when she must be held account before her mother. “Out of nowhere, those wicked geese surround me, then attacked me before pushing me in. Then they seemed to be laughing at me as they flapped away satisfied at my absolute humiliation.”
“Oh you poor dear!” Betty said in earnest. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Her mother burst in with no thought of her modesty. “Young lady, how could you shame us so! Lord Astor attempted to explain the whole ordeal, but I sent him on his way to get back before you ruin Judith besides yourself. I am so ashamed of you!”
Indeed, her mother never even asked for her account nor her well-being. She could not imagine how Lord Astor had related it, most likely with all the humor he could possibly glean from it. Oh, what a horrid man!
Why could not he have intervened sooner before she made her big splash in front of society. She had lied to Sir Richard, for truly there were several of the ton enjoying her uncomely display she had noticed as she crawled out of the stupid pond. She would be the latest scandal for the scandalmongers. Her season was over. She might never be able to show her face again in the unforgiving London society. Oh, well. She only went because her parents forced her, didn’t she? She did prefer the country to London society, didn’t she? And most assuredly of all, she would never have a glimpse of Sir Astor again, would she?
But flowers arrived in the morning. Roses. She hoped they were his apology for enjoying her discomfort at her expense. But soon after, John was announcing company though it was not the hour for callers. She expected Judith perhaps, if she wasn’t too busy with her Sir Richard, that is. But no. She was almost shocked into fainting once again when Lord Astor appeared.
He was all concern. He came and knelt before her holding her gloveless hands in his own bare ones before asking, “Are you alright, dear? I hardly slept a wink worrying that perhaps you had swallowed some of that filthy pond water and were in agony of sickness.”
Matty was speechless as he seemed to be acting in all sincerity. Just then her mother entered and gasped, “Oh, my! Is this what I hope it means?”
Matty quickly responded, “If you mean that the gentlemen is asking after my welfare, then yes.” She noted the swiftness that Lord Astor stood to his feet with a redness creeping up from his cravat.
“You can be sure that I was upset after you daughter’s mishap yesterday, madam. I regret not being able to act quickly enough to prevent her fall. I blame myself for everything.”
Truly? She wondered. He was not laughing now. “I am right as rain, sir. I have felt worse after partaking of my father’s brandy as ordered once by the physician than drinking the pond water.” Then she grinned, “I can’t even imagine how scandalized Sir Richard must have felt.”
Lord Astor joined her in grinning. “Indeed. I thought he might faint, but Miss Gundor did an admirable job of keeping his feet under him and by fanning him furiously. They do seem quite taken with each other, have you noticed?”
“Most certainly. Judith would never do anything to embarrass the peacock.”
Her mother exclaimed, “Mathilda!”
Lord Astor only belted out an ungentlemanly laugh. “I can see that your spirits have not been dampened from the events of yesterday.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said instantly blushing. “I’m sure it was a season-stopper. The only time I dare to be seen will be in church where the gossips will at least be silenced by the parson’s prayers and sermon.”
“Do not underestimate yourself, Miss Horn. I came here hoping you would allow me to escort you to the Standiforth’s ball on Friday.”
“Friday? It is too soon. I couldn’t possibly!” she stammered.
But her mother inserted herself happily accepting for her. “She would be delighted. It most certainly is gracious of you, Lord Astor.”
“Expect me at eight. Until then, ladies, I bid you good morning,” he said gallantly bowing.”
Friday evening, her mother did not leave her room as Betty readied her for the ball telling Matty to do this and demanding she do that. “This is so exciting! From what I’ve heard, this will be the first ball Lord Astor has attending in years. It is quite an honor he has bestowed on you,” her mother tipped her chin up and stared her straight in the eye, “So don’t ruin it! No more catastrophes. This is your very last chance, Matilda.”
Matty did not need her mother’s reminder. No one knew better than she, that she did not deserve this chance with Lord Astor smoothing her way back into society.
That evening, he was all elegance. Sir Richard sitting across from them could not compare to this handsome man in his pristine white cravat beautifully knotted and his black top coat. Oh my, what a man. How had he put up with her insufferable behavior was beyond her. She was taken aback when he continued to hold her hand in his after helping her up into the coach and four.
“You look lovely, Miss Horn,” and the gleam in his eyes seemed to attest to his sincerity.
“Thank you kind, sir,” she replied blushing. What woman would not blush with compliments from such a man. Still, she was clueless to how he still endured her company.
“I hope you will allow me the first and the supper dance.”
“Of course, Lord Astor. We can also only hope there will be no fly in the soup tonight.”
The man let out a loud guffaw at that. “Oh, how you amuse me, Miss Horn, like none other.” Then he winked at her.
She looked over embarrassed once again at her tongue, but found Judith and Sir Richard rather occupied. If she didn’t know better, she would think he might have stolen a kiss. She should keep a better watch over her friend.
Once upon entering the ball, the host and hostess acted a little surprised to see her. She had, after all, received an invitation, but that had been before the pond mishap. Probably no one was expecting her appearance. Matty kept a tight grip on Lord Astor’s arm.
“Worried, are we? Do not fear. I will be happy to fill in any dances unclaimed this evening.”
She almost snorted. “Would that not keep the harpies tongues busy if we were so daring. But it would be totally unacceptable, and well you know it! I can sit with the wall flowers after the first dance and wait patiently for the supper dance, kind sir. I am fortunate to be here at all. It is more than I expected.”
“Well, I am afraid I must leave town after this evening, and I must confess, I will miss our outings.”
“Will you be back?” she asked with her stomach in knots.
“Perhaps, but not before the season is over. My estate has some issues I cannot ignore. Will you miss me?”
“Yes, yes of course,” she sighed as he took her out on the dance floor for the quadrille. Matty decided then and there that tonight would be the crowning jewel of her season, for indeed, tomorrow did not promise more. She could not deny it, she would miss him terribly. Her bland days would reappear and go on endlessly.
Even Judith would be otherwise occupied most of the time with Sir Richard who seemed most besotted. In fact, she would not be surprised if they announced their engagement tonight or another one soon after. Matty hoped it would be tonight as she would not be attending anymore balls after this.
Lord Astor was an excellent dance partner. He studied her face most seriously. “You seem deep in thought,” he finally said when the dance allowed them to meet up again.
“I am just wondering when Judith and Sir Richard will announce their engagement, hoping it will be tonight.”
He seemed to have a smug smile. “Would you care if your friend became so attached,” he asked kindly.
“No, of course not. They do seem rather fond of one another. I’m sure you have noticed as well. Better her than me,” she almost snorted.
He grinned and shared her amusement. “I would never pair you with him. You have far more spirit than Richard could ever handle.”
“Or any other,” she said under her breath, but he evidently heard. “He tightened his grip on her hand and said, “Don’t underestimate yourself, Miss Horn. Some men appreciate a challenge.”
Nevertheless, she could not meet his eyes again. After he escorted her to the side and brought her a glass of lemonade, one brave soul came forward to ask her to dance. She noticed Lord Astor was much in demand and had no lack of dance partners. Of course. He was the most eligible bachelor here. It was enough to make her wilt. She sat gazing after him as he danced the evening away until he came to claim the supper dance.
“At last, a befitting partner. I was beginning to despair of enjoying dancing ever again,” he dramatically sighed in jest.
It served its purpose drawing a smile out of her morose thoughts. “You are an excellent dancer, sir,” she replied, “as you well know and quite popular it seems.”
“Well, it seemed a bit of a waste of time to make me wait to dance with you again, society be blasted.” Just then something ran yapping around their feet with its leash trailing behind it. People were exclaiming and lifting their feet quite unceremoniously as ladies squealed. Their hostess was crying after her child who was running after the little spaniel pup and when he caught it, the frightened puppy puddled.
Lord Astor saw it too late. His eyes had been on the child, and missed seeing the wet floor in time to circumvent it. In a split second, his feet went out from under him and he fell pulling Miss Horn down upon him. Ladies screamed, men gasped, old dames sputtered, the child cried, but he stared into Miss Horn’s shocked eyes and began to laugh. Soon she joined him, much to the consternation of the ton.
When she finally had the sense to roll off him, he stood, a little wet for the wear and pulled her to her feet. They repaired to their carriage chuckling after sending a message to Sir Richard that it would return for him later. As soon as one would get control of their laughter, the other would assuredly break out again.
“Oh, dear. I am a very bad influence on you, Lord Astor,” she declared gasping for air. “You poor dear.”
“Please call me James for after tonight,our names will forever be entwined. So call me James, dear.”
“And you may call me Matty, just not in front of my mother, please,” she said looking shyly up at him. He was much closer than she had thought him to be a moment earlier. Why, was he…he couldn’t be about to kiss her could he? But he most certainly did and quite thoroughly at that. “Oh, my!” she hesitated. “I never imagined you could ever be interested in a clumsy one such as I.”
“Why ever not?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “Isn’t it of utmost importance to fall for the right one. You, my dear have been falling ever since we met, and I too have quite fallen myself tonight.” Then he proved it by kissing her again.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.”
I John 4:7