The days blurred. Mama came and talked about clothes, and a date for Sally's Court presentation and her ball. Sally had been imagining her ball for years. She would dance first with Papa and then with David. But David was gone, and it was Papa's fault.
She started to weep again, her tears staining the fine silk samples her mother had brought.
A week passed, and they fetched a doctor, who said she was hysterical, and suggested a treatment in whispers to Papa. Papa got white around the lips, and the tips of his ears pinked, and he had the man escorted from the house.
After that, Mama insisted Sally come out of her room. The new maid dressed her several times a day. A day gown to go to breakfast and listlessly follow Mama as she met with the household staff and kept up her correspondence. An ensemble to walk in the park, or ride in the carriage, attempting to smile at friends and acquaintances. An evening gown for dinner, where she shifted her food around her plate in an attempt to disguise the fact she was not eating.
Mama did not insist on taking her into company. Perhaps she feared that Sally would subside into weeping if anyone mentioned David. Certainly she cried when Mama and Aunt Bella explained to her that he was too young to know what he was doing, and that he only decided to marry Sally because the grownups gainsaid him.
She waited for a letter, but no letter arrived. Were the mothers right? Sally could not forget that David had said himself that he did not wish to marry. No. Not David. Toad. He has left, and he does not love me as I love him. I will never call him David again. Toad.
Sally was out of patience with her own tears, but did not seem to be able to control them.
Then, at last, the Duchess of Winshire came, chased everyone out of the room, and folded Sally in her silken embrace.
"Tell Grandmama about it, Sarah." Her soothing voice opened the floodgates.
"He has gone, Grandmama. Toad has gone." The last word was a wail.
"To school in Paris, my dear. Is that such a cause for grief? He has been away to school before, and will return."
Sally pulled back to see the duchess's face. Did she not know? "Papa says he will not be allowed near me again. So does Uncle Wellbridge."
Grandmama coaxed the whole story from Sally, more even than Mama or Papa knew. Sally blushed to admit she had hoped to bind Toad to her, but somehow she told her grandmother nearly everything. Not exactly what Toad had done. Not that. But everything else.
The telling seemed to exhaust the tears. At the end, she waited patiently for Grandmama's verdict, her heart calm for the first time since that night.
"Hmm," Grandmama said. "It is not to be denied, dear Sally, that you have been very foolish. Young Abersham, too. As have all in this sorry situation, even your Mama and Aunt Bella; my son and Wellbridge perhaps most of all. Now, what to do?"
"Will you help us, Grandmama? Will you help us to marry?"
Grandmama patted her hand. "One day, my dear, when you and Abersham have both matured a bit, if you still want it. Not yet. You both have some growing up to do. But one day."
Sally shook her head. "But I told you. Papa says he will choose a husband for me. I would rather die, Grandmama."
Grandmama gave her a hug. "Do not worry, child. I will talk to Haverford about this ridiculous notion of marrying you against your will. And you barely out of the schoolroom. No. There shall be no forced marriage. Now. Wash your face, my dear, while I go and talk to your mother."
Several years ago, Papa had installed a heating system, such as those used in factories where cold fingers might lead to mistakes that damaged the work. A series of brick stoves in the basement heated air that passed up through ducts into the rooms above. Sally had quickly realised that the duct feeding hot air into her sitting room ran past her mother's private parlour on the floor below. If she lay on the floor next to the opening with the damper fully open, she could hear all that was said.
"I hope Mother Winshire can talk some sense into the child." That was Aunt Bella.
"Heaven knows she will not listen to me or Anthony." Mama, heaving a sigh.
"Ah. Bella. I am glad to find you with Cherry." Grandmama had arrived. "I can say this once, and to both of you." Last time Sally had heard that tone, she and Toad had just broken a vase in the drawing room at Wind's Gate, after stealing Uncle Sutton's fencing foils for a practice match while they thought the adults otherwise occupied.
"I am deeply disappointed in you both. My granddaughter is upstairs fading away because she misses her dear friend, and that sweet boy of yours is in Paris, undoubtedly throwing himself into every dissipation the city can offer because he misses her."
Sally's brow creased as she thought about that. She had been trying not to think of what Toad might be doing with other women. Because he missed her? That reason had not occurred to her.
The senior duchess continued. "I blame the two of you very much for allowing things to come to this pass. No, Bella, you will have your opportunity to speak, but you shall not interrupt. That the two fathers behaved like idiots goes without saying. Men can be fools when they are upset. But really, Cherry? Bella? Split them entirely? Refuse them any contact or any hope? Do you want them to imagine themselves star-crossed lovers, united against a cruel world? For undoubtedly, that is what you have achieved."
Sally, her ear against the vent, could not easily nod, but Grandmama was right. She and Toad were alone and without allies. She heaved a sigh. It was so very sad.
"And as for this threat from my son to choose a husband for Sally, it is intolerable. You should have put a stop to it, Cherry, and since you have not, I will. To hand Sally off to another man when her heart is fixed on Abersham? Ridiculous."
Cherry's voice was more uncertain than Sally had heard it. "I have told Anthony so, Mother. He is concerned that Sally will behave with another man as she did—"
"I trust you told him he should be ashamed of himself. Thinking such things of his own daughter. She loves Abersham, of course, or she would never have invited such liberties as he would take."
"He should not have taken any liberties," Aunt Bella insisted. "I am ashamed of him."
"He loves her. Loves her enough, I gather, to leave her a maid. Would you tell me Wellbridge took no liberties with you, Bella? Or Haverford with you, Cherry?"
"They are barely more than children, Eleanor," Aunt Bella protested. "It is not the same thing."
"I was fifteen when I fell in love with Winshire," Grandmama said, her voice going soft with memory, "and seventeen—just Sally's age—when my father and his conspired to exile him overseas and marry me to Haverford's father." Her tone sharpened. "I shall not see my granddaughter suffer as I did."
"Should we have let them marry, then, as they demanded?" Mama protested. "Mother, they are not—
"No, no. I agree they are not ready to wed. Either of them. But to leave them without hope? That is not acceptable, my dears. Let them lead their separate lives for a while: Abersham at his studies, Sally in Society making her debut. Let them learn a little, grow a little. And if they are still of the same mind in a few years? If their feelings have not changed? Well. It is the match you always wanted, you cannot deny it."
A few years. Sally would have fought that two weeks ago, but now it felt like a gift.
"Where is my son? I have a scold for him, too."
"He is in his study with Wellbridge," Mama said.
"Excellent. Come, ladies, we shall present a united front, bring these stubborn men into line, and then discuss what is best to be done."
The room below fell silent as its occupants left, and Sally sat up from her uncomfortable position by the wainscoting. Hope. She could feel it taking root, spreading peace. She would not change, she was certain. She could not be so sure of Toad. David.
But if she were just allowed the right to refuse her suitors, there was hope.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...