Authors: Lady Arden's Redemption
If, by the third week of the Season of 1811, the Honorable Amelia Westwood had won the title of Incomparable, then it was generally agreed that the Lady Arden Huntly should be called the Insufferable.
There were a few, of course, who would have awarded Lady Arden both titles, but she was too tall and thin to be considered fashionable and her nose a bit too prominent to qualify her for beauty. “Perhaps its length is the reason she seems arrogant,” said one innocent and charitable young lady, until she overheard one of Lady Arden’s by now infamous setdowns.
It was not that Lady Arden was unfriendly. She smiled politely at her hostesses and chatted briefly with the other young ladies. But there was no real warmth in her smiles and she never shared a confidence with anyone but her cousin Celia, who was her only friend.
It was her response to dance partners and possible suitors that earned Lady Arden the sobriquet. After all, it was not to be expected that one would become bosom bows with one’s rivals. And cattish comments made about other young women were not uncommon. A joke or two about the spotty youth who had stepped all over one’s slippers was no cause for censure.
But Lady Arden had a dubious talent for the sarcastic and witty phrase, and was able to paint a verbal caricature which created in her listeners’ minds as vivid a picture as any of the cartoons hanging in the print-shop windows.
Her first sallies had seemed rather amusing, but when she skewered Lord Heronwood after her first dance with him, calling him “well-named” and conjuring up a picture of an elongated, stilt-legged marsh bird, people began to whisper. After all, Lord Heronwood (who, it must be admitted, was a foot taller than most men and had a long nose and rather weak chin) was not only one of the wealthiest men in London, but also one of the most popular.
When she continued as she had begun, undeterred by Celia’s remonstrances or the increasingly censorious looks from matrons and sponsors, she earned her title. “And, having received it,” commented the sister of one victim, “seems to be trying to live up to it. Look at her: even her bearing is beyond anything arrogant.” And indeed, with her thick black hair always dressed in a coronet of braids and her aforementioned nose, she was the picture of disdain. It was impossible for anyone to understand how she and her cousin, the sweetest-tempered young lady, could be so close.
In fact, Arden and Celia had grown up together. When Lady Arden’s mother had died from typhus, after a brief period of mourning, her father, the Earl of Stalbridge, had left his estate in the capable hands of his bailiff and his daughter in what he thought were the equally capable hands of his sister-in-law. He had joined the Peninsular army and returned home for brief visits, inquiring after his estate and his daughter, and awkwardly trying to express his concern and affection.
* * * *
As she grew into young womanhood, Arden more and more resembled her father, who was tall and whose nose was decidedly hooked. One of the first examples of her ability to sum up a person was with her father. Of course she kept it to herself, but on his second visit home, she stood in front of him in the library as he grilled her about her activities, which was the only way he knew of expressing affectionate interest. It suddenly struck her that he resembled a raven. He had gotten quite brown in Spain and Portugal, and with his shock of black hair and the sensation that he was hovering over her, Lord Ravenhurst, she thought, would have seemed a much more appropriate title than his own.
That second visit, from which she had hoped so much: that he would reassure her that she was indeed still loved, that she was growing up into the daughter he and her mother would have wanted, that she would get to know him better, that he would give in to her request that she return with him, was a terrible disappointment. To her “But other women have followed the drum, Father,” he only replied, “Other women, yes. And a few wives. And fewer daughters. Most certainly, no daughter of mine,” he replied abruptly and with no sign of how touched he had been by her request. If only Anne were alive, he’d thought for the hundredth time, how proud she would have been of the girl.
* * * *
From fourteen on, however, it was unlikely that Lady Stalbridge would have been pleased with her daughter. The late countess had been open and at ease with people and very able to show her affection: everything her husband and daughter were not. She had had great strength of character and had been able to give Arden both the love and discipline she needed. Her mother had early on seen the potential for a natural reserve to become coldness and a fine intelligence turn into arrogance. Arden needed warmth, but she also needed guidance.
Unfortunately, the countess’s sister, Mrs. Ellen Denbeigh, had all the required affection for her niece, but was incapable of offering correction. Mrs. Denbeigh was small, plump and fluttery. Like a mother hen, thought Arden on one of her less original days. Her wings were open to both girls and she treated them equally. That was precisely the problem. Celia was easygoing, open and even-tempered. She needed no stronger hand than her mother’s. Arden was headstrong, proud and becoming more conscious of her rank and wealth. She was one of those who can criticize without recognizing her power to wound, yet could not withstand criticism herself. Her sensitivity was well-hidden, under her regal facade; she let no one in, so no one could hurt her. (She let Celia in, but Celia, she knew, would never hurt her.) When she began making her judgments aloud, it never occurred to her that the objects of her witticisms had feelings to be hurt. She had so effectively barricaded herself from her own vulnerabilities that she didn’t believe in those of others.
Her aunt, when she did try to limit Arden, always backed down from her niece’s cool stare. In those moments, she herself felt like a domestic fowl being watched by a raptor. She suspected, quite rightly, that she amused her niece by her attempts at discipline, and often ended her day kneeling by her bed, praying for guidance from her dead sister. She would have been the first to admit she couldn’t handle her charge.
The years went by and Arden grew into a very original-looking young woman. She and Celia remained close, their only source of irritation with one another Celia’s tendency to chide Arden for her sarcasm, and Arden’s inability to understand how intimidating she was to all but her cousin. Celia loved Arden’s quick intelligence, her sense of humor when it was at its mildest, but knew that her cousin’s inability to laugh at herself and her propensity to laugh at others would eventually lead her into trouble. She tried to address the problem with her uncle on one of his visits, but he being much like Arden, could not understand what she was describing. His own tendencies toward arrogance had been tempered by a wise mother, an understanding and strong wife and his experiences in the army. And so, all he saw on his infrequent visits home was a well-behaved young lady. If she was more reserved than her cousin, that was all to the good, for his own reserve had earned him nothing but respect.
When a lull in Wellington’s campaign had luckily coincided with his daughter’s come-out Season, the earl was able to obtain leave to England. The ladies were well into their busy schedule of visits, shopping and evenings out by the time he reached London. And unbeknownst to him, Arden had already earned her title.
On his second morning home, Mrs. Denbeigh was ready to approach her brother-in-law. She had decided, for Arden’s sake, that it was necessary to involve her father now that he would be home for a while. She was well aware of her niece’s growing unpopularity and felt she had failed Arden, despite her loving efforts. Celia had attracted a few eligible gentlemen, despite her lack of fortune, and Arden none, despite her substantial inheritance. Every time a man approached her more than once, she found something to criticize. This one was too dull, that one too plump, another too short and another…and then would come one of her acid but accurate summaries. Her aunt saw no hope of a match the way things were now unless her father got her to control her tongue.
* * * *
“Ellen. Do come in,” said the earl, when Mrs. Denbeigh knocked softly on the library door. “I do not disturb you, James?”
“No, no. I am just trying to reacquaint myself with the estate accounts, but after so long, I may as well leave it to Evans after all.”
Mrs. Denbeigh sat on the edge of the sofa, facing her brother-in-law. The earl looked at her fondly, for she reminded him of his late wife. She was a pastel version of the late countess, lacking the vivid personality of her sister, so the resemblance was not distressing but somehow comforting.
“You have done a wonderful job, Ellen. Both girls look splendid, and I imagine they are both unable to move, due to suitors falling at their feet.”
“Celia has achieved some small success, James,” she replied quietly. “But Arden…”
“Outshining all the others, eh? Well, I am not surprised. She has grown into a very attractive young woman.”
“Not precisely, James.”
“Oh, I know she is not your usual peaches-and-cream miss.”
“That is not what I was trying to say. She is not…oh, dear, this is so difficult. She has become very unpopular, James, and I fear it is all my fault.” Ellen lifted her eyes to her brother-in-law’s. “She is, I fear, a proud and standoffish young lady.”
“Arden? Nonsense. A bit reserved, yes. But she always was more like me than her mother.”
“Yes, she is more like you than Anne, I agree, but where you are reserved, she is arrogant.” (Privately, Mrs. Denbeigh felt that the earl himself was a bit arrogant, but she was not about to enter a discussion about both father and daughter. Lady Arden’s shortcomings were enough for one morning.)
“Do you mean she is ignoring the other young ladies? That she slights those of lower rank? I would not believe it of her. And I know that you have taught her differently.”
“You are right. She is not a snob in the usual sense of the word,” Ellen replied slowly.
“Then out with it, woman. What is going on?”
“Your daughter, James, is now commonly referred to as Arden the Insufferable.”
The earl took off his reading spectacles and truly looked at his sister-in-law.
“Would you care to explain?” The earl’s tone had sent a shiver down many a young officer’s spine, but Ellen, having got the worst out, was now beyond fear.
“On the surface, Arden is friendly with all the other young women, although she shows no real warmth with any but Celia. And with some young men she has struck up an acquaintance. Indeed, she has become quite familiar with a few officers on leave.”
“Oh, not that way, James. Perhaps familiar is the wrong word. She has become a sort of crony. Perhaps she is more comfortable because she can talk about campaign strategy with them. She has always read your letters carefully, you know, and followed all she could in the newspapers.”
“Yes, and asked some damned good questions of her own. But spending time with a few young officers, while a bit on the fast side, would not make her that unpopular.”
“No, but when she uses these officers as her audience and makes cruel comments about other men…”
“Cruel? I admit both Arden and I are reserved and perhaps seem arrogant to those who don’t know us well, but I have never seen any evidence of cruelty in the girl.”
“I would have agreed with you. And yet it is cruel to create a mocking word picture of a person, so that no one can see him without remembering Arden’s caricature. I have to say that even I have a problem seeing Lord Heronwood as he is, rather than…”
The earl could not help it. He smiled.
“Oh, you may well laugh, James,” said Ellen bitterly. “Young Heronwood may be aptly named, but he is also well-loved and deservedly so. He is sweet-tempered and generous and very sensitive about his height and lack of chin. Though he is not so chinless as his father,” mused Ellen, a bit distracted by her mental comparison. “Arden’s comments obviously caused him some distress.”
The earl smiled again at Ellen’s mention of the late Lord Heronwood, but his face immediately looked stern, as he realized just what his daughter was doing to herself.
“Has she done this with others?”
“Oh, yes. She has a most awful talent, James, for coming up with a word or phrase which perfectly describes a man. At first it was amusing, and she only used the least popular members of the
as her targets. But she kept on, and people began to see that she really had no care whose feelings she wounded.”
“And so her Season is ruined?”
“I hate to say so, but I cannot imagine her receiving any offers now,” admitted Ellen. “It is all my fault. I have always treated both girls alike. I have loved both equally, but now I see that Arden needed something more than Celia. Anne would have known how to handle her,” said Ellen with tears in her eyes.