Two cousins, one living in the country and the other in London, begin writing letters to each other in 1817 in this title recommended by librarian Nancy Pearl on Morning Edition. Soon, their letters become more urgent as they face threats from evil wizards.
20 April 1817
11 Berkeley Square, London
It is the outside of enough for you to say I am bamming you just because London hasn't changed Aunt Charlotte a jot, nor Georgina, save to make her more of a watering pot than ever, and if I am to be accused by you, in addition to everyone else, of telling tales when I explain to you what happened to me at Sir Hilary's investiture, I shall go straight into a decline.
The past several days were spent putting the final touches on Georgy's and my gowns, assembling gloves, fans, bonnets, slippers, and stockings in such quantities that it sometimes seemed to me we were preparing for a voyage to the Indies instead of for the Season.
Once we were equipped to Aunt Charlotte's satisfaction, we were presented to Society for the first time at Lady Jersey's Venetian breakfast. (For Lady Jersey is indeed an acquaintance of Aunt Charlotte's, and appears willing to oblige us with any number of vouchers and introductions.) This involved rising early and waiting fully prepared for two hours while Aunt Charlotte made certain that the carriage was properly clean so that we could not possibly soil our gowns en route. We were then tucked inside and conveyed to Lady Jersey's breakfast as though we were made of bone china. Descending from the carriage, I snagged my stocking on the buckle of my slipper, but Georgy arrived intact. Her introduction to the assembled guests could not possibly have been more satisfactory. With perfect serenity she triumphed over the entire guest list. Not only was she the loveliest girl there by far, she displayed a very becoming reserve. Not even the attentions of the elderly Duke of Hexham troubled her. She sailed through it all calmly while the mamas of her rivals glared at her perfection.
If the Venetian breakfast was the opening shot of a war, the next few days featured a perfect volley of entertainments. Routs, drums, suppers, luncheons — we received invitations to them all.
Oliver arrived on Friday. At first he seemed as glad to see Georgina as she to see him, but he was very quickly dismayed by her steady stream of admirers and annoyed by their demands on her time. (Yes, Cecy, we have callers here in Berkeley Square. Indeed, Aunt Charlotte says the knocker, which is never still, gives her the headache.) Among the new acquaintances we have made are the Grenvilles: Alice, George, and Andrew. George and Andrew are twins, though not the sort of twins who dress alike or finish each other's sentences. They are both impressed with Georgy's beauty, although I think it puts them off a little when she pretends she cannot tell them apart. Alice is their younger sister. She shares what the twins call the Grenville coloring, chestnut hair and fair skin that tends to freckle, with her twin brothers. Alice is very delicate in appearance but very brisk and lively in spirit and orders the twins about mercilessly. Her father, Lord Grenville, will give a great ball later in the Season, and Alice has already asked us to attend. Michael Aubrey, who is some sort of relation of the Grenvilles and a constant companion of the twins, has already tried to get Georgy to agree to give him a dance. Georgy knew just how to deny him without discouraging him. It's the sort of thing she's been getting a great deal of practice in lately.
You and I expected this, but I think it came as a bit of a surprise to Oliver. At first he was delighted to meet our new friends, but by Saturday morning, Oliver said he was already tired of London and longing to be back in Essex. No entertainment we suggested pleased him. What he wanted was to be alone with Georgy. Barring that, he wanted to be where he did not have to make polite conversation with any of Georgy's admirers. Thus, I was able to persuade him to desert Georgy's outing to see the bears at the Tower and walk me to the hall to see Sir Hilary's investiture. As usual, Oliver was a rather taxing companion. He complained the whole way that the drizzle took the curl from his hair, and said he thought the Royal College of Wizards ought to at least arrange to have pleasant weather for their investitures.
Once inside, we encountered a great press of people, almost all of them dressed in their best and many in the lordly robes of the college. I have never seen such embroidery in my life, nor ever heard of the brocades, silks, and cloths of gold and silver that were there.
The investiture itself is a brief and simple ceremony, a matter of presenting the honored newcomers to the college with a blue sash, a silver medallion, and a daub of scented oil between the eyebrows. That, repeated twelve times in rapid succession, would hardly provide entertainment enough for an entire afternoon, so the college expanded the ceremony with a choir of boys from the abbey school and a detachment of Royal Guardsmen to arch their sabers over the wizards as they approached the dais for investiture.
I think the ceremony was all that could be wished. Even Oliver was not bored. He pushed ahead, squeezing forward to see better, but because I am so short, it did me no good to try. Instead, I skirted the back of the crowd and walked along the north aisle, gazing about me at the hall. There are many banners, very threadbare and tattered, and many stone slabs underfoot, well worn by centuries of steps, all worked with symbols and signs to identify the wizards who placed them there. I walked along happily, admiring the splendid clothes of the onlookers and the general air of faded elegance and chilly, damp, historical glory, until I encountered a little door in the north hall, only latched, not locked, its pointed arch scarcely higher than my head.
I only meant to glance in to satisfy my curiosity, but beyond the door I found a cloistered garden, planted with daffodils and hyacinths, as tranquil and remote as if it were in Essex or some more distant place. I couldn't resist stepping through the door. It swung shut behind me and as I took a few steps forward, I saw I was not alone. In the center of the garden was a tea table and two chairs. In one chair sat a little woman with hair so white it was almost blue in the sunlight — which was odd, for the day outside was a gray and drizzly one (at least, it had been as we walked to the hall). I took the vacant chair at the little woman's gracious gesture. The instant I sat, my legs and feet went first pins and needles, then quite numb. The little woman watched me very hard and when she saw my puzzlement she beamed with pleasure. At first I thought she was old, because of her hair, but when I looked closely I saw she had only powdered her hair white, as was the custom in our grandparents' day. Her skin was smooth and carefully painted, her eyes were dark and very hard. She smiled kindly at me and asked if I would take chocolate with her.
You and I often played at dolls' tea party together, Cecy. I will never again remember such games with pleasure. The very thought chills me, for now I know how the dolls felt when we poured out tea for them. For the life of me all I could do was nod and smile inanely and hold out my cup. She took this for acceptance, and poured me a cup of chocolate from the most beautiful chocolate pot I have ever seen. It was blue porcelain, a blue that made me think of the sky in September, or the lake at Rushton, or Georgina's eyes. I could scarcely look away from it.
"I was sure you couldn't resist one last attempt to recover it," she said. "Sir Hilary mocked me, but I knew you could not stay away. So I set a trap, as you see, and you have fallen in. But I suppose you deserve credit for confounding my expectations so completely. You've always seemed so exceptionally masculine to me, Thomas, it never occurred to me to think what kind of woman you would make. Really, who would expect you to disguise yourself as your utter opposite?"
Understandably, I found her words as puzzling as they were insulting, but it was difficult to spare enough attention from the chocolate pot to be properly vexed with her.
"Do drink your chocolate, Thomas," she went on, a chill amusement behind her gentle words. "It won't hurt you a bit—and think how appropriate it will be for you to go this way. Almost by your own hand."
I was very confused and very frightened. With all my heart I wanted to get up and run away. But all I could do was say, "That is a very singular chocolate pot."
"You have the most sardonic sense of humor, Thomas," she said, "really, almost morbid. It's a fake, of course. I thought you'd realize it at once. Hilary couldn't deny me my chance at a trap for you, but he wouldn't risk using real bait. No, you've ventured your last stake, my darling Marquis, and all for a cheap copy of your own magic. I find that most amusing, don't you?"
"Not really," I said, and spilt my chocolate on her.
She dropped the chocolate pot, which instantly became the drabbest earthenware bowl imaginable, and overset her chair as she leapt to her feet, slapping at the dark stain on her dress, which rapidly spread to her hands. It seemed to burn her, for she kept jumping and slapping. The pins and needles vanished. I swept my skirts up and found I was able to get to my feet and run, stumbling and gasping, for the little door. It was latched but not locked, thank goodness, and I slammed it to behind me, then leaned against it to catch my breath. And realized every onlooker in the hall was staring, for I had slammed the door at the very height of the smallest choirboy's solo.
I don't need to tell you the rest, do I? How Oliver collected me, as red as a lobster with his shame at owning my acquaintance. How Aunt Charlotte scolded me for a liar when I tried to explain, forbade me to use the spinet, and set me to learn an entire chapter of the prayer book by heart as a punishment, or how Georgina shook her head as I tried to convince her by showing her the tiny spot on the hem of my gown where the chocolate splashed and ate clear through the fabric, leaving only a little hole edged with black.
So, my dearest Cecelia, I depend on you to understand that if I meant to lie, or even jest, I could do a much better job than this (remember the goat, after all!). Never, never have I wished so to have you here with me, and it seems sheer cruelty of fate to decree that your Season is to be next year, when I am making such a mull of it alone. Oh, Cecy, yes my bed has lion's feet, and yes — all my gowns are blue muslin, and if you were only here, surely you would manage some way to coax Aunt Charlotte into mercy, or at least help me drill the prayer book so I might get my punishment over more quickly.
Your miserable cousin,
25 April 1817
Rushton Manor, Essex
Sir Hilary's investiture seems to have been a true adventure. I do wish I'd been there (though I quite see that it must have been excessively alarming while it was happening). I am appalled by Aunt Charlotte's reaction, but it is just like her to disbelieve you, when anyone with an ounce of sensibility would realize how foolish it would be to make up such a tale. And you have never been foolish, Kate. Aunt Charlotte should know better. After all, she was at Rushton when Oliver's dog bit that horrid Hollydean boy, and you did not cry or faint like Georgy, but called Canniba to heel and then made Frederick hold still while you bandaged his hand. I am also reminded of the way you kept your head and came up with perfectly splendid explanations of where we had been whenever Aunt Elizabeth got wind of one of our expeditions and began asking awkward questions. (On second thought, perhaps it is better not to mention that to Aunt Charlotte.) It should have been quite obvious that you had sustained a severe shock, for otherwise I am sure you would have come up with something else to tell Aunt Charlotte, and so avoided memorizing prayers.
I have read most carefully the account of Sir Hilary's investiture in the London papers (which arrived here several days late, as usual), but I could not find anyone named Thomas among the list of guests. I thought he must have been there, for it is obvious that Thomas is a magician (else how could the white-haired lady in the garden have mistaken you for him? Unless, of course, she is impossibly nearsighted, but I am sure you would have noticed that). It seems, however, that Thomas did not go to Sir Hilary's investiture, which I think shows a great deal of good sense, given what happened to you.
I mention this because it seems to me that if the white-haired lady is indeed trying to make away with someone named Thomas, it would be only right to warn him. And it does appear that this is exactly what she was attempting to do. (For, of course, even the strongest and hottest chocolate does not makes holes in one's gown. Stains, certainly; I am still trying to get the brown splotches out of my second-best gloves.) I do so wish I were there to help, for Aunt Charlotte and Georgina are bound to be a great handicap. However, I have the greatest faith in you.
I am much reassured by your news of Oliver. He appears to be as caper-witted as ever, but at least he is not infatuated with Dorothea anymore. It does seem rather odd, however, for though Oliver is nearly as much of a peagoose as Georgy, he has never been fickle. I think I shall discuss it with Dorothea the next time I see her (I shall be most discreet, I promise you!). In the meantime, do try to keep Oliver in London, just in case. For I must tell you, nearly every eligible (and ineligible!) bachelor for miles around has been at Dorothea's feet ever since the night of the ball. Every time I visit her, I trip over Robert Penwood, or Jack Everslee, or Martin De Lacey.
The only man who does not appear to be completely smitten is James Tarleton, and even he shows occasional signs of being as besotted as the rest. The other day, Dorothea and I went riding in the fields by Tarleton Hall. I had a good gallop on the way over, which was fortunate, for Dorothea prefers to keep to a far slower pace when she rides. We had just turned to go back when I thought I saw a flash of white among the trees that line the avenue, and I caught a brief glimpse of someone on a black horse.
"Who is that?" I said.
"Where?" Dorothea said, turning her head. "I don't see anyone."
"I thought I saw someone on the avenue," I said. Whoever it was had disappeared — ridden on, perhaps, or hidden. "But I must have been wrong," I added, when I saw that Dorothea looked a little distressed.
I thought no more of the incident until we returned to Tarleton Hall. Dorothea thought her mare had strained one of her forelegs (how a horse could strain a muscle when it has not been ridden above a walk, and for less than an hour, is beyond me). We stayed by the stables after we dismounted, so Dorothea could explain the difficulty to the grooms and be properly reassured. As we crossed to Tarleton Hall, James Tarleton came riding in on a magnificent black gelding — far better even than Oliver's Thunder. When he saw us, he pulled up short, frowning, and greeted us with the barest modicum of civility.
"That is a truly splendid horse, Mr. Tarleton," I said, for Aunt Elizabeth is forever reminding me that one is not allowed to be uncivil simply because someone else has been so.
"Thank you," he said curtly. Then, apparently feeling that this was too abrupt, he added, "I hope you found the South Meadow pleasant."
Dorothea murmured something that was almost completely inaudible, so I said that it had indeed been a pleasant ride, and we went on into the house. It did not occur to me until later to wonder how he knew where we had been riding. I supposed it might have been a lucky guess, but it seems to me just as likely that he had been the rider I had seen in the avenue. As there is nothing I can think of that would have drawn him in that direction on an errand, I thought he must have been following us to watch Dorothea. (It is not unprecedented; Martin De Lacey did as much last Tuesday, in order to meet us "by accident" and so have a chance to see Dorothea.) I suggested as much to Dorothea, but she shook her head at once.
"James would never do such a thing," she said quite positively. "He does not like me, you see."
"You must be wrong," I said, taken aback.
"Oh, no, I am quite sure of it," she replied in a soft voice. "He avoids me most of the time, and when he cannot, he ignores me. I do not even know what I have done to give him a dislike of me."
I would have responded indignantly, but I could see that the subject was distressing for Dorothea, so I did not continue it. James Tarleton seems to me to be treating his cousin quite shamefully. And if he was watching us from the avenue, then his behavior is worse than she supposes. I do not see, however, that there is anything I can do about it for the moment, especially as I am not at all certain that Dorothea has read the situation aright.
Apart from a little riding, and a few morning calls on Dorothea, nothing else has happened that is at all noteworthy. There are a few amusements planned for the immediate future — Patience Everslee has proposed a picnic by the lake (I am quite sure her brother Jack talked her into it as an excuse to see Dorothea, for you know how Patience hates the water). Not to be outdone, Robert Penwood has arranged an outing to see the maze at Bedrick Hall. I find that I am to be included in both parties, as Dorothea and I have become such excellent friends, so perhaps I shall have more to say that is interesting (or at least amusing — Robert and Jack are making such cakes of themselves!) in my next letter. Give my love to Aunt Charlotte and Georgina, and tell Oliver that Papa and I are both well. And do try to talk Aunt Charlotte into buying you at least one gown in a decent color!
30 April 1817
11 Berkeley Square, London
Your optimism is justified. What a wonderful time we shall have next Season when you can be here to manage things firsthand!
Be sure I shall tell you every detail, but I mean to set it all down in an orderly fashion, for I have learned something of great importance.
Tonight we went to Almack's Assembly. I dreaded it, you know I did, and at first it was just as bad as I feared. We were introduced mercilessly for the first twenty minutes and then Georgy vanished into a swarm of young men. After a while a young man detached himself from the swarm and asked me to make up part of a set for a country dance. He had beautiful manners, save for the way his head kept swiveling on his neck in an effort to keep Georgy in view. When the set had ended he made a beeline back to her and claimed the next dance, plainly his reward for the sacrifice of dancing with me.
You know me well enough to know what I did then — retire to the sidelines with a stiff back and an "I don't care a jot" expression concealing the fact I felt a complete antidote. Just as I found a good spot to fade into the other wallflowers, I found myself intercepted by Lady Jersey, who began with a great deal of fudge about her respect for Aunt Charlotte and ended by introducing me to the man at her side.
Cecy, I promised you, if I could faint, I'd have fainted then. The man, very dark, not too young, not too tall, with a sardonic expression of pained civility was the Marquis of Schofield. And Sally Jersey thought it would be perfectly plausible for me to dance with him. And the next dance a waltz! I stammered something completely idiotic. He took my hand and said, at least, I think he said, "Yes, I know," and we waltzed.
Cecy, if this is what a London Season can be like, I don't wonder people like Sally Jersey enjoy themselves year in and year out. It's better than a play. Of course you know how well I waltz. For the first few bars I was utterly certain I would cannon into someone and fall down, or step on him, or trip over my hem, so I staggered after his lead, rigid with discomfort. But he danced very simply, with none of the panache of the other couples, and I was able to follow him well enough to relax a little. (Do you ever wonder if driving a team is like dancing? Being where you're wanted when you're wanted, with no words, just hints? I never thought of it from the horse's point of view, but perhaps it is, and perhaps that is why good dancers and good drivers are both rare and highly thought of.)
When he was able to believe I would not topple over or froth at the mouth, the Marquis spoke, softly enough that I could only just hear him over the music.
"I owe you my thanks," he said. I must have looked completely mystified, for he smiled and said, as though reminding me of a joke we'd shared, "I'm Thomas."
We danced in silence for a complete circuit of the room while I digested this. Then, when he judged I was ready for more, he said, "You sprang a trap intended for me and I'm grateful. Miranda can be very obtuse sometimes, but I trust that seeing us together will disabuse her of the notion that you are me in disguise."
I promise you, by this time, my head was spinning.
"I do have methods of going unnoticed," he continued, "but I have never assumed a lady's identity. Miranda's imagination can sometimes reach more lurid heights than even Mr. Lewis and his Monk."
I finally found my voice, but not, unfortunately, much to say. "She doesn't like you."
"I don't like her, either," he replied. "And she won't like you after this dance convinces her you know me. So don't go into any gardens by yourself, will you? In fact, stay in well-lit ballrooms as much as possible."
"That's all the explanation I get?" I demanded. "Who is Miranda? Why does she wish to poison you with chocolate?"
"That's all the explanation you get," he replied. "For the rest, forget it. It's no concern of yours. Just mind your own affairs. Practice your dancing. With enough study you might attain a degree of proficiency."
"What a rude thing to say!" I replied. "I would practice, but practice requires a partner."
He smiled with such a degree of cynicism I almost expected his teeth to glint metallic. "You won't lack for partners now. I've made Sally Jersey give me a waltz with you. Everyone will be agog to find out why."
"Don't you want to know what I'm going to tell them?" I asked.
"Oh, they won't ask, don't think it. No, they'll dance with you and then say I am justly called mysterious," he said.
"You are odious."
"Quite so, but admit you've never danced better than these last few moments when you were too angry to think about it."
The music ended and he had returned me to Aunt Charlotte before I could think of a suitable answer. For, of course, he was right. Infuriating. I did not sit out a single dance. In fact, I danced until I got a stitch in my side. Aunt Charlotte told me my face was red, but I didn't care. I had a wonderful time, and if I could only have thought of something truly cutting to say to the Mysterious Marquis, my evening would have been quite perfect.
Now, tell me, I beg you, all about the picnic at the lake and Robert's pranks in the maze. (For you can never convince me he could resist such a perfect chance to get Dorothea as much to himself as propriety permits.) My love to you all.
Your footsore cousin,
P.S. Before you ask, no, no sign of the white-haired lady (who must be the Miranda Thomas mentioned). Perhaps she disguised herself as someone else?
From Sorcery and Cecilia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer; copyright © 2003 by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc.