When I got down to the dining-room, I discovered that guests were already arriving, and there were a number of strange women scattered about with tea and toast.
"Oh, Lord Foxbridge, how smart you look!" Lady Levondale exclaimed, partly to pay a compliment and partly to alert the new people to my identity. Out of the entire party, she and the Duchess were the only ones who hadn't taken to calling me Foxy, "Breakfast is a little light this morning, since we'll be eating again in an hour or so."
"A jug of coffee, some toasted bread, and thou," I paraphrased facetiously, going into a sweeping bow to kiss her hand, "O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
"Frivolous boy," Lady Levondale giggled delightedly, then started introducing me around, "Have you met Mrs. Feversham? She's our nearest neighbour."
Mrs. Feversham was a stout bird of fifty summers dressed in tweeds so broken-in they didn't appear to be sewn and buttoned together so much as to have grown on her like moss. Seven other ladies of similar variety and vintage were introduced as well, all near neighbours (or as near as one can get to an estate the size of Verevale), and only one was wearing a riding habit.
"Are you not hunting this morning, Lady Levondale?" I asked, parking myself halfway down the board with my coffee, toast, and a dollop of kedgeree.
"Oh, no, I haven't hunted in years," my hostess replied, crossing her legs uncomfortably, "Not since Michael was born. So we have a little card party for those who don't hunt, amusing ourselves as best we can while the others are off on the chase."
"That sounds like fun," I lied. Playing cards with tweedy lumps like Ma Feversham all day sounded dreary in the extreme.
More people were wandering into the house, though most seemed content to mill around in the great hall instead of coming into the dining-room; I felt an odd pressure to bolt down my kedgeree and go, especially after Lady Levondale left the room; her place was taken by the lumpiest of the tweed lumps, a Mrs. Tollemache of Summerease House whose son was at Eton with me, though I didn't remember him beyond the name--Tollemache can be pronounced so many different ways that it sort of sticks in your head when you find out how any particular Tollemache says his own name (the Tollemaches of Summerease House pronounce themselves 'tool-make,' in case you were wondering). I ate so fast trying to get away from her that I nearly gave myself indigestion.
"Oh, you're not hunting, Dotty?" I ran into the marchioness in the doorway, surprised to see her dressed in a skirt and cardigan with some quite handsome pearls.
"My visitor arrived early," she said mysteriously, "Makes the horses jumpy."
"Visitor?" I wondered.
"I forget sometimes how grotesquely innocent you are in the ways of women," she smiled and patted my cheek, "You'll find out when you get married."
"Oh, one of those," I nodded sagely, "I do know enough about women's things to know I'm better off not knowing at all."
"Ah, to be a fly on the wall behind your and Caro's marriage bed," she slid away from me toward the tea-pots, "It'll be like Adam and Eve on their first date, won't it?"
"Probably," I agreed, laughing.
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