The Beautiful Cassandra
Author's Notes: This is based on "The Beautiful Cassandra", an amusing short story from a collection of Miss Austen's Juvenilia. As is the case in many of these shorter works, Miss Austen really could have filled them out a bit more. Her words are in bold print.
Cassandra Portman was the Daughter and the only Daughter of a celebrated Millener in Bond Street. Her father was of noble Birth, being the near relation of the Dutchess of ------'s Butler. It was reasonable to expect that Mr. Portman would have had the same rise in fortune --- for certainly his cousin would have vouched for him --- and been able to exchange his perch on a hackney coach for that of an aristocratic carriage, if only that had not been the source of he and his wife's introduction and downfall in the first place. Instead, he was dead of a mishap, and had been dead for a dozen long years.
So, it had been up to Mrs. Portman to move herself and her daughter to the West End and create a better life for themselves. Cassandra's mother was not one to sit on her backside and wait for Lady Luck to find her nor did she lack nerve. A visit to a certain home in Mayfair had proved profitable enough to enable her to establish a millinery shop in the heart of the most famous shopping district in London (so long as she called the store by her married name and not Leighton-Smith).
Madam Portman's style and integrity soon exerted itself and hers quickly became the foremost millinery shop on Bond Street. Quality goods could be got at any of a dozen establishments, but each of her customers had the added assurance of never being sold the wrong sort of hat to frame her particular face. One always looked one's best in a Portman creation.
Madam and her young daughter lived in quarters above the shop, and, as the years rolled by, the girl was well on her way to becoming every bit as good at the craft as her mother.
Now, next door to the shop, there was a linen-drapers run by a family with the name of 'Hartley', and their youngest daughter, Maria, was Cassandra's playmate and friend. The proximity of the shops was fortuitous on many counts: not only did the proprietors advertise each other's wares, but they could depend on the children to entertain each other in a seemly manner. Due to the sunny and amiable nature of Cassandra and the quiet, respectful demeanor of her friend, the girls were well-known and well-liked by the shop owners up and down both sides of the street.
As is the way of confidants, Cassandra and Maria spent many hours conjuring up a future that they, as bosom friends, would share, for how could one succeed without the other?
Cassandra's dreams usually included shopping trips to Wedgwood's, Gray's and Twining's followed by lemon ices at Gunther's and the requisite carriage ride on Rotten Row in Hyde Park. Evenings would include dinners in mansions facing the Park, box seats at Drury Lane, or dancing at Almack's. The two, even as young women, would become so famous that their portraits would be part of some famous painter's exhibit in Pall Mall (of course, they would each be wearing one of Madam Portman's exquisite creations). And, if prompted, Cassandra could wax enthusiastic over their several castles that were scattered all over the countryside and of such size and ornamentation as to rival the King's own.
Maria's vision of the future was more practical. She asked only to live as well as her parents had and to be the mother of a loving family (but that did not mean that she did not appreciate her friend's fantastick imagination).
Chapter the 2d
When Cassandra had attained her 16th year, she was lovely and amiable and chancing to fall in love with an elegant Bonnet, her Mother had just compleated bespoke by the Countess of ------, she placed it on her gentle Head and walked from her Mother's shop to make her Fortune.
For Cassandra's lofty dreams had not been weighed down by the grim realities her mother had faced in the past and, like her mother, she did not intend to wait for Good Fortune to find her.
The hat had given her the impetus, for it was the most beautiful piece of work that she had ever laid eyes on. It was light and close-fitting even with the double-brim that framed the forehead. Between the brims, were tucked a fetching collection of silk violets that almost exactly matched the ribbon that was tied into a bow under her chin and her own violet blue eyes. As she looked in the mirror, Cassandra knew that something very good would happen if she dared to wear that hat. She had never done such a thing before for customers' commissions were sacred pacts. Her poor mother would never hear the end of it if the Countess knew that her hat had been seen in public before she wore it. In fact, a small nagging voice in the back of the girl's mind whispered that her mother's reputation could be ruined.
Call it fate, call it the stupidity of a young girl, but Cassandra did walk out of the shop wearing the Countess's hat. She also wore a well-fitting (if not of the best muslin) sprigged cotton dress, her best pair of half-boots, and a diaphanous shawl that had no practical use at all except to show off her dimpled arms. (It was actually a length of lace that Maria's father had sold to Madam Portman at a reduced rate, for imperfections marred its surface rendering it useless unless cut up for trim.) On her wrist hung a knitted reticule containing the birthday coins she had received from her mother. For the day, anyway, she felt positively rich, just as she had always imagined for herself.
Chapter the 3d
The first person she met, was the Viscount of ------ a young Man, no less celebrated for his Accomplishments and Virtues, than for his Elegance and Beauty. She curtseyed and walked on.
To Cassandra, the sky had never looked bluer nor the shining orb overhead sunnier. The very air crackled with exciting possibilities. As the Viscount approached from the other direction, she could not fail to discern the appreciative light in his eyes as he looked upon her lovely bonnet. In deference to his title and in response to his notice, the pretty young woman with the startlingly blue violet eyes acknowledged him with the small nod of her head and bend of her knee and continued on her way.
And, as Cassandra passed the well-known shops, she greeted friends with a cheery wave of her hand, her elevated mood touching them all. Thus preoccupied, she was quite unaware that the young man had turned his head to watch her proceed down the street, a thoughtful, if somewhat puzzled, expression grazing his handsome face.
Chapter the 4th
Cassandra then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away.
That had not been Cassandra's intention --- not at all --- for she was truly not that sort of person. If only Mr. Dean had not been so vexing...
When she entered the shop, Mr. Dean was in the back preparing the last of the tarts for baking. Willie, his young assistant, had been left to wait on the few customers that filtered in.
At the sight of Cassandra in all her grandeur, Willie's heart skipped a beat for although only twelve years old, he doted upon the girl. Realising that this must be a special day for Cassandra, he made as though to dust off her chair and bowed low as she sat down at the table.
"I should like six of your lemon ices, please!" the young woman said in a peremptory tone.
"Six?" Willie squeaked.
Cassandra laughed. "Well, only as many as may be bought with these," she said, showing him a few coins. "I have always dreamed of driving to Gunther's in my splendid carriage and eating lemon ices to my heart's content. Today, this fine establishment shall be Gunther's....if only in my mind." She straightened up. "Six lemon ices," she repeated.
Willie bowed and retreated to the counter where he brought out 6 small china bowls and put only a spoonful of lemon ice in each one. He set them each on the platter, added spoons and a linen napkin, then returned to Cassandra's table. "Here you are, Miss!" he said with a flourish.
Cassandra nodded, satisfied with his service, and began to eat her first lemon ice. As she did so, she imagined that each chair in the room was filled with men and women in beautiful clothing, all friends of her own. Across from her sat a kind gentleman with impeccable manners and love for her shining in his eyes. She could not say whether he was handsome nor even the color of his hair, for nothing else mattered when her eyes met his.
She moved the second bowl of lemon ice before her as she imagined their stimulating conversations about books and plays and made plans to visit friends in the country.
She was consuming her third ice as she contemplated how she would look on her wedding day. Mother would design the dressing for her head, of course. Maria would be there to stand up with her and look so beautiful that the groom's best friend would be smitten and want to marry her straightaway. Then they would all live in Grosvenor Square and attend the same functions and have a lovely time!
While eating the fourth lemon ice, she envisioned her children, some with her blue violet eyes and some having more the look of their father. How their father actually looked, though, was still rather indistinct no matter how much she attempted to envision him.
The fifth ice was half-melted by now. The children were grown, and she and her husband were often at court where they were commended for their charitable deeds. In fact, their portraits had been commissioned by the king as a sign of great honor.
The sixth ice was a syrupy puddle. She had lived a long and joyful life beside a man whose love for her had never wavered...
The voice thundered close to her ear and she shuddered into consciousness. There was Mr. Dean, looking at her with such an angry, accusing expression that she drew back. A customer in the corner looked on with great interest.
It must be interjected here that Mr. Dean had often considered marrying Cassandra when she attained proper age. She was beautiful as well as amiable and would certainly draw more customers into the pastry shop. Unfortunately, she had shown no interest in him whatsoever and seemed to be much of a ninny, always rattling on about her grandiose dreams of the future. Mr. Dean was more than a little put off by the fact that
Cassandra might not think his situation good enough for her.
The girl is daft! Now, here she is, mooning over some impossible attachment and having consumed no less than SIX ices. How could Willie have allowed it? He frowned at his assistant. He knew very well why Willie would allow Cassandra to do anything she pleased. And this probably being the last of the ice for some long time. If she cannot not pay, I shall take her along by that pretty little ear to see her mother.
"Have you the coins to pay for such extravagance?" he demanded. "Ice cannot be pulled out of the ground nor plucked off the trees, you know!"
"Actually, Sir, Miss Portman did not have six ices..." Willie began.
"I am able to count as well as anyone!" Mr. Dean growled, turning on him.
"But, he is telling the truth!" Cassandra blurted out.
"We shall see about that!" Mr. Dean descended upon the startled young woman and made a grab for her ear. If she was going to act the part of a child, he would treat her so.
Willie, naturally, could not stand by and watch, so he pushed the pastry maker's arm away before it could do any harm. Instead, it came about to cuff Willie himself and send him scuttling among overturned chairs.
Cassandra, incensed, stood up to face the pastry man, her eyes flashing and chin quivering. "I did not have six ices, I will not pay for six ices and Willie has done nothing wrong. As a lady, I am offended by your poor treatment of my friend and myself."
"Fine clothes and fancy airs do not make a lady, girlie. You would do well to return home and take a good look at your mother. Now, there is a lady. In fact, I will escort you to her myself. She will be sorry to hear what mischief you have been up to --- and I am certain that she has been looking high and low for that bonnet!"
When Mr. Dean lunged at her to grab her by the ear or the hair or whatever he could reach, she swung her reticule around in an arch and caught him on the nose. He fell backward on the floor, momentarily dizzied. His nose had always been particularly sensitive.
The customer called out before Mr. Dean could arise. "Really, Mr. Dean, this is most unseemly. The children were merely playing at make-believe and I doubt that a total of more than one lemon ice has been consumed. If this is how you treat young ladies, I shall not be frequenting this establishment in the future. There are better places to go if I wish to see a scuffle. Come along, Miss." He offered his elbow to Cassandra.
Cassandra hesitated, then approach the fallen man to say, "I am very disappointed in you, Sir," and left the shop.
Chapter the 5th
Author's note: Thank you for reading this silly little story & for your great comments!
Cassandra was pleasantly surprised that Willie had dared to champion her cause before his formidable employer and, when a total stranger came to their assistance, it only confirmed Cassandra's belief in the value of a higher social order.
The confrontation with Mr. Dean had not lessened Cassandra's pleasure in the day nor corroded her belief in herself. She had been planning for this day of luxuries for a long time and it would take more than that to dampen her spirits. Now, with her second objective in mind (a leisurely carriage ride --- or a reasonable substitute), she purposefully walked another two blocks to where she was certain to find transportation.
She ascended a Hackney Coach and ordered it to Hampstead, with only one stop along the way, that being Portman Square. Then, she was no sooner arrived at Hampstead than she ordered the Coachman to turn round and drive her back again (for she certainly could not afford to actually do something there as well as pay for such a long ride).
She did not descend from the coach when the driver informed her that they had reached Portman Square. It was enough to gaze for a few moments on the elegant, golden Georgian townhouses and release a small, regretful sigh.
Occasionally, orders from the shop would be delivered to Portman Square and ever since she had heard of its existence, she secretly believed that she belonged there somehow, that there was an ancient Grandmama who had cast out her father and now ardently wished to make amends. Sadly, it was too late for the old woman to be reunited with her son, but Cassandra could imagine the tears in Grandmama's eyes at the first sight of her granddaughter.
As they continued on their way to Hampstead, Cassandra leaned forward eagerly in order to better view the passing scenery (rather unlike a true lady of leisure). Within the half hour, they were driving past a large green expanse of park on the right. It was in the process of being constructed for the Prince-Regent, and Cassandra immediately fell to imaging a walk among the gardens with Prinny himself as her guide. (She had heard persist rumors concerning his conduct, but she quickly reasoned those away by reminding herself that surely, as he was the first Gentleman of the land, he could be counted upon to act with fitting decorum. Actually the role of 'first' Gentleman should have been filled by his father but if the old man was too dotty to run the kingdom, then how could one expect him to be a leader among society, the latter duty being more complicated and demanding?).
When the coachman received his orders to turn around and drive her back again, he had regarded his young passenger with no little suspicion. The only people who went to Hampstead were those who had business there, and they certainly did not leave Hampstead without finishing it. On the return trip, he mulled over whether his passenger had the proper coinage or whether he would have to pay for this 'joy ride' with a bare supper table.
Meanwhile, Henry Harrison Smythe, the Viscount Carrington, had hurried through his appointments on Bond Street, the memory of the blue violet eyes demanding investigation, but when he was finally free of every encumbrance upon his time, the girl was nowhere to be found.
He carefully re-enacted the scene in his mind and soon realised that many details had escaped his notice the first time. She seemed to be well-known along the street and she had been unaccompanied by either chaperone or servant. (He impatiently brushed away the first thought that came to mind, for it was too early in the day.)
She must live in the vicinity! Then, she cannot be difficult to find. A simple inquiry at one of these establishments will probably solve the mystery. He eagerly entered the door of the pastry shop and addressed a few words to the proprietor.
A few moments later and he was back out on the street and not knowing whether to be intrigued or dismayed. Now the only duty left to him was to call upon his friend and lay all of the details before him.
Chapter the 6th
Viscount Carrington emerged from his carriage and looked up at the venerable old mansion (the same one Madam Portman had approached when newly widowed), the ancestral home of his friend, Anthony Rumsfield. (Actually, it was not a legacy handed down from the Rumsfield branch of the family but via a more obscure connexion to the once brilliant but eccentric Leighton-Smiths.)
Within moments, he was cozily ensconced in a wine and olive striped chair, seated opposite his old university chum in the library.
Rumsfield was still in his dressing gown and nursing a variety of ailments caused by the debauchery of the night before. He eyed his friend irritably. How can Carry always look so demmed fresh? He knew the answer --- the Viscount had not been at cards (and hard liquor and cigars) til past midnight. "What brings you here this morning?" he growled.
"A pair of fine eyes," the Viscount replied.
Rumsfield sighed heavily, acknowledging one of his friend's few vices, that of being irresistible to the opposite sex. "And who is she this time?"
"Her name is Cassandra Portman." Carrington watched him expectantly. No comment. "Portman," he repeated.
He nodded at the portrait (of Lady Amelia Leighton-Smith who bore a decided resemblance to her great granddaughter) over the mantle. "She has the most amazing violet blue eyes..." The viscount became impatient with Rumsfield's total lack of response and felt pressed to explain further, "Her mother runs a millinery shop on Bond Street --- Portman's. It is rather well-known..."
Rumsfield arched a critical eyebrow and looked at his friend over his glass of sherry. "And you think they are the missing descendants of the 'Old Lady'?"
Carrington nodded eagerly. "If you were to see Miss Portman for yourself --- the resemblance is startling...."
"And you say that her mother runs a well-known shop on Bond Street...?"
"Yes, it should be very easy to find... We could be there within the hour."
Rumsfield straightened up and set his glass on the table at his elbow. "I realize that you have been smitten with the girl, but we must approach this whole idea carefully. It would not do at all to hurry over to their shop and put false ideas into their heads. You must own that..."
"Yes, of course, but..."
"Now, we all know that Lady Amelia's daughter and son-in-law died in France in 17--, leaving behind two children. The daughter, Jane, was involved in some terrible scandal and disappeared seventeen or eighteen years ago, presumably sent away and ordered to never set foot in England again --- and, at that time, the Old Lady's power stretched so far that the girl could have been exiled to darkest Africa." (Actually, she lived for a brief time down by the docks in the older part of London Town, which may as well have been Africa for how little it resembled the home she had been accustomed to.)
Carrington nodded, again eager, "I would say that the young lady I saw today is about the right age to be Lady Leighton-Smith's great granddaughter..."
"But, there is nothing to support the idea of Jane Leighton-Smith living here in London. She has not been seen nor heard of since the scandal."
"Rumour had it that she was married so, of course, she would not use her maiden name..."
Rumsfield steepled his fingers together. "We were told that she had run off with one of the Portmans --- but why she would have been disinherited for that, I do not know," he said. "When her brother, George, was killed in the Mahratta Wars in India, and the estate fell to me, we made a final attempt to find her. We even called upon Mr. and Mrs. Charles Portman of Portman Square, but they swore that none of the scions of that house had married or in any way been involved in the disgrace of Jane Leighton-Smith."
"Perhaps, as theirs is a large family, they overlooked a cousin or nephew."
Rumsfield scoffed, "Hardly! Every Portman for the past two hundred years or more has been duly noted in their family history (an unbiased family historian could have shed light on the 'lost' branches of their tree) and been held accountable for representing the family in a manner becoming to their station." He shrugged, "Besides, if, as you say, this millinery shop is so well-known, the Portmans could not possibly have overlooked it. This woman and her daughter may be at the lower end of the Portman family tree, but they have certainly never been involved in scandal."
The Viscount sat in silent contemplation. His friend's arguments were strong, but --- if only Rumsfield would deign to visit the shop....
The master of the house sighed heavily. "I know that look, Sir. You will not be satisfied until I agree to go on this wild goose chase with you. So be it! I shall be at your service as quickly as I may be dressed and fed."
The Viscount made himself at home with a book while he awaited his friend.
Fully two hours later, the gentlemen were being delivered to Bond Street, and more specifically to Portman's. On the way, Rumsfield asked the Viscount to describe every moment of the brief confrontation with Miss Portman. He listened attentively to a detailed and very pleasant description of the young woman but was taken aback by the conversation his friend had with the pastry man. "Are you suggesting that this supposed cousin of mine is a common thief?" he asked, pursing his lips. "Gad! If I were in my right mind, I would order this carriage returned home immediately. Carrington, have you lost your senses?" He huffily descended from the carriage and perused the storefront.
"Hmph! Well, let us proceed!" he ordered.
The gentlemen entered the millinery shop, much to the surprise and consternation of two lady customers who were being assisted by a comely middle-aged woman. As the ladies occupied their time with trying on various bonnets, the proprietress came forward to greet the newcomers.
"Madam," Rumsfield bowed, "we shall not trespass upon your time any longer than necessary. We have merely come to inquire if you are acquainted with Mrs. Jane Portman or the young lady known as Miss Cassandra Portman."
Madam Portman was, by this time, alarmed by her daughter's absence and wondered how the girl had come to the notice of two very well-dressed gentlemen. "Do you have business with them?"
The Viscount stepped forward. "In fact, yes. My friend is seeking cousins of his."
"Cousins?" Madam Portman had difficulty concealing her surprise. After all these years... She laughed haltingly, "You must be mistaken, Sir. Cassandra is my daughter."
Rumsfield studied the woman for a moment. She was pallid, of course, from her many hours of confinement within the store; eyes tired from strain, gray hair severely pulled away from her forehead, knotted knuckles from years of handiwork. Yet, she was fine-boned with admirably straight posture and a regal tilt to her head. "I apologise, Madam, for not introducing myself. I am Anthony Rumsfield, and this is Viscount Carrington."
Madam Portman returned his perusal. So, this is Rumsfield. She gave no outward indication of the turmoil within her breast. This is the man who benefitted from my brother's death. She took in his heavy jowls, the florid colouring of his face, the many rings on his fingers, and the fancy cut of his coat. Are you content, Grandmother?
The silence lengthened awkwardly. Rumsfield cleared his throat. "I take it then that you are the 'J. Portman' of the sign....?"
"Yes, I am 'Joan Portman.' I am sorry to disappoint you, Mr. ...Ramsfield....?"
"Mr. Rumsfield," she corrected with a brief bow of her head, "but my daughter and I cannot possibly have any connection to your family."
The gentlemen bowed and, after exchanging a few final polite phrases, they quitted the shop and returned to the home that should rightfully have belonged to Cassandra.
Chapter the 7th
Cassandra sat within the coach, berating herself to no end. If she had not knocked down Mr. Dean, her reticule would not have a hole in it and she would still have her coins. Mr. Dean would not have bothered her if she had not put on airs, and if she had not donned the lovely bonnet that morning and seen herself in the mirror, her irrepressible imagination would not have gotten the best of her.
She searched her pockets over again and again; but every search was unsuccessfull. No money could she find.
The enormity of her transgression in taking the bonnet hit her fully. The Countess would be incensed about the misuse of her bonnet, and the woman's opinion carried much weight. Mother will lose her millinery shop and everything else that she has worked for so diligently. I am a wicked, wicked daughter!
She could hear the coachman pacing back and forth before the door. Finally, looking within, the man grew peremptory. "Do ye have the fare or no?"
It came to Cassandra's (overactive) mind what would certainly happen to herself if she did not find a way to pay the man. Gaol! Deportation! Death! She began to cry.
"Git out o' the bloomin' coach!" the man said, exasperation furrowing his brow. "You've wasted enough o' my time. Now, off with ye!"
There was nothing else to do but leave the relative safety of the coach. "I am very sorry, Sir," Cassandra apologised meekly, her blue violet eyes awash with tears. "I have no intention of cheating you. There is a hole in my bag and I have lost all of my money, but I promise you..." She looked up into his eyes, willing the man to believe her, "I promise you that I shall return with your fare."
She placed the wretched bonnet on his head. "This is the only item of value that I have," she explained, and ran away.
Richard Bing may not be considered a gentleman by society's narrow definition (being in trade), but he certainly knew how to dress, as did his brother, Robert. As the proprietors of the newly established branch of 'Bing Bros.' they had access to the best in men's attire, from the top of their tall, black hats to the soles of their imported leather boots.
Richard, the elder brother, had a fine appreciation for style and beauty, (He had certainly appreciated the remarkable blue violet eyes he had seen at Dean's Pastry Shop.) whereas Robert, the younger brother, although he, too, presented himself well, was more interested in the practical aspects of the business.
And so, it was with unexpected delight that Richard, upon exiting Bing Bros., should chance to catch sight of the charming (and well-made) bonnet that had graced the lovely head of the owner of the blue eyes.
Ack! He stepped back in alarm. For under this bonnet was a weatherworn and rather pudgy coachman who was calling out invectives to an unseen victim. Richard promptly recovered from his shock and moved to confront the man. "What mean you by this? What have you done with the girl?" he demanded to know.
"I hain't done nought with the lass," the man protested. "'T is what she done to me --- stiffed me out o' my fare." He went on to wax eloquently about his bare supper table and to lament how often he has been cheated on account of his tender heart. He ended with the thought that, one of these days, he should press charges.
"But, you have been paid, and royally, if the young woman left you with this bonnet."
The coachman snorted and made to swipe it off his head, but Richard saved it just in time. He carefully looked it over and flicked off imaginary flecks of dust. "If you have no mind to keep the bonnet, I would like to purchase it from you."
The words 'paid, and royally' finally penetrated the coachman's thoughts. "Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"None of that!" Richard retorted sharply. "The bonnet is worth nothing to you. If you try to rid yourself of it in some other way, people will accuse you of stealing. I will give you the fare owed to you."
The coachman grumbled but eventually agreed, and Richard quickly paid him before he could change his mind. He even added a few coins for good measure, but not too many for fear the man would realise how important the bonnet was to him.
"Now, good sir," he said, "did you notice in which direction the young lady went?"
The coachman carelessly flung his arm to indicate one of the narrower cross streets and leapt up onto his seat, glad to be done with the whole business.
Richard walked briskly to the corner and looked here and there for a familiar figure. Admittedly, the shopping sector was becoming more crowded as the day progressed and it was nearly impossible to peruse each pedestrian. He decided to proceed for a few blocks more before giving up, a lucky decision, for there was Cassandra just within the next alley and sobbing as though her heart would break.
Chapter the 8th
"May I be of assistance?" Richard held out a beautifully monogrammed handkerchief.
Cassandra, startled, attempted to stifle her sobs and looked guardedly up at her benefactor. (Stepping into an alley was only another in a long line of inane decisions that she had made that day.)
"I promise that I have no ill-intent. I am merely responding to a young lady who is obviously in distress." He proffered the snowy square of material once again.
The voice sounded oddly familiar and comforting. Cassandra dared to study the man more closely. The cut of the coat and the rich luster of the boots brought forth memories. "You...you were the gentleman at the pastry shop who spoke for Willie and me."
Richard bowed. "Indeed," he admitted. He saw that Cassandra was yet disconcerted by his presence. "Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Richard Bing. My brother and I have recently come to the area with the opening of our establishment, Bing Bros. Perhaps, you have noticed our sign?"
Cassandra barely had time to nod her head before her eyes lit upon the unfortunate bonnet which was now carefully tucked into the corner of one of the young man's arms. She shrank back slightly. "How have you come by my bonnet?" she gasped.
Richard immediately held it out to her. "It is one-of-a-kind," he said admiringly. "I could not fail to remember where I had first seen it and so natural curiosity got the best of me when I spied it upon the head of someone else."
Cassandra's face diffused with color. She looked away in shame, but then turned 'round again to state truthfully, "He did not steal it from me."
A gentle smile caressed the young man's lips and he said (probably more warmly than proper), "I know."
Cassandra blushed once again and wondered if he did know the whole story. She could not allow him to think she was the kind of girl to purposely swindle... "There was a h-hole in my reticule, you see," she explained, holding up the poor unraveled bag as evidence.
Mr. Bing had such kind eyes that she soon found herself telling him everything that had happened since she had first tied the ribbons of the bonnet under her chin. She did nothing to spare herself in the story. She told him quite bluntly about her conceit, her silliness, and ended with rueing the fact that she did not seem to be able to keep a rein on her vivid imagination.
"Imagination is a wonderful gift," Richard countered, seemingly unruffled by her myriad of sins.
"Without imagination there would be no art nor literature nor music...," Richard explained with an elegant little sweep of his hand. "Surely that is worth the bit of discombobulation that comes with daring to be unique."
Cassandra laughed despite herself. "I would hardly call myself unique!" she exclaimed. "I am merely a girl with her head in the clouds, a dreamer."
"And where would we be without our dreams, eh? My dream was to own a shop with my brother and --- look! --- it has become a reality."
Cassandra's face fell. "My mother wished to be the foremost milliner on Bond Street and she was...until I ruined everything. Imagination can be a dangerous thing, Sir."
"Powerful, yes. It's only real danger lays in lack of direction or noble purpose." He fought the urge to take her hand in his and pat her cares away. "I hardly think that you can have ruined your mother's business so easily."
"But, the Countess...."
"The Countess --- if any of this comes to her ears --- can only be flattered if it looks half so well on her..." He unexpectedly coughed. "Well, her only cause for complaint will be if she hears of the coachman wearing it --- which I doubt that she would believe --- for she would most certainly think the man was in his cups and spreading tall tales."
Richard's gentle arguments, given with certain conviction, did much to lift Cassandra's spirits and soon she was her normally ebullient self.
"Thank you very much, Sir, for your assistance both earlier and now, but the time has come for me to return to my home and make my confession to my mother."
Richard offered his arm. "May I accompany you?"
"Why?" Cassandra was puzzled by the young man's continued solicitous behavior. (In some areas she woefully lacked imagination.)
"It is my guess that she created this superior bonnet and, as fashionable attire is my bread and butter, I am interested in meeting a kindred spirit."
Some people may have wondered if Cassandra and Mr. Bing were kindred spirits as well, since she, too, worked in her mother's shop, but all she said was, "Oh," and gingerly took his arm.
Thro' many a street they then proceeded (oblivious to the stares of the local folk who had known Cassandra since her infancy) and met in none the least Adventure till on turning a Corner of Bloomsbury Square, they met Maria.
Chapter the 9th
Cassandra started and Maria seemed surprised; they trembled, blushed, turned pale and passed each other in a mutual silence.
Cassandra was aware of how the situation must look to her dear friend. Maria would know instantly, of course, that the bonnet had been made for the Countess (since they had both been exclaiming over it only yesterday as it took shape under the nimble fingers of Madam Portman), and would reprove her for jeopardizing her mother's reputation. She would be equally aware that Cassandra was wearing her best attire on a week day and for no apparent reason except as a sort of masquerade (of which Miss Portman was entirely capable). But, the worst of it was that Maria probably knew that she had been missing for most of the day and, here she was, holding onto the arm of a perfect stranger and in an obviously friendly fashion. Cassandra decided that explanations now would be too daunting after everything else that had occurred, especially as Maria seemed to wish to avoid her, as well. A little sigh escaped her lips as she realised how disappointed in her Maria must surely be.
For Maria's part, all of those thoughts had entered her mind but what Cassandra did not realise, was that Maria knew very well the identity of the young man. They had passed by each other often enough in the previous week for her face to be familiar to him, as well. Maria averted her eyes but could not hide the blush that suffused her features.
How, you ask, could such a situation have arisen? Any new business is bound to attract the attention of every entrepreneur in the vicinity, including the Hartley family, and Maria's first ambles past Bing Bros. had been motivated by innocent curiosity. Then she had heard the rumors that the Bing brothers were relatively young and unmarried. (One must realise that most of the other proprietors in the area were well-established in years as well as business.) And then the day came that she caught sight of Robert Bing.
It was an easy matter for Maria to convince herself that her errands must take her past the new storefront several times a day, but it had been her misfortune that Mr. Richard Bing was as curious about his surroundings as everyone was about him and so they had crossed paths more often than could be considered normal. Not wanting to draw more attention to herself and with no small regret, Maria had ceased her perambulations within the vicinity of Bing Bros. --- and now, here he was again!
Chapter the 10th
Richard had noted and wondered at the reactions of the two young women. He remembered seeing the one pass by Bing Bros. last week, but he did not think she had any reason to be embarrassed at meeting him on the street. He wondered if she was the young woman Robert had mentioned. She certainly fit the description. "Do you know the young lady?" he asked after they were well past Maria.
Cassandra admitted so rather sheepishly. "She is my good friend, Maria Hartley."
Richard raised his eyebrows at this.
"She cannot approve of the things I have done today," Cassandra explained unhappily.
Richard did not think Miss Portman was guilty of much of anything except a lack of maturity. Certainly her friend would know her well enough to not hold that against her. Then it suddenly dawned on him that it must have looked highly irregular for Miss Portman to be accompanied by him. "She will understand once all has been explained to her," he said comfortingly.
"Thank you, Sir. You have been very kind to a silly young girl." A sudden thought crept into her mind and, although the truth could bring her more embarrassment, she had to know. "You have not told me, Mr. Bing. How did you come to have possession of my bonnet?"
Richard laughed, "The coachman was much more interested in what he was having for supper tonight than he was in wearing a bonnet, no matter how fashionable!"
Two spots of color dotted Cassandra's cheeks. "I have just realised that you must have paid my fare! I don't know what to say....I...I have been so blind. It never entered my head..." She felt the indebtedness keenly. "Well Mr. Bing, I am doubly happy that you are come to meet my mother so that we may settle our account with you."
Richard knew that he could not say how entertaining it had all been (at least, not yet). "I am content to have been of service to a neighbor," he replied.
"We will repay you, Mr. Bing, and you will have my mother's thanks as well as my own."
Even though the money was the least of his concerns, Richard knew that Miss Portman felt honor-bound to reimburse him and so he could only say, "As you wish, Miss Portman, and you are welcome."
Cassandra was next accosted by her freind the Widow, who squeezing out her little Head thro' her less window, asked her how she did? Cassandra curtseyed and went on. Much to her chagrin, the widow called out after her, "Your mother has been looking for you, Child. You better run along home now!"
Chapter the 11th
A quarter of a mile brought her to her maternal roof in Bond Street from which she had now been absent nearly 7 hours.
Richard admired the tastefully decorated windows and the small, neat sign:
"How many years has your family's shop been established?" he asked.
"My father died when I was very young. Mother moved us out here to the West End about fifteen years ago and established herself as a milliner in order to provide for us."
"She --- and you --- have done very well!"
"I dabble at it but I do not have the creativity and style of my mother. She has worked dilligently at the business and I am very proud of her."
"You have every reason to be," Richard said quietly (thinking that likewise could be said).
Chapter the 12th
She entered it and was pressed to her Mother's bosom by that worthy Woman.
Madam Portman was only too glad to see her daughter returned and unharmed. The visitors of earlier in the day had awakened her to the realisation that Cassandra may not be much longer with her. Seeing her enter the shop on the arm of a handsome and enterprising (for she knew who he was) young man, only reiterated the fact.
"Oh, Mama," Cassandra cried, "I have been very wicked!" She collapsed into her mother's arms. "The Countess will be so angry with me..."
Madam Portman hugged her daughter once again and then pushed her away to look at her. It was so like Cassandra to beg forgiveness while still in the act of transgression (for the bonnet was still on her head and she looked quite fetching). "The Countess will not be angry in the least," her mother said. "Yesterday, when I saw you and Maria ogling the bonnet, I realised that the style was much too young for the Countess, and so I constructed another more in keeping with the lady's age and position."
She looked admiringly into her daughter's face. "You know that a Portman bonnet can have only one mistress, and this one obviously belongs to you, dear." Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that Mr. Bing agreed with her.
With this weight off her mind, Cassandra fairly leapt for joy, but then she remembered why Mr. Bing had accompanied her home. "Oh, Mama, that is not all that I have done..."
Madam Portman was soon apprised of the remainder of her daughter's adventures and, although Cassandra was taken to task for her unladylike behavior (and even though the girl did not seem contrite about knocking down Mr. Dean), her mother could not remain angry with her. She promptly repaid Mr. Bing for the cab fare and thanked him for coming to her daughter's assistance.
Richard, with his pleasant manners and genuine interest in the millinery shop, soon established an easy relationship with Madam Portman and they spent a considerable amount of time discussing quality of goods and and the ins and outs of dealing with suppliers.
Cassandra was content to relax and mull over the events of the day. As it turned out, she need have no regrets and, in fact, there had been pleasant surprises. She watched the exchange between Richard and her mother and realised that it would be very pleasant to have Mr. Bing as a friend of the family. She smiled and whispered to herself 'This is a day well spent.'
The door to the millinery shop opened and a tall, elegant figure sought out the proprietress (giving no outward indication that his interests did, in fact, lay with the younger woman).
Madam Portman resigned herself to the situation evolving before her. I have made my choices and now she must make hers, she sighed. She turned to her daughter and said, "Cassandra, may I present Viscount Carrington." Finis
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