The next day, her equilibrium restored, she put in a long and productive day with the books, her mind barely wandering beyond, until Mags came and dragged her away for a late dinner.

“But Mags,” she protested, “You can’t drag me away now!  I’m on a roll – I’m getting so much done!”

“You won’t get much more done if you carry on working at this rate though, dear,” admonished Mags.  “You should really learn to pace yourself – leave the books and do other things – so that you’ll stay fresher for longer, rather than burned out and used up.  I’m sure if you think about it you’ll see it makes sense, dear.  Now come on.  Hurry, if you please – supper will be getting cold.”

Reluctantly, Jen shuffled after Mags, who led the way to the kitchen.

As she sat down at the kitchen table, however, Jen saw that perhaps Mags had perhaps not been taking her own advice.  Everywhere she looked, she saw evidence of preparation for the dinner party, now only a couple of days away.  Mags and her helpers had obviously been frantically busy.  There were various mysterious marinating things, half-finished table decorations, piles of freshly cleaned cutlery, china and other assorted objects, all neatly stacked and awaiting the next day’s work.  Suddenly, Jen remembered something, and her heart sank like a stone.  Mags was coming to the table with supper and saw Jen’s expression change.

“Jen, dear, whatever’s the matter?” she asked, alarmed at her suddenly morose demeanour.  “You aren’t still worrying about those books, are you?  I can assure you that many of them have been here for a couple of hundred years or more, so it’s likely that they won’t be going anywhere before tomorrow morning” she added with a half-smile.

“Oh, no.  Actually, I think you’re right about pacing myself.  But I’ve just realised that I’ve got nothing to wear for this wretched dinner, and I’ll have to go home and fetch something, or even buy something.  I wouldn’t even know where to start,” she finished, gloomily.

Mags frowned.  “Hmmm…  That is a bit of a problem, isn’t it, dear?”  She thought for a moment, and then brightened.  “However, I believe I may have the solution.  I’ve got nothing that would suit.  Besides, we’re a different size and shape, and I haven’t got time for any major alterations.  I believe you need to go and have a word with her Ladyship.”

“Hr Ladysh…  Oh!  Do you mean Merry?”

“Exactly, dear.  You and she are of a similar size, and I believe, once upon a time, shape.  Allowing for her years, of course.”  She smiled fondly.  “I’m willing to bet that she has got something suitable that she would be prepared to lend you.  She still has many of her old clothes, and they might just fit you.  And she is such a generous and sentimental old soul – she had such a good time in those clothes as a young woman, she keeps them for the memories they evoke.  You should go and see her tomorrow morning, dear, and ask if you may borrow something.”

Jen’s heart had sunk a little bit lower at the mention of Merry, some of her disturbing thoughts of yesterday returning.  However, she did then brighten up at the prospect of seeing Merry again, so maybe her subconscious had decided that Merry was innocent, or at least had a good reason for letting on to Lord Ambrose what she and Dave were about on that midnight trip to the library.  Perhaps it was time to see if Merry volunteered anything.  And there was still the problem of what to wear for the dinner party, anyway.  So she squared her shoulders, managed a smile, and said, “What a good idea!  Do you think she would lend me anything, though?  I mean, if she’s sentimental about things like that, wouldn’t she be unwilling to lend them out in case they get damaged?  I’m a bit of a clumsy oaf, you know.  I’m not used to dressing up.  I usually manage to spill something on myself.  That’s if I don’t accidentally burn or tear it,” she said, eyeing the freshly polished candelabra and sharp knives around the room.

“Oh, I don’t think she’ll mind that too much, dear.  In fact, she’d probably thrilled to think that something will be getting an airing after all these years, since she’s not going to be able to wear it again.  You must at least go and ask, dear.

Jen nodded.  “Then I will.  She can only say no, after all.  If she does, I’ll just have to cry off.  Perhaps get a headache or something.”  She giggled.  “Just like a proper delicate lady.”

Mags chuckled.  “Well, they’ll probably expect that, anyway.  I suspect half of the guests will be of the type that believes a woman can’t be academic as it would cause her brain to overheat dangerously, or that women are delicate creatures who ought to sit quietly sewing in some out of the way corner somewhere.”

“Huh.  Probably” Jen agreed.  “So it’s going to be twenty-odd blokes and me?” she said, realising, her eyes widening in consternation.  “Oh no!  It’s going to be excruciating!”

“Don’t worry, dear,” said Mags, soothingly.  “Just don’t allow them to patronise you and you’ll be fine.  And remember, one of those twenty-odd will be Rick.  He’ll look after you, I’m sure.”

“But won’t he be talking with the others?”

“I doubt it, dear.  You know yourself that he’s not much of a talker.”

“Well, he talks well enough to me,” said Jen, remembering several long conversations on wide ranging topics.

“Well, yes.  But he likes you, dear.  You should feel honoured, really,” Mags continued, mischief glinting in her eyes, “He doesn’t really like all that many people; he really seems to have taken to you.”

Despite her slight embarrassment, and secret flash of pleasure, at Mags’s remark, some of Jen’s gloom remained.

“We’ll probably be sitting miles from each other, though.  I’ve seen the size of that table.  And all the different knives and forks,” she continued, “How will I ever know which one to use?”  She was beginning to panic a little.

“Jen, dear.  Do calm down” said Mags, patiently.  “You are speaking to the person in charge of the place settings, you know.”  And she winked.

Jen sighed with relief.

“Now,” said Mags, briskly, “When were you planning on going to see Merry?”

Jen shrugged.  “First thing, I suppose.  After breakfast.”

“Good.  That will give me time to make any minor alterations that are necessary.”

“Mags, that’s very sweet of you to say, but you’ve got far too much else to do.”

“Oh, I’ll manage, dear.  If you want something doing, ask a busy person.  The girls will be perfectly fine coping on their own for a few hours.”

And it was settled

 

The next morning, Jen mounted the stairs to go and see Merry.  She was a little nervous, for several reasons.  Would Merry have anything suitable? Would she be willing to lend her anything if she did?  After all, they had only met on one occasion, despite the fact that they were living in the same house.  And what a strange thought that was!.  Would she decide she only could, or would, lend Jen some hideous old frock?  But the overriding worry, the one that had been bothering her for the last two days, was: What if Merry didn’t like her, or even bore her some active malice?  Or what if she didn’t care either way and had perhaps set her and Dave up for some obscure reason of her own, whether amusement or something darker?

When she finally reached Merry’s door and knocked, Jen’s stomach was churning.

“Who is it?” came from inside.

“It’s Jen Alexander, Lady Meriel.”

Shuffling steps from inside.  Then, the door flew open to reveal a cross looking Merry.

“Aha!  And what sort of time do you call this?” she exclaimed.

“I’m sorry if I’ve disturbed you too early…” Jen began.

“Early?  It’s too bloody late, is what it is, young lady!  You’ve been neglecting a poor lonely old woman – you should be ashamed!  Well, don’t just stand there, gaping like a fish!” she continued, “Come inside and sit down, for goodness’s sake, now that you’re finally here.  I’ll put on a pot of tea, then I’ll come and scold you some more for neglecting me.”  With this, she steered a slightly bewildered Jen to a seat, kissed her on the cheek, and then bustled in to the kitchen.

To forestall any more scolding, Jen began to apologise.  “I’m so sorry, Lady Meriel, I had no idea that you really wanted to see me again…”

Merry popped back out of the kitchen like an angry cork.  “Why in heaven’s name wouldn’t I want to see you again, you silly girl?”

“I…”

“And another thing, that’s the second time you’ve used that dreadful title this morning, when I specifically told you not to.  If you do so again, I shall be really cross!” And she disappeared back into the kitchen.

Jen decided that the best thing to do was to speak when she was spoken to for the present, and work the rest out as she went along.

A short time later, Merry returned, this time with a loaded tea tray, which she set down on the table between them.

“Now, Jen.  I’ve decided that I can’t be bothered to scold you any more, so we’ll pretend that I have already done that, and you’ve been very contrite, and that we’re already friends again, all right?”

Jen nodded dumbly.

“Lovely, my precious lamb.  Now, I’m afraid I’ve got a little confession and apology of my own to make.”

“You do?”

“Oh yes.  It would appear that whilst Dave and I were happily chatting about your exploits the other night, my grandson had come up to see me and was hovering about behind the door, listening.  Nasty habit he’s had since childhood, I’m afraid.  So I apologise if I got you into any trouble.”

“Well,” said Jen, with some relief, “It’s not your fault if Lord Ambrose listens behind doors, is it?”

“Well, no, but I did lend you the key and egg you on.”

“Merry, Dave and I are both adults.  It’s not as if you marched us in there at gunpoint now is it?”

“Well, no.  I suppose not.  But still…”

“Merry, it’s fine.”

“Oh good, I am glad.  It’s lovely to see you again, by the way.  Don’t stay away so long, next time.”

Jen smiled and agreed to come again soon.  Then she said, “Actually, Merry, I came to see you because I have a problem which I thought you might be able to help me with.”

“I can’t do anything about Dave, I’m afraid – he comes with the territory.”

Jen laughed.  “Actually, it’s a favour that I need.”

Merry leaned forward in her seat.  “Really?  Do tell.”

“Well, it’s nothing exciting or earth shattering, or anything…”

Merry pouted, “Oh, I am disappointed.”

Jen laughed.  “It’s just this dinner that Lord Ambrose is giving tomorrow night.  He’s insisted that I be there, but I don’t have a thing to wear.  Mags said you might have something you’d be willing to lend me for the evening?”

Merry was delighted.  “But of course, dear!  It would be a pleasure!  Stand up a moment, then turn around slowly, please.”

Jen did so.

Merry eyed her critically as she turned.  “Hmmm…  I think I might have one or two things that will be just the ticket.  Follow me.”  She led the way to her bedroom with Jen’s thanks trailing in the air after her.

In the bedroom was a door that led to a long, narrow room, which was absolutely bursting with clothes hung on rails down either side, with a tall mirror on the end wall.  Merry moved about, picking garments from here and there, loading Jen’s arms and muttering all the while.  “…no, not that…oh yes…hmm…no, wrong colour…” And so on.  Jen just stood there, like a clothes horse.  She’d never seen so many clothes outside of a shop.  She wondered how one body could wear so many; she’d have to change three times a day!  Eventually, Merry seemed satisfied with the haul and led Jen back into the bedroom.  They hung the clothes around the walls on the picture rail and laid them on the bed.  Then Merry made Jen stand in the middle of the room whilst, with a bewildering swirl of beautiful fabrics, she held one dress after another against Jen, and divided them into piles, still muttering.  Jen began to feel like a mannequin in a shop window, and said as much to Merry.

“Nearly done” was all the reply she got.

At last, Merry finished throwing clothes around, she hung the remaining ones up around the wall again, and Jen had a shortlist of gorgeous dresses to choose from.  They were all beautiful; simple, elegant evening dresses in lovely fabrics.  “Oh, Merry, they’re lovely!  Are you sure you don’t mind lending me one, though?  I mean, I’ll look after it as well as I possibly can, but I’m so clumsy.  What if I spill something on it, or damage it in some way?  I might ruin it!”

“Nonsense, my lamb!  I’m sure it will be fine.  That’s what drycleaners and seamstresses are for, after all.  They should be worn, not locked away in some room.  Now, stop fussing, and go and try them on.  I haven’t got all day, you know!”

Jen obeyed and took the dresses into the dressing room.

For a miracle, the one she liked the most fitted her perfectly.  The black satin clung where it should, tapered to a slight flare at mid-calf, and the off the shoulder neckline felt secure where it sat.  She went to show Merry.

“Perfect!” was the verdict.  “Simple, elegant – you look lovely, Jen.”

Jen smiled.  “Thanks.”

“Now, we haven’t finished yet – come and sit over here.”  She led Jen to the dressing table, where she rummaged about in a box on its top.  She handed Jen a pearl choker.  “Here, hold this whilst I put your hair up.”  She piled Jen’s curls up on top of her head, leaving a few tendrils falling around her face and at the back of her neck, and then she took the choker and fastened it around Jen’s throat.

Jen gave another twirl.

“You look lovely, my lamb.”

“Thank you so much Merry,” said Jen, kissing her cheek.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she replied with a fond smile.  “I’m enjoying myself.”  She rubbed her chin and frowned.  “Now, what have I…?” She snapped her fingers.  “Shoes!  Hang on…”

She disappeared back into the dressing room, from where Jen heard rummaging noises.  Then Merry’s muffled voice announced, “Aha!  I knew they were here somewhere!”  She re-emerged holding a pair of black satin shoes, to match the dress.  “I hope they fit, or we’re in a bit of a pickle!  You could always go barefoot, I suppose…”

Fortunately, they did fit.  “Lovely.” said Merry.  “Now all you’ll have to worry about is being pawed at by sex-starved academics all night,” she added, impishly.

“Merry!” protested Jen, pulling a horrified face at the thought.

Merry laughed.  “Oh, poor you!  I remember many a dinner when I was virtually alone amongst a load of stuffed shirts.  At least I had Aberforth as a shield.”

“Well, Rick will be there, so I won’t be completely alone.”

“Will he, now?” said Merry, her eyes twinkling.  “I’m sure you’ll be fine, then.  Such a lovely boy, my grandson.  His mother brought him up properly, thank goodness.  He’ll definitely look after you.  Actually, that reminds me – what, exactly, were you doing in my grandson’s flat the other night, young lady?”

Jen blushed and groaned inwardly.  “Sleeping!” she said, defensively.

Merry’s eyebrows rose.  “Really?”

“Yes, really!” she replied, indignantly.  “I fell asleep in the tack room and he didn’t want to wake me to ask where my room was, so he put me in his bed.  And he slept on the sofa,” she added, firmly, as Merry’s mouth began to twitch.

“That’s what he said.”  She sighed.  “I don’t know who I’m more disappointed in: you for falling asleep in such lovely company, or him for not pursuing the opportunity presented to him.”

Merry!” Jen protested.

Merry chuckled.  “Like I said, though, his mother brought him up properly.  Oh well.  Let’s get you out of that dress before it wrinkles.

Jen went to get changed.

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