Page:Court Royal.djvu/379

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came round her, entreating her to honour them, but she refused all. She said she was tired.

At first Joanna was occupied with her own thoughts, and paid no attention to what passed about her, but she presently woke to the sense that she had seated herself in a wasp’s nest. The ladies around her were faded beauties or mothers, and resented the arrival of a stranger on their preserves who carried off the beaux from themselves or from their daughters.

By slow degrees she was roused to give attention to the conversation that went on about her, and to become aware that words were flying around barbed and poisoned.

‘Who is that child in pink yonder?’ asked a handsome lady on the verge of thirty, who must at one time have been a queen of beauty. ‘Can you tell me, Mrs. Delany? It is cruel to send children who cannot be over seventeen, and ought to be in bed and sleeping.’

The lady addressed sat on the other side of Joanna. Joanna looked sharply round; she was curious to see Mrs. Delany, in whose service she was supposed to have been so many years. That lady shrugged her shoulders contemptuously, and, returning Joanna’s stare, answered the faded beauty.

‘My dear, how can I tell? The ball has ceased to be select. What the committee can be about is more than I can answer, admitting persons of whom one knows nothing.’

‘Is that worse,’ asked Joanna innocently, ‘than giving characters to servants you have never seen? There was much talk of a lady having done this when I was at Court Royal.’

Mrs. Delany turned crimson, and sat back.

‘I have known quite nameless, unknown persons give themselves out as friends of people of rank,’ said a lady on the other side of Mrs. Delany, ‘who turned out on inquiry to have been governesses or companions in the family.’

‘I have heard,’ said Joanna, ‘of gentlemen so absolutely nameless nothings that they have had to borrow their wives’ names and get knighted in them.’

The lady put up her fan instantly.

‘What bad form it is, Lady Hawkins,’ said the ex-queen, ‘in unmarried girls wearing jewelry!’ and her eyes rested on a necklet round Joanna’s throat.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Joanna. ‘Is Mrs. Gathercole addressing me? I ask because I see you wearing a brooch I coveted the other day, but I was too late—it was sold to Captain Gathercole.’