Authors: Anne Perry
Jack was in his evening clothes ready to receive his guests,
and had gone into his study to ponder over the information he had been given on various people’s political interests, relationships and spheres of influence. There was plenty of time for Charlotte to go upstairs again and see Emily, and assure her one more time that everyone would understand her absence, and the whole evening would be an excellent success because her foresight and planning had been so thorough.
She went slowly up the great winding staircase, lifting her skirts so as not to trip on them, and along the balcony above, which was now decked with flowers. In another hour she would be standing there welcoming the guests and explaining herself, and Emily’s absence. Please heaven she would remember what the footman at the door had said were their names, or they would have the tact to introduce themselves again!
Up the next flight she turned left along the landing to Emily’s room. She knocked briefly and went in. Emily was lying on top of the bed in a loose, pale-blue-and-green peignoir, her fair hair over her shoulders. Her face was unusually pale and a trifle pinched around the nose and mouth. She smiled rather wanly as Charlotte came in and sat down on the bed beside her.
“Ah, my dear,” Charlotte said gently. “You do look wretched. I’m so sorry.”
“It’ll pass,” Emily said with more hope than conviction. “It wasn’t nearly so bad with Edward. I felt a trifle squeamish some mornings, but it was gone by ten or eleven o’clock at the very worst. Did you feel like this with Jemima or Daniel? If you did you were very stoic. I never knew it.”
“No I didn’t,” Charlotte admitted. “In fact for the first two or three months I felt better than ever. But you are very early yet. This might not last more than a few weeks.”
“Weeks.” Emily’s blue eyes were full of disgust. “But I’ve so much to do! This is the beginning of the season and I must give balls, receptions, and attend the races at Ascot, the Henley Regatta, the Eton and Harrow cricket match, and endless luncheons, dinners and teas.” She slid down in the bed a little, hunching herself. “Jack won’t get the candidacy if they think his wife’s an invalid. The competition is terribly
hot. Fitz Fitzherbert is highly suitable, and under all that devastating charm I think he might be quite clever.”
“Don’t meet disaster halfway,” Charlotte said, trying to comfort her. “No doubt Mr. Fitzherbert will have his problems as well, it is simply that we do not know of them. But then it is our business to see that he does not know of ours. Let us just get this evening over successfully, and by next week you may feel much better. Everything is in good order, the table looks like a Dutch still life—it seems a shame to touch it.”
“What about the band?” Emily said anxiously. “Are they here? Are they properly dressed, and sober?”
“Of course they are,” Charlotte assured her. “They are immaculate, all in black with lovely blue sashes. And yes, they are perfectly sober—I think. Maybe one of the fiddlers was a touch more cheerful than is warranted so far, but quite well behaved. You have no cause for concern, I promise you.”
“I’m very grateful. But Charlotte, please, do be sweet to everyone.” She reached out her hand and took Charlotte’s. “However fatuous they are, or condescending, or whatever objectionable opinions they express? We cannot afford to offend them if Jack is to succeed. He is so new in the political arena. And some of the oddest people are highly influential.”
Charlotte put her hand on her heart. “I promise I will be the essence of tact and will neither express an undignified or unasked-for opinion about anything, nor laugh at anything at all except what was unquestionably meant as a joke.” She watched the tension ease out of Emily and the uncertainty change to laughter.
“I will not mention that my husband is a policeman,” she went on. “I know that is quite socially disastrous, unless of course he is of such senior rank, and a gentleman born, like Micah Drummond. And since Thomas is neither of these things, and both would be necessary, I shall lie like a horse trader.” Pitt’s father had been a gamekeeper on a country estate. Pitt came by his beautiful diction by having been educated with the only son of the big house, to keep the boy company. He was not a gentleman by birth, sympathy or inclination.
Charlotte, who had been born to an aspiring middle-class family, considerably above those who labored for a living and yet not quite into the aristocracy, had had to learn how to cope with only one resident serving girl, and a woman who came in twice a week to do the heavy scrubbing. She had learned how to cook and how to mend clothes, to shop economically, and to manage her household with efficiency, and even some enjoyment.
Emily, on the other hand, had learned how to oversee the workings of an enormous mansion in fashionable London, and on weekends from time to time, and longer spells out of season, of Ashworth Hall in the home counties. She had always been socially ambitious and quick to learn, enjoying the color and the subtleties, the challenge of wits and the exercise of charm. By now she had built herself a considerable reputation, which had even survived her early remarriage, and she was determined to use it to help Jack attain his newly set goal, affirmed so intensely after the revelations made during the murders at Highgate Rise.
“I shall be the soul of tact to absolutely everyone,” Charlotte finished triumphantly. “Even if I burst my stays with the effort.”
Emily giggled. “Be especially nice to Lord Anstiss, please? He will probably be the most important man here.” Suddenly the lightness vanished and she was utterly serious. “If anyone drives you frantic, stop before you say anything and think of that poor little woman in her wretched rooms Stephen Shaw took you to, and tens of thousands like her, sick and hungry and cold because their landlords won’t mend the roofs or the drains, and they cannot afford to leave because there’s nowhere else to go. Then you’ll be civil to the Devil himself if it will help.”
“I will,” Charlotte promised, leaning forward and brushing the hair off Emily’s brow gently. “Believe me, I am not so self-indulgent or so undisciplined as you think.”
Emily said nothing, but lowered her eyes and smiled more widely.
For another thirty minutes they talked of fashion, gossip, who might be coming this evening, whom they liked or disliked, and why. Then Charlotte tidied the bed, straightening the sheets and plumping the pillows, and assured Emily one
more time of her preparations, and the tact she would exercise, regardless of temptation, and took her leave ready to await the first arrivals.
Jack met her on the stairs. He was a handsome man, not perhaps in the most traditional way, but he had remarkably fine dark gray eyes with lashes any woman would have committed crimes for, and the most utterly charming smile. Indeed in their first acquaintance both Emily and Charlotte had discounted him as a deal too smooth to be of any virtue at all. But a guarded wariness had gradually turned into respect and then affection when he had proved himself a friend of both courage and judgment in exceptionally difficult circumstances after Emily’s first husband had been murdered, and Emily herself had fallen under suspicion. It had been some time before Emily had learned to love him, but now she had no doubt about it whatever, and Charlotte was happy every time she thought of them both.
“How is she?” Jack asked, glancing upwards towards Emily’s room.
“She’ll be all right,” Charlotte said quickly. “It will pass, I promise you.”
He made an attempt to look unconcerned. “Are you ready?” He glanced at her new gown, a gift from Emily for the occasion and something she would never have had the money for herself, nor indeed an event at which to wear such a thing. It was a deep Prussian blue, a shade which suited her dark auburn hair and honey-warm complexion. Naturally, since it was Emily’s gift, it was up to the minute in fashion, décolleté at the front, with a paneled skirt embroidered asymmetrically, very à la mode, and scarcely any bustle at all. The best people were wearing only the very slightest padding this season, but a most elegant train.
Jack had been farsighted enough to learn something about fashion, and he fully appreciated the gown both for its social statement and for the way it flattered her. But mostly, she suspected, because he understood the way it made her feel. He too had spent a good deal of his life with insufficient money to dress or behave as he wished.
His smile broadened to a grin. There was no need for words; explanations would have been crass.
They had reached the top of the stairs when the clatter of
horses outside announced the first arrivals, and a moment later the doors opened to a babble of chatter and laughter, a rustle of cloaks being removed, hard heels on the marble floor, and silk and taffeta skirts rattling against each other, and against the balustrade of the stair. The guests swept upward to be greeted, mortified that they were first, but totally unable to retreat and return at a better time. It was simply not done to be first. Then who else would mark one’s arrival?
“Sir Reginald—Lady West, how delightful to see you,” Charlotte said with a radiant smile. “I am Mrs. Pitt. Mrs. Radley is my sister, but most unfortunately she has been taken unwell, so it is my good fortune to stand in her place and make you welcome. Of course you are already acquainted with my brother-in-law, Mr. Jack Radley.”
“How do you do, Mrs. Pitt,” Lady West said a trifle coolly, taken aback at not finding whom she expected. “I hope Mrs. Radley’s indisposition is nothing serious?”
“Not at all,” Charlotte assured her. It would be indelicate to mention its cause, but it could be implied. “It is one of the trials women have to bear, and it is best done graciously.”
“Oh—of course—I see.” Lady West collected her wits and managed to force a smile. It was annoying to be caught out in slow thinking and she was irritated with herself for being stupid, and also with Charlotte for having observed it. “Please give her my very best wishes for her recovery.”
“I will—most kind of you. I am sure she will be obliged.” And with that the Wests moved on to greet Jack, and for him to escort them into the first room cleared for dancing. Charlotte turned to the couple immediately behind them, a dyspeptic-looking young man with ginger hair and a girl in pink, while at the foot of the stairs yet another couple were already being helped out of their cloaks and looking upward.
It was a further half hour before the first guest arrived whom Charlotte knew even by reputation other than Emily’s careful schooling, and a further fifteen minutes before she saw with great pleasure the tall, erect, almost gaunt figure of Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould. She had been Emily’s first husband’s great-aunt, and for many years now one of Charlotte’s dearest friends. Indeed Great-Aunt Vespasia had conspired with Charlotte and Emily in helping to solve many of
Pitt’s cases, meddling with considerable flair in the detection of crime, and less successfully in the reform of laws regarding social conditions about which they felt most passionately.
Had it not been totally unacceptable, and therefore embarrassing to everyone, Charlotte would have raced down the stairs and taken Aunt Vespasia’s cloak herself. As it was she had to be content to mutter some polite nonsense to the large woman she was at that moment greeting, and something agreeable but equally inane to her husband, who was dressed more vividly than she. There was a scarlet sash over his chest with a wonderful array of medals and orders bejeweling him. She could do no more than glance over their shoulders at Great-Aunt Vespasia climbing slowly up the curve of the staircase, her silver head high, her tiara winking in the lights, her dove-gray gown sewn with crystals like stars, and her train precisely, to the inch, the most fashionable length.
“Good evening Charlotte, my dear,” she said calmly when she reached the top. “I assume you are standing in for Emily?”
“I am afraid she is not feeling well this evening.” Charlotte dropped the very slightest curtsey. “She will be terribly disappointed not to have seen you, but I am delighted to be in her place.”
Vespasia smiled with perfectly genuine pleasure, inclined her head in acknowledgment, spoke warmly to Jack, and then swept past to join the throng in the first reception room. As she entered there was a hush, a turning of heads and a quick murmur of appreciation. Everyone knew who she was. Fifty years ago she had been one of the great beauties of her day, and even now at eighty she had a structure of bone and a hairline across the brow that made many a younger woman envious. She was frailer than she had been even a short while ago, but she still held her head as if her tiara were a crown, and could with a glance freeze an impertinent comment on the lips of an unfortunate offender.
Charlotte felt a lift of pleasure, almost excitement, as she watched Aunt Vespasia disappear among the crowd. With her here the whole evening would have a quality of glamour and purpose far deeper than a mere social exercise. Something of importance might be begun.
A few moments later she welcomed Mr. Addison Carswell
and his wife. Emily had told her he was a magistrate of considerable influence, sitting in one of the central city courts. He was not a remarkable man in appearance, of average height and slightly stocky build. His hair was receding although it was still thick from the top of his head backwards, but it was nondescript brown, and his mustache was minimal, his cheeks clean shaven. It was only when she was speaking to him in the usual polite, rather stilted phrases that she observed the strength of his features, and the intelligence in his eyes. It was a face of good balance, and without meanness.
Mrs. Carswell was a solid woman, strong and thickset, but her face was handsome in its own fashion, with straight nose, steady eye and a candor of bearing that indicated an inner calm. This social whirl might find her out of her depth. She looked the kind of woman who had no ready wit to swap comments with the ladies of high fashion, but neither would she need it for her happiness. Her values might rest largely in her home and family.
Accompanying their parents were the four Carswell daughters, each presented in turn. The eldest, Mary Ann, had come with her husband, Algernon Spencer. He was a large, rather bluff young man with too much hair for the current mode, but presentable enough otherwise. Mary Ann herself was as pleased as any girl might be who has succeeded in marrying reasonably well, and ahead of her sisters.