Authors: Norman Russell
Lady Porteous looked down from her dressing-room window at 4 Queen Adelaide Gate, one of a row of elegant town mansions in St John’s Wood, and watched the scene of activity in the street below. Stevens, and the two younger footmen, were loading the trunks into the luggage van. The two carriages had already been brought round from the mews, and stood waiting in the private slip road.
Adelaide Porteous emitted a little sigh of disgust. Her husband had missed his daughters’ departure yet again. It had been the same last year, and at Christmas. There was always some lame excuse: Sir William is detained in chambers…. Sir William is still in court. Sir William this, Sir William that. Did he not value his family at all?
She continued to watch her servants loading the luggage van. The modest trunks of her daughter Lydia and Lydia’s husband, John Bruce, were put in first. They would be leaving from Euston at half past two for their home in Northampton – their ‘bivouac’, John called it, because they were never there long. Major John Bruce was a serving officer, and Lydia followed him around the world. They had made their farewells five minutes earlier, and had already settled themselves in one of the carriages.
Dear, stolid, unimaginative John! As smart as a pin, with clipped hair, clipped moustache, and clipped speech! At some stage during every visit he would remark how ‘funny’ it was
that she, and the road in which she lived, shared the same name. If not ‘funny’, then it was ‘dashed odd’. John Bruce had the rare gift of being fascinated by the mundane things of life.
She would never understand what he had seen in her daughter Lydia. Lydia didn’t sparkle, and had no dress sense. A girl of twenty-two should be able to make something more of herself, if only for her husband’s sake. It was not enough to be merely amiable.
Now they were manhandling the great, imposing trunks of her other son-in-law, Rupert, Earl of Avoncourt, into the van, three polished black arks, with the Avoncourt crest emblazoned on their sides. How different her two sons-in-law were! Whereas John had dressed himself for the journey to Northampton in one of his sober, no-nonsense tweed suits, Rupert, faced with the long haul by train and boat to Cannes, had favoured a black cutaway morning coat, worn with elegant pinstripe trousers. Everything about him was starched, polished and perfect. Only a true aristocrat, she thought, could afford to look so sartorially perfect without seeming effete.
Lady Porteous turned from the window, and glanced at herself in the full-length mirror of her wardrobe. A handsome, striking woman, with piercing dark eyes looked back at her, a woman beautifully dressed, with her rich black hair elegantly coiffured. She watched herself smile, and then saw the smile disappear as her smouldering resentment came once more to the surface.
Did he not value his family at all?
Adelaide Porteous went downstairs. Her husband’s secretary was standing at the study door, clutching a sheaf of legal papers.
‘Is Mary Jane still in the house, Lardner?’ she asked.
‘Yes, madam, Mary Jane’s in the drawing-room. I believe she’s waiting to see you.’ There was always something soothing and reassuring about Lardner. She left him peering at her over his pince-nez, and opened the door of the drawing-room. More than any other part of the house, the drawing-room reflected the deep but unostentatious luxury of 4 Queen Adelaide Gate. It was richly furnished with couches and chairs covered in gold brocade, gilt occasional tables, marble statues, and numerous
ferns in brass tubs. The wide windows were draped in rich, dark crimson curtains.
Her eldest daughter, Mary Jane, Countess of Avoncourt, was sitting near the fireplace, paging through a magazine. It was like looking in the mirror upstairs, and seeing a younger version of herself. Mary Jane had the same lithe grace as her mother, and had inherited her striking good looks. Her black hair was pulled back from her ears, and secured in a chignon.
‘So, Mama,’ she said, with just the suspicion of a drawl, ‘once again, Rupert and I are to leave without bidding Papa a fond farewell.’ The young woman cast the magazine aside
, and added, ‘One of these days, Rupert will begin to think the whole thing’s a deliberate slight.’
‘Where’s Rupert now?’ asked Mary Jane’s mother. She felt it necessary to say something, in order to drive away the sudden chill that clutched her as her daughter spoke. A slight? Lord Avoncourt was reputed to be the proudest man in Britain. The fact that this true aristocrat had married her daughter was a source of constant joy to her. She had manoeuvred the alliance of her eldest child to one of the highest in the land, and it had turned out to be a love-match.
A slight? What a fool William was! Confound him, and his chambers, and his courts! It had been fortunate indeed that Mary Jane had taken entirely after her in looks. There was, thank goodness, nothing of her father about her at all. Poor Lydia had taken after William. A dear girl, of course, but homely, and without William’s irrepressible sparkle.
‘Rupert, Mama, is below-stairs, dispensing largesse to the servants. When he’s done there, he’s going to have a quiet word with Mr Lardner in the study. I don’t know why. Probably to find out what Papa’s been up to. We shall have to leave in twenty minutes or so. Is there no possibility of Papa returning in time?’
‘None whatever! He doesn’t care a fig for any of us! He’d rather be closeted in that study of his with Lardner than do his duty to his family. But never mind your father for the moment, Rupert must not think – must not, do you hear? – that any slight is intended against him. Your father’s sins are those of omission,
not commission. I understand your husband, Mary Jane. He’s fiercely proud, I know – but then, so am I! I’m proud of my
, and proud of myself for bearing and breeding them. Above all, I’m proud of you! Rupert knows that. I watch him, you know, watching me. We’re both very keen on the value of
When Mary Jane replied, Adelaide Porteous noticed that her daughter’s carefully acquired air of nonchalance had been put aside, and with it the drawl that she had copied from her husband.
‘You’re just vexed, Mama, because Papa has contrived to be late yet again. You’re working yourself up into a rage, and when you do that, you sound like a scold! Papa was always missing, or late, wasn’t he? Missing from birthdays and anniversaries, I mean. He almost missed Diana’s christening! Anyway, it was I, not Rupert, who talked about a slight. That was silly and misconceived. And in any case, in spite of all your pique, you and Papa have always agreed together. You charge to his defence if anyone says a word against him.’
‘Well, of course I do! Sir William Porteous need never complain of disloyalty on my part. Besides, few people can match him in intellect. But here are a few home truths, my dear, which you can ponder on your journey to the South of France: your father is rapidly developing into a self-satisfied, pompous and tiresome bore. Oh, I know we make an admirable public couple, turning the right kind of face to Society at large, but he was never in love with me, you know, nor I with him.’
Lady Porteous suddenly laughed. It was an odd sound, her daughter thought, amused, and contemptuously indulgent, very much at odds with the bitterness of her words.
‘However, there’s one person your father does love,
. Himself! He loves himself, and all his works, and all his ways. Well, let it be so. If he chooses to live on the margins of his own family, that is his concern. Besides, he is generous, perhaps to a fault. There are worse men than he in the world, I suppose.’
The door opened, and Lord Avoncourt came into the room. The atmosphere shifted subtly to bring an undefined air of
deference. This haughty, impeccable man was only twenty-eight years old, but his length of pedigree, and his incalculable wealth, seemed to endow him with a special seniority and stature. He brought with him the fragrance of great riches and estates.
‘Well, Mother-in-law,’ he said, ‘Mary Jane and I must set out for Cannes. Please give my compliments to Sir William when he returns. It’s been a splendid week, a truly fitting celebration of your Silver Wedding. The dinner at the Savoy was superb. Give my love to Baby, when she gets back, won’t you? Come, Mary Jane; the carriage is waiting!’
Lord Avoncourt kissed his mother-in-law on the cheek. Their eyes met, and she saw that fleeting look of understanding that suggested an intangible sharing of some common quality that neither of them could easily define.
She saw them off from the steps of 4 Queen Adelaide Gate, watching the carriages turn out of the slip road and on to the main thoroughfare. The house had been full, seemingly to
, and for a whole week of celebration, the constraints imposed by Sir William Porteous’s constant dedication to his legal practice had been thrown off.
It had been at dinner on the previous night that the shadows of normality had begun to reassert themselves. Her husband had sat, morose and silent, toying with the stem of his wine glass, seeing and hearing nothing of their conversation. He was, she knew, thinking of the concluding stages of the trial of a desperate ruffian called Albert John Davidson, which had engaged his attention for the last three weeks. He was often subdued on the night before the last day of a trial for murder, especially when he knew that the verdict would be ‘guilty’, and the sentence, death.
She returned to the drawing-room, where Stevens had left her freshly ironed copy of the
on the window seat. She turned to the Court Circular, and read for the second time an announcement that had appeared in the late edition of the paper on the previous Friday:
It was a tremendous honour, another step forward for both of
them. Even William had recognized that fact. They had little in common now, but at least they both shared a determination to live in the present, with their eyes set firmly on the future. The past held no appeal for either of them
The past…. She and William had been married at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, on this day in 1867. It had been a grand affair, all things considered. Photographs had been taken, but they were long mislaid somewhere in the attics, with other relics of their early days together. She remembered William’s nervous fussing, and her own detached calm at the ceremony, and the hovering, anxious, weak face of poor Father, his faded good looks marred by something akin to anxious shame. The past….
A couple of years ago she had visited friends in Sussex, and had made a private pilgrimage to her childhood home. The stark, burnt ruins of Astley Court had yielded over the years to the kindly ministrations of ivy and bramble. Like Father, the ancient house had died, and passed into the earth. Looking at the site of her own dead childhood, she had recalled a couple of lines from one of the Elizabethan poets that she had read as a child at Astley, and wondered why they had troubled her.
She returned to the
That day there was an
item of news in the Court Circular.
Gideon Raikes! No one would ever know why the mere mention of that man’s name could fill her with blind terror, even though he had not crossed her path for twenty-five years.
Common sense told her that Gideon Raikes had long ceased to be a danger to her, but other more powerful instincts lurked behind common sense, and they sometimes sounded urgent alarms. She could hear them ringing now. All the opulence, all the security that hemmed and hedged her present life – was it to prove a mere illusion?