Chapter 2 – An enlightening evening of entertainment
Two days after the arrival of the invitation from Lord Rydges, the Stanwell ladies attended a much-anticipated evening of cards, music and supper at the house of their neighbours, the Qantas-Link’s.
Mr and Mrs Qantas-Link had moved into the area only a short time before the Stanwell’s, and the two families’ mutual strangeness to the area had done much to forge a friendship. The Qantas-Link’s had six children in all, their eldest a daughter by the name of Bernice who was much the same age as Lily. The lack of other genteel families with adult children in the vicinity had forced a closer connection between Lily and Bernice than probably would have otherwise naturally occurred. It was obvious that their different temperaments could not make for a deep friendship. As Anthea had once wryly observed to her mother, it was more a match of convenience and borrowed bonnets.
The supper evening had not started well for Anthea. Mr Pitwater was also a guest and had manoeuvred himself to stand at Anthea’s elbow in the large drawing room, locking her uncomfortably close to the generous fire. Miss Talbot, the Qantas-Link’s elderly relative, had deftly made her escape, but Anthea and Mr Qantas-Link had been trapped by their own good manners. Mr Pitwater had then proceeded to depress them with a laborious discussion of a newspaper article that had decried the wild behaviour of the Prince Regent.
“His moral turpitude must not be allowed to continue unchecked. He is a royal personage and should understand his exalted place!” Mr Pitwater said, finally coming to a pause in his exhortations. He took a punctuating bite of his cake, crumbs falling down the front of his plain black evening jacket and limp cravat.
“I think it is exactly because he does know his exalted place that he acts as he does,” Anthea said, unable to help herself from taking a contrary position. If Mr Pitwater said the sky was blue, Anthea knew she would have to argue that it was, quite plainly, red. She was not proud of the urge, but there it was, a sad defect in her character.
Mr Pitwater lifted his small, pink-rimmed eyes from his plate and stared at her in the manner of a man who had seen a horse talk. By now, Anthea thought crossly, he should know that she was not a Milk-Miss, mouthing only yes-sir-no-sir-whatever-you-say-sir.
Obviously taking advantage of the vicar’s bemusement, Mr Qantas-Link smiled at Anthea, and said, “Miss Stanwell, I believe your dear mother requires your presence. May I escort you to her?”
Anthea turned to find her mother seated on a chaise longue across the room, deep in conversation with Mrs Qantas-Link and taking no notice of either of her daughters. Nevertheless, Anthea bobbed a quick curtsey to Mr Pitwater and, with a grateful glance at her host, took his arm. She knew she must try and cultivate more tolerance – Mr Pitwater was not a bad man, merely irritating, and she could not spend all evening trying to avoid him. Still, she had been given the chance to escape, and she was going to take it.
“Lud!” Mr Qantas-Link exclaimed under his breath as they crossed the room, nodding to the other guests as they passed. “After that marathon, I am on the side of the Prince Regent.”
He winked at Anthea. She smiled, unfazed by the familiarity. He reminded her very much of her dear Papa. Not so much in looks – Papa had been of average height with classical features, whereas Mr Qantas-Link was a tall man with a long-boned face that, at rest, looked a little cadaverous, but in motion was all good humour. His similarity to Papa was in his kind nature and gentlemanly manners.
As they approached the two ladies on the blue velvet chaise, Mrs Stanwell looked up with a look of intense gratitude. “Mr Qantas-Link, how can I thank you and your wife for the kind offer of your carriage to take Anthea and Lily to Lakeside estate? Your generosity is overwhelming.”
“It is my pleasure, Madam,” he said, bowing.
“And they must have Thomas too,” Mrs Qantas-Link said to her husband. She was a flurry of hands and vivid colour: bright cheeks and mouth and chestnut hair that, under a dainty cap of lace, still held its rich reds and browns. “We can spare him, and we cannot let two girls travel to County Canberra and an Earl’s estate without the services of a footman. What would it be like!”
“Indeed, my dear,” Mr Qantas-Link said. “It is all settled then.”
“We are very grateful, sir,” Anthea said. “I know it will be a great comfort to Mama to know that we have your man with us.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mr Pitwater heading their way.
“The roads are dangerous places these days, what with the highway men, and those dispossessed from their land,” Mr Qantas-Link said. He smiled reassuringly at Mrs Stanwell. “The driver will be armed, madam, so you need have no fear.”
“Anthea, do come here,” Lily called. She was sitting at a pretty little pianoforte in the far corner with Bernice. “Do come and see this music.”
Lily was in excellent looks, Anthea thought, watching her sister for a moment in the soft light cast by the extravagant profusion of wax candles. Lily wore her white satin evening dress – the high waist tied with a simple length of blue silk – and had caught up her dark hair in the new asymmetrical style, described in a recent issue of La Belle Assemblée. The style dictated a cascade of soft curls to one side with only a few delicate tendrils on the other. Anthea had tried it herself, but it had not suited her stronger features. She had stayed with her customary braided high knot, the natural wave in her hair creating a becoming frame to her face.
Bernice, seated beside Lily, had inherited her mother’s vivid complexion, but the brightness had already turned somewhat florid, and she had not been granted with that lady’s luxurious hair. Instead, she had received her father’s flat brown locks that she’d bravely twisted into fashionable tight curls around her red face and dressed with a profusion of faux roses. She wore a pale green crepe gown, swagged with red silk at the hem, and draped with a Norwich shawl of rich russets and gold. Yet, even with such opulent fashion and attention to coiffure, she was still outshone by her more simply dressed friend.
“They make a pretty picture, do they not?” Mrs Qantas-Link said.
“Indeed, Madam,” Anthea said diplomatically.
With a curtsey to her elders, she joined the two girls, taking a somewhat circuitous route behind the well-stocked supper table, out of Mr Pitwater’s path.
“Listen, Anthea. Isn’t this lovely,” Lily said, embarking on a melody. “It is by that Viennese man, Beethoven, and called For Elise.”
Although Lily must have only just sighted it, she played the lilting notes with barely any hesitation and with great feeling. Anthea smiled with pride at her sister’s accomplishment.
“Fur Elise,” Bernice corrected pompously. “And he is Austrian.”
“I wonder who Elise is?” Lily said, ignoring the remark. “He must love her to create such beauty in her name.”
Anthea nodded her agreement, deciding it was probably fruitless to point out Mr Beethoven’s true nationality. “It is a beautiful piece. Perhaps you could make a copy and play it one evening for Lord and Lady Rydges.”
Lily looked at Bernice. “May I make a copy?”
Bernice gave a small shrug. “I don’t see why not.” With a sigh, she added, “You two are so lucky to be going to the Rydges' estate.”
“And a ball,” Lily said. Her tone had just a hint of smugness within it.
Bernice focused on Anthea. “You will probably dance with Lord Dansworth, the Earl’s son. He is heir, you know.”
“Yes, I believe he is to be one of the party,” Anthea said.
Although she had, of course, met Lord and Lady Rydges during her season, she had not met their son, or even their daughter. The former had been at University and the latter had not yet left the schoolroom.
Bernice leaned in and lowered her voice. “Lord Dansworth will have at least 40,000 pounds a year, and he is still unmarried! What do you say to that?” Not waiting for a response, she added, “My cousin, Rosamund, lives in Town. She keeps up with all the happenings, especially of the Upper Ten Thousand. She has told me that Lord Dansworth has such a reputation. She has seen him from across the street and she says he is very handsome. He is a rake, you know, and a dandy. Just fancy, you will meet a rake!”
“What has he done to deserve such an epithet?” Anthea asked, guiltily aware that she was being drawn into gossip.
“He is one of the Prince Regent’s set,” Bernice said. “They are all profligates.”
“Yes, but what has he done?” Anthea repeated.
Bernice’s little mouth pursed into delighted disapproval. “Rosamund said that he gambles enormous amounts, and drinks and fights. He was sent down from Oxford and no one knows why!”
“He sounds rather exciting,” Lily said, finishing the music with a small flourish. “I will certainly dance with him, if he asks me.”
“Will you set your cap at him?’ Bernice asked. “It would be wonderful if you were to become Lady Lily. Then you could invite me to Town.”
“He will hardly take any notice of us,” Anthea said repressively. “He will marry according to his rank.” She winced, recognising a black clad shape sidling along the wall towards them. “Mr Pitwater,” she said, forcing a cheerful note into her voice. “Are you an admirer of Mr Beethoven?”
“I believe not,” Mr Pitwater said, coming to hover once more at her elbow. He had added small flakes of pastry to the cake crumbs already caught in his cravat. “He is too foreign for my liking. I cannot believe anyone of taste could prefer him to our own majestic composers.”
“Really?” Anthea said. She could have left it at that, but once again, the devil was on her shoulder. “I must disagree with you,” she continued. “There is a stolidity to our music that the continentals consistently rise above. Do you not agree?”
She smiled at Mr Pitwater. It seemed cultivating the virtue of tolerance was still beyond her reach.
Next time: Frank discussions and fashion
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© Alison Goodman 2012.
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