She wore a long blue
dress with many buttons and a dark shawl. There was something...askew about
her, as if she had been in a tussle. Still, to a connoisseur such as the
Colonel the cheap garb, the look of positive terror she gave him, were nothing
in relation to the perfection of feature and form she presented. The quintessence,
he thought to himself. Of what he could not say. Simply the quintessence.
"You have come," she breathed, rooted to the spot. "At last."
"I was here all along, actually. A runaway team of horses..." he approached carefully. Frightened animal herself. No use grabbing at the reins. Must gain its trust, rather. That coachman should be shot. "...nearly did me in."
He bent down and showed her the missing button.
"Where will we go?" she asked, and looked behind, drawing the shawl tight around her trembling shoulders.
"Are you being followed?"
"Yes." Suddenly she shrank to his side. The woman was wide open. It alarmed him, how she clung. Not affectionate so much as grabbing, possessive.
"By a constable?" he asked suspiciously.
"A man, then? Someone you don't want bothering you?"
She nodded vigorously. Her hair brushed against his face.
"Well come," he said, trying to extricate himself. His uniform had suffered enough damage for one evening. "Look, have you any money?"
She reached down the collar of her dress, brought out a thick roll of notes, more than he had ever seen, and handed them to him.
"Take me away from here," she beseeched.
Tattson House was built on the foundations of a Roman villa. In those times, even Mayfair lay outside the city walls, in the rolling Albion countryside. A solid rectangle, each corner of the building rose to a gargoyled waterspout. Windows were apportioned in perfect Palladian taste. The bristling gate opened onto a cobblestone crescent which in turn drew up to a large, porticoed door supported by columns with exquisitely worked Doric capitols. The whole creation sang in its stillness. Here, guests descended from their carriages, dressed in the flimsiest of expensive fabrics, fine linens and silks, shimmering single layers in deference to the Baron's need of heat. Once inside though, a team of servants waved ostrich feathers over massive blocks of ice to create a cooling, artificial breeze. On the Grand Stair, beneath the Maastricht Tattson, a chamber orchestra played.
And so they danced, the privileged set, society shuffling its deck, dealing itself another hand of solitaire. Lady Tabitha caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror, a pretty thing being twirled by a bearish officer of the Home Guards. This pearly gray gown made her look naked, humble, yet glamorous too, on account of its sheen. She had heard people buzzing about its "effect", which, if they had stopped to think a moment longer, they would have realized was due to its lack of diamonds, the too-obvious complement to such attire. Turn your weaknesses into strengths, was her advice to these would-be beauties on the floor all around her. They were so weighted down with gold, silver, ivory, and gems they looked like shop windows on legs. After the waltz, she begged off, allowed her hand to be kissed, and managed to wander unattended. She could do that too, turn away with a cool smile the proffered hand. It made her seem lonely, tragic. A frown flitted over her features at this constant concentration on how she seemed to others, not how she felt herself, which was awful, the knot in her stomach growing tighter by the minute. The Tattson House ball was the climactic end to the spring season, and she had a dread sense of reckoning, as if all accounts must be squared before the night was through, and hers would be found wanting.
Among its other attractions, Tattson House offered a conservatory, a winding, glassed-in walk with large islands of potted plants and wrought-iron furniture. Here, assignations were popularly carried out, far from the watch of older brothers and sharp-eyed chaperones. Lady Tabitha discreetly made her way past a couple in earnest conversation, the man holding the young woman's hand, patting it reverently, as if it were a mink about to be skinned, and came at last to the furthermost tip, where one could look up at the mighty tower of Saint Steven's, recently turned into a flaming pillar by order of the King. It was unclear why he had commanded fires to be lit on each of its many tiers, to be maintained, "without cessation," though it certainly made a striking addition to the nightscape of the city. The old and ailing monarch's increasingly eccentric wishes were obeyed without question.
A doddering butler inclined a silver tray towards her. It held a single goblet of punch.
"The gentleman," he explained, "did not want to disturb you personally, but thought you might be thirsty."
"Gentleman?" she smiled, taking the cup. "And where might he be?"
"In the library, Miss. Least that's where I saw him last."
"Did he give you something for your trouble?"
"Well he needn't have, Miss." The man gave her a warm look. "I must be getting back to my duties now."
She blushed at the tact of Lutwidge, that he sensed how much she hated to be pursued. The punch was pink, and the goblet a cool bronze with Cupid figures around the base. Reentering the main hall, as she must, to reach the library, she noted no one else held such a vessel. It made her feel like a queen.
Alas, the sole person at the Tattson House ball from whom one could not slip away was the Baroness Tattson herself. She was got up in a spectacularly awful "medieval" gown, the kind that had its own supports rather than relying on the body of the wearer. Turrets, crenelations, flying buttresses, even little streamers fluttering from the high, artificial shoulders, entombed the unfortunate lady. It took up so much room bystanders had to keep their distance and be on guard for any sudden movements, as if the Castle Perilous motif extended to her having a surrounding moat as well.
"You know the Earl, I believe."
She gave her pretty smile to the Earl of Choir, a self-important young man who pretended to take a great interest in her future but whom she suspected of more plain, less altruistic motives. He stood by the Duchess's side, doing duty as her husband, greeting people with nods, stepping off with the more important--the more titled, for he was a tremendous snob--for a few private words. One could see him at sixty, a querulous, grumbling old man, still with his fine features but drained of all blood.
"You look extraordinary," he said.
"It is our hostess who deserves that compliment."
"This?" the Duchess screamed, obviously pleased.
"You heard about your great-uncle Roderick?" the Earl asked.
She regarded him blankly. Her family, whom she had never forgiven for forcing her mother to sign that evil covenant, remained to Lady Tabitha a group of strangers who occasionally tried communicating with her on thick stationery with elaborate wax seals and a fantastic coat of arms. She had never responded to a single entreaty, invitations to weddings, christenings, proposed visits to great houses, and never would. Of a relation named Roderick, though, she had vague knowledge, the memory of her mother remarking on a favorite uncle of her late father's. More than that she did not know.
"Sir Roderick, of Shepperton," the Earl went on, "has breathed his last. The news just came down."
"You poor child," the Baroness said. "It is just as well the tidings had not reached you. Black would never do at a fancy dress ball."
"I do not think the news would have reached me at all if not for you," Lady Tabitha answered gravely. "My family and I are estranged. I doubt they even know where to find me. I certainly do not notify them of my whereabouts."
"Sir Roderick had a distinguished career in the Foreign Office." The Earl was studying her closely. "
I believe your father accompanied him on a mission to Saint Petersburg."
"Yes. It is quite possible."