Annabella had already been to the theatre, which, following the review at Hyde Park, had been taken in by a more than customarily attentive audience, perhaps owing to the general exhaustion of all present.
Even the actors, she suspected, had joined the crowds earlier in the day to catch a glimpse of the Tsar, as had much of London and the surrounding districts.
Indeed, Annabella had heard it said that some poor ragamuffins had fallen from the overladen boughs of the trees lining the King’s Road, dying in their over-eagerness to catch a glimpse of the Russian Emperor, who was, she had to admit, a fine figure of a man, greatly superior to the Prince Regent in every conceivable way, but all the same hardly worthy of a broken neck.
Following a change of outfit, Annabella made the journey over Pall Mall to Wycliffe Hall, which had recently changed hands owing to a death in the family, heirs to an ancient estate in Cumbria but long absent from society.
Despite living on the other side of the majestic street, Annabella had not noticed the re-occupation of Wycliffe Hall until invitations to a party in commemoration of the recent peace with France were delivered to her home, as well as many others in the West End.
Annabella was surprised to hear that any balls were to be held there at all. The house had stood largely silent and empty since the previous winter, in defiance of the gaiety and noise that were the rule for that notorious thoroughfare.
Annabella was accompanied in her short journey across the busy road by Mademoiselle Fontenoy, her former governess and enduring companion, who had come in her youth from Paris to escape the revolution after it consumed her family along with most of the rest of France’s nobility.
Exploiting her charms and her distant relation, by way of the Huguenot connection, to Annabella’s family, the Frenchwoman had ingratiated herself with the inhabitants of Hillingdon House and had received refuge there and in the wider domains of the Pilton family, lending a touch of the exotic to that already respectable tribe of Devonshire gentry.
While Annabella’s brother had been away at Eton, Mademoiselle Fontenoy had been her tutor, not a very exacting one, but just the kind of person of whom you could ask questions about the world and get a frank answer.
Sir William, Annabella’s father, and Lady Charlotte, her mother, were at that time employed in a hectic survey of the Pilton family estates in the west country, which, due to their deeply agricultural character, were less than commonly affected by the Corn Bill.
Nevertheless, the possible stirrings of unease across the nation had inspired the Baronet to plunge his active mind back into the affairs that had so long enriched his lineage, namely the maintenance of a well-ordered and fertile series of farms established along the wandering course of the River Exe throughout some of the prettiest and most profitable farmsteads in England.
This exercise had the added advantage of giving the head of the Pilton household an excuse for being absent from London during the season, which was no longer to his tastes.
That her father could take an interest in rural affairs was amusing to Annabella, who had been educated, almost over-educated some would say, for the urban life.
However, there was a touch of the rustic, she reflected, to her own tastes, seeing as she was frequently drawn west out of the metropolis towards the market gardens of Chelsea on sunny days, which were too infrequent this summer to go unremarked. Annabella, it is fair to say, delighted almost as much in flowers and birds as she did in social calls and dances.
Mademoiselle Fontenoy took Annabella’s hand and pointed out to her a hackney cab, one of many drawn up by the steps of Wycliffe Hall, from which Captain Frederick Pilton, Annabella’s brother, was descending in the company of another officer, mustachioed and bristling with importance.
This gentleman, Annabella noticed, stumbled slightly as he reached the street, requiring her brother to steady him. She thought she caught a look of strange condescension pass between the two soldiers, which made her feel curiously uncomfortable, not knowing precisely what it indicated.
“Ils sont bourrés,” whispered Mademoiselle Fontenoy, seeing it too.
“Drunk?” mouthed Annabella, “but of course. They have been at Pulteney Hotel. The whole of London must be drunk today.”
“Not us,” replied the Frenchwoman with a tart smile.
“No, indeed,” said Annabella, catching up to her brother and taking him by the arm. “Good evening, Fred,” she said, trying to make him jump and succeeding.
“Bella!” he said, recognizing her and throwing his arms open expansively. “Capital. Allow me to introduce my dear friend, Colonel Gordon.”
“Gordon,” he said, now addressing the tall officer who stood with a distinct dignity despite the near fall Annabella had just witnessed. “This is my sister, Anne Isabelle, whom we call Annabella. Her lovely friend here is Mademoiselle Fontenoy.”
Colonel Gordon took Annabella’s hand and kissed it. She could feel the touch of his mouth and the prickling of the mustache through her glove. She nodded to him, fiercely aware of his gaze, which was turning now to Mademoiselle Fontenoy. The soldier said something to her in an accented French, which Annabella struggled to understand, but she could see her companion blushing.
“Enchantée,” Mlle Fontenoy managed, laughing.
“Right,” said Frederick. “Now we all know each other; shall we go inside? I want to know what our new neighbor has in store for us. It’s nice to see he knows it’s the season after all.”
Frederick took off at speed, and Annabella quickly went after her brother and his friend to avoid getting left behind with the less nimble guests. As Mademoiselle Fontenoy caught up with her, Annabella asked her “What did Colonel Gordon say to you?”
“Oh, it was nothing,” said Mademoiselle Fontenoy, once again turning pink under her copious make up. “Just something gallant.”
“I see,” said Annabella, allowing her friend the flirtation.
Fontenoy, who had been a noted beauty when first engaged as Annabella’s governess, was now slipping serenely into spinsterhood.
The house they were entering was grand, with three stories, pillars, and stucco. It looked as if it had been built to rival the pretensions of the Prince Regent, the reconstruction of whose own mansion further down the street was often the cause of disturbance to all the less regal inhabitants of Pall Mall.
They went up the wide staircase that fronted the street and passed through an ornate set of doors, which had been thrust open to meet the droves of extravagantly dressed people who were flocking to see what had been done with Wycliffe Hall by its new owner.
Fred and his friend thrust their way through this sea of humanity, urging the ladies on behind them, occasionally clapping a solid hand down upon the epauletted shoulders of neighbors and acquaintances in jovial greetings that nevertheless failed to pause the Pilton party’s eager progress through the gates of Wycliffe Hall.
In the hall, the Pilton siblings and their friends were met by servants, who checked their invitations, welcomed them into the house, and took their cloaks. Then, they followed the general movement of the guests up a grand staircase and into an upstairs ballroom decorated with mirrors and paintings and lit by candles.
One side of the room, which faced the street, was dominated by tall windows, and a set of doors opened out onto a balcony overlooking Pall Mall.
On entering the room, Frederick slowed his pace and offered his arm to Mademoiselle Fontenoy, who accepted with a smile and a glance at Annabella. Frederick’s friend Colonel Gordon turned to her, his face red and his eyes twinkling. Annabella took his arm, which was thick and warm.
He must have overheated, either on horseback at Hyde Park or while dancing at the Pulteney Hotel.
The room, now sorted into couples, divided as a tubby woman in a blue dress, her head covered by a gauzy shawl, entered through a gilded set of doors thrown open before her by lavishly attired footmen, on the arm of a little man dressed in dun-colored trousers and a blue coat, evidently a civilian.
No, the man is not precisely small, but slight; insignificant was almost the word, as if he were trying to hide from view.
This couple, plainly the host and hostess, stood out peculiarly from the mass of their guests in the way that only aristocracy can.
Only true wealth could permit these two to be so plain and ordinary amid such a lavishly presented audience.
The host and hostess took up a position at the head of the room, the fat woman leaning awkwardly yet contentedly on the slender nobleman’s arm. She gazed around her, taking in the faces of the guests, looking rather like a young baby who is still struggling to focus on the world.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, in an accented English. “I am pleased to welcome you on behalf of my dear friend Lord Brigham,” at this, the little man bowed his head to the room, “to Wycliffe Hall.” The woman struggled to pronounce the ‘W’ in ‘Wycliffe,’ noticed Annabella.
“Good God!” said Colonel Gordon in an audible whisper, which permitted Annabella to smell the whisky on his breath. “Is that the Princess of Wales?”
“Good God,” said Annabella’s brother, pivoting his head to catch a closer look. “I think it is.”
An uncertain ripple of recognition spread throughout the room, which the plump woman could not have failed to notice, even in her myopic isolation. Scattered applause and murmurs of sympathy broke out across the ballroom. Military men hurried to salute with ladies making their curtsies.
The Princess of Wales smiled bashfully and fell silent, seemingly unsure of what to say, turning for a whispered word with her companion, who said something back to her smilingly, which made her laugh. “Well,” she said, “as we are acquainted, let us dance.”
The host gave a signal to a little orchestra who sat in a candle-lit alcove to one side of the room. They started playing a cotillion. The host and hostess sank back as if into the shadows, and the guests poured onto the floor to begin the first dance. It was no surprise to Annabella that Colonel Gordon requested that she dance with him, since he had been paying quiet attention to her since they met and had not failed to continue squeezing her hand with his bold fingers since the moment it had first been offered to him.
The man is forceful without much subtlety, although he is a pleasing dancer, keeping the beat flawlessly enough, stamping it out with the spurs of his boots jingling.
As they sped past a wall of mirrors, Annabella caught sight of her reflection. Her curls, which she was careful to maintain, tied with ribbons, were the perfect accent to her face, which was sightlier now, she thought, than it had ever been. At worst, Annabella was comparable to a pretty peasant girl, such as she saw when, rarely, she accompanied her parents to their west country estates. For a moment, she thought she could see herself barefoot in a field, wearing a smock and apron, gathering in the harvest. Summer, such as it was, had been kind to her, although the effect it had on her skin defied the paleness that was in vogue amongst ladies in the capital.
The dancers were curious to see what had happened to Princess Caroline, but the woman was no longer to be seen, and neither was her dear friend, Lord Brigham, the apparent owner of the house.
Annabella wondered what the nature of their relationship could be, although she was unable to picture them at all as an amorous couple. They had seemed far more like fond cousins than paramours.
“You are wondering what the Prince Regent would think,” said Colonel Gordon, slyly, before surrendering Annabella’s hand.
She found herself now dancing with her brother, who had also heard this comment.
“I think we would be in trouble if he knew we were here,” said Frederick, laughing. “We shall have to be more careful when accepting invitations in the future.”
“Yes,” said Colonel Gordon, “but who is this Brigham fellow?”
“Damned if I know,” said Fred, “but the name is familiar now that you say it, and, of course, he is our neighbor.”
“Whig!” called back Colonel Gordon, causing some of the ladies and gentlemen assembled around the dancing to look around, wondering what had been meant by this.
Annabella ignored this commotion and focused on the dance. As hussar officers, Frederick and Colonel Gordon along with their partners had naturally been invited to join the leading square. There was also a Guards officer and his wife, both of whom were known to Annabella from dances earlier in the season.
The room was packed out with British and foreign soldiers and their ladies, all now swirling and exchanging partners in an imitation of the country dance.
When the cotillion was finished, Annabella was once again asked by Colonel Gordon for the pleasure of the dance, and she was pleased enough to give it to him. However, when once more they separated, she told him that she was acquainted with the Guards officer and would be obliged to dance with him next. Gordon took this levelly, but his gaze continued to follow her until she slipped out of his sight, she hoped, through a mass of brightly dressed people, and then hurried in the direction of a cooling breeze that was caressing her cheek. Thus, she found herself padding out of the ballroom onto the balcony overlooking the street, which was still thick with people hurrying to and from balls and suppers and who knows what assignations on a summer night.
The sun was going down and draping its peach-pink hues over the gleaming marble of Pall Mall. Looking back over her shoulder, Annabella could see that her brother’s friend was not following her, and she breathed a sigh of relief, taking in thick lungfuls of refreshing air until she noticed the smell of tobacco and realized that her thoughts had been drowning out the sounds of a softly spoken conversation that was taking place not far from where she stood on the balcony. She was not, after all, alone.
Swiveling her head to the right, Annabella caught sight of two men standing in conspiratorial intimacy, their faces partially illuminated by the glowing bowls of long-stemmed churchwarden pipes, huddled in different postures of repose, propped up by the elegant balustrade. One of them, Annabella realized, was the homely fellow who, not so long ago, had been standing arm-in-arm with the Princess of Wales, whom the royal lady had addressed as ‘Lord Brigham’. The other was well-known to her as a gentleman cleric of a wealthy family who, as the Vicar of St James’s, Piccadilly, was quite popular for his good looks and short sermons. A friend of the Pilton family, the Reverend Ambrose Lawrence was nowhere near as worldly as his reputation would suggest, as Annabella herself knew from regular conversations with the Reverend both at church and at Hillingdon House. Father Ambrose was truly a Godly man, whatever his fondness was for high society and expensive wine; he had once discreetly taken Annabella’s confession when a particular matter weighed heavily on her soul.
Recalling this, Annabella felt the slight prickling feeling of exposure that comes upon the sight of a person to whom one has spoken one’s secrets. Then, she relaxed, listening in upon the soft voice of the priest, who stood side-on to her, having not yet noticed her presence on the balcony.
They haven’t spotted me yet. I think this little pool of shadow ought to keep me obscured for a while. They’re so engrossed with their talk and their pipes—and so familiar. Old friends, perhaps?
“I had not known, Brigham,” the priest was saying, emphasizing his words delicately with his hands, like an Italian, “that you possessed such an array of military friends.”
“Friends would be stretching it,” said Lord Brigham, with a nervous laugh, which reminded Annabella of a Billy goat. “These are my neighbors now, of course, as they were once my father’s; I think it only right to make my introductions to them. Naturally, as I made plain in my invitations, this is not a ball in celebration of victory per se, but of peace.”
“I wonder,” the clergyman responded, “how many will make the distinction.”
“It is of little concern to me, truth be told. I do my duty as I see it,” said Lord Brigham, leaning out over the balcony to watch the people in the street below.
The priest blew out a cloud of bluish tobacco smoke. “I trust Her Royal Highness,” he said, “wherever she may be now, is comfortable.”
“She thought it would be best to retire,” said Lord Brigham. “Really, I hadn’t wanted to make an exhibition of her. I simply couldn’t bear to think of her cooped up upon such a day of festivity as this.”
“Midsummer,” said Father Ambrose, looking for a moment in Annabella’s direction. “It is impossible to do away with the pagan festivals, even after all this time.”
Has he seen me? No, he is turning back to Lord Brigham. I must be truly invisible here.
“One cannot abolish the sun,” Lord Brigham was saying. “Anyway, I maintain that it is wrong of the Prince Regent, and the government, to make a hermit of her, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, Father.”
The vicar made a condescending gesture. “Of course,” he said, “Her Royal Highness is one of the few people who could stand to benefit directly from Napoleon’s abdication.”
“In that she might return to Brunswick, you mean?” Lord Brigham said.
“Yes,” said Father Ambrose.
“It could be the right decision for Her Royal Highness,” Brigham agreed, “but I would be sad to see her go; I am one of her foundlings, in a way, as I am sure you have observed yourself.”
“I have but, if you’ll pardon me, not every orphan is so fortunate as to inherit an Earldom.”
“That’s true,” responded Lord Brigham, apologetically.
“I am sure,” the priest responded, “that you will do better with your inheritance than most do. At any rate, I believe you have succeeded in making your introduction a memorable one; I hope that is what you intended. Your father was a party man, as you well know. You will be taken from his reputation and your affiliation with the Princess to be of Whig persuasion. Most of your new neighbors are Tories.”
“That cannot be helped,” said Brigham. “I am not, truth be told, of a political mindset. When I make my maiden speech, it will not be on the subject of machine-breaking or the abolition of slavery.”
“Why is that?”
“Because, for one thing, I cannot bring myself to write the dashed thing. It all seems so bloody impertinent; the thought that I would stand up in the English Parliament and have something to say about affairs of state—with what qualifications? That I opened the batting once against Harrow and made eight runs without eyeglasses?” The priest laughed, but Lord Brigham seemed to be warming to his theme. “No,” he said with animation in his voice, “I am not qualified merely by the unexpected death of my poor brother, who was in some ways made worthy for the post while I was not, to take up any sort of place at the head of any nation I have ever heard of.”
“Don’t worry so much about the nation then,” said Father Ambrose. “Look, if you will take my suggestion, to your estates. What do you know of the welfare of the people there?”
“Father,” said Lord Brigham, “if any of them knows the name of the King or can recite the Lord’s Prayer, it would be news to me.”
“Then, my son,” said the Priest, gently, “I would suggest you busy yourself with finding out such information before the goings-on in the capital consume you, as I must sadly say they have devoured myself; you might be of some service to the people who inhabit and work your land.”
“I will endeavor to do so,” said Lord Brigham. “However, Her Royal Highness has entreated me not to leave London until I have arranged a suitable marriage. For the life of me, I am not certain how to go about that, either.”
“That is not hard,” said the priest. Annabella could hear the smile in his voice without having to check his features. “I have married countless young gentlemen and ladies in this district, mostly with commendable outcomes. I confess I think I know more about how to effect a happy marriage than most men who have not entered into one.”
“Why have you not chosen to do so?” Brigham said, with an embarrassed tone in his voice that made it clear he was aware of asking a familiar question of one in holy orders.
“Like some you know,” Ambrose said, after a pause, “I was inclined in my early years towards a High Church perspective and was not certain that it would be appropriate for me to carry out my sacramental duties whilst also taking care of a wife and family. Although my attraction towards Rome has ebbed with the years, thankfully for my social position, the latter belief has been confirmed by the busyness of my years as Vicar of St James’s. I couldn’t possibly find the time now and doubt that I could ever have done so even as a young man.”
“Were you ever in love, though, if you’ll forgive the impudence of my question?”
“Yes, I was,” said the priest plainly and left it at that.
“I have not been in love,” said Lord Brigham, “not really, anyway, as the poets would have it.”
“The poets are known to exaggerate.”
Lord Brigham laughed. “I wouldn’t know, Father; in truth, I am as parochial as I seem. Gallantry has not been my calling and, even if it were, I would have had little opportunity to pursue it thus far. The maladroit second son of an English Earl has not all the advantages that he might wish.”
“That is for the best,” said Father Ambrose. “Now, though, I do not think you need to fear. Rather, take a mind for your own best interests and marry some lady of good family who is capable in her education and bearing to make a match for your character. Gallantry will not see you in good stead as much as perspicacity and patience will. You will do well to ask me for advice before you make any long-lasting decisions, and, doubtless, you will want to make use of any connections Her Royal Highness can tender you.”
“Those will not be forthcoming, I fear,” said Lord Brigham. “Princess Caroline has been sorely used and made solitary from all who would comfort her.”
“Saving you, it seems.”
“Indeed,” said Brigham, “I am not seen to figure much in anybody’s calculations.”
“Then both your situations could be worse. My son, I think you do yourself a mischief in calling yourself maladroit. You have a very able mind and a good heart. You have, as you say, no aptitude for politics. In that case, as I have already said, quit this city while you still can.
“Pick yourself a suitable bride and set up in the country as a sort of modern Cincinnatus. There, I have said my piece, and you will have to do whatever you think is fit.
“Know that you can always come to me if in doubt or need of what comfort I can provide.”
“I thank you, Father,” said Brigham, clasping the priest’s hand and with real feeling in his voice. “You have always been a friend to me. While I am here, I trust you will avail yourself of this house as often as you find yourself nearby it.”
“And I will see you at church?”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose you will.”
“My services are not known, I think, for being long-winded. Would you not agree, Miss Pilton?” At that, the priest turned his head and locked eyes with Annabella, who was so taken aback for a second that she feared she might tumble backward over the balustrade and off the balcony. So engrossed had she been in following the conversation between Father Ambrose and his friend that she had forgotten she was eavesdropping; indeed, it had been as if she had become a part of the scenery in which the two men were conversing.
“Your Reverence, I…” she began, but the priest’s face melted into a smile at her embarrassment, and Annabella could see that whatever disadvantage she felt at being caught listening in on the private talk of two gentlemen was matched by the awkwardness of Lord Brigham at not making the acquaintance of a strange lady on his balcony. The young nobleman gaped at her, smoke escaping from his plump lips like water from a fountain.
“Your Lordship, if I may,” said Father Ambrose, “permit me to introduce you to your neighbor Miss Annabella Pilton, daughter of Baronet Pilton of Hillingdon, and one of the more interesting people in the parish.”
The reticent host bounded forwards at that, taking Annabella’s hand and pressing it gently to those lips that a few moments ago had been gushing tobacco smoke. “Miss Pilton,” he said, turning red, “I beg your forgiveness. Had I known you were here, I would instantly have made your acquaintance. I am afraid I am the worst sort of neighbor; I do not know the people around me, not even those in my own house. I do, however, hear great reports of your father, Baronet Pilton, although I regret that I have never personally met him.
“My poor brother, Christian, was supposed to inherit my father’s lands and title, and I was left alone to pursue whatever trifling pastimes occurred to me while he was prepared for responsibility. Socializing was never my strong suit.” Lord Brigham seemed to trail off into a fug of embarrassment.
Witnessing the man’s distress and moved to hear of his apparent loss, of both father and brother in quick succession, and grateful to Brigham for not making a point of her eavesdropping on his intimate conversation with Father Ambrose, Annabella bowed her head deeply.
“Lord Brigham,” she said, “Sir, please, the fact is, and the good Reverend (who seems to be perhaps as much as close a friend to you as he is to me) will confirm this, that I was standing by and could not help but overhear you as you spoke with him. I would not gladly stand here and have you deplore yourself in your own home when it is I who should apologize. So, I do. I am sorry, Lord Brigham; I have wronged you and I beg your forgiveness.”
“My dear Lady,” said Lord Brigham, looking up to the sky as if beseeching the Heavens for mercy, “I beg you to say no more of this. I am a stranger in this world you inhabit.” He would most likely have said more, but at that moment Frederick stepped out onto the balcony.
“Annabella,” he said, wheedlingly, “where have you been? Colonel Gordon wants to dance with you.”
“That is his affair,” said Annabella tartly, not liking to be strong-armed by her brother into more dancing than took her fancy, especially with a rascally fellow like the Colonel.
“I’m afraid, Sir, that I do not have the pleasure,” began Lord Brigham, causing Frederick to turn away from Annabella and stare at the nobleman and the priest.
“Perhaps, Sir,” said Frederick swinging wildly to face Lord Brigham before Father Ambrose could intervene, “but I do. I have been wracking my brains as to who the deuce Lord Brigham might turn out to be, and I believe I have found it. You are the fellow who used to go by Peter Appleby, second son of the Earl of Allerdale.”
“Yes,” said Lord Brigham, “but I’m sorry, Sir, that you have me at a disadvantage. My memory fails me; to what do I owe the pleasure of your acquaintance?”
“To your six or seven wasted years at Eton, my Lord,” said Frederick, evidently frustrated that Lord Brigham’s memory of him was not as clear as his own of the erstwhile Appleby.
“Eton! Eton!” said Lord Brigham, clutching his forehead in an expression of theatrical exasperation. “Of course, I remember you, Sir; you are Frederick Pilton.”
“I know I am,” said Frederick, not to be knocked off balance. “Well, Appleby, or should I say, Brigham, you have moved up in the world. I hope your batting has improved.”
“It most assuredly has not,” said Lord Brigham, smiling angelically from behind his eyeglasses. “However, my love of the game of cricket has only improved with my acceptance of my general incompetence at it and all games. Do you still play, Sir?”
“Sometimes,” said Frederick, casting a strange glance at Annabella. “I’ve been a bit busy what with the war.”
“Yes, you are a hussar now!” said Lord Brigham, gushingly. “The uniform suits you excellently, if I may say; I was never one for military exploits, but I’m sure you’ve been making swift work of Bonaparte’s forces. Spain, has it been?”
“Yes,” said Frederick as though allowing a minor point of legal nicety.
“You must be glad it’s all over,” said Brigham, encouragingly.
“Not really,” said Frederick, “now a fellow has to figure out what exactly he is supposed to do with himself with no soldiering left afoot.”
“I see,” said Lord Brigham. “I confess I have little capacity for advising you on how to employ yourself; I have conducted myself idly since last we met, Pilton, scandalously so.”
“That is your right,” allowed Frederick, “and certainly, it cannot be denied that you must be paying ample taxes into the war fund.”
“As much as Lord Liverpool asks, and more,” said Brigham gently, “but not, I fear, as much as he desires.”
Frederick snorted at this. “I know nothing of politics, thank God,” he said, then changed his tone. “Annabella I’ve been asked to come and find you.”
“Whom by?” said Annabella, annoyed.
“Colonel Gordon! Tush, I suppose the man will have all my dances from now until Kingdom come. I must warn you, Frederick, I am not one of your soldiers and I needn’t obey your Colonel, even if you have to follow him from here to Santiago.”
“I apologize for my sister,” said Frederick, flashing an icy glance at Annabella, “she reads all sorts of books that she shouldn’t, and she gets it into her head that it is appropriate to speak in such ways in front of noblemen who have invited her to dance at their balls.”
“Oh, no,” said Lord Brigham; “I do not think you need to apologize on behalf of your sister, Sir; she may speak as she sees fit, at least in my household. Tell me, though, where is this Colonel Gordon? I take it he is a friend of yours.”
Fred gestured grandiosely towards the ballroom. “He is close by, and, aye, he is my superior in the regiment; we were at Morales and Vittoria together. He is a fine man.”
Annabella looked where he was pointing and saw only a whirring of people like some clockwork mechanism tightly wound and intensely sprung; an explosion in miniature made from human bodies and colored silks that seemed of a sudden very immaterial, as ephemeral as the smoke that kept flowing out of the long pipes the gentlemen held in their hands.
It was funny. She was used to bickering with her brother, but now it seemed to her as if she suddenly felt the desire to defy him, to humiliate him in front of his betters. She didn’t want to dance with Colonel Gordon. She wanted to stay on the balcony with the indulgent priest and the shy Lord Brigham, the unexpected heir to an Earldom.
He seems interested in me in my own right, and he has that air about him of newness, which he shares with his friend, Princess Caroline. Could it be that he’s ignorant of the social game that all the seasoned Londoners play all the time, so much so that they often forgot that they were playing it?
All this flashed through her mind and caused her to laugh at her own presumption.
“Fred,” she said, “I am getting tired. You know how I get, and I cannot dance with Colonel Gordon properly while I have no spirit left in me. Allow me to rest here a little, and you go and dance with whomever you like and find me when you are ready to leave. Would that be acceptable?”
“Well, yes,” he said, reluctantly, clearly wanting to know what game she was playing but unwilling to challenge her openly.
“Good evening, Lord Brigham, Father Ambrose.” Frederick went back into the ballroom, not quite able to disguise with his athletic movements the drunkenness that was taking a hold of him.
“Do you live nearby, Miss Pilton?” said Lord Brigham, stuttering somewhat as he got his words out.
“Truly, my Lord,” said Annabella, “if your eyeglasses work well, you should be able to see my house from here on this balcony. Look!” she said, pointing to the familiar edifice that was no grander and no less grand than the standard for Pall Mall, feeling with what difficulty Lord Brigham would be able to distinguish one palatial mansion from another, especially from his own.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “then we truly are neighbors.”
“Indeed,” said Annabella.
“And you are known to Father Ambrose?”
“I am,” she said, demurely.
“Miss Pilton attends church on Sunday with a commendable regularity and a degree of attentiveness not suggested by her fashionable manners,” said the priest, smiling.
“Really?” said Lord Brigham, “Then, Miss Pilton, I am sure you will put me to shame. I have become so slovenly in recent times as to neglect matters of the soul. From my church attendance over the recent months, saving funerals, I think any decent Christian would take me for a dissenter.”
“The dissenters have some interesting points of view,” said Father Ambrose, evenly.
“Oh, indeed, Sir-, Father,” said Lord Brigham, stuttering with enthusiasm, “I believe some of our most patriotic and enterprising citizens come from outside the established Church; indeed, one need only consider the principled position many have taken in opposing the traffic in human flesh.
“That Godly folk who merely presume to question in what customary manner we worship our Creator should be excluded from Parliament, and indeed from the right to vote, disturbs me greatly. Well, now, I have become agitated and must calm myself down.” He took deep breaths of air in either sincere or imitation fits of excitement.
The priest laughed. “Well, there you have it, Miss Pilton, Lord Brigham is a radical.”
“Like my father before me,” said Brigham, joining in the laughter, and then turning morose and taciturn. “Poor man,” he said and then was silent.
At that point, Mademoiselle Fontenoy came tumbling out onto the balcony.
“Ah, Annabella,” she said. “Your brother sent me out to keep an eye on you. You are making friends, I hear.”
“Just one new friend,” said Annabella. “You already know Father Ambrose.”
The Frenchwoman smiled at the priest, who stepped towards her bowing.
“Bonsoir, Clothilde,” he said,
“Bonsoir, mon père,” Fontenoy replied. “I believe I do not have the pleasure of knowing this gentleman.”
“This is Lord Brigham,” the priest said, “I was friends with his dear late father.” At this, Brigham bowed to Fontenoy.
“Father Ambrose is friends to everyone in this quartier,” said Mademoiselle Fontenoy, smiling at the priest, and then retreating a little, inviting Annabella to continue her interrupted conversation with Lord Brigham.
They talked after that of little things, not all of which were available to Annabella upon recollecting the events of the night of 2o June 1814. Nonetheless, the general atmosphere imprinted itself upon her of a sudden refreshment, like a breath taken in by a diver who has stretched their endurance to the utmost beneath the waves and has just now broken the surface. Something was happening to her that she could not credit with being possible; she was being drawn in by this strange and unworldly man, who consorted with royalty and refused to dance at his own ball. Her brother, whom she loved, and his military friends, seemed silly despite all their importance next to this unsocial figure, and she was grateful to Father Ambrose and said so when Frederick came to claim her, for allowing herself to make the acquaintance of her noble host.
“Goodnight, Miss Pilton and Captain Pilton,” said Lord Brigham, bowing and waving a nervous hand. “I trust I will see you again soon.”
“Indeed,” said Fred, stiffly, for all the champagne he had quaffed at Brigham’s ball, returning His Lordship’s bow.
“Goodnight my Lord, mon père,” said Fontenoy, receiving bows from both.
They crossed back through the ballroom. Colonel Gordon professed a desire to stay at the ball, although his eyes seemed to follow Annabella right out of the room as she left. She shivered a little, though the night was warm and balmy enough for that less than infernal summer.
“I cannot say I like your friend very much,” said Annabella, softly, as they crossed the street.
“No?” said Fred, laughing but only slightly. “I am sure that he likes you.”
“No doubt,” said Mademoiselle Fontenoy, “because your sister is beautiful, young, and rich.”
“She is all those things,” said Frederick, petulantly, “but she does not know how to behave herself in public. We are not rich enough to be scandalized.”
“And what is more likely to scandalize you,” said the Frenchwoman, who never guarded her words, “her talking or your drinking? Yes,” she went on enthusiastically, “I hear reports; I am not without my contacts, you know.”
Frederick swore under his breath. “As you will have it, Mademoiselle,” he said. They were now at the door of Hillingdon House. Frederick banged upon it harshly and it soon opened. The familiar lamplit corridor swept off towards the wooden staircase with its green baize runner. Frederick dropped his cloak on the floor and stalked towards his father’s study, doubtless in search of whisky.
“Will you be up long, Fred?” said Annabella, carefully.
“What business is it of yours?” he called back.
“Nothing except that I am your sister, and I love you.”
“Go to sleep,” said Frederick, the anger seeping away from his voice, but not to be replaced by anything particularly affectionate. He had had this strange way about him since he returned from Spain, and Annabella didn’t like it. However, she saw that there was nothing to do about it for the time being, and she bade her brother goodnight, and then escorted Mademoiselle Fontenoy upstairs and helped the tipsy Frenchwoman into her bed, which was in a room adjoining her own.
Kissing her dear friend goodnight, she then went to her bed and slept as soon as she could, but not before she had gone back over the events of her first meeting with Lord Brigham trying to determine why it was that she found the little man so interesting.
There had been a birthmark on his cheek, Annabella recalled, not a large one, but like a mole that stood out amongst clusters of lighter freckles. Lord Brigham had wavy hair that he wore long and unpowdered and piercing eyes that lit up when enthusiasms possessed him. It was with remembrances of Brigham that Annabella comforted herself as she fell asleep, and he had not yet slipped entirely from her mind when she arose the next day.
It was a pleasant morning, and the birds could be heard singing over the inescapable street sounds of the metropolis. She went downstairs. Fontenoy had not yet appeared, so Annabella ate rolls and drank coffee by herself, before her brother stumbled into the room half-dressed, clutching his head and trying to read a letter by the light streaming into the parlor from the garden windows.
“Annabella,” he said, “I’m glad you’re up; it’s a nice day.”
“You don’t seem convinced,” she said, taking in his pained expression.
“Yes, well, it will be better once we are out and about.”
“You want to take in the air?”
“Yes, why not?” said Frederick, combatively. “It’s not been often this summer that the sun has shone so brightly in the morning, dash it now, has it?”
“You’re right,” said Annabella. “I will dress and get ready to go with you shortly.”
“Excellent,” said her brother.
Fontenoy was awake when Annabella went upstairs, but the Frenchwoman showed no interest in joining the young people for their promenade. She was, however, happy to help Annabella select some of her finest clothes for taking the air.
She chose a dress of gold, lined with mink, with piping in imitation of the military-style. She put on a golden turban decorated with jewels and carried with her a little bag of golden silk, and her shoes were similarly bright.
“I feel,” she said, “like I should rival the sun this morning.”
“Magnifique,” said Fontenoy, yawning.
When Annabella went downstairs, it was to find her brother dressed up in his hussar’s uniform, which looked dashing enough, although it had not entirely survived the previous day’s festivities without a blemish.
“It’s quite unfair,” Annabella said, brushing some dirt from Frederick’s rich blue sleeve, “the uniform makes you look handsome without you having to do anything.”
“That’s enough, Bella,” said Frederick, shaking off her attentions. “Let’s go.”
“All right, all right,” she said, following him out of the door into the glaring sunshine of the street, “what a lot of fun you’re going to be today.”
The door clicked shut behind them, and they strolled out, Annabella clinging steadfastly to Frederick’s arm, onto the pavement of Pall Mall.
The street was as busy as ever, with fashionable people much in evidence, walking in packs and couples between the hurrying tradesmen, taking in the displays of the shops and admiring the heraldic devices displayed upon the houses.
Annabella wondered where it was that their wandering would take them, but Frederick seemed to have some itinerary of his own in mind as he guided her down Pall Mall and left past the construction site that constituted the primary dwelling of England’s acting sovereign. Beyond Carlton House, to the south, they entered St James’s Park and walked along the avenue in sight of the twinkling blue waters of the lake.
The colorful people were here and there, standing about like pansies amongst the green swathes of grass. Frederick prowled forward forcefully with Annabella in his wake, stopping when necessary to acknowledge fellow officers, paying particular attention to one fellow who stood, smoking a pipe, with his back to the lake. The siblings slowed at Frederick’s instigation as they approached this gentleman. Annabella realized as she caught sight of the smoldering dark eyes beneath the busby, that this was Colonel Gordon, and that their coming was clearly anticipated by him.
“Good day, Gordon,” said Frederick, making a slight bow.
“Good day, Pilton,” replied the Colonel, responding theatrically with a dip and removal of the busby, all the while eyeing Annabella jovially. Colonel Gordon did not seem in the least bit affected by the exertions of the review day and was quite picturesque in his solitary inspection of the avenue. “Good day, Miss Annabella,” he said, twinkling at her daringly.
“Colonel Gordon,” said Annabella, annoyed at the presumptuous use of her pet name. “Imagine meeting you here.”
“Yes, indeed,” he said.
“May I ask,” Annabella continued, “where you are staying? I trust you did not spend the night in the park.”
“Bella!” said Frederick, stiffening his grip on her arm. She resisted and wriggled herself free.
Colonel Gordon gave every impression of having found this amusing. “I am staying with some cousins of mine at Belgravia, Scots who have made their home in London,” he said. “I do not sleep in parks when I can help it. Of course, sometimes a chap does lose track of time and get locked out.”
“I will take your word for it,” said Annabella. “Are you free to roam the capital now, or will you get called back to your regiment soon?”
“Who knows?” said Colonel Gordon, shrugging. “I am not privy to the disputations of the General Staff, I am pleased to say. Command over a brigade of horses is enough to trouble anybody. Perhaps your brave brother and I shall be called away to sail to America today or tomorrow.”
“In the meantime,” said Annabella, “you had better make the most of London, as I’m sure you are.”
“Your estimation of my capacity for amusement does not measure up to reality, Miss,” said Gordon humbly. “As a provincial, I am not half as current with the fashions and customs of this great metropolis as your family must be.”
“And yet you fit right in,” said Annabella.
Gordon bowed again, accepting the compliment. “I say,” he said, having done this, and shielding his eyes from the sun, gazing down the avenue in contemplation of some approaching people. “Isn’t that the host from last night’s ball?”
Annabella turned her head as nonchalantly as she could bring herself to do so. Lord Brigham was indeed approaching, apparently unaware of his acquaintances for the meantime, slowly gamboling in the company of some other men dressed in the muted colors affected by Whiggish gentlemen.
Brigham walked with a cane and seemed enlivened by the greenery of the park, his eyes upturned mostly towards the trees, and following the swooping flights of the animated pigeons. He could not help, being thus enlivened, catching sight of Annabella, and he said something to the men around him, apparently begging their pardon and granting them leave to carry on without him. This being done, he peeled off from his group and approached Annabella’s party.
“He’s coming over here,” said Gordon, smiling invitingly.
Frederick stamped his foot in annoyance. “Can a fellow not walk in the park in peace?”
“The cheek of that,” said Annabella.
Lord Brigham was removing his hat, and Frederick had no choice but to turn around and acknowledge him.
“Please forgive me for interrupting,” said Brigham, nervously, “but I could not walk past my neighbors without giving them my compliments on such a glorious morning. The likes of it, or so I hear, have not been seen in London so far this year.”
“It is indeed glorious,” said Annabella, delighted once again by the little man’s capacity for wonder.
“Is that all then, your Lordship?” said Frederick with the same agitation as had caused him to squeeze his sister’s arm not so long ago.
“Well, yes,” said Brigham. “Of course, I should be on my way. Good day, Mr. Pilton, Miss Pilton, and Mr. Gordon. I shall see you all soon, I hope. Good day to you!” With that, the shy nobleman nodded several times and then shot away to rejoin his friends, who had ambled on a little way up the avenue.
“Frederick!” said Annabella, appalled at her brother’s shortness with the amiable nobleman.
“You weren’t keen to see him, then?” said Colonel Gordon. “Personally, I find him enjoyable enough in a strange sort of way.”
“So wet a blanket has never been draped over man or beast,” said Frederick, staring hatefully at the retreating Brigham.
“Frederick, what has gotten into you?” said Annabella.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he shot back icily, “I do not know what has happened to the manners of the women of this country while I have been away defending their homes and hearths amongst savage people and evil times.” Frederick was trembling, Annabella realized, with anger or with contempt. She took his arm and tried to demonstrate with the tenderness of her touch that she was not upset with him, although she was, to the core.
“Well, sometimes one just takes against a fellow, what?” said Colonel Gordon, consolingly. “It doesn’t always make a jot of sense, just a feeling. Isn’t that right, Pilton?”
“Yes,” said Frederick, calmly enough; he had done what he could to retake control of himself.
“We should meet again,” said Colonel Gordon, apparently aware that Frederick had lost the capacity to carry on a conversation.
“We should,” said Frederick.
“I will join you sometime soon if it is not an inconvenience,” said Gordon.
“You know it would not be,” said Frederick.
“Very well,” said Colonel Gordon. “Miss Anne Isabelle, I will see you again soon, I trust, but not as soon as I should like. Good day, Pilton.”
Frederick bowed, and Colonel Gordon strode off, allowing them his former spot under the row of trees.
“How can you allow that man to speak to your sister with such familiarity?” Annabella said, shaking her head and letting the silence hang.
“Oh, do come off it, Bella,” said Frederick, who was watching the avenue as if expecting it to throw up further unwelcome surprises. “Colonel Gordon is my superior in the regiment and society. Those cousins of his he mentioned are as wealthy as your Lord Brigham is and much better connected.”
“So, you must swallow your pride and allow him to use us as he pleases?”
“Annabella, I have had enough of you for today,” Frederick said savagely. “I am returning to the house. You will come with me.”
“Frederick, I am not accustomed to being ordered about by you. I am not a wayward trooper. I will accompany you back to the house, but only because that’s where I also wish to go.”
With that, she began walking back the way she had come, as though refusing her brother the completion of the circle that would have led them home anyway if they walked in the opposite direction. She couldn’t begin to explain to herself the vileness of Frederick’s behavior, and she felt unequal to the task of further trying to challenge him on the subject while he was in so foul and changeable a mood. It was therefore in perfect silence that the two usually chipper and sociable offspring of the Pilton family returned to their ancestral townhouse, and it was without a word that they parted, Frederick to nurse his affliction in isolation, and Annabella to read to the similarly inconvenienced Mademoiselle Fontenoy. They had not, however gotten through many verses of The Corsair before reminiscences of her encounter with Lord Brigham distracted Annabella and made her consider the necessary repercussions of Frederick’s shortness with him.
The young nobleman had expressed a desire to see the Piltons again. However, it would be necessary for him to conclude from Frederick’s snubbing of him that he was not to be considered a potential friend of his former classmate. Therefore, it seemed unlikely that Brigham would go to the effort of seeking out the company of Frederick or his sister for the rest of this season.
I have no trouble with him not seeing Frederick, but for he and I not to speak again? No, that won’t do at all.
This thought perturbed Annabella, and she was obliged to interrupt her reading to beg of Mademoiselle Fontenoy a pen and writing paper. This acquired, she stowed herself away in her boudoir and, unusually for her, spent a great deal of time composing a letter.
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