Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould hesitated a moment at the top
of the stairs. Applecross was one of those magnificent
country houses where one descended down a long curved sweep
of marble into the vast hall where the assembled guests
were gathered awaiting the call to dinner.
First one person, then another looked up. To wait for them
all would have been ostentatious. She was dressed in oyster
satin, not a shade everyone could wear, but Prince Albert
himself had said that she was the most beautiful woman in
Europe, with her glorious hair and exquisite bones. It was
not a remark that had endeared her to the queen, the more
so since it was probably true.
But this was not a royal occasion; it was a simple weekend
party early in December. The London season was over with
its hectic social round, and those who had country homes
had returned to them to look forward to Christmas. There
were rumors of possible war in the Crimea, but apart from
that the middle of the century saw only greater progress
and prosperity within an empire that spanned the globe.
Omegus Jones came to the foot of the stairs to meet her. He
was not only the perfect host, but also a friend of some
years, even though he was in his fifties and Vespasia
barely past thirty. Her husband, older than she, was the
one who had first made the acquaintance, but he was abroad
on business at the moment. Her children were in the house
in London, safe and well cared for.
"My dear Vespasia, you are quite ravishing," Omegus said
with a self-deprecating smile. "Of which you cannot fail to
be aware, so please do not insult my intelligence by
pretending surprise, or worse still, denial." He was a lean
man with a wryface, full of humor and an unconscious
elegance as much at home in a country lane as a London
She accepted the compliment with a simple "Thank you." A
witty reply would have been inappropriate. Besides,
Omegus's candor had robbed her of the ability to think of
A dozen people were here, including herself. The most
socially prominent were Lord and Lady Salchester, closely
followed by Sir John and Lady Warburton. Lady Warburton's
sister had married a duke, as she found a dozen ways of
reminding people. Actually Vespasia's father had been an
earl, but she never spoke of it. It was birth, not
achievement, and those who mattered already knew. To remind
people was indelicate, as if you had no other worth to
yourself, never mind to them.
Also present were Fenton and Blanche Twyford; two eminently
eligible young men, Peter Hanning and Bertie Rosythe;
Gwendolen Kilmuir, widowed more than a year ago; and Isobel
Alvie, whose husband had died nearly three years earlier.
It was not customary to serve refreshments before dinner,
but rather simply to converse until the butler should sound
the gong. The guests would then go into the dining room in
strict order of precedence, the rules for which were set
out in the finest detail and must never be broken.
Lady Salchester, a formidable horsewoman, was dressed in a
deep wine shade, with a crinoline skirt of daunting
proportions. She was speaking of last season's races, in
particular the meeting at Royal Ascot.
"Magnificent creature!" she said enthusiastically, her
voice booming a little. "Nothing else stood a chance."
Lady Warburton smiled as if in agreement.
Bertie Rosythe--slender, fair, superbly tailored--was
trying to mask his boredom, and doing it rather well. If
Vespasia had not known him, she might have been duped into
imagining he was interested in horseflesh.
Isobel was beside her, darkly striking, less than beautiful
but with fine eyes and a ready wit.
"Magnificent creature indeed," she whispered. "And Lady
Salchester herself certainly never had a chance."
"What are you talking about?" Vespasia asked, knowing that
there must be many layers to the remark.
"Fanny Oakley," Isobel replied, leaning even more
closely. "Didn't you see her at Ascot? Whatever were you
"Watching the horses," Vespasia answered dryly.
"Don't be absurd!" Isobel laughed. "Good heavens! You
didn't have money on them, did you? I mean real money?"
Vespasia saw by Isobel's face that she was suddenly
concerned in case Vespasia were in gambling debt, not an
unheard-of difficulty for a young woman of considerable
means and very little to occupy herself, her husband away a
good deal of the time, and endless staff to care for her
home and her children.
Vespasia wondered for a chill moment if Isobel were really
acute enough in her observation to have seen the vague, sad
stirrings of emptiness in Vespasia's marriage, and to have
at least half understood them. One wished to have friends--
without them life would hold only shallow pleasures--but
there were areas of the heart into which one did not
intrude. Some aches could be borne only in secret. Isobel
could not have guessed what had happened in Rome during the
passionate revolutions of 1848. No one could. That was a
once-in-a-lifetime love, to be buried now and thought of
only in dreams. Vespasia would not meet Mario Corena again.
This here in Applecross was the world of reality.
"Not at all," she replied lightly. "The race does not need
the edge of money to make it fun."
"Are you referring to the horses?" Isobel asked softly.
"Was there another?" Vespasia retorted.
Lord Salchester saw Vespasia and acknowledged her
appreciatively. Lady Salchester smiled with warm lips and a
glacial eye. "Good evening, Lady Vespasia," she said with
penetrating clarity. "How charming to see you. You seem
quite recovered from the exertion of the season." It was a
less-than-kind reference to a summer cold that had made
Vespasia tired and far from herself at the Henley
Regatta. "Let us hope next year is not too strenuous for
you," she added. She was twenty years older than Vespasia,
but a woman of immense stamina who had never been beautiful.
Vespasia was aware of Lord Salchester's eye on her, and
even more of Omegus Jones's. It was the latter that
tempered her reply. Wit was not always funny, if it cut
those already wounded. "I hope so," she answered. "It is
tedious for everybody when someone cannot keep up. I shall
endeavor not to do that again."
Isobel was surprised. Lady Salchester was astounded.
Vespasia smiled sweetly and excused herself.
Gwendolen Kilmuir was talking earnestly to Bertie Rosythe.
Her head was bent a trifle, the light shining on her rich
brown hair and the deep plum pink of her gown. She was
widowed well over a year now, and had only recently taken
the opportunity to cast aside her black. She was a young
woman, barely twenty-eight, and had no intention of
spending longer in mourning than society demanded. She
looked up demurely at Bertie, but she was smiling, and her
face had a softness and a warmth to it that was hard to
Vespasia glanced at Isobel and caught a pensive look in her
eye. Then a moment later she smiled, and it was gone.
Bertie turned and saw them. As always he was gracefully
polite. Gwendolen's pleasure was not as easily assumed.
Vespasia saw the muscles in her neck and chin tighten and
her bosom swell as she breathed deeply before mustering a
smile. "Good evening, Lady Vespasia, Mrs. Alvie. How nice
it will be to dine together."
"As always," Isobel murmured. "I believe we dined at Lady
Cranbourne's also, during the summer? And at the queen's
garden party." Her eyes flickered up and down Gwendolen's
plum taffeta. "I remember your gown."
Gwendolen blushed. Bertie smiled uncertainly.
Suddenly and with a considerable jolt, Vespasia realized
that Isobel's interest in Bertie was not as casual as she
had supposed. The barb in her remark betrayed her. Such
cruelty was not in the character she knew.
"You remember her gown?" she said in feigned surprise. "How
delightful." She looked with slight disdain at Isobel's
russet gold with its sweeping skirts. "So few gowns are
remarkable these days, don't you think?"
Isobel caught her breath, a flare of temper in her eyes.
Gwendolen laughed with a release of tension and turned to
Lady Warburton joined them, and the conversation became
enmeshed in gossip, cases of "he said" and "she said"
and "do you really believe?"
Dinner was announced, and Omegus Jones offered his arm to
Vespasia, which in view of Lady Salchester's presence she
found a singular honor, and they went into the long blue-
and-gold dining room in solemn and correct procession, each
to their appointed place at the glittering table.
The chandeliers above were reflected in the gleam of
silver, shattered prisms of light on tiers of crystal
goblets in a field of linen napkins folded like lilies. The
fire burned warm in the grate. White chrysanthemums from
the greenhouse filled the bowls, providing a redolence of
earth and autumn leaves, the soft fragrance of woodland.
They began with the lightest consomme. There would be nine
courses, but it was not expected that everyone would eat
from all of them. Ladies in particular, mindful of the
delicate figures and tiny waists demanded by fashion, would
choose with care. Where physical survival was relatively
easy, one created rules to make social survival more
difficult. Not to be accepted was to become an outcast, a
person who fitted nowhere.
Conversation turned to more serious topics. Sir John
Warburton spoke of the current polit-
ical situation, giving his views with gravity, his thin
hands brown against the white linen of the cloth.
"Do you really think it will come to war?" Peter Hanning
asked with a frown.
"With Russia?" Sir John raised his eyebrows. "It is not
"Nonsense!" Lord Salchester said briskly, his wineglass in
the air. "Nobody's going to go to war against us!
Especially over something as absurd as the Crimea! They'll
remember Waterloo, and leave us well alone."
"Waterloo was over thirty-five years ago," Omegus Jones
pointed out. "The men who fought that have laid their
swords by long ago."
"The British army is still the same, sir!" Salchester
retorted, his mustache bristling.
"Indeed, I fear it is," Omegus agreed quietly, his lips
tight, his eyes sad and far away.
"That was the finest, most invincible army in the world."
Salchester's voice grew louder.
"We beat Napoleon," Omegus corrected. "We have fought no
one since then. Times change. Good and evil do not, nor
pride and compassion, but warfare moves all the time--new
weapons, new ideas, new strategies."
"I do not like to disagree with you at your own table,
sir," Salchester responded. "Courtesy prevents me from
telling you what I think of your view."
Omegus's face lit with a sudden smile, remarkably sweet and
quite unaffected. "Let us hope that nothing happens to
prove which one of us is correct."
Footmen in livery and parlor maids with white lace-trimmed
aprons removed the soup plates and served the fish. The
butler poured wine. The lights blazed. The clink of silver
on porcelain was the soft background as conversation began
Vespasia watched rather than listened. Faces, gestures told
her more of emotion than the carefully considered words.
She saw how often Gwendolen looked toward Bertie Rosythe,
the flush in her face, how easily she laughed when he was
amusing, and that it pleased him. He was almost as much
aware of her, although he was more careful not to show it
quite so openly.
Vespasia was not the only person to notice. She saw Blanche
Twyford's satisfaction and recalled hearing her make a
remark, which now she understood more clearly. Blanche had
spoken of spring weddings, and Gwendolen had blushed.
Perhaps this was the weekend when a declaration was
expected? It would seem so.
Fenton Twyford seemed less pleased. His dark face looked
cautious. A couple of times his glance at Bertie suggested
unease, as if an old shadow crossed his thoughts, but
Vespasia had no idea what it might be. Was Bertie not quite
as perfectly eligible as he seemed? Or was it Gwendolen who
somehow fell short? As far as Vespasia knew, she was of
good family, wealthy if undistinguished, and without a
breath of scandal attached. Her late husband, Roger
Kilmuir, was also without blemish and was connected to the
aristocracy. If his far elder brother died childless, which
seemed likely, then Roger would have inherited the title
and all that went with it.
Only, Roger had died in an unfortunate accident, the sort
of thing that happened now and again to even the best
horsemen. Gwendolen had been quite shattered at the time.
It was good to see that she was reaching after some kind of
One by one gold-rimmed plates were removed, fresh courses
brought, and more wine poured, until nothing was left but
mounds of fresh grapes from the hothouse, and silver finger
bowls to remove any faint traces of stickiness.
The ladies excused themselves to the withdrawing room and
left the gentlemen to pass the port and, for those who so
wished, to smoke.
Vespasia followed Isobel and Lady Salchester and was aware
of the rustle of taffetas and silks as Gwendolen and
Blanche Twyford came behind them. They took their seats in
the velvet-curtained withdrawing room, carefully arranging
mountainous skirts both to be flattering and not to impede
other people's approach, when the gentlemen should rejoin
This was the part of any evening that Vespasia liked the
least. Conversation almost always became domestic, and
since Rome she found it hard to concentrate on such things.
She loved her children, deeply and instinctively, and her
marriage was agreeable enough. Her husband was kind and
intelligent--an honorable man. Many women would have been
envious of so much. She wanted for nothing socially or
materially. It was only in the longing of the heart, the
hunger to care to the power and depth of her being, that
she was not answered.
She looked at the other women in the room and wondered what
lay behind the gracious masks of their faces. Lady
Salchester had energy and intelligence, but she was plain,
plainer than her own parlor maid, and probably the
housemaid and the kitchen maid, as well. It was widely
suspected that Lord Salchester's attention wandered, in a
practical as well as imaginary way.
"I know what you are thinking," Isobel said beside her,
leaning a little closer so she could speak in a whisper.
Vespasia was startled. "Do you?"
"Of course!" Isobel smiled. "I was thinking so, too. And it
is quite unfair. If she were to do the same, with that nice-
looking footman, society would be scandalized, and she
would be ruined. She would never go anywhere again!"
"Dozens of married women become bored with their husbands,
and after they have produced the appropriate number of
children, they have affairs," Vespasia pointed out
sadly. "I don't think I admire it, but I am quite aware
that it occurs. I could name you half a dozen."