The ball was that greatest of social triumphs, a sad crush. Bodies packed the ballroom as tightly as salted herring in a barrel, leaving little room for air. Reputations were made, compromised, destroyed and on at least one occasion, became inexplicably intertwined with a silver salt cellar shaped like a whimsical goat.
Viscount Blackfarthing was thinking seriously about fresh air and had just attempted to maneuver between a dowager in a purple turban and a knot of macaronis, their high starched shirt points sadly wilted in the heat, when he saw his hostess bearing down on him.
The widowed Lady Rothingham was a slender blonde woman with the haggard remains of beauty. It was generally agreed that the responsibility for launching four daughters and one stepdaughter creditably into society would have faded greater beauties than hers, particularly when none of them had more than a modest dowry and the family name had suffered a severe, if murky blow on account of Lord Rothingham’s first wife, who had been poor or mad or common or possibly even foreign.
Lady Rothingham had borne up well under adversity, however, and her parties were very well attended. She had a regrettable tendency to begin sentences with “If my poor dear Lord Rothingham were here, I am certain he would say…”* but her manners were otherwise very nice and her cook had an undoubted way with a canape.
“My dear Blackfarthing!” cried Lady Rothingham.
Seeing that escape was impossible, the Viscount abandoned the notion with good grace. “Lady Rothingham!” He bowed over her hand. “Truly a triumph. You must be very pleased.”
She fluttered her fan at him. “Oh, well, I fancy it is not a completely despicable evening’s entertainment. But come, sir, have you made the acquaintance of my dear little Augusta? I most earnestly wish that you might!”
Blackfarthing could no more keep track of Rothingham’s numerous offspring than he could keep track of his own quizzing glass, and murmured something noncommittal. Was Augusta the older one with the straight dark hair, or the latest one out of the schoolroom, who would undoubtedly be a beauty once she had overcome her regrettable tendency towards spots?
Following the track cut for him by Lady Rothingham’s fan, he soon realized that it was neither.
“August, my darling!” His hostess descended on a dark-skinned young woman wearing a dress of striped green crepe. “I have brought Viscount Blackfarthing for you to meet. Viscount, my dear little Augusta. Poor Lord Rothingham’s first, you know, and a dear support to me in my affliction.” She held her fan to her breast and gazed heavenward, presumably toward her late husband.
The stepdaughter. Ah. Yes. “Your servant, Miss Rothingham,” said Blackfarthing, bowing over her hand.
However much of a support she might be in affliction, dear little Augusta could not be said to be little in any sense except the vertical. The top of her head did not reach Blackfarthing’s collarbone, and Blackfarthing was by no means the tallest of men. Possibly to make up for her deficiency of height, fate had heaped upon the unfortunate Augusta a generosity of hip and bosom. Her figure would have been impressively Amazonian if it had been bestowed on a taller frame, but no amount of corseting could disguise an extremely short waist. Her hair was fashionably dark, but was set against skin so dark as to be almost swarthy and a positively grim expression.
Combined with an over-generous lower lip, Miss Augusta’s countenance put Blackfarthing suddenly in mind of a brindle bulldog of his acquaintance. This resemblance was not in any way lessened when he straightened up and saw a glint in her eye as if she was wondering whether it would be worth the trouble to go about tearing his throat out.
“I know you young people will have so much to talk about,” gushed Lady Rothingham, her desperation only barely showing. “I believe you are acquainted with Augusta’s cousin Hubert!”
Having bestowed this dubious gem, their hostess flipped her fan, bid Augusta to be a good girl, and swept into the crowd.
“I detest my cousin Hubert,” said Augusta, by way of conversational opening.
“It is fortunate, then, that I have only the vaguest notion who he might be,” said the Viscount pleasantly. “I am sure he is exceptionally detestable! Tell me, what is this pattern card of horror’s last name?”
Augusta gave a crack of laughter that Blackfarthing suspected was both genuine and involuntary and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh dear. Stepmama tries so hard, you understand. His name is Hubert Stacklepole. He treats his horses very badly and fancies himself a Corinthian.”
“Then I am well warned, and will be certain to cut him dead upon our next meeting,” said Blackfarthing. And then, because he knew his duty to his hostess, “Come, will you be so kind as to stand up with me for the next dance?”
She sighed. “Stepmama has only cornered you to do this because she is positively Byzantine in her notions and does not feel that my younger sisters may dance with propriety if I do not.”
Blackfarthing knew perfectly well that she was correct, but he was a gentleman, and would have stood up with a ninety-year-old dowager or an actual bulldog, had his hostess required it of him. He would also have procured a sword and fallen on it before saying any such thing to a lady’s face.
“I will step on your feet,” Augusta warned.
“I am persuaded that you will do no such thing.”
“I will soon convince you otherwise.”
“I am wearing very excellent boots.” He lead her onto the dancing floor, and such was the address of the Viscount Blackfarthing that despite stepping on his boots several times, when the dance had finished, several other gentlemen, more chivalrous than eligible, approached the eldest Miss Rothingham and solicited her favor in standing up with them.
She shot him a look that mingled both reproach and reluctant gratitude and went off with the most stately of them, a retired general pinned with so many medals as to resemble a jeweler’s case. The Viscount slipped out to find some fresh air, with a pleasant sense of having done his duty in the face of daunting odds. It was a pity that she had chosen green crepe, which turned her olive skin so unfortunately sallow. She had not been such a bad dancer. He would almost suspect her of having stepped on his feet deliberately.
He passed Deptford on his way to the gardens. “Blackfarthing!” his friend cried, slapping a hand against the elegant wallpaper of the hallway. “Dear me, where have you been hiding? Did you hear about Ellerby and the silver salt-shaker shaped like a whimsical goat?”
“I must have some air,” said the Viscount. “I cannot possibly do justice to an ancedote of this magnitude without some air!”
“Oh, very well. Tell me, have you seen my beautiful Corinna?” Deptford had, for the last few months, been nursing a passion for a flirtatious young woman endowed with financial charms far in excess of her physical ones.
“Dancing with the Earl of Foxmoor,” said Blackfarthing heartlessly. Deptford clasped a hand to his brow and let out a wrenching moan, like a man in love or a water ox in the last throes of consumption.
“That poppinjay! He is not worthy to kiss her feet!”
“How fortunate that he does not seem particularly interested in her feet, then,” murmured Blackfarthing, and stepped aside as Deptford hurtled down the hallway in the direction of the ball room.
* * *
It was some hours, several country dances, and one daring waltz later. At least one beauty had been compromised to the point of requiring immediate engagement, another had fled weeping from the ballroom, a duel of honor had been scheduled for the following dawn between two fools who should have known better, and Lady Rothingham had sunk into a chair in an ecstasy of hostessly gratification.
Blackfarthing had busied himself ferrying ratafia to wilting young beauties and flirtation to more elderly ones. He was thinking of calling for his carriage, but he had not seen Deptford again, and suspected that his lovelorn friend might require rescue, either from the depths of despair or perhaps from some even more unimaginable incident involving a silver salt-shaker shaped like a whimsical goat.
He passed through several large galleries—Rothingham House, however many economies had been forced upon it by so many unmarried daughters, was still an imposing edifice—in search of a garden that did not have an illicit tryst going on under every rose bush. He would have settled for a balcony, or even an empty hallway with fewer mirrors. Even his modest shirt points were beginning to resemble an unwatered plant at high noon, and the sight of his own reflection depressed him.
A tight knot of ladies barely glanced up as he passed, deep in the latest scandalbroth. “You heard about poor Lady Milverly, of course?” said one, in tones of satisfied horror. “I was never more shocked in my life!”
“Lost her youngest to typhus, did she?” said another. “My heart positively breaks for her. It is not be thought, dear Eleanor, not being a mother yourself, that you could understand the depth of remorse, the maternal anguish one must feel at the thought of one’s own child—”
“Yes, yes, very sad,” hissed Eleanor. “But it wasn’t typhus!”
“Pneumonia?” asked a third.
“No!” Eleanor gave a delighted shiver. “I heard that it was urchin-plague!”
“Most certainly, yes! He tore the nursemaid up something awful. I shouldn’t think she’ll recover…”
“But how was any child of Milverly’s ever exposed?”
“Well, I heard…”
Blackfarthing passed out of earshot before the mystery could be unraveled. There was another corridor before him—blast, where were the gardens? What did they expect to do if the house ever burned down, wander around until the roof fell in on someone’s head?
The lighting was dimmer here, with only a few candles burning. Clearly Lady Rothingham did not feel that her duties as a hostess extended to an extravagance of candles in back hallways. The shadows cast by a japanned cabinet could have concealed an entire pack of urchins.
Blackfarthing’s imagination did not extend beyond an appreciation of the occasional Gothic novel, and he was unable to concoct any likely scenario wherein such creatures could have invaded the house. To be sure, Rotherham’s only son was—seven? eight? still within the range of such a childhood ailment, at any rate—but he was certainly not allowed out of the school room without an armed escort as a result. He passed the shadows of the cabinet without a qualm.
What did cause him a pang was the voice that reached him down the hallway, and the feminine laughter that rose up in its wake—for the voice most certainly belonged to Deptford, and he would have laid odds that the laugh belonged to the well-endowed Corinna—and they were coming down the hallway toward him.
Blackfarthing was a gentleman, as has been remarked before, and would have felt it his duty to jump in front of a runaway carriage before contributing to anything that might compromise a well-bred young female. Deptford and Corinna were far from the main party and quite possibly alone together. If he was seen to bear witness to this, Corinna would be ruined. Deptford would be forced to marry her immediately. Deptford might desire this consequence, but—although Blackfarthing would have sooner jumped in front of that hypothetical carriage than allow a hint of it to pass his lips—Deptford deserved better. Corinna had not the slightest notion of economy and would run through the remains of Deptford’s fortune with neither comprehension nor gratitude and Deptford’s impoverished estates in Yorkshire, far from being improved by Corinna’s dowry, would bear the burden.
Therefore Corinna must not be compromised. Therefore Blackfarthing must wrench open the nearest door and fling himself through it. The sound of the door shutting might instill a sense of caution in the young lovers, and at any rate, Blackfarthing himself would not have a hand in bringing his friend to ruin.
This plan was no sooner concieved of than acted upon. The Viscount plunged into the unlit library beyond, shut the door hastily behind him and set his back against it.
His sigh of relief died on his lips.
Standing in a swath of moonlight, with an expression more bulldog-like than ever, was the eldest Miss Rothingham. She had traded in her ill-chosen dress of green crepe for tightly wrapped black, and was frozen in the act of pulling a hood down over her dark curls.
His first irrational thought was that he had somehow startled her in her underclothes and that she was still in mourning for her father, for surely these were widow’s weeds she must be wearing.
He dismissed this immediately, as he was fairly sure that even the most sincere mourning did not require black underthings. What would be the point of wearing black in such a fashion, where Society could not comment approvingly on it? And furthermore, he was actually looking at Augusta’s lower limbs—the heart quailed! Every thought and feeling must be offended! And furthermore she was not as squat as the green dress had made her look!—and the black cloth was doing its very best to flatten a bosom that was not at all conducive to being flattened, and Blackfarthing was left with one single inescapable conclusion.
“Great Scott!” he cried, not caring who heard him. “You’re a ninja!”
*The late Lord Rothingham would have been quite surprised to find how many of his posthumous opinions agreed with those of his wife, a happy circumstance that had not persisted at any point in life.
(Blame you all. Hate. Promise nothing. Etc.)