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Authors: Benjamin Markovits

A Quiet Adjustment

BOOK: A Quiet Adjustment

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Benjamin Markovits

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Chapter One

an invitation—Lady Caroline had mentioned it to her—but when it came, Annabella wasted much of her morning over it in pleasant indecision. There were days to be filled; one must occupy them somehow. The bedroom she'd been given overlooked a bricked-in lawn (the red and green refreshingly contrasting); and she returned to it after breakfast and set the card on the mantelpiece, which was otherwise rather bare. Annabella had been taught to be frugal, and she had little talent for those embroideries by which women ornament not only their persons and surroundings but the passage of time itself. It was March, a bright cold day, and the ashy remains of her night's fire gave off a surprising sullen heat, for which she was not ungrateful. Guests at a house often retire to their rooms to think—Annabella justified her reclusion. But she was honest enough to admit that introspection is the crutch of the shy; it is what they get by on.

The card bore the stamp of the Melbournes': the crest of a lion with a hart peering out of its mouth. Its eye, large and bright, expressed either fear or impishness. The invitation itself had a kind of bullying brevity, which left little scope for demurral.

. . .




The pressure of that promise made Annabella smile: how very like Caroline; one must always enjoy oneself on her terms. A time and a date were given. The question was, should she go? It was the kind of choice that involved Annabella's deepest intuitions, her sense of propriety. And since she enjoyed the exercise of it and trusted her own judgement, she could treat with complacence any decision arrived at. These periods of reflection offered her an excuse to consider the world through her sharpest lens.

She rang a bell and called for tea. There was the gossip to be weighed; Annabella was not such a blue that she considered it beneath her to indulge a little her human curiosity. Lady Caroline's affair with Lord Byron had begun to be talked about. The lovers were growing careless of appearances. Caroline, at first, had stolen to Lord Byron's rooms in various disguises; but these had in the course of their relations become not so much perfunctorily adopted as worn for a kind of show, whose purpose was very far from concealment. A page's outfit (that was the story) would, Annabella supposed, rather bring out than obscure the modesty of Caroline's feminine charms. What an odd mix of ease and restlessness she was. Her name misrepresented her: Caroline was careless, she never cared. Lord Byron might be credited with greater discretion; but then, the gallantry of his role forbade too public a chastisement. He kept up an
of indifference to propriety, and Annabella was worldly enough to concede that it was just that indifference which was so improper. She must decide whether to give (this was the phrase she used from the comfort of her easy chair) ‘the sanction of her attendance' to Lady Caroline—to Lord Byron himself for that matter, a much more exciting proposition. She had never met the young poet before; it was just possible he would be there.

Annabella was nineteen years old. She reminded herself, smiling, that not nearly so much depended on her choice as she supposed—a reflection that hardly helped her to a decision. Her life never seemed to change, yet she was always being pushed into making choices: a sort of paradox that she was happy, for once, to reduce to simpler terms. She didn't want to be thought a prude, but she did not want to be thought the opposite of prudish, either. A knock at the door announced the arrival of refreshments. Tea was served in a little Sèvres pot too hot to touch; a plate of crumpets was set beside it. The only thing to spoil her pleasant appetite and spirits was the thought of getting butter on her fingers.

In the end, the presence of Lady Melbourne decided her. The party was to be held at her house. Lady Melbourne was not only Caroline's mother-in-law but also Annabella's aunt. There could be nothing improper in fulfilling the duty of a niece. Annabella, not for the first time that year, took comfort from the cushioning she had received in London from family connections: from aunts and godmothers and such. She was looked out for, but she was given her lease, too, and the length of it, really, was very much up to her. Besides, it was only a question of waltzing after breakfast. It was not a ball, or anything like one. Yes, she would go; and she was perfectly willing to admit that the chance of meeting Lord Byron had played a part in her decision—not that she ever blindly followed the fashions. Annabella had as yet refused to read
Childe Harold
, his ‘remarkable poem', which had come out two months before to an acclaim excited as much by curiosity as admiration. Still, she was determined, if his
came her way, not to refuse
. She tested the tea against her lips; it was almost cool enough to drink. Among other things, she reasoned (warming her hands on the cup), a sense of her own deserts compelled her to accept the friendship of notable men. She little doubted her ability to ‘live up to it', just as she trusted to her wit the acquisition of new words. Her powers of expression, she had every faith, were equal to the largest vocabulary.

The morning of the party, another fine, clear March day with a bloom of chill upon it, inevitably arrived. Annabella decided to walk from Cumberland Place. She was staying for the season at Gosford House—it seemed that half the people she knew in London had their houses named after them. The Gosfords were friends of Annabella's parents, who were expected shortly from their country home in Yorkshire. The final push to her decision had been the consciousness of their arrival. She wanted to enjoy her freedom from them; she wanted to greet them with the news of an experience. The walk took her no more than ten minutes; still, she turned gratefully from the current of Piccadilly into the quieter approach of Melbourne House. Miss Elphinstone, famously shy and beautiful, was on the steps before her. Annabella recognized her from behind. She was wearing a bright green dress, which gave to her tall and delicate figure the appearance of the sylvan. It mortified Annabella that Miss Elphinstone stopped short, with a happy smile, at the sound of her footstep; that they entered the house together. Her own modest stature, pleasant round face, and respectable dimity gown could not help looking poorer for the contrast.

The party was almost complete when the pair of them entered, arm in arm. A glance at Lady Caroline gave Annabella her first real misgiving of impropriety: not so much for anything the woman did or said as for what she might be supposed capable of feeling. Perhaps Caroline
care—too much, in fact. She was standing in the middle of the room, talking to a small bald-headed man with improbably long arms. Musicians scraped themselves into tune. The bones of Caroline's narrow figure were largely hidden in the fall of her dress, which hung straight down from her shoulders to her knees. There seemed to be nothing along the way to give it a shape, an absence that distinctly gestured at what was missing. She looked like a boy, almost; her movements had the freedom of a boy's. The man, who was wearing a gold waistcoat, took her by the elbow and hand and began to adjust the angle between them. But Caroline was hardly attending. She stared across the room over his shoulder to where a young couple stood, awkwardly attempting the intimate decorous embrace required by the dance. Rather handsome they looked, too. He had the kind of eloquent formal beauty that gives an illusion of its owner's good taste; she, a little softer, weaker—deviations from perfection all on the side of gentleness. Caroline winced at the sight of them. Her boyish pretty face was too quick in its expressions to carry much weight, but what Annabella saw in it was unhappiness, not in the least relieved by the shrewder, less pleasant look of calculation. Miss Elphinstone bent down to whisper, ‘That's his sister, Mrs Leigh.'

‘Who?' Annabella replied.

‘The lady, I mean; the lady dancing with Lord Byron.'

So, there he was; she had seen him at last.

There was something about the hour (eleven o'clock) and the spring sunshine (cold and colourless) and the rectangles of dust, which had gathered under several tables and lay geometrically revealed when those articles of furniture were pushed against the French windows, that suggested nothing so much as a school hall and a morning's lecture. The music began in earnest. In the spirit of education, Annabella felt that she could do wholehearted justice to the dance. She didn't dare approach Lord Byron herself. Her best hope of an introduction, she believed, was to attract his attention by taking on a kind of public role in the party. Not that she was, in a general way, very forward. Annabella suffered, as her mother once put it, from a diffidence both chronic and mild. It might be easily overcome but never shaken off. And there was nothing like a ‘task at hand' to rouse her pride to the suppression of those softer instincts that generally enfeebled her efforts at flirtation. The man in the gold waistcoat was, it turned out, the dancing-master: the source of ‘professional instruction' promised in the invitation. A small but authentic German named Wohlkrank, he had been ‘imported' by Lady Caroline ‘for the season'. Herr Wohlkrank spotted in Annabella ‘an ally'—a preference she found very flattering at the time. It struck her only later, in the aftermath of spent happiness, as a proof of something improper or unsuitable about her manners or figure. She couldn't quite keep out of her mind the form his flattery took. ‘Such ankles, my dear,' he cried, clapping, ‘and such knees!'

Yet what changes a year in London had rung in her! A year of proposals and rejections, in perfectly equal measure (not to mention of balls, of operas, and at-homes) had taught, as she once put it to herself, a quiet country lamb occasionally to interrupt her silences and ‘baah with the rest of society'. Well, she was baahing now. In a rush of blood, she publicly and repeatedly confessed that though she had no ear for music she had ‘feet for numbers'. The waltz had undone the spirits of many bolder girls than she, not so much for the intricacy of its steps as for the enforced pressure of the gentlemen against their breasts—a species of contact which, however desirable it might appear under the influence of punch and the heat of evening lamps, seemed more difficult to stomach before tea. It was gratifying to see how many graceful ladies appealed to Annabella for assistance, preferring her lead to that of the men who stood and stared along the circumference of the ballroom, drying their sweaty hands inside their pockets.

Mrs Leigh was not one of these. She seemed sufficiently occupied by her brother's attentions. ‘Will you pinch me, my dear,' Annabella heard her whisper, ‘if I step on your foot?' ‘You can be sure I won't
,' Lord Byron said. Part of the charm of the pair of them lay in their subtly varied reflections of each other. Her face, rounder and softer than his, placed the same emphasis on the vertical line of nose and chin. They shared, too, those little apostrophes at the centre of their lips, which suggested either habitual scorn or a sharp intake of breath. There was, in his case, an inclination to the former; and though
countenance tended towards the more amiable alternative, its expression was compounded by something shy or silly about the jointure of the nose and forehead, a stupid flatness: as if the palm of her maker's hand had rested carelessly against her face as she lay cooling.

Her figure, however, was very good and might, Annabella privately conceded, have roused the envy of an envious mind. Mrs Leigh possessed that combination of stillness and grace which the poets had begun to term ‘ethereal'. Annabella had a passion for the modern school, but she was by no means a slave to its jargon. She guessed how much in the expression of a figure, or even of a pose, lay outside the scope of intention. Most likely the poor woman—a mother already of three or four—was simply too anxious to eat; and though Annabella could claim her own share of nerves, she was far too sensible to let them rob her of an appetite. Lord Byron referred to his sister as ‘Gus' or, sometimes, ‘Goose'. She was unspeakably shy; there was no question of that. The blood filling her face had given her skin the trembling surface perfection of a liquid brimming in its cup. The proper object of Annabella's envy was the fact that Mrs Leigh's very shyness seemed to centre upon herself the attention of the men surrounding her. Annabella had, with a stiffness of will, overcome her own reserve only to find herself allied to the dancing-master and instructing, often by hand and foot, the other girls: a proximity that offered her, if nothing else, too vivid a sense of what the feminine body in touch and smell suggested to a man.

No doubt Lord Byron played his part in attracting to Mrs Leigh the eyes of that assembly. Annabella could not keep her own off the pair of them. As Miss Elphinstone swung in her arms, she just glanced across her shoulder to see if either the poet or that helplessly beautiful woman were following her lead. Annabella lacked both sister and brother, and there was something in their easy, though not ungallant, intimacy that made her ache to feel its absence in her own life. She never forgot this first sight of him, in spite of the heap of other less happy visions that overlaid it: the famous, lame-footed poet attempting to lead his sister through the steps of the latest dance, while the music beat out of time to their affectionate and staggering embrace. Afterwards she reflected, with just enough good humour to sweeten her embarrassment, that the first words she had spoken in his hearing were ‘
two three,
two three,
two three'—an association with the mathematical she later found it hard to shake off.

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