Authors: Melanie Clegg
Tags: #England/Great Britain, #France, #18th Century, #Fiction - Historical
By the same author
The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
From Whitechapel: A Novel of Jack the Ripper
Copyright © 2012 Melanie Clegg
All rights reserved.
Published by Madame Guillotine
January 16, 2012
Manufactured in the United Kingdom
For Dave and the boys with all my love.
Bath, May 1787
It was a gloriously warm spring evening. Too warm in fact, reflected Mrs Garland as she frantically fanned herself with an entirely inadequate painted paper fan that smelled unpleasantly of lacquer. She tried in vain with subtle coughs and flutterings of her hands to catch the eye of a nearby sallow complexioned footman to implore him to bring her another glass of lukewarm lemonade but he was just as equally determined to ignore her. He lounged insolently against the wall, keeping his small piggy eyes fixed firmly ahead, plainly on the look out for far bigger fish than the ignored, overweight wife of a London businessman. Mrs Garland was well known amongst the gossipy Bath servants to be a mean tipper despite reputedly being possessed of an enormous fortune so he knew there was no benefit to being of service to her.
She had been sitting at the side of the Assembly Room for three hours now, sweltering in her new, slightly too small blue Spitalfields silk dress and watching with a disconsolate eye as her eldest daughter, Eliza was partnered through the dances by a series of unprepossessing young men. It was particularly galling as not one of them, in her biased opinion, was in any way worthy of this signal honour thanks to a general lack of rank, wealth or good looks.
Mrs Garland looked slowly around the elegant dove grey and white ballroom, where the flushed faces of the dancers and the exquisite diamonds (‘probably paste’, she thought to herself with a smug look down at the real and very expensive diamond and sapphire necklace that twinkled across her ample bosom) worn by the ladies shone and glittered in the mellow light of the huge crystal candelabras that hung overhead. In just one cursory glance she had noted in the midst of the throng at least thirty men of good fortune and property, half of whom had titles. Yet if any of them had taken the slightest bit of notice of her lovely Eliza, who everyone said was an uncommonly pretty girl then they gave not the slightest sign of it.
‘Miss Eliza looks to be in fine looks this evening,’ a passing acquaintance murmured over the din of the music and rhythmic thud of the dancers’ feet. They gave a smile and appreciative glance towards the dance floor where that young lady was currently energetically storming through the steps of a country dance, hand in hand with the dark haired, ruddy faced son of a wealthy farmer. Her long corn coloured tresses which had looked so elegant at the beginning of the night in a style that her maid had copied as best she could from a print of the French Queen Marie Antoinette were beginning to escape from their pins and blue silk ribbons and fall down about her neck. There was also a hectic red flush to her cheeks that owed nothing to the paltry dab of palest petal pink rouge that her Mama had fondly allowed her to apply before leaving the house. ‘Such a pretty girl! You must be very proud.’
Mrs Garland graciously smiled and nodded. After twenty years of marriage to her charming but somewhat errant husband, there wasn’t much in her life to give her any feeling of pride other than her eldest child and, to a far lesser degree, her younger daughter. Miss Clementine Garland was just fifteen and so was deemed too young for the crowded and occasionally raucous evening balls in the Assembly Rooms. She’d had been left unwillingly behind at their ruinously expensive rented house on Milsom Street, where she was probably at that moment sitting up in bed, reading one of Miss Burney’s books by candlelight and eating pilfered preserved ginger biscuits while getting wax and crumbs all over the sheets, much to the chagrin of their fearsome housekeeper.
It hadn’t always been this way, of course. There had once been a time when Mrs Garland, then Miss Arabella Beckett, had had much to be proud about and it would be impossible to imagine a more flirtatious and silly young lady than she had been at the age of sixteen upon her first debut into society. Her family were proud but poor and she had gone to balls, concerts and parties dressed up in her older sister, Louisa’s carefully patched and darned hand me down panniered and furbelowed white silk and taffeta dresses with pink roses from the garden and a pearl necklace borrowed from her Mama as her only adornments.
However, despite these drawbacks, her Dresden china shepherdess prettiness, blue eyes, tumble of blonde ringlets, light tread and winsome smiles had entranced several young men, including one who was third in line to inherit an earldom, although he had sadly failed to propose and had shortly afterwards announced his engagement to a wealthy widow with £20,000 a year to her name. Poor Arabella had been quite heartbroken after she heard this miserable news and had even come close to renouncing menfolk altogether, but to relief of all, her despair had been as short lived as it was shallow and she had lived to dance and laugh another day.
She finally settled on Mr Garland after meeting him at an assembly ball much like the one she currently graced. It was an unequal match in many ways - Miss Arabella being the younger daughter of a rather impoverished baronet while her chosen suitor was the eldest son of an immensely, even obscenely wealthy businessman from London. He had inherited not just his father’s determined jaw and taste for a decent claret but also his shrewdness and sharp head for business.
Miss Arabella had not cared about any of this however and had immediately fallen head over heels in love with George Garland’s fine dark eyes, good humoured ways and a bewitching, faintly rueful smile that left her quite weak at the knees. Equally entranced by her wide eyed admiration of his every utterance (‘Oh George, you are so clever!’), he had swiftly proposed while they were sitting together in her Mama’s sun filled yellow parlour with its faded carpet and sagging sofa. It was left to their fathers, both keen to protect their own interests and dignity to doggedly argue about the financial details of the match and shake hands over an uneasy truce.
Meanwhile, the young couple wandered about her family’s garden together hand in hand, never missing an opportunity to touch each other and stealing hungry, breathless kisses behind the noble oak tree that had stood for centuries in the middle of the lawn. She blushed now, remembering the touch of his warm fingers delicately tracing the shape of her face, fondling the nape of her neck then slipping slowly down her throat and inside her silk bodice, making her sigh against his teeth and press closely against him. How long ago was that now? Twenty years? Twenty one? She sighed again, thinking of the girl and boy that they had once been.
He still made her feel weak at the knees though and even now, as Mrs Garland sat alone and forgotten at the side of the room, the sight of his mulberry velvet coat flitting in between the dancers as he wandered here and there with his friends made her feel quite heady with mingled longing and regret. It had all gone wrong somewhere along the line, she just wasn’t sure when or how. She lightly touched the sapphire and diamond necklace that he had given her a week earlier, remembering how he had fastened it around her neck. He had smiled at her lovingly in the lace and ribbon bedecked dressing table mirror then bent to kiss the side of her throat, just has he had always used to, back when they were both young and in love.
‘And what is this for?’ she had asked, her eyes shining as she looked in the mirror at the sapphires and her handsome husband. He’d taken off his white powdered wig and cast it aside on a chair by the door as he entered her cosy, rose scented bedroom and she reached up now to gently touch the streaks of grey at his temples.
‘Do I need a reason to give my darling wife a present?’ he replied, dipping his head once again to her throat, his fingers dancing now around the edges of her low cut pink brocade bodice. ‘I saw it in a shop window and thought instantly of your beautiful blue eyes, my dear, is that not enough?’
She’d sighed and leaned back against her chair as he knelt before her and lifted her heavy brocade skirts and the dozens of gauze and silk lace edged petticoats that hid underneath, stroking the soft skin of her inner thigh with his fingers then followed them with his warm lips. The diamonds and sapphires gleamed and shimmered in the light cast by the candles on her dressing table and were the last thing she saw before she rapturously closed her eyes.
‘Mrs Garland?’ She opened her eyes and blinked with confusion as she looked up into the plump, overly rouged face of Mrs Knowles, who was gazing down at her with an infuriating expression of false concern and very genuine amusement. ‘Oh, I am sorry. Were you asleep?’ She did not wait for a reply and immediately sat down beside her, spreading out her shimmering bright yellow satin skirts and giving all the signs of being there to stay.
‘I was merely resting my eyes, Lavinia,’ Mrs Garland retorted rather tersely as she pulled herself upright in her chair and self consciously patted her powdered hair to make sure that it was not askew. ‘I am not as young as I once was.’
‘Nonsense,’ Lavinia Knowles replied, opening her spangled ostrich feather fan, which had been dyed yellow to match her dress, with an impatient snap. ‘You can’t be much more than five and forty surely?’
Mrs Garland sighed. ‘I am thirty seven,’ she murmured with a resentful look at her smirking neighbour. At first, feeling somewhat out of place and ignored, she had been delighted to have a new friend in Bath, even one who seemed determined to criticise and compete at every possible opportunity. However, she had known Lavinia Knowles, who was a widow of generous means, for a month now, which was more than long enough to decide that actually she was quite the most obnoxiously pushy woman that she had ever met to the end that she was resolved to ruthlessly break the acquaintance just as soon as they had all returned to London and she was back among her own circle of friends once more. Or at least this would have been her plan had their respective daughters not rather perversely decided to become bosom friends and were now verging on inseparable.
‘And how old is dear Eliza again?’ Mrs Knowles was merciless as she cast her dark, gimlet eye over the dancers. ‘Seventeen?’ She assumed a caressing tone that would have mollified her companion, had she not long since become wise to such underhand strategies. ‘Such a pretty girl. I am sure that she will be betrothed before long. I expect Mr Devereux to propose to my Phoebe any day now. Eighteen is such a good age for a girl to marry is it not?’ She looked with much complacency towards her elder daughter, Phoebe who was dancing with the aforementioned Mr Devereux, a rather plump faced but extremely wealthy merchant who was at least fifteen years her senior.
Mrs Garland’s lace mittened hands itched to slap the other woman’s smugly smiling face but she manage to restrain herself and instead opened her own fan and waved it languidly in front of her face, trying her best to appear unruffled. ‘Eliza is nineteen,’ she said with a tight lipped smile. ‘There is plenty of time to think about betrothals.’