Authors: Murray Pura
Ah, Master Skitt. To what do I owe this pleasure?
I brought you a glass of lemonade. You look a bit pink.
Why, that’s so kind of you. Indeed, I was feeling the heat. How may I thank you?
Well, I was wondering if I might have this dance?
My goodness, you’re asking me? A girl should be so lucky. I’d be honored. Please take my hand and let’s go onto the floor. Do you know how to waltz?
Indeed I do, Lady Catherine.
Really? You are a man of many talents, Master Skitt. I do hope one dance will not be enough for you.
With a lady as fair as you, I doubt it.
How charming you are. Let us stay partners as long as we possibly can.
“It’s not working! I knew it.” Sally stood in front of the mirror, lifted up a handful of her hair, and then let it drop. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips tight. “I’m a fright. I can’t go upstairs to the ball. I shall spend my night in bed reading a romance.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Norah swished up behind Sally wearing a red gown that flared out from her hips. She began poking pins into her friend’s straw-blonde hair. “A few hairpins and you will be absolutely devastating.”
“I will not. The night’s a disaster.”
“The night will be a triumph. Blue eyes, blonde hair, the tiniest freckles I’ve ever seen—the men will trip over themselves to dance with you. And there are quite a few of them.”
“What? Have you gone and peeked?”
“I have. And they all look smashing. There are some soldiers and naval officers too, and their uniforms are lovely.”
Sally bounced up and down on her toes. “Oh, I can’t wait. Hurry!”
Norah put several pins in her mouth so she could move her fingers about more freely. “Mmm.”
“Has anyone danced yet? I can hear the violins.”
Norah plucked the pins from her mouth and plunged them carefully into Sally’s upswept hair. “Lord Preston led off with Mrs. Longstaff, if you can believe it.”
“Mrs. Longstaff! She said she wouldn’t be caught within a hundred miles of here the night of the ball.”
“I don’t know who or what changed her mind, but she’s done up in
rose-and-pink ribbons and doesn’t even look like our cook anymore. Honestly, she’s a woman at least fifteen years younger.”
Sally bounced on her toes again. “That’s enough. We must get upstairs.”
“One minute.” Norah jabbed and stabbed. “Skitt’s on the floor with Lady Catherine.”
Sally whipped her head around and several pins fell out. “No!”
“Now look, we’ve got to do the right side again,” grumbled Norah, bending down for the pins.
“I never thought he’d have the nerve.”
“He was fortifying himself at the punch bowl before he asked her.”
“But the punch doesn’t have any alcohol in it.”
“Of course not. Lord Preston’s a good religious man. But Skitt didn’t think of that. So he finally marched off thinking he was well fueled for his Waterloo with Lady Catherine.”
“Well, if it was his Waterloo, he must have been Wellington if she let him take her out onto the floor.”
“Twice that I saw. And you’ll also be surprised to know he did us proud.”
“What d’ya mean?”
“He glided about like one of those swans of his. Can you imagine?”
Sally almost whipped her head around a second time, but Norah’s hands held it firmly this time.
“He did not!”
“You see,” Norah said, “all those lessons you gave him made a difference.”
“Me? You danced with him more than I did.”
“Three lessons for every one of mine.”
Norah snorted. “I can’t float like a swan over the dance floor. How could I have taught him how to do it, Sal?”
“Oh, I want to see!” Sally reached up and pulled Norah’s hands away from her hair. “Enough. I don’t care. Let’s go upstairs.”
“Sal,” Norah said as she peered at herself in the mirror and brushed an eyelash from her cheek, “the ball isn’t going anywhere.”
“ ’Course it is. It’s going out the door at midnight. Hurry.”
The great hall at Dover Sky was half the size of the one at Ashton Park, but it still held two hundred people comfortably. The walls had sea paintings—some of naval battles in the Channel and others of fishing boats, the background always including images of Dover’s white cliffs. A string quartet sat at one end of the hall on a platform erected for the occasion. Tables groaning with meats and cheeses stood at the other end. White lights glowed, strung from one corner of the ceiling to the other, and colored streamers of crepe paper dangled down, stopping eight feet from the floor.
Norah and Sally had helped decorate the hall. Taking it all in at once—the lights in the semidarkness of the room, the string players bent to their task, the red coats of the army officers and the blue coats of the naval officers, the women in their gowns and the men in their morning suits, crystal glasses glittering in people’s hands—gave the two young women a sense of being in a different mansion. It didn’t seem like their well-known Dover Sky at all.
Sally seized Norah’s hand. “There are two men of Nelson’s Navy approaching us.”
“Nelson’s Navy? What in heaven’s name are you talking about? It’s 1924 not 1805.”
“I like to think of the navy that way. I always have since I was a little girl.” Sally stood as straight as she could. “I’ll take the tall, dark, handsome one. You can have the other.”
“The other one’s shorter than me!”
“Shh! Do make the best of it.” Sally curtsied as the officers bowed. She made eye contact with the tall one. “Good evening, sirs. May we have the pleasure of your acquaintance?”
“Seven dances! My goodness!” Lady Catherine laughed and fanned her face with her hand. “Who would have thought you had wings on your feet, Master Skitt?”
“I hope you enjoyed yourself, m’lady.”
“Enjoyed myself? I don’t think I’ve ever flown about a dance floor like that.”
Skitt bowed, his morning suit tight on his slender frame. “My pleasure. And now I’m afraid I must go.”
“What? The night’s still young. I’d love to have another go ’round with you.”
Skitt beamed, his eyes bright amid the shine of the lights hanging overhead. “It would be an honor, Lady Catherine, but it’s my turn to be down at the pond. We’re trying to nab the poachers, you see.”
“He’s lending Tavy a hand there by the tables. This would be just the sort of night the rascals would choose to go after our swans, Lady Catherine, what with everyone in here at the party. I do hope I may have the pleasure of dancing with you again one day.”
“Oh, of course, Skitt. I’ll sneak you into my father’s birthday ball in a fortnight.”
“But I’m not gentry.”
She patted him on the cheek with a gloved hand. “Never mind. We’ll have our dance, I promise. Please be careful tonight.”
“I will. Thank you.” Skitt turned and marched through the great hall doorway.
Catherine snatched a drink of punch from a tray Tavy was carrying as he wandered through the crowd. “I need a drink or I’m going to faint,” she announced.
“Are you well, ma’arm?” asked Tavy in his gravelly voice.
“Certainly I’m well, but Master Skitt is so much younger than I am. He would have danced on for another five hours if he didn’t have his pond assignment.”
“I’m sure you’ve made his night, ma’arm. Probably his year. Perhaps his life.”
“Oh heavens, Tavy. Don’t exaggerate. Hardly his life. The year will be done in December, so that might be closer to the mark if he feels anything for me like you’re describing.”
“Lady Catherine, he dotes on you, he does. Were it a thousand years ago he’d happily mount a horse and joust to win your hand.”
“Now I don’t know if I’m blushing from the heat or your description of Skitt’s adoration. Thank you, Tavy. I’ll have another.” She returned the empty glass to the tray and picked up a full one. Tavy disappeared among the gowns, suits, and uniforms. Catherine stood and sipped as she gazed over the room.
“A beautiful woman left without an escort? What is England coming to?”
A tall, broad-shouldered officer in a dark-blue uniform was smiling at her, his eyes a brilliant blue and his face tanned like a golden sunrise. He bowed slightly. “Terrence Fordyce. I hope I’m addressing Lady Catherine Moore.”
“You are, Leftenant Commander.”
“Ah, you recognize the insignia.”
“My brother Edward was Royal Navy during the war.” She offered him a smile. “Did you come by your tan on Channel duty?”
He laughed. “That’s not likely, is it? I was on the world tour with the
. Australian sun blessed us, not to mention the Californian sun and the Jamaican sun. I had to leave the
in Canada and come across to Devonport on another ship. Naval business to attend to.”
“When will the
be back in England?”
“I’d say September.” He reached out for her empty glass. “May I take that for you?”
“Would you like another?”
“I’m quite all right, thank you.”
Fordyce went to the tables and returned. “Now your hands are free.”
“So they are.”
“May I have the honor of this dance?”
“Certainly, Leftenant Commander.” Catherine was immediately conscious of the cologne Fordyce was using—a spicy scent she enjoyed. She caught whiffs of it as they moved about the dance floor. His hand on her back was firm but gentle, his footsteps sure and smooth, his grip on her hand warm. He didn’t move as spiritedly as Skitt had because he didn’t have the younger man’s energy, but there was grace and dignity in his large circles over the dance floor that she liked. When the dance was done and he asked her for another, she said yes. This went on for several dances until her father showed up at Fordyce’s shoulder.
“May I cut in?” he asked.
“Of course, Lord Preston.” Fordyce stepped back. “Enjoy your waltz, sir.”
“I shall indeed. Fordyce, isn’t it? Family in Dover?”
“Your father and mother have been good friends to the Danforths over the years. I’m very glad to see you here tonight.”
“Thank you, m’lord.”
“I shan’t hold on to her long.”
Lord Preston swept his daughter wildly into the middle of the room, several couples having to dodge as they swung near.
“What’s this about, Father?” she asked. “I was enjoying myself.”
“Believe me, the last thing I want to do is spoil your evening. It’s a breath of fresh air to your mother and me to see you out on the dance floor.”
“Then why did you steal me away?”
“So I could tell you who he is.”
Catherine groaned. “I suppose he’s a rake.”
“Quite the opposite. I know what’s going on with his career from my naval connections. He’s bound for big things, so my advice is that if you like him even a bit, hang on to him.”
“Hang on to him? I’ve just met him. I don’t even know him.”
“I am just…”
“Thank you so much, Father, but I’m twenty-five. I’ll let you know how I feel about him in the morning.” She kissed her father on the cheek. “Stop worrying about me.”
“Well, your mother and I—”
“And I love you both for it. Now just waltz over and return me to the Royal Navy.”
“Where is he?”
“Off by that horrid potted plant. Poor man looks like a boat adrift.”
Lord Preston carved a path through the dancers, leaving dresses and suits and uniforms in disarray in his wake. He released Catherine in front of Fordyce with a flourish that embarrassed her and brought red to her face.
“There you are, sir.” Lord Preston smiled. “None the worse for wear.”
“Oh, m’lord,” protested Fordyce, “you didn’t even finish the dance.”
“I leave that up to you. I must find Elizabeth…Lady Preston. I haven’t had a go on the dance floor with her all night.”