Authors: Beryl Matthews
London, December 1899
Sensing that she was being stared at, Gertrude Melrose glanced up from the book she was reading. When she saw her brother standing just inside the door with an expression on his face she was becoming far too familiar with, she drew in an irritated breath. ‘No, Edward!’
He leant against the door; already immaculately dressed for the New Year’s Eve party they were to attend that evening. ‘You don’t even know what I am going to ask for yet.’
‘Yes I do, and the answer is still the same. You’ve squandered grandfather’s inheritance at the gaming tables, and you cannot do the same with mine! Grandfather left me that money so that I should have a degree of independence.’
‘Oh, come on, Gertie, it’s only a loan. I’ll pay you
back.’ He pushed away from the door, smiling in his most engaging way.
She wasn’t fooled. ‘Do you think I’m soft in the head, Edward? You know I’ll never see it again. I’m your sister, remember, and know you too well. Anyway, you’re forgetting something. Father has control of my money until I reach the age of twenty-one, or I marry.’
The affable, good-natured mask dropped from his face. ‘You’re twenty now and Father would let you have some of it. You only have to ask. I don’t see why you’re making such a fuss about it. Once you marry it will all go to your husband, so you might as well let me have some of it now.’
‘It most certainly will not! Father has tied it up so only I can draw on it. Even he can’t touch it without my signature as well as his. It’s a great shame they didn’t do that with yours!’ She placed the book on the table beside her and studied her brother, sadness in her eyes. She hated refusing him, but he had to see the error of his ways. ‘You’re with a disreputable crowd, and you must break away from them and stop gambling. They can afford to lose money – you can’t.’
‘I know you don’t like my friends, but it’s just high spirits, and I don’t always lose.’
‘They are not friends!’ Now she was exasperated. Why couldn’t he see them for what they were – idle wasters and good-for-nothings. ‘You’ve only ever had one true friend. And where is David these days? We haven’t seen him for ages.’
Her brother snorted in disgust. ‘He doesn’t know how to enjoy himself. We’ve asked him to join us, but he’s refused.’
‘Then he has good sense.’ She picked up her book again, hoping to end this distasteful conversation. She loved her brother, but it hurt her to see how much he had changed of late. He was only two years older than she was and they had always been close, until he got a taste for gambling.
‘What about that diamond necklace Aunt Hanna gave you? Let me have that. You never wear it.’
She slammed down the book and surged to her feet, her violet eyes wide with concern. ‘What kind of trouble are you in? It must be bad if you want to start selling my jewellery!’
‘Don’t get upset.’ His smile was back in place, trying to make light of his plight. ‘I just need a little cash to see me through until the New Year comes in. It will be 1900 – a new century, and things will change then. You’ll see.’
She sighed, not able to stay angry with him for long. ‘I do hope so.’ She reached for her purse and tipped out the money. ‘I only have one guinea, but you are welcome to that.’
‘That won’t get me far!’
‘What’s going on here?’ Their father walked into the room. ‘The entire household can hear your raised voices.’
‘I’m sorry, Father. Edward was teasing me again, and I didn’t find it amusing.’
‘And that was all?’ Sutton Melrose cast his son an enquiring glance.
‘Yes, sir.’ He gave an easy smile. ‘I keep forgetting that my sister doesn’t have a sense of humour.’
‘And what was this … teasing … about?’
‘I merely said it wouldn’t be long before she found
a suitable husband.’ He bent and kissed her cheek, whispering his thanks for not giving him away. ‘I’m sorry, Gertie. I didn’t intend to upset you.’
‘I know you didn’t.’
Edward straightened up and turned to his father. ‘If you will excuse me, sir, I’ll see you at the party. Save a dance for me, Gertie,’ he called as he left them.
Her father was frowning, then his expression cleared and he smiled at her. ‘You should be ready by now, my dear.’
‘Do I have to come? You know how I dislike these affairs.’
‘We cannot always do the things we like,’ he chided gently. ‘This is not only New Year’s Eve, but also the turn of the century. The Harcourts have been kind enough to invite us, and your mother is looking forward to the evening.’
She couldn’t stop the grimace forming. ‘But the year 1900 will be there in the morning. I don’t see why we have to gather in a crowded room to watch the clock tick past midnight. And I suppose Mr Glendale will be there and I shall have to spend my time avoiding him.’
Her father chuckled. ‘Alexander has not tried to hide his admiration for you, and he’s not a man to be turned away by your snubs. It will only make him all the more determined.’
‘I don’t understand why he is set on me. He makes me uneasy.’ She gave a puzzled shrug. ‘I don’t know why I dislike him so.’
‘Perhaps you should give yourself time to get to know him better? I only want you to be happy, my dear.’
Gertrude actually shuddered at the prospect of spending time with the man. Every time she saw him, she wanted to run. And she wasn’t a coward! At least, she’d never thought she was. She studied her father thoughtfully, and then asked, ‘Are you happy, Father?’
‘That’s a difficult question to answer.’
‘Would you try, please?’
His frown deepened. ‘You have been asking questions from the moment you could speak, always searching for answers about life. I believed you would grow out of it, but you haven’t. I’ll do my best with this one, but happiness means different things to different people.’
‘I realise that, but I’d like to know what happiness means to you.’
After pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts, he began to speak. ‘I have enjoyed building up the business and seeing the quality of the furniture we make. That has been satisfying, and yes, that makes me happy. When I look at my wife, I am content. We didn’t know each other well before our marriage, but respect and affection have grown over the years. When I look at my son, I am disappointed that he has shown no sign of following me into the business. The only interest he appears to have is to enjoy himself.’ He drew in a deep breath, and a gentle smile appeared. ‘But when I look at my daughter, I am happy.’
She gazed at him with affection. He was tall, straight and still a handsome man. ‘Oh, Mother is so lucky. If I could find someone like you I would be pleased to marry.’
He laughed, a quiet rumbling sound. ‘I think we’ve
paid each other enough compliments. Will you now agree to come to this tedious celebration?’
‘Ah!’ she declared triumphantly. ‘You don’t want to go either.’
‘As I’ve said many times, we can’t always do what we want to. But give me the pleasure of escorting two charming ladies to the ball.’
She rushed over, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. ‘How can I refuse?’
‘Gertrude!’ Her mother bustled into the room. ‘You will make us late. Do hurry and get ready. I’ll send Annie to help you put your hair up. It looks so much more elegant that way.’
Gertrude cast her father an impish wink. His expression remained unchanged, except for a slight twitch at the corners of his mouth. Oh, how she loved him!
‘Come, Sutton.’ Florence urged her husband out of the room. ‘Leave Gertrude alone or we shall never get to the celebration. Everyone we know will be attending, and it is an honour to be invited. Edward has already left and will meet us there.’
Her mood dipped as the door closed behind her parents. She prayed her brother had not headed for the gaming tables again. She didn’t know how aware her parents were about their son’s gambling, but from the way he had been pressuring her for money of late she guessed that he must be in debt. She thought a great deal of her brother, but was not blind to his faults. On several occasions she had urged him to tell their father and ask for a loan to pay off what he owed, but he always laughed and said it wasn’t
that desperate. That worried her even more, because to her way of thinking, that made him afraid to face their father because his debts were worse than he said. Of course, she just might be imagining it.
Annie arrived then and Gertrude pushed away her concerns. It was no good delaying the inevitable. She had to go to this party!
The celebration was being held at the impressive Harcourt house in Knightsbridge. They had a large ballroom and it was already full to overflowing. Gertrude only just managed to stop a groan escaping from her. How she disliked crowds.
‘Courage, my dear,’ her father said softly, slipping his hand through her arm. ‘Smile. It’s quite easy. All you have to do is turn up the corners of your mouth.’
Tipping her head back and looking up at his face, she did as he said.
They were both laughing when Florence said, ‘I can’t see Edward. Can you, Sutton?’
‘It will be difficult to see anyone in this crowd, my dear. He’ll find us eventually. Now, let us find you a seat where you can see the room clearly, and then I’ll get you a cool drink. It’s already stifling in here and the evening has only just begun.’
‘Thank you.’ Florence smiled fondly at her husband, and then turned to her daughter. ‘You look very beautiful tonight and will be in demand. I shall expect to see you dancing.’
‘Of course. And I’ve never seen you looking more elegant. You outshine all the other ladies here. Doesn’t she, Father?’
‘Indeed. I have already told her so.’
The compliments were received with obvious pleasure. ‘This is an important occasion and we all look our best. I am proud of my family.’
‘Here we are, my dear.’ Sutton led them over to a vacant seat right by the dance floor. ‘You’ll be able to see everything from here.’
As her father made his way through the crowd in search of drinks, Gertrude noticed the large column behind her mother’s seat. It was festooned with white flowers and would make an excellent hiding place. At the first opportunity she would slide behind it and hope to remain unnoticed for part of the evening anyway. But first she must find her brother. It was usual in these large houses to set aside a room for the men to smoke in and play cards. That was probably where her brother was and would have to be dragged away.
When her father returned he had a young man with him. Gertrude smiled with genuine pleasure as he greeted her mother first, before turning to her. ‘Hello, David. How lovely to see you here.’
He bowed slightly, making a strand of fair hair fall forward. He brushed it back, his grey eyes glinting with a smile. ‘May I have the pleasure of this dance, Gertie?’
‘Have you seen Edward?’ her mother asked David. ‘He came before us, but I can’t see him anywhere.’
‘No I haven’t, but if I bump into him I’ll tell him you have arrived and are looking for him.’
Once they were dancing, she looked up at David. ‘Do you know where my brother is?’
Nodding his head and sighing deeply, David said softly, ‘He’s been here for some time and is in the card room with his disreputable companions.’
‘Gambling?’ When he nodded again she was furious. ‘The fool!’
‘I’m sorry, I’ve tried to make him come to his senses, but he won’t even speak to me now.’
‘Show me where this room is, and I’ll get him out of there.’
‘Ladies are not allowed in the card room tonight. It has been delegated as a retreat for men only.’
‘I’m not a lady! You ought to know that by now, David.’
The corners of his mouth turned up in amusement. ‘I have often thought you should have been the boy. Except you are far too lovely to be anything but a girl.’
‘Flattery won’t stop me doing what has to be done,’ she declared. ‘Now, take me to this room.’
Without protesting further, he guided her along a passage until they reached a closed door. ‘This is it, but I’d better come in with you.’
‘No!’ She touched his arm. ‘I won’t have him accusing you of interfering.’
leaving you,’ he declared firmly.
‘Well, wait in the room opposite. If I need you, I’ll scream.’
He gazed up at the ceiling and muttered, ‘Dear Lord, Gertrude Melrose has been nothing but trouble from the moment she could toddle. What can we do with her?’
She gave him a playful push. ‘Disappear, and stop your nonsense. When have I ever been trouble?’
‘When haven’t you,’ he said, and then beat a hasty retreat to the other room.
Opening the door, she stepped inside. The room was full of smoke, and she peered through the haze. Eight tables had been set up and all were occupied. She spotted her brother on the far side of the room.
‘Ladies are not allowed in here,’ a man told her, looking up from his cards.
She ignored him and marched over to Edward, laying a hand on his shoulder. ‘There you are. Mother and Father are looking for you.’
He glanced up and scowled. ‘I’ll come when I’m ready. And you shouldn’t be in here.’
It was time for her little girl act. ‘Oh you men, always playing your silly game of cards.’
‘Get her out of here,’ one of her brother’s companions growled irritably. ‘She ought to know better than to come in here disturbing men at their cards!’
Every eye in the room was now fixed on her, but it didn’t worry her. She bent down until her mouth was level with Edward’s ear, and her fingers dug into his shoulder. ‘I’m not leaving unless you come with me. I’ll make a scene if I have to.’
‘You’ve already made one!’ he muttered, tossing down
his cards and surging to his feet. ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, while I get rid of this nuisance!’
Propelling his sister from the room, he slammed the door behind them, then turned on her, absolutely furious at being disturbed. ‘What the blazes do you think you’re doing? I had a winning hand!’
‘No you didn’t. The man opposite had a Royal Flush, and that was too good for the hand you were holding.’
He stared at her in amazement. ‘How do you know about cards? I’ve never seen you playing.’