Authors: M. C. Beaton
M. C. Beaton/ Marion Chesney
The Constant Companion
Copyright ©1980 by Marion Chesney
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2011 by RosettaBooks, LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
First electronic edition published 2011 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795320033
For Sally and Michael Murphy
and their children, Conal and Gavin,
with much love
At ten o’clock in the morning, there is usually an uncanny quiet in the squares and streets of the West End of London. The workers have already gone to work, the jugglers, conjurers and raree men have not yet arrived, the servants are quietly engaged in their multitude of tasks and have no time to take the air, for some odd reason the tradesmen cease to cry their wares and fashionable London lies abed, sipping its morning chocolate, and lazily turns over the gilt-embossed invitation cards which have been presented with the breakfast tray.
One fine Wednesday morning in early spring was no exception to the rule. The sun shone from behind a high, thin layer of smoke, bathing the city in a warm golden glow. Not a breath of wind disturbed the calm, still order of the stately homes, ordered parks and squares where daffodils stood sentinel under the delicate glory of the lilac trees.
Manchester Square basked in this morning oasis of tranquility and there was no other place so quiet or so well ordered as the tall, thin house belonging to Lady Amelia Godolphin.
Straight, thin columns of smoke rose up into the sky, and a thin, red line of tulips guarded the window boxes.
Then scream after shocking scream of rage and anguish rent the peace, rising from Lady Amelia Godolphin’s mansion in an ever increasing crescendo. Startled pigeons soared away from the roofs and bustled about the sky, faces appeared like small moons behind lacy clouds of twitching curtains at the surrounding windows. The screams went on. Doors popped open. A crowd began to gather in that mysterious way of crowds. One minute the square was empty, the next a bunch of people appeared to have sprouted from the pavement.
The blinds of Lady Amelia’s house were hurriedly drawn, a liveried footman bounded up the area steps followed by two small boys and started directing them to lay straw on the pavement and on the road to muffle the sounds of any passing wheels, and still the terrible screams went on and on.
The crowd at first was convinced that someone was being murdered in the politest manner possible but, all too soon, it had the truth of the matter.
Bad news travels posthaste. As the last scream died away, the news had spread like wildfire through the West End.
London’s reigning beauty, London’s richest woman, my Lady Amelia Godolphin had been refused a voucher to Almack’s.
Almack’s Assembly Rooms were the seventh heaven of the fashionable world. Balls were held during the Season on Wednesday nights and tremendous importance was attached to getting vouchers of admission to this exclusive temple of the
The lady patronesses were the Ladies Castlereigh, Jersey, Cowper and Sefton, Mrs. Drummond Burrell, the Princess Esterhazy, and Countess Lieven.
Almack’s popularity was the result of a wave of snobbery which was sweeping London. There was no point, after all, in belonging to the
if you could not get somewhere that was banned to lesser mortals. These dances had introduced something new into English life: a rigid, narrow and inhuman pride. The most vulgar and despotic of the patronesses—and therefore the most snobbish—was that haughty and indefatigable beauty, Lady Jersey. These rooms she reigned over had also become the highest marriage market in Britain where some of the richest bachelors in the world could be seen executing Scottish reels to the fiddling of Neil Gow’s band.
Hence Lady Amelia Godolphin’s screaming despair. For Lady Amelia not only wished to remarry and marry well, but she had already set her sights as high as Lord Philip Cautry, a handsome and moneyed aristocrat whose line dated back to the mists of antiquity.
Lady Amelia was beautiful and very rich. She was the daughter of an impoverished Irish peer who had shocked London by marrying a wealthy and elderly Cit, Harold Godolphin, at the end of her first Season. That she had married the rich businessman for his money was never in doubt and he obliged her by dying some six months after the wedding and leaving her his immense fortune.
Amelia had gladly taken the money and had set out to kick up her heels around the Town. At first her exploits were more hoydenish than scandalous, but she ended up having a much publicized affair with the middle-aged Duke of Glendurran, despite the noisy objections of the Duchess. Just when it seemed as if the Duke might divorce his wife in order to marry Amelia, he died of a heart attack, brought on, said Society maliciously, by his constant and strenuous efforts to behave like a much younger man to charm his fair mistress.
Lady Amelia had promptly rusticated in Italy for two years and then, assuming that the polite world would have forgotten her affair, she had returned to London to prepare for a Season and to woo Lord Philip.
As she was very rich, titled, young, and beautiful, all doors were open to her but that all-important one—Almack’s. Lord Philip Cautry was known to be notoriously high in the instep and would not take a wife who was not socially acceptable everywhere.
At last her screams subsided into noisy sobbing and her lady’s maid knew, from long experience, that it was now safe to start to quietly clean up the damage of shattered china and to arrange for the looking glass to be repaired yet again.
Lady Amelia dried her blue eyes on a corner of the sheet and straightened her nightcap with hands which still trembled with rage and disappointment. She wrenched herself from the bed and stormed to a small writing desk in the corner and began to scribble busily. Then she held out the finished letter to the lady’s maid, Eliot.
“Eliot, see that a footman takes this round to Mrs. Besant
,” she demanded and, as Eliot scurried from the room, she sat tapping her foot and staring stormily into space.
An odd sort of friendship had developed long ago between the young and beautiful Amelia and the middle-aged and waspish Mrs. Mary Besant. Perhaps it was simply because the pair delighted in rending apart the characters of their friends and acquaintances. Mrs. Besant was also a widow and her sour appearance and sharp tongue ensured that she would always remain so, having nagged her meek husband into an early grave. Lady Amelia, unlike her friend, had the sense to try to curb her tongue in public and although—all too often—her flashes of malice would dart forth, she was, in the main, readily forgiven because of her beauty.
She had pale blue eyes like a spring sky, hair so fair that it was nearly white, and a tall, willowy figure.
She hoped Mrs. Besant would reply to her summons and come immediately. She rang the bell for Eliot and stood like a beautiful statue while the lady’s maid dressed her in a pale blue redingote, the color of her eyes.
Amelia was just descending the stairs when Mrs. Besant was announced and both women walked together into the rose saloon.
Mrs. Besant was dressed in an unbecoming puce walking dress of almost mannish severity. She had a thin, rouged face with a high-bridged nose and large yellowing teeth. Her thin lips were parted in her customary smile which never seemed to reach her pale gray eyes.
Society was thoroughly frightened of her and therefore considered her good
, although, before she married the late Mr. Besant who hailed from the untitled aristocracy, Mrs. Besant had been a vicar’s daughter. A few bold sparks had tried from time to time to snub the formidable widow, but she had immediately retaliated by finding out something unsavory or embarrassing about each of her tormentors and had duly broadcast it in the sweetest way imaginable.
“Well, Amelia?” she began. “I trust it is something important. I have not yet had my chocolate.”
it’s important,” snapped Amelia. “I am not in the habit of hailing you from your bed at dawn.” It was eleven o’clock, but then that
dawn to a fashionable Londoner. “I have been refused vouchers to Almack’s!”
“Disaster. Absolute and utter disaster,” breathed Mrs. Besant, enjoying the mortification of her pretty friend immensely. “Sally Jersey, I suppose.”
“Chattering idiot,” said Amelia venomously, meaning Lady Jersey. “How on earth that vulgar woman came to have such social power, I will never know. What will Cautry think of it? He is warm in his attentions, but I mean to be Lady Cautry and not his mistress.”
Mrs. Besant privately thought that Lord Philip Cautry would not be swayed by the dictates of Almack’s were his affections fixed, but that might have eased the anguish of Lady Amelia and Mrs. Besant thrived on other peoples’ distress.
“It is indeed a problem, Amelia,” said Mrs. Besant with scarcely veiled satisfaction. “It was your affair with Glendurran, you know. I always said…”
“Oh, stow it,” said Lady Amelia who never wasted her breath trying to be polite to Mrs. Besant. “Don’t tell me what I ought not to have done. Tell me what I am to do!”
Mrs. Besant pursed her thin lips. “You need to become respectable, Amelia,” she said at last. “Do you think I could have a taste of wine to moisten my lips? You know I don’t drink in the ordinary way but this is, after all, a special occasion. Thank you. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Respectability.
“You see, my dear,” she went on, moistening her lips with large gulps of madeira, “what you really need is someone to live with you. Some female of irreproachable character, the churchier the better. Gentlemen pay calls on you, you see, and it is known that you are unchaperoned. Now, could Society see you everywhere with some stern dragon of a companion, they would soon change their minds.”
“Who do you suggest?” said Amelia, narrowing her eyes. “Yourself?”
“Dear me, no!” exclaimed Mrs. Besant. “I am a wealthy woman and much too much good
to be a companion to anyone. Put an advertisement in the newspapers.
“And now I must rush. I am attending a breakfast at the Cholmley’s. I shall see you there, of course.”
“Of course,” said Amelia with a bright smile. She had not been invited and was burning again with rage and humiliation, but was determined not to let Mrs. Besant see her distress.
But Mrs. Besant noticed the clenching fingers and took her leave in high good humor. For she, Mrs. Besant, had not, of course, been invited to the Cholmleys’ breakfast. Nor for that matter were the Cholmleys even giving a breakfast. But when your friends were down, it really was a source of satisfaction if you could make sure they stayed there.
Amelia said a very unladylike word as soon as Mrs. Besant was out of earshot. First Almack’s and now the Cholmleys. It was too much!
But the old harridan had certainly produced a good idea. A companion would be the answer. But who?
I must have a poor relation somewhere, thought Amelia, her busy mind running back and forth along the branches of her family tree. A relation would not cost much. A relation would be more under her thumb than some paid professional. A relation would do it in return for bed and board and would not need wages. The Irish branch of the family would not do. The Irish could be very independent. Her mother had been English. Perhaps someone on that side of the family.…
Then she gave a slow smile. She had suddenly hit on just the person. There was a cousin of her late mother, a Miss Maria Lamberton, of irreproachable lineage and terrifying morals. Amelia remembered the grim spinster from her childhood, a thin, upright old lady, forever quoting the Bible and with not a penny to her name. Miss Lamberton could moralize all she liked in public but she, Amelia, would make sure she knew her place and kept her tongue still in private.
She began to search through her papers, looking for the address. Ah, here it was. Miss Lamberton, Berry House, Witherton, Essex. Miss Lamberton it should be. How could Society think ill of her with such a companion by her side? She remembered her mother saying that Berry House was little more than a cottage with a few straggling acres, and mortgaged up to the hilt.
She sat down and began to write busily.
“My dear Miss Lamberton…”
Miss Lamberton put down Lady Amelia’s letter after reading it for the third time and stared out across the unkempt lawn of Berry House where a few scrawny hens were searching for worms.