Authors: Fiona Hill
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Copyright © 1987 by Ellen Pall
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition November 2014
This book is specially inscribed
with all her love
by the author
Miss Anne Guilfoyle yawned magnificently, stretched, stirred her chocolate with a silver spoon, examined the back of the spoon as if she had never seen one before, licked it, tapped it thoughtfully against her nose, stretched again, dropped the spoon into a China saucer, rubbed her cheeks, squinted at the morning sun streaming into the breakfast-room, and demanded of her companion what in the world had possessed them last night to engage to breakfast together this morning.
Maria Insel confessed that she did not know.
“Not to breakfast merely, but to breakfast at eleven o’clock,” Miss Guilfoyle continued, holding the cream pitcher in the air and dreamily inspecting the glaze on its undersurface. “To meet here over food sufficient to keep
us till Friday, when the truth is I cannot eat before two, and you never eat at all. We must have been mad.” She traced with a long, delicate finger a small figure-eight in the condensation on the pitcher’s side, then replaced it with a brief clatter on a China tray. “We must have been wildly mad; simply, frothingly, absolutely mad.”
So saying, she pushed aside the empty plate before her, frankly folded her arms on the table, and dropped her head into them. She appeared to have subsided; but after a moment, “It frets the servants dreadfully,” she went on from this posture, her voice slightly muffled by her jaconet muslin sleeve, “to be obliged to cook and serve at this hour—this frightful hour, when all good Christian souls lie snug in their beds. Let us pledge, Maria”—she set her chin upon the place where her arms crossed and looked over the table at Mrs. Insel—“never, ever, to meet for breakfast again.”
Mrs. Insel, who did look rather as if eating was an occasion with her, smiled and gave her word. She was a narrow woman of some thirty years, dressed in a lavender which lightly suggested mourning, rather dark complected than otherwise, with a massive knot of chestnut hair weighing upon her neck and a short, modish frizzle spread across her bony forehead.
“Do not you think kippering a monstrous unkind fate for a salmon?” asked Anne, her eye happening to fall upon a plate of fish whose lot this had been. “To be plucked from the water, then kippered! Insult on the very heels of injury! I should not care even to be salted, while the mere notion of being smoked makes me positively shiver.”
Maria laughed, then endeavoured to suppress a yawn.
“I saw that.” Anne sat up again. “How polite you are. I
think you are even tireder than I. Did not you sleep well at Lady Seepes’ last night? I had a wondrous easy chair, just behind one of the larger potted palms in the Egyptian Saloon. I dozed off about nine, I should guess, and did not stir till eleven. Most refreshing. Colonel Whiddon was telling me the story of his India days. Eat some toast, my dear.” She slouched forward once more to collapse in a heap upon the table; her slurred murmur continued, “It will make Cook feel she has been useful.”
Maria obligingly picked up a piece of toast, but she did not eat it. Instead she gazed, with a sisterly, almost a maternal affection, at the golden crown of her friend’s cradled head. At the same time her fingers absently tore the toast to bits. It required no very shrewd observer to see in that unconscious action, or for that matter in Mrs. Insel’s whole person and demeanour, a certain tendency to nerves, even some particular strain, the reason of which was not immediately apparent.
As for the other lady, nerves (she had occasionally remarked) somehow failed to interest her. Whatever pleasures spasms, swoons, and sensibility might hold for some females, they could not tempt Anne Guilfoyle. At the vigorous age of eight-and-twenty she slept soundly, ate well (though admittedly, not earlier than two o’clock), regularly took such modest exercise as could be had in the Park, and altogether enjoyed her life thoroughly. She had an open and inquisitive nature; everything—Colonel Whiddon’s India days excepted—interested her; she read widely, considered closely, and was well known among the London
as that rare thing, a woman of wit. Indeed, a few whispered that she was the “A.” whose satiric letters to the
—letters describing the fashionable exploits of the writer’s friend Lord Quaffbottle—had last
year obliged so many gentlemen to hide the numbers of 12 and 15 June, not to mention 2 July, from their wives. Whether these rumours sprang from truth, Miss Guilfoyle declined to say; in either case, her intelligence had won her a place in society not the less remarkable for being substantially above that to which mere birth or fortune would have entitled her.
This achievement had had its cost, however. Perhaps, more than one matchmaking mamma said with unmistakable smugness, perhaps if Miss Guilfoyle had kept a little more to her own sphere, she would no longer be Miss Guilfoyle, but Mrs. Someone, or even Lady Who. Anne, only daughter of Sir James Guilfoyle, Bart., and the well-dowried Miss Bowman that was, should have had fair prospects of finding a suitable husband. She had not been an unattractive girl; some ladies who had witnessed the event even admitted (now) that at her come-out she had been quite lovely. But that was eleven years ago, and she was a girl no more. Graceful, yes. Manners such as must please, yes. A spirit most lively, most winning, granted without argument. One might even say that—if one liked the sort of thing—her trim, rather athletic figure, her blond curls and fair complexion, her China-doll nose and jade eyes were still rather pretty. But the first bloom of youth had gone from her, the
agreed with satisfaction, never to come again. Miss Guilfoyle she was and Miss Guilfoyle would remain, and much happiness might her celebrated wit bring her.
The object of these hearty good wishes now raised her head (a movement which appeared to require a Herculean effort), observed the pile of crumbs to which Maria had reduced her toast, blinked at it, blinked at her, and declared, “My dear, I move this breakfast be pronounced an
abysmal failure and adjourned immediately. All in favour, Aye. All opposed? Motion carries.” She stood. “Reconvene in the Garden Saloon in forty-five minutes.” She lightly blew a kiss to her companion and staggered away.
So did the two ladies part and remove themselves to their several chambers, leaving the breakfast-room empty. It is no very common thing to find a domestic establishment composed solely of two young females (females, that is to say, who are visibly no sort of kin to one another) and the reader may wonder without impertinence how it came to be. As it happens, Anne and Maria had known each other since, indeed before, they could remember. Miss Guilfoyle, as has already been noted, was the daughter of a baronet. Sir James and Lady Guilfoyle had had two children, but the son dying of the smallpox at age three, Anne was raised very nearly as an only child. The family resided at Overton, not far from the village of Eling-on-Duckford, Northants., where Guilfoyles had lived since the reign of Henry VIII. Sir James being the local magistrate, and Overton by a good measure the finest property in the county, the importance of the family was universally acknowledged. It need hardly be added that Anne, the only surviving child and a precocious one at that, was petted, admired, and indulged with a similar universality.
Her bosom friend was Maria Pilkinton, of Halfwistle House, some eight miles distant. Maria’s father was a gentleman, but idle and of small means. Only his family was large; indeed, Halfwistle House would have needed to be Twicewistle House to accommodate them all comfortably. Mrs. Pilkinton’s tongue, sharp to begin with, grew sharper, for economy makes a fine whetstone. Altogether, Maria’s happiest days were passed outside her own family, with that of Sir James. The girls were almost of an age,
and Lady Guilfoyle being of a generous and motherly disposition, Maria became almost as familiar to her as her own daughter.
When Anne was twelve, however, and Maria thirteen, Sir James died of a sudden fever. Overton passing to his brother Frederick, who with his young family promptly came to claim it (“Showing all the politeness and restraint of a pack of ravening hyenas,” Lady Guilfoyle quietly remarked to Anne), its erstwhile mistress at once determined to remove with her daughter to London. She had never cared for Frederick, still less for his pickthank wife and spoiled children, and their conduct on the occasion of Sir James’ death resulted in more or less of a clean break, and a settled animosity. Happily for her, her ladyship had money on her Bowman side, and with this she engaged the house at number 3, Holies Street whose breakfast-room has just been abandoned.
Naturally the girls parted. Letters and visits prevented their total estrangement, but the differences in their backgrounds began inevitably to tell, Maria showing more and more the sobering effects of a straitened and unhappy country household, Anne the stamp of freedom and town life. For in London Anne’s education decidedly broadened. She had always shown an extraordinary, a voracious intelligence. (Her governess, Miss Gully, had already confessed herself sadly outstripped by her student, and went to London more as companion to her ladyship than as any sort of teacher.) Now all manner of tutors and scholars were made available to her. When her mother—a woman of no mean understanding herself, and of a sociable temperament—came out of mourning and began to entertain, the girl was permitted, though only thirteen, to join the company, matching wits with fully developed minds.
Maria learned to expect letters from her whose rich abstruseness she could never aspire to equal; in her periodic visits to Holies Street she got in the habit of saying little when Anne was by. The conversation at Lady Guilfoyle’s dinner table, though perhaps not quite brilliant, gave the girl plenty to sharpen her mind upon; and she profited by this opportunity with as much enthusiasm and pleasure as by her riding and dancing lessons.
When the girls were seven- and eighteen Lady Guilfoyle offered to bring Maria Pilkinton out along with Anne. Mrs. Pilkinton being only too glad to relieve the household of a mouth, Maria was duly sent. She arrived in London to find her girlhood friend following politics with a keen interest, talking military strategy with men who commanded regiments, playing the pianoforte to perfection, speaking French and reading German, composing yards of rhymed couplets extemporaneously—arrived to find her, in short, rather more clever (much more, some said) than a young lady strictly needed to be.
So it was not surprising that, though her first season brought Anne plenty of admirers, admire them she could not.
“Jests on the topic of drinking!” she exclaimed to Maria as they prepared for bed one April night following a dinner in particularly select company in Berkeley Square. They had been presented at St. James’ only the week before; Maria was quite entranced with the glitter and activity of the Season already, but “Did I say jests?” Anne went on. “Essays, novels rather! Sagas of bagged pheasant! Epics of pugilism! Whist, and wagers,” she spluttered, seizing the brush from her abigail and savagely dragging it through her own curls, “and—and waistcoats! Are these the gentlemen whose good opinion we are expected
to cultivate? Are these the celebrated wits of our time, of our nation?” And Maria was startled to see her burst into tears. “I am disappointed,” she cried, violently wiping the tears away. “Forgive me, my dear, but I am so very disappointed.”
Maria comforted her, though she could not join very deeply in her sentiments. Her own understanding was good, but not much above the common. She had found the conversation that evening perfectly acceptable, even bracing. As for Sir James’ relict, too late did she perceive the miscalculation she had made in their daughter’s education. “Bluestocking!” went the stern, whispered verdict round among the oracles of fashion; while meanwhile the young bluestocking sank deeper into dejection.