I imagine the colour drained from my face, because that is certainly what it felt like as I put the newspaper down in horror. To say this was humiliating was not even close to describe the full bloom of my ruffled feelings. Obviously I had not cared for the man beyond what was proper but still, to find myself mentioned and written about in such a way as this was simply not heard of. It was so terribly embarrassing I wanted to burn the newspaper there and then, but as is the way with this sort of thing one cannot avert the gaze from that which is offending. Of course I once more gingerly picked up the thing to read the despicable little paragraph a second time. Unfortunately the content had not changed.
Two months ago I announced my engagement to the Lady Matilda Arkwright and I hereby draw back the very same. I have no excuse for my behaviour; the only reason to this regretful situation that I can see is that I was drunk at the time of my proposal. I sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused the Lady herself and her family because of my actions.
Duke Nestor Bloxam
How could he have done such a thing? I was sure I could not possibly countenance this and flinched at the thought of the reaction of the ton to these scandalous… I counted the words which amounted to seventy, including his name at the end. Because of these scandalous seventy words I would be a positive social pariah, of that I could be certain, I thought as more and more of the situation’s implications dawned on me. I was still only eating breakfast, not even dressed for the day and I narrowed my eyes at the beams of sunlight creeping in over the dark oak surface of the table. How dared they be so cheerful after such a revelation as this had proved to be!
Some conundrum took place in the hallway though I tried to ignore it while forcefully cracking and peeling an egg. However, this appeared to be impossible as the door to the dining room where I took the mentioned breakfast opened and a flustered young woman bustled in.
‘Lisette! What on earth are you doing here?’ I cried out my question a bit too loudly, but I was upset.
Lisette was indeed flustered but at least she was dressed for the day in a fashionable frock with the hemline ending just below her knees. She sat down next to me and started to take off her gloves, while blowing a strand of her dark hair out of her face. The modern headbands she insisted on wearing did absolutely nothing to keep it in place.
‘Your butler, Matilda, really is a bother to get past. He was not inclined to let me in here! I have never experienced him behaving in such a manner before. Most annoying.’
‘Well, as you see I am not yet dressed. As you say it is not like him but doubtless he wanted to shield me from any further embarrassment today.’ I scolded myself for sounding so pitiful. It certainly was not like me at all but this day had not started well in the least.
‘Oh, dearest Matilda. How utterly dreadful.’ Lisette touched my hand in sympathy. ‘Of course I am here for the terrible newspaper notice. The manners of that man! I never liked him at all, you know.’
I did not, in fact, know that. Lisette had been all for my engagement to the hansom Duke Bloxam and had encouraged me no end to accept him, but that made her new opinion all the more comforting. Somewhere my heart became a little warmer thanks to my friend’s undying support. The awful truth was that she would in all likelihood be one of the few people who supported me in any way. The rest would assume I had been doing something utterly despicable for him to break the engagement, such as having an affair with somebody else. This, obviously, was not true but it would be hard for me to prove. Blasted inconvenient was what it was.
The door to the dining room opened again before I had the chance to answer her and my mother, Lady Eugenie Arkwright, flounced inside. She, too, was wearing only a silk dressing gown and her blond hair was in a disarray. The beams of sunlight lit it up like gold and even in my despair I sent up a thanks for inheriting it.
‘Maman, you are up early?’ After all, it was not yet eleven o’clock.
‘I was having breakfast in bed as usual,’ she was breathless, ‘when I saw this horrible, horrible bad-mannered… outrageous! This absolutely outrageous statement! Nestor Bloxam should be ashamed of himself!’
I was stunned into surprise when she omitted his title! Indeed, the man had lost all regard my mother once held for him and for the second time that morning I had to be grateful for the unending love of my family. Though, I thought a trifle nervously, I was yet to find out how my father would react.
That was not far off, however, because only seconds later he stormed into the dining room and slammed his fist into the table surface. My teacup rattled on its saucer but I relaxed instantly. The only times my father expressed such a rage was when he was angry at someone outside the family.
‘Damn him to the seven hells!’ he hollered. ‘I will shoot the bastard! Hunnisett!’ He yelled for the butler who instantly popped his head in through the door.
‘Yes, sir?’ As usual his face was passive and throughout professional, even when faced with the impossibility of a duke behaving like my father does.
‘Bring me my gun, Hunnisett. Is it cleaned? I will shoot the bastard for this, you see if I do not!’
‘Very good, sir,’ answered Hunnisett and disappeared again. I did hope most fervently he was not, in fact, fetching the gun just yet but that he would stall it long enough for father to calm down. We could at least try to prevent turning Duke Bloxam into a bleeding corpse.
‘Hiram!’ Mother was shocked. ‘Please, language, my dear. We have guests.’
My father blinked in surprise at spotting Lisette, who nodded at him. ‘How do you do?’
‘Also, please Hiram, do not shoot anybody today. One scandal is quite enough in one week, I should say.’
‘That cretin has obliterated my daughter’s honour and good standing in the mere use of…’ He paused while staring at the page. ‘In the mere use of three sentences, and one semicolon! Semicolon! I ask you. He deserves to be treated with the explosive end of my trusted Girly.’
I had always wondered how he could be so certain his gun was a female but had long ago given up trying to figure out how the intricacies of my father’s brain worked. It was best that way. We all fell silent in the wake of his words because they were the unfortunate truth. Lisette took my hand.
‘You must do something for your daughter,’ she insisted to my mother and father. Lisette had been my friend for as long as I could remember and such a frequent guest in our household she could speak to my parents without formality. ‘Any moment they will start calling.’
I saw my mother shudder slightly. Most of all I wanted to disappear but I had to speak up. Part of their reaction was to protect and shield me. The only way to make them move away from that and into action was by showing I understood the full complications.
‘Father, Lisette is right. Nobody is going to believe that Nestor was drunk, which he was not, by the way. To them this will sound like he is taking the blame for something I did which was enough to make him break the engagement. They will believe he is being a gentleman and trying to cover for me to protect my reputation. Of course, this gallantry will result in the very opposite.’
My mother sank back against the backrest of the chair. ‘Goodness, you will never find a husband now. Not in Manhattan. Probably not even in New York.’
I nodded in response with a sick feeling in my stomach. It was not that I was particularly interested in marrying, but it was simply what one did. Of course things had changed after the war and not everybody entered the holy matrimony, but when your family held a title it was seemly to carry this on. I had been reasonably fond of Nestor as well so the prospect had felt rather acceptable. Now I did not quite know what to do with myself.
‘The problem is worse than that,’ Lisette said gravely. ‘I do not know if you have taken a closer look at Matilda recently, but she is one of the beauties of the ton. Now that her honour is ruined, imagine what louts will be knocking on your door presenting her with their suggestions.’ I had never heard that word sounding so dirty before, and the realisation that she was right almost had me reeling. Before she said it I had not even considered the possibility but of course she spoke the truth. I wondered how many propositions to become someone’s mistress I would have before the day was out.
‘You will not become someone’s… someone’s little…’ Father sputtered, unable to find the offensive words. ‘You simply will not, do you hear me? Not my little girl.’ And at that the air went out of him and he finally calmed down. On queue Hunnisett opened the door, carrying the gun.
‘Sir, I have polished it just now, sir.’ My father waved him away and I thought I caught a hint of smugness around Hunnisett’s eyes as he left the room, not that he ever would be that unprofessional.
‘She will not have a decent offer of marriage after this,’ Lisette continued.
‘Are you absolutely certain?’ I asked. ‘After all we have entered the nineteen-twenties. Things are not what they used to be.’
She looked at me sadly and shook her head. ‘Not in this case, Matilda. Bear in mind people are jealous of you. The women will talk.’
‘That settles it.’ My mother sounded like she had already made up her mind. ‘You have to leave New York until everything has settled down.’
I stared at her. Leave New York? Where could I possibly go?
‘Mother that is ridiculous. I cannot flee the battlefield. Now is the time I need to show them how strong I am! This is, after all, not my fault. I am innocent. You all know that.’
‘Matilda, your mother is right,’ Lisette insisted. ‘Leave New York for a little bit. Perhaps by autumn, when the season is over, everything will have calmed down and you can return in full glory.’
I had to admit they did have a point but I was not happy about it. ‘But where should I go?’
Mother and father looked at each other, doubt showing in both of their faces though it quickly became replaced by determination. Once more I felt the colour drain from my face, I was certain I did, because somehow I simply knew what they had in mind.
‘No, no, you cannot possibly… Mother, she is an eccentric! And she lives in England, for goodness’ sake! They still have not left the Victorian era! Horribly old-fashioned. I cannot possibly go.’
‘Matilda,’ my father said, ‘please, consider the benefits. You will be far enough away so no gossip can reach you. Neither can anything you do be construed as something else.’
I stared at him and then down at the morning paper. Even though I hated to admit it the words it held had cut to the core of my soul. To be accused of something you have not done and have everybody believe it because they wanted to, without ever having reaped the benefits of your supposed crime, is in all honesty a wretched way to start your day. I sighed in defeat.
‘True, but really, father, Phyllida Kynaston?’
Phyllida was my mother’s older sister. She had moved to England many years before and nobody had ever really figured out why. The only thing we knew was that it was not because of a man because she had not married. Neither had we any real idea what she was doing there and we had not seen her for the longest time. As far as I knew she did not even live in London, but in some small town further north. It might as well be the edge of the earth, if it was still believed to be flat.
‘I know my dear, but I think it would be best. Should your father go and purchase a ticket for the next zeppelin flight?’ Mother’s eyes were filled with sympathy and there really was not anything left to say. All I could manage was to nod tiredly as father hurried out and mother made the necessary phone calls to alert my aunt of the situation. Lisette remained and held my hand and I squeezed it back. Only minutes later the doorbell sounded and it kept ringing throughout the day. We did not let a single person in and Hunnisett refused to take down messages.
Thus, the same evening, I departed on the zeppelin headed to London, from where I would take a train to the little town of Knaresborough to begin my life as a Dishonoured Lady. I indulged myself in a couple of tears of self-pity since two days from now it would be my nineteenth birthday.