The car arrived at a rather splendid mansion, I have to admit, though I never cared much for Clarissa herself. She cared a bit too much about other people’s opinions about her for me to be comfortable in her company. It made me wonder why she interacted with me the way she did and I did not like what it implicated.
There was a long driveway up to the house and once there Fernandez jumped out to open the door for me. The driver drove off with the car to spend the evening chatting to the other people in his profession as they do, and I stared up at the large and looming building in front of me. Now, something I did like with Britain was the fact that the buildings had history. Everything is new in the States, whereas on the British Isles I doubt they rarely build anything these days. It seems most things have been around as long as the ground itself, though perhaps that is an exaggeration. In any case, the mansion was built in sturdy stone and I was certain that should there be an earthquake, not that those happened in Europe a lot, it would remain standing.
Fernandez tucked my hand firmly into the crook of his arm and we went inside through the open door. They were, after all, expecting us. We were greeted by the staff in the hallway and motioned into the ballroom, and thus we proceeded. The heels of my shoes clicked against the marble and I straightened my back. It would not do to show fear in these circumstances, I was after all from across the pond from one of the greatest countries in the world. I had no idea why I was suddenly nervous at the thought of meeting a bunch of Brits. Fernandez must have sensed my anticipation because he squeezed the hand I held on his arm with his free one for a second before we went inside.
‘It will be alright, miss. Your aunt would not have sent you here otherwise.’
As soon as we had entered the ballroom Clarissa spotted us. She must have been keeping an eye out for me, and now she hurried over. Of course, she looked even more dramatic than she had on the train. Her eyes were even more sooted, her hair even more shiny and her gown was absolutely splendid. It was made of a velvet kind of overdress in burgundy, and beneath it was a cream coloured longer skirt.
‘Darling Matilda, how good of you to attend!’ she exclaimed and leaned in to kiss both of my cheeks. I smiled back and at once felt the butterflies still. Now I was in my element. The scandal notwithstanding I had always been very able to sail the waters of the société. ‘Though I see your aunt Phyllida isn’t with you?’
‘No, unfortunately, she couldn’t attend. She sends her regrets.’ I was certain Phyllida did nothing of the kind, but one had to keep up the niceties.
‘I see! Who is your company?’ she asked coyly while smiling at Fernandez. I was stunned. Did she not recognise him? Then again, she had probably never taken a closer look at him either and it had to be said he looked a little like some prowling exotic predator. I had to swallow before I replied as the sight of him left my throat suddenly dry.
‘This is Ignacio Fernandez, who graciously offered to escort me to your event.’
‘Splendid, how do you do Mister Fernandez?’
He took her hand and kissed the back of it before replying and I had to bite my tongue not to giggle because suddenly Fernandez spoke with heavily accented English. ‘Miz, I am, how do you say, enchanted.’
‘Oh you foreigners! Such manners!’ Clarissa said with a smile which took the edge off her words. ‘Would you excuse us for a moment, my lord, I need to speak to miss Arkwright alone!’
He looked positively ready to burst with laughter, probably at the fact that he had just been referred to as a lord, and I hurriedly told him to go and fetch some refreshments. Clarissa wasted no time but drew me to the side of the room, next to a pillar carved with leaves and cherubs.
‘You will never believe what has happened!’ she whispered eagerly to me. I sighed inwardly. More gossip about that poor girl Delia, no doubt. It turned out I was right. Clarissa continued without waiting for me to reply in any way. ‘That pregnant hussy I told you about, you remember, the man, lord Kenneth Plaskett, making her pregnant, or so we assume, has announced he is to marry her! Marry her! Can you believe it? He informed me of this earlier today. It has all but ruined my evening, I tell you.’
‘I fail to see the problem,’ I pointed out. ‘This will surely solve any predicaments, won’t it?’
‘He deserves better than that. Nobody even knows if it’s actually his child.’
I looked at her closely, at the way she narrowed her eyes when mentioning Delia, but also how her pupils dilated when speaking about her man.
‘Oh goodness, Clarissa, you care about lord Plaskett, don’t you?’
She jerked away a little and looked at me sharply. ‘Don’t be absurd! Of course not, I just don’t want to see a peer of the realm disgraced and trapped into marriage by an obvious fortune-hunter. Imagine that, me caring about a man such as him.’
‘Well I don’t know, I’ve never met the fellow, after all,’ I pointed out. ‘Is there something dreadfully wrong with him, you know, of the variety which makes it impossible to care about him?’
She stared at me in shock. ‘You Americans, always so vulgar! Of course not, I couldn’t possibly believe there was. I just don’t care for men who make other women with child.’
‘Good, then,’ I said with a sweet smile. Thankfully Fernandez returned just then with a glass of some bubbling wine and a plate with a few appetisers. There were ham roses on bread, salmon roulades with some sort of soft cheese and finger-sandwiches with several fillings. Clarissa quickly excused herself and wandered off.
‘Goodness me, Ignacio, I have never really seen the point of all these bite-sized foodstuffs. I hope there will be a proper meal later?’
‘There usually is, and I’m certain miss Murdoch will want to show off, as well.’
‘Very well,’ I said while taking a closer look at the room and the other guests. Everyone looked splendid, the women clad in fashionable dresses in all manner of colours, some with glitter like mine. The men all wore well-tailored suits.
‘Are they all from here? It seems an awfully big gathering of, well if you’ll excuse my language, the upper crust for such a small town?’ I turned to Fernandez with my question.
‘I believe the Murdochs have invited people from York and Leeds as well, my lady.’
‘Of course,’ I said while watching Clarissa steal from the room, after having been briefly talking to what I had to assume was one of her guests. At the conversation all colour drained from her face and was then followed by a grim look of determination before she stole toward the door. It seemed she did not want to be seen sneaking out, but then again it is rather rude to leave your own party.
‘That false bitch,’ someone said close to my ear and I gasped aloud. I could not help myself, it was simply such awful language! I admit I consciously tried to shock and get rid of Clarissa before but at least my choice of words had not been as bad as all that! I turned toward the person having uttered them.
‘I beg your pardon?’
I was met with a calm and arrogant grey gaze, surrounded by fire-red hair. Both of these were assets of a small woman standing next to me, holding a glass and seeming perfectly at ease.
‘Oh, only I saw your gaze follow Clarissa Murdoch out of the hall and couldn’t help myself. She’s a real terrible woman, she is. Slandering my sister and whatnot. I’m telling you, she’d see anything done to stop their marriage,’ she said with a sip of her drink. ‘Not that I wouldn’t mind him marrying somebody else, though it’s too late now. And it’s what my sister wants, anyway. What do you suppose she’s up to, then, that Clarissa? Meeting someone, an illicit rendezvous, is my guess.’
‘Your sister is Delia Keighley?’ I asked. It was too much to respond to any of her other statements and questions.
‘Yes, sorry, of course you have no idea. You’re the American. I’m indeed Delia’s sister Anita. How do you do?’
‘Delighted, miss Keighley. I’m Matilda Arkwright.’ Did everybody know an American was visiting, I wondered.
‘Lady Matilda Arkwright, to be precise,’ Fernandez said with an air of wounded dignity. I supposed he would see nobody robbed of their full and rightful title on his watch.
‘A real lady? There aren’t too many of those around here, I say. Well, it’s been a pleasure, lady Arkwright. I hope we’ll speak another time? I need to be off, really, seeing as I’m not actually invited to this party. Besides, I have another appointment. I just wanted to see what was going on. Ta ta.’
With that she threw back the remains of her drinks in one swallow and strode from the room, the eyes of the other guests following her covertly, or what they surely believed was such.
‘Deary me, she was surely something, wasn’t she, Ignacio?’
‘Why yes, my lady, she is something of a well… she’s well-known in the area.’
‘Well-known as what?’ I asked though I could almost guess.
‘She’s known as a rather difficult person, I mean.’
‘How so, though? Obviously I can see she has a strong character…’
‘She speaks her mind a bit too freely, for the English temperament.’
I snorted a bit in amusement. I could indeed believe that would be regarded as difficult in this country where good manners were so important. They were in America as well, but the English tended to hold on to principles more than anything else.
‘Come, let us walk around the room, Ignacio.’
He graciously held out his arm for me and we ambled around the hall, stopping here and there to make introductions. There were a lot of people who were all curious about aunt Phyllida’s niece, I noticed. A little while later Clarissa came back into the room and she went at once to the table for refreshments to refill her glass, the contents of which she threw back quickly before taking yet another serving of the punch. There was something odd about her and I was just about to make my way over to where she was standing and see if she was alright when somebody spoke next to me.
‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ I turned toward the voice, which belonged to a terribly handsome man, blond and dashing. My brows furrowed in puzzlement. I could not remember having spotted him previously when I arrived.
‘Are you speaking of Clarissa Murdoch?’ I asked, trying to remember.
‘Oh, I do apologise, I just couldn’t help but noticing you were watching her. Perhaps you are inclined toward the… tender sex yourself?’
I felt heat flush my cheeks and knew they were turning scarlet at his suggestion.
‘No, I do not.’
‘Perhaps you should introduce yourself, Mr…?’ Fernandez thankfully interrupted.
‘But of course, how rude of me. My name is Steven Trask. It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…?’
‘This is lady Matilda Arkwright, and my name is Ignacio Fernandez,’ my dear evening company clipped every word. He was insulted on my behalf, bless the man.
‘How do you do, lady Arkwright?’
I sniffed and turned away from him.
‘Please, forgive me my earlier rudeness, it’s just been such an eventful day, and now being here in the company of a lady, whom I have heard so much about, I simply forgot my manners!’
I have always had trouble to hold a grudge for very long.
‘You are forgiven,’ I said with a gracious smile. ‘Please, tell me, where you here when I arrived? I don’t think I saw you.’
‘Indeed, I was here but I must have been out on the balcony. So, my lady, how do you enjoy the English countryside so far?’
‘I have to say it is most charming. To tell you the truth I didn’t think I would enjoy it quite so much as all this.’
‘No it must be quite a change from, where were you from?’ He asked me with an eyebrow raised.
‘Manhattan, in New York.’
‘I say! How come you came here?’
I felt my smile stiffen a little on my face. It was a very personal question, I suddenly found. Steven Trask apparently realised this on his own this time because he smiled apologetically.
‘There I go again, don’t I? I didn’t mean to pry, I’m simply excited to see a new face! Let’s change the subject completely,’ he said taking a sip from his glass. ‘I assume you have heard all about our little scandal?’
What was it with people, I pondered as I took a sip myself to buy some time before answering. Why did they want so badly to speak about this poor girl Delia? I resolved I needed to see her myself in the close future.
‘I have heard, indeed. Don’t you think she deserves some privacy? Poor woman.’
‘Why, yes, of course, but then again nothing ever happens here. There is no privacy when people are bored. She deserves someone better, if you ask me.’
I turned to look at him. He looked a bit distant. ‘Do you have a soft spot in your heart for miss Keighley?’ I figured that if he could be personal, then so could I, by all accounts.
He laughed, a bit too loudly. ‘No, of course not! No, I simply mean that everyone deserves the very best that they may attain, and she should have someone better. My heart, though, is set on someone else.’
I followed his gaze and spotted Clarissa yet again. This time the colour had returned to her complexion. I almost pitied the man his task of trying to woo her, because it could be no easy task.
‘Gracious me, well, good luck with that, mister Trask.’
‘Thank you. In fact, I think I shall go and have a word with her. You know, a man must take his chances!’
‘Indeed. Good evening to you.’
‘Good evening!’ he replied and strode across the room to speak to his beloved.
‘Ignacio, I think I need some air to tell you the truth. It’s awfully stuffy in here.’
‘The balcony, miss?’
I considered this but could see that there were several people who came and went to the balcony all the time. I needed some more privacy than that, I suddenly felt.
‘No, do you know if there is some more secluded balcony than this one? I can’t abide all the people right now. These three encounters have been quite enough for the present, I feel.’
‘Of course. Only follow me, we’ll go across the corridor and out the one belonging to the parlour.’
We started to walk across the room but never had time to leave it completely. Just as we were but a few steps from the exit the doors burst open and a rather heavy-set woman blustered in. Everybody ceased their conversations and turned their eyes on her. She put a hand to her chest and exclaimed:
‘There is a dead man in the parlour. Quite dead. I’m afraid, goodness me, he’s been stabbed…’ With that her eyes rolled back and she began to, horribly slowly, topple over and would have fallen sprawled onto the floor had not Fernandez dashed forward and caught her. In his hands it seemed she weighed no more than a slip of a girl and he easily deposited her in a chair before turning to me.
‘Goodness gracious me, Ignacio,’ I said into the silence which had fallen in the ballroom. Nobody had dared to move yet.
‘Indeed, miss. Bloody inconvenient. On your first visit here as well.’