Chapter Two: Smiles
Several streets away, in a more refined area of London, the household of Master and Mistress Randolph Kendrick was all sixes and sevens. Not one, but three young ladies were preparing themselves for the first ball of their very first Season, and there were only two ladies’ maids between them.
The eldest girl, Linnet, was already dressed, her hair done, and was awaiting her sister, Sidonia, and cousin, Venetia, to finish with their preparations.
“We’ve gone from being fashionably late to impinging on impoliteness.” Linnet tapped her slippered foot with impatience. “Really, Venetia, you look wonderful. And your dress is lovely… Please do not change it again!”
“Linnet, in France, no one arrives at a ball before eleven,” Venetia assured her anxious cousin.
“Oh, how would you know that? Have you been to France?” Linnet retorted cheekily.
“Well, you may be all set to marry that clergyman. However, in point of fact, some of us are still looking for husbands,” Venetia retorted.
Linnet ignored the tone in Venetia’s voice when she referred to Michael as “that clergyman.” Humble as his calling might be, he was all that a woman could desire in a partner and Linnet knew there was no better man than he. Unlike her cousin and her sister, Linnet had no designs to marry a titled nobleman or a man of great fortune. The eldest daughter of a country squire, she enjoyed the simple country life. This Season in London had been her father’s impulsive decision.
“Oh, but Michael is a handsome fellow,” said Sidonia as her maid attended to her mass of curls. “Moreover, as an only son, he’s heir to all his father’s estate, he has a decent stipend, and will sure to be a bishop one day. Perhaps even one day he might rise to Archbishop!”
“How you do go on!” Linnet admonished. “Michael’s a humble man, quite dedicated to his local parishioners. Archbishop, what nonsense!”
“Michael cares more about his parish than anything, true, you’ve said so many times. That does not imply he isn’t like any other man who seeks to better his lot. He’s more ambitious than you think— Ouch!” Sidonia winced as her maid pulled tightly on her locks.
“Not at all. That’s what I admire about Michael; he’s not like these titled lords looking to hold on to their earthly fortunes. Michael looks to better the lives of others.”
Venetia and Sidonia shared a glance as if to say to one another: “How revolting. Would you ever settle for anything so boring?” and neither of the girls responded to her words.
As her cousins continued their preparations, Linnet turned to look at herself in the mirror for what seemed the hundredth time. She was dressed in a white taffeta gown embroidered with stylized flowers of blue and silver thread. On the petals of the flowers were tiny, glittering silver and sapphire-colored sequins. The neckline was low cut, but not revealing too much of her admittedly ample bosom. For jewelry, Linnet had only the plain pearl earbobs she’d inherited from her mother, and about her neck was a white satin ribbon with a blue silk rosette in the center.
She thought the dress quite handsome, as the blue accents on the gown emphasized the dark blue of her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a plain knot and tied with a ribbon that matched that one at her neck. Short, dark gold curls framed her face. Linnet looked as pretty as any female could be dressed as she was, and beyond that, she was satisfied with her appearance.
In contrast, her sister and cousin were bedecked in silken gowns of bright pastels, adorned with laces and flounces: Venetia in a yellow that emphasized the deep red of her hair and Sidonia in a becoming, light rose-pink that complemented her white-rose complexion. Linnet sat watching them, the maids working industriously to pile the hair upon the girls’ heads in a painstaking, elaborate process.
The young ladies were chattering with excitement about their very first ball. Linnet did not begrudge them their excitement, although she did share it.
At nineteen years of age, Linnet, too, had never had a Season in London, but she had never felt the need for one. Back home in —-, there had been young Michael Parnell, who had of late joined the ministry. Michael, so sweet and loving, was all she desired in the world; not for her these glamourous balls designed for unmarried young women to seek out husbands.
Sidonia and Venetia, both two years younger than Linnet, were eager for the night as any girl could be. Their faces glowed with delight at the thought of the hours ahead. It was thanks to Venetia’s mother, Mrs. Honoria Pendergast-Kendrick, the sister of their late mother, that Linnet and Sidonia were able to enjoy a season in London. If it had been up to their father, the girls would have remained in the country with their brothers. Yet had had it not been up to father, after all? All summer he had not mentioned any intent to go down to London, but come the end of fox season, he was insistent that the girls should visit with their aunt and uncle.
Linnet’s eldest brother Gilbert had come with them to London, while her three younger brothers remained in —-, looked after by their governess as they were still of nursery age. It was not easy for Squire Talbot to care for his large brood since the death of his wife six years past, and Linnet had spent much of her youth acting as a substitute mother for her siblings. As such, she was severe and often times stern, yet her father’s favorite. She was the kind of girl who would smile only at the most humorous of jests, but when she did smile, her gentle beauty had a soothing way of comforting Squire Talbot.
Linnet did not know, nor would she care to know, that her father desired more for her in life than to be the wife of the local parish minister. She knew it was why he had insisted she come along with Sidonia to London, but under the guise that her sister needed familiar female company. If Linnet knew that her father yet hoped she would make a more suitable match, she would be quite upset with him.
“I say,” Venetia announced, fingering the lacy yards of her skirts, “Perhaps this gown isn’t the right one to wear—”
“No!” Both Sidonia and Linnet interjected.
“You look lovely…beautiful,” Sidonia assured her and stood up, as her maid was done tending to her hair.
“Truly, you do,” Linnet confirmed. “You’re sure to be the belle of the ball tonight.”
“Do you think so?” Venetia questioned, her brow wrinkled in doubt.
The girls assured her again and again that she looked divine, and before long, the ladies were finally done with their preparations. Fashionably late, the Talbots and Kendricks were loaded up into two carriages (an extra had been rented for this very night) to attend the much anticipated first ball of the Season at Lady Elisabeth Tollemache-Kent’s.
“Minerva, do you see that man? Why I cannot believe the cheek of him! That he dared show his face here! I’m quite shocked.”
“That dashing fellow in grey, Gertrude? Who could that be?”
“My dear, you have been out of London for a long time, but that’s still no excuse! How could you not have heard about the evil Earl of Chelmsford? Tollemache. He’s on the fringes of society. I’m certain his aunt, Lady Betsy did not invite him. She’s probably appalled that he’s here.”
“The fringes, you say?” Minerva craned her neck to follow his lithe form as he made his way around the room. “What is he, a wastrel, a gambler?”
“All that and more. Chelmsford should never be seen in polite company; he is truly a rogue beyond redemption. He drinks, he gambles, he rides his horses, cares nothing for his estates and position as a Lord. That would be bad enough, but the duels, the—” this next part came in a hushed whisper “the wenching this year alone! Why he has brought many a young miss to ruination and refused to do the honorable thing!”
“Oh, a rogue indeed!” Minerva nodded, fervently, producing all sorts of jiggles and bounces. And what have the families done in retaliation? Or the House of Lords to discipline him?”
“The families? Well, none of the families were powerful enough to have him completely stricken from society. A poor few fools fought duels, but for the most part, the girls were either sent away or married off. As for Parliament, what use are they?”
“Scandalous! Absolutely scandalous! Yet he still is graced by Society?’
“He shouldn’t, although he’s far too powerful and well-connected to be cast off altogether. Why our Prince George allows him private entrance.”
“Even the Prince Regent himself abides such behavior? What has the world come to?”
“Yes, more’s the pity. It seems the cad’s brought young Lord Ravenhill with him as well, who is if not as wicked as Chelmsford, is quickly following in his footsteps,” Gertrude was quick to note.
“Two notorious roués? Betsy will be beside herself.”
“Yes, she will, and so will every mama and papa of all these virtuous young ladies, and every husband here with a faithful wife.”
Minerva’s mouth was agape. “Are they that successful at destroying virtue?’
“Successful? The Devil himself could not be more enticing.”
“Enticing? You should hear yourself speak, Gertrude. One would think if you were twenty years younger…”
“Oh, stuff it, Minerva. Look at the pair of them; they’re a dazzling sight. The faces of angels with the souls of the fallen.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d call them angels. However, that nephew of Betsy is quite something,” Minerva agreed. “The other chap is handsome enough, but young Chelmsford: that raven hair, that striking bone structure, the broad shoulders…”
“I know you better than you think, Minerva,” Gertrude gave a girlish giggle that belied her near sixty years. “I knew you’d feel that way.”
“Well I’m an old woman, I’m allowed to have my thoughts. Who cares what an ancient crone like myself thinks? I’m not at risk of ruination.” Minerva looked around at the young ladies decked out in their finery, their glowing smiles as they enjoyed innocent flirtations and dances at their first official ball of the Season. “But these poor young girls.”
“I wonder if you worry for them, or envy them, instead.”
Minerva didn’t answer. She did not need to. Gertrude, for all her accusatory words, was having similar thoughts as her companion: “What I wouldn’t do to be a young lady again!”