Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould hesitated a moment at the top of the stairs. Applecross was one of those magnificent country houses where one descended down a long curved sweep of marble into the vast hall where the assembled guests were gathered awaiting the call to dinner.
First one person, then another looked up. To wait for them all would have been ostentatious. She was dressed in oyster satin, not a shade everyone could wear, but Prince Albert himself had said that she was the most beautiful woman in Europe, with her glorious hair and exquisite bones. It was not a remark that had endeared her to the queen, the more so since it was probably true.
But this was not a royal occasion; it was a simple weekend party early in December. The London season was over with its hectic social round, and those who had country homes had returned to them to look forward to Christmas. There were rumors of possible war in the Crimea, but apart from that the middle of the century saw only greater progress and prosperity within an empire that spanned the globe.
Omegus Jones came to the foot of the stairs to meet her. He was not only the perfect host, but also a friend of some years, even though he was in his fifties and Vespasia barely past thirty. Her husband, older than she, was the one who had first made the acquaintance, but he was abroad on business at the moment. Her children were in the house in London, safe and well cared for.
"My dear Vespasia, you are quite ravishing," Omegus said with a self-deprecating smile. "Of which you cannot fail to be aware, so please do not insult my intelligence by pretending surprise, or worse still, denial." He was a lean man with a wry face, full of humor and an unconscious elegance as much at home in a country lane as a London withdrawing room.
She accepted the compliment with a simple "Thank you." A witty reply would have been inappropriate. Besides, Omegus's candor had robbed her of the ability to think of one.
A dozen people were here, including herself. The most socially prominent were Lord and Lady Salchester, closely followed by Sir John and Lady Warburton. Lady Warburton's sister had married a duke, as she found a dozen ways of reminding people. Actually Vespasia's father had been an earl, but she never spoke of it. It was birth, not achievement, and those who mattered already knew. To remind people was indelicate, as if you had no other worth to yourself, never mind to them.
Also present were Fenton and Blanche Twyford; two eminently eligible young men, Peter Hanning and Bertie Rosythe; Gwendolen Kilmuir, widowed more than a year ago; and Isobel Alvie, whose husband had died nearly three years earlier.
It was not customary to serve refreshments before dinner, but rather simply to converse until the butler should sound the gong. The guests would then go into the dining room in strict order of precedence, the rules for which were set out in the finest detail and must never be broken.
Lady Salchester, a formidable horsewoman, was dressed in a deep wine shade, with a crinoline skirt of daunting proportions. She was speaking of last season's races, in particular the meeting at Royal Ascot.
"Magnificent creature!" she said enthusiastically, her voice booming a little. "Nothing else stood a chance."
Lady Warburton smiled as if in agreement.
Bertie Rosythe--slender, fair, superbly tailored--was trying to mask his boredom, and doing it rather well. If Vespasia had not known him, she might have been duped into imagining he was interested in horseflesh.
Isobel was beside her, darkly striking, less than beautiful but with fine eyes and a ready wit.
"Magnificent creature indeed," she whispered. "And Lady Salchester herself certainly never had a chance."
"What are you talking about?" Vespasia asked, knowing that there must be many layers to the remark.
"Fanny Oakley," Isobel replied, leaning even more closely. "Didn't you see her at Ascot? Whatever were you doing?"
"Watching the horses," Vespasia answered dryly.
"Don't be absurd!" Isobel laughed. "Good heavens! You didn't have money on them, did you? I mean real money?"
Vespasia saw by Isobel's face that she was suddenly concerned in case Vespasia were in gambling debt, not an unheard-of difficulty for a young woman of considerable means and very little to occupy herself, her husband away a good deal of the time, and endless staff to care for her home and her children.
Vespasia wondered for a chill moment if Isobel were really acute enough in her observation to have seen the vague, sad stirrings of emptiness in Vespasia's marriage, and to have at least half understood them. One wished to have friends--without them life would hold only shallow pleasures--but there were areas of the heart into which one did not intrude. Some aches could be borne only in secret. Isobel could not have guessed what had happened in Rome during the passionate revolutions of 1848. No one could. That was a once-in-a-lifetime love, to be buried now and thought of only in dreams. Vespasia would not meet Mario Corena again. This here in Applecross was the world of reality.
"Not at all," she replied lightly. "The race does not need the edge of money to make it fun."
"Are you referring to the horses?" Isobel asked softly.
"Was there another?" Vespasia retorted.
Lord Salchester saw Vespasia and acknowledged her appreciatively. Lady Salchester smiled with warm lips and a glacial eye. "Good evening, Lady Vespasia," she said with penetrating clarity. "How charming to see you. You seem quite recovered from the exertion of the season." It was a less-than-kind reference to a summer cold that had made Vespasia tired and far from herself at the Henley Regatta. "Let us hope next year is not too strenuous for you," she added. She was twenty years older than Vespasia, but a woman of immense stamina who had never been beautiful.
Vespasia was aware of Lord Salchester's eye on her, and even more of Omegus Jones's. It was the latter that tempered her reply. Wit was not always funny, if it cut those already wounded. "I hope so," she answered. "It is tedious for everybody when someone cannot keep up. I shall endeavor not to do that again."
Isobel was surprised. Lady Salchester was astounded.
Vespasia smiled sweetly and excused herself.
Gwendolen Kilmuir was talking earnestly to Bertie Rosythe. Her head was bent a trifle, the light shining on her rich brown hair and the deep plum pink of her gown. She was widowed well over a year now, and had only recently taken the opportunity to cast aside her black. She was a young woman, barely twenty-eight, and had no intention of spending longer in mourning than society demanded. She looked up demurely at Bertie, but she was smiling, and her face had a softness and a warmth to it that was hard to mistake.
Vespasia glanced at Isobel and caught a pensive look in her eye. Then a moment later she smiled, and it was gone.
Bertie turned and saw them. As always he was gracefully polite. Gwendolen's pleasure was not as easily assumed. Vespasia saw the muscles in her neck and chin tighten and her bosom swell as she breathed deeply before mustering a smile. "Good evening, Lady Vespasia, Mrs. Alvie. How nice it will be to dine together."
"As always," Isobel murmured. "I believe we dined at Lady Cranbourne's also, during the summer? And at the queen's garden party." Her eyes flickered up and down Gwendolen's plum taffeta. "I remember your gown."
Gwendolen blushed. Bertie smiled uncertainly.
Suddenly and with a considerable jolt, Vespasia realized that Isobel's interest in Bertie was not as casual as she had supposed. The barb in her remark betrayed her. Such cruelty was not in the character she knew.
"You remember her gown?" she said in feigned surprise. "How delightful." She looked with slight disdain at Isobel's russet gold with its sweeping skirts. "So few gowns are remarkable these days, don't you think?"
Isobel caught her breath, a flare of temper in her eyes.
Gwendolen laughed with a release of tension and turned to Bertie again.
Lady Warburton joined them, and the conversation became enmeshed in gossip, cases of "he said" and "she said" and "do you really believe?"
Dinner was announced, and Omegus Jones offered his arm to Vespasia, which in view of Lady Salchester's presence she found a singular honor, and they went into the long blue-and-gold dining room in solemn and correct procession, each to their appointed place at the glittering table.
The chandeliers above were reflected in the gleam of silver, shattered prisms of light on tiers of crystal goblets in a field of linen napkins folded like lilies. The fire burned warm in the grate. White chrysanthemums from the greenhouse filled the bowls, providing a redolence of earth and autumn leaves, the soft fragrance of woodland.
They began with the lightest consomme. There would be nine courses, but it was not expected that everyone would eat from all of them. Ladies in particular, mindful of the delicate figures and tiny waists demanded by fashion, would choose with care. Where physical survival was relatively easy, one created rules to make social survival more difficult. Not to be accepted was to become an outcast, a person who fitted nowhere.
Conversation turned to more serious topics. Sir John Warburton spoke of the current polit-
ical situation, giving his views with gravity, his thin hands brown against the white linen of the cloth.
"Do you really think it will come to war?" Peter Hanning asked with a frown.
"With Russia?" Sir John raised his eyebrows. "It is not impossible."
"Nonsense!" Lord Salchester said briskly, his wineglass in the air. "Nobody's going to go to war against us! Especially over something as absurd as the Crimea! They'll remember Waterloo, and leave us well alone."
"Waterloo was over thirty-five years ago," Omegus Jones pointed out. "The men who fought that have laid their swords by long ago."
"The British army is still the same, sir!" Salchester retorted, his mustache bristling.
"Indeed, I fear it is," Omegus agreed quietly, his lips tight, his eyes sad and far away.
"That was the finest, most invincible army in the world." Salchester's voice grew louder.
"We beat Napoleon," Omegus corrected. "We have fought no one since then. Times change. Good and evil do not, nor pride and compassion, but warfare moves all the time--new weapons, new ideas, new strategies."
"I do not like to disagree with you at your own table, sir," Salchester responded. "Courtesy prevents me from telling you what I think of your view."
Omegus's face lit with a sudden smile, remarkably sweet and quite unaffected. "Let us hope that nothing happens to prove which one of us is correct."
Footmen in livery and parlor maids with white lace-trimmed aprons removed the soup plates and served the fish. The butler poured wine. The lights blazed. The clink of silver on porcelain was the soft background as conversation began again.
Vespasia watched rather than listened. Faces, gestures told her more of emotion than the carefully considered words. She saw how often Gwendolen looked toward Bertie Rosythe, the flush in her face, how easily she laughed when he was amusing, and that it pleased him. He was almost as much aware of her, although he was more careful not to show it quite so openly.
Vespasia was not the only person to notice. She saw Blanche Twyford's satisfaction and recalled hearing her make a remark, which now she understood more clearly. Blanche had spoken of spring weddings, and Gwendolen had blushed. Perhaps this was the weekend when a declaration was expected? It would seem so.
Fenton Twyford seemed less pleased. His dark face looked cautious. A couple of times his glance at Bertie suggested unease, as if an old shadow crossed his thoughts, but Vespasia had no idea what it might be. Was Bertie not quite as perfectly eligible as he seemed? Or was it Gwendolen who somehow fell short? As far as Vespasia knew, she was of good family, wealthy if undistinguished, and without a breath of scandal attached. Her late husband, Roger Kilmuir, was also without blemish and was connected to the aristocracy. If his far elder brother died childless, which seemed likely, then Roger would have inherited the title and all that went with it.
Only, Roger had died in an unfortunate accident, the sort of thing that happened now and again to even the best horsemen. Gwendolen had been quite shattered at the time. It was good to see that she was reaching after some kind of happiness again.
One by one gold-rimmed plates were removed, fresh courses brought, and more wine poured, until nothing was left but mounds of fresh grapes from the hothouse, and silver finger bowls to remove any faint traces of stickiness.
The ladies excused themselves to the withdrawing room and left the gentlemen to pass the port and, for those who so wished, to smoke.
Vespasia followed Isobel and Lady Salchester and was aware of the rustle of taffetas and silks as Gwendolen and Blanche Twyford came behind them. They took their seats in the velvet-curtained withdrawing room, carefully arranging mountainous skirts both to be flattering and not to impede other people's approach, when the gentlemen should rejoin them.
This was the part of any evening that Vespasia liked the least. Conversation almost always became domestic, and since Rome she found it hard to concentrate on such things. She loved her children, deeply and instinctively, and her marriage was agreeable enough. Her husband was kind and intelligent--an honorable man. Many women would have been envious of so much. She wanted for nothing socially or materially. It was only in the longing of the heart, the hunger to care to the power and depth of her being, that she was not answered.
She looked at the other women in the room and wondered what lay behind the gracious masks of their faces. Lady Salchester had energy and intelligence, but she was plain, plainer than her own parlor maid, and probably the housemaid and the kitchen maid, as well. It was widely suspected that Lord Salchester's attention wandered, in a practical as well as imaginary way.
"I know what you are thinking," Isobel said beside her, leaning a little closer so she could speak in a whisper.
Vespasia was startled. "Do you?"
"Of course!" Isobel smiled. "I was thinking so, too. And it is quite unfair. If she were to do the same, with that nice-looking footman, society would be scandalized, and she would be ruined. She would never go anywhere again!"
"Dozens of married women become bored with their husbands, and after they have produced the appropriate number of children, they have affairs," Vespasia pointed out sadly. "I don't think I admire it, but I am quite aware that it occurs. I could name you half a dozen."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Christmas Journey by Anne Perry. Copyright © 2003 by Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.