Dots of brightness sparkled in the night from electric fairy lights shaped like tiny candles on the denuded dogwoods lining the driveway. Slashes of yellow light spilled onto deep snow from the high windows in the ballroom. The brick Georgian building had settled into the landscape over the years, so that people viewing this scene from outside might have thought themselves in the eighteenth century. The faint music would have put an end to that reverie. No Mozart, but everything else a hunt ball could wish. The swirl of elegant people inside added to the beauty of the scene. It was Saturday night, February 16, and the Casanova Hunt Ball was in full swing. Only stars and tiny glittering lights offered relief from the blackness of a new moon, and it was bitterly cold. Perhaps that, too, fed the frenetic energy inside, for the moon always pulls on humans whether visible or not.
Jane "Sister" Arnold, Master of Foxhounds of the Jefferson Hunt, her escort, Gray Lorillard, and a large contingent of Jefferson members had come to the Casanova Hunt Ball. The two clubs enjoyed warm relations as well as a touch of competitiveness. The Jefferson Hunt members, whose own ball had been marred by a drunken scuffle and torn bodices, relaxed here. Surely nothing so tacky could happen at Casanova.
Seated at the master's table were Bill and Joyce Fendley, joint masters of Casanova; their daughter, Jeanne Clark, now also a joint master; and her husband, John. Sister and Gray, Marion Maggiolo, and the entire Bancroft clan filled out the rest. Every table on the ballroom floor hosted at least one couple from JHC. Libations flowed, the dance floor was jammed, and Sister danced every dance as the gentlemen in attendance lined up to squire the master. Being Virginians, they performed this duty without thinking about it. No lady should ever sit out a dance unless she chooses to do so. Age, looks, and bloodline certainly improve a lady's chances of further engagements, but all belles have to be treated as great beauties. It's the custom.
In Sister's case, the gentlemen truly enjoyed dancing with her. Seventy-three, a trim six feet, with shining silver hair and buoyant spirits, she had the gift of making a man feel like a man and she was a wonderful dancer.
Joyce Fendley, passing her on the floor, called over her partner's shoulder, "Don't you ever wear out?"
Sister laughed. "If I did, I wouldn't tell you."
As the music ended, High Vajay, head of the Vajay family and a stalwart of the Jefferson Hunt, held out his gloved hand for Sister. His family called him Lakshmi, but the Virginians, fearful of murdering his given name, had nicknamed him High. It suited him, for he was tall and reed-thin, with salt-and-pepper hair, a handsome man who reveled in the high life. His wife, Madhur, now Mandy, had been Miss Cosmos in 1990; at thirty-nine, her stunning beauty had only intensified with age. Their children, eight and ten years old, were tucked in bed at home, two hours southwest of Fauquier County, where everyone was gathered.
"Master, you move like a panther," High purred.
"Means I have claws." She smiled up at him, a pleasure for her since she often looked a bit down at a fellow.
"I've seen them." He held her tighter.
He had, too; there were moments in the hunt field when she had to wield her power, lest a hound, horse, or human be endangered, usually in that order.
After their waltz, High walked Sister back to her table, where she and Gray sat down at the same moment. The band took a break.
"What a party." Gray grinned, his military mustache calling attention to his white teeth.
"Anytime I'm with you, darling, it's a celebration."
He kissed her on the cheek. For a year and a half they'd been keeping company, as Sister's generation politely called it. They drew closer each day, but neither one was prepared to say I love you.
But they did love each other. In fact, many of the people in this room loved each other, but they may not have recognized the feeling. Americans focus on romantic love, particularly the pursuit stage, glossing over the sustaining bonds of friendship, a condition Sister often thought of as love made bearable. She enjoyed the members of her club and loved a few with all her heart. There were Tedi and Edward Bancroft, friends for most of her life. She loved Betty Franklin, her first whipper-in, a prized position and sometimes a dangerous one. Betty Franklin, in her forties, stood talking to a group of people while Bobby, her husband, returned from the bar with her tonic water and lime.
Sister cast her eyes about the room and smiled, perhaps not realizing how very much she did care for many of those assembled but realizing she was happy: blissfully, rapturously happy.
Marion Maggiolo, owner of Horse Country, the premier emporium for foxhunting needs and other equestrian pursuits, swept back to the table, her thick gray hair, once liver chestnut, offsetting her perfect complexion. No woman could look at Marion without envying her incredibly creamy skin. The rest wasn't bad either, for she knew how to put herself together, displaying the creative eye so evident in her store displays. Ladies may wear only black or white gowns to a hunt ball. Marion's elegant white dress, clearly custom-made because it emphasized all of her best parts, was no exception tonight.
"This ball is a triumph," Marion told Casanova's masters, now back at the table.
Joyce, eyes sparkling, demurred. "We didn't do a bad job."
Bill, square-jawed, draped his arm over his wife's back. "Joyce and the committee planned this better than the invasion of Iraq."
"I don't wonder." Sister raised an eyebrow and the others laughed.
Slinking under the weight of black bugle beads, Trudy Pontiakowski, chair of the ball, made her way to Sister's table.
Her face, tight around the eyes and mouth, bore testimony to her determination to look young; the plastic surgeon did the rest.
"Marion, no one is hopelessly inebriated. See?" She swept her hand to include the room.
"Not yet, Trudy." Marion noted that Trudy herself was one drink away from the state she had just described.
"You could have lent us Trigger. He would have been perfectly safe."
Trigger was the life-sized horse that Marion and her staff rolled out in front of the store each morning, usually reversing the process at night.
Joyce intervened. "Trudy, Trigger's got an abscess."
This made everyone laugh. Trudy, tipsy though she was, knew her master well enough to know this really meant, Shut up and leave Marion alone, so she left with a gracious nod.
Marion leaned toward Joyce. "Thanks."
Joyce waved her hand in dismissal. "She's a great social organizer, but not always as tactful as one might wish."
Sister laughed. "At least she's not a bulldozer."
"Oh, well, we have a few of those, too," Bill noted. "How can people open their mouths without thinking? The stuff that falls out!"
"Cost George Allen his Senate seat." Gray referred to a popular Republican Senator who lost his reelection bid in 2006 thanks to loose lips.
"How do you keep from blurting out, You're too dumb to have been born?" Sister asked Joyce.
"Count to ten. Ten again." She added quickly, "Failing that, I do multiplication tables."
"Wise." Sister sipped from her champagne flute. "I bite my tongue because I really want to say, You asshole."
They all laughed.
High returned with a portly middle-aged gentleman from Pune, a city two hours southeast of Mumbai, set amid rolling green hills, and addressed Sister.
"Master Arnold, this is Kasmir Barbhaiya. He just arrived." He introduced Kasmir to Marion and the others.
"So sorry to be late." Kasmir bowed. In white tie and gloves, his gold foxhead studs with ruby eyes twinkled.
"Welcome to Casanova." Bill stood and shook hands. Kasmir, educated at Eton, Oxford, and finally MIT, spent a fortune on his clothes. Not only were they bespoke--specially made just for him--he patronized the same sartorial establishments as did the Prince of Wales. He and High had met at Oxford, their friendship ripening over the years until now they were as close as brothers.
"I will repent of my tardiness by condensing pleasure in fewer hours." His dark eyes shone.
As they left the masters, High looked over his shoulder to wink at Sister.
"That High, he's cooking up something," Sister said, and winked back. Then she noticed Marion suddenly break into a forced social smile. Since Ilona Aldridge Merriman was approaching, she understood Marion's frozen countenance.
"Why, you Casanova darlin's have outshone us, yes, you have, and I am so pleased to be here." Ilona deposited the Cristal she'd been toting onto the center of the table.
"How extravagant," Joyce murmured appreciatively.
"Thank you, Ilona." Bill lost no time in motioning a waiter to uncork the liquid treasure.
Two incredibly expensive facelifts over the decades did give Ilona a youthful appearance. Looks mattered to her perhaps more than to most women. She dieted with pathological precision, exercised religiously, and, to her great credit, hunted with abandon with Jefferson Hunt.
Turning her light blue eyes to Marion, Ilona flashed her own false smile. "Those marvelous earrings set off your thick hair. I still can't believe you haven't started to color your tresses, darlin'. Your natural sorrel color drove men wild. It's harder to have that effect when one fades, so to speak. Not that you could fade, darlin'."
"Your taste is impeccable, Ilona. Cristal." Marion sidestepped the backhanded compliment.
"Master." Ilona beamed at Sister.
"The rest of us get older. You get younger. You must have a painting in your attic." Sister was alluding to that novel of psychological insight, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
"You flatter me."
"Someone has to." Marion fired a shot across the bow, enjoying Ilona's struggle to keep her false bonhomie.
A flicker, then a cold reply came from lips shining with fresh lipstick. "Ramsey does nicely on that account." She opened her arms to the table as the cork popped. "Enjoy your bubbly, and thank you, Masters Fendley, thank you."
She slid from their table to the next, making her rounds.
"Guess she didn't like your ball." Marion arched an eyebrow.
"Balls." Sister was fed up with Ilona, who showed up at meets behaving like the fashion police.
"Balls, said the queen. If I had two, I'd be king. If I had four I'd be a pinball machine." Bill poured the champagne into flutes the waiter brought.
They laughed at the old chestnut, touching glasses.
Joyce leaned toward Marion. "She will never forgive you."
"Balls." Marion echoed Sister, causing more laughter.
"Speaking of balls, Ramsey operates on the use-them-or-lose-them principle." Bill was in good form tonight, his broad smile accenting a strong masculine face.
Gray touched glasses again. "True enough, but if a man has taste and is fortunate enough to win the hand of the right woman, best to use them in one location."
"My philosophy exactly." Bill grinned.
"It was a good thing you said that, honey." Joyce smiled like the Cheshire cat.
"Here's what sets my teeth on edge." Marion delighted in the sensation of exquisite champagne sliding down her throat. "My affair--brief, mind you, brief--occurred before Ilona married Ramsey. Twenty-five years ago! Get over it, lady!"
"Then what would she do? Ilona is loyal to her tragedies--intensely loyal, since they're so small and she's so spoiled." Sister, among dear friends, could speak her mind. "But she is also loyal to her friends. She's remained devoted to Cabel Harper, so loyalty obviously cuts both ways."
Jeanne, in her thirties, the youngest at the table, looked at her husband, John, and asked, "Is this a generation thing? No one forgets anything?"
"Forget? Hell. They make half the stuff up to be important. A lot of people just love to suffer," Bill said to his daughter, while John laughed.
"Perhaps the example of the two Marys at the foot of the cross inspired them." Gray's mustache twitched upward.
"I say give up the cross. Other people need the wood." Sister laughed, then stopped abruptly, whispering, "Here comes my Mary. Deliver me!"
Her Mary was Venita Cabel Harper, still hovering at forty-two although that age had been current for the last ten years.
Given the social catchet of Jefferson Hunt, she'd die before she'd resign but, like Ilona, Cabel had never forgiven Sister for a fling with Clayton Harper, her husband some eight years her senior. Sister and Clayton both considered it harmless, since it couldn't last, and they knew it.
Because Clayton was married, Sister was cast as the evil vixen, and not just in Cabel's mind either. Sex was Sister's Achilles' heel. Most times she could discipline herself, but every now and then she broke bad.
This being Virginia, discretion only went so far. Sooner or later you were found out. Some busybody, gender irrelevant, was forever scanning the horizon for gossip. But Sister had had ample time to repent her earlier indiscretions.
"Thank you for a lovely evening, Joyce . . . Bill. Clayton and I will take our leave." Cabel nodded pleasantly to Sister. "Beautiful gown, Master." The joke was that Cabel never rode with Clayton, given his fondness for drink. She'd make sure they left together, but she would drive her own car.
"You look splendid as always, Cabel."
"See you in the hunt field."
As the frosted-blonde lady returned to her table to pick up her purse and her husband, Sister said sarcastically, "Venita happens to be an unusual, even lovely name. But her grandmother was a Cabell. Have you ever known a Virginian, even if related to that family only by once delivering flour to them, who can resist parading the name front and center?"
Joyce considered this. "Come to think of it, no."
"Even the Randolphs don't do that. They allow you to discover their grandeur over time." Bill, like most state history buffs, appreciated the many advancements both Cabells and Randolphs had bequeathed to the state by their foresight and energy.
The surname Cabell contains two l's but Cabel's mother, choosing it as her daughter's middle name, dropped one of them. Or so she said. Her enemies said she couldn't spell.
"You know what I am." Gray smiled conspiratorially.
"Famous for horsemen, beautiful women, a piercing mind, and a fondness for liquid refreshment." Joyce diplomatically refrained from saying the Lorillards produced drunks generation after generation.
"True," Gray agreed.
Marion's naturally high spirits rose with the champagne. "Well, the Maggiolos are Johnny-come-latelies on the paternal side. They came from Genoa. Mother's family arrived on the Mayflower. Theirs is an interesting match. Dad moved us to Fauquier County in the sixties. Glad he did."
"We're lucky to have you. We wasps can be"--Sister searched for the right word--"too restrained."
"Is it restrained or constrained?" asked Joyce, wasp herself.
"Constipated," Bill interjected.
"Ah, still too restrained." Gray laughed and then shrugged. "I should know. I'm a black wasp."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Tell-Tale Horse by Rita Mae Brown. Copyright © 2007 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.