Before Lady Lisle’s Ball, or, what really happened with Mr Trenoweth

Author’s note: If you’ve read A SEASON OF SPELLS, you’ll recognize the parts of this scene that made it into the book. In that version, the rest of this bit, which was cut because it was a bit too emo and was impeding the forward momentum of the story, is all folded into a few lines of dialogue in chapter 1 (on page 9 of the North American edition). I include it here for anyone who’s curious about what happened before Mr Trenoweth “set his matrimonial sights elsewhere.”

“Not that necklace,” said Joanna.

“Why not?” said Gwendolen. Though her tone demanded justifications, her fingers were already reaching for the clasp.

“Why not?” echoed Joanna’s niece Agatha, watching them dress for Lady Lisle’s ball from her perch on the end of Joanna’s bed.

“It spoils the line of the décolleté, just there,” said Joanna, pointing. She turned back to her dressing-table and rummaged in her jewel-case, finally laying hands on what she wanted: a twisted string of round beads, amethyst and violet glass, and the matching set of ear-drops, a gift from Jenny for her fifteenth birthday.

“Sit down,” she said, turning again. “You are entirely too tall.”

Gwendolen smirked and folded herself gracefully into Joanna’s abandoned chair.

In this way, Joanna’s face appeared directly above hers in the dressing-glass as Joanna fastened the amethysts about her slim throat and adjusted their set on her collar-bones, and side by side when Joanna bent to kiss the curve of her left ear.

“Perfect,” Joanna pronounced, straightening up again with both hands resting on Gwendolen’s shoulders.

As Gwendolen reached for the ear-drops, their eyes met in the mirror—cheeks flushed, eyes shining—and they shared a secret, promising grin.

“Aunty Gwen!” said Agatha. “Do you suppose Mr Trenoweth will ask you for the first two dances?”

Gwendolen’s smile went rather fixed. She turned her head this way and that, examining the effect of the roses in her hair, and at last said, “I suppose he may, duckling. He must ask someone, presumably, though I do not know why he should ask me in particular.”

“Oh, but I know why!” Agatha crowed. She had got her feet under her, and scrambled up to stand on the bed’s low footboard, clinging to the bedpost with one arm—imagining, Joanna knew, that she was a sailor standing lookout up aloft. “Mr Trenoweth’s sister is Lady Lewes, and she came to call upon Mama, and said that she hopes he will ask you to marry him! … but I do not know what Mama said about it,” she added, now sounding rather cross, “because Rozena found me and made me come out from under the sofa, and so I did not hear any more.”

Joanna stifled a chuckle at her disgruntled tone; but her mirth died away as, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Gwendolen’s face.

“I think I hear Rozena calling you, Captain Agatha,” she said. “Run away, now, and we shall be sure to come and see you before we go.”

Agatha clambered down the end of the bed with what she fondly imagined to be a nautical cry and slipped out of the room, closing the door firmly behind her.

When the sound of her running footsteps had faded, Joanna caught Gwendolen’s hands in hers, turned her away from the looking-glass, and peered up into her eyes. “What is it, Gwen?” she said, very softly.

Gwendolen turned her face away. She looked rather green; had she eaten something to disagree with her?

“Are you ill?” said Joanna. “We need not go, you know, if—”

“I am not ill.” Gwendolen spoke almost into her own hunched-up shoulder. “I only—I wish—” She paused; swallowed; took a deep breath. “I meant to tell you, Jo, I swear I did. I—I have done my best to discourage him, but—”

Joanna glowered. “Has he been making a nuisance of himself?” she demanded.

“Yes, in a way,” said Gwendolen. At Joanna’s thunderous expression, she hastily added, “I do not mean that he has done anything improper; indeed he is always impeccably well behaved. But, Jo, my father believes that I have been all this time in London in order to look for a husband, and Mr Trenoweth is such an eminently suitable one—and of course I always meant to marry one day—”

Joanna recoiled, her face hot, her heart rising into her throat; but Gwendolen pulled her back again, exclaiming, “No! No, that is not what I meant, at all!”

Heedless of their ball-going finery, she gathered Joanna into her arms and tenderly kissed her brow; and Joanna, who had begun by attempting to comfort, now found herself the comforted.

“I only meant,” Gwendolen said, “that I did mean to marry—that I do not dislike the notion of marrying a man, in principle—and you do not dislike it, either, do you?”

“In principle,” Joanna conceded, grudgingly. In truth, she had never been particularly taken with the idea for herself, though she had been known to strongly encourage it in other people. “I suppose. But I cannot imagine liking any man so much as I like you.”

“Yes, quite,” said Gwendolen, turning her face away; it was not often that they so closely skirted endearments or talk of love. “You will understand my difficulty, then.” Her sigh ruffled Joanna’s carefully arranged hair. “My father expects me to marry; Lord and Lady Kergabet likewise, and they have certainly done their part in the matter; and Mr Trenoweth has a very comfortable income, and a house in town, and a beautiful estate—or so it’s said—in Kernow; and I cannot think of a single reason for refusing him, that any of them could not demolish in a moment…”

Joanna pulled away a little—just far enough that she might look into Gwendolen’s eyes. “Jenny and Kergabet will never force you to marry against your will,” she said firmly, “no matter how many houses may be in question, or how much coin. You have only to say I do not wish it, or I do not like him, and that will be that.”

“I do not doubt it, Jo,” said Gwendolen, who by now had heard the tale of Sophie and Gray’s abbreviated courtship and hasty marriage—and of Jenny’s role in it—so often that she could no doubt have told it herself. “But under the law, it is my father who—”

“Your father cannot compel you, either!” Joanna interrupted. “The law is perfectly clear: both parties must consent, or there is no marriage.”

Gwendolen smiled: a small, infinitely sad smile, which hurt Joanna’s heart to see. “Jo, you surely do not suppose that my father has no means at his disposal of forcing me to consent?”

Retreating further, Joanna caught both of Gwendolen’s hands in hers and held tight. “I do suppose it,” she said, low and fierce, “because I should not let him. And nor should Jenny or Kergabet, either. And if Mr Trenoweth dares to annoy you this evening–”

The left-hand corner of Gwendolen’s mouth quirked downward—an invariable precursor of tears—and Joanna at once attempted to change course, improvising rather wildly, “I shall make him take me in to supper, and then I shall put salt in his tea and vinegar in his claret, and talk of Sophie’s friend’s experiment with the frogs all the while he is attempting to eat his supper.”

The impending storm cleared; Gwendolen’s smiled grew genuine, and became a minuscule chuckle, and Joanna breathed relief: there would be no need to explain reddened eyes or tear-blotched cheeks to an anxious Jenny.

“Now,” she said, “before we go downstairs—”

The words had become a sort of ritual between them, for occasions of this kind, when they should both be spending most of the evening dancing with other people. Gwendolen continued it by casting an approving eye over the tiny rosebuds in Joanna’s hair, her garnet earrings, her new gown of rose-pink satin, the rosettes decorating her neat slippers; Joanna returned her glance for glance, enjoying the blush that spread prettily over Gwendolen’s sharp cheekbones as she grew conscious of being admired.

Joanna tipped her face up toward her friend’s, and for just a moment lost herself in the press of Gwen’s lips upon her own—so familiar, now, yet always half-unexpected, always astonishing. Her hands found Gwen’s hips, her waist; crept up her spine to press her closer.

“You look very lovely,” said Gwendolen, drawing back at last, too soon.

“And so do you,” said Joanna. “As you know very well.”

Gwendolen held out her arm—bent at the elbow, as a gentleman does for a lady—and when Joanna tucked her hand under it, pressed it close against her ribs. “Shall we go, Miss Callender?” she said.

“Certainly, Miss Pryce,” said Joanna, matching her light, untroubled tone; and, moving as regally as either of them knew how, they swept out of her bedroom, along the corridor, and down the stairs.

§

Lady Lisle’s ball proved, in the aggregate, almost exactly as excruciating as Joanna had anticipated.

The evening of course had its enjoyments. Both Gwendolen and herself danced nearly every dance; it was not always easy to tell when a partner was interested in one of them for herself, and when such invitations stemmed from a desire to further a connexion with Lord Kergabet, but as Joanna had not the least interest in a receiving an offer of marriage from anyone, and still less in conducting any sub rosa dalliance, such considerations did not weigh much with her. She was therefore able to enjoy the dancing for itself, and for the opportunities it sometimes offered to collect useful rumours and even, very occasionally, useful facts for conveyance to Kergabet—until Sieur Alexandre de Mandeville, in his cups as usual, trod hard upon her left foot, at which point she was forced to retire to a seat, limping painfully, and fend off Jenny’s offers to send her home at once. Even then, there was some consolation for this misfortune, for Lady Lisle always kept an excellent table.

Gwendolen at first seemed also to be enjoying herself. She was spared Mr Trenoweth’s attentions for the first two dances, being claimed by Lord Havery (who had fortunately outgrown his need to drink a great deal of wine so as to work up the courage to invite a lady to stand up with him, and proved a very creditable dancer when sober), and for the next two, solicited in advance by Kergabet’s secretary, Mr Fowler. But when the sets were forming for the third time, Joanna saw her standing opposite Mr Trenoweth and looking—to one who knew the signs as Joanna did—acutely uncomfortable with her lot. They passed Joanna, going down the dance; Joanna caught Gwendolen’s eye, soundlessly whispered, salt in his tea, and Gwendolen’s complaisantly smiling mouth quirked up at one corner; but by the time Joanna and Lord Havery went down the dance in their turn, Gwen was wearing her bland public smile again, and Mr Trenoweth looking revoltingly pleased with himself.

Joanna accordingly manoeuvred him into taking her and her misfortunate foot in to supper, having first ensured that Prince Roland should take Gwendolen. He was ready enough to accompany her—not for her own sake, but for the pleasure of talking with her about her friend, and the opportunity of furthering his suit, obliquely, through her. His conversation, for that reason, was tiresome in the extreme; but Joanna could concede that he was perfectly unobjectionable in himself, and that her fierce dislike of him was entirely the product of her own jealousy and resentment. Indeed, in those moments when she could command herself to judge him fairly, she concluded that she might have liked him well enough, had he not been bent on taking Gwendolen from her: he was not particularly stupid; he allowed her to lean upon his arm without also fussing over her injury; he appeared to have a proper appreciation for good food; and, if his mind seemed at present to be running in a single track, at any rate he did not rabbit on endlessly about his own accomplishments, as some gentlemen did.

She did not, in the event, put either salt in his tea or vinegar in his claret, for he did not drink tea, and there was no vinegar-cruet upon the table; and, besides, it felt unfair—when it came to the point, and he was before her in the flesh—to punish him merely for operating under a false assumption, which no one had yet corrected.

Mr Trenoweth was not so bold, or so ill-mannered, as to speak directly of his hopes with respect to Miss Pryce; he did, however, speak of her intelligence and her accomplishments in such terms as must have left even an interlocutor far less perceptive and less interested than Joanna was, in no doubt of his sentiments. And at last he said diffidently, “Miss Callender, I hope you should not think me unforgivably forward if I were to ask whether—to your knowledge—Miss Pryce’s affections might be already engaged?”

It would be the easiest thing in the world to tell him the truth, to say, Indeed, I do know Miss Pryce’s heart, and it is spoken for; and for a dreadful, wonderful moment, Joanna nearly did so. Fortunately, however, sober reason quickly prevailed—any such assertion must invite unwelcome speculation, and, besides, to say anything of the kind to anyone without Gwendolen’s express consent was quite out of the question—and instead she said, composedly enough, “That is not for me to say, Mr Trenoweth. Tell me, what thought you of the turbot? I am very fond of an oyster sauce, myself; but there is something to be said for tarragon—do you not agree?”

Mr Trenoweth blinked. “Certainly,” he said, after a moment, absorbing the implied rebuke with almost a return of his earlier cheerful smile. “I quite agree. But tell me your opinion of the profiteroles! I do not think I have ever had better.”

§

Joanna, Gwendolen, and Jenny stepped down from the carriage into Grosvenor Square, well past the second hour after midnight, and wearily climbed the steps of the Kergabets’ house on the north side of the square. Joanna, whose trod-upon left foot, rather than recovering, had swelled over the course of the evening and was now throbbing hot and painful, regretted immensely the more modest house in Carrington-street, which, at least in memory, had never had such a quantity of steps.

“Do let me help you, Jo,” said Gwendolen, remarking the limp Joanna had been doing her best to conceal, and offering an arm in support. Joanna glared up at her, but leant hard upon her arm all the same.

Treveur was waiting at the door, and at once insisted—with Jenny’s and Gwendolen’s firm support to overrule her own protests—on carrying Joanna upstairs to her room. Jenny rang for Mrs Treveur to bring willow-bark tea; Gwendolen soaked a linen towel from Joanna’s wash-stand, worked a clever little spell which chilled the water almost to the freezing point, then wrapped the resulting cold compress about Joanna’s foot. The swelling was now so far advanced, that the sad remains of her satin dancing-slipper had had to be removed by Mrs Treveur with the aid of sewing-shears.

The willow-bark tea arrived, along with Henriette to help Joanna undress for bed; Gwendolen accepted the tea but shooed all of them away, promising Jenny that she should take excellent care of Joanna. “You ought to be resting, in any case, Lady Kergabet,” she said, and Jenny raised a sardonic eyebrow, but did not dispute this advice—particularly as Henriette so evidently concurred in it.

“Was it Mandeville?” Gwendolen inquired solicitously, when the door had closed behind Jenny and Mrs Treveur. “He trod upon your poor foot again, I am sure of it. The man ought not to be allowed anywhere near a ball; he is a menace to–”

“Do leave off, Gwen,” said Joanna, though without heat. The cold towel and the willow-bark tea were beginning to do their work, and in any case they had both of them seen much worse hurts than this. She was feeling both cross and rather fragile, however, and, as always, feeling fragile only made her more cross. And what had she really to be cross about?

“I am sorry,” said Gwendolen, settling beside her atop the counterpane. “I know how you hate to be fussed over. Now, sit up a little—”

No more than a quarter-hour later, Joanna was comfortably tucked up in bed, the heavy gown exchanged for a soft linen nightdress, her hair brushed and plaited, and was growing sleepy from willow-bark tea and sheer exhaustion.

“Your cold towel is in the basin, here,” said Gwendolen. “The spell will not survive till morning, I expect, but it may come in useful in the night. Are you quite comfortable, Jo?”

Her warm hand smoothed across Joanna’s brow.

“Stay,” Joanna mumbled, catching at it.

“Jo—”

“Not—not for—but do stay, Gwen. Please?” Hearing and abhorring the pleading that had crept into her voice, she gathered her sluggish wits sufficiently to add, in her best magnanimous tone, “I shall let you fuss over me, if you wish.”

Gwendolen laughed aloud, conceding her the victory.

They slept late in the morning; when Joanna woke, her left foot was once again throbbing painfully, but she could not bring herself to care very much, for Gwen was tucked up warm against her back, and Gwen’s arm curved about her waist.