Scandal at the Christmas Ball – Excerpt
A Governess for Christmas
Thursday 24th December 1818, Christmas Eve
The first flurry of snow had begun to land on his carriage roof as it swept up the long drive in mid-afternoon, as if announcing his arrival, though he’d thought at the time that sunrise might have been more apt. This invitation was, after all, intended to herald a new dawn for him. Now, gazing distractedly out of the tall drawing room windows in the shadow of the long blue drapes, Drummond MacIntosh saw that the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore’s extensive grounds were covered in a glittering and, for the moment at least, pristine seasonal white blanket. This particular window faced due west, but he could see no sign of the sun through the thick, leaden sky. Behind him, the other guests took tea and made polite conversation. He ought to be doing both of those things himself, but now he was here, Drummond was more ambivalent than ever about the reasons for his presence at this party.
It ought to be clear cut. This was the opportunity he had been seeking to forge a new life for himself, to finally escape the purposeless existence he had been forced to endure. Three-and-a-half years since that fateful day which had brought his life crashing down about his ears, it was time to accept that he needed help.
Drummond sighed, reminding himself that he was damned lucky to be here. The unexpected summons and subsequent discussion which had precipitated his invitation to Brockmore was a most unexpected Christmas gift, and yet, now he was here at this most prestigious house party, instead of embracing the event, he was prevaricating. Why couldn’t he just do as he was told? Of course, if he always had done so, he wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.
They would be greening the house later, though seaweed rather than holly would be more appropriate decoration for this particular room. The painted silk wall hangings of the drawing room were cobalt blue. Grotesque sea creatures were carved into the gilded arms and legs of the blue damask sofas which lined the walls, and the art which adorned the walls also had a maritime theme, the overall impression intended to be, he supposed, that of an underwater cavern. Which by rights should be inhabited by mermaids and denizens of the deep, instead of this collection of well-heeled, well-dressed members of the haute-ton.
It was three years past June since he had attended his last great social occasion, before the tragic events which had precipitated his catastrophic fall from grace. The Duchess of Richmond’s now famous, indeed infamous, ball had been held on the eve of the battle of Waterloo. The crime Drummond had subsequently committed had been heinous, and though he still firmly believed that the crime he had refused to commit was even more so, his mutiny had been ultimately pointless. One life had been destroyed, his own forever changed by the summary justice meted out. It had been justified, there was no arguing that fact. Just as there was no doubt, as far as Drummond was concerned, that he had been right to act as he did, even though his superiors deemed it utterly wrong.
Right or wrong, it was done now, and ancient history, according to the Duke of Wellington, his ex-Commander-in-Chief. It was apparently time for Drummond to re-join society. Drummond himself believed it long past time. After a year moping in the country trying to come to terms with events, he’d taken a deep breath, cast aside his deep regret along with his lingering resentment and his shame, and forced himself back out into the world. But the people who inhabited his milieu had summarily rejected him. Never mind that his military record until that fateful date had been impeccable. Never mind his commendations, his years of dedicated service to his men and to his superiors and his country. Only that last treasonous act mattered. Doors had been slammed. Familiar faces had been averted. He could not deny that he deserved this treatment, for ultimately, he was guilty. Yet he could not quell a lingering sense of injustice.
Clearly, none of the guests politely sipping from the dainty Royal Doulton tea cups emblazoned with the Brockmore coat of arms either knew nor cared about his ignominious past, for all had greeted him politely, not one had snubbed him. Actually, it struck him for the first time as odd that despite his own many connections, he wasn’t acquainted with a single person here. Not even his hosts, who had been cajoled by Wellington to extend this most exclusive invitation.
‘A Brockmore house party,’ Wellington had informed Drummond, ‘can be the making of a man. Everyone knows that Marcus and Alicia invite only those and such as those. Men of influence, women of breeding. They can smooth your path to rehabilitation, for where the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore lead, all of society follow. Even myself,’ he’d added with one of his ironic smiles. ‘You would be a fool to refuse this opportunity, and despite evidence to the contrary, I know that you are not a fool. I have plans for you, MacIntosh, and I am a man who gets what he wants,’ the Duke of Wellington had informed him, in that magnanimous tone he had, of conferring great favour which would be accepted unquestioningly with great gratitude. ‘You’ve a practical mind, a cool head, if we are to discount that one aberration, and you’ve a natural authority that make men inclined to follow you. Between ourselves, though it will not be announced for another two days yet, I am very soon to be in a position where I need a man like you, for Lord Liverpool has appointed me Master-General of the Ordinance. With the Brockmore name firmly behind you, doors will open again, allowing you to make a success of the posting.’
Wellington had proceeded to outline the terms of his rehabilitation, much in the manner he used when issuing his battle plans. ‘You have paid the price for your rash actions, MacIntosh. I m willing to make an exception and give you a second chance, but you do not need me to tell you it will be your last?’
Drummond did not need telling and so here he was, with twelve days to impress his hosts sufficiently to earn their patronage and repair the major wound he had inflicted on his reputation. In one sense, he was fortunate indeed, for the other tragic victim of that day’s events could have no such second chance. Thinking about that even after all this time made him feel sick to his stomach. So he’d better stop thinking about it and get on with the job in hand.
A guest list had most helpfully been left on the dressing table in his bedchamber along with the agenda for the festivities. The Duke of Brockmore, known as the Silver Fox, had proved to be a handsome man, with a broad intelligent brow under a thick coiffure of white-grey hair that was more leonine than fox-like. Alicia, his wife, her gown of dark-blue watered silk the exact same shade as both her husband’s waistcoat and the curtains, was the kind of elegant, classically beautiful woman whose looks were timeless.
‘They make a striking couple, do they not?’ Drummond’s solitude was interrupted by a slim, ungainly-looking young man with rather thin brown hair which curled lankly over the high starched collar of his shirt. ‘Allow me to introduce myself,’ he continued, extending his hand, ‘I am Edward Throckton. You, I think, must be Captain Milborne.’
In contrast to the gentleman’s rather limp appearance, his handshake was surprisingly firm. ‘Drummond MacIntosh, actually. Plain mister.’
Edward Throckton’s eyebrows rose. ‘How odd, I was sure you must be our military guest. There is something – I think it is the way you survey the room, as if you are expecting us all to fall in to serried ranks. Forgive me, that is a deuced personal remark to have made.’
A vibrant flush of colour stained his cheeks. He was young, perhaps only twenty-two or three, and judging by the way he was tugging at his cravat, rather bashful. ‘I’m glad to make your acquaintance,’ Drummond said, ‘I don’t know a single soul here.’
‘Really? I thought I was the only one – that is, I assumed – but I must say, Mr MacIntosh, I’m relieved to hear you say so. There is nothing worse than being – well, not so much an outsider as a…’ Edward Throckton broke off, tugging once more at his cravat. ‘Not that I can imagine for a moment that you would experience…’
‘I assure you, Mr Throckton, I’m feeling every bit the outsider,’ Drummond said, ‘I’ve noticed you circulating amongst our fellow guests while I’ve been lurking here, I’d be very grateful if you’d share what you have gleaned.’
‘Are you really interested in my modest intelligence-gathering?’
How many similar eager-to-please lads had he taken under his wing over the years, Drummond wondered. And a good few, once they’d gained a bit of confidence, had been moulded into excellent officers. ‘I am very interested,’ he said, smiling encouragingly. ‘Please, fire away.’
‘Well then, let us start with the group at the fireplace. The good-looking young man with the golden hair who is admiring himself in the mirror is Aubrey Kenelm, heir to the Marquis of Durham, and the flame-haired woman beside him is Miss Philippa Canningvale. Miss Canningvale’s charms, in that emerald-green gown are indisputable, but one can’t help but feeling there is a touch of bravado in that display – though that is, of course, merely speculation on my part.’
Drummond, who had been expecting nothing more than a bland recitation of names and titles, gave a snort of surprised laughter.
‘Beg pardon,’ his surprising acquaintance said, blushing predictably, ‘I have been presumptuous. I did not mean…’
‘Oh but you did mean, Mr Throckton,’ Drummond said, grinning. ‘You have a very sharp eye. It’s a gift that could get you into a lot of hot water, but not with me. Please, pray continue.’
‘It is true, I do rather pride myself on being an excellent judge of character, which is why I was so certain you were a military man. It seems I am not infallible,’ Edward Throckton said, with a rueful smile. ‘Where was I? Oh yes, the woman in cherry-red is Lady Beatrice Landry. A true beauty, if you are inclined towards marble statues, which I confess I am, rather. Not that Lady Beatrice would deign to notice someone as lowly and as wet behind the ears as I am.’
‘A widow, do you think?’ Drummond enquired, both amused and slightly bemused.
‘I don’t know. I do know there is no Lord Landry on the guest list.’
‘Which signifies precisely nothing. Who is the equally intimidating young woman by her side?’
‘Miss Anne Lowell, daughter of the Earl of Blackton, and one of the most eligible debutantes of last Season. Her name featured daily in the society columns. I am surprised she has not gone off yet.’
‘Your read the society pages, Mr Throckton?’
‘One must keep up with the great and the good, if one has ambitions to enter politics, as I do. I am somewhat hindered though.’
‘In what way? You strike me as an astute and intelligent young man, and I too pride myself on my perception.’
‘Talent is not the issue,’ Mr Throckton replied. ‘I may as well tell you, since it is common enough knowledge. I am the natural son of an aristocratic acquaintance of the Duke of Brockmore’s. He cannot formally acknowledge me, but he does wish to assist me. This gathering is my opportunity to establish myself with our host.’
‘So you have your heart set on a career in politics yourself, Mr Throckton?’
‘I would be honoured if you would call me Edward. Yes, I do, but not for personal advancement. I wish most fervently to serve my country, though you’ll probably think me an insufferable prig for putting it so. And I am aware,’ he said, touching his flaming cheek, ‘that aside from the misfortune of my birth, I must conquer this affliction.’
‘I think your aspirations noble, and not at all priggish,’ Drummond said, eyeing the young man with respect, ‘though I recommend you have a care to whom you speak so frankly.’
‘Perhaps,’ Edward replied, with something approaching a grin, ‘but though I may have mistaken your occupation, I did not mistake your character, Mr MacIntosh. You will not betray my trust.’
Drummond acknowledged this insight with a bark of laughter. ‘You may continue to confide in me then. Share your thoughts on the group at the centre of the room.’
‘The older gentleman is Lord Truesdale, a close friend of our hosts and another politician, so most certainly a guest I intend to cultivate. The pretty girl is Miss Burnham. I believe the man trying to charm her is Matthew Eaton, and the older man with the dark hair and rather stern countenance who looks as if he would rather be anywhere than here is Percival Martindale. According to Miss Canningvale, Mr Martindale has had a very tragic time of it lately, for his sister and her husband were killed in a coach crash, leaving him with the charge of his orphaned nephew and niece. I wonder where they are spending the Christmas period, for they are certainly not here. I believe there may be a grandmother.’
‘I feel sure you will unearth both the location of the children and the precise nature of any gifts they receive before our stay is over. You really are a mine of information Mr – Edward. Please carry on.’
‘The rather vivacious lady talking to our host is Lady Viola Hawthorne.’ Edward pursed his lips as the object of his scrutiny burst into a peal of laughter. ‘An extremely well-born young woman, her parents are the Duke and Duchess of Calton, but she has the reputation of being rather high spirited, as they say.’ The young man grimaced. ‘It always strikes me as ironic that the more high-born one is, the more society tolerates inappropriate behaviour.’
Edward was clearly referring to his natural father, but Drummond couldn’t help thinking of society’s reaction to his own transgression. Though Edward Throckton was entirely unaware of it, they were both outcasts in their own way, both attending this party as a first step towards joining or re-joining the fold.
‘Forgive me,’ Edward interrupted this melancholy train of thought. ‘Again. I did not mean to sound bitter. I am in fact extremely grateful that the man who begat – that he facilitated my invitation here.’
‘From what little I know of Brockmore, you wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think you could be of use to him,’ Drummond said. ‘Don’t take that the wrong way, I meant it as a complement. Now, why don’t you finish what you’ve started, and then I think we must both mingle or we’ll draw our hosts’ ire.’
‘Then it is as well that there are only the two wallflowers gathered in the far corner to be identified. On the left of the group is Miss Pletcher, who is a cousin, and companion to Miss Lowell. Beside her is Miss Sophia Creighton, whose father, a man of the cloth, rather shockingly died in a debtor’s prison, from which one must deduce that Miss Creighton has been left in penurious circumstances. Our hostess is one of the patronesses of the prison, so I surmise this particular invitation is her doing. I hope Miss Creighton can be coaxed out of her shell enough to enjoy it. She has the look of a young lady who has not had great cause to laugh much of late.’
‘Perhaps you are the very man to coax her,’ Drummond said dryly.
Edward blushed, but he did not dismiss the notion. ‘And there we have it. Though the hour is advanced, we are lacking three of the guests from the list. I expect the worsening weather has detained them,’ he said, glancing out at the now heavily falling snow. ‘This is not one of the famous Brockmore Midsummer Matchmaking parties, but I wonder if our hosts have some other grand design? How many other guests have been invited, like me, for a purpose, do you think?’
The speculative look which accompanied this remark left Drummond in no doubt that the young man was fishing. He smiled blandly. ‘We may find out as the party unfolds. Why don’t you go over and join Miss Creighton, for I see Miss Pletcher is abandoning her to re-join Miss Lowell. There, as you can see our hosts have also spotted that Miss Creighton is in need of company. This is your chance to make your mark.’
‘You will join me, Mr MacIntosh? I would appreciate your support.’
‘Directly, but I’d better circulate a bit first.’
Edward made his bow, and a beeline for Miss Creighton. Smiling to himself, Drummond contemplated joining the group at the fireplace, but a burst of laughter from the brassy Miss Pennington stopped him. A moment’s respite was what he needed.
Slipping as unobtrusively as he could out of the drawing room, he reached the expanse of the black-and-white tiled hallway, then hesitated. What he really wanted was to get outside and get some invigorating fresh air, but he had the absurd conviction that if he escaped the confines of the house, he’d find it difficult to make himself return.
One of the duke’s army of footmen, standing sentinel by the front door, looked at him enquiringly. Striding purposefully towards the door furthest from the drawing room, Drummond stepped inside, leaning back against the door. It was freezing in here, and the air smelled oddly fragrant, like a forest. The small room faced east, the fading light only visible through a single tall window. The source of the scent was obvious enough, for the table that took up most of the space was piled high with swathes of green spruce, stacks of pine cones, bundles of holly and mistletoe, obviously to be used as seasonal decorations. He picked up a wreath formed of pine. The distinctive resin-scented perfume of the needles caught him unawares, catapulting him back to the forests of his father’s Highland estate, the earth soft as a mattress beneath his feet, carpeted with fallen needles, the canopy formed by the branches sheltering him from the elements. He had not been back there for so long, hadn’t even allowed himself to miss it until now.
A rustle and a sigh made him drop the wreath. He had thought himself quite alone but there, in the darkest corner of the room, was a silhouetted figure. ‘Who is that?’ Drummond demanded, thinking himself spied upon. ‘What are you doing, lurking there? Get up man, and show yourself.’
‘I am not lurking, I am not a man, and I do not take kindly to having orders barked at me. I have as much right to be here as you do. Captain Milborne, I presume.’
‘No, you may not presume,’ Drummond snapped. ‘Who the devil are you?’
The figure rose from the chair where she had been concealed in the gloom. ‘I am Joanna Forsythe. I am at Brockmore as a guest of the duke and duchess, and I am in this room because I needed a moment of quiet contemplation before the ordeal of facing the assembled company.’
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