Edmund had rather a quiet week last week, as we returned to the twentieth century to reacquaint ourselves with Fiona and the terrifyingly bad influence that is Aunt Gloria. Now, let’s get back to Edmund. Strike up the violins and get your glad rags on, we’re going to a ball …
As I was recoiling from this shock, the lady on his arm laughed, tipping her head to the side, showing her face to me.
I believed my heart would grind to a halt. I gripped the ballustrade, my knees quivering like hounds at the scent of a fox. For there was Frances Kindley, the 3rd Earl of Congresbury’s daughter.
The lady once engaged to be my wife.
I stood for a moment as one caught in a dream. How was it that Frances was here at Moorfield again, after all that had passed between us? How was it that this most decent, sweet and pure of creatures could be hanging from the arm of that most debased person, Samuel Gordon?
I hung back for a moment, caught in the buzz of the crowd, buffeted by guests and Red Men alike, a weed snatched by the flow of a river current as I watched the three of them talking and laughing together. How long was it since I had seen her? My heart told me it was an eternity, my head – or the tiny fraction of it still capable of logical thought – said no more than eleven months had elapsed between her breaking our engagement and that moment.
From the ballroom came the strains of a lively jig – the sort the lower classes danced in earnest and the nobility with a mocking swagger – and the people began to surge forward, carrying me with them, towards Slatina, Samuel … and Frances.
At first I fought the crowd, hoping to steal to the quiet of my room, regain my composure, fortify myself against the moment of our meeting. Then Samuel raised his head, turned in my direction. For a moment his eyes were blank, searching the crowd as one scans a featureless horizon. Then his gaze was sharp, his eyes narrowed, his lips twisted to that cruel, familiar smile and I knew that it was too late for escape, that he had seen me and that my fate was sealed.
‘Edmund,’ he cried, his voice so loud, many others turned to look at him.
I knew the scoundrel was watching me, watching Frances, waiting for that moment our eyes should meet, but I could see only her.
Did her shoulders tense at my name? Did the slightest shiver pass through her at the thought of my approach? If so then she was a stern mistress of herself, for as I drew closer and she turned to greet me, her face was as a Classical sculpture, the countenance of a Roman goddess – blank, cool, unfeeling.
‘Finally, our host has arrived,’ cried Samuel, his gaze dancing between Frances’s and my own. ‘I was beginning to believe you had found a caravan of gypsies, stolen off with a raven haired maid and fled North to produce a dozen black eyed bastards.’
Shocked at the man’s base words, I looked to Frances to offer an apology on his behalf – but the words stopped in my mouth. For she did not seem appalled or horrified, her maiden’s cheek did not flush with shame for him. In truth, his words had produced no more response in her than a faint glow of amusement in her sapphire eyes.
‘Do be quiet, Samuel,’ she said. ‘Such tiresome nonsense you speak.’
Could this be the same young woman who had bewitched me with her shy smile? Not a part of her had altered since the days when she was mine, from the curve of her neck to the copper tone of her hair, to her tinkling laugh. And yet there was a sharpness in her expression, a chink of flint in her eye which seemed at once out of place and familiar. It was with a horrid shock I realised whose expression she wore. For that cruel glint might have belonged to Samuel.
‘Come,’ she said, holding out her arm for him to take. ‘I am bored and wish to dance.’
Then she was gone, the pair swallowed by the throng of bodies as if they had stepped into the maw of some ceaselessly stirring monster. With them went all hope, all joy, all pleasure in the evening and my rallying fortunes. For if Frances Kindley was lost to Samuel and his ilk, then the world was indeed shorn of everything good and kind and worth striving for.
‘Come, Edmund, your guests.’ It was Slatina, taking my arm, steering me towards the ballroom, through the press of bodies.
I allowed myself to be led, timid as a lamb, through the hall, along the sparkling corridors under the gaze of what seemed to me a thousand eyes until we entered the ballroom. The colours dazzled – a rainbow in the ladies’ gowns, the flowers, the scarlet flashes that were the Red Men – the room alive with music, laughter, the stamp of feet, the chink of glass, the effect so great it left me dizzy.
And dizzy I remained for the entire evening, as the couples swirled and jigged about me, as the music soared and waned, as the air became thick with the scents of sweat and food and spilled wine. Faces flew past, ugly and contorted as stone gargoyles, each only differing from the next in the faint hints of their sex. As the hours wore on, something changed by degrees, until instead of my home I saw an awful fantasy.
A strange mania took hold of the company – polite conversation gave way to bestial laughter – the gentle touch of one partner to another became a tight grip, that sunk to grappling, to a pawing of flesh, the tear of garments. The night was filled with glassy eyes, glistening tongues and all the while I stood as if in a trance, unable to move, unable to speak.
Did I dream that night? Did I imagine first one couple falling to the floor in a crumple of satin, then another, the musicians playing on, craning redfaced as every couch, every chair – every corner – filled with tangled cloth and flesh, as the air became too hot to breathe, the sound of laughter fading below the music and other, more base sounds.
How much time passed I cannot be sure, but one moment the air was dense and oppressive, the next it seemed freer. Couples climbed to their feet with puzzled expressions, straightening their hair, smoothing their creased clothing, dabbing their faces clean. Suddenly, I could move my arms, my legs, breathe deeply once more. It was as if we were all freed from some spell. Some witchcraft.
Then with a clatter of hooves and a slam of doors the coaches arrived. Servants fetched cloaks and hats, the exhausted musicians cased their intruments. The evening was coming to an end, and I was trapped in a whirl of praise and gratitude.
‘… the finest ball the city has ever seen …’ ‘… we shall talk of its splendour for years to come …’
My anxiety waned and I began to enjoy the moment, the awful trance of an evening fading from my mind as a nightmare does in the warmth of the dawn.
A hand gripped my arm, its urgency undeniable. It was Slatina, face taut, a crease of concern between his eyes.
‘Edmund, you must come.’
Suddenly cross at the interruption, at the spoiling of my moment of triumph, I tried to shrug him off, but his grip persisted and something about his face made me pause.
‘What is it?’
‘There has been an accident.’
His voice dropped so I struggled to hear it above the clomp of feet.
‘A terrible accident.’