“Must you leave so soon after Christmas, Daddy?”
Thea Allbright gazed adoringly across the vast dining table but she could barely see her father. Blocking her view was the magnificent silver pergne.
“Well, sweetheart, I’ve been glad to pay you all a visit, but I’m going to take in a few of the sights across the Channel before coming back for your wedding. Who knows, I might see something worth taking home to New York. Did I tell you I’m having a new set of rooms built? Should get a good view down Fifth Avenue if it goes high enough. Planning to make each room different – one in marble, like those Greek temples, another with cherubs over the door, and a stained-glass window or two. Maybe a wall of those tiles, whatever they’re called.”
“I believe you are referring to a mosaic, sir,” Lord Witney interjected.
“Isn’t he clever, Daddy?” Thea sighed.
“Anyway, I made nearly a million with that last investment. Gotta spend it somehow!” Charlie munched his way through a mouthful of Mrs Wiggan’s Angels on Horseback, the oyster and bacon savouries that traditionally ended a formal dinner. “This isn’t bad at all,” he added. “But you’ve got it the wrong way round! Back home we have this as an appetiser, don’t we, Thea, honey?”
“How . . . interesting.” Lady Farrington’s hand trembled a little as she raised a crystal goblet to her lips.
It was fortunate that the girl’s father hadn’t been here for the King’s visit. The memory of the article and photographs that had appeared afterwards in the “Illustrated London News” calmed her nerves for a moment. Not even this vulgar man, who was to be Bunny’s father-in-law, could taint those trophies. They were safe, along with the King’s signature, scrawled across an entire page of the guest book.
“I wish I could see New York,” Lady Florence said petulantly. “When are we going abroad, Papa?”
“My dear,” her mother said quickly, “you are forgetting how busy everything will be, with the opening of Parliament and all the parties.”
Her words trailed away and she found herself puzzled and downcast. Their social calendar had always been so exciting – the anticipation, the events, the gossip. But now, as she saw the predictable future lying ahead, it felt different somehow. Quite simply, it had all become a frightful bore.
What was more, Theodora would be under her feet, day in and day out. As for future grandchildren, she’d heard how indulgent these American women could be. It was all too ghastly and tedious to contemplate!
“And there’s the wedding to look forward to, of course!” Lord Farrington said, hoping to turn the conversation away from travel, which he certainly couldn’t begin to afford after having spent so lavishly on the King’s shooting weekend. Runciman had made certain that the chipped side of the Ming vase in the drawing-room was turned to face the wall and hopefully no-one would notice the extensive water damage that stained the plaster ceiling. Funds had been seriously dwindling over the last years.
His hope was that, as soon as the honeymoon was over, his daughter-in-law would pour much-needed money into the estate. The fact that her father had started out in the hardware business was only a temporary embarrassment. Would anyone remember, or care, after the man went home?
“Speaking of the wedding,” Lord Farrington continued, “I expect the ladies have much to discuss. Shall we have our port?”
“Got quite a wine vault at home,” Charlie mused, leaning back in the delicate Louis XVI chair until it teetered precariously on its back legs. “Best in New York. But then, I can afford it, so why not?”
Lady Farrington blanched once more. As she filed out of the dining-room with her daughter and Theodora, Runciman appeared bearing an envelope on a silver tray.
“Yes?” Lord Farrington turned, glad of the distraction.
“A message, sir, for Lady Farrington.”
“Thank you, Runciman.”
“An odd time for a message to be delivered, Julia,” her husband remarked, frowning.
“Never mind,” Lady Farrington said, whipping the envelope off the tray. She hurried the ladies out of the room and closed the door, then she tore open the envelope and scanned its contents.
“Now, you two must have so much to talk about,” she said, her voice a little higher than usual. “You won’t mind if I step out for a short while, will you.”
“You are going out, Mama? At this hour?”
Florence’s eyebrows drew together in perplexed horror. Where could her mother be going? And how on earth would she ever sustain conversation with her future sister-in-law all by herself?
“Pray excuse me, Theodora, dear,” Lady Farrington said, putting on her hat, wrap and gloves, and leaving the room.