It was becoming as clear as glass that the house party was going to be an utter and total fiasco. Her first since Alfred's death, she had looked forward to it with such pleasure, and planned it so well, but her nice plans had all gone awry. First there had been Raffles' illness. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the latest London lion, had been chosen as the star of the show. Just back from a four-and-a-half-year stint of governing Java, he was full of interesting stories and information. Everyone was after him, and she, Lady Hathaway, no relation to Anne, Shakespeare's wife, though everyone always asked of course, had got him to promise to come to her.
Born on a West Indian slave vessel to start--so romantic! Then his recent knighthood, recent widowhood, and his almost unbelievable knowledge of strange Eastern customs, languages, art, botany--she could listen to him forever, and look at him too, for nine or ten years, without becoming bored. He was positively the most handsome man to have shown up for a decade. And what must he do but come down with the flu, the wretch! All his marvelous conversation stolen from her dinner table, and whom to bring in to take his place as the showpiece? What was a house party without a celebrity?
She had selected, sight unseen and voice unheard, a certain Signora Travalli, who was being talked up as one of the on dits of the coming season. An Italian soprano, not a type to appeal to her own taste--but a good-looker, which would amuse the gentlemen well enough, but what of the ladies?
And what a mismated bunch of ladies she had assembled. Lady Dempster, the old crow, had invited herself when she heard of the do, and she had been simpleminded enough to let herself be bullocked into acquiescence. Then the Ponsonbys--Ralph and Marion--the latter with never a word to say for herself. All these details were but minor irritants; the real problem was the Avondales.
She had first asked Ollie, the Duke of Avondale, her cousin and good friend, but he had declined. He was at home at Belwood and would go to London. Good enough, let him go--he was not indispensable. Then--how had she come to do it'she had taken it into her head to ask his wife, Belle. She'd met her twice and liked her. Ollie had brought her once to Ashbourne, and she'd met her once in London. She hadn't really thought Belle would come; everyone said she didn't go anywhere, but it had seemed a nice gesture, so she had asked her, and she had accepted.
Then, when it was too late to stop him, then Ollie had sent his note along that he would stop over for her party enroute to London. One did not ask the Duke and Duchess of Avondale to the same party--it was not done. The greatest fool in the world knew that, but here they were, both coming to her party at Ashbourne to ruin it for her, and it was impossible to stop them. Ollie had already left Belwood and was somewhere between there and Ashbourne now.
Belle had left her home, Easthill, or would have before she could get her a letter warning her away, and the two of them would converge at her party, under the all-seeing eyes of Lady Dempster, to create a scandal for the world, to top the scandal they had created a year ago in London. She could almost hear the twitters. "Did you hear about the party at Ashbourne? She must have been mad, asking both of them ..."
Kay Hathaway shook her brindled head and sighed. It was the style to say Lady Hathaway had an interesting face. This was the compromise struck to indicate that though she was as ugly as a hedgehog, and really looked quite a lot like one with her brown shaggy hair and pouched cheeks, one liked her still. Her house parties were something quite out of the ordinary. The guests were chosen with care, a skillful blend of talker and listener, talented and tolerant, with a sprinkling of celebrities--whoever happened to be occupying center stage at the moment. A friend of Brummell's, she did not include the Prince of Wales amongst her cronies, but all his brothers and anyone else who was anyone might be expected to turn up.
She had entertained the prince's wife, Princess Caroline, frequently, though she didn't like her in the least--had many times included his first wife or whatever one ought to call her; Mrs. FitzHerbert was as good as anything. Sheridan the playwright and Byron the poet, Reynolds the painter and Lord Liverpool the prime minister, Wellington the general and Caroline Lamb the fool were all her friends and guests. She had once bought out the whole of Covent Garden and had Kean put on a performance of King Lear at Ashbourne for her guests, but in her career of throwing parties, she had not before been faced with just this dilemma.
The Avondales had been estranged for ten months, after a whirlwind romance and marriage that had been the talk of the season a year before. Belle had no more than been introduced at St. James's than the Duke had begun laying siege to her. The outcome was inevitable. One did not refuse an offer from the Duke of Avondale. Indeed it had been beginning to seem he would never make one. Thirty years old, he had been on the town forever, looking at each season's marital offering through his gold-rimmed quizzing glass, with a slightly weary expression on his haughty face. Blondes, brunettes and redheads had been paraded before him, with their fortunes and pedigrees carefully whispered into his ear behind raised fans. None had received more than a passing glance, but from the evening he had seen Miss Belle Anderson at Lady Stepson's ball, he had been caught, and frankly, the world wondered why.
Belle was pretty enough, of course, but not the prettiest girl of that or any other season, and certainly not the richest, or best born. Her fortune was no more than adequate, and while she was a niece to Baron Hackward--well, really. A niece of a baron--what was there in that that she should keep the Duke of Avondale dangling for three weeks before giving in to his offer? But that was precisely what she had done, and he had trailed at her skirts to routs and ridottos he would never had attended otherwise, like any puppy in love. But in the end she had married him, and it would be difficult to say which of the two had regretted it more.
It almost seemed they had fallen out of love the day they married. He was not seen from that day forward to trail after her as he had done. He was a dignified, unsmiling escort at her side at the opera and balls for a month or so, then they had parted for good. Even during the month they were together, they had been going their separate ways as often as not, as though they'd been married fifty years and were sick to death of each other. Lady Hathaway had this much information mostly from her cronies, for she had herself not taken in that season, after Alfred's death.
She wished she had been there, and she might have knocked some sense into them. Lord, she could tell them a thing or two, but she hadn't been there, hadn't even got to Ollie's wedding--such a pity. A young couple needed advice starting out, and there had been no one to give it. Belle with no mother, and a father too far away to give her a hand, and Oliver with no living immediate family.
Marriage was hard enough for any two people--a man and a woman were unlike enough that differences were bound to arise. Add twelve years age difference--Ollie thirty and Belle eighteen--add the disparity in their backgrounds and the hopes for success dwindled toward zero. The groom a sophisticated town buck who saw his friends make marriages of convenience and continue their bachelors' existences of clubs, gambling and actresses. Then Belle fresh off the farm, a dewy-eyed greenhead who thought she'd married Prince Charming likely as not. Ollie must have seemed like that to her--handsome, rich, aristocratic, and moving her into that palace he nonchalantly called his "London place"--a thirty-room museum with forty servants. The girl must have been terrified.
One wondered they had ever got as far as the altar, but of course she was pretty and flattered and admiring, no doubt, and he'd been struck with her youth and innocence. But if that was the case, why had it all gone to pot so soon? You'd think the glow would have carried them through till they got home to Belwood and settled down to a normal routine. He should have taken her there straight off, and not turned her loose in that sinful city to get the scales removed from her eyes till she knew him a little better, felt more at home with him.
She herself had been twenty-one when she married Alfred, and he only twenty-five, a neighbor. Both local families, and with all that in common their marriage had nearly come a cropper. The first season they were in London, Alfred had been sheering off on her three nights a week, and herself a little set up in her glory to find half a dozen silly old fops sending her flowers and fans, and complimenting her on her high style. She knew she was no beauty, but she had style--"countenance" they called it in those days.
It got so bad she and Alfred were rattling around the house saying "please" and "thank you" when they accidentally met, and not much more. If her aunt hadn't called her to account and if someone hadn't put a bee in Alfred's ear there'd have been a divorce before long, or possibly a murder. She'd talk to Ollie--tell him discreetly what a fool he'd been--and maybe those two misguided creatures would get back together.
Not that either of them appeared to want a reconciliation. Before they'd broken up, Avondale had taken up with his old flirts, and his wife, from all appearances, couldn't have cared less. She had her own court, as the Duchess of Avondale must always be entitled to, of course, and seemed well satisfied with it. It and the jewels and gowns and carriages he showered on her. But she couldn't have been too well satisfied or she wouldn't have left him.
The word given out at the season's end was that she was going home to visit her papa, but the visit had become permanent. She never went back to Avondale. In the fall little season he had returned to London alone, looking as bored and haughty as ever--possibly even more so. There was no discernible difference in his behavior. When asked about his wife, as he was the first week or so, he invariably replied that she was visiting her family, and said it in such a glacial tone that no one dared to inquire for the likely date of her return.
When at last the shell exploded, it was a discreet announcement on page ten of the Gazette, that the Avondales wished to announce their legal separation, with the customary three lines relating to addresses and forwarding "of any matter pertaining to ..."
Wellington's latest victory in the Peninsula had been knocked right out of the daily gossip of every lady in town. There was no subject discussed for a week but the separation, and through it all Avondale continued about his daily and nightly pursuits with a face that might have been hewn out of marble for all the emotion it held. How Belle stood up to it was not known. She stayed on at Devon with her father, and invited no one to visit her. Cut herself from the whole set--from any tie however slight with her husband.
Rumor was rife as to the cause of all these interesting goings-on. She had failed to produce an heir, was unable to, and he was divorcing her. He had taken up with one of his other lights of love, and she had left him. She had married him only for the money, and got plenty of it too! No, no, she had utterly refused to take a penny, and was living in the direst poverty. Her Aunt Rankin, who had presented her, retired to Bath to recuperate from the strain to get away from the questions, for she didn't know any more about it than anyone else. Her father was a Shaker and had made her withdraw from the match. Nonsense, he was a Papist and was trying to have the marriage annulled--had never approved of it in the first place. Poor Sir Donald was everything but a Bonapartist, and for half an hour when it was recalled how well Belle spoke French, he was even that. A Papist, after all--what could you expect?
Then in January another Belle, Annabella Milbanke, fell into her disastrous marriage with Lord Byron, and the Avondales were forgotten. But Lady Hathaway had an ominous feeling that all the old scandal would be reactivated when word of this house party leaked out, and she was the innocent cause of it all.
What was to be done about it? Within twenty-four hours the most renowned couple in England were to meet under her roof. Impossible to keep them totally apart, but she must do her best to keep them from each other's throats. Sleep them at separate ends of the house, seat them at opposite ends of the board, and hope and pray that in public at least they would behave like civilized adults. That they ignore each other was the best she could hope for.
Her hand shook as she wrote her lists for accommodation. Then the smile returned to her lips--the smile that hadn't been there since Raffles' defection, and she laughed unheard as she sat alone in her little oak-lined study. She put Belle in the Blue Suite, and left the room next to it vacant, with a large question mark the only occupant. Wouldn't it be something if she could insert Oliver's name in that empty square before the weekend was over?