The Dance of Love … the first two chapters:
If any couple danced two consecutive waltzes
together every chaperone in the room would cock
her ears, wag her head and whisper excitedly to right
and left, for what could such a daring procedure
possibly spell if not that stirring word Betrothal?
Anita Leslie, Edwardians in Love
‘I’ll race you to Hey Tor,’ said Natalie, pushing down her bowler hat and steadying her grey mare.
‘The ground is too uneven,’ said Millie. ‘We . . . I . . . might fall.’
‘We’ll stay on the grass, Millie.’
The day was bright and the sky cloudless, but a brisk wind rattled the branches of the oaks and hazels that stood behind them.
‘But sometimes the grass hides the granite,’ said Millie. ‘We might not see it until it’s too late.’
Natalie leaned forward and ruffled her mare’s mane. ‘Artemis knows the moor,’ she said. ‘And so does Jennie.’
She straightened up and began to undo the buttons on her skirt. ‘And if we take off our safety skirts we’ll fall clear. If we fall.’
Millie’s cheeks grew almost as red as the Devon earth, but Natalie frowned at her for she was wearing the riding habit she always wore, not a new safety skirt. ‘I thought you’d been fitted for one,’ she said. ‘I thought we agreed—’
‘Mama thinks this habit perfectly good enough,’ said Millie. ‘And besides, I do not wear breeches underneath.’
Natalie shifted awkwardly in her saddle. She turned from Millie and stared out across the rising moorland towards the stony folds of Hey Tor. Patches and paths of short grass grew between tussocks of tall sedge, and the still-brown heather clung to spurs of granite, as if it felt safer there. The fluting call of a skylark filled the air above her, but Natalie did not look up. Instead she stared down at her dark blue Melton safety skirt and felt it inelegant, despite its fashionable cut; felt her new bowler hat vulgar; felt herself diminished beside Lady Millicent Bridewell.
Millie’s saddle creaked and Natalie turned to see her stretching out her hand. ‘A gentle canter,’ she said. ‘Or perhaps just a walk.’ But Natalie turned away. Millie had said she would be fitted for a new safety skirt and she had not. It should not matter but, by obeying her mother, she had dismissed Natalie. Impulsively, Natalie urged Artemis away and when she was galloping across the moor towards Hey Tor she shouted out her frustration. The Bridewells had never understood her but she would not care. She would be herself; she would find her own way in the world. She would defy the Bridewells and their restrictive ways. And she would wear breeches just as often as she wished.
The speed of the ride echoed Natalie’s defiance. She was at one with her mare and Artemis did not stumble, neither did Natalie fall as the ground rushed away beneath them. If she could have found a way to stand in the stirrup without unbalancing Artemis she would have, just as she stood in two stirrups when she rode alone, astride her mare. When at last they pulled up beneath Hey Tor, Natalie turned to look back towards Bridewell Wood. Both she and Artemis were out of breath so they stood still, gathering themselves under the bright sun, warm despite the cold wind, and then Natalie saw Millie and her mare, half a mile away. They were close to the edge of the wood and the way Millie rode could not have been more different from the way Natalie had just ridden. Even at this distance it was clear Millie rode sedately, her carriage upright and correct.
As Natalie watched them, her defiance began to give way. She had hoped Millie would change her mind and follow her and now she willed her to turn, to raise her hand, to acknowledge her presence. But she did not. When Millie and her bay disappeared into the wood Natalie tried to banish her disappointment. She had imagined galloping across the moor beside Millie. She had pictured them sitting beneath Hey Tor while their mares grazed. She had heard their laughter and imagined what they might talk about: perhaps the dinner at her father’s house the night before and the tedious, mundane nature of the
For as long as she could remember Natalie had imagined encounters and hoped they would translate into real ones. The only person who had ever encouraged her to do so had been her mother and she was no longer alive. Only her mother had speculated about the things people might really be thinking, the meanings that were hidden beneath the things they actually said. Only her mother encouraged her to treat the natural world as if it were capable of responding. Only she told Natalie that despite the restrictions the world imposed upon women, she could do or be anything in her imagination. But Natalie was not quite twelve years old when her mother died and she had never met another who understood her so well. In those twelve years there had only been one subject on which her parents disagreed: her father wanted his daughter to adopt the ways of their neighbours, the Bridewells; her mother said she should discover her true nature and had no need of
adopting the ways of anyone, no matter who they were.
On the day Lady Bridewell told Sir Thomas Edwardes she had hired a governess for her children, Natalie overheard her mother say to her father, ‘If you send Natalie to be schooled at Waverton Court, Thomas, then please behave as if you were Lady Bridewell’s equal. Do not bow so low when she calls and do not agree with her every suggestion. For if you continue to do so, you will become her plaything.’
Even now Natalie did not know that her father had paid Miss Reedle’s wages entirely himself, but his loneliness in his widowhood was so obviously lightened by their association with the Bridewells that she rarely had the heart to refuse to accompany him to Waverton Court. And so it was that the Bridewells were the only family Natalie really
knew, and the only family in whose company she struggled to hold on to her true self.
She rode sedately away from Hey Tor, just as Millie had ridden into Bridewell Wood, her cheeks flushed from the gallop but her expression sober, for she knew if she were not to upset her father unduly she must behave more like Millie and less like herself. By the time she caught up with Millie, on the far side of Bridewell Wood and within sight of the red-tiled roof of Waverton Court, she said, ‘I did not mean to cause you embarrassment with my talk of breeches, Millie. And I should not have galloped off without you.’
‘We shall forget about it from this moment,’ said Millie and she took Natalie’s outstretched hand. But when they drank tea in the drawing room with Millie’s sister, Gussie,
and the Bridewell sisters informed Natalie of their imminent departure for London, for the Season, Natalie could not help envying them their ease and certain knowledge of their place in the world. She felt as unlike them as the common frog who spends her whole life, except for her brief breeding season, alone.
‘We shall find ourselves husbands next year, Millie,’ said Gussie, although her lisp reduced husbands to timid, insubstantial creatures, not the dashing young men Natalie imagined for herself. Gussie looked sideways at Natalie without moving her head: it had a belittling effect. ‘All the eligible young men in the land will be in London, will they not, Millie? We shall have the pick of them.’
‘I think we shall find many young women in London too, Gussie. And they, and their chaperones, will be gathered with the same intention. We must not assume we shall have the pick, as you call it.’
‘I think you shall not have a London Season, shall you, Natalie?’ said Gussie, ignoring her sister.
‘Gussie,’ said Millie, ‘don’t be unkind.’
‘It is not unkind,’ said Gussie. ‘It’s a fact. No one in Natalie’s family has been presented at Court, so she shall not have a Season.’
Even though Natalie had little desire for a Season, Gussie’s words hurt. The way young men and women were matched according to bloodline and land acreage was quite
without feeling, but to be prohibited from finding out what the balls and the dinners were like, just because she was not high-born, was painful.
‘We are higher born than you, Natalie,’ Gussie had said once, her blonde curls bobbing over her seventh birthday cake.
‘You should never say such things,’ said Millie.
‘But it’s true,’ Gussie retorted, with a determined nod. ‘And I know you both think so too.’ She nodded at her sister and at her brother. She did not look at Natalie.
‘Nevertheless it is very ill-mannered,’ said her brother. But his nevertheless had given him away too.
Gussie breathed out sharply through her nose, a habit acquired from her mother, when Natalie said, ‘Gussie is right. I shall not have a Season.’
Gussie looked directly at her and Natalie smiled sweetly.
‘But how shall you find a husband?’ said Millie.
‘Gentlemen also exist in Devon,’ said Natalie. ‘I shall fall in love with a farmer. We shall have ten children and breed Devon Rubies.’
‘You are more likely to attract a man who will give you rubies,’ said Millie. ‘You are by far the prettiest of us and you . . . stand out, for you are different. In the autumn we shall arrange a ball in your honour and you shall dance with all the landowners in Devon. We shall see you installed in South Devon Manor, perhaps, within the year.’
Neither Millie nor Gussie would contemplate marrying the owner of South Devon Manor, and standing out was not approved of in a young woman, at least not in the Bridewell
world. But Natalie’s pain at Gussie’s dismissal quickly transmuted into relief for, when the Bridewells departed for London, she would be free to live without their constant
disdain and, on her way home, she imagined that life, a life in which she and her father no longer called at Waverton Court and she found that, apart from missing Millie a little,
she was glad to be free to live without her father’s desire for her to become someone she was not. She would ask her Aunt Goodwin to introduce her to the farming and professional families her father had signally failed to invite to Hey Tor House, families among whom there must be at least one gentleman who would, as her mother had once said, ‘show himself for an honest man and one who will never be dull, for you will need a man with a lively imagination if you are to live with him happily. And if he has no imagination of his own, then he must be a man who will listen to your spirited imaginings and value them as if they were his own.’
Aunt Goodwin, her mother’s sister, would be her protecting angel and, once married, Natalie would bring up her children as her mother had brought her up. They would
never know the pain of trying to squeeze themselves into a world where they felt unwelcome.
When Natalie arrived back at Hey Tor House her father asked for news of the Bridewells, as he always did, and she said, ‘They go to London in April, Papa, for the Season.’
She kissed him lightly on the cheek. ‘But even you cannot arrange for me to go with them, for we do not belong at Court.’
‘What nonsense you talk,’ said Sir Thomas. ‘It was at St James’s that I received my knighthood.’
‘No woman in our family has ever been presented to the Queen, so I cannot be presented.’ She kissed him again and said, ‘Don’t look so unhappy, Papa, for I am glad. The kind of gentleman I shall marry will not be the kind who cares for a London Season. He will care for me because I am myself and your daughter, not because I come from a long line of aristocrats. And with Aunt Goodwin’s help, I shall find that gentleman close by.’
After that Natalie would not go with Sir Thomas to Waverton Court, but when he received a summons from Lady Bridewell inside an envelope with a black border, he made a point of showing it to her. He knew she would not put up any resistance when he said they must pay a call to show their sympathy, and she did not. She only said, ‘Who was Lord Ansdrie?’
And now he sat with Lady Bridewell and her only son, the newly designated Lord Ansdrie, in their drawing room. The intricate plasterwork above their heads, the heavy tapestry curtains on either side of the stone-mullioned windows and the dark oak panels on the walls made the large room appear to close in on Sir Thomas; he preferred the light, airy rooms of his own house. But he sat as calmly as he could opposite Lady Bridewell, whose head always tipped just slightly to the right so that she looked more interested in those she spoke to than she actually was.
Sir Thomas waited for her to explain the reason for her summons.
Lord Ansdrie sat at an angle to Sir Thomas, which made it impossible for him to keep them both in his line of vision; he had to turn from one to the other. Lord Ansdrie wore a dark suit, a black armband and a black cravat and his mother’s mourning dress was of the darkest black silk and crepe; she wore no jewellery. Perhaps Sir Thomas should have worn mourning dress. He braved the subject and apologised.
‘I thank you, Sir Thomas, but your apology is quite unnecessary,’ said Lady Bridewell. ‘You did not know my brother.’ She sat very straight. ‘We were in Scotland for the
funeral last week.’
‘I am sorry for your loss.’
Lady Bridewell nodded and her dark headdress shook. It looked like a large spider. She clasped her right hand over her left and then her left over her right. The death of her
brother was obviously causing uncharacteristic agitation, but she said nothing more.
Through the windows at the north end of the drawing room Sir Thomas saw Lady Bridewell’s daughters, the Ladies Millicent and Augustina, walking across the lawn.
They wore black silk dresses trimmed with black crepe and dark little hats with short dark veils. Between them walked Natalie, her yellow dress like a shaft of sunlight in a dark
‘My brother and I were estranged,’ said Lady Bridewell, at last, ‘but his management of Ansdrie has proved even worse than I feared.’
So, not his death, then, but his bad management. Astonishing that she was telling him this; she had never related such details before.
‘The house has been dreadfully neglected. There is only one manservant left and the revenue,’ she whispered the word, ‘from Ansdrie’s coal is quite gone. The mines have
faulted and flooded. There are death duties to be paid. Only the sheep remain and they alone will not keep the estate.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear it, Lady Bridewell,’ said Sir Thomas, his voice pitched higher than he had intended. He tried to control his amazement, but she had never spoken to him before of the one thing upon which every human being depended, the thing he had spent so much of his life successfully accumulating.
Was she about to ask him for a loan? Or to act as guarantor? He must, clearly, prepare for more surprises.
‘As you know, Sir Thomas,’ said Lady Bridewell, half turning to her son, ‘Ansdrie inherits from his uncle.’ She called him by his new title as if he had been born to it. ‘But until he marries he shall not live in Scotland.’
She stood, so Sir Thomas stood and made a half-bow and then she walked, or rather, stalked, towards the window. Sir Thomas watched her movements and noticed, for the first time, that the vertical edges of the curtains she stood by were ragged: threadbare patches were made cruelly obvious in the sunlight.
Lady Bridewell raised her lorgnette to the young party outside and then, turning back to Sir Thomas, she said, ‘I should like to present Miss Edwardes at Court in June. When I present my own daughters.’
Sir Thomas fell into a flurry of exclamation. His daughter would be honoured to be presented. He would be honoured. She would prove most worthy of Lady Bridewell’s kind patronage. He spoke too quickly and he tried harder than usual to lengthen his vowels, but he sounded so unlike himself when he said arsk instead of ask or take instead of tek that he often ended up speaking in an odd combination of accents. And then, when embarrassment surfaced through the froth of his stream of speech, he stopped, abruptly, and Lady Bridewell said how well Natalie looked and how her childhood friendship with her daughters was bound to strengthen during the Season. And then she said, ‘My son must take a wife with him to Ansdrie, Sir Thomas. It will make the transition so much
less . . . difficult.’
‘Indeed it will, Lady Bridewell,’ said Sir Thomas. ‘And I wish them well.’ He turned to Lord Ansdrie and then back to Lady Bridewell. ‘But how will he and his wife live at Ansdrie when it is in the state you say it is in?’
He glanced back at Lord Ansdrie and then looked quickly away. It was very peculiar to discuss him as if he were not in the room. But Lady Bridewell looked directly at Sir Thomas and smiled broadly, a very rare thing in his experience, and then she swooped towards him with a rustle of dark skirts.
‘I am quite certain,’ she said, ‘that between us all we shall reach a very happy arrangement.’
Between us all? Very happy? Could Lady Bridewell be about to suggest what he thought her about to suggest?
She sat down, so Sir Thomas also sat down, but so quickly that he forgot to flick his coat tails away and so he had to lean a little backwards. And then Lord Ansdrie stood up.
‘I should like,’ he said, walking towards Sir Thomas, ‘to become better acquainted with your daughter.’
They’d been neighbours for thirteen years.
‘I have been so often away at school and, lately, with the Waterfirth Reservists,’ he said, ‘that I do not know our neighbours as well as I should.’
Sir Thomas tried to keep his mind from forming conclusions.
‘These are, of course, only the preliminaries,’ said Lady Bridewell.
‘We simply wanted,’ said Lord Ansdrie, who was marginally less cryptic than his mother, ‘to inform you of our plans, to make our intentions clear.’
‘Trawton will assist with Miss Edwardes’s gowns,’ said Lady Bridewell.
Natalie had a perfectly good lady’s maid of her own, but perhaps Trawton would dress her better? In the correct style?
‘I shall chaperone her myself,’ said Lady Bridewell. ‘She will be an Ansdrie avant la lettre.’
Sir Thomas folded his lips inward so that his moustache and beard hid his delighted smile. He was glad Lady Bridewell could not see the images that crowded into his mind, for he saw himself again and again at receptions and balls, soirees and dinners, presenting his daughter, the future Lady Ansdrie. But he also understood very well that it was Natalie’s dowry that prompted Lady Bridewell to consider her a suitable daughter-in-law. But, in time, his daughter would charm them all and Lord Ansdrie would discover what a brilliant choice he had made, in every respect.
‘When shall you speak to my daughter?’ said Sir Thomas, finding his voice at last and trying to control his lips, which would not be persuaded out of a broad grin.
Lady Bridewell answered, instead of her son. ‘I shall inform Miss Edwardes she will have a Season,’ she said. ‘But otherwise,’ she turned to her son, who nodded, ‘we think it better not to inform her of any but the most peripheral arrangements at this stage.’
Again Lord Ansdrie elaborated. ‘‘I should like things to take their natural course,’ he said. ‘I should like to get to know Miss Edwardes and I should like her to get to know me, without the obligation that would accompany her knowledge of our – of my – intention towards her.’
Lady Bridewell stood beneath the red-brick portico while Sir Thomas handed Natalie into his landau, a courtesy she never usually extended to them, and then she said, ‘I shall not expect my children to remain in mourning for longer than three months, Sir Thomas. They never knew their uncle and besides he deserves no more.’
Naturally, Natalie questioned him about the short period of mourning as they travelled back up the hill to Hey Tor House, but he only said, ‘You shall discover soon enough, my dear.’
When Sir Thomas was alone in his study at Hey Tor House, when he sat at his desk and looked out through the wide Georgian sash windows towards the wooded hill that led
to Waverton Court to the south and out across the moor to Hey Tor to the west, he did his best to control his feelings of gratification. But it was difficult: he was about to become connected to one of the foremost aristocratic families in the land. He, a man who had risen, in one generation, from grocer to owner of a successful tea-planting enterprise.
He shifted in his chair and turned to look up at the portrait of his late wife. She would not have been impressed with his delight. Nor would she have approved of the whoop of triumph he let out when, later that morning, he tramped across the moor. For Lily Ann never wanted Lady Bridewell to think him a gentleman instead of a man who worked for his living. She took pride in the good, honest man of trade that he was, without affectation. Before they married, when Sir Thomas showed her a Change of Name Deed and said, ‘See here, Lily Ann. See how refined our name will become with the added e,’ she only said, ‘What a family does and how a family behaves is what matters. Fiddling with a name won’t make the slightest difference.’
Sir Thomas turned back from the portrait just in time to catch sight of his daughter riding past the window. She wore a cap, a jacket and breeches and looked for all the world like a stable boy. Sir Thomas stood up and raised his arm to attract her attention, but she did not, or would not, see him. He turned to the west window and watched her open the wooden gate and set off across the moor. He would tell her, at dinner that night, that she must no longer ride alone, and certainly not in those clothes. For she was about to begin a new, elevated life among the very best, and it would not do.