It is incumbent upon every well born lady of a certain age to consider her prospects. For most, all though not necessarily all, it is the challenge of finding a suitable husband that occupies the mind. Those who are considered plain and untalented might instead see their future in terms of employment; either in the service of a higher born household or in the service of God.
Rebecca considered herself neither plain nor untalented. Many had voiced their opinion with regards to her beauty. And her prowess at both the pianoforte and the harp were much mentioned in fashionable households. Indeed, if she were considered less than perfection itself she would not receive the numerous invitations which arrived almost daily throughout the season.
Although her attendance at church was not to be questioned, Rebecca was not a person of faith such that she might wish to give her life to God. Neither did she have any notion to devote herself to the service of some prissy madam, however well born. Therefore it was her duty to find a husband. Although many a young lady of a good family would trust that task to her parents, abiding by their wishes as to a suitable match, not so with Rebecca.
A strong minded young woman, Rebecca believed in love and romance over and above any union based on fortune and connections. Left to her family these considerations would indeed take priority over any finer feelings on her part. She had witnessed many a union between a young and frivolous fortune hunter and a much older, yet eminently wealthier, older man. These were a loveless match born of contracts and favours and destined to condemn the lady to a life of misery until such time as widowhood release them from the marriage hell.
"Rebecca dear, Mr. Hewes-Jones has asked if he might call upon you. Your father and I consider that gentleman a catch. Will you consider it?" Lady Carstairs asked her daughter over afternoon tea in the chinese drawing room.
"I have no wish to spend time in the company of that gentleman, if indeed gentleman is a suitable way of referring to Mr. Hewes-Jones. I have heard it said that he spends most of his waking hours at the gambling tables. Do you really wish for me a life of neglect and impending impoverishment?" The truth of the matter was that her rejection of the man had little to do with his love of cards and more to do with his love for the gentlemen with whom he played.
Rumours abounded of that gentleman's nightly frolics with his male companions. Although none would speak openly of it, the behaviour of this foppish effete led one to believe his interests and proclivities were not of the kind nature and God had intended. Although Rebecca blushed even to think about such things, she had no wish to be deserted in the marriage bed as surely would any lady unfortunate enough to make a pairing with Mr. Hewes-Jones.
"I despair of you, Rebecca. This is your fourth season; as yet you have found fault with each and every suitable pairing. You are not fashioned in such a way as to live the life of a spinster. It injures me to say but without a suitable match the time will come to pass when your father will take matters into his own hands and find for you a husband who may not be to your taste but who will nevertheless take your hand." The teacup clattered in its saucer as Lady Carstairs replaced it with force, that lady now given over to her anger. "You are a willful, spoilt child. Your father and I have given you every advantage in life to prepare you for a future as a wife and mother, not for you to waste your youth in frivolity and end your days alone."
"I am sorry to have provoked your anger Mama. I wish only to please you in this matter. Those suitors I have thus far rejected I have done so each time with good and fair reasoning. It is not my wish to be difficult. I will make you this promise; at the May Ball I will be at my most affable. If I do not there find a gentleman of my pleasing I will accept whatever offers may come my way thereafter until I find a match."
"Who is that charming gentleman, Mama?" Rebecca whispered from behind her fan. She was referring to the young officer currently addressing a small group of bachelors gathered at the punch bowl.
"I believe his name is Masters. I have not been formally introduced but I overheard him addressed as such."
"Would it be possible that you might gain an introduction to the gentleman?" Rebecca asked with a blush.
"I will speak with your father." Lady Carstairs glided away, leaving Rebecca to admire the object of her interest.
The young man was rather tall, standing inches above his current companions. His hair was fashionably long but tied at the back as befits an officer. Rebecca did not recognize the regimental insignia he bore. Could this young man be a foreigner? His complexion could be European. It was impossible to hear his conversation from where she sat, especially when the orchestra played a rousing polka.
Her foot began to tap. She loved to dance but as yet her dance card was almost empty. She noticed that Masters, if indeed that was his name, had made no move toward the ballroom. He chose instead to spend his time in conversation and imbibing. A rustle of skirts accompanied her mother's return. "I have spoken with your father and he in turn has had conversation with Lord Asprey. The young man is indeed named Masters. He is not long returned from service in India. His antecedence is somewhat more of a question."
"What you are saying Mama is that he is not one of our people," Rebecca said, a hint of rebellion entering her thoughts. The very fact that this young man was of questionable background made him all the more attractive. She peeped in his direction over her fan. Every part of her being longed to dance with this interloper. It would not be seemly for her to approach this stranger so she must manufacture an introduction. She looked over his companions; there were none there she knew well enough for conversation.
As her mother drifted toward the other dowagers a young lady took the adjoining seat. Her dress was of the finest silk yet of a design that no lady would ever choose. Her cleavage was far too exposed.
"Hello, I'm Constance," the creature introduced herself with a giggle. Rebecca nodded in recognition but preferred not to start a conversation with someone so obviously of a lower class.
"Oh my, it is so hot; I fear I might faint," the young woman continued with frantic swishing of her overlarge fan.
Rebecca feared that to move away would be overly rude. Yet she wanted no contact with this person. When the lady did in fact swoon Rebecca felt a duty to assist, though reluctantly. As she gathered her skirts and moved to kneel by the girl a shadow was cast by another. Glancing up she saw that it was Mr. Masters who was offering his aid. "Conny," he said patting the lady's hand. "It's Jonathon, darling." This creature was his darling?
He gathered the woman in his strong arms and carried her through the open window. Placing her on a garden bench he turned to Rebecca. "Could you fetch some brandy for my sister?" So she was his darling sister. Rebecca hurried away to acquire the desired spirit. Mama intercepted her travels. "Is the young lady ill?" she asked, glancing out of the window.
"Yes Mama, Miss Masters has a fit of the vapours."
She noticed Rebecca's reference to the woman's name. "Do I take it the creature is related to the young officer?"
She looked disapproving of the young woman as Rebecca herself had been until the relationship was explained. "She is indeed the sister of the young officer. Could you arrange a medicinal brandy, Mama?" Her mother occupied by the errand she rejoined the group on the terrace. Miss Masters was much revived. One of Mr. Masters' previous companions was now holding her hand.
"Let me introduce Mr. David Trevellin, my sister's fiance," Mr. Masters stated. The young man briefly turned his attention from his beloved and nodded in Rebecca's direction. "And let me formally introduce myself; Lieutenant Jonathon Masters at your service." He took Rebecca's hand and kissed it.
"Rebecca Carstairs, Sir. I am delighted to meet you."
Silence greeted them when they reentered. "Supper is served," a servant informed the group. Moving into the dining room Mr. Masters took Rebecca's arm. The hum of conversation competed with the clink of glasses and the tinkle of cutlery on plates. It was a bounteous feast of meats and salads, sweetmeats and trifles and jelly in the form of the Brighton Pavilion.
"I am told you are newly come from India?" Rebecca started, placing rare beef on her plate.
"Indeed I am Miss Carstairs." He took a small morsel of cheese. Holding forth the coleslaw for her attention he continued, "I no longer partake of flesh. I follow the diet of the Harishi Karma Vintu." Rebecca was well educated but knew nothing of this sect.
"That is a shame; this beef is excellent," Rebecca teased. Lieutenant Masters expounded on the benefits of the vegetarian diet.
A game of musical chairs ensued. The winner was the person taking the seat at the head of the table when the music stopped. The winner would have the honour of taking first slice of the Brighton Pavilion delicacy. Rebecca gained that honour amid much laughter and an embarrassment of pushing and shoving. Instead of consuming that first plate she honoured Mr. Masters with it, much to the dissent of her Mama.
As the orchestra struck up a reel, Rebecca longed to take to the floor. When Mr. Masters took her arm she thought her dreams would soon come true but instead he was leading her toward the garden.
"I thought we might take a turn in the rose garden Miss Carstairs," he said. Sensing her hesitation he added, "Upon my honour, Miss, my intentions are to take in the air fragrant with scent. I have nothing improper in mind."
"My thoughts were not of any misdeed, Mr. Masters. I know you for a gentleman. My hesitation is only to leave the dancing," Rebecca made her thoughts plain.
"Ah," he sighed, "Alas I am not made for dancing. My limbs are lengthy and take on a life of their own when I attempt the steps. I fear you would be battered and bruised and somewhat embarrassed if you were to take to the floor with me."
"No embarrassment would come of it. As to the bruises, they will heal. Come, let us at least try." Rebecca turned back toward the ballroom but his hand upon her arm prevented it. "Sir, unhand me. I will go where I wish." He released her, fearing an accusation of ungentlemanly conduct.
"You misunderstand my intention, Madam. It was in my mind to attempt the dancing in the seclusion of the arbour. We can hear the music from there yet none will see my clumsy manoevres."
"And none will hear my injured screams," Rebecca countered.
"Very well. I wish to dance and you will not be seen dancing so the arbour is our solution." Rebecca took his hand and led the way.
It is of the greatest import that any young lady of breeding should guard her honour against any chance of impunity. She must consider this in her every action, her every utterance. To lose one's honour is to lose one's place in polite society and that honour is so easily lost by a thoughtless word or deed. To spend time in the company of a man without benefit of chaperone is to place that honour in doubt. Rebecca, by dancing with Mr. Masters in the arbour without the presence of another, had placed her virtue in great jeopardy and become the subject of gossip.
The Misses Jarrow: Emma, Letitia and Maude, having spent the night at the Carstairs home, gathered in the garden discussing just that matter.
"How terribly wicked of Rebecca; do you think she allowed him a kiss?" speculated Letitia, giggling.
"You are so naughty, Letty. Just because you hand out your kisses like they were sweetmeats," rebuked Maude.
"I do not!" Letitia stamped her foot.
"I would hand out kisses to Mr. Masters," Emma confessed. Her sisters looked at her with shocked faces.
"You little hussy," Maude pronounced.
Maude, at sixteen, was the eldest of the three Jarrow girls and the most sensible. Letitia, a mere twelve years old, was still at an age when kisses could be offered freely without loss to reputation. She was yet to understand the implications of a proffered kiss in the context of the adult world. Although they had made light of the events at the ball, Maude knew the implications of Rebecca's behaviour. They would not be the only people talking of it. Others would be considerably more serious in their damnation.
"You are pondering, sister, what troubles your mind?" Emma asked.
"We may giggle at Rebecca's behaviour, but I fear others will not take matters so lightly," Maude said, with a look of concern.
Indeed, Rebecca's dalliances were the talk of the town. Lady Carstairs was suffering from a fit of the vapours and had locked herself in her boudoir for the shame of it. His Lordship had left at first light, and was heading for his London Club. He said a silent prayer that gossip does not travel as quickly as the mail coach, and he could escape the sympathies and condemnations of his peers, at least for a short time.
Seated at her writing desk, Rebecca was penning a note to the gentleman who was the cause of her downfall.
My Dear Lieutenant Masters,
It would seem that our tryst in the arbour at last night's ball has been the subject of much conjecture. I know you as a gentleman, I pray that as a gentleman you will remain in the eyes of your peers. I offer my most heartfelt appologies if your reputation should be impuned by my actions.
As to my own reputation I give not a wit. Let them think what they will of me. I know the truth of the matter, as do you, and it is only how you see me that is of any consequence in my mind.
I hope you will think kindly of me whatever the outcome of last night's events. I am your true and loving friend, always.
She sealed the letter with a kiss. The missive must, of course, be dispatched with the utmost secrecy, so as not to compound her previous misadventure. The recipient, she prayed, would receive it with good grace and would maintain the privacy of its message.
She pondered on the events of the eve. Mr. Masters was the most charming and handsome of men, even if he failed to enthrall on the dance floor. She looked now to her foot which still bore the memory of their dancing in the form of a large blackening bruise. This bore out the veracity of his statement that he could not dance. She found his honesty to be most refreshing. He did indeed have legs so long as to be out of his control. This was cause for her amusement, yet in a kindly way. She would never knowingly deprecate his efforts.
Rebecca's thoughts turned to planning their next encounter. It would be highly unlikely in the circumstances that the Lieutenant would be invited back to their home. It would have to be a meeting of her own manufacture and would undoubtedly require the assistance of a willing friend. To that end she consulted her diary. Next Tuesday's invitation to tea with the Misses Jarrow was a possibility. Such flighty young things were wont to involve themselves in any intrigue; that is if they could be persuaded to hold their tongues.
Maude, she was certain, would understand the situation and could be trusted with the secrecy necessary to arranging such a tryst. Her younger sisters, known for their frivolity and gossiping, were another matter. But if Maude were to instigate the invitation to Lieutenant Masters and persuade her sisters that it was a matter of coincidence that they should both find themselves present at such an occasion, maybe matters could be turned to the better. If she and the young man were able to show quite clearly that there was no impropriety in their friendship it would serve to silence the gossips and restore her tainted reputation.
There is nothing more delightful on a warm summer's afternoon than taking tea on the lawn in the company of one's friends. The ladies might show off their fine muslins and their pretty bonnets to best effect when enjoying this very English of rituals. The gentlemen, on the other hand, always loathsome of such inactivity, prefer to display their prowess at croquet on such occassions. Whether it is to impress the lady of their interest or their fellow menfolk, taking mallet to ball becomes a challenge of the greatest import.
The Misses Jarrow, never the wallflowers on such occassions, prided themselves on their own prowess with a croquet mallet. Not perceiving Rebecca as being one up for such sport it was of no surprise that gentlemen were often invited to take tea. On this fine July day Lieutenant Masters found himself in the company of three fellow gentlemen when he came to call on the ladies.
"Good afternoon, Miss Carstairs," the Lieutenant greeted Rebecca.
"Is it indeed a good afternoon. I had not been informed of your intended presence else I might have reconsidered the invitation," Rebecca stated, turning away to greet young Ned Barrow.
Masters chatted affably with the sisters whilst Jonathon and Henry Frick set out the croquet game. Rebecca chose to wonder a small distance and perch herself on a bench, pretending to any watching to have a genuine interest in the roses, whilst secretly glancing at the Lieutenant. Had he perceived her earlier rebuff for the sham it was, intended merely as a subterfuge to negate the consternation their previous meeting had caused? Or would that gentleman see veracity in her words and turn from her now?
At least Rebecca could be reassured that the Misses Jarrow held no place in Mr. Masters' affections, beyond that of any adult for a child at least. Maude might believe herself a catch but she was not yet fully formed in body or in manner. It would be a year or more before that rosebud reached full bloom and was ready for the plucking. Emma and Letitia were merely children; their rosy cheeks ripe for pinching by a kindly uncle.
"Miss Carstairs, are you joining the game?" Ned Barrow asked.
"I fear I am too hot for such pursuits," Rebecca stated, moving her parasol with the sun and dabbing her face with her handkerchief. The young gentleman took up his mallet and began the play. Mr. Masters glanced in her direction with a hint of concern.
"Will you partake of a glass of lemonade?" he offered.
"That would be delightful, thank you." Once profered, the Lieutenant made another attempt at conversation.
"Are you sure you are quite well, Miss Carstairs?"
"Indeed, it is just the heat that is a trouble to me at this present time. I am sure I shall be fully recovered once the sun has dropped behind the woodland yonder. Please, do not desert your game," Rebecca insisted.
The afternoon had proved useful in assuaging the gossip regarding herself and Mr. Masters, however, Rebecca feared that that gentleman might well have taken her attitude as a slight. That had been far from her intention. She found it difficult to be in the company of the handsome officer without stirring feelings within herself that had thus far been alien in concept. She had promised her Mama that she would find herself a husband within the year; could this be that very man she had dreampt of in her most lucid reveries? If indeed the Lieutenant was the marrying kind.
It is not considered proper for a young lady to display too obvious an interest in any one gentleman until such time as that gentleman has made a declaration of intent to pursue her hand in marriage. If a man is indeed a gentleman he will not be frivolous with his interest, but will indeed consider any interest on his part to be such a declaration. Mr. Masters had so far shown no such serious intentions with regard to Rebecca, or, for that matter, any young lady of his acquaintance.
Rebecca began to question if he was the marrying kind. She knew him to be a serving officer with duty which would often take him abroad. The possibility had to be considered that he had no wish to take a wife until his army career had raised him to sufficient rank that he would find himself permanently stationed in England. It was, of course, possible that he had taken her rebuff at the Jarrow's tea party as a rejection. Rebecca questioned whether her missive had been understood, or even received.
Putting pen to paper once more, she carefully crafted a further correspondence.
I pray that my actions at the Jarrow's tea party were not construed as a rejection of your friendship. I wished only to show that there was no impropriety in our relationship. I hope that at our next meeting we can behave as old friends without cause for gossip.
Entrusting the letter once more to the gardener's boy, a penny for his trouble, she awaited some sign of the Lieutenant's forgiveness. It came by way of an invitation from that gentleman's sister, Miss Constance Masters, to attend her engagement ball. Mr. David Trevellin, the young lady's fiance, had taken a summer residence nearby. Rebecca knew the house to be somewhat lacking in the style and elegance to which she was accustomed and doubted that many of her friends would be in attendance at what must surely prove to be a rather modest affair, yet she was willing to put aside such considerations if it meant she could spend time in the company of the Lieutenant.
Rebecca had not expected to see Mr. Masters prior to the ball, so it was with some surprise that the gentleman's calling card was brought to her in the conservatory one sunny afternoon.
"Yes, I will receive the gentleman." Rebecca returned to her needlework and awaited his appearance. She was not disappointed. Mr. Masters was dressed for riding, his outfit close fitted and elegantly displaying his manly figure.
"Good afternoon, Sir, to what do I owe this honour?" Rebecca addressed the Lieutenant, barely shifting her glance from her needle.
"I came in answer to a missive from a dear friend. I trust there will be no cause for gossip in my attendance on a person of that status?"
Rebecca looked up then. It would seem her letter had been received in good will, although it brought her a moment of concern that the gentleman might have perceived the content in its literal sense, that of pure friendship, with no romantic inclination. But one look into those dark, smiling eyes, belied that theory. The gentleman used the word 'friend' in a jesting manner. Rebecca felt the heat rising in her cheeks and sought to hide behind her stitching to cover her excitement.
"Might a gentleman of the status friend be allowed to accompany a young lady to my sister's engagement ball?" His manner was flirtatious; how could Rebecca possibly refuse.
To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love. Yet it is also Rebecca's downfall to be falling in love with a man for whom dancing holds no fondness.
The gentleman in question is one Lieutenant Masters. Rebecca first encountered the young gentleman at the May Ball. He made his feelings known on the subject of the dance then proceeded to tread upon her toes and her affections in the privacy of the arbour. It was the cause of much consternation amongst their social group that they should have spent this time without benefit of chaperone.
Now the Gentleman was to call upon her as her escort to the engagement ball of his sister.
"What does one wear Mamma to the engagement of a country bumpkin so as not to outshine the poor girl?" Rebecca ruffelled through her fine feathers in search of the plain.