A FEATHER TO FLY WITH
By Joyce Harmon
Lady Sefton saw the new arrival being bowed into the ballroom at Almack’s by Mister Willis, and turned to her fellow patroness Lady Jersey. “Winton is here,” she said complacently.
Lady Jersey rolled her eyes in mock despair. “My dear, I do not care! The man is hopeless!”
Felicity Harwell, in her first season and only her second appearance at Almack’s, was already well on her way to being toasted as the season’s Incomparable. She had just shaken off her admirers for a time to engage the patronesses in conversation, and looked with interest at this hopeless man. “Why, what is the matter with him, ma’am?” she asked politely. “Is he a great rake?”
The man who had just entered did not bear the appearance of a rake, though Felicity wasn’t sure that she would recognize such a man if she saw one. But this Winton bore no outward marks of dissipation. He was neatly dressed in the required knee-breeches, with neither the excruciating exactness of dress that proclaimed the dandy, nor the casual negligence that was the mark of the buck.
His coat was well-tailored, but a modest blue. His hair was light brown, worn in a sensible crop, and his features were pleasingly regular. Only one ring graced his hands, and it a signet. His eyes were gray, and his air was that of mild abstraction. He was perhaps a year or two shy of thirty.
Lady Sefton tittered. “A rake? My dear, of course His Grace is not a rake.”
His Grace? Suddenly Felicity was listening keenly; this was no longer idle conversation, but vital information. So the mysteriously hopeless gentleman was a duke, was he? A young lady in this society had one task – to marry, one ambition – to marry well, and one secret dream – to marry brilliantly. And there was no match so brilliant as a duke.
“Would that he were,” Lady Jersey said. “Rakes at least have been known to reform.”
“More do not,” Lady Sefton replied darkly.
The two ladies began to delve into a comprehensive catalogue of rakes they had known, detailing which ones had reformed and which ones had not.
“Oh, but ma’am!” Felicity pleaded. “If he is not a rake, in what way is he hopeless?”
Lady Jersey patted her hand and broke the news. “My dear, he is a scholar!”
Arthur Ramsey, sixth Duke of Winton, surveyed the room with a dismay he was too well-bred to show. How they stared! From across the room, a deep jolly voice called, “Winton!” and he was relieved to see his best friend waving at him.
He made his way around the perimeter of the room to join the Honorable Justin Amesbury at the refreshments table. Justin was a tall well-built man of thirty, equally at home in the ballroom or on the hunting field. The Amesbury property adjoined the Winton estate, and the two had grown up together. They were nothing alike, but both men were tolerant enough to enjoy their differences.
“You here?” Justin greeted him, deftly snagging a glass of Almack’s despised lemonade from a passing waiter. “I thought you fixed in the country.”
“I had to come to Town,” Arthur explained. “Gould will be speaking at the Royal Society on planetary orbits.”
Justin’s eyes twinkled. “You obviously couldn’t miss that.”
“No, I couldn’t,” Arthur said earnestly. “Justin, he’s wrong.”
“Well, well-met, whatever the reason. What do you say to a hand or two of piquet?”
“I can’t.” Arthur sipped his lemonade and moodily surveyed the room. “I must mingle and dance. I promised Mother.”
“Oh, indeed? And how is the dear Duchess?”
“Fretful,” Arthur said. “She rang a fair peal over me, I must admit, over my duty to the family.”
Justin was surprised. “Aunt Phyllida never struck me as a managing sort of female.”
“She isn’t, really,” Arthur said fairly. “But she’s experiencing anxiety, you know, with Charley in the Peninsula.”
“Ah,” Justin nodded. “I see. So with Charley risking life and limb, it’s up to you to assure the succession.”
“Something of that nature. She can’t say she’s worried for Charley’s safety, she’s far too much the Spartan mother for that. But that worry has to come out somehow, so she’s deflected it onto my single and childless state.”
“Which explains His Grace’s presence at the Marriage Mart. You should have followed my example. Note how cleverly I timed my birth order, leaving it to George to play the family patriarch and hopeful father of a large brood, while yours truly remains unattached and free to follow my own inclinations.”
“Alas, my infant self did not think that far ahead,” Arthur said with a laugh. He turned and faced the assembled multitude, and then turned back to Justin, daunted. “How does one go about this?” he asked.
“Come now!” Justin admonished. “Surely you recall when Clara was fired off. You were down from Cambridge by then.”
“Oh, yes,” Arthur thought back to his sister’s debut. “I seem to recall a great deal of to-do about clothing. But I’d just got my telescope, you see.”
“Indeed, I do. Earthly concerns were doubtless the furthest thing from your mind. Well. This will be a challenge. Tell me, what sort of female are you looking for?”
“A duchess,” Arthur replied simply.
“My dear fellow! They don’t come that way! You must find a likely candidate and make her a duchess.”
“So you must suggest some likely candidates.”
“I will do nothing of the sort!” Justin pulled Arthur to an alcove, gesturing to a passing waiter and claiming more lemonade. He sat down and said, “Let’s work this through.”
Arthur meekly took a seat, ready to be instructed.
“Your first step will be to meet a wide variety of females,” Justin said. “From those, you can determine a smaller group that you find most appealing. You pay more attention to this group, and eventually you will form an attachment to one specific female.”
Arthur nodded approvingly. “It sounds very scientific. Have you followed this procedure?”
“Not at all, for I’m fine as I am. I enjoy the ladies. They like my company and I like theirs. But I’m not in the market for leg-shackling just yet. Now, for your case. Almack’s is an excellent place to begin. Our indomitable patronesses has already done the work of winnowing the ineligibles for us, so that every single young lady here is potential duchess raw material. I would suggest that tonight you dance with five or six different ladies. Only one dance apiece, since you’re just meeting them, and two dances would be considered too particular. You are a duke, after all, and that makes the quizzes interested in everything you do.”
“Five or six.” Arthur agreed. “That sounds quite feasible.” He scanned the crowded dance floor and then remarked plaintively, “I don’t know any of these people.”
“They’ve none of them written scholarly papers; that explains it,” Justin said briskly. “Do any of the young ladies strike you as attractive?”
After a moment, Arthur said, “The tall brunette looks rather… regal.”
Justin followed his gaze, and shook his head. “Miss Jennings. No, she won’t do for you.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing in the world. It’s merely that she’s musical. Very musical.”
“I like music,” Arthur protested.
“As do I,” Justin agreed. “But not that much music. Earlier in the season, I’d thought to attach myself to her court, but there are limits. She plays the pianoforte and the harp, and she sings. Her family is forever attending the opera and hosting musical evenings at home. Unless you are a genuine music enthusiast…”
“No,” Arthur said. “Only moderately interested.”
“But, I say,” Justin went on. “Perhaps Miss Harwell might do for you. Just out, but she’s certainly taken. She’ll be the belle of the season.”
“Which one is she?”
“Over near the refreshments table. The little blonde there in that peach satin?”
Arthur examined the little blonde. She was undeniably beautiful, with gold ringlets artfully tousled, and a trim little figure. She was waltzing with a young man in regimentals and laughing up at him.
“She’s rather jolly,” Justin said. “I’ve decided to make her my main interest this season.”
Arthur turned to him with concern. “Oh, then I’ll not cut you out.”
“Nothing of the sort, my dear Arthur,” he was assured. “I escort the dears. Send them flowers, walk with them in the park, dance with them at the balls. It keeps me in fashion. By now I bring them into fashion. Once she attaches her prize, I’ll attend the wedding and send a lovely gift. Think nothing of it. But Miss Harwell is a nice girl. Good-humored, good dancer, fun to be around. And her mother is less terrible than most. Why don’t I introduce you?”
The dance ended as the two men made their way around the ballroom, and Miss Harwell joined several other young ladies. “Excellent,” Justin murmured to Arthur. “More subjects for the Winton experiment.”
Felicity was having a splendid evening. Her dance card was full, her partners were both charming and eligible, and all strove to fix their interest with her. In the interval between dances, she took a moment to catch her breath and compare notes with Lillian Dumphreys and Marianne Keene, her great friends from Miss Frobish’s Select Academy. Lillian and Marianne were also well pleased with their evening and the gentlemen they were meeting.
When they saw Mister Amesbury coming toward them, Felicity was able to tell them that the young man accompanying him was the Duke of Winton, feeling well up on every on dit in Town.
But when the Duke was presented to them, Felicity realized that her social success could pose a problem. “Winton is determined to dance,” Amesbury told them, “so I hope you ladies will all favor him with a dance.”
Lillian and Marianne could easily comply, but Felicity replied with a look of dismay. “Oh dear, I am sorry,” she said, “but I’m afraid all my dances are taken.”
“Easily mended,” Amesbury assured her. “I greedily claimed two dances, so will nobly forfeit one. But not the waltz. I insist upon the waltz.” He quickly made the change to Felicity’s delicate ivory dance card.
Amesbury couldn’t recall when he’d last spent a more amusing evening at Almack’s. Never, most likely.
Following a quadrille, Arthur returned Miss Dumphreys to her chaperon and then made his way to Amesbury. “Well?” Justin asked, observing the little redhead whispering excitedly to her duenna.
“She seems a pleasant enough girl, as far as I could tell,” Arthur admitted.
“As far as you could tell?”
“The figures of the dance make conversation a most disjointed affair,” Arthur complained. “It seems irrational that dancing should be the order of the day if the goal is for young men and women to become acquainted with one another.”
“Perhaps it isn’t the most sensible way to go about it,” Amesbury had to admit. “But it is a start. And you did manage snatches of conversation, surely.”
“And what did you glean from these snatches?”
“That she is finding her season vastly amusing. That she quite dotes on the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe. That her brother will take her up in his phaeton tomorrow, allowing her to display a new carriage gown that is simply ravishing.”
“Clever girl,” said Amesbury with an appreciative chuckle.
“Clever?” Arthur looked perplexed.
“Yes, for she’s ensured that if you wish to encounter her again, you’ll know where to be.”
Amesbury listed the clues. “Brother? Tomorrow? Phaeton?” Seeing Arthur’s continued incomprehension, Amesbury gave up and spelled it out for him. “Hyde Park at five,” he said pityingly.
“Oh? Oh! I see,” Arthur exclaimed. “Why didn’t she just say that?”
“Because then she would be stating clearly that she hopes you will encounter her again.”
“Well, doesn’t she?”
Justin couldn’t help laughing out loud. “There’s the cotillion just starting,” he told his friend. “You mustn’t leave Miss Keene waiting.”
Following the cotillion, the Duke found his way back to Amesbury, looking perturbed. “I may have offended Miss Keene,” he said. “But I’m not sure how.”
Mild-mannered Arthur offending a young lady at Almack’s? Greatly amused, Justin asked for specifics.
“I don’t understand it,” Arthur told him. “When she mentioned her father’s country estate, I simply asked if he encouraged his tenants to follow the principles of scientific farming.”
Fascinated, Justin asked, “And her reply?”
“She asked how I imagined she would possibly know such a thing. The question seemed to put her out of humor.”
“I shouldn’t let it concern you,” Justin advised. “Farming methods might not be considered strictly within the purview of female concerns, but if that’s going to offend her, she’s far too starchy for you to consider.”
“Perhaps I’m too eccentric?” Arthur suggested.
Justin chuckled. “Nonsense. You could be a pure bedlamite; so long as you are His Grace of Bedlam, you must always be acceptable to society.”
“That doesn’t seem rational,” Arthur protested.
“Rational or not, it’s the way of society,” Justin assured him. “Now go dance with Miss Harwell before I reclaim the dance I forfeited.”
Amesbury’s information on the next dance came from Miss Harwell herself. Following the dance, Justin lost track of Arthur, but soon presented himself to Miss Harwell and claimed the waltz. As they danced, Miss Harwell asked him hesitantly, “Is His Grace perhaps a poet?”
“Great heavens! Wherever did you get such a notion?” Amesbury asked her.
Miss Harwell nodded toward a row of gilt chairs and Justin saw Arthur there, busily writing in a small notebook with a stub of pencil.
“He talked with me during our dance about planets,” the beauty told him. “And then he got a faraway look in his eyes, and once the dance was over he escorted me back to my mother, and then pulled out that little book and began to write. He seems lost to the world.”
“And you assumed he must have been inspired to write you a poem?” Amesbury asked, his lips quirking involuntarily.
Miss Harwell looked momentarily confused but then chuckled. “Oh dear, how conceited that sounds.” After a moment, she added, “But if I’ve become conceited, I must lay the blame on you London gentlemen, who tell a green girl such extravagant compliments that she becomes quite puffed up about her charms. I gather that His Grace is not a poet?”
“I’ll tell you the unvarnished truth, Miss Harwell,” Justin replied. “I fear that you have inspired – an equation.”
In the carriage returning to their townhouse in Mayfair, Felicity was quizzed by her mama about the evening. Usually these sessions covered the entirety of her dance card, but this evening, Mrs. Harwell had only one subject in mind – His Grace the Duke of Winton. While Felicity had never heard of him before today, her mother certainly had.
“Fabulously wealthy, a family that can trace itself back to the Conquerer, and still unattached! He is rarely seen in Society, which perhaps explains how he has escaped thus far. Oh, my dear, if you could only succeed in attaching him! The houses, the carriages, the clothes you would wear!”
Mrs. Harwell sat back and fanned herself vigorously for a moment, overcome by these delightful visions. Then she sat up and returned to the interrogation.
“How did he like you? Did he seem interested?”
“I scarcely know,” Felicity admitted. “His conversation is not what I am used to.”
“He didn’t go beyond the line, I hope?” Her mama’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh, no!” Felicity hastened to correct her. “But I found him difficult to understand.”
“How do you mean?”
“He spoke of planets and their orbits around the sun. He told me that there is a planet that no one had ever seen before, despite its vastness, because it is so far away. He has seen it, he assured me, through his own telescope.”
“Ha,” said Mrs. Harwell in wonder. It was difficult to interpret these words as the raptures of a lover.
“And then perhaps he saw how bewildered I felt, because he brought the conversation back to earth. Quite literally, because he talked of farming.”
“Farming!” Mrs. Harwell marveled. “What has a Duke to do with farming?”
“He seemed quite taken with it,” Felicity told her. “And spoke quite favorably about something he called crop rotation.”
“Nonsense,” her mother snapped.
“You must have misunderstood him, silly girl. If one rotated a crop, its roots would be in the air, and how that could be said to be a benefit is quite beyond me. No, you misheard him.”
For the remainder of the ride, Mrs. Harwell enumerated the locations and sizes of His Grace’s properties, which seemed to Felicity to be vast indeed.
The clock in the hall of the Grosvenor Square mansion had already chimed past three when Phyllida, Duchess of Winton heard the front door open. A murmur of voices as her son was greeted by Tolliver the butler, and then soft footsteps ascending the stairs. The Duchess picked up the novel on the table beside her chair and opened it. Her son entered the drawing room to find his mother engrossed in a book.
She looked up as he entered. “Arthur? Gracious, what time is it? Sophronia vowed I would find this book enthralling, and indeed I have lost all track of time.”
Arthur dropped into the divan across from her and gave her an amused look. The Duchess was a small woman, with light brown hair now liberally streaked with grey and enclosed in a foolish lace cap. Her comfortable old round gown was so plain that she might be mistaken for a housekeeper. Her consequence was something she could don and doff like a cloak. “You don’t deceive me for a moment, Mama.” He gestured at the book in her hands. “The Hungarian Brothers? You read it last summer and proclaimed it a farrago of nonsense.”
The Duchess closed the book with a sound of exasperation and replaced it on the table. “I should have known better,” she said. “Must you notice everything?”
“I can’t seem to help it,” he said apologetically.
“Then you must learn not to mention it,” his mother told him sternly. “Especially if you wish to take your place in society, where there will be many things you will notice that should not be mentioned.”
Tolliver entered the room, bearing a tray that held a decanter and elegant little glasses. “Sherry!” the Duchess exclaimed approvingly. “Much too late for tea. Thank you, Tolliver.”
As the butler made his stately departure, Arthur rose and poured them each a glass. He handed his mother her glass and resumed his seat. “You waited up for me,” he said.
“And if I did?”
“Were you worried about me?”
“Let’s say curious, rather.” The Duchess leaned forward. “So? Did you enjoy your excursion into society?”
Arthur frowned thoughtfully. “It was interesting, certainly.”
“Did you meet some young ladies?”
“Yes, quite a few. Justin introduced me to several and then Lady Jersey presented me to several more.”
“How did you go on?”
“I wish I knew,” Arthur confessed. After a moment, he added, “I wonder if I’ve been too greatly indulged and allowed to follow my own inclinations without regard to my station.”
“Arthur! Are you accusing me of being a bad mother?” his mother teased.
“Of course not,” he replied with a smile. “And yet… It’s hard to explain. Justin moved through those rooms like it was second nature to him, because it was. But I? I felt as if I’d been set down in a tribe of Esquimaux, with no knowledge of their customs and habits.”
His mother considered this for a moment. “Think of it this way,” she suggested. “What would you do if you were indeed set down in a tribe of Esquimaux and had to make your way among them?”
Arthur nodded his comprehension. “I would study them and their ways until I could pass among them as one of their own.”
“So you see, then,” the Duchess told him. “It’s merely a new field of study.”
Arthur felt in his pocket and removed a small notebook and pencil. “I should make notes of the customs,” he decided. “Justin told me that Hyde Park is the place to walk, ride and drive.” He flipped through the book, murmuring to himself. “That’s my rebuttal of Gould’s equations, that’s my requirements for a duchess…” He found a fresh page and began to make a note, but his mother interrupted him.
“Go back,” she said. “Your requirements for a duchess?”
“Oh, yes,” Arthur flipped back to the page in question. “I’ve determined that I want a lady of good birth, naturally, reasonably attractive and good natured. She would need to be intelligent and it would be best if she came from a large family, indicative of healthy childbearing.”
The Duchess waited, but Arthur seemed to be done with his requirements list. “Are you sure that’s all?” she asked patiently.
“Have you other suggestions?” Arthur waited, pencil poised.
She sighed. “Oh, my dear. Remember that you will live with this woman for the rest of your life! So surely it must be a requirement that you at least like her!”
“Excellent point,” Arthur told her, and made a note of it.
The Duchess sat up long after Arthur had gone to bed. Staring into the fire, she came to the conclusion that she too had been too self-indulgent. She had cultivated her own society of close friends and virtually ignored the larger society. Well, that was about to change. Since her son was in the market for a wife, she needed to be out there, monitoring the ladies who put themselves forward as potential duchesses.
She was not a snob, she told herself, and not a meddling mama. But Arthur, in his expedition among the Esquimaux, could easily fall prey to a scheming miss. The Duchess was determined to ensure that the chosen bride would be a wife to make him happy. If she were to cede her title to the newcomer and assume the aging title of Dowager, at least she wanted to give way to a worthy successor.
With a fond smile, she remembered a time over twenty years ago. They were at Winton Court, and a noise in the entrance hall had drawn her out of her morning room, to greet the sight of her son being towed up the stairs by a scolding Nanny. Five year old Arthur had been covered with mud and slime, his hair adorned with water weeds. But he pulled away from Nanny to lean over the railing and call down to her exultantly, “Fish breathe through their necks! I know, for I have seen it!”
How many young Society damsels would have been able to see past the mud to appreciate the keen thrill of discovery underneath? The new Duchess of Winton would be one who could, or the Dowager Duchess of Winton would know the reason why.