Sandy feels as if he has somehow been swept by an irresistible tide into this dinner-party – as if he could not have said at any time to Clorinda that he could not face the prospect, whereupon he doubts not that she would have smiled, said that Euphemia would send him up a nice little supper had he no occasion to be elsewhere, and written a pretty little note to some fellow to make up the numbers. A fellow that would probably then go preen himself at having been invited to one of Lady Bexbury’s dinner-parties.
He looks at himself in the mirror: sober but not too sombre. He has lately noticed that Clorinda has been dressing in shades that suggest half-mourning: dove-grey, lilac, subdued blues, but without going so far as to sport her jets rather than her pearls or her sapphires. He has no doubt that if he asked she would say that full mourning would be entirely too ostentatious, but that this sobriety in dress will convey a discreet message and people will be nodding their heads at the confirmation of the old rumour.
On the stairs he encounters Josh, also dressed for company, wearing the expression of a small boy forced into his best clothes and exhorted to come do the polite in company. They look at one another, raise their eyebrows, and smile, before proceeding upon their way.
He sees somewhat of the reason for Josh’s expression when Meg Knowles comes over and immediately begins chide him for his dilatoriness in visiting the family, saying that any of them would have been entire delighted to put him up, what did he think he was at, bothering Aunty Clorinda at this time? – she shoots a sideways glance at Clorinda, that is just greeting the Vinwiches.
He observes that Clorinda is wearing the pink diamonds with her blue gown: and shakes his head. This doubtless means something.
Lord Vinwich comes over, shakes his hand, remarks that there is a sad void, and desires introduction to Josh.
Sebastian lays a hand on Meg’s arm. She halts in her tirade, saying only a little fretfully that sure Josh has ever made an entire habit of running off. Sandy brings Vinwich over to Josh and makes the introduction.
Clorinda comes over and says to Meg that she may sit down, does she like. He takes another look at Meg, for he supposes that this indicates that she is increasing again, but sees no obvious sign.
The Abertyllds arrive, closely followed by Lord and Lady Raxdell, and then the Merretts arrive with Lalage Fenster. Hector goes about with wine, and, he observes, lemonade for Meg and any other lady that may wish it. Clorinda goes about making introductions and seeing that all are engaged in conversation.
She makes Josh known to Lord and Lady Raxdell, and he can see that Josh perceives Lady Raxdell’s nervousness and proceeds to behave as if she were a frightened animal in strange surroundings (though does not proceed so far as to find where she most likes being scratched affectionately). She becomes more relaxed and even begins to smile.
Meg, at his elbow, apologises for her ill-humour. Sure, she says, one cannot blame Josh for avoiding us, Harry and Bess are at present at outs over the works, were arguing all afternoon until my head ached. Quintus can usually act the diplomat, but he is at present perturbed that Sukey becomes melancholic again, it distracts him.
She sighs. I know not why Sukey should take these fits of melancholia.
Neither does he. They shake their heads over the matter. But, says Meg, I should go make civil to Charley Abertyldd and solicit her to sing at my next music party – I must mind and send you a card.
As Meg goes over to her, comes up to him Geoffrey Merrett, that for all his fine success at the Bar still has moments of being an eager puppy. Makes condolences – for indeed he has been a considerable time upon the Northern Circuit – and says the proper things. Extends an invitation to dine with him in his chambers, has a deal of matters he would like to discuss.
One does not spend so many years in the company of one famed for the excellence of his ton without some of it rubs off: Sandy finds that he is able to behave entire civil and proper in this company, makes a suitable response to this invitation, and also to Lord Abertyldd’s offer that he might care to come play golf at Blackheath some day.
And, he goes on, while we are about it, might desire your thoughts upon what His late Lordship would have desired us to do over certain matters currently before the Lords.
For, quite against all expectation, Abertyldd and Vinwich have become firm allies to Gervase’s coterie in Parliament, even do they not, perchance, think very deep upon matters or initiate any enterprize. Indeed they have pulled round remarkably from the days when he considered them entire empty-headed wastrels, a fribble set, and attend most conscientious to the duties of their station.
So he makes agreeable and says that 'twould be a pleasure, and does his father-in-law still play?
Alas, says Abertyldd, Mr Brumpage is afflicted at present with rheumaticks. Charley and her sisters exhort him to go take the waters somewhere, do you have any notion where might suit?
Sandy advises them to consult, have they not done so already, Quintus Ferraby.
Indeed, says Abertyldd, one hears him very well spoke of in his profession.
Hector comes and announces that dinner is served, and the company proceeds through to the dining-room. Clorinda has decided that the Raxdells will probably be made more comfortable by adherence to proper placement, and he is to take Meg in. Though as Josh is quite the lion of the occasion, it is he who takes in Lady Raxdell, that, was she a cat, would be curling up in his lap and purring.
Sure, murmurs Meg, she would go eat from his hand did he hold it out to her. But smiles as she says it.
It is a more agreeable party than he had anticipated. He takes a little concern when Clorinda withdraws the ladies, but observes that Sebastian Knowles has developed a very pretty ability in turning conversations away from any paths one would prefer them not to go. The port goes round no more than twice before they rejoin the ladies.
There is a little music from Meg and Charley Abertyldd, before the company departs.
Clorinda yawns. Why, she says, I think 'twas not an entire disaster.
They both laugh a little. Josh says that he has been requested go take a look at Lady Raxdell’s little dog, that does not thrive: he confides that 'tis city life that disagrees with it, eats higher than is used and needs more exercise than it gets, but doubts not 'twould show civil to go give 'em the benefit of his veterinary skills in the matter.
'Tis indeed good of you, Josh dear, says Clorinda. While I must go knock Harry and Bess’s heads together and bring 'em to some better accord.
I daresay, says Josh, that 'tis Bess has the right of it.
Sure, Harry is quite the finest of engineers, but Bess is a business-woman that looks at the practicalities and the wider view. But, Clorinda sighs, although she has a pretty diplomatic skill, somehow, 'twixt her and Harry…
Josh yawns, apologises, and says, sure society life is tiring, if they will excuse him?
After Josh has gone Clorinda comes over to Sandy and takes his hands in hers. My dear, she says, you did very well. I will confess I took a little concern as to how you would hold up.
He looks down at her. Dear sibyl: entirely more agreeable than I expected. Indeed I should go out more into company.
He goes on to say somewhat of how well the erstwhile fribbles show, are they not entirely a fine testimony to Gervase’s excellent influence? O, perchance they would have anyway pulled round in due course, but he confides that they did not fall into those coarser errors of youth that might have afflicted any future career.
Clorinda looks up at him with a little smile and droops her eyelids as she says, o, indeed Milord had the finest influence on those around him –
Sure, he says, do I have any polish and address must be entire his doing –
She looks up at him again and says, oh, my dear, 'twas more than the outward show.
He considers this over a while, and says, as you will say, mayhap and perchance! Alas that his fine character could not pull my own up more than it did: I am still too much the grudging resentful jealous fellow I ever was.
Dear Clorinda, he says, you would tell me did I become a burden within the household? (for it is a matter that has been preying upon his mind, that he takes advantage of her hospitable welcome and should be about setting up his own modest establishment, a thought that entirely daunts him.)
She looks up at him with a more sober expression. My dear, you know I should not detain you did you wish depart –
They look at one another in confused silence for a moment.
Why, says Clorinda, such old friends as we should be able speak freely. Sure I find it very agreeable to have your company and I confide that the household are entire of the same opinion, for as you know, I am not mistress in my own household, and is there any matter they like not, somehow they will make themselves plain without they ever go contradict me.
And indeed it is entirely agreeable to be here. I confide I should find myself entirely melancholic did I go set up in lodgings by myself.
Well then, o bello scozzese, you may stay as long as you like and consider it entirely Liberty Hall, and to defy scandal I shall put it about – I daresay 'tis entirely true – that you go about inditing some philosophical treatise and should not wish the distraction of domestic cares that would come with the setting up your own establishment. Sure I shall present myself as quite the patroness of philosophy - was there not an Empress of Russia kept a tame philosopher?
He is surprised into laughter. Also, he says, there was a Queen of Sweden did likewise, there is entire precedent. But – will it not - ?
Do we not give one another a deal of freedom? We shall not live in one another’s pockets, and I hope that you will not come glower in Calvinistickal fashion do I perchance entertain a gentleman or two?
Or mayhap a lady or two?
Clorinda shakes her head and he sees tears in her eyes. I think not, she says, though we know what we are, but not what we may be.
There is a little rap upon the door. Clorinda calls to enter, and Sophy comes in, looking a little indignant.
La, says, Clorinda, I confide 'tis past my bedtime – did I not say, not mistress in my own household?
Sophy looks at her very affectionately and then scowls in his direction.
No, says Clorinda, you should not blame Mr MacDonald, the fault lies quite equal between us, but I should not be keeping you up.