Walter Hartright’s narrative
“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Micah Camlet misquoted, “that I, a young man in tolerable, though not overly-posh circumstances, am – what?”
“In need of a wife,” Marian finished for him. “Oh my son, it is our dearest hope!”
“Not another drop,” his father Theophilus Camlet added to the footman. “Veuve Cliquot goes straight to his head.”
Micah grinned at his father and stepmother over his champagne. “Which novel shall I now enact, Papa? I’m in a good situation to emulate Pip, and aspire to a wife of rank and wealth.” Twenty-eight and handsome with his vivid blue eyes, Micah Camlet might indeed catch the fancy of some female well above his station. And we were here at Cranmorden, a noble estate. The earl of Brecon and Stowe had invited us all to his Winter Ball, a prosperous pond when fishing for a mate.
“I thought you were going to be Mr. Rochester,” his younger half-brother William said. “And marry someone plain and poor.”
“Not plain.” The family had congregated in the wide lobby outside the ballroom, where Micah lounged with one arm along the back of the sofa. “I do confess that beauty has its power.” Through the doors standing broad open before we could see the flower of female Britain whirling merrily past to the music. Micah raised his glass to the ladies before draining it.
The waltz wound down to its final bars, and I was pleased to see my sister Sarah emerge on the arm of her husband the explorer, Ambridge Skyllington, Lord Fulbeck. She was expecting her third, and ought not to dance the faster measures. I rose and gave her my chair, and her husband cried, “Alas, they’re playing our favourite polka, my pet!”
“You need not sit out,” Sarah returned. “See here Marian, tapping her toes!”
Camlet smiled at his wife. “Yes, lead her out, Skyllington – we’ll keep Sarah company.”
Marian’s shimmering gold silks suited her black hair and eyes perfectly. “Only if we may also dance the mazurka that is sure to follow,” she cried, surging to her feet. “I do love an energetic dance, do not you, Ambridge?”
“On this point,” Fulbeck declared, “we are as one, my dear Marian!” And they were off as the orchestra struck up a sprightly melody.
Sarah has never been reticent. She produced a lorgnette, a new affectation, and inspected Camlet through it. “So you are not dancing, Theo? How terribly seedy you look. You’ve gone entirely grey. Have you been ill?”
“I’m fifty-four,” Camlet pointed out. “No longer as young as I was.”
Startled, I too peered at him where he sat beside his son. Time was when Camlet and Marian would dance every dance until the musicians collapsed in exhaustion. I am only four years older than Camlet, and do not think of myself as aged. However, Camlet has passed through some deep waters. His short full beard and hair could no longer pretend to colour, and he had lost his prosperous comfortable plumpness. “Brother,” I said quietly. “How is your health?”
“My doctor has concerns, Hartright,” he admitted. “But we may not talk of them here.”
“I rely upon you to tell me all, soon.”
He would have replied, but a young woman approached us. She could not have been more than one-and-twenty, still gawky and ungraceful, her pink ball gown visibly handed down and unflattering to her mousy hair and pallid complexion. “Good evening.” Her words, brisk and of a confident carrying tone, were a strange contrast to her green youthfulness. “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Camlet?”
The words were addressed to all of us gentlemen. Camlet cannily kept a poker face and glanced at his son. Micah said, “Indeed I am, miss. And you, you are?”
“My name is less important than what I bring,” she said. “Abby?” She waved a maid forward. This unlucky woman held a manuscript, a great bale of paper at least a foot high.
“Oh, the deuce,” Micah groaned. “Never say that you’re making a submission to Sensational Publications?”
“I am,” the young woman replied. “When I learned that the Mr. Camlets were attending the Winter Ball – the foremost publishers of female authors of our time! – I knew that I must act.”
Marian has set her stepson an example of boldness, and now Micah was blunt. “A ballroom is no place to discuss literature. Rather, I declare that you moved in this direction to seek a partner.”
The colour came up painfully scarlet into the girl’s pallid cheeks, making her uneven forehead too plain. “I have done no such thing!”
Micah was not deterred. “I have an assistant editor to hand for this precise need. Billy!”
William started to his feet. “Micah, I can’t polka worth a continental curse.”
“No time like the present to begin.” Micah was inexorable. “Miss, we shall take your manuscript into consideration in due and proper time.”
“But I don’t want to dance!”
With an air of weary resignation William said, “What do you expect, at a ball? Come along, miss.”
When they were safely lost on the dance floor Micah beckoned the maid closer and lifted the cover sheet. “The Fortress at Corunna, by Miss Pomona Ogilvy,” he read aloud. “There, I’ve looked at it. All promises are fulfilled. Does the name ring a bell, Papa?”
“I’m afraid not.” Camlet addressed the maid, an older woman of visible respectability. “Your mistress is Miss Ogilvy?”
“Miss Pomona, sir, the youngest.”
“And she wrote this?”
“It’s a novel, sir.”
“And no one informed her that submissions for publication should not be made at formal balls.”
“No, sir. Oh please, sir, she’s worked at it night and day for months!”
Micah shuddered elaborately. “I can just imagine.”
Camlet said, “I am the executive editor. My chambers are up in the family wing – the other servants will direct you. Take this up to my rooms, and leave it there. I’ll take it back to London with me and start it on the submissions process.”
“Thank you, sir. Right away, sir!” And the maid staggered off with her burden.
“In due and proper time,” Micah repeated. “What a soft touch you are, Papa.”
His father grinned at his tall lounging son. “A literary female – those are not common, Micah. Perhaps you should have danced with Miss Pomona yourself.”
“It is the duty of the assistant editor to undertake those tasks which the senior editors have not the time to address,” Micah replied. “I consider myself the editor of Gadsbee’s Gallimaufrey, one of the more notable magazines in Britain. The novels I’m happy to leave, Papa, to you. Besides, I’d like a pretty wife, not such an under-ripe peach.”
“Your father is the wrong man for that,” I remarked. “Your stepmother will tell you herself, that she is no beauty.”
“Marian is unutterably beautiful,” Camlet said comfortably. “But in her own way. As your mate will be, to you, Micah.”
“Wait,” Sarah said. “Ogilvy – is that not the surname of that debutante, Walter?”
“This girl was not the beauteous Florissa,” I objected. “I remember that young lady perfectly well. She could have been a Pre-Raphaelite model. Long rippling golden hair.”
“Now that sounds more like,” Micah said. “Where is she, Uncle? Can you point her out?”
Such was the press of revellers that I could not. There were perhaps a hundred couples twirling energetically around the vast gaily-lit ballroom. I did espy Marian and Fulbeck – they are both tall and of striking appearance, my black-haired sister unlovely of face but magnificent of form, and Fulbeck with a huge grey handlebar moustache and a frizz of faded red-gold hair.
When the mazurka ended in a crash of cymbals the two returned, panting and warm. “I’m getting too old for this!” Fulbeck sank gasping down into the chair beside his wife.
“How you fuss, Ambridge. When I’m dancing backwards, and in bustle and train!” Marian fanned herself energetically, not worn in the least.
“He has no difficulty trekking for a month through virgin jungle,” Sarah assured us.
Marian’s great dark eyes glowed with happiness. “Listen, Theo! Is that not our favourite Offenbach waltz? You haven’t danced with me yet this evening. Your laziness is grown severe of late. Why must it be for me to ask you, when it’s the duty of the man?”
Her husband laughed at this raillery and rose. “My love, your vigour would put any three men to shame.” And they were off as the music struck up again.
“Certainly these three,” Fulbeck groaned. “No, my pet. You get only one more dance this evening, and it shall not be this one. Let me recover somewhat with quiet chat. Hartright, you would know. Where’s Donthorne these days? At that family pile of his, Varneck Hall, near Southampton?”
“Roderick Donthorne? Somewhere in Asia with the FO, why?”
“Damn. I had hoped he was still stationed in America. One of my diggers found a gold and jade mask, and I need someone trustworthy to look at it. I don’t suppose you happen to be going that way.”
“I intend never to leave Britain again,” I declared.
“Then there’s nothing for it. I must go myself.”
“And I go with you,” Sarah cried. “And Raymond, and Augustus.”
“Surely it would be safer for you to stay.” The idea of a woman in a delicate condition dragging herself and two children through the jungles of Honduras was fearful.
“You know Ambridge,” she retorted. “Once in Central America he’ll stay for three years.” I had to admit this was true.
It was then that I became aware of a disturbance on the dance floor. “Someone’s tripped over their partner’s feet,” Micah suggested.
The merry music ground to a dissonant halt in mid-bar. “See how on a crowded floor it’s easy to catch one’s heel on a hem,” Fulbeck said to Sarah. “We shall dance a sedate measure, perhaps after the supper.”
Still we thought nothing of it, until after a further time a footman pushed through the press. “Mr. Camlet?”
Micah started to his feet. “What is it?”
“Your father, sir.”
We all leaped up and followed. Somehow the crowd parted before us, revealing Marian, sitting on the dance floor in a great pool of golden silks. Camlet lay sprawled on his back, his face whiter than paper. Marian had his head on her lap, and she looked up at me with such a look of terror in her uncomely countenance that my heart turned over in my breast.