Pitt stood at the top of the stairs and looked across the glittering ballroom of the Spanish Embassy in the heart of London. The light from the chandeliers sparkled on necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Between the somber black and white suits of the men, the women's gowns blossomed in every color of the early summer: delicate pastels for the young, burning pinks and golds for those in the height of their beauty, and wines, mulberries, and lavenders for the more advanced.
Beside him was Charlotte, her hand resting lightly on his arm. She had no diamonds to wear, but he knew that she had long ago ceased to mind that. It was 1896 and she was now forty years old. The flush of youth had gone, but the richness of maturity became her even more. The happiness that glowed in her face was lovelier than flawless skin or sculpted features, which were mere gifts of chance.
Her hand tightened on his arm for a moment as they started down the stairs. Then they moved into the throng of people, smiling, acknowledging this one and that, trying to remember names. Pitt had recently been promoted to head of Britain's Special Branch, and it was a heavier weight of responsibility than he had ever carried before. There was no one senior to him in whom he could confide, or to whom he could defer a difficult decision.
He spoke now to ministers, ambassadors, people of influence far greater than their casual laughter in this room might suggest. Pitt had been born in the most modest of circumstances, and gatherings like this were still not easy for him. As a policeman, he had entered homes through the kitchen door, like any other servant, whereas now he was socially acceptable because of the power his position gave him and because he was privy to a range of secrets about almost everyone in the room.
Beside him Charlotte moved easily, and he watched her grace with pleasure. She had been born into Society and knew its foibles and its weaknesses, even if she was too disastrously candid to steer her way through them, unless it was absolutely necessary, as it was now.
She murmured some polite comment to the woman next to her, trying to look interested in the reply. Then she allowed herself to be introduced to Isaura Castelbranco, the wife of the Portuguese Ambassador to Britain.
"How do you do, Mrs. Pitt?" Isaura replied with warmth. She was a shorter woman than Charlotte, barely of average height, but the dignity of her bearing made her stand apart from the ordinary. Her features were gentle, almost vulnerable, and her eyes were so dark as to seem black against her pale skin.
"I hope you are finding our summer weather agreeable?" Charlotte remarked, for the sake of something to say. No one cared about the subject: it was the tone of voice, the smile in the eyes, that mattered.
"It is very pleasant not to be too hot," Isaura answered immediately. "I am looking forward to the Regatta. It is at Henley, I believe?"
"Indeed it is," Charlotte agreed. "I admit, I haven't been for years, but I would love to do so again."
Pitt knew that was not really true. Charlotte found the chatter and the pretentiousness of lavish Society events a little tedious, but he could see in her face that she liked this woman with her quiet manner.
They spoke for several minutes more before courtesy required that they offer their attention to the others who swirled around under the lights, or drifted to the various side rooms, or down the stairs to the hallway below.
They separated with a smile as Pitt was drawn into conversation with a junior minister from the Foreign Office. Charlotte managed to catch the attention of her great-aunt, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould. Actually she was great-aunt by marriage to Charlotte's sister Emily, but over the years that distinction had ceased even to be remembered, let alone matter.
"You seem to be enjoying yourself," Vespasia said softly, amusement lighting her remarkable silver-gray eyes. In her prime she had reputedly been the most beautiful woman in Europe, certainly the wittiest. Did they but know it, she was also one who had fought at the barricades in Rome, during the turbulent revolution that had swept Europe in '48.
"I haven't forgotten all my manners," Charlotte replied with her usual frankness. "I fear I am reaching an age when I cannot afford to wear an expression of boredom. It is terribly unflattering."
Vespasia was quite openly amused, her smile warm. "It never does to look as if you are waiting for something," she agreed. "Which is good. Women who are waiting are so tiresome. Who have you met?"
"The wife of the Portuguese ambassador," Charlotte replied. "I liked her immediately. There is something unusual in her face. I'm sorry I shall probably never see her again."
"Isaura Castelbranco," Vespasia said thoughtfully. "I know little of her, thank heaven. I know too much about so many other people. A little mystery lends such charm, like the softness of the late afternoon or the silence between the notes of music."
Charlotte was turning the thought over in her mind before replying when there was a sudden commotion a dozen yards away from them. Like those around her, she turned toward it. A very elegant young man with a sweep of fair hair took a step backward, raising his hands defensively, a look of disbelief on his face.
In front of him a girl in a gown of white lace stood alone, the skin of her bosom, neck and cheeks flushed red. She was very young, perhaps no more than sixteen, but of a Mediterranean darkness, and already the woman she would become was clear in the curves of her body.
Everyone around the two fell silent, either in embarrassment or possibly out of confusion, as if they had little idea what was happening.
"Really, you are quite unreasonable," the young man said defensively, his voice light, trying to brush off the incident. "You misunderstood me."
The girl was not soothed at all. She looked angry, even a little frightened.
"No, sir," she said in slightly accented English. "I did not misunderstand. Some things are the same in all languages."
He still did not seem to be perturbed, only elaborately patient, as with someone who was being unintentionally obtuse. "I assure you, I meant it merely as a compliment. You must be used to such things?"
She drew in her breath to answer, but obviously could not find the words she wished.
He smiled, now openly amused at her, perhaps just a little mocking. He was good-looking in an unusual way. He had a strong and prominent nose and thin lips, but fine dark eyes.
"You'll have to get used to admiration." His look swept up and down her with just a fraction too much candor. "You'll receive a great deal of it, I can promise you."
The girl was shaking now. Even from where she stood, Charlotte could see that she had no idea how to deal with such inappropriate appreciation of her beauty. She was too young to have learned the necessary composure. It seemed her mother was not close enough to have overheard the exchange, and the young man, whom she now recognized as Neville Forsbrook, was very confident. His father was one of London's foremost bankers and the family had wealth and status, and all the privilege that came with it. He was not used to being denied anything, most especially by a girl who was not even British.
Charlotte took a step forward, and felt Vespasia's hand on her arm, restraining her.
The color had drained out of the girl's face, leaving her ashen. "Leave me alone!" Her voice was shrill and a little too loud. "Don't touch me!"
Neville Forsbrook laughed quite openly now. "My dear young lady, you are being ridiculous, and making something of a spectacle of yourself. I'm sure that is not what you wish." He was smiling, and he took a step toward her, one hand out in front of him, as if to soothe.
The girl swung her hand wildly in an arc, catching his arm with hers and knocking it aside roughly. She swiveled around to escape, lost her balance and almost fell against another young woman, who promptly screamed and flung herself into the arms of a startled young man close to her.
The girl managed to untangle herself and fled, sobbing now. Neville Forsbrook remained where he was with a half smile on his face, which quickly changed to a look of bewilderment. He shrugged and spread his hands, elegant and strong, but the shadow of a smile remained. Was it out of embarrassment, or was there still the faintest hint of mockery there? Charlotte wasn't sure.
Someone stepped forward and began a polite conversation about nothing in particular. Others joined in gratefully. After a few moments the hum of voices resumed, the rustle of skirts, distant music, the slight sound of feet moving on the polished floor. It was as if nothing had happened.
"That was very ugly," Charlotte said to Vespasia as soon as she was certain they were not overheard. "What an insensitive young man."
"He must feel foolish," Vespasia replied with a touch of sympathy.
"What on earth was that all about?" a dark-haired woman near them asked confusedly.
The elderly man with her shook his head. "Young ladies tend to be rather excitable, my dear. I wouldn't worry about it. It's just some misunderstanding, no doubt."
"Who is she, anyway?" the woman asked him, glancing at Charlotte also, in case she could shed light on it.
"Angeles Castelbranco. Pretty young thing," the elderly man remarked, not really to anyone. "Going to be a beautiful woman."
"That's hardly relevant, James!" his wife snapped. "She doesn't know how to behave! Imagine her doing that at a dinner party!"
"Quite bad enough here, thank you," another woman joined in. The brilliance of her diamonds and the sheen on her lush green silks could not disguise the bitterness of her expression.
Charlotte was stung to the girl's defense. "I'm sure you are right," she said, meeting the woman's eyes boldly. "You must know far more about it than we do. All we saw was what appeared to be a rather self-assured young man quite clearly embarrassing a foreign ambassador's daughter. I have no idea what preceded it, or how it might more kindly have been handled."
Charlotte felt Vespasia's hand fall very lightly on her arm again, but she ignored it. She kept the fixed, inquiring smile on her face and did not lower her gaze.
The woman in green colored angrily. "You give me too much credit, Mrs. . . . I'm afraid I do not know your name . . ." She left the denial hanging in the air, not so much a question as a dismissal. "But of course I am well acquainted with Sir Pelham Forsbrook, and therefore his son, Neville, who has been kind enough to show a very flattering interest in my youngest daughter."
Pitt now rejoined them with a glance at Vespasia, but Charlotte did not introduce either him or herself to the woman in green. "Let us hope it is more graciously expressed than his unflattering interest in Miss Castelbranco," she continued in a tone so sweet as to be sickly. "But of course you will make sure of that. You are not in a foreign country and uncertain how to deal with ambiguous remarks from young men directed toward your daughter."
"I do not know any young men who make ambiguous remarks!" the woman snapped back, her eyebrows arched high.
"How pleasant for you," Charlotte murmured.
The elderly man coughed, and raised his handkerchief to conceal his mouth, his eyes dancing.
Pitt turned his head away as if he had heard some sudden noise to attract his attention, and accidentally pulled Charlotte with him, although in truth she was perfectly ready to leave. That had been her parting shot. From here on it could only get worse. She gave a dazzling smile to Vespasia, and saw an answering sparkle in her eyes.
"What on earth are you doing?" Pitt demanded softly as soon as they were out of earshot.
"Telling her she's a fool," Charlotte replied. She had thought her meaning was obvious.
"I know that!" he retorted. "And so does she. You have just made an enemy."
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "That may be unfortunate, but being her friend would have been even more so. She's a social climber of the worst sort."
"How do you know? Who is she?" he asked.
"I know because I've just seen how she acts. And I have no idea who she is, nor do I care." She knew she might regret saying that, but just at the moment she was too angry to curb her temper. "I am going to speak to Senhora Castelbranco and make sure her daughter is all right."
"Charlotte . . ."
She broke free, turned for a moment and gave him the same dazzling smile she had offered Vespasia, then moved into the crowd toward where she had last seen the Portuguese ambassador's wife.
It took her ten minutes more to find her. Senhora Castelbranco was standing near one of the doorways, her daughter with her. The girl was the same height as her mother, and even prettier than she had appeared at a distance. Her eyes were dazzling, and her skin softly honey-colored with a faint flush across her cheeks. She watched Charlotte approach them with an alarm that she could not hide, even though she was clearly trying to.
Charlotte smiled at her briefly, then turned to her mother. "I'm so sorry that wretched young man was rude. It must be impossibly difficult for you to do anything, in your diplomatic position. It really was inexcusable of him." She turned to the girl, then realized she was uncertain how fluent her English might be. "I hope you are all right?" she said a little awkwardly. "I apologize. We should have made sure you were not placed in such an ugly situation."
Angeles smiled, but her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, I am quite all right, madam, I assure you. I . . . I am not hurt. I . . ." She gulped. "I just did not know how to answer him."
Isaura put a protective arm around her daughter's shoulder. "She is well, of course. Just a little embarrassed. In our own language she would've known what to say." She gave a little shrug. "In English one is not always sure if one is being amusing, or perhaps insulting. It is better not to speak than risk saying something one cannot later withdraw."
"Of course," Charlotte said, although she felt uneasy. It seemed like Angeles had actually been far more distressed than they were admitting. "The more awkward the situation, the harder it is to find the words in another language," she agreed. "That is why he should have known better than to behave as he did. I am so sorry."
Isaura smiled at her, her dark eyes unreadable. "You are very kind, but I assure you there is no harm done beyond a few moments' unpleasantness. That is unavoidable in life. It happens to all of us at some time or another. The Season is full of events. I hope we will meet again."
It was gracious, but it was also a dismissal, as if they wished to be left alone for a while, perhaps even to leave.
"I hope so too," Charlotte agreed, and excused herself. Her feeling of unease was, if anything, greater.
As she returned to where she had left Pitt, she passed several groups of people talking. One of half a dozen included the woman in green, of whom she had undoubtedly made an enemy.
"Very excitable temperament," she was saying. "Unreliable, I'm afraid. But we have no choice except to deal with them, I suppose."
"No choice at all, so my husband informs me," another assured her. "It seems we have a treaty with Portugal that is over five hundred years old, and for some reason or another, we consider it important."
"One of the great colonial powers, I'm told," a third woman said with a lift of her fair eyebrows, as if the fact was scarcely credible. "I thought it was just a rather agreeable little country off the west side of Spain." She gave a tinkling laugh.
Charlotte was unreasonably irritated, given that she knew very little more of Portuguese colonial history than the woman who had spoken.
"Frankly, my dear, I think she had possibly taken rather too much wine and was the worse for it," the woman in green said confidentially. "When I was sixteen we never drank more than lemonade."
The second woman leaned forward conspiratorially. "And too young to be engaged, don't you think?"
"She is engaged? Good heavens, yes." Her voice was emphatic. "Should wait another year, at the very least. She is far too immature, as she has just most unfortunately demonstrated. To whom is she engaged?"
"That's the thing," the third woman said, shrugging elegantly. "Very good marriage, I believe. Tiago de Freitas. Excellent family. Enormous amount of money, I think from Brazil. Could it be Brazil?"
"Well, there's gold there, and Brazil is Portuguese," a fourth woman told them, smoothing the silk of her skirt. "So it could well be so. And Angola in the southwest of Africa is Portuguese, and so is Mozambique in southeast Africa, and they say there's gold there too."
"Then how did we come to let the Portuguese have it?" the woman in green asked irritably. "Somebody wasn't paying attention!"
"Perhaps they've quarreled?" one of them suggested.
"Who? The Portuguese?" the woman in green demanded. "Or do you mean the Africans?"
"I meant Angeles Castelbranco and Tiago de Freitas" came the impatient reply. "That would account for her being a bit hysterical."
"It doesn't excuse bad manners," the woman in green said sharply, lifting her rather pronounced chin, and thereby making more of the diamonds at her throat. "If one is indisposed, one should say so and remain at home."
At that rate, you should never set foot out of the door, Charlotte thought bitterly. And we should all be the happier for it. But she could not say so. She was an eavesdropper, not part of the conversation. She moved on quickly before they became aware that she had been standing in the same spot for several moments, for no apparent reason except to overhear.
She found Pitt speaking with a group of people she didn't know. In case it might be important, she did not interrupt. When there was a break in the discussion, he excused himself temporarily and came over to her.
"Did you find the ambassador's wife?" he asked, his brow slightly furrowed with concern.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Thomas, I'm afraid she's still very upset. It was a miserable thing to do to a young girl from a foreign country. At the very least, he made public fun of her. She's only sixteen, just two years older than Jemima." In the moment of saying her own daughter's name she felt a tug of fear, conscious of how terribly vulnerable Jemima was. She was partway between child and woman, her body seeming to change every week, to leave behind the comfort of girlhood but not yet gain the grace and confidence of an adult.
Pitt looked startled. Clearly he had not even imagined Jemima in a ball gown with her hair coiled up on her head and young men seeing so much more than the child she was.
Charlotte smiled at him. "You should look more carefully, Thomas. Jemima's still a little self-conscious, but she has curves, and more than one young man has looked at her a second and third time--including her dance teacher and the rector's son."
She put her hand on his arm, gently. "There's no need to be alarmed. I'm watching. She's still two years younger than Angeles Castelbranco, and at this age two years is a lot. But she's full of moods. One minute she's so happy she can't stop singing, an hour later she's in tears or has lost her temper. She quarrels with poor Daniel, who doesn't know what's the matter with her, and then she's so reticent she doesn't want to come out of her bedroom."
"I had noticed," Pitt said drily. "Are you sure it's normal?"
Excerpted from Midnight at Marble Arch
by Anne Perry
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