When life grew vexing, Miss Kitty Cathcart imagined her world from the air. Her eyes would flutter closed, and she, lady of fashion, object of glances, keeper of secrets, would be elevated. Suddenly, she would look down upon her life and see it differently. As though it were far off, flickering, vanishingly small.
So it was, one Tuesday evening, at the beginning of the Season.
Kitty was a vision in blush silk, duck egg piping at the seams, delicate lace around creamy shoulders. Hers was a fine gown, the best. Tiny waist, expansive skirt. Her blonde hair had been coiled to her head, like spun gold. She was a shape that might have been blown in glass: fine, extravagant, masterful. People looked at her, of course. Stray eyes would glide and linger. She was accustomed to such attentions. That day, Kensington chattered with cold and crocuses peeked into the frozen air. The grand houses of Veronica Gardens stood white and then grey against the darkening sky. When they were built, men had called them brash, excessive. Then, they had grown used to them. Palaces to house rich men were part and parcel of the modern world, after all. It was now the middle of the century and Kitty was twenty-three. She straightened the ribbons of her bonnet to the sound of her father’s heavy step thudding down the stairs. Servants began to stir, to open doors, to ready cloaks.
And in her imaginings, she soared, escaped, broke free. It was a game that she played with herself. She and her father would appear like balls, marbles, pinpricks even. Rolling out of their grand home, down the steps, and into the waiting carriage. Doors clicked closed but from the air, one could hardly hear. Wheels ached into life, dredging water, straw, muck. The polished roof getting smaller and smaller, the boy on the back too. She could feel far away from herself, a spectator to her own life. The house, 50 Veronica Gardens, together with the little church standing opposite, became like a speck on a great blank canvas. And before long, Kitty could not see herself at all. From a distance, she might be gone.
Inevitably, such whimsy could not continue.
Sir Roland settled himself on his seat in the carriage, muttering and smarting at some fancied offence of a business associate. Kitty had not been listening. She raised her eyebrows in silence, for she knew the narrative well enough. Her father’s tale was a tale of generation. Of empire. Name and fortune built brick by hard-won brick. It was a story of wealth heaped on riches, piled on plenty, and still he found no succour in it. The carriage quivered as Rivers mounted his seat above them; he cracked his whip and they were off.
Barrelling through the streets in unlit luxury, they regarded one another. The sight of her father’s form, finely attired, swaying, reminded Kitty of the previous year’s Season. Of course, it had not all been disagreeable. Being in town rather than in Yorkshire had enabled her to pursue her plan, to make progress, and that was a blessing indeed. But against that, she had only narrowly escaped being forced into matrimony with any number of candidates championed by Sir Roland, not one of them pleasing to her. Their dealings with her father, she could not vouch for. They were, as her maid, Violet Springer, had remarked in an unguarded moment, ‘like rats in a bag.’ Kitty smiled, for she knew it was true.
Sir Roland shook his fist as he spoke.
“Well, if he thinks I shall stand idly by and be swindled, he is in for a shock. E’god! Brindle is a fool and a scoundrel.”
Sir Roland’s nostrils flared at this pronouncement, and Kitty stifled her smile. Mr Brindle, a mainstay of the monologue that passed for conversation in the Cathcart household, was a former business associate of Sir Roland. They had met as young men in trade, Sir Roland as a manufacturer of engines and Brindle as a youthful and brilliant engineer. After a period of symbiosis, their two personalities had clashed, and for some years now, they had been locked in a costly conflict conducted by way of their lawyers. Mr Brindle was discussed often and at length. Frock-coated agents came and went from Veronica Gardens when Sir Roland was in town and even visited Longhaven, glancing at Kitty’s form as she drifted past their tired eyes.
In the carriage, Kitty took a deep breath. The thought of another Brindle lecture made her ache. She made a bid to forestall him.
“How goes your new factory, Papa?”
Sir Roland looked alarmed by the question.
“It is in profit, Kitty, and that is the material point.”
He stopped short, and she stopped too. Kitty had that gift of always being able to converse with her fellow man, always being able to tease out a tale. But not with her father. They were as closed off from one another as two people ever were. A gloom descended over her, and she looked away.
“Smile, girl. E’god. You have enough to smile about.”
Kitty, who had been watching the street whittling by out of the window, turned her face to Sir Roland and did as he bade.
“Aye, Papa. I am blessed, indeed, with a loving family whose company this evening I am much anticipating.”
He smirked. He was as unmoved by his daughter’s beauty as he was tired of her cheek.
“Loving family indeed. You are blessed with youth and riches and good looks. You will do well to use them to your advantage, and mine. Your wilfulness and fixed opinions, you can keep to yourself.”
“I do not know what you mean, sir.”
“You inherit it from your mother. Well, this evening I wish to see my only child smiling and laughing gracefully. You will behave, Kitty. If you are asked to play, you will employ your talents and damned well play. When you are spoken to, you will listen. And when you speak, you shall display the conversational charms I have paid for in heavy coin, and nothing more.”
“I love to play, Papa. I would not dream of declining. Although my skill does not compare to Philomena’s. As for listening, I have listened to you all my life, have I not? Most conscientiously.”
“Hmm. Good. We need to find you a husband. You are nearly four and twenty. This charade of your resistance has gone on long enough. With my money and your mother’s lineage, you are a fine prospect. It is your duty to me to play your role. You will do your part of the performance, Kitty, or there will be consequences.”
Kitty straightened her back against the velvet cushion of the carriage bench. She recalled, as she knew he did, the events of the previous year. How she had conspired never to be out of the company of her cousins. How she had evaded a dozen rich men with leering eyes and bursting girths standing beside her father. Danced with men of little fortune or none. Befriended the unimportant. The same the year before.
“I thought we were to Aunt Margaret’s this evening, Papa, for a quiet musical evening with family and some friends. That is what she said when she called last week to invite us, I am sure. If I thought I were attending a reception with the Prince of Wales, then I would have dressed the part. And I would be looking forward to it less.”
Sir Roland exhaled loudly and fumbled with his pocket watch.
“If I could get you under the nose of the Prince of Wales, I damned well would.” A mirthless amusement danced across his face, and Kitty blanched. “Your aunt Margaret has invited more people than you think. Neighbours, odd young men known to George. Neither use nor decoration, most of them. My solicitor, Haworth, of all men, who is also retained by your aunt is expected. There shall be other guests, far more important. In particular, you shall meet Lord Trefusis. He is a gentleman whom you would do well to impress. He is a man of standing, a man of means. Unmarried.”
She felt rather than saw his eyes fix upon her like pins.
“Yes, but that should concern you naught. His marriage was childless. I understand his estate in Cornwall to be vast and grand. Beautiful, if one cares for such things.”
“And far away from Longhaven and from London. But maybe that is why it appeals to you, Papa?”
“Maybe it is.”
Their bodies jolted as the carriage came to a halt outside the home of Mrs Margaret Christie. Neither wishing to linger with the other, Sir Roland and his daughter quit the questionable comforts of the carriage and proceeded up the wrought iron framed steps and into the home of her only living relations. Immediately, the atmosphere in Kitty’s mind changed for the better. She entered the familiar entrance hall as though it were her own. Cloaks were removed, greetings exchanged, and heels clicked along tiled corridors until the door to the drawing room was opened before them, and they joined the hubbub of the party.
Kitty’s eyes alighted on the friendly form of her cousin George Christie in conversation with a lady. They spoke animatedly, hands waving, and Kitty wondered what they could be saying. George was so flustered around ladies, so naive as to his own attractions. Her other cousin and George’s sister, Philomena, was playing the piano gently from the corner of the room. Guests collected around the instrument, without appearing to see her. She nodded to her cousin and almost imperceptibly, their eyes met. Kitty continued to scan the room. Friends, neighbours, associates, a couple of new faces. She recalled her father’s mention of Lord Trefusis but wilfully forgot it.
The lady of the house, observing her niece from across the room, advanced upon her, smiling broadly and clutching a tiny fan. Beside her was a sensible looking man of middling years, whom Kitty had never seen before.
“My dear Kitty. How well you look this evening.”
Her aunt stroked her gloved arm.
They bobbed curtseys to one another and inclined their heads in greeting. The man smiled politely and looked about him as if poised on the edge of speech.
“Mr Haworth, I believe you are acquainted with my brother, Sir Roland Cathcart. May I present my niece, Miss Catherine Cathcart. Kitty, this is Mr Haworth, who is our solicitor of many years and our friend. Kitty is the image of her late lamented mama, my sister, and quite the jewel of the family, are you not, my dear?”
Aunt Margaret twitched her fan, apparently ignoring her own daughter (very pretty and, more significantly, intelligent and agreeable) on the other side of the room. Kitty, who was used to her aunt’s well-meant silliness, smiled and greeted the gentleman who responded with perfect manners and no unruly or unwelcome glances.
“I could not claim such a thing, Aunt. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr Haworth. Do you reside in town?”
“Yes, I do, Miss Cathcart. Mrs Haworth and I live in Battersea. My office is in Fleet Street. I am somewhat of a visitor to this very gracious part of London but a jolly thankful one. It is an honour to be included. That is not a cordiality extended often to a humble solicitor—”
“Is it not? Well, maybe it should be, sir. I believe that you are retained by my father, as well as my aunt, so I suspect you have more than earned your invitation this evening.” She looked at him, keenly, and for a thinly sliced moment, they understood one another perfectly.
“I have had the honour of serving Sir Roland for many years, yes. It is, how shall I say, a continuing education.”
His eyes, which Kitty had noticed hid a subtle kind of twinkle, flashed up as George, handsome and well-dressed, strode confidently towards them, accompanied by another.
“Cousin Kitty.” He bowed, laughing slightly, and squeezed Kitty’s hand as a brother might do. “I see you have been introduced to Haworth. Let me present to you his protégé, and my friend, Mr Faraday.”
Kitty glanced to the tall figure beside her cousin and made the polite and charming greeting that she made to every new person who crossed her path. Her eyes rested on the square line of his shoulder beneath his frock coat and, as he rose from his bow, the flash of his blue eyes assailed her, unexpectedly. He was not like George’s other friends.
She turned to Mr Haworth.
“Have you been introduced to my cousin, Mr Christie, sir? George Christie is, I like to tell people, my most favoured male cousin. He knows, of course, that it is no compliment, for he is in a constituency of one. It is, you see, just we three. George, his sister, Philomena, whom you see at the pianoforte, and me. Mrs Christie, who is their mama, was the only sister of my late mama…”
Kitty fingered the cool edges of her cameo.
“And so, Mr Haworth, Mr…Faraday, we are small in number, but we are formidable in combination, are we not, Cousin?”
She looked to George, who nodded and began singing the praises of cousin and sister alike. Mr Faraday, Kitty observed, said nothing and moved not an inch. He looked at her, with no obvious feeling, as though he were observing a change in the weather. It was a new sensation. Kitty liked to be admired, but she could not abide being considered. She realised with a start that George was addressing her, but she had not been paying attention.
“Kitty, dear? I said Faraday here was up at Cambridge with me. Classics, subject of kings, eh, Faraday? Feels like a lifetime ago now, mind you.” George continued to natter of acquaintances past, of heady conversations with young men over buttered crumpets, of punting expeditions, and the free-flowing wine of the college table. Kitty chanced a glance at his friend’s face. She saw something there that she could not place. Was it anger or resentment? Hardness certainly—and an unwillingness to be drawn.
“Couldn’t believe it when I saw him standing there with old Haworth in our drawing room. Last man I expected to see in my own house. You could have knocked me down. Jolly glad though. It’s been far too long, what?” George looked to his friend whose expression softened. He smiled in agreement.
“Indeed, it has, Christie. I recalled the name, of course, but I did not realise it would be you. Mr Haworth simply informed me that we were to the home of Mrs Christie who is a long-standing client of the firm. I had no idea that it was to be a reunion.”
“Firm?” Kitty’s eyes darted between Mr Haworth and Mr Faraday. She noted the expensive appearance of the latter’s frock coat and his tall, proud bearing. If he had been a friend of George’s up at Cambridge and now found himself in work at a firm of solicitors, then she speculated that thereby hung a tale. Kitty enjoyed tales.
Mr Faraday himself answered her. “Haworth & Gates, solicitors, Miss Cathcart. I have the honour of being articled to Mr Haworth.” With that he looked at her. His gaze did not waver. “Many of my friends from Cambridge are young men of property, rich in family connexions. Alas, I have not that advantage and so, there you have it. I must shift for myself. I trust that you do not disapprove, Miss Cathcart?”
The question startled her; it was so direct and unbending. It was not a polite question to put to a young lady in company, yet he did so without appearing to do wrong. She had met men such as Mr Faraday before. Educated young men who wore their learning like a weapon and regarded her sex and privileges with disdain. How they would be surprised if they knew the truth about her! Kitty wanted to say something clever and sting him back, but she was momentarily stopped. She had not been disapproving; she had been wondering. Contrition swept over her, combined with irritation at having been misunderstood.
“No, of course not.”
Kitty turned away to her aunt Margaret who had, just at that moment, spoken to her and begun to fiddle with the lace of her sleeve. She prattled and her little hands waved about before her niece’s eyes. For her own part, Kitty strained to hear the conversation that passed between her cousin and Mr Faraday.
“My cousin is not one to disapprove of anyone. She is as generous of judgment as she is of spirit. She will exchange words with any person, high or low, and she shall always spare them a laugh and a good wish. It is her way. She sparkles and flares and does not have an unkind word for any person. There is one condition though.”
“And what is that?” Faraday asked the question. Kitty startled, out of sight.
“Adoration. Kitty must be adored by all who know her. If you don’t adore her, I’m afraid that she does not know how to deal with you.”
Dash George for speaking of her so openly and so slanderously. And to an outsider too! Mr Faraday did not answer.
Sir Roland had separated from Kitty the moment they entered the saloon, and in her joy at seeing her family, she had paid scant attention to his whereabouts. He had a way of moving about quietly and of suddenly being present when one least expected it. Such a moment then took place as he approached his only child in the company of another gentleman—younger maybe than he, older, certainly, than Kitty. She knew from the set of her father’s expression that he was making for her.
“Kitty, my dear,” he said, the words seeming to stick in his throat, “may I introduce Lord Trefusis. Trefusis, this is my daughter, Catherine, heiress to the Cathcart empire, you might say.”
“Miss Catherine.” He bowed with an effort and Kitty noted that his collar was somewhat dusty.
“My lord”—she curtseyed low—“it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
As she rose, her eyes alighted, not on Lord Trefusis, but on another. Over his shoulder, some way across the room, there was Mr Faraday. Like charcoal drawn on oils, out of place. He turned slightly, from his conversation with George and another gentleman and Kitty caught his eye. Rapidly, she returned her attention to her father’s friend.
“I hear, my lord, that you are a native of Cornwall. Is that not the case? I have heard such wonders of the place. People say that it is quite another country.”
“It is, Miss Catherine, it is. But I must say that the pleasures of town are not to be underestimated. Particularly with acquaintances such as yours to be made, eh? Were I guaranteed such company in London each evening, heaven knows, I should never return to the countryside.” He smiled, appearing to expect some manner of response to this speech.
Kitty was not to be left speechless.
“Gosh, you flatter me, my lord. In any case, I should guard against the false pleasures of town if I were you. It is exciting, to be sure, and there are so many people to meet and places to go. However much I enjoy London, I find that it is the country where I feel most at home. My father’s estate is in Yorkshire, and I could well forgo the attractions of the city for its advantages.”
“My daughter has a gift for being at home in town and the countryside, my lord. She can make herself comfortable in any place. It is one of her most excellent skills.”
“Do you take pleasure in the theatre, Miss Cathcart?” He did not wait for her to answer. “For if you do, I propose that you and your honoured father accompany me to Drury Lane this very week. It would be just the thing to enthral you, eh?”
“I thank you, my lord, for the invitation. I shall have to check with my father and my aunt—”
“I can’t imagine that either of them would object, Miss Cathcart, although I know that Sir Roland is not a lover of the theatre himself. I’ll wager that he will be in support of this particular visit.” He nudged her with a stiff elbow. “As for Mrs Christie, does she command your own movements as well as her own?”
“No, my lord. But she takes a great interest in me, I am pleased to say. And when we are in town, I am much in her company, and that of my cousins.” Kitty looked around the room. Where is George? Where is Philomena?
“Well, I daresay that they may come along as well. I am not a man to deny the pleasures of others. All who wish to may attend. Come one, come all. Let us be a large party. But I must ask the honour of sitting beside you, Miss Cathcart. I must ask that—”
“Did somebody say the theatre?” George’s cheery voice sang out from behind Kitty, like a bird in the morning. She was glad indeed. What a brick he could be. She forgave him his earlier trespass and wished for nothing more than to kiss his cherubic face.
“I say, I do love the theatre.”
Lord Trefusis blinked and paused before announcing that Mr Christie must join the party. His lordship was then accosted by another gentleman and the unhappy exchange was at an end. Kitty released a breath, knowing that she should be well protected in the company of her cousin.
No doubt he believed her out of earshot when he turned to Mr Faraday and remarked: “Poor, Kitty. She cannot run forever. My uncle shall have her married to wealth and lineage if it is his last act. It is the great determination of his life.” But Kitty had heard and blanched. She turned to her cousin and raised an eyebrow in challenge.
“You should not listen to gossip, Mr Faraday. It is a pale shadow of truth. And in any event, it is no real entertainment.” She tapped her finger lightly on George’s arm, and an idea came to her. “I believe we should have some dancing.”
She turned and moved towards the pianoforte.
“Philomena, may we have a reel?”
And that was how it was. Kitty commanded the furniture be moved back and the company take partners, and all began to dance. She knew her aunt would not mind and, indeed, that lady smiled proudly on the whole proceeding. Kitty danced with George twice and with others. A neighbour who grasped her arm for longer than was polite. And a boy who had once asked for her hand but had had to settle for friendship. It being impossible to politely refuse, she danced with Lord Trefusis, but he became somewhat breathless, and it was a relief when the set concluded. Then she danced with George again. They passed one another arm to arm and grasped hands, weaving about like two strings of yarn.
“Don’t take umbrage, old thing. I trust Faraday. No need to worry that he will pass things on.” George’s tone was contrite.
“Say no more about it, dear. I am sure you are right.” They moved back and then together. “And anyway, he can pass on what he chooses.”
George squeezed her hand and gave her a wink. She laughed, gaiety coursing through her, lightening her mood. Mr Faraday, she observed, kept to the edge of the room. She rather hoped he might ask her to dance, but rather surprisingly, he did not. Instead, his expressionless face appeared and reappeared as she danced with other men.
Kitty forced herself to look away from the inscrutable Mr Faraday and found her eyes resting upon her neglected cousin. At the end of the dance, she declined several requests in favour of sitting beside Philomena on the narrow piano bench.
“May I turn your pages?”
“I don’t have pages, Kitty dear. When it comes to reels, memory is the thing.”
Philomena spared her cousin a smile before turning back to the keyboard.
“Do you need anything? A shawl.”
“Certainly not. I am dreadfully warm with that fire and all this thumping about.”
“Do you need me to play while you rest?”
“There is no need to be quite so definite on the subject. My pride shall be wounded.“
Philomena completed the stanza before answering. “Your pride is quite capable of withstanding my plain speaking, is it not?”
“I suppose it is. Know thyself and all that.” There was a pause. “Is your hair different?” Kitty tried to study it without appearing to do so.
“Smithers did it. Aided and abetted by Mother. Who will be disappointed by the way—that I have played all evening rather than set about husband-catching.”
Kitty laughed lightly. “Shall I go and placate her?”
“No. Sit beside me. We can gossip and call it musical collaboration. How is that?” Philomena shifted slightly on the bench, making room for her cousin and the two ladies giggled in conspiracy.
Kitty ignored the stony face of her father glowering at her from across the room.
Later, the cold night air bit against Kitty’s skin as she alighted the carriage in Veronica Gardens. At once exhausted and invigorated, she sped up the stone steps to the great front door of number 50. It opened like a trap. Sir Roland, she heard muttering behind her. She did not turn her head as he spoke. Homecomings were always difficult.
Inside, butter yellow candlelight flickered against the walls of the hall and shadows crept on the wide staircase. Assembled were Havers, the butler, and footman Albert. Kitty shot them expansive smiles each. Both men hovering, eyes darting, calculating, wondering. Havers stepped forward and assisted Kitty with the removal of her cloak.
“Thank you, Havers.”
He nodded in the darkness and Kitty noted the careful, almost reverent, manner he held her garment.
The hall clock struck the hour and a brassy clanging thrummed through the yawning chasm of the house. Sir Roland passed his top hat to Albert and looked to Kitty, opening his mouth to speak. She turned sharply towards the wide staircase.
“I’m terribly fatigued, Papa.” She yawned and stroked her cameo again. “I think I shall to bed. I’ve had such an agreeable evening. Goodnight, Papa.”
She ascended the stairs without looking back.
As Kitty stepped into her chambers, Violet shut the door behind her with a heavy, certain clunk. Kitty discarded her gloves on the bed.
“You need not have waited up so late, Violet.”
Kitty looked about her to the dimly lit familiarity of the place. In the grate, the fire burned a sort of titian gold. The rich-textured curtains puddled on the carpeted floor beneath the windows. She felt an urge to sweep them back and consider the street and the little church (her church as she thought of it) with its tiny yard of weathered gravestones and early spring flowers. She longed for the cold air of the night on her face, for movement, for the outdoors.
“It is no trouble, Miss Cathcart. I like to hang your gown directly you take it off. Have you had a pleasant evening, miss?” enquired Violet, her fingers busy unfastening her mistress’s bodice.
“A little odd. I felt…rather unsettled. But—I cannot quite say, Violet. Pleasant to see my aunt and George and Philomena.”
“They are well, I hope?”
“They are the same as ever. Philomena played beautifully and was seldom complimented. Smithers has done something odd to her hair. George chattered and was as agreeable as he always is. My aunt was an excellent hostess. She smiles at all the correct moments, but I cannot say how much she really hears.”
Violet straightened to her full height and gently took the gown over Kitty’s head. Her eyes paused for a moment on a small stain near the hem that she strained to examine in the flickering light. Some splash of wine from a reckless acquaintance, more than likely. Violet placed the gown on the chaise, no doubt planning to clean and press it at some spare moment.
“And others? Was the party well attended, miss?”
“It was. There were a number of George and Philomena’s particular friends. New people too.”
The notion of mentioning Mr Faraday played around Kitty’s mind. The thought was water; it ran through her fingers before she could measure it. No. Mr Faraday was a man of no significance to her, and she need not give an account of him to Violet.
“My father insisted on introducing me to a Lord Trefusis, and I believe we shall be obliged to attend the theatre with him in the near future.”
“Very nice, miss.”
“Well, you may not think that if you had met him.”
Her gown removed, Kitty sat at her vanity and the two women exchanged smiles in the glass.
“Indeed? Doesn’t he have much to recommend him?”
“He has nothing to recommend to me. He is old, but he is not ancient. He is not handsome, but his appearance is by no means damning. In his manner, he is somewhat lascivious, which I do not welcome. I believe I detected a rather odd smell but cannot be certain that it was him.”
Their eyes met in the glass again as Violet released the pins from her mistress’s long blonde hair and they laughed. Loud, loose, guileless laughter. Released, Kitty’s hair tumbled freely about her shoulders.
The fire crackled. A worm of worry coiled in Kitty’s mind.
“Gosh. It is as well to laugh on it, but how long can it go on? I am more convinced than ever that the selection of a husband for me by my father is a doomed enterprise. For we both know that between us two, there is not one shred of sympathy. How can he even begin to find the gentleman to secure my future happiness? It is quite hopeless. The Christies do what they can for me, but I do believe that they grow weary of this game of cat and mouse. My aunt has advised me to turn my mind to marriage and try to find the best in Papa’s plans.”
She looked to Violet who tilted her head in an indication of sympathy. Over her shoulder, the gas light in the street outside shone through a tiny gap in the curtains. Kitty had a sudden far away feeling, as though she were floating on air or running through the streets in her nightgown, bound for another world. In her head, the weather was balmy not bone-chilling cold and no part of her was afraid of the unknown.
“Possibly there is some wisdom in that, miss?” Violet’s voice brought her back to reality. “If only Sir Roland could find a gentleman who was agreeable to you as well as satisfactory to him, would that not be acceptable?”
“Maybe, dear Violet.”
She cast her maid a sceptical look. A rumble and a bang from below announced that the servants were bolting the front door against the night.