The Countess braves society in earnest at a fund-raising ball
Arundel Castle was as archaic as its cousin of Berkeley and its families were interknit. Its motte post-dated the Battle of Hastings by one year only. Never having been favoured as the chief ducal seat of the Norfolks, it had fallen into dilapidation. By 1799, Charles Howard, the 11th Duke, was a decade into a makeover which was to absorb the rest of his life. Shunning Wyatt’s drawings, he decided to chance his arm solo in a curious amalgam of Norman and Gothic styles. This was designed to suspend the visitor in a long-lost world of chivalry, but the mirage had been hijacked by his republican sympathies. The Duke’s arched front door was flanked by twice life-size figures of Liberty and Hospitality rendered in ceramic Coade stone.
“A flight of indulgence,” scoffed the Dowager Lady Sefton to her friend Mrs Fitzherbert. “The Earl Marshal can be no more a radical than His Majesty the King!”
James Dallaway welcomed the house-guests and made sure they were led up the zig-zag staircase to their rooms. His Grace would greet them over tea in the Library, but had been unavoidably detained.
“Not in his bath-tub, I’d lay odds,” said Berkeley drily.
Sight of the castle interior revealed that the Duke’s enterprise in reviving the feudal splendours of Arundel was far from completion. Work had recently begun on the Elizabethan Long Gallery which he planned to turn into a Library. A skeletal frame of pillars and vaults in the Perpendicular style had been crafted from Honduras mahogany with lifelike carvings of leaves and berries.
“The place deserves an eclectic mix of authors,” declared the Duke. “Mary’s cousin’s magnum opus needs to be housed for one thing!”
Mary Ann Gibbon was his ‘official’ mistress and the mother of two small sons by him. They had been introduced through his antiquarian interests by her kinsman Edward Gibbon whose colossal work on The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was praised in academe.
“A worthy offering,” Berkeley said, “but I am bound to observe that were it half the length, its readership might be doubled!”
The Duke caught sight of a handsome couple entering the room. “Ah, Lord Dashalong and his better half!” This was Isabella Sefton’s son, the 2nd Earl of Sefton, a ‘whip hand’ and a gambler, and her daughter-in-law, Lord Berkeley’s niece.
“Maria!” cried Berkeley. “Didn’t think to see you here!”
“Struth, Berkeley,” said Sefton, “ain’t clapped eyes on you since we tied the proverbial. Thought you was dead. We’ve a half-dozen brats rampaging about Croxteth Hall by now. Aiming to keep pace with you!”
“Impudent scoundrel! Do spare the ladies’ blushes, Sefton. Permit me to introduce the Countess to you.” Berkeley was seized of a terrible thought. “Don’t tell me your Mama is invited to this frolic, Maria?”
“Indeed, I hope not,” said Maria in alarm. “Oh, never say so! Duke?”
“I rather think the Margravine has invited herself and that the Margrave will come on leading strings,” replied His Grace. "The rumour that she was touring her empires is anecdotal. I always thought delegation an overrated art myself.”
“Oh no! I shall cut her! After the horrid way she treated our poor Papa!”
An Irishman materialised at the Duke’s elbow and peered around his shoulder with a comic grimace. “Sheridan! Ought I to present to you this gracious lady on my left? I am in two minds.”
“Then allow me to unite them, Your Grace!”
“You are unacquainted with Lady Berkeley, I take it?” Sheridan received Mary’s fingers in an exaggeratedly gentle fashion. “Ah, I see humour dimples the cheek and points the beaming eye! You bear a marked resemblance to your sister, if I may say so, yet there is something altogether more demure. Won’t you come into the garden? I would like the roses to see you.”
“You know my sister, sir? Susan?”
“Knew, ma’am. Knew. Her flight from this island leaves many unconsoled!”
“She is unlikely to leave America now that Mr Baring has retrieved her from widowhood.”
“She has become a celebrated hostess of that war-torn land, I hear. The lady was ever known for the breadth of her hospitality.”
“Certainly she enjoys good company.”
“A writer of plays to boot! Many’s the time she amused us with a pithy turn of phrase. Ah, yes! None can dispute Mrs Baring’s gift for fiction.”
Mary worked her fan. She wished she were discussing coppicing or the sale of timber from Coaley Woods. Fred was drifting further and further away from her. It was all too plain he was used to attending parties alone.
“Forgive me, Mr Sheridan. I think I must take a little air.”
“Lady Berkeley! What a pleasure to see you!” Mary was intercepted by ‘the eyebrow Mr Fox’, as his agent, the Duchess of Devonshire, called him. That lady been known to trade kisses for votes in order to keep him in Parliament. Fox dressed like an aging macaroni. His sallow shirts and food-stained waistcoats made Her Grace thankful it was unnecessary to offer such a douceur to the candidate. “We met many years ago on the river at Hampton Court,” he reminded her, bowing low. "It must have been in 1785, for I remember Pitt’s Sinking Fund being talked of!”
Mary got the better of a blush. She had been ‘Miss Tudor’ in those days. “Yes, I do recall that day, Mr Fox.”
“You may be aware that I am related to your husband and, therefore, also to you! The blood of the Stuart Kings runs in your children’s veins. The Merry Monarch applied himself most energetically to populating the Kingdom with peers, it has to be said! Now, Lady Berkeley, do let’s inspect the new stained glass of bold, bad barons and Hebrew kings.”
Fox made to lead Mary away to the Medieval Hall. He was aware that several pairs of eyes were trained upon him, not least her husband’s. Passing Sheridan, he heard the playwright’s aside to Lady Aylesford (who had lifted her lorgnette to inspect the Countess’ undeniably patrician profile). “Tis believed she was under his protection before the match, that is such protection as vultures give to lambs!”
“I can’t think,” trumpeted the matron, “where he found her! She must have co-nnections, must she not?”
“The mercantile affluence and legislature of the United States would not be quite what they are without her ilk,” said Sheridan airily.
“American? I thought her accent to the west of us.”
“Absolutely, ma’am, but not so far it bestrides the Bristol Channel!”
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