“How do I look?” Henrietta asked as she entered the well-appointed drawing room of Lord and Lady Linley’s London home.
“Darling, you know very well you look ravishing.” Clive lowered the newspaper he was perusing to glance over at her. He was, of course, already dressed in white tie and was merely passing the time by reading the London business news, waiting for her to descend from their rooms, where Henrietta’s maid, Edna, had spent the last hour dressing her mistress.
Unlike the first time the Howards had crossed the Atlantic, which had been on their honeymoon trip to visit Clive’s ancestral home, Castle Linley, in Derbyshire, England, they had this time agreed to at least bring along a lady’s maid to aid Henrietta in her dress, especially as they would be much more in society this time, at least while in London, it being the height of the season, and likewise considering that Clive was hopeless at buttons.
It still made Henrietta smile to think of the years she had spent dressing herself in any number of costumes she had worn for her various jobs not so very long ago, her stints as an usherette at a burlesque theater and as a Dutch girl at the Chicago World’s Fair being foremost in her mind. Never in those days of extreme poverty had she imagined that she would one day be married to the dashing heir of the fabulously wealthy Howard family of Winnetka and would thus be required to dress in such elaborate gowns that she needed the aid of another person to not only arrange and fasten them but to likewise style her hair every evening.
Her personal maid, Edna, herself barely twenty, had been hesitant to accompany her mistress to foreign shores when the idea was first announced, having never gone beyond the Chicago environs in her whole life. She had come round to the idea with amazing alacrity, though, when Clive’s mother, Antonia, suggested that perhaps Gertrude, one of the downstairs parlor maids, should go instead—if Edna was reluctant, that is. No, Edna had suddenly declared, she would go.
As it turned out, however, poor Edna had spent the majority of their voyage on the Queen Mary sick as a dog in the bowels of the ship, leaving Henrietta to fend for herself much of the time, anyway. Henrietta had not minded in the least, as it left her and Clive to be blissfully on their own, unencumbered by servants or any other persons, for that matter, which had been the point of getting away in the first place, Henrietta more than once reminded Clive, who worried that she was overexerting herself while her maid lay in bed below deck. “Clive, don’t be silly. I’m perfectly well. If anything, the sea air is doing me good.”
Clive had not responded to this but had continued to hover around her in the most annoying, albeit charming, way. He, for his part, had managed to successfully leave his valet behind, saying that he would not be stalked by the odious Carter while trying to enjoy this attempt at a resurrected honeymoon, the first one having been brought to an unfortunate halt by the untimely death of his father, which had sent them hurrying back to Chicago before they had barely even gotten started.
“I don’t know what you have against the man,” Antonia had sniffed as she sat across from Clive at dinner the night before he and Henrietta had left on their grand trip. “He served your father very well all those years, and being English himself, he would be quite a valuable asset while abroad, Clive.”
“Mother, we’ve been through all of this before.” Clive let out a sigh. “Carter’s positively ancient. He’d barely survive the voyage, much less our travels through the continent. We plan to do a lot of walking. Hiking, I think they call it. Isn’t that right, darling?” he said, throwing a wink at Henrietta.
“Hiking? Whatever for? Sounds monstrous.” Antonia rang the little brass bell beside her, signaling the new footman, Albert, to clear and reset their places for dessert. “You must consider Henrietta’s condition, Clive. She needs rest; isn’t that what you told me? And why do you need to scurry away just now instead of waiting until after the garden party? It’s rather cruel of you, you know.”
Henrietta was of the mind that it was actually a little bit unfair to leave Antonia to herself for the Howards’ annual gala in late July, but Clive, used to his mother’s manipulations, was having none of it.
“We can’t possibly wait until after that, Mother. I mean to take advantage of the weather. Besides, Julia will be here, and you two have always managed it on your own, so I don’t see what it matters. If you take my advice, which I’m certain you won’t, you’ll cancel it this year. After all, it hasn’t even been a year yet since Father died. No one expects it.”
“Of course, they do, Clive. How ridiculous. It’s more important than ever, I should imagine.”
“I am sorry to miss it, Antonia,” Henrietta said sincerely, finally deciding to speak for herself.
“I know it’s not your fault, dear.” Antonia let out a little sigh of her own. “You’ll just have to make the most of the Season, never mind the weather.” She shot Clive a little dagger. “Now, I’ve made some . . . inquiries, you might say, and, as I mentioned just before we came in to dinner, you’re to attend the Duke of Buckingham’s ball the first week you arrive.”
“Ah, yes. This again. Mother, please; we’re trying to get away from all of that. That’s the point of a honeymoon, remember?”
Antonia looked affronted. “You speak as if it’s a burden, Clive! Well, I’m sorry,” she said before he could speak, “but duty is duty. You can’t possibly pass up this chance. And,” she paused, waiting for Albert to finish placing a small dish of sorbet in front of each of them, “as it turns out, I have a little surprise.” She looked eagerly from one to the other. “It seems I’ve finally unearthed the Von Harmons! With some help from Lady Linley, of course,” she added with a conceding little tilt of her head.
Henrietta looked quizzically at Clive, who responded with a small shrug. Von Harmon had been her maiden name, but she had no idea what her mother-in-law was talking about.
“Now, it’s all arranged,” Antonia hurried on, either not noticing or ignoring their confusion. “You’re to stop in Strasbourg on your way to Lucerne and stay with Baron Von Harmon. He is most intrigued to meet you.”
“Who’s Baron Von Harmon?” Clive asked with only mild interest. “I’ve never heard of him.”
Antonia’s look of delight withered slightly. “Why, Baron Von Harmon is an uncle of some sort to Henrietta. On her father’s side. Do you not remember?” she asked Henrietta.
Henrietta set down her sorbet spoon and tried to think. She did not have a good feeling about this. She should have never told Antonia the silly tales her father had once told his large brood of children as they sat with their meager supper in a shabby apartment in the city. They were stories of the “old country,” as he called it—a place called Alsace-Lorraine, where the Von Harmons had, once upon a time, been part of the landed class, or so he had bragged. None of them, however, particularly Henrietta’s antagonistic mother, had ever really believed that their father’s stories were anything more than that—just stories.
But, Henrietta remembered now, in her own defense, she had not volunteered this portion of her family history readily; Antonia had prodded her into extracting it upon their very first meeting. Flustered in that moment, Henrietta had eventually managed to unearth a small detail from one of her father’s tales, which was that an errant Von Harmon—or so she seemed to remember—had run off to Chicago, thus beginning the lowly American branch of the Von Harmons. Flimsy though this reference was, it was enough for Antonia to later confirm that Henrietta must indeed be a descendant of this noble line.
“Do you not recall when you first came to us, and I wrote to Lady Linley about the possible connection?” Antonia looked at her expectantly, as if this was all the explanation Henrietta should need to piece together the puzzle.
In truth, so much had happened so quickly when Clive had initially brought home the impoverished Henrietta, proudly announcing her as his fiancée, that she must have forgotten this choice bit of information. What had been more distressing—for Henrietta, anyway—and more immediate in its effects, had not been the discovery of her father’s supposed noble connections, but the revelation that her mother had in fact been an Exley, one of Antonia and Alcott’s gilded set. Antonia, however, desperate as she was at the beginning to validate Clive’s inappropriate choice of a wife in any way that she could, had made much of both, Henrietta seemed to remember now. At the time, Henrietta had judged the theory regarding her father’s family to be a bit farfetched, but she was much too shy and confused in those early days to counter the formidable Antonia Howard.
“Antonia, I’m sure they are no relation.” Henrietta traded her sorbet spoon for the etched wine glass to her right, sensing that a battle with her mother-in-law was just on the horizon. “Von Harmon is probably a very common name.”
“Yes, and we can’t possibly change our itinerary to stay in some crumbling château on the French border with these people you assume are Henrietta’s relatives. It’s absurd. And even if they are related in some distant way, what significance would it possibly serve for us to meet them, sparing perhaps a mild curiosity on the part of Henrietta?”
“Clive, honestly,” Antonia said stiffly. “I know you cannot possibly be this naïve. You’re just being stubbornly obtuse, and it’s very bad form, not to mention unfeeling. I’ve gone to considerable trouble, so do not thwart me in this. You must absolutely reconnect with Henrietta’s family. If not for our sake, then surely for hers. The Von Harmons are a very old family. There is a Hapsburg connection somewhere there, and Louisa Von Harmon was a lady in waiting to Queen Mary. You have no idea how much this will elevate us, Clive.”
“I wasn’t aware we were in need of any further elevation, Mother. I’m quite breathless at this height as it is,” Clive said crisply. “Isn’t having Lord and Lady Linley as your in-laws a close enough connection to the peerage to be content?”
“Don’t be impertinent, Clive. What I’m asking is not so very much, is it? You’re going to be in London anyway. Why can’t you attend the duke’s ball? And why not stop in Strasbourg for a few days? It’s a very beautiful city, you know.”
“Of course, we’ll attend the ball, Antonia,” Henrietta interrupted, giving Clive a look. “You’ll have to help me choose which gown.”
“But of course, my dear. See, Clive? She’s being sensible.”
“Sensible?” Clive laughed. “I suppose you’re right to a certain extent. She’s sensible enough to know when to change tactics.”
“I am still in the room, you know,” Henrietta said with raised eyebrows. “And as far as Strasbourg is concerned, I confess I am a little curious to meet this Baron Von Harmon. Aren’t you, Clive? You never know, it might be entertaining.”
“I can think of a better word for it,” Clive grumbled, swirling his glass. “Let’s discuss it later.”
With that answer, Henrietta knew she would not get any more from him at that moment, but she also knew that, in the end, he would deny her nothing. What difference would it make if they had a diversion for a couple of days from their decided path? Isn’t that what they had wanted? Spontaneity? But she knew that if she presented it this way, he would say that it wasn’t spontaneous at all, apparently having been planned weeks in advance by his mother and his aunt, Lady Linley.
Antonia, also seeming to sense that she would not get anything more from Clive on the subject, abruptly rose from her place. The gangly Albert hurried over to pull her chair for her. “Shall we go through and leave poor Clive to his port, my dear?”
“Yes, of course, Antonia.” Henrietta rose as well, though she knew that Clive was itching to do away with these old traditions, particularly since his father’s death. He had suggested as much a few weeks prior, but Antonia would have none of it, insisting that nothing about their routine should change in the slightest. Clive had fumed about it in their private rooms, but Henrietta had advised him to wait it out.
“I say, you do look rather beautiful,” Clive said now, folding his paper and looking at her appreciatively.
Henrietta made a show of turning this way and that, showing off the gold lamé Chanel gown with puffed sleeves and an exposed back that Antonia had insisted she wear, saying that it would be absolutely perfect for this evening’s gala. “It’s a shame Wallace and Amelie couldn’t be here as well.”
“Well, you know Wallace. He was never one for London.” Clive stood up and adjusted his tie. “A drink before we go?”
Henrietta nodded. “Still, I would have liked to see Amelie again. And the boys, though no doubt they would have left them behind.”
“There’s a chance that Wallace might make it down before we’re off.” Clive lifted the heavy crystal decanter from the sideboard and poured out two sherries. “But no guarantees. He’s always hated this place.” Clive handed her a glass. “In fact, I’m pretty sure Wallace will sell it once Uncle passes.”
“No! Really?” Henrietta took a sip of her sherry and looked around the old-fashioned room, papered in dark green flock and trimmed in mahogany. “What a shame!”
“He’s said as much, anyway, in his last letter to me,” Clive said, putting the large crystal stopper back into the decanter with a clink. “Said we should ‘live it up’ before it goes up on the block. I think he was specifically referring to the wine cellar. Provided the servants haven’t already drunk it dry,” he said, shifting his gaze to the doorway, as if a servant might be standing just on the other side, which wasn’t likely, Henrietta guessed, as there were precious few servants here at all—just a butler, a housekeeper, a cook, and one footman, who likewise doubled as the chauffeur. It was terribly understaffed, and Henrietta couldn’t imagine how they operated such a big house on their own. A hired maid appeared every morning, but she did not live in, making Henrietta again grateful that she had followed Antonia’s advice and brought along Edna.
“I can’t say I blame Wallace,” Clive went on. “It is horribly outdated, and I’m sure it costs a fortune to run. A fortune, we both know, that Wallace doesn’t have.”
Poor Wallace, Clive’s sole cousin, had gone against Lord Linley’s wishes—nay, his pleading, almost bullying—that he marry well, and had instead secretly married a penniless French woman who had nursed him back to health after he was injured in the war. It was assumed that this was one of the reasons Lord Linley still lay ill in bed, the discovery of his only remaining son’s imprudent marriage nearly crippling him. Wallace’s older brother, Linley, the heir, had not been quite so fortunate as Wallace during the war and had perished on the Somme, thereby passing the title and all of its heavy burdens onto Wallace, who had absolutely no desire to be “lord of the manor.” Brought utterly low by Wallace’s rash decision to marry for love, Lord Linley had declared that it meant certain financial ruin for the crumbling estate and had taken to his bed. Not even the revelation that Wallace and Amelie already had a son and future heir as well as another newly born could rouse Montague Howard for more than a few hours a day. And then, the tragic news of his brother’s untimely death in Chicago had nearly finished him off completely.
“Maybe we should buy it,” Henrietta suggested, taking another sip of her sherry.
Clive scoffed. “Darling, whatever for? It’s positively ghastly. If we do someday return to England, we can always stay at The Savoy or travel up to Castle Linley, provided Wallace doesn’t turn the whole thing into a home for shell-shocked soldiers, or some such damned thing, once Uncle dies.”
“You don’t really think he’ll do that, do you?”
“Well, he’s threatened it enough.”
Henrietta looked around the room again. It would be a shame to lose something that had been in the family for so long, and she hated to see the end of things. “I thought you liked old-fashioned things,” she said wistfully, running a finger along the ornate rococo clock on the mantle. “And what about sentiment?”
“Darling, there’s a difference between old-fashioned and foolish. Especially when it involves a new slate roof, a new heating system, and tuck-pointing, to say the least.” He took a large drink. “Besides, it’s 1936. Sentiment, unfortunately, has died. We must move on. Be modern.”
“Well, I rather like this place.” She looked around again. “What will they do with all of this stuff?”
“Sell it probably. Or ship it to Castle Linley.”
“What a shame.”
“Yes, it is, darling, but it’s not our concern. We have enough at Highbury to worry about, speaking of repairs. Another?” Clive asked, holding up his now-empty glass.
“We’d better not, Clive. We should go.”
“All right,” he sighed and gave the thick strap that hung beside the fireplace a tug.
Within moments, Evans appeared. “You rang, sir?”
“We’re leaving now, Evans. Tell Farnsworth to bring the car around.”
“Very good, sir,” Evans said, swaying slightly in the doorway before withdrawing.
Clive took a step toward Henrietta and ran a finger down her arm. “Do we really have to go to this?”
Henrietta patted his cheek. “Clive, don’t be such a child. Of course, we do. Antonia would be furious if we missed it.”
Evans entered the room, then, balancing Henrietta’s fur stole across his arms.
“Must you always bring my mother into it?” Clive sighed, stepping back as the elderly butler attempted to drape the stole across Henrietta’s shoulders, his rheumatic hands letting it slip several times. Finally, Clive stepped forward. “Thank you, Evans, I’ve got it.”
“As you wish, sir,” Evans said, blinking his droopy, watery eyes several times as he stood back.
Clive arranged the stole, letting his hands linger on Henrietta’s bare shoulders. She could see the all-too-familiar flicker of desire in his eyes.
“If we didn’t have this damn ball to go to, I’d take you upstairs and—”
“Clive!” she said, putting a finger to his lips and rolling her eyes toward Evans, who was still sagging nearby.
Clive let out a little laugh. “I find it utterly charming that you’re still shy in front of the servants,” he whispered into her ear. “Very well,” he said, standing up straight, “shall we go and get this over with? Evans, is the car ready?”
“I believe so, sir, yes.”
Evans shuffled ahead of them and held open the front door, adjusting his wrinkled suit coat and attempting to stand as much at attention as his rounded shoulders would allow.
“Thank you, Evans. That will be all for tonight,” Henrietta said gently.
Evans turned his viscous eyes to Clive, apparently seeking validation.
“Yes, yes, Evans,” Clive said absently, stealing a grin at Henrietta as he took her arm. “You needn’t wait up.”
“Very good, sir.”