“Confound it, Archer,” said Webber, not for the first—not for the fourth, should he be so pedantic as to point it out to his friend—time, “there is nothing there to find. Even the best of us trip over the toe of our shoe from time to time.”
The man to whom he spoke, Master Fitzgerald Archer, of whom Elsabeth and Rosamund Dover were at that very moment sworn to discuss no more, might yet have become a topic of their conversation had they been able to see the curious activity in which he was currently engaged. He lay in a most undignified manner, belly-down on the Newbury Manor ballroom floor, with one cheek pressed directly against the highly polished wood, from which all rugs, chairs, and tables had been removed so he might examine its uninterrupted surface. From this position he snapped, “I have never tripped on my shoe in my life, Webber, nor have I ever seen you move so gracelessly. And that woman moved—”
“Miss Elsabeth,” Webber said with a touch of genuine disapproval that was entirely outside his usual purview. He was a generous man, both kind and gentle of spirit, and not unlike the eldest Dover sister, both inclined to see the very best in people and deeply concerned when others did not. “Her name is Miss Elsabeth, not That Woman, which is unconscionably rude, Archer. Indeed, had you been less rude last night—”
“What then?” Archer bounded to his feet with the athletic vigor of a young man accustomed to hunting, riding, and walking the lands that he owned. “Had I been less rude, not, Webber, that I concede rudeness, as I was surrounded by persons not nearly of my class and therefore unworthy of my attention. I could not possibly be rude to such creatures. But go on. I dare you were about to say that had I been less forthright in my honest opinions that I might not have fallen.”
“Well, yes,” replied a discomfited Webber. “Truthfully, Archer, it seemed only swiftly meted justice, that you should insult Miss Elsabeth and then be made prostate before her.”
“And do you believe in a God who metes such justice so quickly?”
Webber drew his finely-clad shoulders back stiffly. “I doubt God has the inclination to look in on our lesser moments, Archer, but perhaps one of his angels.”
All his discomfiture fell away into a blinding smile; Webber smiled easily and genuinely, a trait which Archer verbally disdained and secretly—so secretly, perhaps, that he had no notion of it himself—admired. This, and other aspects of Webber’s usual good mien, were what drew Archer to him; they were unalike in all but circumstance of birth, which fortunate status was enough for an acquaintance, but that the men held between them a close and personal friendship spoke deeply to the unspoken admiration Archer had for Webber’s amiable nature.
In turn, it was Archer’s reserve and ferocity that Webber treasured, for he knew himself to be passing gentle at times when a little boldness might have stood him in good stead. Archer felt things unequivocally where Webber was of a mind to be swayed by the tide, and it was this resoluteness which Webber most admired about his friend. But it was not of these attributes that either man thought now: Archer retained his affront at the very idea he could have been in the wrong whilst Webber dreamed now of angels, and with a sighing sincerity said, “Perhaps Miss Dover is one of those angels, and through her eyes God watched us yesterday evening.”
“You cannot possibly be suggesting that God, acting through Miss Dover, who was dancing with you and entirely unaware of the unfortunate exchange overheard by her sister, caused me to trip on a perfectly flush floor,” Archer said so dourly that Webber was returned from his flights of fancy to blink with astonished rapidity at his friend.
“No. No, of course not, Archer, don’t be absurd. I’m only saying everyone has a moment of awkwardness from time to time, and that if Miss Elsabeth saw some hint of that clumsiness in your step and removed herself from harm’s way that you can hardly blame her for that. What was she to do, try to catch you and instead be borne to the floor herself by your weight? Dear God, Archer, that would have put you in a compromising position. You’d have had to marry the girl immediately.”
“What an appalling idea,” drawled Miss Webber from the ballroom doorway, whence she had, unbeknownst to the men, been listening for some time. She minced into the room, skirt lifted enough to show the cunningly worked soft leather of new shoes, and upon reaching the gentlemen put forth a hand so that Archer was obliged by politeness to offer his arm. Miss Webber, who regarded Archer as her personal property out of a necessity to marry suitably rather than any especially deep affection, took his elbow with the casual possessiveness of a woman who could not imagine she might ever be ursuped. “Robby is right, of course; you might have found yourself obliged to Miss Elsabeth in an utterly inappropriate way. In fact, I could quite forgive her for stepping out of your path had she not stood above you without a trace of distress on her features once you fell. At the very least she might have been concerned for your welfare.”
Webber, whose gentle spirit perhaps offered him greater insight to the behaviours of one to whom insult has been given, did not suppose that Miss Elsabeth Dover had any comprehensible reason for showing concern over Archer’s welfare at the time of his fall, but also did not suppose either his sister or Archer would appreciate that observation. He held his tongue while Cecilia simpered over Archer, and while Archer assumed a look of noble, distant suffering which would no doubt set certain ladies’ hearts a-flutter.
Cecilia Webber was not among those ladies, and soon lost interest in assuaging Archer’s wounded pride in preference to addressing her brother in a forthright and unqualified manner. “It seems to me that while Miss Elsabeth may suffer the folly of pride, her sister is a charming, sweet creature with whom I should like to have greater acquaintance.”
“Very good!” Webber cried, having with Cecilia’s words instantly put out of his mind all thoughts of unpleasantry. “Master Dover has invited me to dinner a week tomorrow; we shall all attend!”
“Dear God, no,” Miss Webber said with perfectly genuine horror. “That simpering mother, those dreadful younger daughters? It is bad enough that after the ball they will come calling and my sister and I will be obliged in turn to call upon them. You cannot expect me to spend an entire evening with them. I cannot imagine what that mother might consider a suitable table, but I am sure that I will not sit for it. Rosamund Dover come to Newsbury Manor instead. It will be far more suitable for all involved.”
Webber blinked at his sister in slow and owlish astonishment. “But I have given my word, Cecilia.”
“Then you may go,” Cecilia said with a delicate shudder, “but certainly Archer and myself will not be joining you.”
“In this, Cecilia speaks for me,” Archer agreed in such dour tones that Webber was inclined to blush about it.
“Very well. You shall all regret it, I am sure, but I will go by myself to Lisden House and enjoy myself very much.”