“I have never seen such a thing,” declared Mrs Dover the following morning at breakfast, as if she had not also declared it innumerable times the night before as the family Dover left Newsbury Manor, “never in my life. Not one person could find the flaw in the floor, Mr Dover, not one. I cannot imagine how a gentleman of Mr Archer’s stature could trip and fall so ignominously in such company. I can hardly imagine his embarrassment, although I am told,” and this was said with great ferocity, “I am told that he was perfectly dreadful with regards to our darling Elsa, and so I cannot find it in myself to sympathise with such a fellow, even if he has been served up with a great dash of humility. I have never seen such a thing!”
“A gentleman should be known for his grace,” Ruth volunteered so sternly into the stream of her mama’s repetitious astonishment that for a moment even Mrs Dover was silenced. All eyes turned to the middle-most sister, who, not expecting the pleasure of attention, was obliged to clear her throat to gain a moment in which to find something else to say. But find it she did, and with conviction. “If he is not graceful, perhaps he is not a gentleman,”
“That,” Mrs Dover said with some irascibility, “is clearly the case, given his dreadful behaviour toward our Elsabeth, although I cannot quite comprehend how a man of his means can also be not a gentleman—”
“And,” said Ruth, who having gained an opportunity to speak, did not wish to lose it, “if he is not a gentleman, then I fear that perhaps those who have the poor taste to associate with him cannot themselves be considered gentlemen, either. We must all,” she concluded with triumph, “for the sake of our reputations, divorce ourselves from any proceedings with the party at Newbury Manor!”
It was very nearly impossible to say whose wail of protest rose the most fervently: Dina’s, Tildy’s, or Mrs Dover’s, but it was Rosamund’s cold hand clutching Elsabeth’s beneath the table that bespoke the truest dismay at the prospect. Elsabeth turned her palm up to press a reassurance into Rosa’s fingers, and the sweetest of the Dover sisters smiled in tremulous thanks at the most stubborn of them.
Master Dover, interested only in returning the breakfast table, at which he was obliged to sit despite his preference to take the morning meal in the privacy of his library, to quiet, spoke clearly and without lifting his gaze from his papers: “Having gone to such trouble as to acquaint not only myself but my many daughters with Master Webber, I assure you that unless he is actually seen partaking in abominable behaviour, we shall not be shut of him. Besides, he is invited to dinner a week hence and I cannot renege on that invitation; it would be,” and here he lifted his gaze from the papers to fix Ruth with a droll, yet gimlet, eye, before finishing, “ungentlemanly.”
Ruth shut her mouth with a sound that could only be defined as unladylike, had anyone been able to hear it beneath the renewed histrionics of the two youngest Dover daughters and their mother. Although their cries were now joyful, they were no quieter than before; poor Mr Dover sank into his chair and brought his papers up, shielding himself from the noise. Elsabeth, already hand in hand with her beloved eldest sister, hastily excused them both from the table and darted into the garden with a flush-cheeked Rosamund in tow. No sooner were they able to speak and be heard than Rosamund did, her hands folded to her bosom with Elsabeth’s still held between them.
“Oh, he is to come to dinner, Elsa! I confess I like him very much; is that wrong of me, on so little acquaintance? He is everything a young man ought to be, full of sensibility and good humour, happily-mannered and of impeccable breeding!”
“And very handsome,” replied Elsa, “which a young man also ought to be, if he can possibly arrange it. He comes to dinner for you, Rosa, I am certain of it.”
“He comes because Papa invited him,” Rosamund answered, though hope lit her eyes. “Though I did not expect him to ask me to dance a second time; that was a very great compliment from such a gentleman.”
“Well.” Elsabeth made the most of a stern and ferocious face, though it was not easy with Rosa’s muffled laughter to break the performance. “I have it on the best authority that you were the handsomest woman in the room, Rosa, so it does not surprise me at all that Master Webber should pay you such a compliment.”
“Oh, but Master Archer should not have been so cruel.” All of Rosa’s burgeoning fondness for Webber was forgotten in sympathy for Elsabeth, who pressed her hand to Rosa’s again and clucked her tongue like a mother hen calling for her chicks.
“Even if Archer—I shall not give him the dignity of an honourific!—even if he had not insulted me, I could very well have seen by myself that you were easily the prettiest girl in the room, Rosa. If Archer had been wiser he would have asked you to dance first, and your charms would have made his evening—and my own!—a more pleasant one.”
“But Elsa,” Rosa pressed, “I worry about the fall Master Archer took.”
Elsa quite wilfully chose to misunderstand, and patted Rosa’s hand in gentle reassurance. “I am sure the only injury was to his pride, Rosa, and he has so very much of it that a little damage cannot do any lasting harm.”
Rosa, who was sweet, not senseless, nudged Elsabeth and offered a shy smile. “I think you might forgive him his pride, had he not injured yours. He is very handsome.”
“You are right,” Elsa agreed, “on both counts. But his handsomeness is marred by his aloofness, and as I have no expectation of ever speaking to the man again, I think we should speak no more of him.”