That Master Webber would attend dinner was inevitable; that Master Archer should find himself in accompaniment was not, and yet that worthy stood stiff and uncomfortable at Webber’s side when Webber knocked briskly on the Longbourne door. It was not necessary to knock; a servant awaited them on the other side, but so did a flustered Mrs Dover, who had observed not one, but two rich and handsome young men approaching on her drive, and was now so discombobulated that nothing could be done that she greet them herself.
The servant, a young woman named Mary whose unlimited patience for Mrs Dover was born of an acute awareness that an elderly mother, three younger brothers and two small sisters depended on the wages Mary sent home each week, had heard rumour enough of the two gentlemen at the door to know that one would be forgiving and delighted should the lady of the house meet them at the door, and that the other, whose fortune was at least twice that of the genial man’s, would be sufficiently horrified as to never again darken the Longbourne door, and indeed to go to some effort to make certain the breach of protocol was well-known so that no other gentlemen of means would be so foolish as to approach any of the sisters Dover.
It was to this end that Mary stood flapping her skirts at Mrs Dover as if the latter were a chicken to be rousted from her roost, and hissing, “I can’t open the door, m’um, until you’re well out of the way, elst there’ll be no room for the gentlemen in the hall!” In that same contained tone of panic, she attempted to summon Mr Dover to fetch his wife, but her pleas, calculated not to carry through the front door, could also not carry into the sitting room, nor the library beyond.
Unaware of the performance within, on the doorstep Master Archer’s already-dark countenance grew darker. “I did not agree to come with you only to be left on the stoop, Webber.”
“No,” said the other, placidly, “you came because I rightfully impressed upon you not only the bearishness of your behaviour a week since but also the dreadful imbalance at the Longbourne table, with six women to only two men. With your presence it shall be three to six, and I trust any one of us is doughty enough to manage two ladies at once.”
“I do not believe Master Dover manages any at all, and you will be attending on Miss Dover, which will leave me five when I had no wish to encounter even one. I should not have come.” Archer made as if to withdraw immediately, and had Rosamund not come to the hall and taken Mrs Dover away at that very moment, thus freeing beleaguered Mary to fling open the door, he might well have succeeded. As it was, he was presented with a picture that failed to hearten him: a red-cheeked serving girl, from her dress not even so much as a housemaid, much less a lady’s maid, gasped a breathless greeting, dipped into a curtsey of depth appropriate to royalty rather than young gentlemen, and stepped back into a granite-floored hall to afford them entrance.
Webber strode in gladly, instantly and genuinely admiring the floors, “Local stone? The very best, nothing could be better than a home built of the very land it rests upon,” the windows, “Fine and large, with good light, and facing south, too, I see; Newsbury Manor has the ill fortune to face east, although it makes for excellent evenings in the gardens,” and the scent of food wafting through the house: “I believe I have not smelled something so delicious in the weeks I have been at Newsbury. I am eager to commend the cook.”
All of this was directed in a genial fashion at Mary, who was entirely smitten by the young gentleman by the time she had received their coats and directed them with shy happiness to the sitting room, where six ladies and one master of the house all awaited their entrance with highly piqued curiosity. Webber seized Mr Dover’s hand in both of his, pumping away enthusiastically. “A delight to be here, sir, and what a charming home it is. You recall my friend Archer, do you not? He has agreed to accompany me so that our table might be more evenly matched; I hope, Mrs Dover,” he said, turning to the lady of the house with all due embarrassed apology, “that I have not upset your cook by being so bold, but Archer only relented this very afternoon, so I had not the time to warn you.”
“Oh no, we are well prepared for another appetite,” promised Mrs Dover, who did not know where to look. She would swear she had never encountered such fine manners as Webber presented, but neither could she forget the dreadful slight Archer had impressed upon Elsabeth; but the matter of three other daughters besides Rosa and Elsa was also to be considered, and Archer was wealthy, handsome, and within the walls of her home.
To this end, and with a somewhat wild look in her eyes as a decision was made, she edged forward the three youngest daughters, murmuring, “You will recall Misses Dina, Tildy and…Ruth,” she finished with a degree of thoughtfulness, for if Archer was to prove an unbearable prig, it might well be that the middle Dover daughter’s humourless ways might be more appealing than not. If only Ruth were prettier; but she was not, and all Mrs Dover could say in the end was, “I am sure we are all most pleased to further our acquaintance, Master Archer.”
“Indeed,” said Mr Dover, whose favouritism toward Elsa was less inclined to forgive Archer to the benefit of his other daughters, but he did not cause a scene. Mrs Dover squeezed his hand in approval and gratitude when, upon the announcement that dinner was ready, Webber offered Rosamund his arm and escorted her to the dining room, where it soon proved that young Master Webber was quite able to attend to six women and one gentleman all on his own, as Archer sat stiffly, ate little, spoke not at all unless directly addressed, and then only answered as briefly as possible. Was the lamb tender enough? It was. Had he been bothered by the spot of rain that fell earlier? He had not. Were the vegetables to his liking? They were. Did he enjoy the previous Season in London? No.
This last was spoken with such resounding finality that even Mrs Dover was silenced by it, though Elsabeth spoke as if he had done nothing untoward, all of her attention directed at Master Webber, whose besottment with Rosa was not enough to leave him unaware of Archer’s rudeness. “I can only imagine, Master Webber, that if a young gentleman could so violently dislike the Season, he must have some close-held and secret reason for doing so. Do you suppose that Master Archer’s heart is already given away, and that he therefore cannot bear the lighthearted foolishness of courtship?”
At this, Archer’s color rose and he flung his napkin to the table and stood all at once. “I have suddenly remembered pressing business elsewhere. I must take my leave of you at once.” With this announcement, he did, leaving a flustered Webber to make apologies and then retreat after his friend, with two courses of dinner still to come.
“Rosamund,” Mr Dover said into the quiet that followed their withdrawal, “you may marry that Webber lad if you wish, but I will not have his companion under this roof again. I hope that your young man is not of a mind to forever choose his ill-mannered friends over his wife’s family.”
“Oh, Papa,” Rosa replied, but even she was unable to explain Archer’s behaviour, only finally venturing, “perhaps he is very shy, and cannot bear to be teased,” as an excuse so tremulous that not even she believed it.
“I, for one, am glad of his departure,” Elsa confessed with a mischevious smile, “for the pudding tonight is almond, a particular favourite of mine, and now we have two fewer with whom I must share. Indeed, Rosamund, I might think your Mr Webber has done me a deliberate favour!”
“That is very kind of you, Elsa,” Rosa answered softly. “I shall try to think of it that way, and not imagine that to follow Mr Archer in such a hurry means that Mr Webber has no real fondness for me at all.”