Indeed, for three full days Mr Dover found it expedient to confine himself to his library at all costs, for on those occasions that he departed its safe walls, he was beset upon by women demanding that he reveal each and every detail of Mr Webber’s face, form, and personality. To his daughters’ unending dismay, and his wife’s exasperation, Mr Dover had taken no notice what-so-ever of any of these things, save a confidence that Mr Webber was indeed a young man, and that he had not been adorned in any startling garb. From this Mrs Dover deduced that Mr Webber dressed well, though Elsa and Rosamund exchanged a glance that confided their lack of certainty in Mr Dover’s sartorial awareness.
But no other trifling bit of knowledge was forthcoming from the husband and father of the house; the ladies Dover were obliged to go elsewhere for their gossip. And such gossip was to be had! Mr Webber was handsome, fair, exceedingly gentle of spirit (“A fine match for our Rosamund!” thought Mrs Dover), with a ready smile and a gallant bow, and most delightfully, was known to attend balls and galas at the slightest provocation. This, above all, set Mrs Dover’s heart alight, for any young man happy to dance was a young man sure to fall happily in love.
This sentiment was broadly shared by other hopeful mothers, though it was also widely agreed—out of Mrs Dover’s hearing—that their own daughters, being untainted by the speculation of magic—speculation only, of course, for no one had ever actually seen any of the Dover girls display obviously untoward talents—their own daughters would surely be more appealing to the handsome young Mr Webber than even the admittedly lovely Rosamund Dover. Indeed, they were determined of it, and most particularly of all, one Mrs Enton, upon her return from holiday, was determined of it.
It was not that Mrs Enton disliked Mrs Dover, although she did; they had been bosom friends since girlhood, until Mrs Enton’s triumph in marrying well had been ursuped by Mrs Dover’s own somewhat scandalous marriage to a suspected magician. Even that would have been forgiveable, had Mrs Dover not produced several lovely girls to Mrs Enton’s singular daughter of uninspiring looks. Certainly Susannah Enton was no less attractive than Ruth Dover, and of much gentler and appealing personality, which ought to have had her married long since. However, to Mrs Enton’s grim horror, Susannah’s twenty-eighth birthday was approaching. Should she not snare Mr Webber, it was certain that Susannah would spend her life being cared for, and finally caring for, her parents.
Mrs Enton had wished for a middling age of no responsibilities; she had had quite enough of those, and to have a daughter still at home a full decade after she had expected to divest herself of that burden, was nigh unto unbearable. Mr Webber was Mrs Enton’s very last chance.
It was therefore with this thought in mind that she put forth the idea that Mr Webber had brought with him a full dozen young ladies from town, sisters and cousins and second-cousins-once-removed, who might in their great numbers dissuade the sisters Dover from bothering to attend the forthcoming ball at Newsbury Manor.
This news, while met with dismay, was no more likely to discourage Mrs Dover than it was to send the Thames swimming backward in its banks. It was with all sisters flying that the Dovers arrived at Newsbury Manor, and at once that all sisters learned that indeed, Mr Webber’s personal party consisted of no more than five: himself, a married sister and her husband, an unmarried sister, and another young gentleman called Archer.
It was generally and instantly agreed that Mr Webber was a handsome young man. His features were regular and pleasing, his eyes a brilliant blue, his hair the colour of a midsummer sunrise, and his smile quick and ready. Half of the attending ladies were in love with him before he spoke a word.
The other half were given entirely to Mr Archer, who had not Mr Webber’s easily pleasing mein. He was tall, dark-haired, green-eyed, sharp-featured, and not given to smiling. Upon the approach of the family Dover, he turned away to the precise degree necessary that it became positively impossible to broach an introduction, though the charming Mr Webber put both hands out and grasped Mr Dover’s with enthusiasm. “Sir! It is to my great regret that I was unable to accept your dinner invitation, most particularly now that I have seen the ladies of your house! Would you be so good as to introduce me, Master Dover, that I might have their acquaintance?”
Mr Dover gave the tall Mr Archer’s rudely turned shoulders a brief and thoughtful examination without ever seeming to ignore Mr Webber’s request. Indeed, he brought Mrs Dover forward even as he gave that unfavourable look to Mr Archer, and said with full attention to Mr Webber, “My wife, Mrs Dover. My daughters, Miss Dover, Miss Elsabeth, Miss Ruth, Miss Matilda,”
“Tilly,” burst that child before anyone could stop her. Mr Dover’s eyelids pressed closed at more length and with greater force than an ordinary blink might require, but Mr Webber only smiled genially at the fourth Miss Dover and said, “Miss Tilly,” with perfect respect and charm.
“And Miss Leopoldina,” said Mr Dover with an unusual note of steel in his voice, and she swallowed her protest with such vigor that her eyes bulged.
Mr Webber, though, lowered his voice and said, as if begging a boon, “Miss Leopoldina. Might I make so bold as to call you Miss Dina? It seems a more favourable name for such a delightful young lady.”
Relief and delight swept Dina’s countenance, and to the equally great relief of her two eldest sisters and father, she flounced and curtseyed but was for once too overwhelmed to speak. Mr Webber, smiling as though he had personally averted a disaster, made introductions all around: “My sister, Mrs Gibbs; her husband, Mr Gibbs. My sister, Miss Webber, and, good God, Archer, turn and be seen. Have you no manners at all?”
So entreated, Mr Archer could hardly refuse, though his greetings were brusque and he made no effort to ingratiate himself to the family Dover. His distasteful gaze lingered on the three youngest sisters; Elsabeth he could hardly seem to look at and Rosamund he only barely tolerated. That was as well: Mr Webber in turn had eyes only for Rosamund, and though she was not given to outward displays of emotion, she blushed with pleasure when Mr Webber offered a hand toward the dance floor with more youthful hope and admiration than polite gallantry.
Mrs Dover clutched Elsabeth’s arm so hard as the lovely young pair stepped onto the floor that Elsabeth was obliged to disengage her before a hand-mark was imprinted on her flesh. Miss Webber, observing, allowed the corners of her mouth to turn up, although in no wise could Elsabeth regard her expression as a smile, and somewhat to the collected Dovers’ astonishment, departed their little group without further conversation. Mr Archer retreated with her, and Mr Gibbs obligingly requested a dance of Mrs Gibbs, leaving the Dovers abandoned.
“What a lovely young woman,” said Mrs Dover, brightly. “She would certainly make a most suitable sister-in-law for our Rosamund.”
‘As would a viper,’ thought Elsabeth, but was wise enough to keep the thought unspoken. “Look, Mama, there is Susannah. I must introduce her to Mr Webber when Rosamund’s dance is done.”
“If we are fortunate,” Mrs Dover said with asperity, “it will never be done. I do not understand why you must put Susannah forward, Elsa, when you have four unmarried sisters and are yourself unwe—”
The rest of her familiar scold was lost to the noise and cheer of the ball, and to the pleasure of friends meeting again. Susannah, who had been obliged to travel with her mother, was gladder of nothing than to see Elsabeth, and Elsa, in her turn, was pleased to introduce her dear friend to Mr Webber as he exited the dance floor with Rosamund, whose face shone with happiness. Obliging and polite, Mr Webber pressed Susannah, then Elsabeth, for the next dances, but it was Rosamund he begged the promise of at least one more dance from, and no one, not even Susannah, begruged the eldest Dover girl that grace. Upon completion of their turns with Mr Webber, Elsa and Susannah stood to the side, heads bowed close so they might speak to one another rather than dance, as there were too few gentlemen for the ladies to always be on the floor.
“Though,” Susannah remarked, “that does not seem to distress your sisters.”
Elsa looked to them with perhaps too much indulgence: the youngest two danced together when they had no other partner, while Ruth stood stiff and straight against a wall, ready to lecture on the impropriety of too much exercise gained through dance if anyone should give her the opportunity. “Nor should it distress them,” Elsa proclaimed. “It does not distress me, although I am astonished to see that certain gentlemen choose not to dance at all, when there are so many ladies wanting a partner.”
As one, they looked to Mr Archer, who had danced only with Miss Webber and spoken to no one who was not in his own party. “I hear he has ten thousand a year,” Susannah said, and Elsa’s smile lit with mischief.
“He would need at least that for a lady to overlook his distasteful pride. Oh, look, he disdains poor Rosamund; that will not do.” Elsa’s humour fled as both lips and eyes narrowed, but Susannah, who knew her friend well, put a gentling hand on Elsa’s elbow.
“Do nothing that Rosamund might have cause to regret, Elsa.”
Elsabeth quirked her head, then let go the thin and insulted line of her lips. “You are too good, Susannah. Your mother would have me do something entirely unsuitable, that you might come to Mr Webber’s eye in an appealing light.”
“My mama,” Susannah said with great and precise restraint, “sometimes mistakes the pursuit of my welfare for kindness, when to someone else it might be a terrible cruelty.”
“You are too good.” Elsa embraced Susannah, then, smiling again, returned to the joy of dancing and, she was not too proud to admit, the embarrassment of sometimes standing aside as others danced. She could not, though, be sad when it was her sisters who danced, or even Susannah: her heart was a merry thing, and she took as much joy in the happiness of others as in her own.
It was in this mein that Mr Dover saw her cross behind Masters Webber and Archer, the one speaking to the other in a scolding tone: “You must dance, Archer, I insist upon it. You look a perfect fool, standing upon imagined dignity when the room is full of lovely girls and too many of them go wanting a partner.”
Upon hearing this, Elsabeth paused, a smile curving her lips and curiosity cocking her head. She was quite unseen by the men, who stood shoulder to shoulder and gazed outward, overlooking the ballroom and its denizens as Archer spoke with clear distaste. “I certainly shall not dance. I detest the exercise unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner; you saw me dance with Caroline, and she is the only one here I would stir myself for. There is not another woman in this room with whom I could possibly stand up with.”
“I would not have your standards for a kingdom, Archer. I have never seen half so many pleasant girls in my life, and a fair portion of them are very pretty besides.”
“You have danced twice with the only lovely girl in the room.”
“Oh!” cried Mr Webber, “is she not the most beautiful creature you have ever seen? But you cannot imagine that she is the only fair woman here. Why, her next sister, Miss Elsabeth, to whom I introduced you, is very agreeable as well. You must find her, Archer, and ask her to dance.”
Archer did not so much as look around, else he might have seen Elsabeth’s eyebrows rise and the interested gaze she settled on his black-clad shoulders. “I recall,” he said instead, and with such stiffness that his entire person might have been laden with starch. “She was, I suppose, tolerable, but not nearly handsome enough to tempt me, nor, it seems, many of the other gentlemen here tonight. I certainly have no interest in young ladies who are slighted by other men. Go, Webber. Return to your partner, and waste no more effort conspiring to waste my time.”
Mr Webber replied, “You are confoundingly stubborn, Archer,” but did as he was bid, never looking behind himself to see Elsabeth Dover unmoving, a strained smile fixed beneath highly colored cheeks.
Archer did turn, and for the sharpest and most breathless of instants, was transfixed by the very same sort of strain and color that held Elsabeth in place. But then as one they drew their shoulders back, offered cordial, if uncomfortable, smiles to one another, and Miss Elsabeth indulged in a small curtsey as Archer strode past.
A floorboard that surely had been flush with its brethren only seconds before caught the toe of his beautiful boot. Elsabeth took a cunning half-step backward, removing herself from harm’s way, and the full length of Master Fitzwilliam Archer’s tall body was laid out on the floor with a crash that silenced every sound in the hall.
Across the room, Mr Dover offered a small, secret smile to the floor, and went to fetch his coat.