As the carriage rattled up the long, winding drive of Calcorton Hall, Clarissa, Countess of Carlisle, looked out of the window with no more than a vague interest. Two years ago, as a mere governess, she would never have dreamed of accepting an invitation of the sort that had brought her here. A year later, newly married and a countess, she had had even less interest in flirting and debauchery. Rumour, she knew, said that the death of her husband in a riding accident had damaged, if not her reason, her morals; and, in her darker moments, she was inclined to agree. Within a month of becoming a widow, she was drifting this way and that in society, a leaf on the wind. But better that than Carlisle House, with memories of Rupert lurking around every corner ready to pounce on her, and the visions of drowning and death that haunted her nightmares.
With a slight jump, she realised that the carriage had come to a halt some little while ago, and the coachman was already opening the door and lowering the steps. Clarissa climbed cautiously out, and took in the scene. At first glance the Hall appeared to be in the Palladian style, and so new that the paint on its woodwork was barely dry. But from the less-than-symmetrical gables and jumbled assortment of chimneys lurking behind the brand new frontage, it was clear that this was merely a new front attached to a far older building.
Before Clarissa could give the scene any more of her attention, she became aware of a tall, plump, florid-faced gentleman hurrying down the steps of the portico to greet her. Behind him, a stately, impassive butler was followed by two footmen and a maid.
"Your ladyship." The fop bustled up to her and kissed her hand. "May I say how honoured we are by your presence? Lord Petimont, at your service. Welcome to my family's humble abode."
"Thank you." Clarissa knew Petimont only by reputation, but to her way of thinking there was little to choose between him and most of polite London society. "You have been kindness itself to invite me."
"I assure you, it was the least we could do." Petimont finally straightened up, and waved at his servants. "See that the Countess's luggage is dealt with, Mortlock."
The butler bowed stiffly, then turned to the footmen. "Samuel. William. You heard his lordship."
"Y'see," Petimont went on, as the footmen started to unload Clarissa's trunk from the carriage, "I thought: Here's a young lady, who's had, pardon me, some deuced bad luck — I'm afraid I never had the honour of knowing your late husband — and I thought: What she needs is taking out of herself. Meet some fresh faces."
"That was very... thoughtful of you," Clarissa said.
"And I'll wager you won't find a livelier party in all of England." He held out his arm to Clarissa. "Please, come in. You'll want to change after your journey." He cast what he probably thought was a furtive glance at the carriage. "I daresay all those widow's weeds are just the thing for the public to see — but not quite the thing for a house party, eh?"
Clarissa nodded. "Your point is well made."
"Good show. You'll have—" He turned to the butler. "Mortlock, what's the girl's name?"
"Judith, my lord."
"Of course." He nodded at the maid. "She'll be at your disposal for your visit. Help you with clothes, and so forth." He let out a disconcerting chuckle. "If you decide to wear any, of course."
Clarissa's room was in the new part of the building, on the second floor, with a view from the window over recently-landscaped grounds, and woodland beyond. On looking out she had been struck, once again, by the remoteness of the Hall. If she had to get anywhere on her own feet, it would be at least an hour's walk.
"So what sort of thing goes on at these parties?" she asked.
Judith, who had been carefully arranging Clarissa's dresses in the wardrobe, gave a little squeak of surprise at being addressed.
"Well, my lady," she began, ground to a halt, and blushed hotly.
"Go on," Clarissa said, trying to adopt the encouraging tone she had used on her shyer pupils, back in her governess days.
"It's said Lord Petimont's parties are the wildest in England, my lady. I couldn't speak to that, not having served anywhere but here." She looked down. "I don't think there's much that doesn't happen at his parties. Drinking, and gambling, and... horseplay. With the young ladies, I mean." She briefly looked up at Clarissa, as if seeking approval. In Judith's eyes, Clarissa surmised, she was another hedonistic aristocrat, and debauchery and depravity were just what she was looking for in a house party. Well, they passed the time, at least.
"Sounds like fun," Clarissa said, forcing a smile.
Judith blushed again. "Will that be all, my lady?"
"The bell's by the fireplace, my lady, when you want me again." And with that, the maid curtseyed, and backed out of the room, nearly knocking an occasional table to the floor as she did so.
"Right." Clarissa walked across to the wardrobe, and began the tedious but necessary process of choosing a dress for the evening.
Despite the rumours of nameless depravities, the preparations for dinner had been nothing but formal and conventional. Clarissa had arrived in the mansion's salon — another new room, fitted out in the most recent and lavish taste — and there been introduced to her fellow guests. Most were already known to her, at least by sight. For example, the large, boisterous, careless man with straw-coloured hair, whom anybody might have thought to be a blacksmith, was none other than Sir Philip Thorn, the Secretary of State at War. And the dazzlingly-attired young lady pretending no more than a casual acquaintance with him was the notorious Belle Prentice, one of London's elite circle of courtesans, widely rumoured to be his mistress. There were those who said that it was she, rather than Sir Philip, who was chiefly responsible for recent successes in the seemingly endless war against the French.
As she watched Miss Prentice exchange a few words with one Mr Ruthven, the heir to a large estate in Bedfordshire, Clarissa heard a polite cough behind her. She turned to see Lord Petimont, with another young woman in tow: one completely unknown to Clarissa.
"Your grace, permit me to present to you Lady Pink, Countess of Carlisle," Petimont said, addressing the unknown woman. "Lady Pink: Her Grace the Duchess of Wolfingham."
"Nice to meet you," the Duchess said. She spoke with a Lancashire accent that reminded Clarissa of her days as a governess in that county, and her sharp blue eyes surveyed Clarissa with the clear implication that she could take Clarissa or leave her. Her hair was auburn, styled in an elaborate profusion of curls; in height she was no taller than Clarissa; and her costume verged on the risqué.
A few tactful enquiries from Clarissa brought forth the information that the Duchess was not accompanied by her husband, or any of her retainers. Like Clarissa, she had not attended one of Lord Petimont's house parties before, and the distance of Wolfingham from London had precluded her from joining London society. Clarissa, while commenting that this had deprived London of its brightest jewel, found herself wondering if the Duchess was really all she seemed. Her grasp of etiquette seemed sketchy, and any questions Clarissa asked about Wolfingham were answered with the most general platitudes. Had Lord Petimont connived in her introduction to the party, or had she deceived him?
Not, Clarissa thought, that it mattered much. Any attractive, young, well-dressed woman — and the Duchess certainly qualified on that score — would doubtless be allowed to join this house party without the slightest hesitation.