At the age of twenty-six, Agnes Keeping had never been in love or ever expected to be—or even wished to be. She rather chose to be in control of her own emotions and her own life, such as it was.
At the age of eighteen she had chosen to marry William Keeping, a neighboring gentleman of sober address and steady habits and modest means, after he had very properly called upon her father to make his offer and had then made her a very civil marriage proposal in the presence of her father’s second wife. Agnes had been fond of her husband and comfortable with him for almost five years before he died of one of his frequent winter chills. She had mourned him with an empty sort of desolation for longer than the requisite year of wearing her black widow’s weeds and still sadly missed him.
She had not been in love with him, however, or he with her. The very idea seemed absurd, suggestive as it was of a wild, unbridled sort of passion.
She smiled at her image in the glass as she tried to imagine poor William in an unbridled passion, romantic or otherwise. But then her eyes focused upon herself, and it occurred to her that she had better admire her splendor now while she had the chance, for once she arrived at the ball, it would be instantly apparent that in reality she did not look very magnificent at all.
She was wearing her green silk evening gown, which she loved despite the fact that it was far from new—indeed, she had had it when William was still alive—and had not been in the height of fashion even when it was. It was high waisted with a moderately low neckline and short puffy sleeves and was embroidered with silver thread about the hem and the edges of the sleeves. It was not shabby despite its age. One did not, after all, wear one’s best evening gown very often, unless one moved in far more elevated social circles than Agnes did. She had been living for several months now in a modest cottage in the village of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire with her elder sister, Dora.
Agnes had never attended a ball before. She had been to assemblies, of course, and it could be argued that a ball was the same thing by another name. But really there was a world of difference. Assemblies were held in public halls, usually above an inn. Balls were private entertainments hosted by those rich and socially prominent enough to inhabit a house with a ballroom. Such people and such houses did not abound in the English countryside.
There was one close by, however.
Middlebury Park, a mere mile from Inglebrook, was a stately mansion belonging to Viscount Darleigh, husband of Agnes’s new and dear friend, Sophia. The long wing east of the massive central block housed the state apartments, which were dazzlingly magnificent—or so they had appeared to Agnes when Sophia had given her a tour one afternoon not long after they first met. They included a spacious ballroom.
The viscount had succeeded to his title when his uncle and cousin died a sudden and violent death together, and it was only now, four years later, that Middlebury Park had again become the social center of the neighborhood. Lord Darleigh had been blinded at the age of seventeen when he was an artillery officer in the Peninsular Wars, two years before the title and property and fortune became his. He had lived a retired life at Middlebury until he met and married Sophia in London in the late spring of this year, just before Agnes herself moved to the neighborhood. His marriage and perhaps a growing maturity had instilled in the viscount a confidence he had apparently lacked before, and Sophia herself had set about the task of assisting him and at the same time making a new life for herself as mistress of a large home and estate.
Hence the ball.
The two of them were reviving the old tradition of a harvest ball, which had always been held early in October. It was being spoken of in the village, however, as more of a wedding dance and reception than a harvest celebration, for the viscount and his wife had married quietly in London a mere week after they met, and there had been no public celebration of their nuptials. Even their families had not been in attendance. Sophia had promised soon after she arrived at Middlebury that a reception would be held at some time in the foreseeable future, and this ball was it, despite the fact that Sophia was already increasing, a condition that could no longer be quite hidden despite the current fashion for dresses with loosely flowing skirts. Everyone in the neighborhood knew, even though no official announcement had been made.
It was no exclusive honor to have been invited to the ball, for almost everyone else from the village and the surrounding countryside had been invited too. And Dora had quite a close connection with the viscount and his wife, since she gave both of them pianoforte lessons as well as instruction in the violin and harp to Lord Darleigh. Agnes had been Sophia’s friend ever since they had discovered a mutual passion for art, Agnes as a watercolorist, Sophia as a very clever caricaturist and illustrator of children’s stories.
There were to be other, more illustrious guests at the ball than just the people from the neighborhood, however. Lord Darleigh’s sisters and their husbands were coming, as well as Viscount Ponsonby, one of the viscount’s friends. Sophia had explained that the two men were part of a group of seven persons who had spent several years together in Cornwall recovering from various war wounds. Most of them had been military officers. They called themselves the Survivors’ Club and spent a few weeks of each year in company with one another.
Sophia had family members coming too: her uncle Sir Terrence Fry, a senior government diplomat, and another uncle and aunt—Sir Clarence and Lady March—with their daughter.
It all sounded very imposing and had Agnes looking forward to it with something bordering on excitement. She had never thought of herself as a person who coveted social splendor, just as she did not think of herself as someone who would ever fall in love. But she was eagerly anticipating this ball, perhaps because Sophia herself was, and Agnes had grown very fond of her young friend. She earnestly wanted the ball to be a great success for Sophia’s sake.