Their house was immaculate, their reputation impeccable, and their company highly desirable. It would be easy to suspect in a cynical mind that it was for this reason alone that Mrs Elizabeth Rouge had written to her old friend. Jean Summers, however, was entirely lacking this frame of mind, and found the correspondance as delightful as her innocence could render it.
"Who?" Scott asked, looking up puzzled from his newspaper with teacup in hand.
"Lizzy Rouge, our friend from Brighton years ago. You remember, dear. She was married to that French banker, Mr Rouge. They live in Bath now."
"Oh yes." Mystery solved, he returned to the Times. "They had a daughter, didn't they?"
"Marie," Jean provided, continuing to read the letter. "That appears to be what she is writing me about. Oh, can Marie be seventeen already? How the time has passed. And she is out, of course. Just this year." She looked up, but her husband showed no interest in anything other than his paper or his tea, so she continued to read in silence, returning to the beginning of the letter.
'My dearest Jean,' the letter began, 'It seems scarcely yesterday that I was sitting down to begin a Christmas epistle to you, but how many weeks have passed. I was gladdened to hear that you and your husband continue in good health. We here in Bath are likewise well in body and mind. Pierre's nerves have not troubled him excessively this year, and I believe the local airs and waters are doing him a great deal of good. He is certainly much improved since this time last year.
'It is for a particular purpose that I set pen to paper today, however. Much as I would like to linger upon pleasantries, I have some small matter of business to relate. You may, I hope, remember our daughter, Marie. She is a great help to me and a constant joy to her father. Being now seventeen, we considered it high time she was out in society. As you are aware, however, we live very quietly here, despite the gaiety of the town all around us. Marie has also, in passing, expressed a desire to see the splendour of a London Season. She would not for anything press the issue, for she is the best girl in the world, but her father and I would dearly like to indulge her in this whim. Needless to say, Pierre's nerves would not stand the strain of London, especially in the Season. And even should that not stand in our way, I fear that we, with our small circle and plain tastes, would not provide the best of introductions to London society.
'So it is that I humbly submit a suggestion to your good self; that Marie should stay in London with you, and you provide her introduction to the Season. Your gracious assistance in this matter would be so gratefully received by both my husband and myself as to transcend all mortal boundaries. As for Marie, you will be helping her dream come true.
'Yours most sincerely, Lizzy Rouge.
'PS: Please remember me fondly to your dear uncle.'
"Well, of course she must come," Jean declared, setting down the letter by her breakfast plate.
"Who?" Scott repeated, finally folding his newspaper.
"Marie Rouge, my dear. Lizzy's daughter. Come here, and stay, for the Season. Oh yes, it will be delightful. She must go to the Richmond's ball, of course. And I am sure I could get her an invitation to Lady Musgrave's luncheon. We should procure a box at the opera as well, Scott."
Mr Summers raised an eyebrow. "You are surely not planning to make us all attend these ghastly events."
Jean smiled fondly at her husband. "I know you too well, husband. I know you only pretend to dislike society. Secretly you are as fond of those ghastly events as any other young peacock."
The dining room doors opened, cutting short Scott's stout denial of any such affections. Jean stood, draping her napkin across her empty plate, and went to greet her uncle. He was pushed in his bath chair by his nurse, as he usually was these days. Age had not been kind to his body, though his mind remained as sharp as ever, and his eyes as clear.
Jean kissed his bald head in greeting. "Good morning, Charles," she said brightly. "I have wonderful news. There will be an addition to our household within two months."
They resettled at the table and Charles looked to his niece. "Indeed, my dear? Whose company can we expect?"
"The daughter of our dear friend, Elizabeth Rouge. Do you remember her?"
Charles nodded. "The wife of that Frenchman - uncommonly good sense for one of his race, you could almost forgive him his nationality. The daughter was a pretty little button, I recall."
Jean smiled. "That pretty little button is now seventeen, Charles, and she has come out into society. Her mother has applied to us to introduce her to the London Season, and I can think of nothing more delightful."
"And I of nothing more tedious," Scott interjected, but there was a smile on his face echoed in Charles' chuckle.
"Well, my dear, the presence of pretty young women is always amenable to a man of my age. She will provide us with an excellent opportunity to attend a great many functions this Season." A sly smile towards Scott, who refused to rise to the bait, instead returning to his newspaper. "Write to your friend this very day, Jean."
"I believe I will."
And so, of course, she did. She wrote a reply similarly full of pleasantries to the French banker and his very dear wife. She wrote that they would be more than pleased to display for Marie the wonders of London during the Season. That she should come as soon as possible, for they were eagerly awaiting her arrival.
Yes, all too easy to cynically imagine that there must have been other acquaintances in the city who could be applied to, closer friends or even relatives. That perhaps Pierre's nerves were not quite so bad at all, or that it was unthinkable that a wealthy family in Bath could live so very quietly. But such allusions of deception have no place in a house where everything is moral and just. We shall consider them no more.
Let us continue, instead, to a date a month after the exchange of correspondance, and to a place where a slightly nervous but very excited young lady is entering a carriage. Marie Rouge, dressed in a brand new travelling costume, folded her hands in a very ladylike manner in her lap, and tried to calm herself, despite her mother's frantic last-minute repetitions to mind her manners, be on her best behaviour, and remember that this was a favour the Summers' need not have granted. Things she had heard a dozen times previously and was more than aware of.
When Lizzy Rouge - for it was indeed none other - launched again upon the details of Marie's journey, the girl could hold herself no longer, and interrupted. "Yes, Mother, I know. In our coach to the inn at the crossroads and thence to the Post. Through Mosley, and Wentworth, and Charleton. It will take a goodly time to reach London. Joseph will accompany me." She looked up to the male servant sitting across from her - a pleasant man of middle years - and smiled. "He will keep me safe. Who knows what sorts of ruffians ride the Post these days." They were her mothers words verbatim, and that good lady burst into tears at hearing them.
"My dear child, my only girl!" she cried, and pulled her daughter half out of the carriage again to embrace her one more time.
But in due course, though not with any substantial diminishing of the flood, the carriage drew away from the house of the Rouge family, with the father standing stern on the steps, and the mother who would have been waving her handkerchief, was it not engaged in its rightful employment.
Marie settled back into her seat, trying once again to calm herself. A London Season. Something she had scarcely dared to dream would be granted to her. Her stomach was all a roil of tumultuous emotions. She was nervous and excited, scared and thrilled. She hardly remembered London from childhood visits, and was sure that in the Season, it must transform into a veritable fairyland. She would go to balls. But would her dresses be good enough? No, surely not, she would be laughed at. Oh, how miserable. Better not to go at all.
But Mrs Summers would help her. Her mother was full of the praises of Mrs Summers. She was good, proper, elegant and accomplished. With her help, Marie could become the proper London lady, and have a dozen suitors at her feet.
Marie knew that was what her mother hoped for in sending her to London. A good husband, a gentleman certainly, a nobleman... something fervently wished for. Her daughter was pretty, and quite clever, and talented at the piano and her languages, if not quite so artistically gifted as a true young lady should be. Why should she not catch herself a good husband?
With a sigh, Marie acknowledge that she knew the reason why. She had found it, barely a month ago, in the form of a young man named David Randall. A gentleman he, son of a Knight, handsome and dashing as any young buck in Bath. He would make a special effort to walk with her, and to sit next to her at recitals, and he even gave her a gift once, a small book of poetry. But that was before he had discovered who her father was. A banker. His regard had vanished, evaporated. He nodded to her coldly in the streets, as she hurried by with tears burning unshed behind her eyes.
She was not a gentleman's daughter.
She sat up a little straighter in her seat. Well damn David. She knew her father would be shocked to hear her use such words, even in the silence of her own mind. Her mother would faint. But it was how she felt. Damn them all. Things would be different in London. She would be everything charming and gay and lively and she would entrance all the young men so much that they would not care if her father was a Russian peasant. She would catch herself a husband to make David Randall regret his arrogance.
She would. Oh please God, let it be so.