The carriage came to a halt. It hardly seemed a moment since she had climbed into it. But then the journey from Eaton Square to Belgrave Square was not worth taking out a carriage for and, if she’d had her way, she would have walked. Of course, in such matters she did not have her way. Ever. A moment later the postilion was down and the door had been opened. He held out his arm for her to steady herself as she negotiated the carriage steps. Anne took a breath to calm her nerves and stood. The house awaiting her was one of the splendid classical ‘wedding cake’ variety that had been going up for the previous twenty years in the recently christened Belgravia, but it contained few secrets for Anne Trenchard. Her husband had spent the previous quarter of a century building these private palaces, in squares and avenues and crescents, housing the rich of nineteenth-century England, working with the Cubitt brothers and making his own fortune into the bargain.
Two women were admitted into the house ahead of her and the footman stood waiting expectantly, holding the door open. There was nothing for it but to walk up the steps and into the cavernous hall where a maid was in attendance to take her shawl, but Anne kept her bonnet firmly in place. She had grown used to being entertained by people she scarcely knew, and today was no exception. Her hostess’s father-in-law, the late Duke of Bedford, had been a client of the Cubitts and her husband, James, had done a lot of work on Russell Square and Tavistock Square for him. Of course, these days, James liked
to present himself as a gentleman who just happened to be in the Cubitt offices by chance, and sometimes it worked. He had successfully made friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, of the Duke and his son, Lord Tavistock. As it happened, his wife, Lady Tavistock, had always been a superior figure in the background, leading another life as one of the young Queen’s ladies of the bedchamber, and she and Anne had hardly spoken more than a few civil words over the years, but it was enough, in James’s mind, to build on. In time the old Duke had died, and when the new Duke wanted James’s help to develop the Russells’ London holdings still further, James had dropped the hint that Anne would like to experience the Duchess’s much talked-about innovation of ‘afternoon tea’, and an invitation had been forthcoming.
It was not exactly that Anne Trenchard disapproved of her husband’s social mountaineering. At any rate, she’d grown used to it. She saw the pleasure it brought him – or rather, the pleasure he thought it brought him – and she did not begrudge him his dreams. She simply did not share them, any more now than she had in Brussels almost thirty years before. She knew well enough that the women who welcomed her into their houses did so under orders from their husbands, and that these orders were given in case James could be useful. Having issued the precious cards, to balls and luncheons and dinners and now the new ‘tea’, they would use his gratitude for their own ends until it became clear to Anne, if not to James, that they were governing him by means of his snobbery. Her husband had placed a bit in his own mouth and put the reins into the hands of men who cared nothing for him and only for the profits he could guide them to. In all this, Anne’s job was to change her clothes four or five times a day, sit in large drawing rooms with unwelcoming women and come home again. She had grown used to this way of life. She was no longer unnerved by the footmen or the splendour that seemed to be increasingly lavish with every year that passed, but nor was she impressed by it. She saw this life for what it was: a different way of doing things. With a sigh she climbed the great staircase with its gilded handrail beneath a full-length portrait of her hostess in the fashions of the Regency by Thomas Lawrence. Anne wondered if the picture were a copy, made to impress their London callers while the original sat happily ensconced at Woburn.
She reached the landing and made her way into another predictably large drawing room, this one lined in pale blue damask, with a high painted ceiling and gilded doors. A great many women sat about on chairs and sofas and ottomans, balancing plates and cups and frequently losing control of both. A smattering of gentlemen, point-device in their outfits and obviously creatures of leisure, sat gossiping among the ladies. One looked up at her entrance in recognition, but Anne saw an empty chair at the edge of the gathering and made for it, passing an old lady who started to lunge for a sandwich plate which was sliding away from her, down her voluminous skirts, when Anne caught it. The stranger beamed. ‘Well saved.’ She took a bite. ‘It is not that I dislike a...