The Mulveys Give Dinner [Uskweirs #6]

It’s time for dinner at the Mulvey’s house in Bath.  Amelia and the other young people have returned from their refreshing walk up Solsbury Hill and now it is time to sit politely at the table with their elders, make conversation, and not screw up their voice training too much.

I had a lot of fun with the etiquette in play at this dinner—Regency manners are more bonkers than I thought they’d be—and really enjoyed the vignettes-of-character-interactions that I got to weave through them.  Hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed researching and writing!

The party’s hostess was attenuated and grey, with eyes that flashed with life only rarely. More often they sunk into a sort of jaded weariness that she wore like old familiar clothes. Otherwise Lady Mulvey was dressed in colorful silks and dripped with jewelry—fashions almost forty years out of date, not that she seemed to know or care. She regarded her assembled guests, most of them her husband’s invites, with blameless if perfunctory hospitality.

Amelia dipped a near-faultless curtsey when she was introduced, to the same bare response that everyone else received. Only Theresa Chesterley merited anything more: the old lady extended a hand, palm down, with a tight little smile. She then led them into the dining room.

The first course of fish and soup awaited them, laid out in a set of crockery that clearly but not ostentatiously communicated the Mulvey’s comfortable wealth. Eight chairs were arrayed down the table, four to a side.

“Francis, across from me, if you will,” she directed, waving at the near end of the table. “And Doctor Barry, I would be delighted to have you on my right. Theresa, dear, across from the good doctor. And then Miss Wright across from milord Ashbourne, with Miss Randall at his left.” Lord Mulvey took the remaining seat, at Amelia’s right and at the far end of the table from his wife, without comment.

Amelia might have hoped for Elizabeth’s seat at the end, but she reminded herself that she was here to interact with people, and so being at the middle of the table and surrounded by conversation partners was ideal, if slightly terrifying.

Talk began light, with Mulvey putting salmon on her plate and soup in her bowl, chattering about how Cook brought half of their native Hertfordshire with them whenever they repaired to Bath to take the waters. He had no idea if the local onions and carrots tasted any different than those at home, but he also could not argue with Cook’s results. Ashbourne asked if she cared for oysters, and when she answered in the affirmative, deposited two on her plate.

Being served by the men seated next to her was still new, and a little awkward. At least saying, “Oh, no, not so much, please,” or “Might I trouble you for a little more of that broth?” were easy enough. It was all going swimmingly until Amelia made passing mention that she had been visiting the Randalls.

“At Uskweirs?” the doctor at her elbow asked, eyebrows raised. “I haven’t been in London long, but I’ve heard it’s… lively there.”

Amelia opened her mouth to respond that it had actually been a rather quiet (if eventful) month, and then remembered. Faerieland rules. She couldn’t say she’d been to Uskweirs, not to someone who hadn’t. The words tangled up on her tongue and came out as an inarticulate squeak.

“We keep a quaint little house in Malvern,” Lord Ashbourne put in from across the table.

“Father raises horses there,” Elizabeth put in. “I feel like he raises horses everywhere, but especially in Malvern.”

“Oh, for racing or for working? Or show?” the doctor replied, happily led into an entirely different conversation with the viscount. Once the men were distracted, Elizabeth shot Amelia a short smile and a wink. Awkwardness smoothed over.

The first course was cleared and the second brought out: roast lamb encrusted with rosemary at Lord Mulvey’s end, a baked honey ham on his Lady’s. Amelia accepted slices of both and lost her earlier reservations about sitting at the middle of the table.

“Her aunt was one of my dearest friends,” the Lady Mulvey was explaining to Dr. Barry, nodding genially to Theresa. “Back in the days before ‘bluestocking’ was a dirty word.” When the woman across from her made a sympathetically rueful noise, she asked, “I don’t even know how the current state of affairs came about. Can you explain it, Theresa?”

Chesterley sniffed disdainfully. “Godwin did us no favors writing about his wife’s affairs, but I feel like that’s merely the foundation stones for more recent construction. Mostly I blame the war, but that’s hardly polite conversation.”

“Pish tosh,” the hostess scoffed, and the way that Theresa smiled betrayed that she had expected that exact reaction. “I doubt anyone at this table has any innocence to be preserved. Speak frankly.”

“Respecting the native abilities and powers of women was in vogue for a little while,” the woman across the table began, with no small measure of relish. “All across Europe. In France, this gave rise to the citoyennes: women invested with authority and responsibilities beyond the home. They quickly became an instrumental part of the Revolution, which is all well and good for the women in France… just not for women in England.”

“Not a rising tide for all our boats?” Lady Mulvey prompted encouragingly.

“Perhaps if it had happened in peacetime,” Theresa continued with a sad shrug. “But England is at war with France, has been at war with France for entirely too long, and so now the English must hate everything French. We hate the Revolution, even though we’ve had two, and we hate, inevitably, the citoyennes. If French women have power and authority, then English women must be their opposites, with no power and no authority and happy to have neither. And so the bluestockings, who were respected mavericks in thought and the arts before the war, are derided as squawking harridans in the papers today.”

“Do you think that disdaining the Revolution occurs only at the behest of the war machine?” Harcourt asked with the trace of a smile. “There’s no room left for actual disagreement over the ghastly state of their politics?”

“There’s no need for it,” came her ready and diffident reply. “Mark my words, it’s only a few years before England remembers that the light, high-waisted frocks that these young ladies are wearing mirror the dresses of Empress Josephine. Very suddenly everything that you now consider to be ladies’ fashion will become suspect, and replaced with some rough, heavy, and ‘properly English’ style.”

“Is there anything to be done?” Lady Mulvey asked, with the sort of unthinking assurance one occasionally finds in elders that a younger person, more in touch with the problems of the world, will also know how to fix them.

“About the bluestockings or the frocks?” Amelia put in with a slight smile, and was rewarded with laughter. She lifted her glass and gave Theresa an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make light. I’m afraid I’m terribly ignorant about all of this, and I’d love to know more.” Before she could interrupt further, she sipped.

Theresa answered indulgently: “I can’t say regarding the frocks, although I’ll be sad to see them go. As for the bluestockings? The rights of women?” She sighed. “I think my generation will be consigned to rear-guard actions, protecting what few steps of progress our mothers made. It may be some time before progress is again possible. Certainly not until this war is over.”

Lady Mulvey shook her head. “I’m very upset to hear that, Theresa. Not that I blame you, I’m sure you have the right of it. I should blame myself: I could have done more when I was young and full of vitality like you girls.”

“Milady, you can’t blame yourself,” Harcourt insisted.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” she snapped back, and then tried to make a joke of it: “After all that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Men telling women what to do.” Their end of the table chuckled, pretending they hadn’t heard the knives in her voice.

Conversation turned back to pleasantries until after the third course had been laid out. The light fare on offer struck a chord in Amelia and she soon set Doctor Barry, Lord Ashbourne, and Lord Mulvey all to provisioning her with salads, jellies, and cheeses.

“The good doctor comes recommended by Davie Erskine,” Lord Mulvey told Lord Ashbourne as they passed her plate around the three of them. “You remember him? Used to be Cardross, forever ago.”

“Recommended professionally or personally?” the viscount asked, with the sort of neutral conversational tone that said he already knew the answer.

“Personally, of course,” Mulvey laughed, a touch defensively. “He’s taking courses in London, not seeing patients. And the poor boy doesn’t know anybody in England, so his mentor thought I might help him make connections.”

“I din— don’t—know if I’d call him my mentor,” the doctor put in sheepishly. “I’d be quite honored to, of course, but… patron might be more apt. I’m terribly grateful for all his help.”

“Well, whatever your connection to old Cardross or to Lord Mulvey,” the viscount said with a practiced politesse that raised the hairs on the back of Amelia’s neck, “I should be honored to extend welcome to you.” She looked between the three men, trying to puzzle out what was being said without being said.

Finally she looked across to Elizabeth, who rolled her eyes.

Amelia resolved to interrupt whatever it was that was going on between them. “Doctor Barry, if you are already a doctor, why are you attending courses in London?” There. That was a good, sociable question, and she was moderately sure she had sounded right asking it.

“Well, a good doctor is never done learning,” he answered, “and there are a number of techniques and treatments being taught down here that haven’t yet reached Edinburgh. But mostly, I should like to be well-prepared before I join the army. There are diseases that aren’t typically seen on our fair island that I expect to encounter elsewhere in the Empire.”

“The army?” Amelia echoed. “My. You’re a braver man than… well. Than anyone I know, but my acquaintance is limited to civilians.”

Dr. Barry blushed at that, but shook his head. “Doctors rarely see the front lines, miss. Very little bravery involved. Mostly it just means that I’ll have a steady stream of work.” He winced slightly at where he’d turned the conversation, and pivoted: “Have you tried these pickles yet?”

Amelia hadn’t, the doctor amended the oversight, and the dinner proceeded apace. Chesterley spoke about the necessity of securing broad access to both education and divorce, one of which was popular but expensive while the other reform was deeply unpopular but would cost nothing. “In fact, taking legal fees into account, it would actually add to public coffers, not that that’s a good argument to put foward.” Harcourt did his best to look politely interested, but his face betrayed a turmoil to which he did not give voice.

Amelia was happy to indulge in the middle table conversation, in which Barry and Ashbourne talked horses with enthusiasm. While Amelia was hardly an equestrian, she could at least participate, keeping careful rein over her voice and inflection. More than once she tried to draw in Elizabeth, but the other girl seemed distracted and, as the evening drew on, bored.

Finally the whole table was cleared—service and plates, candles and cloth—so that desert could be laid out. Amelia had not been shirking her duty as a guest to enjoy her hosts’ hospitality, and had held out a silent hope that the last course would be spare. But as a burgeoning spread was all laid out—cakes, tarts, fruit, cheese, and even a flavored ice, carved into the shape of a swan—her mouth watered nonetheless. She settled on pleading with the men to give her the slightest portion of each.

For all its bounty, dessert turned out to be the shortest course. Amelia had hardly more than sampled her plate when Lady Mulvey’s voice, clear and just a touch too loud, cut through the gentle table patter like a knife: “That is quite enough, Francis. I am exhausted with this!” A moment of silence later, she rose from her seat.

Theresa and Elizabeth rose, as well, and a beat later Amelia followed suit.

Lady Mulvey said only, “Gentlemen,” turned on a heel, and swept out of the room. Amelia and the other ladies followed. They did not go far: just to the adjacent sitting room. As soon as the adjoining door was closed, the lady of the house pointed at a footman by the sidebar. “Brandies. No water.” And then she threw herself onto one end of a couch with a gusty sigh.

Amelia had all but stopped inside the room and now drifted into the little circle of chairs and couches, coming to the slow realization that she was completely adrift. She was with the women. After dinner. She had no idea what she was supposed to do. A footman pressed a tumbler of brandy into her hand. Like a hot air balloon losing air, she sank onto the other end of the couch from Lady Mulvey.

“I should not have lost my temper,” their hostess finally told her half-drained glass, and then glanced up at the other three ladies. “I’m sorry if I cut your evening short, girls.”

“Not at all,” Elizabeth insisted from her chair facing Mulvey’s couch.

Theresa leaned up against the sideboard. “By my estimation, milady, all you’ve done is improve the quality of conversation.”

“But he’s not even a boor,” the lady sighed. “He just… grates on my nerves so. It’s nothing he does, it’s not even who he is. It’s who Edgar has made him, or will make him, conveniently only after Edgar dies.”

Amelia looked from face to face, and then gently cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, milady. But… who is Edgar?”

Lady Mulvey gave her a weary look, blinked once, and smiled ruefully. “My husband. The current Lord Mulvey. As opposed to Mister Harcourt, who will be the future Lord Mulvey, because the current one could never be bothered to give me a child.”

Whatever Amelia was expecting, this was not it. All she managed to say was, “Oh.”

Lady Mulvey drained her glass and held it out to the footman. “Everyone assumes I am barren. Was barren. Certainly am barren, now! Thank you, dear,” she murmured as she took her refilled glass. “Sometimes I think… or I wonder… if it might have been true. Perhaps I was barren the entire time, and never had the opportunity to test the hypothesis.”

“I’ve told you before,” Chesterley remarked, gesturing with her glass, “you could have tested that hypothesis… independently.”

“Would that I had your counsel when I was your age, my dear,” Mulvey laughed, delighted. “There were so many men I would have fucked.”

This was not the after-dinner conversation that Amelia had been expecting to have with the ladies.

Their hostess leveled a finger at Amelia and Elizabeth both. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, young ones. Else you’ll end up like me, having to sit across from your nephew who, when your husband dies, will take charge of your house and your money and every other detail of your life. And he tries to be solicitous about it because he knows just as well as you do the trap you’re both in, but somehow that only makes it worse. And all you can do is hate him because it should be your own son in his place, but you were never allowed to have one.” She turned her attention to the bottom of her glass.

Amelia looked helplessly from the Lady Mulvey to the other two. Theresa simply looked grim. Elizabeth gave her a diffident shrug that said, “She’s always like this.”

“Do you have a mother?” the old lady asked suddenly, spearing Amelia with a piercing look.

“I—yes,” she answered, nodding slightly, hoping that that was the correct answer.

“Don’t let her marry you off,” she advised. “She’ll tell you that you want to marry, that everything will be better when you marry, that marrying will complete your life, but the thing you have to understand, dear, the thing that all you young girls need to understand and never do, is that you don’t understand anything.” She nodded as if she had said something profound.

Amelia wondered how much wine the lady had consumed at the table before even starting in on the brandy.

“Mothers. They marry you off before you understand anything,” Lady Mulvey went on. “And the men, they like it that way. They want you ignorant, because that makes you pliable. It lets them do whatever it is they want with you, your own happiness be damned.” She drained her glass again. “My mother betrayed me. Don’t let yours do the same to you.”

Amelia felt the need to say something, anything. She shrugged a little and attempted: “I don’t think my mother has any plans on finding me a husband, milady.” Elizabeth snorted softly into her tumbler. “But thank you for the advice, all the same.”

Lady Mulvey wasn’t listening. She set her glass down. “I believe I should retire while I can still manage the stairs. Theresa, it is always a pleasure to have you.” She pushed herself to her feet unsteadily, and Amelia leapt up to assist her. Mulvey batted her hand away. “You two, you’re both very pretty. Just try to be more than that. Or else….” and here she flung her hands down the length of her body. Or else you’ll become me.

The footman appeared at her elbow to help her to the door; Amelia caught a glimpse of a woman in maid’s livery taking her onwards from there.

Amelia was long in finding her own bed, mostly because, once the men joined them in the sitting room, Elizabeth wanted to stay up talking with Harcourt until the small hours of the night. Amelia, Dr. Barry, and Theresa made halting conversation on the other side of the room, Amelia awkwardly aware that she was distant and unsociable, perhaps overtired. Finally they turned to playing cards.

When the two girls finally returned to their room, Elizabeth didn’t even wait until the door was shut before seizing Amelia from behind. “What do you think of him?” she hissed in excitement.

“Think of… who?”

“Francis Harcourt, of course!” Elizabeth squealed, slipping out of her dress and kicking it into a corner.

Blushing, Amelia turned away to take off her own frock. The two of them had dressed and undressed in each other’s company uncountable times over the past month, but Amelia was still struck shy every time. “He seems a… charming gentleman.”

“He is a dream,” Elizabeth sighed, pouring steaming water into the basin. She talked as she scrubbed off her cosmetics. “He’s clever, he’s witty, he’s… incredibly handsome. Right now I’d tell you that he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever met, but I don’t count myself very reliable at the moment. And,” she added, pausing to raise a finger, “he remembered me.”

In her slip, Amelia sat on the bed, waiting her turn to wash. “You’ve met him before?”

“Once,” the other girl confirmed. “In London, and briefly. But he was just as perfect then.”

“You did seem to enjoy yourself today.” Suddenly, she understood Elizabeth’s distraction all yesterday and the day before. She’d been obsessing over seeing Harcourt again. “He seems like… a good friend.”

“Friend?” Elizabeth snorted. “I’m going to marry that man.” She yielded the basin and slipped into her side of the bed. “Even if it does mean becoming the next Lady Mulvey, eugh.”

Amelia washed silently. Elizabeth was prattling on about their hostess, who to hear the girl tell it, was always maudlin and drunk and full of high principles that she never followed through on. Amelia hardly heard her. It was only after she had crawled into bed herself that she asked, “Elizabeth? We can… we can get married?”

“I plan to,” the other girl answered from under the covers. “Don’t you?”

“But how?” she almost laughed. “You couldn’t keep… everything… a secret from him. Not in the marriage bed.”

“Of course not,” Elizabeth said, and she did laugh. “I’ll have to tell him at some point. When I know I can trust him. Preferably before he proposes, but after he falls in love with me.”

“You think that’s… possible? For girls like us?” Her voice fell to a whisper. “Love?”

“I refuse to believe that who I am makes me unworthy of love.” A rustling on Elizabeth’s side of the bed resolved into her finger, poking into Amelia’s side. “Nor should you.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *