1800. London. A Clandestine Meeting
’Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’. —William Congreve (The Mourning Bride, 3.8)
She had waited for him to appear for some time. Those who had first seen her enter the breakfast room noted that she was well-dressed against the unseasonably cold weather, and in a way that put many of the other women there into an envious state of mind. She was not a young lady, probably about thirty, but had not yet lost her good looks.
Her slight impatience as she had looked about the room, had been obvious to those who delighted in the rewarding pastime of watching how people carried themselves as they scurried about, or waited—patiently or impatiently. There was a story to be read in everything that happened, and few such stories were ever as innocent as they might at first seem, and possibly not in this case. She knew she was the focus of general attention, but there was nothing she could do about it, so she accepted it and ignored it as a person of breeding must.
When she did deign to return a curious glance, she met that glance with unwavering eyes in a barely smiling face, seeing the observer quickly look elsewhere. She was difficult to read. They would wait, observe, and speculate. She had not stayed overnight in this establishment—unless she had gone for a late morning walk in the park opposite—but had arrived for a meeting with someone. Why else would she be here? She almost certainly was married. A single woman would not choose to be here without escort or a companion, nor would be as assured as this one was. She was waiting for a man—that much was obvious. He must perhaps be a resident of the hotel, and she had arranged to meet him in that coffee room. He would be neither brother nor husband, or she would have gone straight up to his room. She had dressed for a man—carefully choosing her clothing to emphasize her not-insubstantial attributes, knowing that her appearance could not be faulted by any man who still had an ounce of life left in him, while causing any respectable woman observing her, to wonder what game she might be playing.
Those who observed her saw the possibility of intrigue in every nuance of what happened or did not happen—a deeper breath, almost a sigh, an impatient gesture as though sweeping a fly away from her, a fleeting glance as someone entered the room but not the one she expected—or a start, as some piece of cutlery was dropped. The lady’s growing anxiety and impatience (though quite well hidden) had become more evident for some minutes as she glanced often at the large clock that sat like a sentinel over by the entryway. He was late! She tried to ignore those who were curious about her. Her obvious stiffness had been soon enough hidden and replaced by a look of silent triumph when she had seen him walk into the dining room at last.
He was dressed as a gentleman—well enough not to attract attention and with no vain ostentation. He had a sharp penetrating eye from which others glanced away when it fell upon them. He seemed nervous as well as cautious. Reassured that he knew no one, he approached the table but did not immediately sit down. The observers waited in anticipation for some sign of affection between them, but they were both too careful to betray themselves. Rather than being a meeting between two lovers away from the prying eyes of those who might know them or their spouses, it seemed to be an uncomfortable meeting—at least for him.
She had a smile of welcome on her face that would have softened any heart, but he remained standing and tense. Had they been found out, and this meeting was the last they dared have with each other? No one was looking directly at them, and yet they were the focus of attention for many of those in that room who wished that they might overhear them.
“After you had not responded to any of my letters, I was not sure you would come.” Her smile was not returned. He did not incline his head or bow to acknowledge her. It was not a meeting he was comfortable with. He stood there with a look on his face that was devoid of any obvious feeling, either of joy, happiness, or annoyance—to those who could see his face—as he seemed to debate whether or not to sit down. He seemed ill at ease and gave the appearance that he would rather have been somewhere else. They were not to know that he felt a nagging premonition concerning why she had suggested they meet surreptitiously, as they were doing. As the moments dragged out, it became clear that he was there against his better judgment.
They must have been found out.
“I was not sure that I would come either, Mrs. Enright.” He sat down, loath to attract even more attention to himself and to appear out of place to those who were still curious about him. He kept his concerns about meeting with her to himself. He was aware of the difficulties she might cause him, just as she had for her husband a year and more earlier, when he had gone against her. She had endeavored to ruin his reputation at a distance after that, until her efforts had suddenly faced the sobering reality of seeing her situation become less comfortable and secure if she did not desist.
She skated beyond the brief interruption. “I would have preferred Lyons, but I believe you decided that it would be too public, and that you might be recognized. I am at a loss as to why you might not wish to be seen in my company.”
He had no such lack of understanding. Nor did she.
“We encountered each other once, Madam, and that was once too often for me, as your subsequent attempts to contact me each week showed. I returned your letters, unopened. I should have declined to meet you here even. You are dangerous, ma’am.”
She laughed at the truth of that, but the observers noted that her initially excited look had been replaced by one less relaxed. It might not be going as she had intended.
“Only in a playful way where you are concerned, Reginald. I am not so much dangerous, as attentive to what is important to me.”
“They amount to the same thing in a woman’s mind when things do not go her way.” He was wary. She could see the look on his face. He was not comfortable recalling their only meeting.
“Oh dear. Not a good start. No pleasant smile. No kind inquiry after my health, which, you will be pleased to hear, is good. Madam, and not my name—Serena. You cannot have forgotten it so soon. You said it in my ear often enough once we had moved past the initial introductions so rapidly and decisively. Oh, Reginald, Mr. Morton, how ungallant of you, sir!” She seemed to be the one in control of the way things might go.
He was not comfortable with her using his name so easily in this place. Others might make note of it. She nodded to the waiter who had placed a coffee in front of each of them, disappointed that they had then fallen silent as they had studied each other, and he was not about to overhear any of their conversation, and left the silver carafe at one side of the table.
“I remember once that my name flowed so easily, even tenderly from your lips not so long after we first encountered each other. What we did together happens quite often you know, between like-minded adults, even in polite society, though always in private. It is never openly spoken of, except as we seem to be doing, though is often the subject of speculation and idle gossip.” She looked at him suggestively from under her long eyelashes, almost blushing at the pleasure that she remembered they had shared that afternoon, but he remained silent. He did not share her memory of that moment in the same way.
She sighed. He was going to be difficult, and it was not going to be the meeting she had hoped that it might be. “Is that why you did not open or answer my letters, or write more than the formal one of your own, agreeing to our first meeting?” He had been justifiably alarmed by her intent after that first meeting, with her striving to draw him into providing a trail of correspondence that he would be unable to deny. “I still treasure that first one in response to my own, though it was far too formal and precise, and lacked the promise of our subsequent meeting. ’Dear Madam, my steward and I will meet with your manager’ . . . etcetera.” She waved her hand, dismissing the rest of it. “Still, we had not then met, had we? And you were not to know what awaited you once you had sent your own man off for the doctor. He would never find him, however—I had seen to that, and even if he had, he would not have known where to find us, or where we might have gone. You were not to know what awaited you after that, though the fact that I had left my own man behind and met with you alone should have alerted you to my possible intent.” She seemed to be enjoying his discomfort.
After the waiter was well out of range, the gentleman spoke. He laid his hat and cane on the chair beside him. He would be careful not to provoke a scene from which it would be difficult to extricate himself.
“Yes, I should have taken warning from that. It may have seemed innocent at first, but there was nothing innocent about what happened after that between us. I rapidly became aware that you knew exactly what you were doing, however, though I was too slow to wake up to that. You had planned the entire thing to go as it did, to ensnare and trap me in a difficult situation. I regret that I did not have more restraint and more backbone myself. More character.” She laughed at his charming naiveté and simplicity.
“Oh, dear Reginald. Are you really so innocent? Yes, you are. You could no more resist what happened between us than a hungry dog might refuse a marrow bone. However, it did go forward as I intended that it would. By the time you woke up to what I had planned, it was too late for you.” She smiled, almost sympathetically. “But you should not agonize over that as you seem to do, nor feel any twinge of conscience about what happened. Do not blame yourself.” She reached across and patted his hand before he might remove it.
“A clever and patient woman who knows what she wants, and who intends to have it, can overcome the reservations of any man, if she but thinks about how best to do it and lays the scene. My mother always told me that in matters of the heart, one must play the man, and the emotional advantage she always enjoys with her alluring female advantages—if she knows how to use them—and must never reveal her hand until after the game is played. It is just a pity that I chose the wrong man for my first adventure”—she hurried to correct what he might think—“not you—my husband.
“It is so easy, really. You are all like little boys in front of a plate of sweets, and so predictable when presented with the right stimulating temptation—helpless to refuse a woman’s gentle entreaties as the clothes inevitably come off, with the correct sounds of ladylike resistance and expected protest—albeit to be sure that I was not injured, as my cries persuaded you that I had been. At least that is how I intended I should appear. Despite my tears, and my resistance and reservations, you managed to overrule my weakening protestations and shyness, eventually, as I knew you would. I thought I gave a credible performance of being shy and protective of my virtue, despite my injuries . . .”
“Feigned injuries!” he corrected her. She had been neither shy nor modest once she had seen how easily he had been aroused.
“. . . Fleeting injuries, as I tried to keep you from discovering too much of me too quickly, though I did not try so hard”—she blushed at the memory—“relenting only when I could resist your necessary, persistent efforts borne of a disarming concern for me, no longer. I was truly touched. I kept myself covered quite well, some of the time, though I failed at the last, once my gentle resistance crumbled and left me exposed, vulnerable, and eagerly welcoming of your attentions, but you were not to know that. I tried to make it seem difficult for you, so that you would have to overrule me and then let nature take its course. I almost could not contain my excitement or my laughter at how easy it was, with you suffering, as you so obviously were, with that horn colic condition that told me all about you. You were the one who was entirely helpless about then, and I was not about to object to learning more about that—and you.” She smiled understandingly at him as she picked up her cup and sipped at the coffee.
“That was how I also trapped my husband into marrying me, though he needed more encouragement. I should have taken warning from that.” She frowned at that thought, momentarily marring her otherwise perfect countenance. “I needed what he had—a fine house, a title, position, money. But then I did not realize how well he might deny me them too, after I saw him leave me, trapping me in exile miles from London—penniless, in the bleak and inhospitable countryside. A fine house then becomes little more than a prison. What use is wealth if one does not control it or use it? What value is a title if one cannot flaunt it in broader society? He denied me both. He made sure that I could not pester him in London, for fear of me seeing my limited allowance cut off totally or that I might be exiled even further out. This is my first visit in a year.”
He corrected her, “He did not leave you, as you say. You deliberately made his life with you unbearable. You saw that he would have no choice in going, but without you having thought about the consequences. Surely you did not think he would feel kind enough to you after that obvious betrayal of his affection, to take you with him, or to empower you in any way in society. You tormented and hounded the poor man until he realized that he could no longer live under the same roof with you. You should have known that he would starve you of funds after that when he saw your intent in trying to ruin him, although he does give you a generous allowance—conditional upon you staying away from London, of course, and not stirring up trouble for him.” Her eyes flashed to his face. How did he know all that?