Many Foibles of Manner
A young man or woman upon first entering into society should select those persons who are most celebrated for the propriety and elegance of their manners. They should frequent their company, and imitate their conduct. There is a disposition inherent in all, which has been noticed by Horace and by Dr. Johnson, to imitate faults, because they are more readily observed and more easily followed. There are, also, many foibles of manner and many refinements of affectation, which sit agreeably upon one man, which if adopted by another would become unpleasant. There are even some excellences of deportment which would not suit another whose character is different.
Decorum, page 26
As the cab sped toward the Worths’, Blanche receded further and further from Connor’s consciousness. The wide boulevards, green parks, and fashionable squares whetted his appetite for more than a festive dinner. Thanksgiving would be an auspicious occasion, he was sure—a baptism, a confirmation. Yes, he would mark November twenty-seventh as his birthday. Though the real date of his birth eluded him, the year, 1847, was burned into history—the year that pushed Ireland over the precipice. Today would be a day of renewal, a day of great things. Connor even dared to picture himself dandling Worth grandchildren on his knee, children who might one day look favorably upon their old Uncle Connor. The cab pulled up in front an imposing stone structure with turrets and balconies and leaded glass and wide steps that swept up from the street to massive double doors of dark-stained oak. Old gas lamps on the front on the castle-like mansion were the only hints of warmth. A moat and a drawbridge would not have surprised him.
He rang the bell. A footman answered the door and with a cordial but businesslike manner ushered Connor in and took his hat, coat, and stick. Humble the gathering may be, he thought, but not the surroundings. Everywhere were the fruits of wide-ranging interests—magnificent ornaments gathered from their travels with none of the vulgar curiosities of distant cultures so often displayed on a pianoforte under a bell jar. The royal blue carpet contrasted with the warm yellow of the carved oak paneling. Chinese porcelains of all sizes with nature scenes and stylized flowers adorned the mantelpiece above a crackling fire. A magnificent sideboard of intricately carved tiger oak offered a host of nooks and crannies for displaying more chinoiserie. The graceful staircase swept up to the top of the landing where an exquisite Tiffany window depicted Oriental flowers, birds, and insects.
The house was not in the state of chaos Connor had expected, as several of the littlest Worths had just gone down for their afternoon naps. Mrs. Worth greeted him. She was stylishly dressed, if a bit overdone, he thought, but was an attractive woman, round, soft, and white-haired with piercing dark eyes.
“I’m so glad you could join us, Mr. O’Casey. I hope our humble family gathering won’t tax you too much, being a bachelor.”
“May I compliment you on your wonderful home, ma’am.” Connor was shown upstairs to the drawing room. The kind of home he could see himself in, he thought, presided over by a woman of taste and accomplishment. And where does one find a Mrs. Worth—or more to the point, a Mrs. O’Casey—to find the right bits and bobs to adorn a man’s life and home and do him proud? “I understood from Mr. Worth that you’re an exceptional collector. It’s clear to me now that he was being modest on your behalf. If time permits, I’d be pleased to have a tour.”
“The pleasure would be mine, Mr. O’Casey, I’m sure,” she said, much gratified. “And if the day gets away from us today, perhaps I may have the pleasure on another occasion.” Another occasion? A good sign, thought Connor.
He followed her to a sprawling room of dark, fumed oak where the light of two large fireplaces danced merrily against the high polish. Her heels clicked on the parquetry between the thick Persian rugs. East had moved West, with dark medieval European pieces mixed with the contemporary.
The older Worth grandchildren were strewn across the floor, absorbed in puzzles, maps, building bricks, and games, except for one little girl of six, clearly bored, half-reclining in an overstuffed chair, and absently stroking a cat. The men lounged in comfortable chairs, chatting or reading the newspaper. The eldest daughter and granddaughter were the only adult females in attendance. The gentlemen rose as Mrs. Worth introduced the ladies, two sons, and two sons-in-law, who in turn introduced the scatterlings, who sprang to their feet and came forward to shake Connor’s hand.
One of the younger ones was a freckle-faced boy of eight with strawberry blond hair, wearing a paper sailor’s hat and sporting a home-made sword. “You look like a pirate,” he said to Connor.
“Jeremiah!” said Mrs. Worth as the rest of the children giggled and adults suppressed smiles—except for Jeremiah’s mother, Mrs. Edith Blackhurst, who shot Jeremiah a look of reprimand.
“And so I am, Master Jeremiah,” said Connor, amused, but glaring at him soberly with his dark, disturbing eyes. This bit of frankness gave Connor courage. “I’ve sailed the Seven Seas and plundered and pillaged, too.”
Jeremiah turned to his siblings and cousins. “See, I told you,” he whispered.
“We Worths teach our young ones to size people up from an early age, Mr. O’Casey,” said the eldest son.
“Heavens, Frederick,” said his sister, Mrs. Blackhurst. “What will Mr. O’Casey think?”
“It’s amazing how accurate they can be when they’re not burdened by adult biases and misconceptions,” said Connor. “They’ve got only their gut instincts to go on, beg pardon ladies, so off they go.” Frederick laughed at the remark.
“Then perhaps we should take their accounts more seriously,” said the senior Mr. Worth, smiling as he strode across the room, followed by the remaining Worth women.
“We should at that, Father,” said Frederick.
“Don’t encourage him, Mr. O’Casey,” said his wife, as she came up and stood beside her husband. “He’s bad enough on his own. I’m Mildred Worth, Frederick’s wife.” Mr. Worth senior completed the introductions, presenting Linton Blackhurst, Edith’s husband, and the Worths’ younger daughter, Margaret, married to Samuel Curry. First impressions all round seemed favorable. Connor couldn’t know that only hours before, the elder Mr. Worth had given the family its marching orders.
“Of course I know his reputation,” Mr. Worth had said. “And yes, I know about this woman of his. She was not invited and, God willing, he’ll have the good sense not to bring her along. If he does, we’ll know what we’re dealing with.”
“But Father,” protested Margaret. “How are we to explain such a person to the children?”
“There’s nothing to explain, my dear. No one need know anything about him other than that he is a business associate of mine. He’s a big fish, and likely to become an even bigger fish.”
“Or simply more fishy,” chimed in Frederick.
“And,” said Mr. Worth, paying no heed, “I’d rather he swim in this pond than jump the dam and wind up in someone else’s pond.”
“Father, for heaven’s sake.”
“Edith, he’s done absolutely nothing to offend thus far. He has bent over backwards to accommodate me at every turn. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders and has wisely pointed out particulars where we might have put a foot wrong. He’s no fool, even if he is a bit lax in the morals department. And he’s a friend of Jerry Jerome’s, whose friendship I’d like to keep. Besides, there have been many sound men of business—and politics, and the law, and any other profession you can name—who have had the misfortune to suffer from their own little personal weaknesses of one kind or other.”
“Little?” Margaret exclaimed.
“Personally, I think he’s a lost soul in some ways,” said Mr. Worth.
“Oh, Father, you’re worse than Mother,” said Edith.
“Thank you, my dear.”
“But Father, do you have to drag him into our drawing room?”
“Yes, my dear Edith, I do.”
“Well I, for one, am willing to give him a chance,” said Frederick. “He might prove quite amusing.”
“However much I appreciate your support, Fred—and I do—I still expect you to be polite to Mr. O’Casey,” said Mr. Worth.
“I wouldn’t dream of being otherwise, Father,” Frederick said, more seriously. “I’m curious about Mr. O’Casey, to see whether he’s the devil incarnate that Edith thinks he is.”
“If this is important to you, Father,” said Linton Blackhurst, who had been listening in silence to the family harangue, “then I’m with Fred. If he makes a gaffe he hurts no one but himself. If he comes off well, so much the better for all of us.”
“Thank you, Lin. My point exactly,” said Mr. Worth. “Innocent until proven guilty.”
So, unbeknownst to Connor, he had leapt over the first hurdle—leaving Blanche to sulk at the hotel, much to the collective relief of the Worth women—and spent the afternoon charming the family.
Thank God for the children, Connor thought: amiable buffers to awkwardness and an endless topic of conversation. Whenever possible, he queried the children directly regarding their ages and interests, their schooling and subjects. In turn, they plied him with questions about sailing, which eventually led to other kinds of travel, then to questions about distant shores. It ended with Connor sitting in a club chair with an atlas open on a large ottoman and the children gathered around, pointing to places on a large map. To most of their questions Connor could formulate a reasonably accurate answer and for those that he could speak to from experience he had a ready fable fit to entertain. He feared he might have overstepped the bounds of decorum, but the children’s pleasure, Connor’s willingness to answer anything they asked, and the tranquility of the warm fire made wholesale disapproval nearly impossible.
“Have you ever seen John L. Sullivan fight?” asked Jeremiah’s elder brother, Vaughan, as more of a challenge than a question.
“I have, sir. And shook his hand, too.” Connor allowed both his Irish pride and his accent to swell as he lapsed into soliloquy. “I saw him fight his famous bout with Jake Kilrain. Blistering heat we had that day. It was so hot the willow trees themselves were perspiring (I beg your pardon, ladies). Paint was fair peeling off the sides of buildings. The birds in their nests were fanning themselves against the heat. Yet for all that, three thousand strong we were, standing and shouting and nearly passing out from the heat ourselves. And it was in this heat that the great Sullivan laid blow upon blow with his bare knuckles, jabbing and thrusting until the life was nearly battered out of poor Jake Kilrain. Seventy-five rounds they went—more than two hours, until Kilrain could stand no more. Afterward, I pushed my way to the front of the crowd and clasped the bruised and bleeding hand of the great man himself in my own two hands and blessed him for a fine fight. He looked me in the eye and said in a hoarse voice, ‘God bless you, sir.’” The children were spellbound. The women sat in rapt attention. Connor was pleased with the effect. Even the men could not help but admit to a slightly elevated respect for the man whose hand shook the hand of John L. Sullivan.
Edith was reserved, though not uncivil, throughout the afternoon and seemed to laugh in spite of herself. Now she looked at him and Connor caught her.
“Sizin’ me up, Mrs. Blackhurst?” said Connor.
“Yes, Mr. O’Casey,” said Edith. “It’s the way of the Worths.” The adults laughed.
Connor made no bones about his own lack of education or his great pleasure to be making up for it now. What he wanted was some guidance, a hint directed at Mrs. Worth senior for the promised tour of her collection of art and antiquities. He asked intelligent questions and plainly accepted her kind correction and filed the facts away.
He felt as if he were living a portion of childhood he had missed, plying Mrs. Worth with questions in an unabashed, unyielding but good-natured manner. Curiosity had been his faithful companion since he scrounged for pennies at the Belfast shipyards, watching, asking, practicing, using everything his brain could absorb. When a merchantman took on this clever lad of twelve, he felt as if he had graduated from a rough schooling on the docks to a floating apprenticeship in the ways of the world. Every port and people, custom and marketplace, landmark and back alley, vice and virtue fired his imagination and sharpened his judgment. His break came at twenty, when opportunity converged with his preparation and his ship docked in San Francisco and his own golden gateway to a new life. Until now, he regarded his education as only useful to himself or to those in whom he had an interest, and a business interest at that, certainly not a family of children.
In its way, this confrontation with the Worths’ grandchildren was a greater test than passing muster with their children. Though whether his own children might one day be ashamed of their papa had never worried him before, he was relieved to think there were things in the recesses of his past that could be of interest and use beyond simply earning a living. If curiosity and a love of learning were his few noble legacies, they would be enough.
Faint, irregular wails from the nursery foretold the arrival of the three remaining Worths, rousted for a wash-and-brush-up. It’s a pleasant sound, thought Connor, lusty and full of life, a sound full of promise. He wondered if he would be any good at holding small children. Surely a man can get the knack. He amazed himself for wondering such things.
As the dinner hour approached, the wails grew closer. Connor and Mrs. Worth met a servant in the hallway, about to announce dinner. She made the announcement herself and paired the women with escorts, handing Connor to Edith and Mildred to Mr. Worth, and choosing her bachelor son, Clayton, for herself.
Minty green watered silk lined the dining room walls and hung in graceful folds at the tall leaded glass windows and gave a sense of breathing space for the long table set with twenty-two places. Light from the alabaster fireplace danced off the two cut-glass chandeliers and flickered off the etched crystal goblets and glasses. Sequestered on more formal occasions, today the children scurried around the table, looking for their places, spotting their special dishes or cups or silverware.
Before the party could be seated, the bell rang. As the table filled up, Connor noticed the four empty places and reminded himself of the Jeromes and Miss Lund and her fiancé, whom he had forgotten in all the commotion. Mr. and Mrs. Worth excused themselves briefly to greet their new guests. Connor took his place. A small skirmish broke out next to him, where Jeremiah was determined to displace an older sibling.
“Let Jemima sit next to Mr. O’Casey, Jeremiah, and you come down here so I can help you cut your food,” said Mildred.
“But I want to sit here,” said Jeremiah, cross and gripping the chair.
“Jeremiah,” said Edith, “don’t speak to your aunt that way, young man.”
“He’s fine here, ma’am. I’m happy to help him with his cutting,” said Connor.
“See, I told you.”
“Jeremiah, that’s enough,” said Edith. “You’ll be eating dinner by yourself if you’re not careful, young man.
“Then come down here, Jemima,” said Mildred. Jemima acquiesced politely.
Connor bent down and whispered, “Apologize to your mother and your aunt. That’d please ‘em.” He gave Jeremiah a quick wink.
“I’m sorry, Mother, Aunt Mildred,” he said, still vexed.
“Good boy,” whispered Connor. Jeremiah looked up at Connor. The boy seemed more anxious to win the pirate’s approval than that of mere female relatives.
Suddenly, a little group appeared at the dining room door.
“The prodigals have arrived and await the fatted calf, or should I say, the fatted turkey,” announced Mr. Worth as they entered—Maggie Jerome and Mr. Worth, then Jerry, Mrs. Worth and Francesca bringing up the rear. The gentlemen, ladies, and children alike surged forward from the table to greet them.
Connor’s eyes ran over the party. Naw, it couldn’t be. Or could it? It’s impossible. Francesca? Grievin’ recluse? Bookish piano player? Francesca? Settlement worker? Bleedin’ mountaintop hermit? Damn that Jerome. Connor hung back a bit to give himself time to observe, having had the advantage of Francesca by a few seconds, long enough to drink her in. Her hair looked like the foam on a good head of beer, he thought. He stirred himself in time to shake Jerry’s hand.
“Connor, good to see you. You remember Maggie,” said Jerry.
“Of course, Mrs. Jerome.” He bowed slightly.
“Miss Francesca Lund, this is Mr. Connor O’Casey.”
Francesca looked at him, her surprise evident.
“Yes, we’ve met. Miss Lund.” He bowed. The alarm on Maggie’s face pleased him.
“Mr. O’Connor. How very,” Francesca hesitated, “lovely to meet you formally, and how very unexpected.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’ve met, dearie. Well, I declare,” Maggie said.
“Briefly,” Francesca said quickly, looking him in the eye. He met her gaze until she blushed. “Mr. O’Casey was good enough to help me with my hair.” She smiled a smile of satisfaction.
“Helped you with your hair? Why Francesca, whatever do you mean?” Maggie glanced at the others, as if trying to gauge whether they were as shocked as she.
“I very clumsily bumped into Mr. O’Casey at the charity ball and in doing so lost a hairpin. He retrieved it for me.”
“Oh, so that’s what you mean.” Maggie laughed unconvincingly. “You must watch yourself, dearie, or you’ll give these dear people the wrong impression.”
“Francesca, you come and take this chair next to me,” said Mrs. Worth.
“Oh, no you don’t,” said Mr. Worth. “If we put you two together you’ll keep her all to yourself and none of the rest of us will get a decent conversation with her. Maggie, you go down by Isabel. Francesca, you may take this place.” He escorted her to a chair on the opposite side of the table from Connor.
Connor examined her, taking in every detail of her coarse, frothy hair, stubbornly held in place with pins that were even now hanging perilously. Her lips were full and pale, only a shade darker than her skin, a creamy pink-and-white, and her eyes a cool gray-blue. She’s a beauty, he thought. Gray watered silk may be fine for some, but she should be covered with diamonds and pearls. How could such a rose have blossomed among the cabbages of the settlement? Can such a one prefer their company to this? Huh, this rabble. Might she learn to prefer his company? Might she make his bed smell like roses and populate his life with little rosebuds? Connor recollected himself. Francesca was chatting away to Samuel under Connor’s gaze, something about the mission.
“How many hungry folks did you feed today, Miss Lund?” Connor broke in, his head cocked, demanding her attention, but refraining from adding sarcasm to his tone.
She turned to him reluctantly. “Nearly two hundred, Mr. O’Casey.”
“Two hundred souls seekin’ succor. A worthy cause. How many of you ladies were helping out with the cooking?”
“There were six of us.”
“Do you enjoy that sort of thing, Miss Lund?”
“Very much, Mr. O’Casey. Have you ever been to any of the charitable establishments in New York?”
“I can’t say that I have, ma’am. But I’ve seen poor unfortunates the world over. On the whole I find it rather depressing.”
“Not nearly as depressing as for those who have to live it day to day.”
“Granted, ma’am. But I’ve done my best not to have to live it day to day.”
Before Francesca could reply, Mr. Worth gave the command to bow their heads in prayer. Connor would have ignored this command in favor of enjoying the view across the table, had it not been for the nudge from Jeremiah. With the “Amen” pronounced, the servants appeared carrying steaming bowls and platters of food. A large protuberance of harvest-time foliage from the centerpiece obstructed his view of Francesca except for her eyes. She merely smiled and turned her attention to the offered food and drink.
“Do you engage in any charitable work, Mrs. Blackhurst?” said Connor, trying to keep the thread of the conversation pulled taut. Edith’s answer was carried away in a clatter of cutlery and china.
* * * * *
Blanche lay on her side, one arm outstretched, her hand hanging over the side of the bed. Tracey lay close up against her back, his arm around her, his face buried in her thick black hair. With her other hand, she cupped the hand that gently cupped her breast. They were awake, quiet, their breathing synchronous. It had been the kind of afternoon she had thought of often since finding Edmund Tracey again—the satisfaction, the exquisite release, the calm in its wake. Such had been many afternoons and evenings in those heated, desperate days when she had finally reached New Orleans from South America. Her reunion with Edmund Tracey in New York unlocked a door to her deepest self, a door that had remained bolted to all others.
Blanche seemed fated to be drawn to men who speculated. She had loved Alvarado passionately, and followed him to Argentina believing his story of a ranch and riches. Enchanted by the estancia, with its sprawling house, its cattle, and its gauchos, and captivated by her charismatic husband, she had been blind to his mounting debt. Seeing no way to escape utter ruin and disgrace, Alvarado had gone to the stables one night and had blown his brains out. Before the creditors could smell the blood, Blanche had fled.
For months she made her way across South America and the American South and landed in New Orleans. Humiliation kept her from seeking help from what remained of her family, promising herself that when she faced them again, whether in Milan or Paris or Newport, it would be with a husband and her fortunes restored. She had tried to survive in genteel poverty, hoping to trade on her knowledge of art and culture in a salon established with a friend. When Edmund Tracey walked in one day, hope rose. His breeding, his manners, his love of beauty, the ardor that boiled beneath a cool exterior drew her like no other man before or since. The heat of their liaison was so intense, it was as if a lifetime had been compressed into a few short months. Before long, however, they understood that although they complemented each other’s strengths, they also magnified each other’s shortcomings. They parted by mutual agreement, neither of them wishing to sully their relationship with constant disputes over money, and took their separate chances elsewhere.
Blanche kept her past as the merest sketch to Connor O’Casey and he never pressed her for more. He had swept her up with his winnings after an all-night poker game in Natchez, where he cleaned out the gambler who was her current lover. O’Casey had come south in that summer of 1889 to watch the pugilist John L. Sullivan fight Jake Kilrain. Blanche had fetched the men drinks, leaving the delicate scent of perfume in her wake and with lowered eyes sat silently in the background and watched the game over her lover’s shoulder. Only once or twice had her eyes met Connor’s across the table, as Blanche sat in the shadows, but her message had been clear. In the end the question resolved itself—the lure of O’Casey’s means was sufficient to dislodge Blanche from her prior interest and transfer her loyalties to himself.
The clock in a distant hallway struck four. She could feel Tracey’s mind and body stir.
“When does she expect you?” Blanche asked. She would not have minded lingering. After all, she had nowhere else to go.
“They’re dining by now, I expect,” he replied.
“Now? Shouldn’t you be there?”
“We needn’t worry. The invitation was open.” He kissed her on the ear. “I can come at any time. As long as I appear before the party breaks up all will be well.”
“How can you say that?” asked Blanche. “The Worths may be informal, but if I were engaged to you, my dearest, I should want you at my side the whole time. Women set great store by such things, you know.”
“Do they? It would be different if you were the one waiting for me,” He nibbled at her earlobe and breathed his hot breath into her hair as he drew her closer to him. Then, as if an unpleasant thought interrupted him, he threw himself on his back next to her. “I can’t bear to be in their presence,” he said. “Boring, tight-fisted, peevish pack of snobs.”
“I know you hate it, darling, but you must make an effort.” She sat up and drew the blankets around her. “Think how much better off you’ll be.” His situation pained her, not only because his engagement put him out of reach, but because it also reminded her of her dependence on O’Casey. “I hope you don’t make a habit of this, darling—being late, I mean. How can she be convinced of your complete devotion if you’re never there? Has she never questioned you about where you go or with whom you spend time?”
“Oh, yes, though she tries not to go on about it.” He sat up and ran his hands through his auburn thatch. Grabbing his underclothes from the foot of the bed he began to dress. He rose and retrieved his trousers from over the back of a chair. Blanche crawled across the bed and draped his cold shirt around her shivering shoulders and embraced him around the waist. Her move arrested him. She felt the tautness in his frame, the rigid muscles in his back.
“Is everything all right between you and your fiancée?”
“I almost wish she’d throw me over.”
She squeezed him for a moment and then released him and relinquished the shirt as she pulled the blankets around her. He reached for her hand, held it and kissed it, then, sighing, continued to dress.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
His back was to her as he spoke. “Things are not turning out as I had hoped. It appears that I shall not be coming into the fortune I had expected. I am to make do with an annuity for my lifetime. She retains the principal.” They were silent.
Blanche hated life when it was reduced to dollars and cents. It was always the same for people like them, like Tracey, like her. Tracey tucked his shirt into his trousers and put on his waistcoat, then sat on an ottoman to put on his stockings and lace up his boots. “Don’t you see? I shall never be able to take any initiative on my own without going to her for the money first. If I were to find a . . . a business venture, or an investment of some sort, my paltry allowance would never cover it. I would never be truly free. What I expect from her can hardly make for the kind of freedom I’m looking for.”
He looked worried now. No, not worried, thought Blanche, but angry and on edge. All this talk of business and investment. It had been the same as long as she had known him—a fantasy of a future when everything would be amply provided.
The clock chimed the half hour. Blanche began to be alarmed at Tracey’s tardiness. She pulled her wits together and in the firelight began to dress. Tracey helped her to cage her slim figure in the corset. With each lacing, he jerked her body into alignment and pulled the stays tight with a snap. For a moment, she thought of a dog with a rat by the neck. It made her gasp. She shivered.
“You’re cold.” He made a move toward the fire to throw on more coal.
“Don’t bother,” she said. “We won’t be here much longer.” He threw the coal on anyway and pulled a chair closer. He stared into the fire as she finished knotting her hair.
“What would you do with the money if you had it?”
“The first thing I’d do is leave this miserable town. I have always hated it here. Stupid, filthy Yankee town with its barbarians and sham refinements. I knew I would hate it from the moment I set foot on Manhattan Island.”
“Why did you come if you knew you’d hate it?”
“Because, my darling Blanche, this is where the money is. I had dearly hoped that I could make my fortune here, one way or other. I thought Maggie Jerome had more influence than proved to be the case. I thought she could introduce me to opportunity. Instead, she introduced me to my beloved.” He nearly choked on the word.
Blanche had never heard his words so filled with spite. He hardly seemed to notice her, almost as if hatred were a lover with whom he was completely preoccupied. His loathing frightened her. She hardly knew Edmund Tracey anymore. She was afraid for him, afraid that he was so overtaken with his own pain that he would fail to understand the fine line he trod. In truth Francesca Lund had little to do with it. It was Edmund Tracey who would either make him or break him.
“You must hurry, darling,” she said, as much for her sake as for his, to leave the gloomy room and its gloomier occupant. “You must cultivate these people. They may be able to help you, but you must at least make yourself agreeable to them.” She tugged his coat on him like dressing a child and handed him his hat and gloves as she hurriedly buttoned her coat and pinned her hat.
At the door he stopped her and held her and kissed her deeply. How dearly she wanted to stay with him. How dearly she wanted to escape with him. But it was impossible. With effort she pushed him away.
“We mustn’t linger,” she said. “You must go.”
* * * * *
The centerpiece was removed from the table only to be replaced by a huge epergne of candied fruit, cakes, and other sweets. The children had acquitted themselves well in the matter of vegetables, turkey, and gravy; they raided these delicacies and spied out their favorites, which the servants reached for them from the epergne’s upper tiers. Exquisite squares of cake with colored icing, rich chocolates, sugary meringues, and meaty, nutty tarts were as much a delight to the eye as they were to the palate.
Everyone was talkative and genial. Nary a stick-in-the-mud among ‘em, thought Connor, as he surveyed the table. The look on his face must have been one of enjoyment for he caught Mrs. Blackhurst looking at him with amusement on her face.
“You like children, don’t you, Mr. O’Casey?”
“I confess I do, ma’am,” he said, turning his gaze back to the children. “You’re lucky, if I may be so bold, ma’am. You and Mr. Blackhurst have done well. They’re nice children, yours, and the others. Neither spoilt nor smarmy like some. Very nice children indeed.”
“You’re very kind,” she said with a sincerity that surprised him.
“Not at all. It’s the truth,” he said.
“They’re a bit forward sometimes.”
“They’re spirited and curious, not impolite, or at least I don’t believe they mean to be. There’s nothing wrong with confidence and curiosity. I’m sure they’re a great joy.” He was almost musing. When he surveyed the table again, he saw Francesca through the spidery, sweet-laden arms of the epergne, staring at him. He was so caught off guard that he hardly noticed when a servant came up to Mrs. Worth and whispered a word to her.
“Goodness,” she said to catch everyone’s attention. She hesitated then rose and sent the servant away. Connor wondered for a moment what could have caught so self-possessed a woman off balance. She fumbled with the long strands of beads that hung to her waist and stole a brief glance at the time. As if by reflex, Connor consulted his own watch. Nearly four hours since he had arrived. An instant later, the servant ushered in a tall fair man with auburn hair who wore a sheepish look of apology as easily as he wore his finely tailored suit of brown wool. At the other end of the table, Mr. Worth rose. Connor looked across the table at Francesca, who sat upright in her chair and looked toward the door. Color crept into her cheeks as she looked away and fixed her eyes on the table in front of her. Then as if to dismiss an unpleasant thought, she took a deep breath and cleared her countenance and rose. Her usual grace restored, Mrs. Worth took the man by the hand and drew him forward.
“Everyone,” said she. “Edmund has just arrived.”