Two ladies were seated in the library at Milverley Park, the younger, whose cap and superabundance of crape proclaimed the widow, beside a table upon which reposed a Prayer Book; the elder, a Titian-haired beauty of some twenty-five summers, in one of the deep window-embrasures that overlooked the park. The Funeral Service had been read aloud, in a pretty, reverent voice, by the widow; but the Prayer Book had been closed and laid aside for some time, the silence being broken only by desultory remarks, uttered by one or other of the ladies, and the ticking of the clock upon the mantelpiece.
The library, whose curiously carved bookshelves and gilded and painted ceiling had earned it honourable mention in every Guide Book to Gloucestershire, was a handsome apartment, situated upon the ground floor of the mansion, and furnished with sombre elegance. It had been used, until so short a time previously, almost exclusively by the late Earl of Spenborough: a faint aroma of cigars hung about it, and every now and then the widow’s blue eyes rested on the big mahogany desk, as though she expected to see the Earl seated behind it. An air of gentle sorrow clung about her, and there was a bewildered expression on her charming countenance, as though she could scarcely realize her loss.
It had indeed been as sudden as it was unexpected. No one, least of all himself, could have supposed that the Earl, a fine, robust man in his fiftieth year, would owe his death to so paltry a cause as a chill, contracted when salmon-fishing on the Wye. Not all the solicitations of his host and hostess had prevailed upon him to cosset this trifling ailment; he had enjoyed another day’s fishing; and had returned to Milverley, testily making light of his condition, but so very far from well that his daughter had had no hesitation in overriding his prohibition, and had sent immediately for a physician. A severe inflammation of both lungs was diagnosed, and within a week he was dead, leaving a wife and a daughter to mourn him, and a cousin, some fifteen years his junior, to succeed to his dignities. He had no other child, a circumstance generally held to account for his startling marriage, three years earlier, to the pretty girl who had not then attained the dignity of her twentieth year. Only the most forbearing of his friends could think the match allowable. Neither his splendid physique nor his handsome face could disguise the fact that he was older than his bride’s father……
Georgette Heyer, Bath Tangle (1955)
This is my first taste of Heyer, after reading so many wonderful things that has been said of her, and I must say I am liking what I find here. No doubt, I already have every intention to make my way slowly through her extensive list of works, if this is the kind of wit and writing that I am in store for. I do like her tone.
Incidentally (or rather, co-incidentally), I have just started another book which also opens with a death in the family.
Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence. The long-liver has triumphed at least over one of man’s initial handicaps: the brevity of life. To filch twenty years from eternal annihilation is to impose one’s superiority on an allotted programme. So small is the scale upon which we arrange our values.
It was thus with a start of real incredulity that City men, opening their papers in the train on a warm May morning, read that Lord Slane, at the age of ninety-four, had passed away suddenly after dinner on the previous evening. “Heart failure,” they said sagaciously, though they were actually quoting from the papers; and then added with a sigh, “Well, another old landmark gone.” That was the dominant feeling: another old landmark gone, another reminder of insecurity.
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (1931)
Another delightful opening, I’d say, to a very promising read. I’m about fifty pages into the book and it is proving itself to be every bit as good as what I’ve been led to believe (and expect), from all that I’ve read on the blogosphere. There is definitely more to explore about Vita Sackville-West than just her associations with gardens and Virginia Woolf. 😉