Klara Ellis frowned in annoyance as her mother scolded her in her bedroom on the first floor of their Bedford Square home. She was out of sorts, and on this June afternoon, the lovely blonde girl was irritated by far more than her mother’s strident voice. The very decor of her own room bothered her. She could not easily put her finger on just why the elegant and very feminine bedroom, with its dainty dressing table, vanity mirror, and subdued lilac colouration, should seem so wrong for her. Her mother Eloise was regarded as the most fashionable society matron in their part of the London suburb. Many other prominent families desperately sought invitations to her “at homes” for their daughters who were “on the marriage market.”
They knew that, as the London season began in this year of 1868, the Ellis home would naturally host many of the elite young bachelors, either newly returned from service in India or the Far East, or recently arrived in London for the busy sessions of Parliament around whose terms the social season was created.
Klara sighed as Eloise droned onward without ceasing.
“And I expect you to remember your place in society,” said Eloise. “Your father and I have provided you with every advantage a young debutante could want. You had the finest governesses and private instruction in deportment, painting, sewing, and the domestic arts. Why, I shudder still at how much time and effort poor dear Maestro Bowin invested in trying to cultivate your voice and your paltry talents at the pianoforte!”
Klara rolled her eyes and said, “I never asked you for all of those special lessons. I have no talent for those areas of achievement. I also have little respect for those girls who spend all their youth in a frantic effort to make themselves worthy of a man! Let the man earn my respect! I don’t care to be treated like some item of commerce! That’s what I say!”
Eloise clucked in dismay. “Klara, Klara, Klara! Must you insist upon using those terrible contractions? As for your rather intemperate opinions on female equality, I must implore you once again not to offer them outside the family. With your beauty and accomplishments, and your father’s highly respected position in Mr. Disraeli’s government, you could have charmed many a fine suitor long ago, had you not displayed your fiercely improper temper and rather masculine tendency to wound the pride of those gentlemen who in the past sought your hand.”
Klara smiled slightly and said, “Would you have me marry some aesthete merely because he has a title? I cannot help it if the gentlemen who have darkened our ‘at homes’ thus far were not confident enough to express affection or interest in a woman who is more than a decoration!”
“Very well, young lady,” said Eloise. “If you want to spend your best years alone or in the company of your cousin Helena as a lonely bluestocking, then I can do nothing more!”
She flounced out of the room, leaving her daughter alone with her maid. The girl had been present all along and had been quietly adjusting Klara’s gown over her binding corset, ensuring that her tight bodice and flowing taffeta train looked just right before her entrance from their grand stairway. Eloise had naturally felt no compunction about scolding her errant daughter in front of the maid, since she was merely a servant, and as such could not be considered worth one’s efforts at privacy or concealment.
Now the maid smiled and said, “Miss Klara, ain’t you the proper Miss! You’ll be turnin’ ‘eads like mad! I just know Mr. Richard will be over the moon, ‘e will!”
Klara smiled with affection. “Thank you. I may always count on you as a strong support… not unlike this corset. Honestly, no wonder those poor women who tried to get franchisement under Mr. Peel failed! How could they vote when merely walking in this torture device robs one of all capacity to breathe!”
The maid grinned silently as she thought, Miss Klara may jest, but she has ruined many a corset in her time. The poor dear seems to wear out fabric as if she was made of iron or some metal ore!
Klara stood at the head of the steps and sighed. She could hear the crowd mingling below, and the music of the string quartet wafted gently from below. She could even hear specific conversations from the general buzz.
“Miss Klara could ‘ear the Covent Garden venders setting up their stalls clear across the Thames!”
Those were the words her maid had said so often in the past. Indeed, Klara’s hearing and vision were both frighteningly keen. She glanced down and saw a crowd of formally dressed men in dark suits, along with their elegantly clad wives and daughters. The fact that she observed the scene through a solid stairway landing did not quite register on her mind as she moved closer to the guests below. She seemed to have odd powers of various kinds from time to time. She never told anyone about them. She tried to deny them.
Now, though, she caught her father’s eye, and he rushed forward to signal the head butler Pennyworth as he announced her entrance.
Calvin Ellis was a ruggedly handsome man with deep-set eyes that seemed perpetually fixed in a squint. He was graying slightly at the temples, but this merely made him appear all the more suitable for his role as a high-ranking diplomat for Disraeli’s government. His Conservative Party colleagues admired him for his insight and his courage in serving the needs of his country and his Queen.
“Klara, my dear, how lovely you look this evening. I hope your mother did not suffer unduly in her always detailed preparations for the reception. I suspect you gave her something of an indisposition,” he said with a sly smile.
Klara took his arm and said, “Tisanes were not needed, I promise you!”
She loved her parents, and she knew all of their scoldings or pleas came from love. She had never doubted this. She also felt a secret disappointment in herself, because she knew her fiery temper and independent nature made her a worry to them both.
Why can’t I fit in? she thought. I always mean to hold my tongue and pose as a demure miss, but I always make some comment that offends their guests or embarrasses them. I know I am alone in feeling this way, but I find the whole marriage market superficial and anachronistic. Surely women can be equal to men or even superior to them. I hate being treated like a lesser creation merely because of my gender. Would it be so wrong for a woman to hold a governmental position? Am I destined for bedlam because I want more out of life than to smile and look pretty while my future husband governs our life and controls my opinions with a paternalistic good humour?
As she entered the crowd of party guests, she saw the usual society fixtures. “The Sloanes, the Scotts, the Garricks, the Halls,” she whispered to herself. “I wish we could meet people who did not spend all their time doing and saying and thinking exactly the same things we do, say, and think.”
She saw the tall, athletic Carter Hall in his formal wear. He was in an animated conversation with two other men. The Halls are back from Khartoum, she mused. Perhaps I can at least hear something exotic and substantial from Carter Hall. His dabbling with archaeology adds some life to his aristocratic habits.
She had begun to approach the blonde peer, when his elegant wife Shiera stopped her and took her arm. “Klara, darling, how wonderful you look tonight! I adore that shade of pink. I favoured it entirely during my childhood!” she said in a catty manner.
Shiera Hall’s elaborately curled hair surrounded her delicate face in tiny ringlets. She wore a gown of pale green, and she sparkled with ornate jewels.
Klara smiled winningly and said, “How nice it is that you can recall such details after such a long time.” As Shiera fought to maintain a smile, Klara changed the subject. “That gentleman with your husband must be one of his colleagues, I take it?” she said as she nodded in the direction of an Indian man who stood near Carter Hall and a tall man with a deep tan and a thin white scar above one eye.
“Why, no,” said Shiera. “He apparently is some servant or personal guard for Lord Carrington. He may be titled, but he does behave in the oddest way. Imagine bringing such a creature to an evening as this!”
Klara smiled. “I cannot imagine Lord Carrington needing protection. He served in both the Crimea and in India, if I am correct.”
Shiera eyed the hulking nobleman and said, “I do concur. His service record is known, although there have been whispers that he is not all one would have him be.”
Klara thought, He may be all this one would have him to be!
She excused herself from Shiera and made her way over to Carter Hall’s group. Her father was a good friend to the Halls, and she could approach him without formality.
“Mr. Hall, I hope you have found England pleasant after your travels. Are we all so prosaic after you have discovered lost cultures in many climes?” she asked.
Carter smiled and took her hand. “Klara, how could any journey that ends with a talk with you be less than enervating?”
Klara laughed demurely for once and raised her eyes to Lord Carrington. “And you, sir. How have you adjusted to the life of a man of peace after your storied career?” she said.
Carrington stared at her openly with an interest both frank and oddly flattering. “I marvel that an English rose knows about the martial deeds of an old campaigner. Surely your time would be better spent over the fashion columns. Does your father allow you to read the papers so freely?” asked Carrington with a slight look of condescension.
Klara frowned and replied, “I read what I choose. Does that disturb you? Could it be that the sensibilities of a noted man of the world such as yourself are in truth more provincial in nature than those of a village curate?”
Carrington drew back his head and roared with laughter. His amusement was obvious, and the harsh, grating noise of his laugh filled the room and attracted more than one glare of disapproval.
“Miss Ellis, you astound me,” he said. “I am most justly put in my place. Nay, let me freely admit that you have trumped me. You clearly are well-read, and all the better for it. I tire of the insipid chatter so commonly considered to be charm in ladies of your station. You delight me. What is more, you intrigue me!” He abruptly led her away from the crowd and out onto the Ellis grounds near a fountain.
“Lord Carrington, will your friend feel slighted by our departure?” she asked.
Carrington hesitated and said, “‘Friend’? You mean Bhatti? He saved my life during the Mutiny in ’57. He and I travel together in an uneasy and ill-defined manner. He is both servant and mentor to me. Most people find the combination hard to comprehend.”
“He is steeped in Eastern wisdom,” said Klara. “Is that the correct phrase, or am I sadly out of vogue?”
He grunted in approval. “No, my dear. The craze for Eastern culture is remarkable in a society so noted for lack of depth. I fear the outer trappings of that ancient locale are merely aped by the fashionable without a semblance of inner depth. Do you also seek such… experience?”
He raised her chin with one hand, and she allowed him to do so with surprise. She then drew closer to him in a manner that would shock her mother and in truth left her feeling very confused. They kissed suddenly, and she forgot her location or her expectations. She merely lived within the moment and enjoyed it very much.
“You need no trite apology. You and I are alike. We rebel at the stagnation of this stilted, polite society,” he said with a certainty.
She nodded. “Yes. I like the fact that you do not expect me to fit into some comfortable pattern. I enjoy being able to talk without restraints.”
“And I like being able to be myself without having to meet the expectations of others who have lived little and felt less!” said Carrington.
Klara smiled at his unique turn of phrase. She boldly defied convention and spent the rest of the evening with the dashing nobleman, ignoring the requests of others for positions on her dance card. She even slighted her faithful and always devoted cousin Richard when he asked for a dance.
“No, I fear I am promised to Lord Carrington this night,” she said with a smirk. “You will find solace among the demi-modes after the party.”
The ever-proper Richard Grayson frowned in concern. No lady would refer to women of such a profession. This would not be done in private, much less in public. He knew Klara Ellis liked to defy conventions, but this was extreme, even for the lovely blonde girl.