The House of Elyot

1888 Part 4

Posted on: January 26, 2011

Lord Hunter-Fox comes to dinner. He is overbearing, haughty and a bit scary…I quite fancy him already.




Florence made her grand entrance to the Green Drawing Room in a rippling swish of extravagant silk, confident that she looked every inch the young lady of fashion and taste.

It seemed that the four other diners concurred with this estimation, for each paused in the sipping of fine Amontillado, holding their schooners steady while they perused the flower of youthful beauty from ringletted head to the jet buttons of her boots.

“Florence,” quavered her mother from the chaise longue, where she reclined amidst a froth of ruffles, her glass jerking around in her unsteady hand. “Beautiful choker, my dear. Why, I think I saw something exactly like it on the Princess of Wales.”

Adelaide Smythson’s attention reverted to the amber aperitif, while Aunt Julia nodded formally, still in black crepe, looking for all the world like a beakier, bonier facsimile of the Queen.

Florence turned to where the two males of the party stood in conference, smiling at her father, the waxed ends of whose moustache bobbed upwards in reply.

“Ah, Floss,” he greeted her. “Good evening, m’dear. We have the honour of Lord Hunter-Fox’s company tonight.”

As soon as she sensed the watchful eyes of the Lord upon her, Florence felt the familiar sensation of burning embarrassment and frustrated irritation. Why must this man persistently haunt her home? Why did he not take it upon himself to find another wife if he was so avid to participate in family life? She knew he had been a widower for more than ten years, Lady Hunter-Fox having died in childbirth, along with the babe. It was, of course, unfortunate, but it did little to lessen Florence’s antipathy towards him.

Her small kid-gloved hand was taken in his large, elegant one and raised to his lips for the customary kiss. “Miss Smythson,” he murmured, and his voice, as ever, made her ears prickle and her skin flush. Insufferable man.

“Lord Hunter-Fox,” she replied stiffly, her eyes focused slightly to his right in order to avoid full contact with his. Somehow her mouth always turned down and her chin thrust outwards whenever she had to acknowledge him. The pressure this put on her jaw muscles would eventually lead to an unpleasant ache and she would have to force herself to relax her face, usually around the end of the entrée.

“I trust I find you well.” The pleasantry came out halfway between threat and verbal caress.

“Quite well, thank you, my Lord. I hope the converse is also the case.”

Before Lord Hunter-Fox could make his reply, the butler announced that dinner was served, and the quintet made their stately way to the dining room.

Florence’s taut jaw slackened by infinitesimal degrees as she digested her brown windsor soup to the accompaniment of some dull discourse between the men concerning foreign policy. Darts of tension returned every time she raised her eyes in Lord Hunter-Fox’s direction to find his gaze firmly upon her, his expression one of…was it disgust? Anger? Whatever it was, it filled her with unease.

The soup plates cleared and replaced by roasted duck, Lord Hunter-Fox made his conversational pounce in the manner Florence had grown to know and dread.

“Your aunt tells me you have been broadening your cultural horizons today, Miss Smythson,” he said, the polite observation laced with unidentifiable poisons.

“That is so, my Lord,” said Florence warily, knowing Lord Hunter-Fox well enough to sense an attack in the offing and girding her defensive loins accordingly. “Aunt Julia accompanied me on a gallery visit.”

“Dowdeswell’s, wasn’t it? That young artist whose name is upon all lips…though I forget it myself…”

“Vyvyan Stanford,” muttered Florence, pressing her own lips together with annoyance at the cat and mouse game she found herself unwillingly drawn into.

“Stanford?” Rupert Smythson galvanised, staring at his daughter with quivering moustache. “The chap who painted those…semi-clothed ladies frolicking in a pond?”

“The Naiads at Play,” sighed Florence. “Yes, that is by Vyvyan Stanford. He is a brilliant talent, the critics are in universal agreement.”

Aunt Julia coughed grumpily. “I may not be artistically inclined, but I cannot concur. Lurid, sentimental stuff, quite unsuitable for young ladies.”

“Can’t get along with those Pre-Raphaelites myself,” said Rupert. “Wishy-washy colours, what? Give me a good Stubbs any day. Nice bit of horseflesh.”

“And what is your view, Miss Smythson?” Lord Hunter-Fox resumed his cross-examination. “Do you consider Mr Stanford’s…oeuvre…to be appropriate material for a well-bred young lady?”

“Yes, I do,” Florence’s voice rang out confidently, if a little querulously. “I consider great art to be suitable viewing for all.”

Lord Hunter-Fox’s eyebrows shot up, his disapproval almost tangible. “Do you hear this, Rupert? Your daughter would no doubt have Vyvyan Stanford’s disreputably-clad nymphs added to the syllabus at the Board School. You should mind her, Sir, mind her well. She has a dangerous independence of thought.”

Florence had heard this lecture innumerable times; it seemed she only had to express any opinion at all to be accused of having a wicked and wanton nature which needed to be far more forcibly curbed than her father’s indulgence was willing to allow.

Sure that repetition of this diatribe would interfere with her digestion, Florence threw a diversion across the gleaming lawn tablecloth to her mother, who was toying unhappily with a glazed carrot.

“And, Mama, you will never guess whom I ran into at Dowdeswell’s? Why, I was quite exhilarated to see her again. Jessie! My oldest friend, Jessie Carter from Camberwell.”

Adelaide and Rupert exchanged pained glances at this intelligence.

“Florence, must you persist in mooning over what is long past?” bleated her mother.

“I trust you did not acknowledge or speak to her,” frowned her father.

“Well…of course I acknowledged her. Of course I spoke to her. Why would I not?”

Mrs Smythson threw down her fork with a cry of distress.

“You know you must not upset your mother, Florence! Her health is delicate!”

“What is upsetting about meeting an old friend? I do not understand your displeasure!”

“She is not a class of person with whom you should associate,” flustered Rupert, waving his knife agitatedly. “No good can come of her society. I forbid you to speak further with her.”

“You forbid me? Papa! She is a perfectly sweet and respectable young lady! Why, she is in the chorus at the Savoy.”

“Florence! Consider your mother!”

Florence turned and briefly considered the now-hyperventilating woman. This was all an act, thought Florence crossly, a manipulation. Never mind the Viennese doctors and their diagnoses, her mother was simply a spoilt overgrown baby who got her own way by throwing tantrums. It was too maddening to be borne.

“Oh, I consider her all right,” fumed Florence. “I consider her, and you and Aunt Julia and Lord High and Mighty Hunter-Fox. But when will I ever find a moment to consider myself?”

“Florence! Go to your room immediately! Brandon, the smelling salts, quickly! Madame has the vapours!”

Florence rose unceremoniously and flounced out of the room, studiedly avoiding the frosty glare of Lord Hunter-Fox until she was well out of his range.

Whatever those stuffy old fuddy-duddies thought, she was seeing Jessie again, and there was an end to it.

1 Response to "1888 Part 4"

Lord Hunter-Fox, fabulous 🙂

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