This is Part 2 of my Hanukkah story set in Regency England. Please click here for Part 1 of The Hanukkah Invitation.
Oh, he was quite marvelous! So handsome, so imposing! She had never seen a man so tall. Nor, she thought, with a sinking feeling in her stomach, so fastidiously dressed. The cut of his black coat, the snow-white waistcoat and skillfully tied cravat were perfection. He was sure to despise her as someone lacking taste and elegance.
He also had a deep, rich voice, but what it said was alarming. “I regret I must make apologies the moment I arrive, but my visit will have to be quite short. I am engaged elsewhere this evening for dinner . . . an obligation I could not get out of.”
She could see both her mother and uncle were as disappointed as she, but her uncle said, “Of course, we are sorry to hear that, but are pleased you could join us this evening at all.”
“No more pleased than I am to be here.” He sat on a chair next to the settee. He turned to her mother and said, “My wife . . . she loved the holidays, you know. It is not the same when one is alone. “
Oh, no! If only he had not given her mother such an opening. She could guess the next words out of her mother’s mouth, and turned out to be frighteningly accurate.
“It is not right to be alone, for so long. You must marry again, Mr. Parnas.”
“I intend to, Mrs. de Costa. You are quite right . . . it is wrong to be alone.”
These words caused a noticeable ripple of excitement in the room. Rachel even imagined he was looking at her as he said this, but she couldn’t be sure, since she couldn’t stop looking at her hands in her lap. Could she have made a favorable impression so quickly?
“It is time to light the candles,” her uncle said.
They gathered at the table that held the menorah, which was set by a front window so people passing by could see the light. Her uncle, as was tradition, lit the candles because he was the head of the household. He lit the shamash, the candle used to the light the other candles, and while reciting the three prayers in Hebrew, lit the first one for the first night.
Afterwards they repaired to a table in another room where cheese, fruit and glasses of wine had already been set out. No one was permitted to do any work the first half-hour after the candles were lit, even the servants, so everything had been set up beforehand.
As they went back to the drawing room, her mother gave her a gentle poke in the ribs. She knew that meant she should sit next to Mr. Parnas and speak to him. She smiled at him. He bowed slightly and waited for her to sit on the settee, then joined her.
“Mama says you live in Mayfair,” she said after taking a small sip of wine.
“Yes, that’s true.”
An awkward silence followed. Would he not even attempt to make conversation with her? She tried again.
“Do you like it there?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Do you ever miss living here?”
“I miss seeing my friends socially. It was why I wanted to come here tonight, I miss your uncle’s company very much.”
Her uncle saved her from having to think of something else to say. “I miss yours as well, my friend.”
As they chatted about mutual friends and business she wondered what was wrong with her. Some instinct told her that he was not a shy man. She knew she was a pretty girl. She’d had her share of admirers. Obviously, his intention to marry did not come from any great revelation he’d had when first meeting her.
What a foolish creature I am, she thought. To be almost the age of twenty and still so girlish!
Then she wondered if he had already fixed his sights on someone particular. Of course, she thought. That was what he’d meant.
In spite of her disappointment, she felt like laughing. Poor Uncle, his plans were for naught.
The clock chimed, and Mr. Parnas soon rose to his feet. “Again, I apologize for the brevity of this visit, but I must leave now that the half-hour has passed.”
They rose as well, and bowed and curtsied.
When he was gone, her mother said, “Well! That was very quick indeed!”
Her uncle shook his head. “He has been gone too long from his friends. His new ones are more to his liking, I daresay.”
“Still,” her mother said, walking over to Rachel and cupping her chin with her hand. “He did seem impressed with our girl.”
She wrenched her face away. “Oh, Mama! How ridiculous!”
“Why do you say that, my dear?” asked her uncle. “He did say . . .“
“Yes, yes, that he intends to marry . . . does it not occur to either of you that he has already chosen his intended?”
In the bellowing silence that followed, Rachel knew that she had hit her mark. Her uncle looked especially troubled.
“I hope that doesn’t mean he is looking to . . . that is . . . “
“That he has found a Gentile bride.”
“Oh! No, no,” said her mother. “I’m sure not.”
“He is wealthy, Miriam. A good match for ladies who offer rank and good breeding. Opportunities may open up for him after such a marriage that don’t exist now.”
“Emanuel! How can you say such things? Why, his was always a disinterested heart, as I remember. He and his wife were a true love match.”
“Perhaps.” Her uncle smiled ruefully. “But things change. People change.”
Rachel had to see it her uncle’s way. As she drained the last bit of wine from her glass, she decided to put David Parnas out of her mind forever.
David found it difficult not to laugh almost the whole journey back to Mayfair. How blind could he be? His old friend Belisario had set a marriage trap for him!
It had never crossed his mind. All of Belisario’s children were long married. He had not counted on an unwed niece. Not the most elegant creature he’d ever seen, but a pretty thing who could not be wanting for suitors, especially with the substantial dowry such an uncle could give her.
He supposed he should feel flattered, really. Belisario must have chosen him out of personal regard.
How fortunate he’d had an excuse to leave early. He hoped he had not hurt the girl’s feelings by being so curt, but why give her a false impression? His future was in Mayfair, not Finsbury.
He soon arrived at the Westbrooke’s. He took a deep breath as he alighted from the carriage. This evening would be a very important one in his life, he knew.
He soon found himself mingling with Sir Robert’s other guests in the drawing room. Many he knew already, either through other social engagements or business. He met with the usual polite but slightly cool reception. Sir Robert soon appeared, with his wife and a young woman who surely had to be his daughter.
They went around the room, greeting their various guests. They were leaving him for last, he assumed.
Finally, they stood in front of him.
“Mr. Parnas,” said Sir Robert. “You remember my wife, of course?”
“Of course.” He took Lady Westbrooke’s chubby, pink, ring-encrusted hand in his and brought it briefly to his lips. She simpered at him.
“And may I present my daughter, Mrs. Kingsbury?”
She curtsied and held out her hand. As he took it he noted it was a much whiter and slimmer than her mother’s and exuded the soft scent of lavender.
The four exchanged pleasantries for a while, then the two young people broke away from the father and mother.
“My father tells me, sir, that you have given him much valuable business advice.”
“I hope that he has found it so.”
“Oh, he has. He is most grateful to you. Father had suffered many setbacks . . . I wish my husband could have had the benefit of such advice.“
They conversed thus for a few moments. He was a trifle surprised at her knowledge of financial matters, but that did not impress him most. He could not help but think that her beauty had been much underrated. She had soft auburn tresses and eyes so dark a blue they almost seemed black. She wore a gown of silver and white in the latest style. She no longer had a girlish bloom, but her skin was a flawless creamy white.
“Mr. Parnas, may I present my cousin, Mr. Crowley?”
A handsome dandy of about thirty stood in front of them.
Mr. Crowley put a jeweled quizzing glass up to his eye and studied David for a moment. As he lowered it he turned to Mrs. Kingsbury and said, “I say, Sophia, is this the Jew you were talking about meeting tonight?”
David tried not to let any of the muscles in his face move. He had never been spoken to thus in any home of his Mayfair friends.
Mrs. Kingsbury acted as though she had not heard him. “How is your law practice, Harry?”
“Tedious, absolutely tedious. I would give it up if I could.” He turned to David. “’Tis the fate of younger brothers, Parnas. Not all of us have the talent to make our own fortune.”
“Of course, you could marry it,” said Mrs. Kingsbury.
“True, very true. If I could find a rich widow . . . but you will not have me, Sophia. But then, you are not very rich, are you? Perhaps I could find a Jewess with a large fortune . . . you must know a few, Parnas, could you not help me?”
“I . . . “
Mrs. Kingsbury looked genuinely angry now. “Harry, you are being unaccountably rude.”
“Am I? I do apologize.”
David said coldly, “There is nothing to apologize for.”
She slipped her arm in his and said, “Pray excuse us, I must introduce Mr. Parnas to my friend Mrs. Lewis.” She steered him to another part of the room.
“I hope you were not offended by my thoughtless cousin,” she said.
He had been deeply offended, but he knew he walked on eggshells and dismissed it with a slight incline of the head.
“Of course he was merely joking about wanting to marry me,” she said.
“I assumed it was all a joke.”
A gong sounded. The people in the room stopped conversing and began heading to the dining hall.
“May I escort you into dinner, Mrs. Kingsbury?”
She gave him a smile full of promise. “It would be an honor.”
By the time tea came out, David was sure that, on balance, the evening had been a great success. Mrs. Kingsbury seemed everything a well-bred woman should be, and he wondered if the gossip about her had even the slightest bit of truth to it.
He could not help but notice that some of the other guests, while polite, did not give her much attention. She was a member, but not quite part of the world they traveled. It was the same with him. He decided such a thing could only bond two people closely together.
Just before he was ready to leave she said to him, “I shall be leaving tomorrow for the country and return very soon after the New Year.”
“May I call on you when you return to town?”
Her eyes seemed to sparkle at the request. “I would be delighted.”
He gave his thanks and farewells to the Westbrookes. Yes, indeed. The evening had been a great success.
The next morning while breakfasting, however, he began to regret the way he had behaved at the Belisario house. He had been rude to a perfectly nice young woman and her mother, relatives of a man who had his highest respect. He may not have been as crass as Harry Crowley, but still it had been very ill bred of him.
He wanted to mend the situation. Since he could not make any engagements with Mrs. Kingsbury at the moment, he decided to invite them to his house.
He called for his housekeeper, Mrs. Salomon. She disapproved of his laxness in following their religion, he knew, and probably stayed only for the same reason that he kept her—respect for Hannah’s memory.
“Mrs. Salomon, I wonder . . . do you remember where we put my wife’s Hanukkah menorah?”
She looked a trifle surprised, but also pleased. “Why, of course I do, sir. I have kept it polished, as well. Will you be wanting to light the candles tonight?”
“Yes . . . yes. I will also have guests. Will you please arrange for wine and food for after the candle-lighting?”
After breakfast he sat at his desk and wrote out the invitation. He sent it off, hoping that he had not offended them so that they would not come.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .