This is Part 3 of my Hanukkah story set in Regency England.
“Oh, my love, what wonderful news!”
Rachel, who had been sitting in her uncle’s massive library, looked up from her book. “Mama! What could it be? You look quite beside yourself!”
“I am, my dear, I am!” She sat next to her, waving a paper. “I knew you were wrong about Mr. Parnas.”
“Whatever do you mean?” She took the note from her mother and read it. When she finished, she clucked and gave it back to her with a dismissive gesture. “Oh. Is that all.”
“Is that all? My child, this means . . .”
“Absolutely nothing, Mama, except that Mr. Parnas is a well-bred gentleman who returns his social engagements.”
Her mother’s shocked look in response to this was almost comical. “How can you say such a thing? He would not return it so quickly if he were not eager to see you again, my dear.”
“I do not understand you. Since when have you become so contrary?”
She could not help smiling at that. “Mama, I am just being realistic.”
“Well, I say it is a hopeful sign.”
“Hopeful! You were ready to take me out to buy wedding clothes.”
She suppressed another smile. “I am sorry, Mama.” She picked up the paper once more. “Well, it is kind of him to think of us. And . . . I would so like to see his house in Mayfair. It must be very grand.”
Her mother became excited again. “Yes, yes. It must be.”
She suddenly thought of something. “Oh, dear me.”
“What is the matter, love?”
She shook her head decisively. “You must make my apologies, Mama. I simply cannot go.”
“I cannot go to an evening engagement in Mayfair in one of the dreadful gowns Uncle forces me to wear.”
Her mother’s face deflated. She evidently considered it a distressing problem, too. Then she smiled again and said, “But that does not matter, my love. Your uncle has to decline the invitation, he has another engagement.”
“What difference does that make?”
“Well . . . I do not like to defy my brother, but we could dress you as we please since he won’t be here to see . . . “
“Fool Uncle? Oh, Mama.” She folded her arms together and frowned.
Her mother bit her lip. “Do you think it very wrong, Rachel?”
She burst out laughing. “I am only joking with you. How clever you can be!” She threw her arms around her mother and hugged her.
The two giggling conspirators looked out the window until her uncle had left for his engagement, then dressed Rachel with the utmost care. They were afraid for even one of the maids to see her, so they did not send for any to help. Luckily, her mother was very adept at dressing hair.
She waited upstairs as her mother asked the groom to call for a carriage, then tiptoed down the stairs when she heard it arrive, sliding past the servants and hoping none noticed that her gown would have shocked her uncle into an apoplexy.
They laughed and laughed as they drove away. Oh! Would Uncle be angry if he found out, she wondered? Well, Mama was her mother, and had some authority over her mode of dress, did she not?
David greeted his guests in a much warmer manner than he had left them the previous evening. He expressed regret that Belisario was not with them, and would be alone for his own candle-lighting ceremony.
“My brother was quite affable about it, Mr. Parnas, I assure you,” said Mrs. de Costa.
I’m sure he was, thought David. He would want to give his niece every chance.
But that was an uncharitable thought, and he decided to banish further ones from his mind. Tonight he would repair any damage to his friendship, and that would be that.
He had to admit the girl improved a great deal on second viewing. Her red velvet gown complimented her coloring delightfully. And she had an equally delightful figure, he could not help noting. He thought he detected a slight coolness in her manner at first, when the night before she had seemed dazzled by his presence. He could have been imagining that, however.
She was certainly, however, dazzled by his house. Both women took a turn about the room and exclaimed over this bit of furniture and that, asked several questions about particular pieces, and approved of the Grecian Revival decor.
“Did you choose it yourself?” Miss de Costa asked.
“I must admit that I did, most of it.”
“I congratulate you on your excellent taste,” she said.
“I thank you.”
“Is this not a lovely menorah, Mama?” said the girl, pausing at the small table in front of the window where Mrs. Salomon had put it along with the candles.
“Oh, my, yes.”
“It belonged to my wife.” He turned away suddenly and pretended he had an overpowering desire to warm himself by the fire, memories of past holidays crowding in his mind.
An awkward moment passed before Miss de Costa said, “I do so like a room that has many books. Do not you, Mama?”
“Yes, and it is a good thing, your uncle has more than anyone I know.”
The pain from his reminiscing faded. David turned from the fire and asked, “Do you like to read, Miss de Costa?”
Her mother answered for her, “Oh my, yes! My brother finds it quite amazing in a girl.”
He smiled at that. She did not strike him as a bluestocking, but the girl had an undeniable intelligence to her dark eyes, and he found that he liked it. “What do you read, may I ask? Novels? Poetry?”
She inclined her head in answer. “I see that you think young ladies do nothing but stuff their heads with silly novels and love poetry all day long.”
He laughed out loud. “Not at all, Miss de Costa, you wrong me very much. My wife . . .” Why did he keep bringing Hannah into the conversation? He forced himself to continue. “She enjoyed novels and poetry, that is all.”
The girl’s face softened as she said, “It must have been so difficult to lose her.”
He noted that her mother gave her a gentle poke in disapproval of the comment, but he thought it very kind of her. He sighed a bit before he said, “Life goes on, does it not?”
“Of course it does,” said her mother.
“Yes, Mama, but I think the people who part from us also stay with us a little, and that is something to cherish. Is that not the case for you with Papa?”
Her mother nodded in agreement, a sad smile on her face. The girl turned to him again. “Do you not think so, sir?”
“I think . . . I think you are a very wise young woman.”
She smiled her first genuine smile at him, and he could not but notice what lovely full lips she had. The thought disturbed him so much that he tore his gaze away from hers and asked if they were ready for the candle lighting.
They were just about to proceed with the brief ceremony when Hall announced the arrival of some unexpected guests.
David’s jaw dropped in surprise and vexation as Sir Robert, Mrs. Kingsbury and Mr. Crowley entered the room.
Sir Robert said, “Oh, but you have guests. Perhaps . . .”
“Nonsense, Sir Robert,” David said, trying to recover and sound as ebullient as possible. “This is a most welcome surprise.”
He turned to Mrs. Kingsbury and saw her studying Mrs. and Miss de Costa intently.
“Forgive me,” he said. He proceeded to make the introductions, and prayed that Crowley would not say anything that would upset his guests.
Crowley merely bowed and made pleasant remarks, though he studied Miss de Costa for a second or two longer than was necessary through his quizzing glass.
The de Costas looked at David expectantly, and he knew they were waiting for him to start the candle-lighting ceremony. He turned to the Westbrooke party.
“I hope you will excuse us, but we are celebrating one of our festivals tonight, the holiday of Hanukkah. I was about to light the candles.”
“How charming!” said Mrs. Kingsbury. “May we join? Or is it not allowed?”
David smiled, relieved at her enthusiasm. “Of course, all are welcome.”
When the candle lighting was over, Sir Robert asked, “What is it precisely that you are celebrating, may I ask?”
“The overthrow of the Greeks by the Jews, Sir Robert. The candles commemorate a miracle, for there was only oil enough to light the temple one day, yet it burned for eight days.”
“How extraordinary, celebrating a revolution. Something similar to what the Americans do, is it not?”
“I have never thought of it that way before, but must own that it is similar. But we only light candles, we do not set off fireworks.”
Everyone seemed to find that quite clever and laughed.
He ushered them into the other room for the cheese and wine. Mr. Crowley stood behind Miss de Costa as she picked up a plate and leaned close to her ear. “My heavens, what a lot of cheese.”
She smiled and blushed. “There is a reason we eat it tonight, sir.”
“And will you not tell me what it is?”
She moved a bit away from him and said, “It is rather a gruesome story.”
“Is it? Now I am intrigued.”
“The leader of the Greeks, he . . .” She lowered her voice bit. “He desired a Jewish widow named Judith.”
David felt his fingers tighten around his wineglass, but he said nothing, and hoped Crowley would continue controlling himself.
“Pray go on, Miss de Costa,” said Mrs. Kingsbury. “Now I am intrigued as well.”
“She was virtuous but also wanted to help her people. So she visited him in his tent . . .”
Sir Robert, having already downed one glass of wine and about to pick up another, laughed. “Is this a story for mixed company, my dear?”
“Oh, I assure you, Sir Robert, it is perfectly all right,” said her mother. “We tell the story every year, to remember.”
Miss de Costa continued. “She brought him a basket of cheese and fed him so much he fell asleep. Then . . .”
“Yes?” said Crowley.
In a dramatic voice she said, “She took his sword and cut off his head.”
“Did she now!” Crowley seemed utterly delighted.
“Well!” exclaimed Mrs. Kingsbury in mock horror. “You kept your promise, Miss de Costa, it is thoroughly gruesome.”
“I think it a marvelous story,” said Crowley.
“Yes, you would.”
The story had the odd effect of breaking the ice. Crowley remained respectful and sociable. David wondered if Mrs. Kingsbury had criticized his behavior of the previous evening and he was trying to prove to his uncle and cousin that he could be civil to Sir Robert’s Jewish friends.
Crowley also seemed enchanted with Miss de Costa. And, David was appalled to discover, she seemed to like him, too. She listened to him attentively and he could see her blush once or twice in response to something he said. He wondered what her uncle would think of that.
Mrs. Kingsbury noticed him observing them. “Is she a relation?”
“No. The niece of a friend.” He wanted to explain to her that he had merely invited them to return a social engagement, but thought that would not help matters. Inviting an attractive single woman to his house the day after he began paying court to her probably seemed very strange, he knew.
He counter-attacked instead. “Mrs. Kingsbury, you quite surprised me tonight. I thought you were leaving for the country today.”
“I changed my mind this morning as we breakfasted. So much more going on in town, and my friend has a full house of guests, she will not miss me. I also thought I’d rather not miss my parents’ ball next week.”
“Well, I am very glad that is so.”
“Are you?” She looked him in the eye.
He matched her gaze. “Yes. I hope you will allow me to engage you for the first two dances at the ball.”
She smiled. “I would be delighted, of course.” Looking at her cousin again, she said, “Harry seems quite taken with your friend’s niece.”
“Hmm. I suppose he is the sort who flirts everywhere.”
“Oh, yes, you could say that about him. But I don’t think I’ve seen such a handsome, pleasant girl in an age.” She turned to her father. “Do you not agree, sir?”
Sir Robert, who had been paying more attention to his wine glass than the conversation, started and said, “Very handsome, very handsome, my dear.”
She fixed her dark blue eyes on David again. “Has she a fortune?”
He hesitated, then said, “I assume she does. Her late father was a diamond merchant, as is her uncle.”
“Beauty and a fortune. She may marry as she pleases.”
“As long as her choice pleases her uncle and mother.”
“Do you not think they would approve of Harry?”
“No, I do not,” he said, much more vehemently than he intended.
Sir Robert heard this part of the conversation and joined in. “Would be foolish of them, in my view. My nephew may not be rich, but his rank, his connexions, make him an excellent match for a girl in her situation.”
He realized he might have offended them. He tried to amend it.
“Her uncle is very pious, much more so than many of his station. He would show great disapprobation for any match of this sort. I was not speaking of Mr. Crowley specifically.”
Mrs. Kingsbury gave him another one of her piercing looks. “And you, sir? Do you share his views on these sorts of marriages?”
“I must allow that I do not. But I am not the one who would make such a decision in Miss de Costa’s case.”
He could not tell if this pronouncement pleased her. She suddenly said, “I would like to get to know Miss de Costa better. I shall sit with her a while and speak to her.”
As she crossed the room to join her, it dawned on him that perhaps she did see the girl as a potential rival. He was impatient to have an opportunity to speak to her alone and clarify the situation, then thought perhaps that he should not make an issue of it.
She waved Crowley to the other side of the room, and the rest of the visit had the men divided from the women. There was nothing in the conversation of the women that he could detect as evil, only a discussion of laces and shoe styles and other usual feminine prattle. Soon, the de Costas were ready to leave.
As they were about to part, Mrs. Kingsbury said, “Father, would it not be enchanting if we invited Miss de Costa and her charming mother to our ball?”
His face lit up. “An excellent notion! You must come, dear ladies, we would most enjoy your presence.”
Miss de Costa looked quite flustered. “I am honored, Sir Robert, but . . .” She looked at her mother for help.
Mrs. de Costa said, “We would be delighted, but of course we must consult with my brother first to see if we are already engaged for that evening.”
“I hope you shall both be there,” said Crowley. “I would be honored if you would reserve the first two dances for me, Miss de Costa.”
“There!” said Mrs. Kingsbury, with a wave of her hand. “Now you must come, or Harry will be disconsolate.”
David could not imagine why this scene perturbed him so, but he hoped heartily that they would not come to Sir Robert’s ball.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .