Our image of Lady Louisa*
Lady Louisa, Dowager Baroness Bloxley, sat bathed in the warm glow of satisfaction as she awaited the impending presence of the Duke in her drawing room. Lady Louisa relished his visits. She and the Duke enjoyed a long acquaintance of almost thirty years and Lady Louisa looked upon the Duke as though he were an only slightly younger brother, viewing his accomplishments with fierce sisterly pride. No one could deny that the man was a brilliant general and his politics pleased her greatly. That he could have made a wiser decision when it came to choosing his bride was neither here nor there, as Kitty, the Duchess of Wellington herself, had been neither here nor there, but forever in the background when present at all. The personification of a wall flower . . . . At least Kitty had made no demands upon the Duke, unlike that ungrateful group of fractious infants known collectively as The Royal Family. Thank goodness Prinny, the fat, mean- spirited, old spendthrift, was gone. He’d never had an ounce of sense in his bewigged head. He’d demanded the Duke’s help in every manner of affair, with the result being that the Duke had constantly been kept on the trot travelling between London and Windsor and Brighton and back again. One hundred years of Germanic lunacy had all but crippled the English monarchy and now the rabble meant to take over the House of Commons. It was disgraceful.
Startled out of her reverie, Lady Louisa looked up to see the Duke standing in the doorway. “Arthur!”
The Duke bent over Lady Louisa and touched his lips to her powdered cheek. Taking a seat on the sofa across from her, he looked at Lady Louisa with great affection. Today her greying, fair hair was covered in a sort of black lace mantilla, no doubt yet another throwback to the days of her youth. To the Duke’s own youth, if truth be told. He hadn’t seen a headdress the likes of this since leaving the Peninsula. Had they ever been popular in England? Louisa’s eccentric manner of dress kept people guessing – some were convinced that she wore outmoded outfits because she was too stingy to buy a new wardrobe. Though why she should be thought mean in her dress when she could not be faulted for being mean in other areas of her life was difficult to work out. Others believed that she was slightly mad. The Duke knew that Louisa clung to the raiment of bygone days out of nothing more than pure vanity. What other lady, upon entering late middle age, could boast of being able still to fit into the same dresses she had worn as a young lady? Not many.
As she watched him help himself to a tumbler of water from the decanter that was always placed on the side table prior to any of his visits, Louisa said, “I’m glad you’ve come at last. I’ve something I want to discuss with you.”
“Come at last? I was here just last week, my dear. Surely you cannot want to see me more often than that.”
“Be that as it may, Arthur, pay attention now, as I’ve a scheme to discuss with you. And take that look off your face, do. You resemble a pained child.”
“It can’t be helped. I feel like a pained child whenever you mention one of your schemes.”
“You will approve of this one, Arthur.”
“Forgive me if I have reservations.”
“Arthur, I cannot imagine what it is you believe I’m about to propose, but I assure you that it will delight you. It concerns Captain Bradley-Smythe and Prudence.”
“Bradley-Smythe and . . . Prudence?”
“Yes. But I do not want to bring it up in front of Anne, not just yet. “
The Duke wrinkled his brow. “But she –"
“It’s a perfect plan, Arthur.”
“You may depend upon the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect plan. A perfect plan does not exist. Not on the battlefield and even less so in life.”
In the stillroom at the back of the Dower House, Miss Anne Humphrey felt her heart flutter when Betsy came to the door to summon her. Anne was almost finished steeping the rose petals. No matter, she thought, it won’t hurt them to sit another half hour while we talk with the Duke. No matter what she was about when the Duke called, her deep respect and affection for the man required that she drop whatever it was and see him at the earliest possible moment.
As she dried her hands, Anne looked at the clutter on the shelf, trying to find something she might give to him. Before his wife died last year, she always sent a small bottle of the rosewater or a jar of lemon crème to that fine lady, the Duchess Kitty. But it was more difficult to find something for a great man like the Duke, though she knew he had achy joints, as did everyone else of his age. He was just too busy to let such trifles bother him. A little jar of beeswax balm would have to do, and she placed it deep in the pocket of her dark gown. After hanging up her apron and smoothing back her hair, she drew a deep breath.
These meetings between herself and the Duke were always welcome, however painful, recalling as they did the melancholy events of so many years before. The loss of her dear Edward, the awful news carried to her while she tended the wounded at Lady Bloxley’s house in Brussels, the Duke’s infinite kindness to her afterwards. Instead of dressing for her wedding ceremony the next day as intended, Anne had spent the morning searching that dreadful battleground. She pressed her lips firmly together and tried to erase the scene from her mind.
The conversation in the drawing room ceased as Anne entered carrying a single teacup upon a matching saucer. Anne excused her interruption, placed the teacup on the table beside Lady Louisa and took her place on a chair near the sofa where the Duke now sat beside Lady Louisa. He rose when she greeted him and gave her a little bow.
“You are looking well, Miss Humphrey.”
“As are you, my Lord Duke,” Anne replied. The Duke pointedly looked at the newly arrived teacup and winked at Anne. She blushed to the roots of her hair.
“My granddaughters are to be painted this summer, on the eve of Daphne’s presentation to the Queen. Do you know the painter Tournell?” Lady Louisa asked the Duke, changing the subject from that which she meant to broach prior to Anne's arrival.
The Duke looked back at Lady Louisa. “I believe I have heard the name, but I do not recall in what regard.”
“In my view, it was demmed rude of Sir Thomas Lawrence to die so young; he should have had twenty more years of work if he had taken care of his health.”
Anne smiled to herself at Lady Louisa’s remark, but had no desire to provoke her employer by pointing out the poor man’s lack of choice in his mode or time of death.
“Demmed artists.” The Duke’s brow furrowed slightly. The Duke, who was continually being badgered to sit for his portrait, had little patience left for painters.
The Dowager paid no attention to his frown. “I don’t know why Lionel had to choose some Frenchman to paint the portrait. Certainly we have some English fellows ready to pick up Lawrence’s brushes.” Louisa picked up the teacup and took a swallow of the brandy it held.
The Duke nodded. “I can attest to the truth of that. But Lord Bloxley must have had his reasons.”
Lady Louisa could hardly sit still. If only she could think of an errand on which to send Anne, she might resume convincing the Duke to join in her plans for Prudence. They needed to have it decided, in detail, before they presented it to Anne. After all, it was completely in Anne’s interest, as well.
But when Hartley the butler came into the room, it was not to call Anne away. Instead, he announced another arrival. “Mr. Montague Twydall, my lady.”
*Photograph taken in Yale University's Center for British Art; Mrs. (Mary) Lushington, painted by John Hamilton Morimer, 1774
Labels: Secrets of Bloxley Bottom