The Lady in the Veil
What secrets hide beneath the veil? When her mother departs for a tour of the continent, Georgina is sent from the rural backwaters to stay with her cousin, George Talbot, in London.
The 1835 season is at its height, but Georgina is determined to attend neither balls nor plays, and to eschew Society. She hides her face beneath an impenetrable veil. Her extraordinary appearance only sets off gossip and speculation as to her identity. Who is the mysterious lady beneath the veil?
The Lady in the Veil continues the story of the Talbots in The House in the Hollow but stands equally well alone.
The noise that emanated from the ballroom was almost deafening. Conversation, the shrieks of ladies, the guffaws of men, a small dog yapping, the scrape of instruments tuning up, the clink of glass as punch and champagne were served. All these clamoured together, jangling and jarring in Georgina’s ears. Carried on the billow of sound was a hot waft of imperfectly washed bodies, sour breath and candle smoke. Georgina swallowed down a ball of bile. The rubies felt heavy on her neck, a leash, a restraint.
Somebody at the top of the stairs—a footman perhaps—removed her cloak. He may as well have removed all of her clothes. She felt as naked as a babe.
The master of ceremonies inclined his head to Lady Jane, and she gave him their names. Lady Jane drew Georgina into the archway of the portal as an artist places the subject of his painting centre-frame.
Georgina stared into the abyss. Her dazed eyes surveyed the room and it seemed to her to be so full that two more people would overwhelm it; the walls would bulge, the floor collapse. She could not see for the life of her how dancing could possibly take place unless half the guests were to be trampled.
Hundreds of candles burned from sconces. The air was thick with their smoke and heat. She could see it, a pall, above the heads of the ladies and gentlemen. It added an oppressive layer, augmenting still further her sense that the room was a drum about to burst.
‘Lady Jane Talbot,’ the master of ceremonies cried, ‘and Miss Georgina Willow.’
There was an immediate hush. Even the orchestra ceased their sawing and plucking. All eyes turned to them. Georgina girded herself. The fingers that clutched her little reticule were white and bloodless. She fixed her eyes on the cornice at the far end of the room.
A sort of corridor had opened before them. Lady Jane’s supreme satisfaction in the moment seemed to physically inflate her; Georgina could feel her expanding. They ran the gauntlet side by side, but the older woman’s complacency took up most of the space. Georgina found herself forced too close to the awe-struck on-lookers and so more able to gauge their reactions. She heard gasps and sighs and words whispered behind fans. A man smacked his lips and said, ‘I say,’ in a most vulgar tone. A woman murmured, ‘It is the veiled lady,’ and the rumour was taken up, passed on, so that even those at the back of the room with no view at all repeated it, and craned and jostled to get a glimpse.
Reports about Georgina surged around the room like an in-coming tide. ‘A pretty little estate in Wiltshire,’ was passed ear to ear, and ‘six or seven thousand a year,’ and ‘the last of the Gilchrists; very good blood, you know. The line goes back to William the Conqueror.’
Georgina was squired around the room, first on one arm and then on another, her hand pressed—sometimes kissed—and introduced to people whose names and faces she instantly forgot. Faces loomed into her field of vision. Old men’s faces: fat, flushed, greasy. Young men’s faces, their eyes wide and staring, their mouths flapping, their ability to string a coherent sentence apparently gone. She saw matrons’ faces—narrowly appraising, taking in her hair, her figure, her jewels—and girls’ faces, narrow-eyed, peevish, their lips sewn into purses.
The tide of rumour about her had swollen to a flood. The tidy estate in Wiltshire was now hers outright—her poor brother utterly disinherited—and was so vast it occupied half of neighbouring Dorset. It had been added to by several hundred acres of grouse moor in Scotland and a palazzo on the shores of Lake Como. Her six or seven thousand had doubled of its own volition. The Gilchrists were discovered to have some distant claim to the throne. Carried along on this fantastical floe, like awkward flotsam, was the tricky matter: who exactly were her parents? And what was their connection to the Talbots?