I watched the dancers for perhaps another minute or so, once more contemplating Barrett and his mystery. No matter the need for an heir, I could not help but think he would avoid a marriage to a young lady at any cost. While he might see the need to lie with a wife to produce the needed child, ladies embarking upon marriage seldom saw things in the same light men of Barrett's years did.
Or men of Barrett's tastes.
No, a young lady would want more from Barrett than he could comfortably give. It made far more sense for him to select a wife of later years -- a widow, perhaps, already with a son whom Barrett could name heir. With that in mind, I made my way down the narrow stairs, watching the crowd of people in a new light.
With a smile, I noticed that the footmen, while being strictly correct in their rounds, were paying far more attention to the women in the gathering, and two footmen in particular were taking great care to be sure that the widows were well tended. I had a passing thought that the odds being laid below stairs were most like going to pay off very richly for some.
Miss Wilson was on the dance floor, in the arms of a leering Viscount. She seemed only a trifle uncomfortable, the set of her back rigid, but a smile firmly in place. She had been trained quite well, I thought, and I made a note to attempt a rescue later in the evening. I highly doubted, at that point, that she was about to be become Barrett's wife, and the crowd would abandon her as soon as that became clear. All the more luck to her.
In the card room, I found Lady Elizabeth and her Baron -- for there was little doubt who ran that home -- playing Whist with a couple I had not met. These turned out to be Sir Bentley, a pleasant enough old gentleman, and his wife. We spoke for a moment or two, and I was once more on my way, watching as groups of men in the drawing room alternately smoked and covertly assessed the value of several paintings. It is said that the attributes of a house are not noted in fine company, but that is a lie. It is not discussed, perhaps, but we are an acquisitive people, and for those of means it is a hard habit to break.
I was deep in conversation with Mr. Merrithew, a friend of my brother's, when we noted that the music had stopped after the last waltz. With an almost audible buzz in the air, we joined the flow of people into the ballroom, amidst the swish of silk and the mild grumbling of a few men who thought that the whole event was beyond the pale.
I hung back, not because I was less eager than the rest but because I feared what would happen to my person if I edged too much closer to Lady Elizabeth. She glared at me with such fierceness, I thought she might actually stop and inform me in so many words that she suffered my presence only because I was there as Barrett's guest. Really, the extent of her snobbery was becoming legendary.
I smiled at her as sweetly as I could and said, "I look forward to spending the next few days getting to know you and your husband. I'm sure there are many things we can discuss in the evenings."
She sniffed and nodded sharply, then turned her face away from me and moved ever so slightly faster into the ballroom. I grinned and reached for a fresh glass of champagne, noting the flicker of a smile upon the footman's face.
I stood just inside the doorway of the ballroom, gratified to find that the small conversations in the room were hushed as we watched Barrett step up onto the raised section of flooring. He was backed by lush curtains which concealed the musicians, and I knew without a doubt that the colour -- a rich blue -- had been chosen for this very moment. He looked almost regal as he stood before us, a glass in one hand and a happy smile on his face.
A tremble of energy ran down my spine as the room fell silent. As one, we waited.
I was struck by how comfortable Barrett seemed as he stood easily before the large group. It made sense, I supposed, as surely he had prepared well for this. It was then that I noticed a look pass over his face, his eyes darting over the crowd as he sought to find a face. He smiled suddenly, and the corner of his mouth twitched almost mischievously.
"Thank you all for coming," he began. "Each of you has indulged me most wonderfully in this display of vanity. I admit that it is an extravagance to celebrate one's birthday so elaborately, but I hope that you will indulge me a little further. I have spent the last several months preparing myself for this day -- a half century of life lends itself to introspection, I have found."
There was polite murmuring and a bit of quiet laughter, but I could hear a nearby voice whisper, "Just get on with it, for pity's sake!" I smiled at that and watched as Barrett gestured around him with his glass.
"Red Oak Hall has been my life," he continued, "and I have great affection for it. I came to wonder, as perhaps I should have done years ago, what would become of it after I have left it." That was a blatant social lie, and we all knew it. The matter of Red Oak Hall's disposal was his responsibility and one he would have been considering for years. "It is with great sadness that I recall my dear late wife's sacrifice to that end."
Sad he may have been for the loss of an heir, although I am given to understand that the child was both a girl and not his own. However, one speaks of that even less than one mentions his youngest sister.
Barrett had lowered his eyes when speaking of his wife, and there was a hush as we honoured him, if not her, a momentary pause in the excitement. Then Barrett looked up, and the moment had passed. He paused, as if searching for words, but it was for effect. He knew exactly what he was doing.
"I have made a decision, my friends. There shall be an heir, and I shall have fulfilled my duty to this great Hall. I am going to be leaving here within the month, taking my leave and resting well in the knowledge that the Hall is in good hands."
This caused a stir, voices whispering in confusion, the sound of skirts swaying as the ladies turned to their companions. Barrett waited until silence fell once again, tension gradually building until I thought someone would cry out for an answer.
"I have decided against taking a wife," he announced, his voice clear. "Instead, I am going to give the Hall, its holdings, and its lands to one of worth. Someone whom I know will love it as I have done. I regret not being able to pass the title on, but the law is the law, after all. On this, the fiftieth anniversary of my birth, I give the greatest gift I have.
"Do you accept, Mr. Edward Munrow?"
There was a collective gasp and the crowd seemed to part around me, everyone turning in mute shock to stare at me. And what did I do? The only thing I could, given the circumstances.
I raised my glass to the old bastard and inclined my head. "Happy birthday, dear friend," I said.