In life there are many rules which are universally accepted without thought: One should cover one’s mouth when one sneezes. One should never dip one’s wick into two pots of ink simultaneously. A man of means should never—under any circumstances—lend money to the Prince Regent if he has a need of those monies being reimbursed. For the grand hostesses of the ton , there were even more unwritten rules to follow which were passed between each lady in whispers. When designing a seating plan , it was of utmost importance that Lord Jeffrey not be seated next to any comely young ladies. Similarly, if one was foolish enough to invite the Earl of Ludlow anywhere, one should not seat him beside any ladies at all. Lady Honoria Thomas was not to be placed beside anyone younger or thinner than she, while Miss Margaret Beaufort was to be kept as far away from the wine decanter as possible. These were little rules, which one might sometimes overlook or disregard, but there was one rule, so absolute that it was almost a commandment, that was never to be forgotten… When hosting an event, one invited either a Cavendish or a Montague, not both. Unless, that is, one was particularly fond of impromptu displays of fireworks. The Houses of Cavendish and Montague, one as ancient as the other, had been at war for centuries. During feudal times , they had squabbled over a piece of land that both swore the king had promised them, and this squabble had continued for a few hundred years more as both families rose up through the ranks of the peerages. During the Civil War , both houses picked their side based not on loyalty to the Roundheads or the Cavaliers, but on the decision that neither house wished to fight alongside the other. Having thoroughly enjoyed slaughtering each other during that long and dreary war, the two houses continued on the tradition of murdering each other for a while longer. Upon the return of Charles II from France, Lord Montague—then merely an Earl—took great delight in condemning his neighbour as the worst of the Roundheads and chopping off his head on the Merry Monarch’s behalf. Montague was awarded a marquessate for his trouble, and House Cavendish might have fallen away to nothing, had the heir apparent at the time not denounced his father’s actions—while his head still rolled on the floor—and announced that he wished for nothing more than to marry one of Charles’ many bastards—one of the legitimate ones, of course.
That incarnation of Lord Cavendish met a sticky end during the Glorious Revolution when, alongside the Montagues, he followed William of Orange across the sea to Ireland. The official story was that it was the heathen Irish who had killed poor Cavendish, but as that tale sprung forth from Montague lips, there were few who actually believed it. To compensate for the loss of a father, the infant son was granted a marquessate, which brought some relief to the Royal Court. Perhaps, now that both houses were equals, peace would at last fall between them. But, alas, there was no peace to be found. Each generation of Montague and Cavendish could find no common ground betwixt them, bar the ground of the duelling field. They called each other out over the slightest of slights, though the rate at which a Cavendish found himself slighted increased manifold after a Montague married one of Queen Anne’s favourite cousins, and was granted a dukedom, long in abeyance, for his efforts. As their duelling weapons changed from swords to pistols, society too began to change, and the era of enlightenment brought new attitudes to such vulgar displays of violence. A tentative peace fell between the two families, which lasted for a decade, until one grey dawn, the two younger sons of both houses found themselves facing each other across a field in Hyde Park. Had the current Duke of Staffordshire known about the duel, he would have tried to stop it.
Likewise, Lord Cavendish, present holder of the marquessate, would never have allowed his younger sibling take part, knowing well that the lad was a poor shot. But cool heads were not to prevail, and despite the fact that young Lord Montague was still in his cups from the night before, and ignoring even more the fact that Lord Cavendish had recently fathered a son, seconds were chosen, shots were fired, and both men met a pointless end. Society held its breath, as it waited for the elder two brothers to retaliate, but there was to be no further violent additions to the pages of this most ancient feud. His Grace, it was told, was a most uncaring man and, having spent what few emotions he possessed on mourning his beloved wife, he simply shrugged off the death of his younger sibling. His brother had been a knave, and though it irked the duke that he had met his end at the hands of a Cavendish, there was a certain symmetry to both men’s deaths that made the ending acceptable, if not satisfying. Besides, apart from gaming and whoring, his brother’s only purpose had been to act as a spare heir—and even that role had been subsumed years ago by the birth of the duke’s son, Robert. No, Staffordshire would not seek revenge, at least not by means of violence. As for Lord Cavendish, the marquess was devastated by the loss of a much loved brother, though this loss was eased somewhat when he assumed guardianship of his nephew, Thomas. Not only did Thomas serve as a daily reminder of a lost brother, but he might also serve as an heir. The marquess’ wife had recently given birth to a girl, named Julia, an act which had near killed her.
Now, with the addition of Thomas to the family, Lord Cavendish was relieved of having to make the decision of whether to risk his wife’s life once more for a boy. It was not very fashionable, he thought with a blush, but he really was rather fond of Lady Cavendish and to lose her in pursuit of an heir would have been most inconvenient. When asked by his wife what his next steps would be, Lord Cavendish was rather theatrical as he took the high road. “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand. Blood and revenge are hammering in my head,” he boomed to his rather bemused wife, “But I shall not act upon it. What need is there to strike Staffordshire down with a blow, when these days a cutting glance might elicit a wound which festers even longer?” “True,” Lady Cavendish murmured, thus sealing the future fate of the feud. The enmity betwixt the Cavendish and Montague households was no longer to be a bloody battle—instead, it would be a war of manners. Which, though a relief for the families, was a headache for society hostesses. One not only had to be careful not to invite both parties to an event, but also not to invite any party which even associated with the other party, lest someone casually drop their name into conversation. It was tedious but, luckily, neither family were much in town.
The duke had become something of a recluse after his wife’s death, and Lord and Lady Cavendish were too besotted by their daughter to spend any time away from her. The hostesses of society were not too much perturbed by that old feud for many years, until, after nearly a decade, Lord Montague arrived in London, having completed his time at Oxford. The heir to the ducal seat of Staffordshire was tall, dark, and handsome—a combination that every lady agreed was most attractive in a man. As well as good looks, the marquess—for that was his courtesy title until he inherited the dukedom—was charming, genial, and a tremendous flirt. Here, society knew, was a man who loved love—even though he did not seem very lucky in it—and in the era of Byron and Keats, what better fun was there than to watch a marquess hand his heart away each week? Though Montague quickly earned the title of rake, there was nothing dishonourable about his behaviour toward women. He dallied in the demimonde, with actresses, opera singers, and courtesans—women who could well handle him—but he never sought to corrupt any of the young ladies who popped up each spring like daisies as they made their debuts. In actual fact, the society mamas began to wonder if Montague—like his two close friends, the Duke of Penrith and Lord Pennelegion—might, in fact, at heart be something of a confirmed bachelor. Still, they did not fret too much, for any party or ball with Montague in attendance, was certain to be a roaring success. How lucky it was that Lord and Lady Cavendish were still ensconced in deepest Kent, so one would not have to worry about slighting them… All good things must of course come to an end, and when it was announced that Lady Julia was at last to make her debut, society mamas gave a sigh of displeasure as they realised that they would now have to choose between which family they wished to invite to their gatherings. “I can’t think that there will be much about Lady Julia which will make her a more attractive prospect than Montague,” one lady sniffed, though she was soon to be proved wrong.
Every season, a swathe of young ladies made their debut, blossoming like daisies in white dresses. Amongst the flowers, there are always one or two weeds, a handful of wallflowers, and a rose or two—but Lady Julia was none of these. She was a rare-bloom; a hot-house flower, cultivated to perfection. A thing of wonder which, the instant it is seen, brings a kind of madness to the beholder. Her beauty was unquestionable. Her pale blonde locks and sparkling blue eyes were set against alabaster skin which held not even a hint of a freckle. Her cheekbones were high, her face heart-shaped, and her mouth a perfect rosebud. She was the type of girl that drove men to fling themselves at her feet. Indeed, poor Lord Byron did actually fall before her one day, when she was promenading in the park, but no one was quite sure if it was love or ale which had knocked him over. Wherever Lady Julia went, a stream of eligible young-bloods followed, and the society hostesses were delivered a puzzle.
Should one invite Lord Montague—who though dashing and single, was only one man—or Lady Julia, whose presence guaranteed the presence of at least twenty single gentlemen? Matrimonial minded minds won out, and soon Lord Montague found himself pushed to the periphery of acceptable society as Lady Julia took his place. Not that the marquess seemed particularly perturbed, as he gaily continued to fill up the gossip columns with rumours of new paramours and high-jinx in Carlton House with the Prince Regent. For two seasons, Lady Julia was the toast of every ball, her refusal of a dozen marriage proposals only adding to her fame. True, she had inexplicably taken up a friendship with the shrewish Miss Drew, and the odd Miss Havisham, but her beauty was so great that it could not be tarnished by an association with two wallflowers. It was only during her third season that the ton began to find themselves growing uneasy; Lady Julia was beautiful, yes, but she was also almost two-and-twenty. It would be a tragedy if one so pretty was to be left upon the shelf to grow dusty and old. “Her parents will have to put their foot down and insist she wed,” Lady Jersey commented, one evening in Almack’s, to the other grandes dames, as they watched Lady Julia waltz with an earl. “Oh, but they have,” Lady Castlereagh interrupted, in an excited whisper, “Lord Cavendish let it be known at his club that this was the year that his daughter would wed. That’s why there are so many men here.” She waved a gloved hand around the assembly room, which was unusually crowded with darksuited men.
Usually the ladies outnumbered the men, but tonight white-dresses were in the minority. “Why,” Mrs. Drummond-Burrell, another of the patronesses, added in surprise, as she glanced across the room. “Even Orsino has bothered to make an appearance.” Lady Castlereagh frowned as she noted this, her brow furrowed in thought. Orsino was but one part of a legendary threesome known as The Upstarts, and if he was present, then surely… “It’s Penrith,” Mrs. Drummond-Burrell hissed, as a ripple went through the room, “And who’s that with him? It can’t be…?” But it was. Lord Montague, who had never once set foot in the venerable halls of Almack’s, came bounding into the room behind his more regal friend. “I do hope nobody causes a scene,” Lady Cowper said, in a wistful voice which rather suggested the opposite—it had been a very dull season thus far. “No one would be foolish enough to cause a scene in Almack’s,” Lady Jersey drew herself up imperiously, “Even a Montague and a Cavendish can make peace when the threat of a rescinded voucher hangs over their heads.
‘Tis a pity though…” “What’s a pity, Sally?” Lady Cowper asked, as she noted her friend’s eyes darting betwixt Lord Montague and Lady Julia. “I’m being fanciful,” Lady Jersey smiled, “But I am of a mind to think that Lord Montague and Lady Julia would make a rather handsome couple.” The patronesses all glanced between the two and spotted what it was that Lady Jersey had seen. Given that neither a Montague nor a Cavendish had ever set foot in the same room in living memory, this was the first time that anyone had seen—up close—just how suited the offspring of both houses were to each other. He tall and dark, with a perpetual smile upon his face; she slender and pale, with a reserved calmness which contrasted the marquess’ exuberance. It was a pity, the ladies thought, as they began to move along. But it was also an absurdity to think that a Montague and a Cavendish might fall in love. This wasn’t Shakespeare after all.