The Honourable James Halpert, second son of a minor baron in the Welsh Marches, straightened his cravat as he prepared to enter the ballroom. He had never found it easy to dress in the heights of fashion as demanded by the ton. This fact had rather brought him satisfaction than discomfort as he despised the dandies who lived their lives by the cut of Mr. Brummel’s suit, but he found himself of a sudden wishing that he had some of that natural skill with clothing—and more insistently, with hair and the mystery of its styling—that seemed to come so easily to his more socially daring college fellows. As he lamented his lack of perfection, he was utterly unaware of the effect of his own innate élan, coupled with an easy, disarming manner only accentuated by the striking fashion in which his flyaway hair and shirtpoints had been visibly tamed into position, had upon members of the opposite sex. He thought himself a gentleman’s gentleman, as indeed he was, but mistook the open friendliness of his female acquaintances for disinterest, having noticed the lack of sidelong coquettish glances sent his way but misunderstood the cause. Of course, such unintentional humility only endeared him more to those who knew him, but that was little comfort to him in this moment, as he did not recognize in himself the same virtues he lauded in his friends—most notably Mark, Viscount Banbury, with whom he was lodging in well-furnished but unremarkable chambers on Fleet Street, and at whose suggestion he had presented himself at this ball, thrown by a social connection of the Banbury clan that James had barely met.
He spared a moment as he hesitated on the threshold of the ballroom to cast aspersions on his friend’s character, aspersions he knew to be false but thought deserved as Mark had neglected to inform him that he, Mark, would not be in attendance, leaving James—who styled himself Jim in his head, though none but Mark at present took the liberty of calling him it out loud—to fend for himself.
“How the deuce am I to greet Colonel Scott without Mark?” muttered Jim under his breath. It was not as if he and his ostensible host had exchanged three words in the past five years, though they had been introduced by Mark’s uncle before Jim began his service in the diplomatic corps. It was not so much a matter of disinterest on either of their parts as of different social circles: Jim was a diplomat by profession, a cricketer by inclination, and a rider for relaxation, while Colonel Michael Scott was notorious as one of the most enthusiastic and least impressive aesthetes and gourmands in the City, as well as perhaps the man with the worst sense of humour in London, if not England. But that same reputation for failed art, embarrassingly rich feasts, and bad, off-colour jokes had paradoxically made an appearance at one of his balls de rigueur for any young man wishing to make his mark in the City—or one whose needs compelled him to make a mark, no matter his own wishes. One never knew what he would do next—and the opportunity to discover the answer was universally deemed worth enduring the man’s poor etiquette and worse comedy. Universally except for Jim, who had had no desire to become an intimate of such a man until Mark’s insistence (and his own moderate means) had made a social introduction a necessity, and Mark’s invitation to Colonel Scott’s ball his nearest and best opportunity.
As fate would have it, Jim needed not to have worried about Mark’s absence. An overly familiar arm was instantly draped across his shoulders and a voice he barely recognized crooned out his name—or a variant thereof—at top volume.
“Jimbo!” crowed the Colonel. “So pleased you could join us. Banbury told me you might be making an appearance. So glad that you could come!”
Before Jim could make an astonished but glad response to this unexpected set of remarks—almost before he could realize that he himself was the object of address by the unfamiliar and yet too familiar name “Jimbo”—his host had continued:
“That’s what she said, of course, as the bishop said to the chorister.”
Underneath Scott’s braying laughter Jim recovered himself enough to politely thank the Colonel for entertaining him on such short notice, and to politely chuckle at the apparent attempt at wit. Scott waved his thanks away with his free hand and steered Jim into the room with the other, still locked around his shoulders.
“Nonsense, nonsense, my boy, pleased to have another young man here to share the revelry. Why, before you came it was only me and Captain Schrute, my aide-de-camp. And Toby Flenderson, our MP from Brighton, but he hardly counts, as he’s hardly a man. Divorced last year, you know. Terrible scandal. Surprised he still shows his face, much less at my party, but of course, you know, must invite him, the local touch. Besides, there’s that military pension bill in Parliament, wouldn’t do to upset the punters before that passes, eh Halpert?”
As Scott had just exceeded in three seconds the number of words that had passed between them in a half-decade, Jim found himself somewhat at a loss how to respond to this rapidfire patter. He confined himself to nodding and polite nothings, hoping all the while that someone or something would rescue him from his well-meaning captor cum host. To his good fortune, someone did. As Colonel Scott half-dragged Jim around the room his eye caught on another figure entering the ballroom, and he stopped, allowing Jim a moment to catch his breath.
“Jimothy, she’s here! The Dowager Duchess of Hereford! JAN!” Here he raised his voice to shout across the ballroom. “JAN! She must not have heard me. I beg your pardon, Halpert, but needs must…I don’t believe you’ve met Miss Pamela Beesly, of the Cambridgeshire Beeslys? Pam, the Honourable James Halpert, fresh in from Vienna, new blood for our evening! Jimmer-jammer, Pam here is my social coordinator, keeps all this running, would be absolutely lost without her. She’s keep you straight. Pam show him around, why don’t you? I really must be off. JAN!”
And with that he was gone.
Jim turned to see the lady he was so hurriedly introduced to and stopped short. Waves of soft hair cascaded down her head—what might have been mousy blonde on another woman but seemed corn-ripe to his eyes—and across a light shawl that in turn covered the shoulders of a breathtaking cerulean dress. When he dared to look her in the eye he found a sparkle of good humour lighting her face, making her even more beautiful than his cursory examination of her other parts had assured him she was. He took the hand she proffered him and bowed deeply over it, hoping to catch his breath in time to make the polite comment he knew he owed such loveliness. To his delight, the apparition spoke first.
“So I see you’ve met Michael,” she smiled.