Spotting the lawn, propped straight with flat stones, were tables covered in blinding white linen which blew attractively against the blinding white fabric of the ladies' summer dresses. Hats with perhaps the merest hint of a veil cast demure shadows across laughing faces; boaters tipped back so as to be considered rakish showed off immaculately trimmed hair and beards. The faces leaned in to each other across the tables, the shine of the silver tea services reflected up, making everyone, everyone, beautiful.
These beautiful people stood up from the tiny sandwiches and petits fours, the tea never spilled on the angelic tablecloths, the raspberries never dripping their staining juices. Gliding on tiny white boots, the ladies moved off into groups to discuss their recent flirtations, or were joined to gentlemen whose pale buff trousers never showed a hint of grass as they found a shady seat under the oaks. The faceless, those who had made the tables appear, had also laid out blankets for just this purpose. The black of the silver polish was never seen out here.
It was green and white, and the sky was blue and blue and blue all day; the more they looked at it the bluer it became, and when they looked at its mirror in the lake the gentlemen remembered their manners and their competitive natures and challenged each other to a race, and the ladies to a ride. Punts were beached along the edge of the lake nearest the house; as so many times before, the gentlemen knew to veer off to the left to leave their jackets in the boathouse. More laughing, teasing, a few ladylike screams as the punts swayed. Races were held, more shrieking, more teasing; times were disputed, the races were compared to those in afternoons past, afternoons just like this one.
Back on shore, brows were delicately mopped. Skirts were held up out of the mud; the tiny white boots were soiled, but no matter; it did not matter to them one bit. Books and magazines had appeared on the tables; the dresses and trousers arranged themselves becomingly on the blankets and began to read poetry and gossip to each other. One blanket was covered in giggles and secrets; another in earnest stares and shy, encouraging smiles. Still another carried a crowd of teasers with their brave consorts, loudly and hilariously demonstrating their skill at badinage. One young god in particular, seeming to be the leader of the group, sat in the middle and spoke towards another blanket, to a girl who sat with her exquisite friends, pretending to ignore him.
"… And then, if you please, this young lady of whom I speak walks up to a common bird—a coalblack starling, no pedigree whatsoever, no breeding, no blood," (His friends chuckled on cue) "—and says to him, and I quote, "Ye'll be thankful to get 'oom, won't you, my lovely? Tha' knows Misselthwaite's been yer'n since long afore it were a Craven's."
The gentlemen laughed gently, seeing the flush that crept to the girl's cheeks, despite her tight-mouthed attempts to stop it. The girl's friends arranged themselves in front of her, berating the young god for his teasing.
"For heaven's sake," the girl said, the flush mastered, her cheeks now as cool as they had been when she and the young god had first met. The friends melted to the side, to give her a clear shot. "Colin, you've lived on the moor for nineteen years. Can't you do a better Yorkshire than that?"
The gentlemen were now free to laugh loudly, to jeer at their fallen idol. "She's got you there, tha' knows." "Ee by gum, Colin, 'appen she's right!"
The young god turned pale in turn. He had never been able to laugh at himself. Too few years had gone by since he had considered himself a tragedy. Glaring at the ground, he heard a horse whinny in the distance. The party would be breaking up soon; the stables were getting the horses ready. His face cleared. "You're right," he said, with a smile Mary did not see and would not have liked. He got up and came closer to her. "Teach me, Mary, please? Teach us a little Yorkshire?"
The request was taken up on all sides. "Oh, yes! What fun! Teach us, Mary! Please? Teach us to talk to starlings and servants!"
Mary looked hard at Colin, but she had had enough years in polite society to know when she could harangue her cousin, and when she couldn't. Besides, his face was all smiling innocence, and his friends were genuinely curious about her knowledge, such as it was, of the locals. She glanced quickly around the lawn.
"Ee, our Gladys," she began, "djoo 'ear our Stanley when his dad came ''oom an' catches 'im wi' the last beacon butty stuffed in ''is pie-'ole? Ooo, he give ''im such a clout as you could 'ear clear across t' moor!"
The ladies put immaculate white gloves up to their mouths and giggled in delicious horror; the gentlemen let their hats fall off their heads as they shook the birds from the trees with their laughter. Mary smiled primly, as she usually did, but soon switched it off, when she saw, behind her uncle who was walking down to break up the party, a groomsman at the top of the stairs to the drive. He was hundreds of feet away but she knew he had heard her. In the bustle of standing and exchanging goodbyes and looking for hats and handkerchiefs, Mary's serious face was taken as merely a result of having to leave her friends.
"Never mind, darling, I'll see you again next Tuesday, all right?" her good friend Katherine said, squeezing her waist and pecking her cold cheek. Mary smiled briefly at her, allowing her to believe what she wanted to believe. Trailing behind the crowd, Mary was able to wait until the groomsman had had to move out of the way before she had to cross into the drive to wave off her guests. Her uncle took her hand. "Have you had a lovely party, my dear Mary?" he asked kindly.
"Oh, yes, thank you, Uncle," she replied dutifully. "And thank you for the perfect day!" she added, a more natural smile appearing.
"Well, I aim to please," he returned, his own smile transforming his heavy, carved face.
"A triumph!" said Colin, striding over and coming between them, linking arms with both and steering them into the house for supper. "Mary, we are the talk of the county—of the North! No-one provides the garden parties we do. I honestly think, Father, that in another few weeks I'll be able to trounce that bounder Hawkins at any sport he chooses to name—don't you think? Father?"
"Absolutely," his besotted father said. "Your sportsmanship is what people are talking about, my dear boy. No finer dancer or fighter in Yorkshire!"
They separated then, to dress. Mary cast Colin one look before she went to her room, but received only an impudent grin in reply. He knew she couldn't say anything in front of his father, and that now she would have no opportunity to call him to account until tomorrow, at which point her anger would have worn off.
Outside, the groomsman had reached the stables again. He looked down the line of big, dark heads that looked over their stall doors to greet him. Large, liquid, innocent eyes that loved him unconditionally, strained to be near him. Soon he'd have to spend a few minutes not meeting her eyes while she apologized and explained the rules of a society she knew very well he had no part or interest in. And then he'd spend the rest of the night trying not to think about her.