The Song of the Butcher Bird | 15 Chiddington Park
The Kidman girls
William found it impossible to talk to his mother privately at any time during the remainder of the day. When he asked Lightowler immediately after his interview with Lord Saltwood if Lady Saltwood might be free to see him, he was told that she was not, but that she was expecting him to join their guests for tea later in the oriental drawing room she normally used when entertaining important guests.
The guests were there before him, and the intricate mechanism of formal afternoon tea was purring smoothly under the watchful supervision of the under-butler. William took in the unfamiliar group of two adults and three young women as he crossed the room and then looked into his mother’s eyes as he bent to kiss her cheek, and saw in that brief connection that his mother was fully aware of his situation and completely powerless to mitigate it. Then he patted her elderly Italian greyhound, which was wagging its tail ecstatically and grinning at him ingratiatingly on a cushion next to her ladyship’s chair, and turned to be introduced to Mr and Mrs Sidney Kidman.
The three Kidman daughters were presented formally in order of age by their father. Gertrude, Elma and Edna. They smiled and said ‘how do you do’ with perfect decorum, but there was something more open about the way they spoke and carried themselves than he would expect to encounter in society from English girls of their age. He also noticed immediately that with these Australian girls there was none of the subtle frisson of matrimonial hope, trembling in the air like deer musk in the park, that he normally encountered when he met young women of his own age these days, when their mothers were present. It was an invisible current that had grown measurably stronger over the past year or more, generated by husband-hungry mothers who homed in on rich potential sons-in-law with the unerring, needle-taloned accuracy of owls hunting mice on a moonless night.
The girls’ mother in this case was polite but guarded. In ten minutes of unpacking, Bel Kidman had extracted a great deal of backstairs detail about the Saltwoods out of her temporary maid, and she would be keeping her eye on the younger son’s dealings with her daughters. Their father was under no such constraints. He raised his eyebrows at William and grinned when he noticed him making himself agreeable to his girls. ‘They’re good girls, William,’ he said. ‘But they’re costing me a fortune ramping round London buying up dresses and frilly what-nots, I can tell you. The sooner we get them back to Kapunda the better, don’t you think Bel?’
The girls pretended to be scandalised by their father, but it was treated as a family joke, and Lady Saltwood joined the laughter. ‘Your girls are a great credit to both of you, Mr Kidman. You must be very proud of them, and I suspect that any blame for indulging them lies entirely with you!’
Under normal circumstances, with guests unused to the scale and grandeur of Chiddington, and coping with the daunting complications of juggling porcelain cups of tea and delicate saucers and plates and silver spoons and knives and tiny, crustless sandwiches and ten kinds of cakes on top of that, William would have expected a certain slightly flustered tension in the drawing room, a watchful, best-behaviour stiffness that even Lady Saltwood’s consideration usually took some time to thaw. With the Australian family, there was none of that tension at all. The girls were enjoying themselves enormously, chatting to Lady Saltwood about shopping expeditions and theatre performances as though she was an honorary aunt they had known all their lives, and looking up under their eyelashes at the best-looking of the footmen as he offered them the cake stand.
They chatted easily with William, too, but the two older girls maintained enough reserve to let him know that they were not going to be impressed simply by his enormous house and his father’s fortune. They were wise to the ways of his world, and they were not easy pickings for some titled English boy to trifle with.
At eighteen, Edna was the youngest of the Kidman girls and still young enough to drop her eyes when William smiled at her. But Gertie and Elma in their sophisticated twenties had higher benchmarks to measure him against. He was handsome enough, Gertie told her mother casually when the girls gathered later in their mother’s room prior to dinner, but not as good-looking as Charlie Blewitt back home, and not as humorous as Leyland Clayton either.
‘I liked his hair, and didn’t you think he was charming?’ asked Edna. Her mother glanced at her in the dressing table mirror. Charm was not a quality that Bel Kidman valued highly. Charm was the product of practice, she considered, and she did not want to imagine the sort of practice that William Saltwood had been putting in to acquire his smooth confidence. She would light a fire under him if he tried it on with her girls. Bel also observed that the charm froze instantly into a stiff reerve when Lord Saltwood appeared briefly and belatedly in the drawing-room. He apologised to his wife and his guests for his absence, but hoped they would forgive him if he remained enslaved to business during working hours, but only for the rest of this day. He turned to Bel and the girls and asked them with awkward gallantry if they would forgive him for deserting them again, and had they done proper justice to the cook’s famous double chocolate cream cake.
Bel smiled and the girls mumbled a response awkwardly between them of which an incongruous ‘delicious’ and ‘lordship’ were the only two words that anybody could hear clearly. The cake was fabulous but his Lordship’s presence in the drawing room was not quite as more-ish. But tomorrow, Lord Saltwood would be entirely at his guest’s disposal for the entire weekend, he reassured them – with the exception of the first part of Saturday morning, an absence that caused Lady Saltwood’s eyebrows to lift a millimetre.
‘Perhaps William would take the opportunity to show Mr Kidman some of the estate?’ suggested Lord Saltwood.
Kidman nodded enthusiastically. ‘My word, yes. I would like that. Would it be possible to ride? I always reckon you can see twice as much in half the time when you’re up on a horse.’
Lord Saltwood agreed emphatically. ‘Of course. That would be a capital way to see the estate,’ said Lord Saltwood. ‘We must check that the hounds are at a safe distance tomorrow morning. We can ask Lavery this evening, or you can check the card with Daniels later, William.’ William nodded. ‘In a couple of hours on one of my hunters,’ Lord Saltwood went on, ‘you would see a good deal of the estate, Mr Kidman, but you must remember that we are not one of your outback stations. It won’t take you a week to ride across Chiddington.’
As Lord Saltwood excused himself to his guests and to his wide and turned to leave, William noticed a curious, silent exchange of signals between the Kidman girls and their mother. They were looking imploringly at her, and she then glanced at their father, who shook his head very slightly with an apologetic smile.