Of all people, Lady Jane perhaps sensed her friend's state of mind most delicately. When she came out of the dressmaker's, a look that was difficult to read passed across her face, as if she knew where his thoughts had turned.
"Everything acceptable?" he asked cheerfully.
"Yes, they're still making dresses."
They resumed their stroll. A few shops down the long boulevard, they passed the optician. "I really would like a barometer above anything," Lenox said longingly, pausing before a beautiful brass one in the optician's window. "Ah, well."
"What a waste of money it would be," she said.
"They say it is good to have friends who support one's interests," Lenox replied, studying the barometer.
"You are dead in the center of the largest city on earth. When was the last time you even saw a ship?"
"Ha! There you're going to feel foolish, because I see them nearly every day on the Thames."
"From a cab." She pulled his arm. "Let's go, you can't be late to your duke."
They proceeded down New Bond, talking of this and that. It seemed Lady Jane had a kind word for every person they passed, and it occurred to Lenox that just as he had been struggling to find his feet in his profession, she had perhaps felt something like an impostor in her first years in London—in the very earliest days of her grand marriage, to an earl's first son. Perhaps this was why she shopped for herself; perhaps it gave her a sense of intimacy with their leafy, occasionally intimidating London neighborhood, making a community of it. Like him, she belonged, from the first, to a small place, a village. Now she had made a small place here, in the biggest place. A village of its own.
They spent some time discussing the duke. A duke, after all! The whole of the United Kingdom, in its population of thirty million, possessed just twenty-eight such creatures. The least of them was a figure of overpowering consequence. Yet even among their rank were finer gradients, and the man Lenox was shortly to see held one of the three or four greatest dukedoms.
Theirs was the highest tier of the nobility, the dukes, first in the land beneath the royal family. Not only that, but in their innermost souls not a few dukes and duchesses would have pointed to their lineage (the title of "duke" had come into existence in 1337) and claimed a greater stake in the leadership of Britain than the comelately family currently chattering around the throne in German accents.
After them, it went so: first the marquesses, thirty-five of these, and their wives, the marchionesses. Then earls—and there it became complicated, because the title of "earl" was nearly oldest of all, originating as long ago as the year 600, historians said, when each shire of England had a jarl (Norse for "noble warrior"), which was the reason that in England each earl was still entitled to a small crown: a coronet.
Many earls in England (including Lady Jane's father, Lord Houghton) would not have admitted for a second to being beneath a duke. Their wives were called countesses, because nobody had ever thought to name them earlesses—which had struck many schoolboys memorizing these facts as extremely stupid indeed.
Thereafter it got greatly simpler. Viscounts were next, nearly a hundred of these, common as church mice, the poor devils. Finally came barons, last rank in the peerage.
"And there you'll be, at the very top of the heap," said Jane.
"I doubt he'll make me a duke there on the spot," Lenox said.
"Probably just a baron or something."
"I do wonder what he wants. A possession upon which he places high value. I only hope it's not his lucky kilt, or something like that."
Lady Jane laughed. "And the laundress has lost it, yes. I could see that being the calamity, I fear."
Lenox himself held none of these titles. Just to confuse things, there was still one title left over, and it was here that he entered the picture: Baronets were called "sir," as Lenox's older brother, Sir Edmund, had now been in the eighteen months since their father's death.
A knight was also called "sir," but his children couldn't inherit the title. It belonged to a sole person and died with him, a great writer, say, or artist, or dear intimate of the Queen's ninth-favorite cousin.
All of these gentry taken together with their families numbered not more than ten thousand, but Lenox, as the second son even of a very old, landed, and honored baronetcy, was as far down the slopes of the mountain of aristocracy from the Duke of Dorset as the thirtymillionth Briton, drunk in a ditch, was from Lenox himself.
It was an absurd system. Almost nobody believed in it as more than a matter of chance, except for the very old aunts and uncles who kept the genealogies. Yet all of them also, somehow, believed in it implicitly.
Strange to be an Englishman, an Englishwoman.