As head of the household, Mary Herbert, looking like the Monarch of the Glen, ruled her domain with absolute authority. In the evenings before dinner she stood in front of the fire with her glass of gin and her cigarette, pushing back her tangled hair and demanding, ‘What? What?’ when, as often, she could not quite hear what was being said. (She was nicknamed ‘Mrs What-What’ by her children’s friends.)
When Evelyn arrived, he found a large, young and rumbustious house party in progress, with hockey and hunting during the day, noisy games of charades in the evening. Everyone seemed tireless, he complained, and made him feel very middle-aged. Previously his particular friend in the family had been Gabriel, but now his attention was caught by her younger sister, Laura. ‘I have taken a great fancy to a young lady named Laura,’ he told Maimie.
What is she like? Well fair, very pretty, plays peggoty beautifully. We met on a house party in Somerset.5 She has rather a long thin nose and skin as thin as bromo as she is very thin and might be dying of consumption to look at her and she has her hair in a little bun at the back of her neck but it is not very tidy and she is only 18 years old, virgin, Catholic, quiet & astute. So it is difficult. I have not made much progress yet except to pinch her twice in a charade and lean against her thigh in pretending to help her at peggoty.
Although Laura was only eighteen, Evelyn was quick to recognise in her the qualities he most desired in a wife. She was kind, quiet, stable, innocent and true. She was also pretty, well-born and devout, with a subde sense of humour and an admirable dislike of London and sophisticated society. Although in manner still rather childlike, Laura had a stronger character than might at first appear. Youngest of the three sisters, she was very different from both Gabriel and Bridget. They were tall, energetic young women, outgoing and impatient, talking loudly, shouting with laughter, striding about the house calling to their dogs and throwing themselves on to the broken-springed sofas. Superb horsewomen, they went out several times a week during the hunting season, fearlessly galloping up and down the steep valleys and jumping the terrifying stone walls of Exmoor. Laura, on the other hand, was physically far from robust, a bout of rheumatic fever in childhood having left her delicate. Although she hated riding, she loved animals, like all the Herberts, but while her sisters went in for big, muddy labradors and setters, Laura’s dog was a whippet called Imp. Tmp-Imp-Imp’, she would be heard calling, clacking over the uncarpeted floors in her impractical high heels. She was not a beauty like Bridget - her long nose had been broken by an accident with a cricket bat when she was small - but her fragile features, pale skin and huge dark eyes gave her an ethereal, fairytale look.
Thin and frail though she was, and seemingly overshadowed by the forcefulness of her mother and sisters, Laura was no cipher. When in company she contributed litde, being extremely shy as well as socially lazy, but nonetheless she had a mind of her own and firm opinions about the people she met. She could be surprisingly judgmental, and to some observers there was a quiet arrogance about her, often a slight curl to her lip. As one of her schoolfriends observed, ” [Laura had] a very definite personality with a quirky way of criticising people’; another remarked that she was ‘pretty unforthcoming, but a very strong character’. In her own eyes her worst fault was a violent temper, so violent that when in its grip she would take to her bed for the day as the attempt to control it made her physically ill. As a result of this drastic form of self-discipline, Laura became adept at suppressing her emotions. As one of her daughters was later to say, ‘Mummy had a very strong character, but very suppressed. Everything was very suppressed with mummy’ But she also possessed a great appetite for enjoyment, and loved being made to laugh; safe within the family circle she could be very funny, with a talent for mimicry. ‘Behind the veil of good manners, she mocked everybody and everything.’ She had, too, all the Herbert self-confidence and family pride, indeed felt little need to make friends or pursue interests outside the family pale. There was, said Gabriel of her at this time, ‘a quality of self-containedness and irony. .. [as one who] steered a determined course of non-involvement’.