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Authors: Joan Smith

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BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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“I couldn’t agree with you more, Sir Giles. My first novel is a young girl’s romantic ramblings. What novels do you think I should read to improve my skills?” This was not mere flattery. Cicely did agree with Sir Giles and was eager to harvest the gleanings of a well-read mind.

“Burney, of course. Edgeworth.”

“Would you include Walter Scott? He is so popular.”

“Scott ought to be hanged. He has done the novel more harm with his Highland tales than Byron has done to poetry. When a piece of writing is universally popular, you may rest assured it is tripe,” Sir Giles said categorically. “Scott has a facility for words—as you have yourself, Miss Cicely.”

“Thank you,” she said with a tight little smile. Sir Giles had just made one speech to displease her. She wanted her book to be good, but she also wanted it to be monstrously popular.

“Credit where credit is due. You are young. When you outgrow the fantastical notions of girlhood, I have no doubt you will write something worth reading. I shall add, as a suggestion, that you not devote such labored paragraphs to your heroine’s eyes in your next effort.”

This elicited a girlish giggle. “And violet eyes at that!”

“Also lavender, purple, gentian and if I am not mistaken, amethyst,” Sir Giles said severely. “This straining after novelty is another thing to be on your guard against. When you must distinguish your characters with such salient physical characteristics, it is fourpence to a groat the real character is wanting. Those violet eyes did your Eugenie a disservice.”

Sir Giles was finding Miss Cicely entirely conversable. It was refreshing to discover a successful novelist who did not believe herself above criticism.

“I wonder she did not compare them to grape jam, as they were every other shade of purple,” Cicely said, laughing.

Montaigne overheard this and gave a jump of alarm.
“She!”
It was as good as announcing Cicely had not written the demmed book herself.

Sir Giles interpreted her faux pas in a quite different manner. “That will not do, Miss Cicely, calling yourself ‘she,’ in an effort to disclaim Eugenie as a creature of your own imagination. Come now, confess Eugenie was based on your idealized version of yourself.”

“Indeed she was not! Eugenie was everything I am not. I based her on—a lady I know, at home in Kent,” she invented.

“I made sure you were going to say the tale was based on Miss Davis. Because of those violet eyes, you know.”

“Miss Davis? I never heard of her. Who is she?”

Montaigne’s hands clenched into white-knuckled fists upon hearing the name. Sir Giles spoke in a low voice, but during a lull in the table talk, Montaigne overheard enough to fear his secret was out.

“Why, as you are a friend of Montaigne’s, I assumed you knew her. She and Montaigne were very close last spring. Everyone expected it would come to a match, but in the end a duke offered for her, and she went for the greater title.” He inclined his head closer and said in a low voice,
“Entre nous,
if Lady Fairly had ever learned the alphabet, I would have suspected her of penning
Chaos,
for she was a bosom bow of Miss Davis. But of course the lady is illiterate, and in any case, we now know the author.”

Cicely looked across the table. She met Montaigne’s thundercloud of a frown staring back at her. She gave him a saucy grin, then turned to Sir Giles and said, in no low voice, “And was Lord Montaigne quite heartbroken at her refusal?”

“Ankle-broken, actually, unless that was an excuse to hide from Society until whatever was broken had mended. The
on
dit
was that he busted his ankle in a tumble from his nag and was sent to bed a month to recuperate.”

“How very sad. Why, it is enough to turn a gentleman against marriage.” She looked at Montaigne. He was glaring balefully at her now. She raised her glass in a toast to him, then said to Sir Giles, “Do tell me all about Miss Davis. Does she really have violet eyes?”

“Indeed she has. They may soon be watering as copiously as Eugenie’s, for one hears of trouble with the ducal match.”

“It sounds quite as romantical as
Chaos,
does it not?”

“You omitted the realistic part, however—the postmarriage part.”

“I begin to suspect you are a confirmed misoganist, sir, and therefore a poor judge of any novel that provides a lady a happy ending.”

“Marriage is a necessary institution. A happy marriage is possible, between the right couple. I do not refer to a Darby and Joan couple, gazing contentedly into the grate while they sup their posset, talking of cows and pigs, but to a civilized, urban lady and gentleman of like tastes and like fortunes.”

It occurred to Sir Giles that Miss Cicely fulfilled some small part of his requirements. She was civilized, and young enough to have her taste improved. What he did not know was the extent of her fortune, but at the rate
Chaos
was selling, it would soon be greater than his own, which was not very great.

“Where will you find a lady whose taste reaches the rarefied heights of your own, Sir Giles?” she asked with a teasing smile.

“I make no claim to intellectual heights. If others say so, then it speaks of their own lack. I merely prefer good books to bad. A book like
Chaos
fulfills a purpose, a sort of opium for the lower class, who enjoy a love story. It is not a great book, but it is good in its way. Light entertainment.”

“Then you will not castigate me in your magazine? It is to your review that one looks for a
real
critique.”

“I cannot promise a puffing piece, but I do understand this is your first effort. We gentlemen are always sympathetic to young maidens. My publication does not usually review romantic novels, but perhaps an essay on that sort of writing for the masses, with
Chaos
used as an example. A good example. I do not think you will dislike what I have to say.”

“You are too kind, Sir Giles,” Cicely simpered.

They continued their conversation throughout the meal. Before it was over, Sir Giles condescended to say he would enjoy another opportunity to discuss her next work with her. Cicely expressed all the delight he expected, and said shyly that she had something written already. Despite his heavy burden of work, he agreed to look at it. When he asked if he might have the pleasure of driving out with her the next morning, she was in alt.

The Murrays had not planned any formal entertainment after dinner. George Crabbe agreed to give a reading from his new work. The party broke up early. Cicely felt she had some reason to crow, after her success with Sir Giles. Montaigne, however, was in the boughs as he drove her to Berkeley Square.

“There was no need to grovel to the jackanapes,” he scowled.

“I thought he was charming. I agreed with nearly everything he said—including Miss Davis’s violet eyes. Oh, pardon me. That is, Eugenie’s violet eyes. Who really wrote the book, Montaigne? Was it Miss Davis? Did you get me to come as a favor to your lost love?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Aunt Irma wrote it.”

“Surely you mean Aunt Ethel!”

He stiffened in alarm. “That’s what I meant. Aunt Ethel. And she doesn’t even know Debora, so obviously any resemblance is a coincidence.”

“Were you very much in love with her?”

“I thought so at the time,” he admitted.

“That, of course, was before you turned against marriage. She would have done better to marry you. Sir Giles said she and her duke are not getting along.
I
think she wrote the book when she realized her mistake, giving it the happy ending that escaped her in real life.”

“Sir Giles is misinformed,” he said firmly. “Debora and the duke are well matched. He gives her whatever she asks for.”

“Like Meg and Fairly, you mean?”

“Like Meg and Fairly and most happily married couples.”

“I am surprised you allow there is any such thing. We shall agree to disagree on what constitutes a happy marriage. Sir Giles feels as I do, that a happy marriage requires two like-minded, rational people.”

Montaigne felt a spurt of annoyance. “Rational people don’t get married!” he said, venting his wrath.

“I expect it is the exception when two rational people have the felicity to meet and fall in love. When that happens, surely their good sense compels them to marry. Sir Giles was saying—”

“You have been discussing marriage with Sir Giles already, have you? One of you is a fast worker. Since Sir Giles is pushing fifty, one can hardly accuse him of undue haste. That leaves yourself, Sissie.” He gave her a scalding look, which she ignored. “Found your new hero, have you? An aging self-styled critic?”

“We discussed marriage in the abstract, as an idea, not in specifics. It is odd, though; Anne said I might meet a potential husband here. And incidentally, Sir Giles is closer to forty than fifty. He is forty-two.”

“Do you feel you have met your potential husband in this rational gentleman more than twice your age?”

“Every unattached gentleman a lady meets is a potential husband.”

“It was only a few hours ago you voiced your reluctance to marry.”

“So I did, but reluctance can always be talked away by the right man. We ladies are optimists who invariably feel we can make a silk purse from whatever sow’s ear turns up, as the alternative is to be a spinster, shunted from pillar to post. His age doesn’t bother me. I admire his mind. We shall see how our visit goes tomorrow.”

“I was to take you to Bond Street tomorrow,” Montaigne reminded her with another of those sharp jabs of annoyance.

“Sir Giles is coming in the morning. He wants to discuss
Chaos Is Come Again
in more detail, for the piece he is writing for the
Edinburgh Review.”

This good news jerked Montaigne out of his pique. “He is doing a whole piece?”

“Yes, a sympathetic piece.”

“Then I daresay you must keep him in curl until it is done,” he said reluctantly.

“For the sake of the orphans,” she added, not with her usual mischievous grin, but with real concern. “That is not the only reason I am going out with him, however. He is just the mentor I require for my writing. I hope to lure him into a correspondence after I return to Elmdale.”

“Charming. It hasn’t taken London long to debauch you.”

“Honi soit qui mal y pense.
Naturally I don’t mean a clandestine exchange of billet-doux but a professional correspondence. He will suggest books for me to read, and so on. Perhaps he has a translation of the classical scholars to lend me, as a certain someone failed to bring me the copy he
promised.”

“I looked! I don’t happen to have it in my London house. I expect it is in the library at the abbey.”

“Never mind. Sir Giles will tell me where I can buy a copy for myself. I want his opinion of the book I have already written, too. I think he will like it better than
Chews.”

“I agreed to show Murray your book. That was our bargain.”

“I should appreciate Sir Giles’s opinion as well.”

As it was still early when they returned to Berkeley Square, Montaigne invited himself in for a glass of wine. He did not remain long, however. He had heard quite enough of the wonders of Sir Giles Gresham for one evening. And to cap his disgust, the mawworm had told Sissie about Debora Davis. With Sissie’s sharp intuition, she would soon leap to the truth—that he had written
Chaos Is Come Again
himself.

But after he drove home, it was not about Sir Giles’s revealing his secret that he worried. It was that Sissie would soon be imagining she was in love with the mawworm. She was still a green girl, even if Meg had rigged her out to look like a dasher. Sir Giles might think she was older and more worldly than she was—and certainly richer, after reaping the rewards of
Chaos.

Montaigne had brought Sissie to London; she was under his protection. There was no counting on the chit to behave herself. He could hardly send her dashing back to Elmdale tomorrow, but the next morning, bright and early, he would send her home.

Yet this did not entirely please him, either. It seemed rude, surly. She had done him a great service. He ought to reward her in some manner. Take her to a rout party. The Fairlys were giving her rack and manger. Fairly had replaced him in one outing; Sir Giles was visiting her. It would be too shabby for him not to entertain her a little, after asking her to come here. She would enjoy a fashionable rout party, for her research.

He mentally scanned the invitations he had received, and chose Lady Radcliffe’s rout for the next evening. Meg would lend her a gown. He began imagining Sissie in various gowns he had seen on Meg. Really very dashing gowns. No wonder the gents were all falling over her. He would ask her to wear her own gown with the new ribbons.

A fond smile curved his lips, to think of Sissie romping about in her provincial gown, no doubt with a surfeit of bows. She would still be the prettiest girl there. When had Sissie Caldwell blossomed into a beauty? Even Murray had been warm in his praise of her looks.

“She could set the ton on its ear,” he had said. “Byron’s handsome phiz does his sales no harm, you must know, Monty. Only see how she is prying the smiles out of that mummy, Gresham.”

It was an intriguing notion, not only for the increased sales, but for some research of his own. The Christmas recess would soon begin at the House. He would have time free to write. He had written one novel about a watering pot. Murray wanted another book. Cicely would be a completely different sort of heroine: a country girl, green as grass, but bossy, opinionated, interfering, intelligent, managing. No, no one would ever buy it ... would they? Of one thing he was certain: he would not make Sir Giles its hero.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Montaigne was well aware that a lady required advance notice to prepare herself for a party. He planned to invite Sissie to Lady Radcliffe’s rout when he took her to Bond Street that afternoon. By ten, he felt a nagging concern that he was leaving it too late. Gresham was seeing her at eleven. The wretch would probably invite her to some dull literary lecture in the evening. He dashed off a note as he sat in the House, and handed it to one of the pages to deliver to Berkeley Square at once.

BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
13.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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