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Authors: Joan Smith

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BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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“What age is he?”

“Forty-something. A bachelor.”

She gave him a coquettish smile. “A bachelor of a certain age is always amenable to flirtation,” she said, unconsciously patting the knotted shawl.

“Now, Sissie! One rake to worry about is enough. I don’t want you carrying on with Sir Giles. Good God, Murray will find himself accused of trying to pervert literary reportage.”

“As if his connection with the
Quarterly Review
doesn’t do that! I had no notion there was so much incest in the business. But you underestimate me, milord. I shall be discreet. Only think of the poor orphans,” she said, drawing a long face.

“You don’t know the meaning of the word
discretion.
I begin to think it was a huge mistake to bring you here. You’ve only been in London half a day, and already you have Fairly trotting after you, half the ton gossiping about you, and Meg in the boughs.”

“To say nothing of Lord Montaigne in an uproar and making me sit with this shawl choking me because he can’t control his eyes.” Montaigne could think of no answer to her charge of ogling.

“If Sir Giles is not flirtable, I shall employ flattery,” she said. “Every man born of woman adores flattery.”

“How will you flatter a scholar of classics without making a fool of yourself? I assume you haven’t studied Latin or Greek?” He was coming to realize, however, that she had read more widely than most young girls. Where had she come across the idea of incest? She had picked up pretty quickly on the questionable ethics of Murray’s association with the
Quarterly
as well.

She cast her eyes down modestly. “Indeed no. I am only a simple country girl, Lord Montaigne. We leave such scholarly pursuits to you gentlemen. How should I hope to understand the wisdom of Socrates and Aristotle, even if I could read Latin?”

“Actually they were Greeks,” Montaigne said.

Cicely gave a shy smile, allowing her long lashes to flutter a moment. “There, you see how ignorant I am. I wish I knew about such things. I want to be a really serious writer, you know. Could you recommend a good translation into English of those great philosophers for me, Montaigne?”

“I wish you would call me Monty,” he said, in a warmer tone. She lifted her downcast eyes and smiled shyly at him. Montaigne began to see Cicely was really more interesting than he had imagined. There was more to her than a provincial miss. “That is very ambitious of you, my dear. I should be happy to find a copy of a good translation. I daresay I have one in my library somewhere.”

“Perhaps you would lend it to me, sometime when you have a moment free, I mean. Naturally I would not impose on your important work in the House.”

“I’ll dig it out this very night and bring it tomorrow.”

Sissie’s fluttering eyelashes fell still. Her shy smile turned to an impish grin. “And you think I can’t flatter an aging bachelor into submission! I have just conned
you,
Monty. You did ask me to call you Monty, did you not?”

“Good God! Hoist by my own petard.”

“No, sir, by the wind of vanity.”

“Not much chance for vanity when you call me an old bachelor.” Was that how she saw him?

“I didn’t say
old!
Don’t worry. With all your blunt and an abbey besides, you’re still young enough to be eligible.”

“Nothing like an estate to maintain one’s youthful eligibility.”

“As good as Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth. But you underestimate your charms, Montaigne,” she said, with a tinge of admiration lighting her eyes. “You have a good deal more to offer than an abbey.”

“Dare I ask the meaning of that mischievous remark?”

“I refer, of course, to your title.”

He glared. “Of course.”

“I was just joking. You’re not as bad as most of them, from what I have seen.”

“Let us end the subject of my multifarious attractions on that faint praise.”

“Yes, it’s time for you to be leaving. My cocoa is gone. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.” Montaigne allowed a small smile to peep out. “You did promise to bring me that translation.” His smile faded. Cicely’s grew broader.

She rose, made a curtsy, and left. Montaigne sat on a moment, frowning at the task before him: to contain the mischief of this chit for the few days she was to remain in London.

 

Chapter Six

 

In the morning, Cicely jotted down her recollections of the previous evening while the details were fresh in her mind. That done, she began seeking out and writing up new research for her next novel. This involved not only a tour of Fairly’s house but a particular perusal of Meg’s room. She counted the gowns in her armoires, examined them to see what sort of ornaments were in style, and lifted the lid of each silver-topped container on her toilet table. Meg was in attendance, to explain any mysteries.

“At home, wearing rouge is considered pretty fast. Do all the young ladies wear it here?” Cicely asked.

“Three-quarters of them do. Not that they admit it. Sukey Dorman tries to pretend her color is natural, but once when she was weeping because her horrid husband wouldn’t buy her a high-perch phaeton, I noticed that her handkerchief had pink smudges on it afterward.”

“Why did she want a phaeton?”

“Because they are all the crack, goose!”

“Oh. And why would he not let her have one?”

“Because he had lost a thousand pounds at the card table the evening before, and naturally his wife was the one who had to pay for his sins. That is the way we are treated, Sissie. Shocking! It’s not all roses, being married to a rich lord, you must know.”

“Lost a thousand pounds in one evening!”

“That’s nothing,” Meg said. “Fairly once lost five hundred in two minutes. He and Atherly were betting on whether Lady Caroline Lamb would attend a dinner party after Byron had jilted her. She appeared at the door not two minutes later. I swear Atherly had seen her carriage draw up before he made the bet. Fairly tried to reneg on his promise to buy me a pair of cream ponies for my carriage after he lost his bet, but I made him go to the cents-percenter and borrow the money.”

“How did you make him?” Cicely asked, her eyes wide.

“I made his life a living hell,” Meg replied with a glinting smile at the memory. “I stayed in my room for twenty-four hours. Every time I heard him approach the door, I took a deep whiff of my hartshorn, and he found me in tears. Gentlemen can’t bear to see ladies cry.”

Papa says it is folly to borrow from the usurers.”

“Oh, everyone does it in London. It is the latest thing.”

“Money is money in London, the same as in the country. What’s borrowed must be paid—with interest. I cannot think it wise for you to encourage Fairly to borrow.”

“He needs no encouragement, goose!”

“It would be horrid if he squandered all his fortune and ended up poor.”

“Shocking,” Meg agreed, undismayed.

“I wouldn’t do as everyone else does, just to make them like me. That can easily happen in a place like London.” To give her friend a foretaste of the doom awaiting her if she continued on this profligate course, Cicely asked Meg to accompany her and Fairly to the slums that afternoon.

“I’ve already seen them. They are very boring. Bedlam was much more amusing. Perhaps Fairly will take you there to see the lunatics tomorrow. It’s kind of you to entertain him for me. It leaves me free for more interesting amusements,” she said daringly.

“You aren’t seeing another gentleman!” Sissie gasped.

“No, I am having my portrait painted as a surprise for Fairly.” She didn’t mention that the artist was an exceedingly pretty young fellow and an excellent flirt, even if he was not much of a painter.

“Then you do still love Fairly?” Sissie said, relieved to hear it.

“Of course I do, goose!” Meg said and frowned to realize she meant it. “It’s just that he hasn’t turned out to be the sort of husband I imagined. His first ardor faded too quickly. When new gowns and bonnets didn’t quicken his love, I tried making him jealous, but he was not at all jealous of my flirts. He didn’t command me to stop seeing my cicisbeo; he reciprocated by acquiring flirts of his own. If a man doesn’t take charge, then he must not expect his wife to behave as he wishes.” She pouted and tossed her curls. “It’s nothing to get in a pelter about. It’s the way everyone goes on in London. Married couples are not shackled leg and wing here. We’d be a laughingstock if we went about together.”

“If I had a husband I loved I wouldn’t spend so much time in London, if that’s the way folks go on.”

“You’re a country mouse, Sissie. You will marry some stout squire and have a nurseryful of children. To each her own.”

“Fairly would like a son.”

“One would never guess it by the way he behaves,” Meg snipped, dipping her fingers into the rouge pot, for her mirror told her she looked like a corpse beside Sissie.

Fairly did not return for lunch. Meg waited for a quarter of an hour, and when it was clear he was not coming, she and Cicely went into the dining room without him.

“It’s typical!” Meg scolded. “And I had Cook make his favorite luncheon, too. I should think that when I have company he might return, or at least tell me he would not be here. Perhaps you can find out where he was—but discreetly. I wouldn’t want him to think I was prying.”

“I would hardly call it prying,” Cicely replied. “Surely a wife has a right to know. Papa always sends word if he’s going to be even ten minutes late.”

Fairly returned at three. He made a curt bow to his wife before turning a smile in Cicely’s direction. “All set for our trip to the slums?” he asked. “I see you have dressed for the occasion. Very wise.”

He assumed her modest gown had been chosen to avoid ostentation and lessen the risk of being robbed. The bonnet and mantle she put on were of the same provincial cut as the gown. Meg’s stylish high-poke bonnet with clusters of fruit around the base of the crown rested on the banister post. He picked it up as they left the house, for he wanted to go on the strut with Cicely after they had visited Seven Dials. His reputation demanded that she appear more modish.

“Are you not bringing any footmen?” she asked when she saw only the coachman. “Montaigne thought we ought to take a couple in case we’re attacked.”

“I wager I can handle anything that comes along.” He handed her into the carriage and arranged a fur blanket over her knees.

“Why did you bring Meg’s bonnet?” she asked as the carriage lurched forward.

“Is it Meg’s? I’ve never seen her in it. I thought it was yours. No matter. It will look dashed pretty on you later.”

“I hope Meg was not planning to wear it herself.”

“Going out then, is she?” he asked, with some interest. “Did she happen to mention where .. .”

“Shopping, I believe,” she prevaricated. Having her portrait done
was
shopping for his birthday present. “And what marvelous things were you doing all morning, milord?”

“Demme, I wish you will call me Fairly.” His morning had consisted of rounding up a pair of bruisers to accost him and Cicely at Seven Dials, to allow him to appear heroic. Naturally he couldn’t tell Cicely that, but her bright eyes were looking at him expectantly.

“I had business matters to attend to,” he said.

“It must be very dear to live in London,” she said leadingly.

“M’dear, you don’t know the half of it. Meg has spent a thousand pounds on gewgaws this month,” he exaggerated, to impress her. “Three new bonnets! To say nothing of that bill from her modiste. She has ample pin money, but I am sent her bills. I should like to know how she expects me to pay for it all, on top of running the house.”

“You can run into real trouble if you go to the cents-per-center. Why don’t you rusticate for a few months?” she suggested.

“Ho, try to convince Meg of that! There’s no one to flirt with in the country.”

“Then it would leave her more time for you,” she said with a playful smile.

“She is weary of my company, Sissie.”

“I cannot think so, for she has very little of it, from what I have seen.”

“More than she wants, I warrant.”

“On the contrary. She was disappointed that you could not come home for luncheon. Meg ordered your favorite raised pigeon pie.”

“She never said so!” A small smile grew on his face.

“Meg is not the type to complain.”

This was news to Fairly. “And did
you
miss me, Sissie?” he asked with a conning smile, which Cicely ignored entirely.

“I enjoyed having Meg to myself. Selfish of me, but we had a great deal to get caught up on. How far away is Seven Dials?” she asked, to avoid the coming flirtation.

“Just past Charing Cross Road—not prime real estate. I’ll drive you along Piccadilly first to see the real London.”

The west end of Piccadilly was impressive, even in November. Green Park was still green. This idyllic spot with cattle grazing seemed out of place in the heart of London. As they turned north, the greenery and fine buildings petered out into commercial establishments, finally degenerating into hovels.

“I have never seen anything like this!” Cicely exclaimed, staring around her in disbelief when Fairly announced uncertainly that he figured they were now at Seven Dials.

It made the poorhouse at home look opulent by comparison. The doors on the hovels hung crookedly, some of them on one hinge. The holes where windows had once rested were covered in oilskin or rags or brown paper. Clusters of bedraggled humanity sat on the doorsteps, huddled together for warmth, their very postures a picture of despair. What must the interior of those hovels be like, that they braved the wintry blasts to escape them? Perhaps it was the daylight that drew them, as the shacks had no glazed windows.

Some of the women had children in their arms. Most of them held a bottle of what Fairly assured her was Blue Ruin, from which they took frequent drinks. Blue Ruin shops abounded. Children roamed the streets in packs, too dispirited to play. They had the feral air of wild animals, as they slouched along, looking over their shoulders. Several fully grown men were also there.

Fairly had his ruffians waiting at the corner of Neal Street, the location chosen because of its proximity to Bow Street. He would let the lads escape, of course, but he might report them to Bow Street, to lend an air of authenticity to the attack. If, on the other hand, as he hoped, Cicely was completely overwrought, he would stay with her in the carriage, comforting her in his arms until she was sufficiently recovered to don Meg’s bonnet and go for a strut on New Bond Street, where she was bound to relate his heroism to anyone they met.

BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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