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Authors: Maggie MacKeever

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French Leave

BOOK: French Leave
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FRENCH LEAVE

 

Maggie MacKeever

 

Chapter One

 

Familiar footsteps sounded in the hallway of the little rented house in Half Moon Street. Barbary flew to subject herself to a last critical inspection in the pier glass. Golden hair and sparkling blue eyes—a combination which had led one less-than-original admirer to compare her to a sapphire—classic features and a complexion that was enviable, as was her figure, which was at the moment quite enchantingly displayed
en déshabillé
in a froth of satin, lace, flowers, ribbons, and bows. She patted an errant curl into place and arranged herself becomingly on a settee.

“At last you come to me!” she cried as the door opened. “I thought I had been quite forgot. Witness me sinking into a decline, Grafton! Where have you been, you wretch?”

His lordship smiled and closed the door. The earl was an exceptionally handsome man, with carelessly tumbled hair and a figure set off to perfection by his double-breasted blue coat and tight beige pantaloons. “Hello, my love.”

“ ‘Hello, my love’? Is that all you can say after ignoring me for days on end?” Barbary treated her
inamorato
to an enchanting little pout. “Are you not just a tiny bit sorry to have neglected me so?”

“I am damnably sorry to have neglected you.” There was a distinct warmth in the earl’s cool green eyes as he walked toward the settee.

Gracefully, if hastily, Barbary sat up. “I do not mean to scold! I know you have many demands on your time. You have been prodigious busy, what with first the Allied Sovereigns, and then Wellington’s return, and then Prinny’s birthday celebrations. Not, of course, that I should wish you to follow at my heels like a tantony pig. I know you would have come to me sooner—and more often!—could you have. A man of your position has so many responsibilities.”

“My dear, you know not the half of it.” Lord Grafton caught and kissed her hand.

Barbary did not need to be reminded of the responsibilities of a gentleman of fashion—appearances in the famed Bow Window at White’s, the gambling club at Brook’s, macao at Waitier’s, where the going was so heavy few could stand the pace; visits to Hoby and Weston and Locke. Had she not been married to a gentleman of fashion herself?

Her wretch of a husband had been used to saying she was both extravagant and undisciplined. Barbary supposed he had been right. Not that Conor could lay claim to either prudence or restraint, having been last heard of traveling about the Continent with a lovely and very expensive opera dancer in tow. Conor, however, was not only a buck of the first water but also very plump in the pocket, a happy circumstance that unfortunately did not also apply to his estranged wife.  The settee was not especially comfortable for reclining, and Barbary sat up.

One by one Lord Grafton saluted her fingertips. Barbary’s heart went pit-a-pat. If it palpitated a little less ardently than once it had done, that unhappy circumstance was due to her discovery that the pathway to perdition was cluttered about with such disheartening matters as post-obit bills. He pressed his lips to her throat. “Oh!” breathed Barbary. “I have missed you so!”

“And I you.” Unlike hers, Lord Grafton’s ardor had not dimmed one whit. His crushing embrace threatened to crack her ribs.

Barbary wriggled. What the devil was poking her? Ah, it was Grafton’s pocket watch. She tugged at the offending article, meaning only to prevent further bruising of her ribs. It came loose in her hand.

“Vixen!” Lord Grafton pressed her back on the settee. Barbary ran her fingers through his light brown hair, upon which he had lavished a generous amount of expensive Russian Oil.

Mercy! Things were grown very bad when the earl embraced her passionately and she could think only of creditors and bailiffs. Perhaps romance’s first rapture could be recaptured were those financial difficulties but resolved. His lordship was rich as Croesus. Had he not said, countless times, that he would go to the very ends of the earth for her? Perhaps a gentle hint—

Informing his lordship that the expensive negligee he was currently crushing in his ardent embrace was as yet unpaid for would doubtless be a great deal too direct. “Grafton, there is something I wish to discuss with you.” 

The earl reluctantly released her and stood up, to Barbary’s relief. The settee, with its boldly carved headpiece and short armrest, its low scrolled end, was not made to be occupied by two.

Lord Grafton approached the decanter that stood on a small rosewood table, filled two glasses with brandy. He handed one to Barbary, then moved to lounge in an elegantly careless manner by the fireplace. “There is also something I must discuss with you, my love. Though I would much rather not.”

In the manner of his good friend Brummell, his lordship executed the left-hand-only manner of taking snuff. Barbary was unhappily reminded of another of his lordship’s cronies, Alvanley, who in order to have some peace from his creditors had ordered the knocker taken off his door. She wished her own difficulties might be resolved so simply.

Lord Grafton stared into his brandy glass. Barbary cleared her throat. “You are obviously not in plump currant, Grafton. Won’t you tell me what is wrong?”

“You will not like it. But I know you will understand.” His lordship didn’t look, thought Barbary, as if he knew anything of the sort. How like a man! He didn’t allow her to unburden herself of her anxieties but expected her to be his attentive audience. Well, yes, and so she must be, no matter how long a rigmarole story he told. Barbary was devoted to his lordship, after all. Hadn’t she left home and husband on his account? Or, rather, Conor had left her, but it was all the same thing.

A certain phrase caught her ear. “What did you say?” she asked.

His lordship frowned. “My love, a man might wish you would listen more and wool-gather less. I said I have decided it time that I settle in matrimony.”

“Settle in—” breathed Barbary. “Oh!”

Lord Grafton sighed. “I have hesitated in forming my decision, but circumstances dictate— I made sure you would understand.”

Of a certainty Barbary understood. His lordship was so deep in love that he had quite forgot she was already wed. Then another phrase caught her attention. “Biddable miss,” the earl went on. “She’ll make a comfortable little wife. The deuce, Barbary. You look downright Friday-faced. You ain’t going to cut up stiff?”

Barbary didn’t know whether she would cut up stiff or not. She did, however, know that in all her one-and-twenty years, no one had ever referred to her as a “biddable miss.” “Whom are you going to marry?” she asked.

Lord Grafton looked uncomfortable. “Good little thing—you wouldn’t know her name.”

“Rather, you wouldn’t wish me to know.” Barbary’s tone was grim. “In case I might let the cat out of the bag, and your bride-to-be find out that at the very same time you were fixing your interest with her you were also inviting me to throw my bonnet over the windmill!”

The earl winced and drained his glass. “It isn’t bad enough,” continued Barbary, “that you skulk about behind my back looking for a wife; but now you act as if I would play you false.” Her voice trembled. “Oh! It is very hard.”

“My love!” His lordship hastened across the room, dropped down on his knee before the settee. “I swear I did not think that. If only things were different.” He pressed his lips against her wrist. “I don’t care a button for the chit, I swear it. It’s you I love. I don’t suppose you would, ah, care to continue our relationship—”

Barbary stared in horror. “You think that I would—even though you are going to—” Words failed her. She flung the contents of her glass into Lord Grafton’s face.

He rose. “I will take my leave of you, now, madam,” he said stiffly. His dignified exit was marred only slightly by the force with which he slammed the door. Barbary stared at that closed portal for a moment, then approached the brandy decanter and resolutely refilled her glass. Thusly fortified, she gazed about her boudoir. It was a very pretty room, furnished with some nice pieces of rosewood and a carpet with classical motif, on all of which items the rental was sadly in arrears.

A knock sounded at the door. Perhaps all was not yet lost. “Enter!” cried Barbary.

The door opened. Through it stepped not Lord Grafton, but a manservant of slight stature and indeterminate years. On his features was an expression of great gloom. Barbary’s spirits sank. “I am already in a terrible pucker, Tibble! I pray you will spare me any further ill news!”

Tibble would have been pleased to do so. However, facts were facts, and the more unpleasant of them didn’t cease to exist for not having been aired. “The cook has given notice, Miss Barbary. On account of her wages being in arrears.”

Barbary was unable to repair this omission, not having sixpence to scratch with herself.  She reached for her pretty handkerchief and waved it languidly before her face. Through the lacy material she eyed her manservant. “I wonder, Tibble, if you can cook?”

Tibble was so expressionless he might have been carved from some hard surface, his own wages so far in arrears that neither of them knew any longer what sum he was owed. “I regret, Miss Barbary, that I cannot.”

Barbary contemplated her handkerchief. “Nor can I. It would appear that one of us must learn.”

A slight tremor of some best-undefined emotion disturbed Tibble’s countenance. “His lordship looked to be in a rare temper,” he observed.

“His lordship is about to become a tenant for life. Oh, can anyone’s luck be worse than mine?” Barbary flung herself down on the settee and burst into tears.

Luck had not a great deal to do with it, thought Tibble, as he searched the boudoir for his mistress’s vinaigrette. A certain strong streak of stubbornness, not to mention a love of excitement, might better be blamed. Miss Barbary had been spoiled from the cradle by doting parents into thinking she might have anything she pleased; had crowned a dazzling career as an acknowledged beauty with marriage to dashing Conor Dennison; and then the trouble had begun. Conor danced to no woman’s tune, be she never so beautiful, and certainly not to Miss Barbary’s. Many a time Tibble had thought to see Conor turn his recalcitrant wife over his knee. He had not, but had taken other measures instead, and now Miss Barbary was in a rare pickle indeed. Tibble pulled open the drawer of the tambour-topped writing table. No vinaigrette reposed there, but an awesome stack of unpaid bills. “Miss Barbary! You’ll find yourself in Queer Street!” he said.

“Don’t scold!” moaned Barbary from her prone position on the settee. “I had a wager with myself as to who might arrive first, Grafton or the bailiffs. Now Grafton will probably press charges against me, also, for ruining his coat. Oh, Tibble! This is very hard. How could he? I suppose you will say I must now sleep in the bed I have made.”

Tibble might have said exactly that had not Miss Barbary been before him. He removed not the vinaigrette, but a miniature from the drawer, and approached the settee.

“Have you brought me the brandy bottle?” Barbary could see none too clearly through the handkerchief she had draped across her heated brow. “I might as well become a drunkard as expire of a broken heart. To think that Grafton would play fast and loose with me! I vow I shall never fall in love again.”

Silently,Tibble held out his hand.

“What is it? Have you my vinaigrette?” Barbary pushed aside her handkerchief and propped herself up on one elbow. The miniature of her black-browed spouse had as reviving an effect as any vinaigrette; her voice took on a much more energetic note. “How Conor would laugh at my predicament. How he
will
laugh, does he learn I have bailiffs camped on my doorstep!” She reached for the miniature with every intention of flinging it across the room, but Tibble stepped quickly back out of reach and gave his opinion that, under the circumstances, Master Conor would have been a great deal more likely to carve out his lordship’s liver and use it for daylight.

“He did have the devil’s own temper, didn’t he?” Barbary was absurdly cheered by this thought. “Since I am quite likely to carve out Conor’s liver myself if we ever meet again, we are unlikely to know his feelings on the subject. I had meant to ask Grafton for a loan, so that I might put off the most pressing of my creditors, at least. Now there is no hope of it, or of obtaining funds elsewhere, I fear. I shall lose everything I own—which is precious little, to be sure!” She shifted position again, her eyes bright with tears. The settee grew more uncomfortable each time she moved.

Or did it? Barbary reached beneath her and extracted Lord Grafton’s pocket watch. A fine golden timepiece it was, ornate and obviously valuable.

A triumphant expression crossed her pretty face. “We’re not in the basket yet, Tibble! It would appear that Lord Grafton has obliged me with a loan.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Barbary stood at the railing of the packet boat, watching the white cliffs of Dover recede as the shoreline of France drew near. She felt very pensive, as bent a lady who had just taken clandestine leave of her home. No more would Barbary know London, that great city of gin shops and great mansions; where the Thames had turned that spring into Freezeland Street, lined with booths and crowded with bakers and barbers and butchers, hawkers of ballads and oysters and brandy-balls; where Chinese pagodas and embattled Gothic castles appeared in the parks, and the Prince Regent hosted great fetes at Carlton House and alternately shot at chimney pots. London, where Lord Grafton’s pocket watch remained, well-inlaid in lavender, much to the advantage of the owner of the pawn shop, who, like others of his calling, was quick to recognize a havey-cavey business when it came his way. Still, enough had been realized from the exchange to enable Barbary to join the countless other English debtors who had taken refuge across the Channel, a custom grievously interfered with by that Serpent of Corsica, Napoleon.

BOOK: French Leave
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