A Regency Novella
Play was deep at Moxley House, and the stakes were high. Gamblers flocked to try their luck at hazard, faro, rouge et noir, E.O; to discover what changes the new owner had put into effect (none, to date); and to speculate upon how much time would pass before he abandoned the place altogether, the gentleman not known for sustained interest in anyone or anything.
That new owner stood, just now, in the supper room, which was fitted out with crystal chandeliers and a thick carpet, small tables set with silver and fine china and pristine linen cloths. The patrons were feasting on boiled fowl with oyster sauce, washed down with liberal amounts of champagne.
Lord Quinton was, as usual, dressed in black. He was a devastatingly handsome man in (or so the ladies said) a deliciously diabolic way, with black hair worn unfashionably long and eyes as dark as his transgressions, ascetic features stamped with dissipation and ennui. No less memorable was the gentleman with whom he was engaged in conversation (or rather, to whom he was listening, with a disinterested expression), who was athletic of figure and angelic of feature, with red-gold hair and sapphire eyes.
The Black Baron was the most wicked rakehell in all of London. His companion was one of the legendarily libidinous Loversalls.
Quin led the way into the next chamber, where amber-eyed Daphne was casting the dice at hazard. If Daphne nicked, or called her main, the house would win the stake.
Beau raised his voice to be heard above the gamesters crowded round the green baize table. “A face that could launch a thousand ships. A mouth made for sin. A body—” His hands sketched a sinuous shape in the air. “I can’t say when I’ve been so taken with a female.”
“I can’t say when you haven’t been,” Quin responded drily. Beau maintained a stable of sweethearts, most notable among them the languishing Mrs. Ormsby and the volatile Mrs. Thwaite, which in no way deterred him from acquiring a new
approximately every other week. “Last month, it was that pretty equestrienne who performed bareback at Astley’s. You vowed she had the most neatly turned ankles you had ever seen.”
Beau smiled in reminiscence. The artiste’s name had been Nanette, her specialty a rousing variation on the traditional handstand. However, Nanette’s ankles could not compete with the fair face and lips, etcetera, of Miss Mary Fletcher, newly employed at the Opera House further down the street, and so he said.
Quin turned a deaf and not entirely sober ear to these renewed rhapsodies.
Indeed, Lord Quinton hadn’t been entirely sober since he took over the hell. Truth be told, he hadn’t been entirely sober for a long time before that. Idly, he wondered when he
last been sober. After a brief cogitation, he gave up the attempt.
The world, in Quin’s opinion, was a much more pleasant place when viewed through a narcotic haze.
He raised his glass, and found it empty. A female attendant hurried forward with decanter in hand.
Quin sipped his whiskey. There were distinct advantages to owning a gaming hell, one being that a man could lose a fortune without leaving his house. Though Quin had not thus far managed to rid himself of a farthing, he was not discouraged. His luck would change.
Of this much he was certain, sober or no. Dame Fortune was a fickle bitch.
He entered the third chamber, accompanied by Beau, who continued to blather on about Miss Fletcher, annoying as a buzzing gnat. The noise level was higher here. Dice rattled, the E.O. ball clattered, the players conversed among themselves while the dealers announced results and called for wagers to be made anew.
Gamblers were gathered around a faro table covered with green baize cloth. Behind the table stood the banker, statuesque brunette Adele. In an honest faro game, the punter’s chances were slightly more than even of coming out ahead. On the other side of the room, the E.O. table was being set in motion by russet-haired Rosamond. The odds were less inclined to favor the players gathered there, intent on the turn of the table, or alternately admiring Rosamond’s décolletage. Moxley’s employed more women than any other London hell.
Quin grew weary of Beau’s continued exaltations. “So tumble her,” he said.
Beau stared in astonishment. “Are you grown so jaded that you no longer savor the excitement of the chase?”
Quin considered the question. He could not recall when he had last embarked upon a pursuit. More often than not, females pursued him. Recently he had been waylaid and
damn near ravished at Vauxhall by a young woman determined to be divested of her virtue. The memory was so unpleasant that he drained his glass.
in flagrante delicto,
” said Beau, who had an unnerving — and annoying — ability to sometimes guess a person’s thoughts. “Like the most callow youth. You must redeem your reputation. If you will take my advice—”
Quin regarded him with faint curiosity. “Why should I?”
“Because I am seven-and-forty, whereas you are only thirty-five. And you remind me of myself at your age.”
Quin was briefly appalled by the suggestion he might spend his dotage ogling opera dancers’ ankles. However, at his current rate of dissipation dotage was not likely to be achieved. He glanced into one of the private alcoves that opened off this chamber, where a disgruntled exclamation indicated that another unfortunate transaction (from the player’s point of view) had just taken place.
The front room was dominated by the rouge et noir table, which was marked with two red and black diamond-shaped spots on which the players placed their stakes. On either side a croupier waited with rake in hand, her task to watch the cards and gather in the money for the bank. A passing attendant noted and replenished Quin’s empty glass.
As the banker called
‘Le rouge perd!’
indicating that the first card was red, the bank thereby rendered safe, a bald brawny individual entered through the outer doorway. Samson looked every inch the bruiser he had been before allegations of misconduct resulted in his banishment from the ring. Now, in his retirement, he oversaw the gaming rooms, a comedown perhaps from the days when he had remained on his feet against Jem Ward for one hundred thirty-eight rounds spread over one and one-half hours, but a comedown for which he was extremely well-paid.
Whereas Quin might find it mildly diverting to own a gaming hell, he wasn’t interested enough to involve himself in the running of the place.
Samson beckoned. Leaving Beau to appreciate the croupiers’ considerable assets, Quin stepped into the relative quiet of the hall.
Candles burned in sconces along the long narrow corridor. At the far end stood Liliane, one of the attendants, a shapely young woman with masses of honey-blonde hair.
To her bosom, Liliane clutched a bust of Voltaire, fashioned from black basalt ware. At her feet, curled in a fetal position, a slender man lay groaning, his hands cupped around his genitals.
The hell had been doing a brisk business ever since Lord Quinton took possession. His fellow profligates flocked to inspect the gaming rooms, expecting to discover the bawdiest of whores on the premises, the lewdest of posture women, private rooms where all manner of depravities might take place; and stubbornly refusing to accept this was not the case.
Quin strolled down the hallway. “Hallo, Coffey. Why are you lying on my floor?”
Gingerly, Coffey uncoiled himself and staggered to his feet. He was a slender man with abnormally pale skin and hair and, currently, a bloody nose. “I like a bit of pepper in a pullet. It adds spice to the game.”
Liliane brandished the basalt bust. “This
placed his hands on me. It requires a punishment, milord.”
Quin held out a handkerchief. “From all appearances, punishment has already been dealt out.”
“You do not take this seriously!” Liliane stamped her foot. “Me, I am no doxy. I should not be treated so.”
Coffey took Quin’s handkerchief and dabbed his damaged nose. “All women are doxies. A man needs only find their price.”
Few knew better than Lord Quinton that there was no point attempting rational conversation with a drunkard. Still, he felt obliged to try. “I fail to understand why you should seek a doxy here. You must have mistook the address.”
“So you say,” scoffed Coffey. “But I know a doxy when I see one, and I’m looking at one now.”
In point of fact, Coffey was looking at Lord Quinton. Nonetheless, Liliane snarled, “Go to the devil, pig!”
“It’s you as should go,” interrupted Samson, as he removed the bust from her grasp and replaced it on its stand. “Back where you belong. Before I start inquiring why you was where you shouldn’t be.” Liliane huffed, turned on her heel, and flounced down the hall.
Coffey watched until she disappeared into the gaming rooms. And then he staggered, stumbled to his knees, and emptied the contents of his stomach out onto the floor.
Kate peered through the window of the hackney coach. The vehicle had seen finer days, its paint scratched and faded, its interior leather stained and torn. As, she thought, had she. As had the Haymarket itself. The broad, long street, which connected Pall Mall with the eastern end of Piccadilly, was lined with hotels and cafes, stable yards and inns.
Lights flared by the entrance to the King’s Theater for the Italian Opera, located at the southwest end of the street; a handsome edifice cased with stucco and adorned with an elegant colonnade constructed of cast-iron Doric pillars supporting an entablature and balustraded gallery. The front had been redesigned since Kate last visited London, and was decorated with a beautiful relievo representing the origin and progress of music, or so the newspapers explained.
There had been many entertainments in the Haymarket when Kate was a child, most popular among them human curiosities and animal prodigies. She recalled the ox with six legs and two bellies; the skeleton of the Irish Giant who measured nearly nine feet tall. The Cat’s Opera had been her favorite, second only to the tricks performed afterward by a horse, a dog, and some monkeys. In addition to the organ-grinding and rope-dancing performances, the monkeys had taken wine together, and rode on the horse, before one of them danced a minuet with a dog.
Now Kate was a human curiosity herself, in her unadorned black cloak and bonnet and severe bombazine gown. A country mouse. A quiz. A dowd.
Further along the street, on the eastern side, carriages and pedestrians thronged the pavement adjoining the Corinthian columns and pedimented portico of the Theatre Royal. Ladies glittered in extravagant gowns and expensive jewels. Gentlemen were darkly dashing in their evening attire. Street venders of every description, pickpockets and prostitutes threaded their way through the fashionable crowd.
The hackney rattled by. Kate glimpsed a perfume shop, shuttered at this late hour. A wine merchant. A coffee house. Taverns beyond counting. The lights of the various establishments shone out into the street. The stench of the city was as she remembered: a noxious combination of coal smoke and fog, rotting vegetables left over from the weekly markets held since Elizabethan times, the stink of other less definable waste.
The interior of the carriage smelled only marginally more sweet. The clatter of wheels on cobblestone was deafening within these close confines. Through the window, Kate watched a bosky young buck attempt to haul his companion from the gutter, lose his balance and land on his backside, earning a hoot and a jeer from the whore loitering beneath a street lamp.
The street grew quieter as the hackney neared the northern end, passing a succession of house fronts, some wide, some narrow, three or four storeys high; all with shop-fronts below save the last, which was two structures linked together with separate facades but built as one.
The hackney halted. “Moxley House,” the driver announced. “Are you sure you want me to leave you here, miss?”
Kate was sure of nothing, save that she’d been told Lord Quinton resided at this address. The house was made up of the usual basement, three storeys and a garret, all in dull red brick work, its doorways framed by molded architraves and triangular pediments fashioned of stucco. A plain iron railing guarded the basement area. Light blazed from the large widely spaced windows. The owner must spend a fortune on candle wax.
Clutching her battered valise, Kate climbed down awkwardly from the coach, handed the driver a coin. The horses’ hooves clattered against cobblestone, wood and metal creaked as the vehicle moved away.
Her courage wavered. Seventeen years had passed since she’d last seen Quin. What would he think of the person Kate had become? What would s
think of him?
The front door of the house swung open. Quin stood on the threshold. As a young man, he had been extraordinarily handsome. Now on that once-flawless face was writ the tale of his excesses. He looked to have enjoyed them well.