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Authors: M.C. Beaton,Marion Chesney

Tags: #Historical romance

The Adventuress: HFTS5 (10 page)

BOOK: The Adventuress: HFTS5
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It was Lizzie, Lizzie the scullery maid, of all people, who shattered Emily’s equanimity. It was part of Lizzie’s duties to wash down the stairs and keep the doorstep outside whitened with pipe clay.

So one afternoon, just as Emily was leaving, escorted by Joseph, to go and potter about the shops in Oxford Street, she came across Lizzie, who was dreamily pipe-claying the front steps while she read a book, spread open on the steps in front of her.

Lizzie jumped to her feet and bobbed a curtsy.

“You seem to be enjoying that book,” said Emily with a smile. “Who wrote it?”

“It doesn’t say, ma’am,” said Lizzie. “It only says ‘by A Gentleman.’ It’s ever so funny but a bit crool.”

“Cruel? How so?”

“Well, the main character is this chambermaid called Emilia, who steals her mistress’s jewels and takes herself off to London, where she pretends to be a lady and trick this lord into marriage. He first becomes suspicious when he begins to notice a certain coarseness in her speech, and—”

“Thank you,” said Emily stiffly. “Return to your work.”

She swept off down Clarges Street, with Joseph behind her.

Joseph found he was having to trot to keep up with her. Emily felt confused and frightened. It did not dawn on her that a writer could hardly have managed to use her for a model for one of the characters in his book and get it published, all in the short time she had been in London. She felt that someone in society had pierced her disguise and was sitting somewhere watching her, like a cat watching a mouse.

But by the time she reached Oxford Street, her panic was dying down. It was a coincidence, that was all. She, Emily, had not stolen anything. She would go to Hatchard’s in Piccadilly and buy a copy of the book and prove to herself that all her worries were over nothing. Joseph groaned inwardly and wondered at this sudden decision to go back to Piccadilly, when they could easily have gone there in the first place.

At Hatchard’s, Emily was told the book was sold out. Although she did not know the title, the bookseller assured her that there was only one book out by ? Gentleman’ and that it was called
Above Her Station
or
The Vain Folly of a Presumptuous Servant
.

Emily returned to Clarges Street. As she rounded the corner from the Piccadilly end, she heard a stifled exclamation from Joseph, but assumed his feet were hurting as usual. Joseph always wore shoes two sizes too small for him. He was not alone in this folly. Small feet were considered aristocratic, and there were many bent and twisted toes and fallen arches in London to bear witness to the fact that a surprising number of people were prepared to suffer in the name of vanity. But it was the sight of Luke, leaning casually against the railings of Number 67 and talking to Lizzie, which had caused Joseph to exclaim.

Luke saw them approach, said something to Lizzie, and then darted off down the area steps of Number 65.

Emily saw the book now lying closed at the side of the steps.

“May I borrow your book?” she asked Lizzie when she came up to her.

“Certainly, ma’am,” said Lizzie, dropping a curtsy. “It’s not really
my
book, being as how we club together when we all want to read a new book. Mostly, we buy them second-hand.”

She handed Emily the book. Emily murmured her thanks. She brushed past Rainbird, who was holding open the door, and walked quickly upstairs, clutching the book. Rainbird looked after her in surprise. It was unlike Miss Emily to walk past without so much as a smile or a “good day.”

Emily tore off her bonnet and then sat down in a chair by the window and began to read.

The maid in the book, Emilia, had dark-brown hair and blue-grey eyes, just like Emily. She was aided and abetted in the theft of her mistress’s jewels by the butler— “a man whose twisted and sinister face betrayed his low character.” With a sinking heart, Emily read on. In the author’s opinion, a member of the servant class must always betray herself. Low origins and common blood will always unmask the impostor. Not only was this Emilia portrayed as a beautiful girl with the heart of a conniving slut, but all the servants in the book were described as being greedy, gossiping, tale-bearing monsters. The fact that the author was equally acid about the posing and double standards of society escaped Emily’s terrified eyes. Emilia’s lusty, earthy passions were also held up as an example of her low origins. The author appeared to assume that ladies did not feel any urgings of the flesh.

But Emily did. All her romantic yearnings and her sometimes shocking dreams now appeared to her as an example of the whole unladylikeness of her character. Ladies, it appeared, married to increase the fortune of some man and bear his children. Women at the mercy of their passions belonged to the lower orders or to the Fashionable Impure.

Rainbird scratched at the door from time to time to say there was this or that gentleman waiting below to present his compliments, but Emily replied each time that she had a headache. She did not want to leave the room until she had studied the book thoroughly.

The book was quite short, only one volume, unlike most novels, which ran to at least three, but Emily read it slowly and carefully.

By the time she had finished it, she became convinced someone knew about her and Mr. Goodenough. She crossed to the window, as if dreading to see a mocking face watching the house.

She wondered whether to take the book to Mr. Goodenough, and then decided against it. She must bear the burden of this worry alone. Mr. Goodenough was not strong. Since his apoplexy, he tired easily.

Then the mocking eyes of the Earl of Fleetwood seemed to look back at her. The gentlemen who called on her were whole-hearted in their adoration. Only the earl had looked at her as if there were something about her that amused him.

And he had not called!

All at once, Emily wanted to see him again, to reassure herself that there was no one in London who had pierced her mask, and that a book about an ex-chambermaid fobbing herself off on London society as a lady was a coincidence.

But
how
to see him again? Of course if she continued to attend the many society functions to which she had been invited, then she was bound to run into him, but anxious Emily felt she could not wait.

The earl had given an impromptu rout. Then she, Emily, would give an impromptu dinner. She pulled forward a sheet of paper, sharpened a quill, and started to make out a list of names, including that of the Earl of Fleetwood.

“Our new beauty seems very confident of her power,” said Lord Fleetwood the next day as Fitz strolled into his drawing room. “I am summoned to an impromptu dinner tomorrow evening.”

“And I,” said Fitz. “I shall most certainly attend. What about you?”

“Yes, I think it might be amusing. Good heavens, Fitz. You are clean!”

“I am usually clean,” said Fitz, very stiffly on his stiffs.

“But, my dear chap, not a trace of paint! And the shoulders of your coat are of a normal height.”

Fitz gave a rueful grin. “Dressing up as that princess cured me of the extravagances of fashion. My valet now boasts the highest collars and the most padded coats in London.”

“You look quite human. It will take me some time to get accustomed to the new Fitz.”

“It was partly because you chose to mock me in your book. I recognized myself in Lord Fopworthy.”

“I would never dream of ridiculing you! Alas! Everyone recognises himself or herself in my book. But I assure you, all the characters came out of my imagination and are not based on any individual I know.”

“But no one believes that! And all are speculating as to the identity of the maid, Emilia.”

“They will have something else to speculate about very shortly.”

“And what are you going to do to celebrate your earnings from your work of fiction? Give a party?”

“Not I. I have sent the initial money to the workhouse at Tothill Fields with instructions it is to be used to improve the diet of the inmates.”

“You are naïve. The money will disappear into the pockets of the board.”

“They would not dare. They know I have a nasty habit of making surprise visits. I have even had to go in disguise, for when I sent them the proceeds of my first book, they posted a small boy at the corner of the street to warn the workhouse of my coming, and the inmates were given good food only for the length of my visit. Fortunately, a man in the workhouse proved to be literate and contrived to send me a letter telling me of what was taking place. He is now one of my grooms, although I confess I left him in the workhouse for a certain length of time until I found my instructions were being followed.”

“I did not know you were a philanthropist,” said Fitz awkwardly. “I mean, it is all very worthy of you, but not very realistic. These people choose to be poor, and too much meat puts revolutionary ideas into their heads. Had it not been for the well-fed bourgeoisie of France, there never would have been a revolution. The peasants were too hungry to think of anything but their next meal.”

“Fitz, you are talking fustian.”

“Not I,” said Fitz stubbornly. “People are put in their appointed stations the day they are born. You are quarrelling with the Almighty. After all, in your book you held that chambermaid up to ridicule. It was an example to everyone of what can happen to someone of the common lot who tries to climb.”

“You know, Fitz, you have perhaps persuaded me of a fact I knew all along—I have written a thoroughly silly book. I am not a writer. I am a sort of literary dilettante, nothing more. I had great fun writing it and it all seemed amusing at the time, but I confess when I reread it the other day, I felt I was reading one of those embarrassingly trivial works written by some member of society with more vanity than talent.”

“But it was monstrous amusing! All London is already talking of your satire of Byron.”

“There you go again! I did not even
think
of Byron. Never mind my stupid book. I would rather think of Miss Goodenough.”

“You all but proposed to her in front of Prinny.”

“I do not know why I said that,” remarked the earl ruefully. “I was somewhat overset and she appeared very … lovable.”

“But
you
would not be satisfied with mere beauty. Say you married her. You could never bear her vulgarisms.”

“I think she has a good heart.”

“Have you heard from your brother Harry?”

“What on earth has my brother to do with Miss Goodenough?”

“I suddenly thought of him. He was always desperately in love with some female or another.”

“No, I have not heard from him. As far as I know, he is still a captain in the Eighty-seventh Dragoons, and no doubt preparing to fall in love with every Spanish señorita he encounters in the Peninsula.”

“I am meeting some fellows for a rubber at White’s. Do you care to come?”

“Not I. The excitement of dinner with Miss Goodenough will be enough for one day,” said the earl.

Fitz took his leave, only to have his place taken shortly afterwards by the earl’s sister, Mrs. Otterley. The earl heartily wished he had escaped with Fitz before her arrival.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” asked the earl, thinking for the umpteenth time how nasty and bad-tempered his sister always looked.

“Scandal,” said Mrs. Otterley, plumping her heavy bulk in a Sheraton chair. “I hear you proposed marriage to an Unknown.”

“I gave a rout, I made a joke, that was all that happened.”

“Not the way I heard it,” sniffed Mrs. Otterley. “Some female called Goodenough was the recipient of your attentions. Pray remember what is due to your name before you throw yourself away on a Nobody. No one has ever heard of this creature before this Season.”

“Should I marry again, then I will consult only myself, Mary. If that’s what you had come to say, and now you have said it, please go away.”

“She cannot have much money, this Miss Goodenough,” went on Mrs. Otterley, who had a hide like a rhinoceros. “Else why would she have taken that unlucky house in Clarges Street? It is well known the only way it can ever be let is by charging a ridiculously low rent.”

“I am not interested in money. I have enough.”

“Too much for your own good,” said his sister sharply.

Some imp of malice prompted the earl to say, “You know, Mary, Miss Goodenough
is
out of the common way. I could do worse than marry her. And I would need my home in Grosvenor Square back. You can always live here.”

“But this is not nearly such a fashionable address!”

“Nonsense. We are come up in the world. Park Lane is all that is respectable. If you are so concerned about appearances, why do you not use your title?”

“You know very well that Mr. Otterley prefers me to carry his name.”

“And my dear brother-in-law is so very rich, you needs must obey. And yet
his
pride does not stop him from living on
my
property. I grow stubborn, Mary. Your visit has only served to remind me that I should not be obliged to rent a house for the Season when I have a very good one of my own. I am sure Miss Goodenough will share your views. She would infinitely prefer Grosvenor Square to Park Lane.”

“You are funning. All this marriage business is a joke. You are only trying to irritate me!”

“And succeeding very well … I hope,” said her brother. “Do please leave, Mary, or I shall have a spasm.”

But it was Mrs. Otterley who seemed more likely to have a spasm as she stormed out into Park Street—nothing would induce her to set foot in Park Lane, which she considered a very parvenu sort of thoroughfare.

She told her driver to proceed to Clarges Street.

Soon Rainbird was announcing the arrival of Lady Mary Powell. This was one occasion on which Mrs. Otterley was determined to use her title.

Emily was arranging spring flowers in the drawing-room when Mrs. Otterley was ushered in. She asked her pugnacious visitor to be seated. Mrs. Otterley waited impatiently until Rainbird had served her with a glass of cordial and had withdrawn before she launched into the attack.

“I have just heard, Miss Goodenough,” she said, “that my brother is intent on proposing marriage to you.”

BOOK: The Adventuress: HFTS5
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