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Authors: M.C. Beaton,Marion Chesney

Tags: #Historical romance

The Adventuress: HFTS5 (11 page)

BOOK: The Adventuress: HFTS5
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“Your brother …?”

“Fleetwood.”

“He made some remark at his rout,” said Emily, “but I assure you it was in jest and I have not seen him since.”

Mrs. Otterley drained her cordial in one noisy gulp, clutched her enormous reticule on her lap, and glared at Emily with a hard, penetrating stare, as if she hoped some of the power of her look would wither a little of the girl’s startling beauty.

“I hope you are right,” she said. “For your sake, for your life, I hope you are right.”

Emily had taken a hearty dislike to the lady. “Are you threatening me?” she asked.

“Good heavens, no!” Mrs. Otterley tried to force out a jolly laugh, but it sounded as happy as the noise of a rusty gate creaking in a high wind on a winter’s night. “My brother is a very jealous man and has a dangerously unstable temper. Alas, poor Clarissa!”

Emily compressed her soft lips into a firm line and refused to ask who this Clarissa was.

“Fleetwood’s wife,” said Mrs. Otterley, just as if she
had
asked. “Found beaten to death. Fleetwood was lucky he did not hang.”

“Are you telling me that Lord Fleetwood, your own brother, is a murderer?”

“Now, I did not say that,” said Mrs. Otterley. “I am here to tell you what other people are saying.”

But Emily’s servant background had made her less gullible than the young lady in whom Lord Fleetwood had shown an interest in the previous Season.

As a chambermaid, and while her master still was well enough to entertain, she had heard much malicious gossip, most of it untrue, concocted by ladies and gentlemen who appeared to think a servant was deaf. She decided she did not like the earl’s sister one little bit.

Emily cast a dazzling smile on her. “My dear Lady Mary,” she said with a rippling laugh, “I was afraid you were about to tell me your brother’s wife was still
alive!
What a relief. Now I can accept his proposal with an easy heart.”

“But you said he had no interest in you!”

Emily took a deep breath. In the space of a few seconds she decided she would never be frightened of any member of society again. She was
weary
of being frightened. They were just
people
, some pleasant, and some, like Mrs. Otterley, nasty.

“I was joking,” said Emily. She rang the bell. “Good day to you, my lady. I doubt if we shall meet again … unless, of course, Fleetwood wishes you to attend the wedding.”

Mrs. Otterley opened and shut her mouth like a landed carp.

This young woman, who had looked so guileless, and, yes, timid when Mrs. Otterley had entered the room, now looked as contemptuously amused as Fleetwood at his worst.

Rainbird appeared in the doorway. “My lady is leaving,” said Emily. “Show her out.”

Mrs. Otterley hated to leave a scene without having the last word. She was determined not to leave this one. She huffed and puffed, her figure swelled, her eyes bulged as she summoned up all her energies to deliver a set-down.

But Mrs. Otterley’s parsimony was her downfall. Like many of the aristocracy, she had her little meannesses. Some would not give a coin to a crossing sweeper and would rather soil their shoes in the mud, others watered the wine, still more kept their lady’s maids working day and night turning last year’s fashions into this year’s creations. Mrs. Otterley was mean about corsets. The whalebone monster, which had encased her girth—unchanged, like the corset, since her wedding day—at first creaked ominously under the strain. Then one whalebone stay sprang from its threadbare moorings and stabbed straight into Mrs. Otter-ley’s left-hand, floppy, saggy bosom.

Her face turned puce and then white. The only way she could alleviate the dreadful pain was by taking the pierced bosom and pushing it up with both hands. She tried to speak, but the indignity she was suffering was too great. Holding her great breast in both hands as if she were holding a pudding, Mrs. Otterley rushed out.

“Is that an insult, Rainbird?” Emily asked the butler after he had closed the street door behind Mrs. Otterley and returned.

“An insult, miss?”

“Well, like cocking a snook—putting your fingers to your nose. She clutched her … em … in both hands, turning an awful colour, and glaring as she did so.”

“No, miss. She was probably suffering from a spasm. A great many ladies have trouble with their spleen. I remember …”

“Never mind her,” said Emily quickly, wishing to forget Mrs. Otterley’s visit as soon as possible. “I must consult you, Mrs. Middleton, and MacGregor. I am giving an impromptu dinner tomorrow night.”

“Certainly,” said Rainbird. “I will fetch them now.”

Soon Mrs. Middleton, Rainbird, and Angus MacGregor were busily discussing menus. At first MacGregor was quite animated about the whole thing, for he enjoyed every chance to show off his genius as a chef. But when Rainbird and Emily were deciding it would be best if Mrs. Middleton continued in her role of chaperone for the dinner party, Angus fell quiet.

Emily finished her discussion with Rainbird and turned back to the cook. He looked red all over, reflected Emily, bright red hair poking out under his white skull-cap, bright red face …

“Angus!” she realised Rainbird was saying in alarm. “Are you all right?”

“I feel verra hot,” said Angus, putting a hand to his brow. “It came over me, sudden-like.”

“Perhaps you had better go and lie down,” said Emily anxiously. “We must have you well for tomorrow.”

“Aye,” said Angus. He rose to his feet and stood there, swaying.

Rainbird caught him round the waist and supported him to the door. Soon, both men could be heard mounting the stairs.

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Middleton. “I do hope Angus will not be ill tomorrow. There is his book of recipes and I think I could contrive to cook the dinner myself, Miss Goodenough, but it is not the same. I mean … a she-cook!”

“Yes,” said Emily gloomily. That much she had learned in her servant days. No one who was anyone kept a she-cook.

Upstairs, Rainbird put Angus to bed, promising to bring him up some powders to reduce the fever, which appeared to be increasing its grip on the cook. He then made his way down. On the first landing stood Mr. Goodenough, straightening his cravat in the old mirror that was hung there on the wall.

The glass was very bad and had the effect of making people’s reflections look as twisted as poor Mr. Goodenough’s face actually was. The butler glanced over Mr. Goodenough’s shoulder and stiffened.

For the butler’s face in the glass was twisted, but the old mirror had the opposite effect on Mr. Goodenough’s features. They were strangely straightened out and he looked as he had before the apoplexy.

And that was how Rainbird remembered where he had seen Mr. Goodenough before. When Rainbird had been a footman some years ago in Lord Trumpington’s household, his master had stopped on the road north at the home of a certain Sir Harry Jackson. Spinks, Sir Harry’s butler, had been very kind to the green young footman, John Rainbird. What on earth was Spinks doing masquerading as a gentleman? And who was this niece?

“Is anything the matter, Rainbird?” asked Mr. Goodenough, turning around.

“No, sir,” said Rainbird quietly. “Nothing at all.”

Chapter
Eight
 

Dear to my soul art thou, May Fair!
There greatness breathes her native air;
There Fashion in her glory sits;
Sole spot still unprofaned by Cits
.

We fix your bounds, ye rich and silly,
Along the road by Piccadilly
.

—Anon

 

What a day!

Emily looked down the dining-table and could not believe she had finally achieved it. The guests were seated and the food was superb.

Apart from herself and Mrs. Middleton and Mr. Goodenough, the earl and Mr. Fitzgerald, there were Lord and Lady Jammers, Lord Agnesby, and two slightly ageing debutantes, Miss Harriet Giles-Denton and Miss Bessie Plumtree. Lord and Lady Jammers had been kind and easy to talk to when Emily had met them at various social functions, Lord Agnesby, she considered harmless, and Miss Plumtree and Miss Giles-Denton had been selected from the ranks of the débutantes because Emily felt she ought to have
some
young ladies present, and she would not for a minute admit to herself she had chosen them because she privately considered them to be small competition to herself. Miss Giles-Denton was a soft, pale, shapeless blonde, and Miss Plumtree was an angry-looking little brunette whose appearance had grown angrier as each unsuccessful Season came and went.

The day had been hectic. A doctor had had to be summoned for Angus MacGregor. Angus had been bled, which had reduced his fever but had left him as weak as a kitten. He had been carried downstairs and placed on a makeshift bed on the kitchen floor where he had, in a feeble voice, given the frantic staff instructions as to how to prepare the dishes. Mrs. Middleton had discovered a rare talent in herself for the higher arts of cuisine. Although frightened, flustered, and rushed off her feet, the timid housekeeper had never felt so
important
before. Just before the guests arrived, Rainbird sent her upstairs to change her gown and to take her place with the guests as Emily’s chaperone.

Emily, regal in a classic Greek gown of white muslin with gold key embroidery, presided at one end of the table and Mr. Goodenough at the other. As the guests ate heartily and cried their praises over the delicacy of the sauces, and Lord Agnesby enquired about the name of the cook and, on learning it, swore that only a man could produce such creations of genius, Emily began to feel for the first time as if she were part of high society. Outside stretched Mayfair, reduced in her mind to the comfortable proportions of an elegant village, a village to which she now belonged. Something had happened to her during that visit from Mrs. Otterley. A great deal of her timidity and fear had left her. She had organised this dinner party—and it was a success. And Emily had indeed joined the ranks of society with that thought, for she had forgotten for the moment that the success was almost entirely due to the staff of Number 67. She had become so used to accepting their advice on all matters great and small, to relying on Mrs. Middleton to tell her what to wear and how to converse, that the awkward shy Emily was a thing of the past, and she took the servants’ help for granted.

But that insecurity about the book, although reduced in her mind to a nagging little anxiety, was still there. She had been conversing in generalities to the Earl of Fleetwood for the first few courses, but with the arrival of the Floating Island pudding, Emily said lightly, “Have you, my lord, read a book about some chambermaid that is just published? The author does not dare give his name but simply has himself described on the title page as A Gentleman.”

“I have read the book, yes,” said the earl. “I assume you have, too. What did you think of it?”

“Very amusing,” said Emily, “but highly improbable. I could not quite believe in the wicked servants or think anyone described in the book could be someone I might meet in real life.”

“Bravo!” he said. “Very few people seem to understand all the characters are probably fictional in that undistinguished work.”

He sensed a tension in Emily ebbing away and wondered what he had said to ease her mind. She was looking like the princess society had believed her to be, he thought. She was beautiful and ladylike. Nor had she dropped one common expression. She was poised and assured and very much the hostess. But he sharply remembered the other Emily with a certain indefinable something in her eyes like a wary animal. What had brought about the change? Probably it was because she had been very countrified on her arrival in London, he decided. He became aware that she had turned the conversation from the subject of his book and was asking him what he thought of the latest production of
The Magic Flute
.

“Very well in its way,” he said. “That is—what I could hear of it.”

“Some of the music was so beautiful, it made me cry,” said Emily, “but I hardly believe Mozart wrote ‘The Roast Beef of Old England.’”

“The producer throws several popular English songs into the opera so that the audience can sing along as well. So it makes an evening at the opera rather like an evening in the Coal Hole.”

Emily looked puzzled, so he explained, “The Coal Hole is a tavern in the Strand where they have popular balladeers and other entertainments.”

“It would be lovely,” said Emily wistfully, “if there were an opera house in London for lovers of music, where people did not go simply because it is fashionable to do so.”

The earl affected shock. “You are an original, Miss Goodenough.” He turned to Miss Giles-Denton on his other side and said, “Miss Goodenough would have an opera house for music lovers only.”

Miss Giles-Denton struck an Attitude. It was of Minerva debating whether to inspire a writer or not. It involved a strained look about the eyes and one finger pointing to the middle of the forehead. The earl waited patiently.

“The ladies should not be interested in music,” pronounced Miss Giles-Denton at last. “Clothes are more important … and dancing.”

BOOK: The Adventuress: HFTS5
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