Authors: M.C. Beaton,Marion Chesney
Tags: #Historical romance
“Poor little Miss Goodenough,” murmured Fitz. “That settles it. If no one who is invited is going, then she will be glad to see someone who is not. I shall go. Is she really a princess, do you suppose?”
“Not for a moment,” said the earl. “Oh, very well, Fitz. We shall both go, but I shall not stay above ten minutes. You may have the evening off, Giles, but you are not to work, and if the Clarges Street servants are busy, then you must return here.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Giles.
“A good man, that,” said the earl after his butler had left the room. “But he has had no previous experience of London and I don’t want him led astray by London servants. At least he does not gossip.”
“And how did you get on with old frosty-face?” asked the first footman, Silas, as Giles entered the servants’ hall.
“I’ve got him to go,” said Giles triumphantly. “
I’ve got the evening off meself so I can see all the fun. Managed to drop that bit about her being a princess. Tell you what, Silas, let’s help that Rainbird fellow a bit further. Drop round next door to Lord Allington’s servants’ hall and have a bit of a gossip….”
Rainbird, Joseph, and Angus worked The Running Footman, which was the upper servants’ pub, in shifts, gossiping and gossiping. Like a stone dropped in a pool, the gossip spread outwards and outwards in ripples, as servants talked to servants, and servants then talked to masters and mistresses.
Mrs. Middleton was closeted with Emily, being dressed to look like the companion to a foreign princess. At last she was attired in a combination of her own wardrobe and Emily’s, in purple silk and purple turban and with one of Emily’s new diamond necklaces about her neck, Emily not knowing that diamonds were completely exploded. Everything that was no longer in fashion was said to be “exploded.”
Mrs. Middleton looked so imposing and at the same time so reassuring that Emily decided to ask her for help.
“My mother was a very great lady, Mrs. Middleton,” lied Emily, “but did not give birth to me until she was in her forties. Consequently her speech was still coarse—it
fashionable to be coarse in Mama’s youth—and I unfortunately am subject to slips. Please be on your guard to cover up for me should I forget myself.”
Mrs. Middleton readily agreed. Inside, she was feeling as nervous as Emily and hoped that the gossip would not work and that no one would come.
My dear Lady—! I’ve been just sending out About five hundred cards for a snug little rout—But I can’t conceive how, in this very cold weather, I’m ever to bring my five hundred together …… in short, my dear, names like
Are the only things now to make an evening smooth off—
So, get me a Russian—till death I’m your debtor—
If he brings the whole alphabet so much the better
And—Lord! if he would but in character, sup
Off his fish-oil and candles, he’d quite set me up!
Au revoir, my sweet girl—I must leave you in haste—
Little Gunter has brought me the liquors to taste
“Will she be expecting you, do you think?” asked Fitz, as he and the earl strolled along Curzon Street.
“I do not know, my friend.”
“Surely you gave some reply to her invitation?”
“I never reply to invitations unless they be to dinner. I either go or don’t go.”
“I confess to certain tremors of excitement,” said Fitz. “Is she really so beautiful?”
“Miss Goodenough is extremely beautiful and very much out of the common way.”
“What is this ridiculous story about her being a princess?”
“It is a usual practice,” said the earl, “when some hostess fears people will not attend her festivities, to send her servants out gossiping and spreading lies to excite curiosity.”
“You make me feel like a flat. I had not heard of such a practice.”
“My late wife, Clarissa, once created a sensation in Grosvenor Square by having it put about that she intended to display a two-headed monkey at her rout. There was no such animal, but silly society fought and pushed and screamed to get into my house. So determined were they to have a new piece of gossip that a remarkable amount of them claimed to have seen this monkey and even fed its two heads with nuts.”
“So even if no one believes her to be a princess, they will insist she is until a better piece of tittle-tattle comes along?”
“Perhaps this Miss Goodenough will turn out to be the bride for you,” said Fitz, with a sidelong look at his friend’s handsome face.
“Too young and too beautiful. I am looking for a lady of mature years, but not too old to bear children, and of good intelligence and dignity. If they are young, they are silly, and if they are beautiful, they are empty-headed and vain, having never had to make the least push to entertain.”
“Are you not afraid that some of the house’s notorious bad luck will stick to you?”
“Not I. I am not superstitious, but then, I am no gambler.”
“It all looks very quiet,” said Fitz as they turned the corner into Clarges Street. “No carriages, no crush.”
“Then the princess tale has not taken,” said the earl. “Society must be becoming more sophisticated. And I must be getting old. I am beginning to wish I had stayed quietly at home with a book. The relief of finding myself in comfortable surroundings after the noise of Limmer’s Hotel makes me reluctant to go out anywhere.”
“I wish you had stayed long enough at Limmer’s to find out how that fellow, John Collins, makes that delicious gin concoction of his.”
“Alas, no one yet has mastered his recipe, and so the only place you can find such a drink is at Limmer’s. Here we are!”
Emily was beginning to feel faint with the strain of waiting.
She was a sitting on an an ornately carved gilt chair on a little raised dais in the front parlour. This throne-like effect had been created for her by Rainbird and Angus.
Her hair was dressed in one of the new Roman styles, with a fall of glossy ringlets from a knot at the back of her head and swept severely back at the front to show a tiara of diamonds and pearls to advantage.
Her gown was one she had bought in Bath. It had orginally been a modish creation of oyster satin but had been embellished by a London dressmaker with pearl embroidery, which managed to make it look somewhat like a coronation gown. It had a square décolletage, cut daringly low to expose the top of her breasts. Her long silk gloves were clasped with “elastic” bracelets of pearl, the elasticity being supplied by small gold springs. Around her slim neck, she wore a collar of diamonds and pearls to match the tiara. Rundell & Bridge, the jewellers, had been delighted with the sale of the tiara and collar to Miss Goodenough, for with the current craze for cornelian, coral, amber, garnet, and jet, they had been wondering if they would ever sell another diamond again.
In a chair placed lower than Emily’s “throne” sat Mrs. Middleton, her nose beginning to twitch with nerves.
Standing behind Emily, his hands behind his back, was Mr. Goodenough, looking more like a butler on duty than the master of the house.
“No one is coming,” said Emily at last. “No one. Tell Rainbird to send the orchestra home, Mrs. Middleton.”
With a sigh of pure relief, Mrs. Middleton got to her feet. But at the same time, Rainbird threw open the door and announced, “The Earl of Fleetwood and Mr. Jason Fitzgerald.”
Mrs. Middleton collapsed back into her chair.
Fitz and the earl bowed before Emily, and then stood looking at her.
Emily looked back, wondering desperately whether princesses plunged into light chitter-chatter or whether they maintained a noble silence. She settled for silence.
Fitz was gazing with awe on Emily. It was rare to see such flawless, unpainted skin, such magnificent eyes, such a beautifully rounded bosom.
The earl began to look amused. He opened his mouth to say something to break the silence, and then closed it again, thinking it might be entertaining to see how long Miss Emily could maintain her role.
There was a loud pop as Rainbird opened a bottle of champagne, but Emily’s beautiful eyes kept their fixed look.
Rainbird offered glasses of champagne to the earl and to Fitz. Fitz absent-mindedly took his glass without once removing his eyes from Emily’s face.
The orchestra, consisting of four violinists and one elderly gentleman seated at a small spinet, were crammed into a corner of the back parlour behind a forest of hothouse flowers.
“Play!” hissed Rainbird, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.
The musicians began to play a slow, measured pavane that somehow seemed to intensify the silence between guests and hosts rather than dispel it.
Rainbird dashed down to the kitchen and seized Joseph, who was dressed in his best livery and about to go upstairs to take up his position. “Get your mandolin, Joseph,” said Rainbird, “and play something bright and lively. Dave, get your best suit on and act as page. Alice and Jenny, you must act as footmen tonight.”
“But it’s as quiet as the grave up there!” cried Jenny.
“I feel in my bones that many people will be coming,” said Rainbird. “Oh, hurry, Joseph, or Miss Emily will continue to sit there like a statue, and the gentlemen will take their leave!”
Giles, Lord Fleetwood’s butler, decided to take his leave before he was pressed into service. Upstairs, Mrs. Middleton coughed genteelly and tried to think of something to say. Emily sat rigidly, looking straight ahead. She and Mrs. Middleton had decided earlier not to drink anything at all in case it dulled their wits. Now Emily longed for a glass of champagne but was frightened to say so. The earl’s eyes were dancing wickedly but he made no sound. Fitz stood transfixed, like a man in a trance.
Mr. Goodenough was so unused to making any social conversation with anyone other than Emily that he remained quiet, feeling it was not his place to break the silence first.
Behind the dignified mask of her face, Emily was trembling with fright. She wondered if she would ever be able to speak again.
The Earl of Fleetwood looked devilish with his black, black hair and those slanting blue eyes. His evening dress was so exquisite, so faultless, so impeccable that he seemed twice as handsome as Emily had remembered, and twice as terrifying. And Mr. Fitzgerald was just as bad. Emily had never been so close to an Exquisite before. Fitz was so extravagantly dressed with his nipped-in waist, his embroidered waistcoat, and his huge starched shirt collar that he did not seem quite real to Emily. Mr. Fitzgerald’s face, she noticed, was as highly painted as that of a female member of the Fashionable Impure. I am, thought Emily with an inward shudder, facing Decadence on the Hoof!
There was a noisy altercation in the back parlour and then the sombre music died away.
Lord Fleetwood was just deciding the fun had gone on long enough. It was time to bow and leave. Then the jaunty, dancing melody of a popular Italian song filled the room, with Joseph’s sweet tenor singing the words.
A faint tinge of colour appeared on Emily’s white cheeks and she smiled suddenly. The amused look left the earl’s eyes and he stared at her, much as his friend had been staring at her.
“By Jove, that’s a jolly tune,” said Fitz.
“May I have some champagne, Rainbird?” asked Emily.
“I would like a glass as well,” said Mrs. Middleton.
“I think I’ll sit down,” declared Mr. Goodenough. “What do you think, gentlemen? Will our new Prince Regent settle down, now he has attained the regency at last?”
Fitz crossed over to Mr. Goodenough’s side and began to gossip. Emily took a glass of champagne and smiled again, shyly this time, at the earl. “I think I should like to walk about for a little,” she said.
Emily promenaded up and down the small room with the earl while Mrs. Middleton fell into step behind her, anxious to correct any lapses in genteel speech if need be. But it was very hard to remain unobtrusive because of the very smallness of the room. Mrs. Middleton would no sooner get behind Emily and the earl than the couple would both turn and swing round, nearly colliding with her. Mrs. Middleton decided Emily appeared to be doing very nicely and so she retreated to a corner and sat down.
Mr. Goodenough was becoming quite animated as he discussed his hero, the Prince of Wales, who had only just been made regent. Fitz humoured Mr. Goodenough by listening politely to his praises of the prince, although he reflected cynically that the dissolute and greedy Prinny hardly deserved such accolades. Also, half Fitz’s mind was occupied in wondering what the earl was saying to Emily.
“You appear to be lucky in your chef,” said the earl to Emily as they swung about to traverse the room for the sixth time. “There are some delicious smells arising from the kitchen.”
“He is very good indeed,” said Emily. “Not only with French dishes, but with our traditional English ones. His sirloin of beef is done to a cow’s thumb.”