Read The Birth of Blue Satan Online
Authors: Patricia Wynn
Tags: #Georgian Mystery
He had also begun to think that tonight would be his best chance to press Isabella for an answer. He could speak to her when they were dancing, more intimately than he could at her house. Private balls were rare, and a Court ball would not be as easy a place to get her alone.
The bandaging complete, Philippe helped him to ease into another shirt with a ribbon tie, a long-sleeved vest heavily embroidered in the light cream he most often wore, another lace neckcloth, and a fine coat of palest brown embroidered with hummingbirds aflight. His neckcloth was loosely tied, which Philippe would not have permitted if Gideon had not been injured. The sleeves of his vest and coat, which were fashionably wide, permitted movement without additional pain.
His plan to ride was now put aside. Gideon called for his father’s carriage and cautiously stood. Finding that his head only spun a bit, he straightened himself and proceeded to the ball.
of Lord Eppington’s house in Golden Square was glittering with light from a dozen cut-glass chandeliers, its furniture draped in crimson satin and shod in gilt. The large reception rooms were filled to overflowing, the gentlemen resplendent in brocade and Mechlin lace, their faces painted and patched, their shoes sparkling with diamond buckles and high, ruby-coloured heels.
In comparison, the ladies seemed almost subdued, their silks in paler hues and their curls trained simply down their backs, at once more natural and more artful than the gentlemen’s elaborately brushed and curled wigs. Still, with their waists nipped in as tightly as figures would allow and plump breasts brimming over low square necklines, they had a lesser need for paint.
Young black pages threaded their ways through the clusters of guests to procure orgeat for their mistresses. Lady Eppington’s pet monkey chattered away in a corner, winning laughter with its antics.
The pall of stale perfume permeated the air, the different essences long since blended into one familiar, rancid smell. The violins and harpsichord hired for the evening played a continuous round of country tunes and minuets. The youngest of her ladyship’s guests had been dancing for three hours at least, their less-adventurous elders absorbed in gossip or in cards.
Isabella Mayfield, the season’s toast, had not been obliged to sit out even one common dance, but her cousin, Hester Kean, had more often than not found herself overlooked. Hester was standing in a corner beside her aunt, hoping for a gentleman to lead her out. Since this was Hester’s first London ball, she had dared to hope that she might have her hand solicited for most of the livelier country dances, but in this she had been sorely disappointed. She endeavoured to conceal these feelings, however, aware that a sad expression would do nothing to improve her chances of securing a partner. Still, she could not suppress a sigh at the sight of Isabella with her pretty cheeks flushed and her happy eyes sparkling as she was escorted through the steps of a complex minuet.
Hester’s aunt, Mrs. Mayfield, must have heard her sigh over the sweet notes of the violins and the tinny plunking of the harpsichord, for she made a sudden pronouncement which, from Mrs. Mayfield, might be taken as an attempt at counsel.
“You may wish to dance, Hester, but you cannot expect to be favoured by gentlemen when you have no beauty or fortune to recommend you.”
“I am sure you are correct, Aunt,” Hester replied. Mrs. Mayfield’s words could hardly offend her, for they were true. They did nothing to contradict her own dismal assessment of her prospects. If she could not find a suitable husband soon, she knew what destiny would await her.
Orphaned but a year ago by the death of Mrs. Mayfield’s brother, the Reverend Mr. Henry Kean, Hester had been offered a home in the clear expectation that she would act as her aunt’s waiting woman. If Hester had not been aware of the precise terms of her deliverance from impending destitution, she had learned them quickly enough upon her arrival at Mayfield Park.
If Mrs. Mayfield forgot her shawl in her bedchamber, she was sure to call upon Hester to fetch it, when any one of a number of servants might have performed the task. Hester, also, was the person Mrs. Mayfield relied upon to act as her secretary, writing her dictated replies to the scores of invitations she and Isabella received, keeping her accounts, dealing with the household servants, and staving off Mrs. Mayfield’s most importunate creditors. Hester brought certain talents to these tasks, since the Reverend Mr. Kean had employed her in much the same capacity. Even at nineteen Hester possessed just the sort of ingenuity and tact her relatives lacked. Taking into account Mrs. Mayfield’s shrewdness and her perfect awareness of the situation that had reigned in her brother’s household, it was hardly astonishing that she had had the foresight to offer Hester a place in hers.
Hester did not nourish any exaggerated notions of her own attractions. Thin and a bit on the drab side by her own admission, with light brown hair and a plain, even face unrelieved by any particular distinction save for a pair of intelligent grey eyes and a set of even teeth, she had no beauty to compensate for her lack of dowry. The best she could hope for would be to wed a clergyman whose lot might be improved by the assistance of a thrifty wife. As there was little likelihood of encountering such an uninspiring gentleman in Lord Eppington’s opulent ballroom, Hester had for once indulged herself in daydreams of a more fanciful sort.
, she sighed, as the minuet drew to a close.
There’s no harm in dreams, as long as I don’t allow myself to believe in them
Isabella’s escort, Sir Harrowby Fitzsimmons, his long, black wig trailing below the shoulders of his embroidered puce coat, was mincing his way to Mrs. Mayfield’s side, his partner’s tiny hand rested lightly in his. His fatuous gaze shifted often from Isabella’s face to those of the gentlemen they passed. Clearly the other men’s envy added to the lightness in his step.
All eyes had turned to watch Isabella’s progress through the room, naturally drawn to the sight of golden curls, radiant cheeks, and a more than generous bosom spilling over the bodice of a damask gown. Mrs. Mayfield had spared no expense on Isabella’s ball dress, her cunning eye knowing just the hues to enhance the effect of Isabella’s natural charms. Tonight’s pale pink, with her smooth, white skin and her lovely blue eyes, made her appear a delectable confection of softly spun sugar, sure to be sweet to the tongue.
Returning Isabella to her mother’s side, Sir Harrowby paused to make her a perfect bow while raising her fingers to his lips.
“Mrs. Mayfield,” he said, in his arch voice. “I protest, I vow! My enchanting partner informs me that I must surrender her to you, for she insists that his Grace of Bournemouth has claimed her for the next dance. I implore you to use your kindness in my behalf and persuade her to forsake his Grace, or she will surely break my heart.”
Isabella giggled, her ringlets bounced, and she tapped Sir Harrowby with her fan. “Why, sir, your pretty speech has given me such a blush, his Grace will think I’ve been out in the sun.”
“Fie, Sir Harrowby!” Mrs. Mayfield exclaimed. “You have a silver tongue, sir, and you mean to sway my little girl yet. But you must not, you know, for you would do her great harm if you was to make her offend his Grace.”
Beneath her aunt’s bantering was a harsher note. Hester knew it for a warning. Mrs. Mayfield would never consent to Isabella’s marrying a mere baronet if she had any chance of catching a peer, and Isabella’s odds in that direction looked remarkably high.
Since her first appearance at Court, Isabella had turned the head of more than one young gentleman, including Sir Harrowby’s cousin, the Viscount St. Mars, who for the past two months had appeared the clear favourite for her hand. Handsome and wealthy, and in line for an earldom, Gideon Fitzsimmons had fulfilled all of Mrs. Mayfield’s dreams—until the Duke of Bournemouth, a man of fifty, with his headier title already secured, displayed an interest in the race.
Isabella seemed delighted with her current partner, although she was not above throwing his rivals in his face. Sir Harrowby had the perfect combination of manners and address, minute attention to his garb, and (to Hester’s way of thinking) complete lack of mental spark to appeal to Isabella’s tastes. If she longed to hear insipid verses and naughty jokes, Sir Harrowby would be more than willing and able to oblige. But to win her, he would have to do better than claim, as he had throughout the evening, that King George was thinking of conferring a Household office upon him.
Hester had not yet gone to Court. Mrs. Mayfield said she did not own a gown that was fine enough to pass the Beefeaters’ scrutiny. Still, she had heard the gossip that said his Majesty had been shockingly slow in making his appointments. Since his grand procession from Greenwich to Westminster last September, he had kept much to himself, refusing to fill the most important posts with Englishmen. Instead, he had surrounded himself with the dozens of Germans he had brought from Hanover, his two German mistresses, two Turks whom he had made grooms of the bedchamber, and a dwarf who seemed to fill no purpose at all.
Unable to speak English, he held no levees or drawing rooms. He did not yet keep a public table or admit gentlemen to his bedchamber. If it were not for the drawing rooms held by the Prince and Princess of Wales, which he occasionally graced, few people would have seen him.
But Sir Harrowby, through connections on his mother’s side, had been allowed to approach King George on more than one evening, when his Majesty received visitors in his private closet. Such admittance could only be gained through introduction by a gentleman of the bedchamber or a secretary of state, so undoubtedly Sir Harrowby had reason to hope.
Unfortunately, no Royal Household office could ever compete with a peerage, especially a grand title with its accompanying estates and income for furniture, jewels, and gowns. Sir Harrowby stood little chance in the race for Isabella’s hand.
Right now he seemed content to stand at Mrs. Mayfield’s side and entertain her while the Duke of Bournemouth approached Isabella to claim her hand for his promised dance.
The throng parted to allow his Grace to make his way across the floor. With all eyes drawn to Isabella, the recipient of his favour, Hester could almost taste her aunt’s elation.
The Duke’s black
habille à la française
, with its elaborate silver embroidery, cast even the elegant Sir Harrowby’s coat into the shade. Diamonds twinkled from the folds of lace at his Grace’s throat and from the chain across his chest. A large ruby flashed from a ring, and silver ribbons fluttered brightly at his knees. When Mrs. Mayfield made him her deepest, most reverent curtsey, his nod in her direction was perfunctory at best. His acknowledgement of Sir Harrowby, a noted leader of fashion, was only slightly more polite. To Hester Kean, a spinster of no repute or fortune, he paid no notice at all.
Privately, Hester doubted that his Grace’s intentions were of the sort that led to marriage, but she kept her cynical reflections to herself. They were certain to be unwelcomed by her aunt, whose ambition knew no bounds and whose heart was firmly set on being mama to a duchess. If Hester had thought Isabella’s heart engaged, she might have issued her a warning. But as matters stood, she did not believe Isabella would suffer overmuch if and when the Duke passed her over for a more suitable bride. Hester’s only concern was for Lord St. Mars, whom she deemed more worthy of Isabella’s affections than any other of her suitors, and whom she would hate to see cast down if cast aside.
“‘Pon rep!” Sir Harrowby’s indignant tone caught her attention. He had turned his gaze from the retreating couple to raise his prospect glass to his eye and was examining a tall gentleman just entering the room. “‘Tis that fellow, Letchworth, by gad! What can have possessed Eppington to invite him?”
“Lud, Sir Harrowby! Do you not know he is received by everybody, even his Grace? They say he is possessed of the greatest fortune in London and that even his Majesty approves him. He keeps a fine stable and gambles his money like any gentleman. I know I should not be too proud to bestow my Isabella upon Mr. Letchworth if she could not do better for herself. Mr. Letchworth will do exceedingly well for one of the other young ladies present, I’m sure, and so her ladyship knows. Think of the jewels his wife will have!”
The object of their speech made his way through the room, stopping only to give a short bark of greeting to one acquaintance, before directing his footsteps in their direction. Mr. Letchworth was an ill-favoured man, long-boned and large-featured, with a regrettable tendency to wear thick paint on his face. His clothes were costly, but tonight his coat of olive velvet did not sit well with his pasty complexion. He always seemed to have dressed hastily, though it was said he had the services of an expensive
valet de chambre
. It was as if the gold thread that adorned his stockings and the jewels that twinkled from his fingers should be enough to claim his position in the world.
Fortune would secure his welcome in this gathering. But Hester wondered how annoyed he would be to find that his late arrival had given Isabella the excuse she needed to avoid dancing with him.