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Authors: Paula Marshall

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BOOK: The Dollar Prince's Wife
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Heneage—it must be the pompous dandy whom Cobie had met at Susanna's equally boring thrash.

He was answering his companion in an amused knowing voice. ‘I know a better way of entertaining one's self, Darrell, and it's not far from here. Madame Louise's place, in short. You can only visit there if you have the
entrée
—and I have. We could move on when I've done the pretty with dear Violet.'

Darrell—that would be Hubert Darrell, one of the hangers-on to the coat-tails of the great. They were rather like
those extras in a play who are always shouting ‘Rhubarb, rhubarb' at the appropriate moment. From the turn the conversation had taken Darrell was about to be introduced to some vicious inner circle.

‘Bit dull, though, isn't it, Heneage? Just the usual, I take it.'

Heneage laughed patronisingly. ‘Oh, you can always find variety at Madame's if you're in the know, are discreet and have plenty of tin. You can have anything you fancy—anything—no holds barred. But mum's the world, old fellow. Are you game?'

‘Game for anything—you know me.'

‘Then we'll do the rounds here first, and sample the goods afterwards. I heard, don't ask me how, that Madame has some new stuff on show tonight, very prime.' Sir Ratcliffe's voice was full of hateful promise.

They moved out of Cobie's hearing, leaving him to wonder what exactly was meant by ‘no holds barred' and ‘good new stuff'—and not liking the answer he came up with.

Curiosity now led him to enter Madame's gilded entrance hall and to bribe his way past the giants on guard there since he came alone and unrecommended. This took him some little time. He thought, amusedly, that he might have been trying to enter a palace, not a brothel, so complicated was the ritual.

He agreed to hand over his top hat and scarf to a female dragon at the cloakroom, but insisted on carrying in his all-enveloping cape—which cost him another tip for a sweetener. There were reasons why he wanted to retain it. He then made his way into an exquisitely appointed drawing room.

Everything in it was in the best of taste. There was even a minor Gainsborough hanging over the hearth. Men and
women sat about chatting discreetly. Among them he saw Sir Ratcliffe Heneage. He had a brief glimpse of a man being led through some swathed curtains at the far end of the room and could have sworn it was his brother-in-law, Arthur Winthrop, who had also left the Kenilworths' ball early, pleading a migraine.

Madame Louise was tall, had been a beauty in her youth and, like her room, was elegantly turned out. Her eyes on him were cold.

‘I do not know you, sir. Since you have arrived without a sponsor or a friend, who allowed you, an unknown, to enter?'

‘Oh, money oils all locks and bars,' he told her with his most winning smile, ‘but should I require a friend I have one here—Sir Ratcliffe Heneage. I am sure that he will confirm that I am Jacobus Grant, the brother-in-law of the American Envoy, and a distant relative of Sir Alan Dilhorne, late of the British Cabinet. Does that make me…respectable?'

Sir Ratcliffe, who had been watching them, was smiling with pleasure at the sight of the Madame of a night-house putting down the Yankee barbarian who had succeeded with Violet Kenilworth.

‘Yes, Mr Grant is who he says he is. We have been introduced.'

‘There!' said Cobie sweetly. ‘What better recommendation could I have than one given me by Sir Ratcliffe? I may stay?'

‘Indeed. It is my custom to give a new guest a glass of champagne and ask him, discreetly, of course, what his preferences are. You will join me?'

Cobie bowed his agreement, secretly amused at her using the word guest instead of customer. A footman handed him
his champagne and Madame asked him, discreetly again, ‘Are your tastes as unorthodox as your mode of entry, Mr Grant?'

‘Alas, no. I am distressingly orthodox in all I do, if not to say uninventive.'

He looked as pious as a male angel in a Renaissance painting when he came out with this lie, invention being the name of every game he played. He was not yet sure what game he was playing at Madame Louise's, but he hoped to find out soon.

‘A beauty, then, and young.'

Cobie bowed again, ‘Quite so—and with the appearance of innocence. I am tired and do not wish to exert myself overmuch.'

He was taken at his word, and after he had handed over to Madame a fistful of sovereigns he was allowed to go upstairs—through the swathed curtains—with a young girl dressed in the latest fashion. She was lovely enough to have graced a Mayfair drawing room.

‘Her name is Marie,' Madame had told him carelessly.

The bedroom she led him to was as exquisite as the room downstairs. She hesitated a moment before she stripped herself after he had sat on the big bed and thrown down the cape he had been carrying. Even then he made no attempt to touch her.

When she was finally naked, and Cobie had still said and done nothing, but continued to sit there, fully dressed, she walked towards him, her pretty face puzzled. She had not quite reached him when he lifted his hand.

‘Stay where you are, Miss Marie, just like that. On second thoughts, unpin your hair, and then begin to restore it to what it was.'

Her look of puzzlement grew, but she did his bidding—
as she had been taught. When she finally stood before him, quite still, her shapely arms above her head, he murmured, ‘Now, don't move, remain exactly as you are.'

‘You're sure?' she blurted at him. ‘Is this really what you want me to do?'

He nodded agreement while fetching from an inner pocket of his cape a sketchbook and pencil. He began, rapidly, to draw her, his full attention on every line of her beautiful body. For all the emotion he showed he might have been drawing a still life, not a glowing and vibrant human being.

A moment later, the sketch finished, Cobie showed it to her—to hear her say in her true voice, the cockney in it plain, ‘Garn, you're a painter, then. That's me all right!'

He shook his head, ‘An amateur, merely. Now, sit down and let me draw you again in a different position.'

‘You've only an hour,' she told him, as sharp as he had been.

‘I know.' He nodded back at her, his hand moving rapidly over the paper.

‘And is this all you want me to do—or do with me? A fine upstanding feller like you. One of
them
, are you? Don't want no one to know, is that it?'

Cobie, unoffended, laughed. ‘No, not at all. Idle curiosity brought me to Madame Louise's but I could hardly visit her, and not appear to sample the girls. Keep quiet about your modelling session—no need for Madame to know of it—and I'll see you well rewarded. Let her think that we pushed the boat out together, eh?'

Mischief shone on her pretty face. The mere idea of tricking Madame pleased her, even if it were a shame not to have a tumble with such a handsome fellow.

‘If you say so,' and then, anxiously, ‘It's not that I don't please you?'

‘No, I find you very pretty, Miss Marie. Look over your left shoulder at me, now.'

She obeyed him, only to look over
his
left shoulder after he had finished drawing her, and exclaim, ‘That's good, but you're an odd one, and no mistake.'

‘Yes, that's what most people who really know me think,' he replied gravely, handing her the sketches he had made. ‘There, you may have them. Best not show them to Madame, eh?'

‘What the eye don't see, the heart can't grieve,' she told him impudently, rolling the papers into a cylinder and thrusting it into a drawer in a Louis Quinze dressing table.

‘This is your, room, then, Miss Marie?' he asked, apparently idly, to have her reply,

‘Yes, but only when I entertain customers. I live, like the other girls, in one of the attics.'

The anger and the pity which Cobie felt for all exploited men and women was strong in him when he contemplated the minimal state of the world in which Marie lived.

Hypocrite! he told himself fiercely, since you exploit the corrupt world in which you live and do nothing for such poor lost souls as these. He wondered how long she had been on the game, and how long it would be before she lost her apparently virginal freshness and Madame turned her out onto the streets to replace her with someone younger.

‘And the other entertainments,' he asked, still idly, ‘Where are they, Miss Marie?'

Her face became shuttered. She stared at him and said, ‘You told me you weren't like that. Were you lying?'

‘No,' he said.

‘Then you don't want to know where they are, do you? But if you
are
lying, then ask Madame.'

She was done with him: the brief and strange moment of rapport which they had shared was over. Cobie sighed—he might have known that he would learn nothing from her.

Suddenly and strangely, she leaned forward and said, in a fierce whisper, a whisper which was almost wrenched from her, ‘You called me Miss Marie several times—to most men I'm a body, not a name. If you don't want to go out through the salon, you can leave by going down the backstairs—through the far door on the landing outside.

‘At the bottom of them there's a hall which opens on to a courtyard and an alley which leads to the Haymarket. At the other end of the hall there's another flight of stairs which leads to the attics—and nowhere else. That's all.'

Cobie rose and said, ‘I'm for the backstairs, then. Goodnight, Miss Marie. You made a good artist's model. Here's your reward for that—for keeping quiet—and for helping me.'

She took the money he offered her, her face lighting up for a moment—and then she shrugged her shoulders at him and turned away, before making herself ready to go downstairs again. The odd little interlude was over.

Cobie found the backstairs at the end of a corridor. He had replaced his cloak—then remembered that he had left his hat and scarf with the dragon in the entrance hall. No matter, he had others, and he did not particularly wish to return to claim them.

Running lightly down the uncarpeted stairs, he found himself in another world, where soft luxury did not exist, where the light flared from unshielded gas jets, and where the floor of the corridor which led to the back door and to
the Haymarket was bare boards, no rugs or mats to soften it.

At the bottom of the staircase was the small hall, from which another set of stairs rose—Marie had directed him correctly. A large free-standing mahogany wardrobe stood beside the back door, which was tightly shut. Cobie had just wrestled it open when he heard rapid footsteps running down the stairs.

He turned at the sound, to be struck amidships by a small body. High above them he could hear male voices, shouting in anger, and then footsteps thundering down.

The owner of the body was a little girl, no older than ten by the look of her. Scarlet in the face, she was panting hard. When she saw Cobie, looking like a golden angel sent to rescue her, she fell on her knees before him, to clasp his, wailing, ‘Oh, Gawd, mister. Save me. I don't want to be hurt like poor Clara was. Don't let him have me.'

Her face was filthy, and streaked with tears. Her dress, a garish pink thing, trimmed with silver tinsel, like a circus performer's tutu, had been ripped from the neck to the waist. The marks of a man's fingers were plain upon her throat and thin shoulders.

Inside Cobie something shrieked incontinent. The red rage with which he had lived since childhood was on him. It came unbidden when he was faced with cruelty or injustice, particularly to the helpless. In it he could kill; to control it took all the strength of his iron will. Its passing left him feeling empty and ill.

He controlled it now with difficulty even though his face remained impassive. The child heard the footsteps, shrieked, ‘Oh, Gawd, he'll catch me for sure. Oh, mister, don't let him hurt me. Please, don't let him.'

As was usual when he was in a tight corner Cobie acted
with lightning speed. He picked up the child, hissed at her, ‘Not a sound, mind,' and, whirling around, he half-threw her onto the flat top of the wardrobe, where she lay concealed by its elaborate wooden and gilt rail. That done, he leaned against the wall, blinking owlishly at the world as though he had drunk too much of Madame's indifferent champagne, and spent himself too much with Marie.

By now the owner of the footsteps, a hard-faced man in workman's clothing—one of Madame's bouncers, no doubt—had arrived in the small hall, to stare at all that was to be seen. A half-cut toff and no girl-child in sight.

‘Have you seen a little girl running away from here? Which way did she go…sir?'

This last came out in belated recognition of Cobie's undoubted wealth and superior station.

Cobie decided to be more owlish than ever. ‘A small…girl,' he enunciated with great difficulty. ‘What…? What…?' He had no time to finish the sentence before another actor arrived on the scene.

‘You're taking a devilish long time to catch the little bitch up, Hoskyns,' exclaimed a voice which Cobie immediately recognised. ‘Damme, she nearly bit my finger off.'

It was Sir Ratcliffe Heneage, in a state which might have surprised those who only knew him in the salons of Mayfair. He was barefooted and wearing trousers and a shirt open to the waist. Unbuttoned, was perhaps the best description of him, Cobie thought. He decided to run a little interference.

‘Oh, Sir Ratcliffe, there y'are. Wondered where you'd got to.' His hiccup at the end of this was particularly artistic.

‘Damn that, man,' exclaimed Sir Ratcliffe, ‘Did anyone leave while you were here?'

Cobie swayed, thought for a moment, leaned forward and grabbed Sir Ratcliffe by the collar of his shirt, stifling the desire to strangle the beast before him. He had no doubts at all about what had been going on in one of Madame's discreet attic rooms, and wondered how much the bankrupt swine before him had paid for the use of the girl-child cowering on top of the wardrobe above the three of them.

BOOK: The Dollar Prince's Wife
6.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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